The Dresden Files are an urban fantasy series that I enjoy and there is an associated RPG in a system I quite want to explore. To which end I proposed we make characters next week. The character creation process is different and potentially nifty in that it is collaborative and before the characters are created the setting is also collaboratively designed.
I’ll explain all the game mechanics and stuff next week if we make the characters, but here is a primer on the Dresden Files.
At its base the series conceit is that there is a magical realm alongside the world as we know it, but it is invisible to most people. While most factions of this reality try to actively hide themselves from the world the main thing keeping magic separate from reality is not a conspiracy, but people’s ability to rationalize the unexplained.
That isn’t what the series is about, BTW. Its themes are those of loss, perseverance, faith and struggling with the darkness in your own soul – obviously our game can have different themes. The books are not deep character examinations, but big action adventure pieces.
The series is based in Chicago and centres on the exploits of Harry Dresden the only wizard who advertizes in the yellow pages. Generally each book starts with a private or police investigation in which Dresden is called to consult because there is a weird aspect. Eventually it blows up into a Faerie War, assault onto a den of Vampires or a face off with zombies while riding a reanimated T-Rex.
Hmm – so if you can envision a typical supernatural threat they exist in the Dresden Files: vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and faeries. But each beastie is just a little bit spun. There are four different courts of vampires who are all bad, but only the Black Court are really Stoker-esque. In general, supernatural beasts are at the mercy of their natures while mortals have free will. For example, faeries are driven to make bargains and must always speak the truth. Vampires are driven to hunt. People are evil if they choose to be and good if they choose to be.
Let’s look at the ways the supernatural touches up against Chicago in the series:
- There is a wizard who advertises in the yellow pages
- There is a special division of the Chicago PD who investigates weird crimes. (Even then only a fraction of the Special Investigations Unit is truly clued in.)
- There is a pack of werewolf college students who protect the campus from normal crime like muggers and thieves.
- There is a bar that caters to the magical community. It is Accorded Neutral Ground where any signatory of the Seelie Accords can meet in peace. More importantly it serves really good beer.
- There is a brothel run by a Red Court vampiress (or was until Dresden burned it to the ground and started a global war between vampires and wizards).
- Little faeries can be summoned and love pizza.
- There is an Undertown in tunnels beneath the city where beasties and those with ties to the Never Never (the faerie realm) lurk.
- A Knight of the Cross lives in town and is supported out of a local church and also gives haven to those in distress.
- The head of organized crime in the city is a normal human, but is clued in and employees a Valkyrie as a bodyguard.
- There are lots of minor magical people or groups – a book store that caters to them, a psychic who can really talk to ghosts, an island in the harbour that is a locus of power with a guardian spirit, a “knitting circle” of magical practitioners without enough power to be considered wizards, etc.
Setting up a different setting might involve setting up similar groups or something different.
Let’s see – magic? Obviously a wizard is the focus of the series so magic plays a big role. Wizards can cast spells. On the fly they can do typical D&D type things – fireballs, lightning bolts, winds, tracking spells, etc. The books can it evocation. For time they can use ritual magic, called thaumaturgy, to do a variety of other things.
Wizards are powerful and belong to an organization called the White Council. A major focus of the White Council is to enforce the 7 laws of magic. A wizard who breaks those laws begins to become a supernatural creature that is hugely dangerous. Even minor practitioners who are not in the council (membership is a privilege, but non-optional) must abide by the laws. The punishment for breaking any law even once is death and is enforced by the Wardens of the White Council. Law #1 is that magic cannot be used to kill a mortal even in self-defense. The other laws are similar.
The Nevernever is the realm of magics. It lies congruous with earth and can be reached in both directions with portals and what not. It might be better called an infinite realm of realms. Nearest to earth are the Faerie Courts of Winter and Summer. Deeper in the Nevernever are hells with demons. Beyond the Nevernever is outside and really bad things. Most beasties and magic has its source in the Nevernever. For instance, if a ghost assumes a corporeal form in the real world it does so using the stuff of the Nevernever. If the ghost loses control of it that stuff turns into ectoplasmic goop and quickly fades away.
Some of the major factions in the Dresdenverse are:
- The White Council – other than enforcing the laws they also stand up to some of the nastier bad guys.
- The Vampire Red Court – Red Court Vampires look human and can go out in the sun. They have narcotic saliva and their bite is addicting. But their flesh is a mask and underneath they appear as bat winged demons.
- The Summer and Winter courts of Faerie – Not good or Evil, but forces of creations and destruction. The courts exist in balance within the Nevernever. Each court is rules by a triumvirate of the Mother, Queen and Lady. They also have a mortal emissary – The Knight who wields great power.
- The Erlking is another really powerful Faerie. he rules over the goblins, ogres and trolls of faerie kind and is the Lord of the Dark Hunt.
- The Knights of the Cross – Three mortals blessed with power from God. They undertake missions to safeguard people from evil. Their particular foes are the 30 members of Order of the Blackened Denarius. The Knights wield swords of renown and each is said to contain a nail from the Cross.
- The Order of the Blackened Denarius – Fallen Angels bearing one of the 30 pieces of silver. The most powerful demons that have been encountered in the books.
- The White Vampire Court – This court is contains behind the scenes manipulators. White Court Vampires are almost human like in appearance. Other than extraordinary strength, speed, durability, attractiveness. They feed on extreme motion. The three main White Court families are Raith (feeds on lust), Malvora (fear) and Skavis (pain).
- Necromancers – When a wizard goes bad this is as bad as they get. Summoning the dead? Yeah, that breaks one of the 7 laws of magic.
Other baddies that have been fought include ghosts, fetches (spirits that took the form of horror movie baddies and caused fear), ghouls (super-tough baddies that appear human until they start to show their super strength and toughness), hexen wolves (people with magic items that attune them to beasts), and warlocks (wizards who use magic to kill).
Lots of baddies are beyond the ability of Dresden to face directly. The Red King of the Red Courts is an example. Others (not necessarily bad) in that category include the god Odin (who runs a corporation), the Queens of Faerie (Mab, Queen of Winter and Titania, Queen of Summer), dragons (a Knight of the Cross slayed one off-screen) and Archangels (these were definitely good guys).
Establishing another setting for the Dresden RPG would involve figuring out things like:
- which of the major players are in town? Is there a wizard or even a Warden of the White Court (are they PCs?)? Do any of the vampire courts have a presence?
- are there smaller ongoing threats? ghouls, maybe bad faeries, maybe some other kind of malaevolent spirit
- what protects the city? Maybe instead of the police being in the know there is another organization, or maybe just a single protector
- Any minor magical presences…
PCs is the game. So the first group choice is to choose the power rating of the campaign. A high power rating allows wizards as PCs or a White Court vampire who rebels against their nature. A low one would have normal mortals (perhaps ala Esoterrorists). A medium level might have werewolf, or someone infected by Red Court Vampires (but not yet a real vampire).
The list of playable templates is:
- Pure Mortal
- Champion of God (e.g. a Knight of the Cross (high power level) or some other called champion)
- Changeling (half faerie half human)
- Emissary of Power (A knight of the cross or of the faerie courts are specific examples of this broader category)
- Focused Practicioner (ability is some kind of named magic – like pyromancy or photomancy)
- Knight of a Faerie Court
- Minor Talent (like a medium or water dowser or some other limited form of magic)
- Red Court Infected (A mortal who is becoming a vampire, but hasn’t yet drank someone’s lifesblood.)
- Sorcerer (having only evocation or thaumaturgy -not both)
- True Believer
- White Court Vampire
- White Court Virgin (A white court vampire who has never killed)
Not all templates would be selectable at all power levels.