A side look into the Dresden Files: Backup

While Backup is definitely not the story to start with if you are interested in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, it’s an excellent addition to the series from a new perspective.

[Here there may be spoilers for some.]

Harry Dresden’s half brother, Thomas, is having a difficult time of it lately. Because of this, he has thrown himself into his work as a stylist because it helps him feed his very particular “Hunger” as a vampire and it keeps him from becoming a danger to people he loves.

Harry and Thomas share a mother. Thomas and Lara Raith share a father, and Lara Raith is the current head of the White Court. Thomas is doing his level best to have nothing to do with his brother or his sister these days, but when Lara sends him an email with the subject line of “Re: Ob.11.v1.0n.” He realizes that his ability to detach from his family isn’t going to last. The Stygian Sisterhood is after Harry, and they have targeted Harry’s weaknesses: women and children who need help.

It’s not that Thomas doesn’t think his little brother can’t protect himself. He has this to say about it:

Harry’s a wizard. A genuine, honest-to-goodness wizard. He’s Gandalf on crack and an IV of Red Bull, with a .44 revolver in his pocket. He’ll spit in the eye of gods and demons alike if it needs to be done, and to hell with the consequences – and yet somehow my little brother manages to remain a decent human being.

Thomas has every reason to doubt his sister’s good intentions, but the information she sends him leads him to believe that Harry is in danger, and he’s the one best placed to help.  This is a difficult thing to do when you’ve cut yourself off from most of the people who care about you.

With a cameo appearance from Mouse the Foo dog (see the stylized version of Mouse below) and a little help from Bob the skull, Thomas manages to provide the help Harry needs without Harry ever realizing he was involved.


How did he do it? Check the book out! It’s well worth it.

In light of last week’s column on how we read, I’m going to note how I read books for the columns I write for a while. Today’s book was a hardcover Subterranean Press edition, first published in 2008.

Convention Report: MarsCon 2011

I’ve had the misfortune of not getting around to much in the way of gaming lately.  I started a new job which changed my schedule pretty dramatically.  I run and play in a few play by post games, but my in person games went on hiatus for a while and are only now starting back to their regular schedule.  I’ve been absent from the blog both because I have been tired adjusting to my new lifestyle and workload, and because I’ve simply lacked the inspiration and muse to carry on writing about gaming when I hadn’t been doing much of it.  At least not as much as I’d like to be doing.

And in that regard, MarsCon was my perfect fix.

What is MarsCon?

The little Sci-fi convention is hosted in Williamsburg, Va (not to be confused with Bloomington, Minnesota’s convention of the same name) and has been running since 1990.  With a quick bit of research (thanks Wikipedia!) I actually found that MarsCon began as what the founders were calling a “relaxicon”, a laid back convention follow-up for the folks who put on Sci-Con in Virginia Beach, Virginia.  Over the years it has grown into its own as a popular local con featuring authors and artists of the area, as well as maintaining its niche’ purpose as a simple event to gather and celebrate camaraderie amongst members of our culture.  This was my first visit to MarsCon, but I expect this was one of their largest years, thanks to Guest of Honor Jim Butcher, author of The Dresden Files series.

Panels and Such

The panels at MarsCon covered a wide variety of topics from real science with an actual NASA representative present discussing the latest in Mars research, to a drag out, tooth and nail debate on which Sci-fi is the best and which is the worst.  At another local convention recently, I spent most of my time in panel discussions or workshops.  At MarsCon, I went a different route and tried to game as much as possible, so I didn’t see much outside of the game room.

My girlfriend, who did make it to the panels, enjoyed a selection of discussions on web comics, costuming (of which there were some great ones), puppeteers, television, books, and more.  I managed to crawl away from the tables of dice and character sheets long enough to catch Jim Butcher speak, and the man has charisma.  He comes across as a well read and well rounded individual with a lot of wit, and he gave some great responses in both his interview and a panel he participated on discussing the process of building an “epic” saga over several novels.  There can be no doubt that he owned the show throughout the convention.  If you ever get the chance to hear him talk and are a fan of the Dresden Files books, I cannot suggest enough that you take that opportunity.

I did get a moment to speak with Jim, and express how sad I was that he cut his hair.  I was really hoping to attend the con as “that guy” that looks like the Guest of Honor.

Me & Butcher
I'm just sayin'.

Before I dig into the final section and discuss gaming, I also wanted to thank MarsCon for the excellent Con Suite they provided throughout the weekend.  The convention kept an army of very hungry gamers, cosplayers, artists, and fanboys (and girls) full from morning ’til night and did it by prepping actual meals rather than just chips and drinks.  I was impressed with the spread, and nobody can complain about the price.

The Games

So, this is a games blog and I’ve already boasted that I spent more time gaming than anything else, so I clearly have a great deal to say in that regard.  Oddly enough, I didn’t get a chance to play anything new during my time at MarsCon, but there were some great games that have been around a while now I was able to join in and some of them were new to me.

Savage Worlds Rippers:  No reader of Troll in the Corner will be surprised that I made sure to get in a Savage Worlds game over this past weekend.  The Rippers setting puts the players in the roles of 1800’s era monster hunters on a pulp action adventure track to face the nastiest of nasty creatures.  My character was a big and brooding Russian with a massive axe chasing shape shifters through Cairo.  The adventure culminated with a battle at the back of a train, in a storage car with a case of dynamite.  Though I did get to utter the words, “I will break you!” to the final encounter in my best Ivan Drago voice, my character did not survive the explosion caused by one of my own teammates.  Granted, my fellow monster hunter didn’t take a particularly necessary course of action in choosing to blow me up, it didn’t stop the table from cheering and laughing at the end.  Con games are great for that sort of high action game, when its a one-shot, who cares if you live or die?  More information on Rippers can be found on Pinnacle’s website.

Exalted:  Exalted takes place in either a far future of the World of Darkness so far back nobody remembers the way things were, a far past so far back no relics exist from it in the present day, or an alternate universe that has nothing to do with it.  Everyone always likes to keep that bit vague.  Regardless, each player takes the role of a demigod with extreme levels of power.  Our group faced a mission to investigate a dungeon, where in we found five tombs filled with portals related to each of our power sources.  Each portal held a challenge, and only with our combined efforts could we claim the treasures each portal protected.  It was a very cool if very basic sort of story, but did well to showcase the world at large and the different power types.  That said, I’ve played Exalted before and always had the same issue with it, some players can enjoy rolling 33 dice all at once to make an action, but I’m not particularly into that.  Exalted’s mechanics start simple like any World of Darkness setting, but quickly move to the obscene with handfuls of dice scattering across the tabletop.  White-Wolf’s Exalted page can be found here.

Call of Cthulhu:  The d100 system set in H.P Lovecraft’s 1920’s performed well as it always does.  It isn’t my favorite system for battling the mind numbing horrors of the Cthulhu Mythos, but it is a darn good one.  Our characters met with an artist who showed off a rather strange and mystifying painting inspired by her dreams.  By chance the artist’s strokes managed to recreate her dream just a bit too well, creating a gate to an alien world or dimension through the canvas and transporting us all to a realm inhabited by hideous fishmen and other terrors.  Sadly, we ran out of time to finish the adventure and were never heard from again.  Chaosium Inc. currently publishes the latest d100 version of Call of Cthulhu.

A Touch of Evil:  Continuing to hunt monsters, I got in a session of the supernatural Flying Frog Productions board game.  I was particularly pleased to play this game and find that it didn’t feel like a re-purposing of the Last Night on Earth board game (the only other Flying Frog game I’ve played), but really stood on its own as an entirely different play system.  During play, I kept finding myself likening the game to something like a hybrid child of Talisman and Arkham Horror, both games from other companies that I love, but much faster to play, even when we added the Something Wicked expansion.  I’m going to have to buy this game, so expect a full review in the near future.  Flying Frog Production’s A Touch of Evil page can be found here.

Delta Green and Pathfinder Society:  I’ve chosen to put both of these games together because they both encompassed a particularly different kind of gaming than my norm.  The local convention regulars participate in a few “living campaigns”.  Players rejoin several times a year at conventions to carry on characters from adventure to adventure, forming super large groups, but forgoing any sort of between adventure development or continuity.  This was a big change for how I approach games, which are typically one-shot adventures or long-term campaigns investing heavily in character depth.

In Delta Green, the players are members of a top secret organization investigating more Lovecraftian phenomenon, expanding the rules the Call of Cthulhu d100 system for the present day.  The living campaign is managed, run, and written by a local group, and they call the campaign Delta Files.  In Pathfinder Society, players make a tomb-raider-for-hire that participates in sessions that are tracked by the game’s publisher Paizo, running players through pre-written Pathfinder Society modules with specific objectives for various character factions.

While I’m sure many Pathfinder Society games do invest themselves in role play, I feel like the Game Master might feel constrained to rule bend too far because they report back game statistics to Paizo on successes or failures.  For all of the criticism D&D 4e gets over comparisons to World of Warcraft, I’ve honestly never played a game that felt more like a massively multiplayer game than this.  Our adventure orders were straight forward with no role play or preliminary investigation, and our objectives were simple and required only that we make one skill check to achieve each.  After completing an objective there was no sense of impact to the game world outside of a treasure reward.   The players at the table seemed particularly jaded with this sort of game play, falling into the repetitive swings, hit, damage patterns with no flavor or description.  They were just there to get credit for the module and level up yet another character.  I’d really love to hear some Pathfinder Society member’s speak up, because I’m curious to see if I had an experience typical of these kinds of games, or if I just got in an off group.

Delta Green, on the other hand, I found very rewarding.  There was still an element of stat grinding at the table, but because the group is managed by local Game Masters who write the adventures themselves and run it, they remain open to react and modify on the fly.  The Delta Files group seems to put a very strong effort to emulate the kinds of stories Lovecraft wrote, which often means danger that is both unrelenting and  incomprehensible.  Survival is more important than the mission at large.  I was very impressed both by the adventure I played in, and what I heard from the other table running nearby concurrently.

I think a big problem I have with something like Patfhinder Society’s setup is that players join in adventures catered to their level with missions catered to their faction, the scenario is designed for success.  At no point in our five man group did the level appropriate adventure feel challenging, but even if it did I would know that it was a challenge intended for me to overcome.  In something like Delta Files, there is no group character level to meet.  We didn’t say, “Ok everyone, you need a level 2 adventurer to participate in this one”, but instead we sat down, I made a character and others brought out their characters which had been leveling from con to con for years in some cases, months in others, and we played the adventure ignorant of how difficult it might be.  That’s where gaining skill points mattered.  In a game where the challenge meets you, the points are just a way to feel like something has changed, but in Delta Files those points might make the difference between life or death at some point down the road.  Characters also have life changing and deep experiences as a reaction to the Mythos, and can change or degrade (most likely degrade) as a direct result.

The following links can get you some more information on these campaigns:

Delta Green

Delta Files

Pathfinder Society

The Closing of the Con

Come Sunday afternoon when the last game I played in was packed up, I felt invigorated.  Both because I hadn’t really gamed in so long, and also because I had seen so many different play styles in such a short span.  I was able to really think about my own play format and pick out what I liked about it.  I loved this weekend, and I can’t wait to find out who the guests will be next year.  If I do return, I will probably pay more attention to the available panels and try to take more of that in, but the lure of a game-filled weekend was too much to resist.

[tags]MarsCon, Conventions, RPG, role playing, games, Jim Butcher, Dresden Files[/tags]

I Hate you Jim Butcher – a Love Letter

Unless you’ve been purposely avoiding bookstores, amazon.com, your library or anyone who pretends to read, even with the book upside down, you’ve heard of Jim Butcher.  That guy who writes about that other guy. The magic one.  Who’s funny and gritty and kicks faerie ass. It’s hard boiled, psuedo-noir detective meets modern urban fantasy.  And it SUCKS

ME IN!  Dammit.  Seriously Jim, you seem like a really nice guy.  I came about <———————————————————-> that close to meeting you at a convention once.

You were sitting at a table signing stuff and had a line about as long as the “Exit” queue on the Titanic.  I took the low road and wandered by your table, excusing myself past the 3rd or 4th person in line so I could glance over and see what you were up to.  You signed with verve.  With gusto and a smile.  You put up with the crowds, answered questions patiently and seemed to genuinely enjoy yourself. You also continue to write books that keep me up way past my bed time. That makes me conflicted.  I like my sleep.  I need my sleep.

I’m on book 10 or so of the Dresden Files and I am finding them very enjoyable. The perfect mix of quick action, tight plotting, and lines like “Knocked him on his little fairy ass.”  They are seriously good reads, the kind that are honestly hard to put down.  And I’m suffering for it.

On the one hand, I will heartily recommend them to anyone looking for a good series to read.  They don’t get old from book to book, the idea hasn’t fizzled.  It’s great stuff. The man has his own forum for crying out loud. As a testament to how cool he and his books are, it’s even an active forum.

On the other hand, if you enjoy sleeping then I can’t in good conscious recommend this series.  You won’t be getting much sleep while reading them. I litterally say to myself “Okay, one more chapter, just one.”  My problem is, I say that to myself at least five times a night.  Add to that the near physical need to purchase the next book in the series and, well it could be a recipie for disaster.

And if you’re here, you’re probably a role player.  There’s a damned Dresden Files RPG which is written nearly as well as the books!  It’s great too. GAH!

You have been warned!

By the way, the picture I used for this article is from the Dresden Files TV show, which is the one thing associated with Harry Dresden that didn’t overly impress me.  I did find a bunch of images of Jim Butcher, but I’ve no idea who to attribute them too, so I defaulted for the safe, public domain image.

[tags]jim butcher, literature, dresden, files, rpg, horribly addictive[/tags]

The Dresden Files: Now With 100% More RPG

I’ve been twitching with anticipation since Evil Hat announced that they were working on a Dresden Files RPG. Last week they started taking pre-orders and I immediately forked over about 100 of my hard earned dollars to get it (I later learned we were getting a review copy. You win this one Evil Hat). I’d like to note that since the pre-order PDFs aren’t the final product and that I won’t actually be playing the game until I get a physical book, I consider this only to be the first half of my review.

On Price

There have been a lot of opinions flying around over the price tag on this game.$90+ is a lot to ask, especially in the independent game market. That said, the core rules are actually only $50 which puts things closer to GURPS, D&D, and Pathfinder.  I still consider $50 to be a little on the pricey side and would have preferred to see a price more in line with Spirit of the Century. The only reason I’m willing to put down $50 per book is because of Evil Hat’s sterling reputation and my love of the Dresdenverse.

With that out of the way let’s get to the good stuff. After placing my pre-order I got download links for both PDFs. I was pleasantly surprised that I got the links right away rather than having to wait for an email.

The Dresden Files RPG consists of two volumes: Your Story and Our World.

Your Story

Your Story is the main book. It contains all of the Fate rules that you know and love, but with a distinctive Dresden twist. The book is presented as a draft copy of an RPG game that Harry’s werewolf sidekick Billy is writing. Stat blocks, examples, and even art are “taped” onto the draft. Sometimes the tape obscured the art a little bit, but otherwise everything looks nice. For the most part the art is high quality but some readers might be turned off by reused prices from the comic book.

Throughout the book are notes made by various characters from Jim Butcher’s novels. The notes often feature witty banter, chuckle-worthy one-liners, and general commentary. Most of the time I found the notes to be pretty entertaining, but I did find some of the larger ones to be distracting. The other thing that rubbed me a little bit the wrong way is that I was left wondering why Harry, Billy, et all would want to play a role playing game based on their lives? I know I sure as hell wouldn’t want to play one about me.

The rules in the book are presented conversationally,  are explained clearly, and with just the right amount of flair. Rules are based on the free Fate system, so anybody familiar with that or anything that uses it (like SotC) should be in familiar territory with this game. Players new to the system might have some trouble at first wrapping their head around the game. Luckily the book does a great job of easing you into the system.

The character creation section is especially well done and takes you through every step of creating Harry Dresden as a character. Players choose a template which can be most easily explained as a very loose fitting class and then customize it to get the character they want. All your favorite Dresden File staples are represented here, everything from red court vampires and wizards to Summer Knights and Mobsters. You then move on to selecting your High Concept (A few words that describe the character) and Aspects. Just like in Spirit of the Century, Aspects are key points in a character’s background that act as motivators during the course of game play. You’ll also need to come up with a Trouble. A trouble is just that, something that makes the characters life difficult and can drive the story forward. There is also the fairly standard fair of skills, stunts, and powers which will become the meat of your character.

Unlike most RPGs, advancement sits in the back seat of DFRPG. You’ll earn refresh through as you play, which can be used to power your character or it can be saved up to learn a new spell or stunt. You get to do this at each “Milestone”. As the name would suggest, a milestone is a key point in the game. This will be at the end of each adventure or at the climax of a story arc. Milestones are divided into Minor, Significant, and Major. Depending on what kind of milestone your characters hit you’ll have the chance to resolve consequences, swap skills in and out, change your Aspects, or learn new stunts and powers. This type of advancement really stresses story over “leveling”, and in my books that’s a good thing.

Dresden Files RPG uses special dice called “Fudge Dice” for resolution. These are just d6’s with + and – symbols on them instead of numbers. You can make your own without much trouble. To resolve conflicts players will need to roll four of these dice and count how many + and – they get and add the result to the relevant skill. This will translate into a result ranging from poor to legendary and will need to meet the difficulty set by the GM. The game also features degrees of success which are dubbed “Shifts”. By exceeding the difficulty of a challenge a character can receive unforeseen benefits. This could be things such as gaining insight to the task at hand or by just being more successful than they could have imagined. Aspects also come into play here and can be used to improve or reduce your odds of success. It’s a good system that has worked well for Spirit of the Century. In my experience, labeling the results from poor to legendary helps keep players thinking in terms of the story rather than falling into number crunching habits. My only complaint about the system is that it is simultaneously very simple and very complicated. It requires everybody to have that eureka moment before everything comes together. Once it does it can be a very rewarding way to play.

Your Story weighs in at 416 pages and while about 10 pages of that is all you need to actually play the game, a good two thirds of it is filled with examples, character options, and the intricacies of using stunts, powers, and aspects. The remaining 100 or so pages are filled with great advice for GMs on how to put together and run a game and a Dresdenified version of Baltimore for the players to romp around in.

This is a great book. It has everything you need and just a little bit extra. The system definitely isn’t for everyone and requires a certain amount of adjustment for players used to games like D&D and GURPS, but after a game or two it should click for them. I think the books suffers a bit from leaving out an included adventure, but not enough for me to get over the feeling of glee I get from reading the margin notes.

Our World

Next up we have Our World. Again, this is a nicely laid out book in the same draft style as before. There really isn’t much to say about it. It’s essentially a collection of every major character from The Dresden Files with statistics and gone over in loving detail. As a Dresden fan I really enjoyed reading the collected notes on the various characters. Everyone is here, even The Gatekeeper. Unfortunately there isn’t as much art as I would have liked to see. I would have loved to see some art on every page, but that just isn’t in the budget for anybody but the big guys. Evil Hat makes up for it with lots of good information and a short story written by Jim Butcher himself. That short story isn’t in the early bird copies so we’ll all just have to wait until summer to find out what it’s about.

Other than the great character list, Our World also covers all the nitty gritty inner details of the supernatural world. Everything from the Unseelie Accords to the Vampire War is covered, as well as the major supernatural factions.  Harry’s stomping grounds are also gone over in detail, which is great if you plan on running a game in Chicago. Even if you aren’t it serves as a good example for GM’s that wish to “dresdenify” they’re own hometown.

While I think Our World is a good book, gamers uninterested in playing in Chicago and don’t require pre-made opponents should consider skipping it. If, on the other hand, you just can’t get enough of The Dresden Files or like the idea of having an encyclopedia for the Dresdenverse, you will love this book.


Are the Dresden Files RPG books worth $90? I can’t say because I haven’t got the books yet. The game definitely looks solid, despite a few rough edges as far as layout and art are concerned. Fate’s strange learning curve might also turn off a few players, so if you haven’t played before I recommend at least looking over the free rules before taking the plunge. I will say that the PDFs are definitely worth between $30 and $40, but since Evil Hat isn’t selling them separately at this time, there’s no way to get them without buying the physical books.

These books have definitely wet my appetite and I can’t wait to try the game out. Unfortunately I hate to run games from a PDF and it’s just too darn big to print. I’ll be running the game in a few months when the books arrive and I’ll follow up with my thoughts on how the game plays and my groups reactions at that time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to reading my copy of Changes.

[Tags] The Dresden Files, Role Playing, RPGs, Jim Butcher, Evil Hat, Fate RPG [/Tags]

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