It’s been more than a month since we’ve had the whole crew together, and during this whole time, we’ve been “between games” while we wait for reunification to kick off our next campaign. In the meantime, we’ve been filling in with board games and oneshots.
At a loss for what to play last time, I offered three different settings for a Fate game. Players chose a mash-up of two, and the end result was more interesting than any of my original ideas. (There’s fodder for a post!) With nothing but the combined settings of “World War II” and “Superheroes,” I set about running my first Dresden Files RPG game.
The Dresden Files RPG, based on Jim Butcher’s eponymous novels, excels at telling Sam Spade-style noir detective stories with supernatural twists in modern day cities. The game uses Fate 3.0 to allow you to participate in the “Dresdenverse” at a variety of power levels.
How did we take a game intended to portray a gritty urban fantasy, and use it to play a Golden Age supers game?
Fate, Fate, Fate. I Love Fate!
We made implementing this “genre-crossover” easy on ourselves by starting with a Fate-based game. Fate’s mechanics are so story-oriented that you almost can’t help but tell the one you intend.
I’ve expressed my love of Fate’s “Aspects” many times before, so I won’t go into detail here. To make a long story short, they empower the players to play their characters, rather than the game designers’ mechanics. Running our mashup would have been much more difficult, though not impossible, in a crunchier system.
For those who didn’t spend far more time watching the Simpsons than they should have, that was Bart’s response to the Bard’s famous question about a “rose by any other name.” The point being: description matters. This is true in any RPG, and, as I seem to be saying more and more frequently after over a year of posting, I’ve written about the benefits of this before too.
However, Fate and its descendants make prodigious use of this fact. Consider DFRPG’s magic system, one of my favorites of any game. It largely divorces description from mechanical effect. This allows you to implement whatever spell you want by simply configuring the right effect, and then describing it however you see fit.
Though magic is where the effect seems most pronounced, it’s also spread throughout the rest of Fate. Description (plus a Fate point) is how stuff gets done in this system. The result is, of course, that if you change the description, you change the game.
Though we only had a day to do it, we did a bit of work before the dice began to roll. This included a discussion on character concepts and refreshing ourselves on system-specific rules we hadn’t used in months. It also included some activities more germane to hacking a game.
My biggest worry with this process was that the game wouldn’t feel like the Golden Age comic book story I intended. Luckily, I had so much player buy-in momentum for the concept that it would have been difficult for me to steer it anywhere else. This was, I think, largely due to the enthusiasm generated by the pre-game discussions online.
If even one player had come to the table intending to play the “Dark Knight” instead of the “Bat Man” version of their character, it would have been a problem.
In any game, it’s good advice to make sure that the players are on board. It’s even more vital when you’re trying to work “against the grain” of the system you’re using.
Announce Your House Rules
Rules sometimes guide the characters we make, consciously or not. A lot of gamers simply avoid characters that don’t translate well into a given system. Also, a lot of players seem to settle on a character concept with all the deliberation and subtlety of a bear trap. In other words, if you’re going to change the rules to make them better fit the game, make it clear early, before the bear trap players spring shut.
In my case, I had two minor tweaks. First, I specified that the Supernatural Powers defined in the system could come from other sources, such as aliens or human science. From this tweak came the super soldier Major Freedom, with his ubiquitous shield, and the unstoppable Shell Shock, whose skin was infused with the rubble from a secret Manhattan Project nuclear accident.
Second, at a suggestion from Charlie, I specified that the characters’ High Concept must reflect their super powers. I also mandated that they include an aspect reflecting their “Kryptonite.” This ensured that the characters would be defined by their super identities, and that they would also have super weaknesses.
Other ideas that we didn’t have time for included using something thematic for the fate points, such as little radiation symbols, American flags, or dimes to represent the cost of a comic book. This would have been useful for getting everybody in the right mindset. Another was to add either a healing ability, or a one-time feature to ignore an invocation of a Consequence. That would have represented the heroic proclivity to rejoin the fight when everybody thinks you’re down.
It may just be due to my compulsion to investigate topics that interest me, but I think having background information on the genre you’ll be playing is essential. I spent some time looking up the end of World War II, and one of those “stranger than fiction” historical episodes: Operation Werwolf. This research allowed me to use real places, maps, and historical events, which, hopefully, added an element of realism to the game.
How’d it Go?
Though we spent more time than expected creating characters and remembering the system, we got a good portion of the way into the game I had planned. We were able to exercise several features of DFRPG that had gone unused in our last campaign, which was part of the reason we picked the system for this game.
Players unanimously expressed interest in continuing the adventures of the “Atomicorps,” the tongue-in-cheek name of their super group, so it must have gone relatively smoothly. I also, strangely, learned a lot about the system by using it in an unintended way. Hopefully you’ll now have picked up something from the experience too!