Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been talking online with Fred Hicks, Ryan Macklin, and Leonard Balsera, the designers of the forthcoming Dresden Files RPG from Evil Hat games. I’ll admit two things, right off: I’m excited to see this game, and I’ve never read the novels it adapts. But I wanted to know what went into making an adaptation of this sort, and Fred, Ryan, and Lenny were kind enough to spend some time answering my questions via Google Wave.
This is part one of our two-part interview. Find part two here.
Welcome, you all. Thanks for taking the time out to answer some questions for us. First of all, can you tell us a little bit about yourselves, for our readers who might not know Evil Hat yet?
LENNY: I started working with Evil Hat approximately five years ago, and before then was a vocal member of the Fate Yahoo group. I babbled a lot. Fred asked me one day over AIM if I’d shut up if I got to write for them. I said yes. The rest is history. I am currently the line developer for Fate and Evil Hat’s general Fate mechanics and system guy. I enjoy drinking.
FRED: Evil Hat started as a “brand” for Rob, Lydia, and I to run big headcount games at Ambercon Northwest. Then Rob and I sort of put out some free stuff under that banner on the net. Then this guy I knew named Jim asked us if we’d like to make the Dresden Files RPG. And so we stumbled into trying to be a commercial publisher. Took us a while to get it right, but our experimental efforts we did to test the ropes — Don’t Rest Your Head, Spirit of the Century — turned out pretty good and definitely showed us the ways we could screw it up. That took a lot of time. So here we are. For my part, all along the way I’ve been doing some game design and a lot of book layout. But mainly I try to surround myself with good people, many of whom enjoy drinking, and then make sure everyone else knows how good their ideas are.
“I try to surround myself with good people […] and then make sure everyone else knows how good their ideas are.”
RYAN: I’m the new kid on the Evil Hat block. I’ve been a fan for years, and started off my relationship with Fred and the gang by interviewing them about Dresden for my game design podcast, Master Plan. One thing led to another, and I was eventually offered the job of Lead Project Developer, pretty much after I became an unofficial member of the Evil Hat entourage. Also, I match Lenny drink-for-drink, which makes us ideal collaborators.
Why — and how — did you set out to create a game based on the Dresden Files universe? Why an RPG? Why this RPG?
FRED: Whups! Went and answered the first part already, sort of. Ultimately, Jim’s a good friend of mine from way back before he became Jim Himself, and I’ve always been a fan of his crazy awesome ideas. Those ideas used to be, say, the Birthright game he ran when I was down in Norman, Oklahoma visiting him. Then they started being novels. Good novels. So I made this fan site before he got published, then he got published, then the site became his official website, with me running the community elements of it. So we’ve been in Jim’s corner for a while. Time came that people started asking Jim’s agent — a gamer — about the rights to do a pen & paper RPG based on the Dresden Files. That was not too long after our free version of Fate had gotten a few awards through the Indie RPG Awards … so Jim’s agent says to Jim, “Hey, it’s important to you that someone does this right. Why not ask your award-winning RPG designing friends to do it?” So he asked, we were floored, and then our wives said Go Ahead And Do It, so we got started. That’s the first part of your question, I suppose — if you want to know the much longer and gorier version of what happened up to that point and in the years beyond it, you can find it at the Dresden Files RPG website.
FRED: As far as “why an RPG” goes — well, jeez. It’s the idiom I know. I’m no artist, I’m barely a writer, but I know how to roleplay. That’s the well-worn groove where my creative energy naturally goes once it gets flowing. I think that’s true in part for all the creative folks who’ve worked on this project. When it comes time for us to make the art, we make the RPGs.
RYAN: (Point of note: I’m totally calling shenanigans on Fred’s “I’m barely a writer” comment.)
FRED: “Why this RPG?” — Hmmm. Well, for me it does go back to knowing Jim as a gamer first, and in knowing that, seeing the gamer DNA that lives at the core of the novels. Jim has created an eminently gameable world, so it seems a crime not to make one, and to make it the best damn one we possibly can make.
I haven’t read the Dresden books — so why am I excited about the RPG?
FRED: Of course I’m going to start right off to subvert your question and say: you should read them. But that may well be true of any licensed game, from my perspective. Consuming the source material brings such incredible value to the table, just as it did for me years ago with the Amber Diceless RPG. That common understanding of the source that exists around the table, the shorthand it gives you, the icons, all of that … it’s potent, and in my opinion it’s the gaming answer to “why license?” (The publishing answer has a few other business-driven elements to it, of course.)
FRED: Also, you’re going to get horribly, tragically spoilered as to the events of the first ten books if you read the game. Anything that’s out in paperback was fair game for us.
RYAN: Though, don’t let that stop you from reading the RPG if you haven’t gotten around to the books yet. Jim’s stories are as much journey as destination. Unless, of course, you really, really hate being spoiled.
“Jim’s stories are as much journey as destination.”
FRED: True. You could pick up, say, the fourth novel, Summer Knight, and not be particularly lost at that point in the series. Sometimes I even recommend folks do that before going back to the first three, because while there’s some debate as to when the series really picks up, there’s consensus that by the time you hit book #4 it’s on. So I guess the RPG fits into that idea-pocket too: you can jump in and not know the world, and learn about some things after they’ve already happened, but then go back and still enjoy reading about them as they happened. But, that’s not where my own preferences would live.
FRED: Anyway: as to what your actual damn question was… Well, for Fate system fans it’s a chance to see how our thoughts about the game have evolved since the publication of Spirit of the Century in 2006, and how we’ve fiddled with the dials to take it away from pulp adventure fiction and into something more modern and a hell of a lot grittier.
LENNY: To expand on this, I think the new game offers system tweakers a chance to see different methodologies at work in terms of adapting Fate. There’s this genre, yes, but I think it goes beyond that to some degree. Because really, there isn’t a whole hell of a lot of difference between us and the guy trying to do his Wild West in Japan game for his three gamer buddies — it’s all about looking at your resources, looking at your needs, and figuring out how to use one to fulfill the other. Dresden Files provides a lot of those resources, I think, in terms of showing you how we decided to do a particular piece of the design.
FRED: I also think that Jim Butcher’s world hangs together better than a lot of “everything supernatural” mythologies, though I don’t really want to get into the comparative setting advocacy thing there. When it comes down to it, it’s rich, it’s varied, and it’s not run-of-the-mill. Plus, you could run any number of other urban fantasy things with it pretty easily. Including, and I speak to my own preferences here, Buffy.
RYAN: Or the same sort of stuff that also inspired the World of Darkness line, since they were both from largely the same source material — legends of monsters in the old world. I’m not saying that this will do what Vampire or Werewolf do, and it shouldn’t. Those are already fine, fine games. But Fate takes well to driving toward a given theme, so you’ve got a large urban fantasy toolbox here for trying different sorts of stories.
I should also say it’s one of the most interesting RPGs you’ll see, art-direction wise. We’ve posted up some samples on the website, and it’s a seriously fun read.
What do you mean when you say “gritty.” How do the game rules (or the text, or the art design) make play grittier?
“No one gets away clean.”
LENNY: I have a very specific idea in mind when I think of grit, which is basically, “No one gets away clean.” It’s not really about realism or darkness or whatever, it’s about making sure that when you commit yourself to a choice or a conflict, the effects are resonant and lasting.
FRED: Man, so true. The rules in action will leave a mark.
LENNY: Systemically speaking, this meant a couple of things for me right off the bat – emphasizing consequences rather than stress in a conflict, and making the role of compels larger.
Most characters will start a session with pretty low fate point totals, especially compared to how generous Spirit was. There really isn’t a way to get through a Dresden Files RPG session without taking compels and having the situation become complicated, at least not if you want to have broad effectiveness as a character. And the advice on compels has been tweaked to focus more on outcomes than on color — in other words, if you have the “Damsels in Distress Get Me Every Time” aspect, a compel there is not about putting a damsel in distress in your character’s face. It’s about putting a damsel in distress in your face at a time when saving her means you could lose a loved one, or something like that. There has to be a tangible consequence there, or it’s not really gritty. So it’s always, “I choose X, and that means Y,” with the emphasis on the second part.
We also did a bunch of stuff with the conflict system to make it much quicker and easier to push into consequences — if you’re Joe Average, another Joe Average with a gun gives you something serious to think about.
FRED: Even if you’re Joe Wizard or Jane Werewolf, that gun in Joe Average’s hand could mess you up right quick.
LENNY: Weapons do their own stress damage on top of that dealt by a successful hit, and the stress tracks max out at four boxes. They really just delay the inevitable now.
RYAN: Though, don’t let “delay the inevitable” put you off. This isn’t just a system where you just wear someone down. If you’re staring the inevitable in the face, you can conceed rather than let yourself go until you’re taken out. Life isn’t all roses if you concede, but it’s a lot less deadly. And it models well that, frankly, Harry has to conceed often in the books to keep himself from being ripped, beaten & blasted into bits. Or, you can not concede and instead hope to tear the other guy up first.
What do you put into a Dresden game to make it feel like the source material?
FRED: We spent a lot of time analyzing the source material and figuring out what its themes were, and then making sure we gave explicit support to those themes in the game. There’s more than just two of them, but the two that were strongest for us were the idea that mortals have free will while monsters (and other powerful supernatural types) are beholden solely to their natures, and the phrase “If he got his hands on me, I was dead.” Lenny, do you want to talk about these first?
“We decided pretty early on that fate points were our expression of “free will” in the system”
LENNY: Yeah. We decided pretty early on that fate points were our expression of “free will” in the system – they’re what allow you to resist compels, after all. So the whole idea we came up with where powers and stunts cost fate point refresh, with zero being an NPC, grew up out of that basic idea – if you have no fate points, you can’t resist compels.
And there’s a huge precedent for that in Jim’s books – it’s pretty much an established fact that the more power you have, the more trapped you are by that power. Harry has always started his cases with a string of bad/complicated stuff happening to him. It takes him a little while to really get upright in the saddle. We envision Harryas constantly skirting the edge of danger, hanging out with just one point of refresh. So he really needs those compels early on to build his point pool up and get him going, and that’s where those complications come from in game terms. So this mechanism enforces a structure that parallels the experience of the books in play.
“If he got his hands on me, I was dead” is this phrase that summarizes pretty much every fight Harry gets into in the books. Jim goes a long way to remind us that Harry’s just as fragile as any other mortal without the benefit of his magic, and even though some of his battles can get pretty over the top, there’s still this pervading sense that at any time, he could lose the benefit of that advantage and be done for. That palpable sense of danger was something we kept an eye on when we were designing powers, and I think we did a pretty good job with it – supernatural opponents are pretty daunting if you don’t have some mojo of your own to bring to the table. It also shaped a lot of the decisions we made with conflict already mentioned – low stress boxes, additional damage for weapons, etc etc.
FRED: There was more than just those two, though. At least three developers tilted at the windmill that was the magic system — it took Lenny to finally assemble a draft that worked — with a mission in mind of making it feel like the magic of the books. We’re not talking about how Harry babbles pseudo-physics here so much as the more general procedures. Evocation is about grabbing as much power as you think you can manage to (barely) control and shoving it at the thing that’s trying to eat your face — I think it comes off like you’re trying to ride a runaway firehose on full blast, which is about right. And Thaumaturgy is really about telling the story of the ritual you’re putting together, whether that involves a trip to the corner store to buy your pet knowledge spirit some porn magazines so he’ll cough up the formula, or delving deep into dusty libraries to find the bit of forgotten lore.
LENNY: I can’t talk too much about magic here, because the trauma still occasionally leaves me in fits of babbling and drooling, and I’m writing this sober.
Another thing I think the game has which is also dominant in the books comes out of city creation, when you set up the network of NPCs and problems in your particular city. Harry Dresden doesn’t exist in a vacuum — decisions that he makes in one book end up affecting part of the setting in a later book. Characters don’t just float in and out of his life – they stick around and become part of the greater chain of events that surround him. He has a community of friends and enemies. I think that the city creation process lets you set up that kind of thing rather well – it’s not villain of the week, episodic kind of stuff like Spirit was. The city changes with the characters, as the campaign goes on.
What did you leave out of this game, that might have been included in some other RPG, because it didn’t fit the Dresden milieu?
FRED: Uh… submarine rules? Guys, help me out here.
RYAN: We didn’t have time to finish testing our naval combat LARP rules for the book, but we’re hoping to release a PDF later with it called Harry Dresden: Fire Under Water.
“Harry Dresden’s life is hellish. We’ve designed the game accordingly.”
RYAN: *cough* For a serious, if still somewhat coy answer, we left out mercy. Spirit of the Century was rather merciful to the characters, both in combat and in general character automony. We’ve already talked a bit about that in the previous question, but I think bears re-emphasizing. Harry Dresden’s life is hellish. We’ve designed the game accordingly.
FRED: Oooh, good answer. Yeah, Harry’s life sucks — but we also want keep reading about it. So we’re all about making things rough on the heroes, but making sure that stays entertaining. Still, truth: no mercy here.
Nice! I’m still curious, though, if you’ve intentionally left any negative space in the design. Do you have rules for, say, car chases or interrogation or other specific actions, to make them stand out as play options, for example? If so, what did you leave out to throw other options into relief?
LENNY: What ended up happening is that a lot of the stuff like chases that were situationally specific in Spirit have been made into more universal tools for Dresden. A core philosophy of the system is about showing you a bunch of different ways to mechanize your intent. So, as an example, the car chase thing got pared down into a style of extended contest, and while we say it’s a good thing to use for car chases, we also mention a couple of other situations where you might want to use the same tool. That approach left me able to not worry about leaving anything out in the way you’re describing. Really, the genre tropes of the Dresden Files revolve around the use of magic and supernatural powers, so those things get the detail.
I can tell you there aren’t detailed vehicle rules or big, specific lists of guns.
RYAN: Given how the Fate toolkit can be adapted to a number of typical modern action & adventure bits, I can’t think of anything offhand that is missing. That is, beyond equipment list fetishization…which I’m not against, per se — I used to play GURPS — but doesn’t really fit with a system like Fate. It’s not granular enough.
This interview continues in part two.