Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Dresden Files RPG

I've been reading the Dresden Files roleplaying game, which just finally came out in print. (I had rights to the PDFs, but didn't find them very readable save when printed, and that's way too many pages to be worth trying to print.) And while I'm interested in using it, I'm not sure where I would. My existing game group doesn't meet that often as it is, and I doubt they'd want to set aside the Uncreated dimension-hopping game for very long; besides, at least some of the members haven't read the Dresden books.

So one idea is to try to do something online. This would let me get a few players involved who don't live nearby but with whom I'd like to roleplay. But even games that are easy to jump into and use familiar systems rarely succeed online. And I don't know how well this game would translate to email or chat styles. Thinking of the books, I don't see any reason to think it'd work better or worse than anything else.

I've also been thinking about the city creation step. The Dresden Files RPG treats this as a much bigger and more important process than the "select a setting" part of most games. Instead of being something the GM decides when preparing a campaign or adventure, it's something the whole group does collaboratively, and in doing so, they're effectively choosing what kind of campaign to run. The city isn't just a backdrop; it also determines, by the selection of stuff that it offers and the hidden (to the general public) significance of most of it, what kinds of stories are happening there.

One common choice is to play in your own city, but those of us who live in the country have to consider this more closely. Even the largest city in Vermont, Burlington, is probably not suitable. I expect the Burlingtonians to object, as if this is some kind of slight, but it's not. There's no reason why you couldn't play with a few "urban legend" and supernatural elements of Burlington: the prevalence of hippies concealing (barely) earth-goddess cults who might be being manipulated by the fey, the question of what Champ really is, the Abenaki artifacts suggesting the presence of ley lines, the history of Freemasons and others mixed with French influences dating back to the 17th century, and of course all the "back woods" stuff that Lovecraft plumbed.

That sounds like a lot, and it would be for many games, but for a Dresden game, it doesn't quite add up to enough. You'd have to shove in some organized crime or something equivalent, something for the various vampire courts to be doing, and enough other stuff to make it make sense for a Warden to be assigned there. And then every time you needed a location or setting, you'd be hard-pressed to invent one if Burlington didn't happen to have it, you'd be out of luck. The old used bookstore? Easy. A museum? Well, we have some nice old churches, and the Echo Center, but... Anything to do with colleges? Got lots of that. A neighborhood where people who walk through it at night might disappear? Umm, well, some of the North End is kind of dirty... Waterfront? Sure. Shady parking garages where secret deals are made? Well, there's a three-story garage, but it's kind of well patrolled... Illegal drugs? Presumably. A police department big enough for a "special investigations" officer, let alone department? Well, there's probably someone who helped that time one of the cows got loose from the university farm...

By the time you've added as much as you'd want for a really Dresden-like story, you'd have two problems. First, it wouldn't feel much like Burlington anymore. You'd've lost the sense of place that's why you picked Burlington in the first place. About all you'd have left of that is some convenient scene-setting ("So, the creature turns onto Church Street" is both quicker and more evocative, for those of us who immediately can imagine Church Street, than "So, the creature turns onto a pedestrian mall converted from a city street, cobblestoned, lined with some statues, and..."). Second, suspension of disbelief on the idea that all this stuff is going on below the surface, but the people of the city are blissfully unaware of it, would be hard to maintain. It's too small a town and its people are too likely to be clued in to things like this to buy that you can have building fires, strange creature sightings, disappearances, and wild animal attacks in downtown, and think nothing of it. Sometimes that's a strain even in Chicago in the Dresden books, where the author can play with the "living in a big city" trend of keeping your eyes down to avoid getting mixed up in anything.

On the other hand, Boston seems too easy, somehow. It's got all of that big city feel that lets you justify there being a billion things going on below the surface, and people going out of their way to avoid noticing it. It has museums, skyscrapers, colleges (geez, but does it have colleges), a waterfront, seedy districts, old bookstores, parks, organized crime, big police presence (complete with a convenient "Irish cop" stereotype), plus a big political importance. Plus it has history going back to pre-Revolutionary times, Native American history before that, all the left-leaning stuff I mentioned for Burlington, and a rather lengthy history associated with witchcraft (and Salem's a short hop out of town). On top of that it's one of the biggest hubs in the world for big companies, especially technology companies, second only to California and the Seattle area, really. And that's just off the top of my head. It's frankly an embarassment of riches. (New Orleans would be similarly too easy.)

The book includes a setting for Baltimore, which somehow completely fails to engage me. I know virtually nothing about Baltimore; if I've seen any movies or TV shows set in it, I don't recall anything about the city from them, and I can't bring a skyline, an accent, or even any notable landmarks or famous people to mind. It feels like learning Baltimore is almost going to be more work than doing city creation on a city I am familiar with. I sympathize with the authors and their decision: the city seems like a badly underutilized setting that could therefore be fresh. But it doesn't seem to quite work.

Of course, if I don't get to run it, that's all moot. I hate to put another game unplayed on the shelf though.


litlfrog said...

Your points about Burlington are well taken. I'd like to point something out about Boston, Baltimore, and other cities. I see what you mean about Boston and New Orleans being an embarrassment of riches for a supernatural game, mostly because those cities are so old. But most large cities have that potential once you look for it. Every time I've set a game in an unfamiliar city, I've had to stop myself from throwing in everything and the kitchen sink too as I researched the area's history. That's been true of Indianapolis, Seattle, Cleveland, Quito, and Almaty.

Hawthorn Thistleberry said...

The RPG makes that point somewhat with Baltimore, which is also full of more than you'd expect.

I'm sure I could run a satisfactory Dresden game in Baltimore, but I think more in this game than most it would help make it feel more potent if it were a city I knew well. I can think of a few possible reasons but the best one is that Dresden's setting gets so much mileage out of the contrast between the apparent city, which is exactly the city you know, and the real city that lurks under the surface. The more precisely the apparent city matches, in both detail and gestalt, the real city, the more stark and potent will be that contrast.

Incidentally while writing this it occurred to me that Juneau might be an excellent choice for a Dresden city.

drscorpio said...

On the other hand, Vermont has a lot of countryside potentially full of lots of Lovecraftian Outsider goodness. A group that wanted to set it's game in Burlington might have to expand their geographic range to include trips to bigger cities in the area like Boston or Montreal if they want to have inner city weirdness.

But they might be find in the exercise of city building enough to interest them at home. I am having similar concerns since I am hoping to run a DFRPG campaign here in rural Louisiana. I keep telling myself that I need to actually try the exercise of letting my players develop the background they want to play against. They may find enough weirdness around here to suit themselves.