Dresden Files Accelerated Review

I have a confession to make: I am a massive fanboy for the Dresden Files. A few years ago, I was having a rough summer: I had broken up with a long term girlfriend, I was finding out that my degree was worth less than I thought it was worth, and I was preparing to move to Philadelphia, a city where I knew absolutely no one. And in that time, I finally had the chance to read a book series that I had heard fellow nerds go on about. As I visited a new city with crammed together townhouses, a decidedly different attitude, and loads of history, it became fun to look for ogres under train trestles, secret societies in Independence Hall, and ways to dig into a city where strange but wonderful things lurked.

So when I found out that there was an associated RPG that had recently been released, I eagerly bit. And, truth be told, I rather enjoyed it. In fact, I still consider the short story that was included in the GM guide (entitled Our World) to be worth the price of admission. But even I, fanboy that I was, had to admit that there were some major balance issues, and long term games kept being derailed due to the format. The game was released after Spirit of the Century, but before the launch of Fate Core 3E, and there were signs of it being a beta version before the full copy was released. It is, and I say this lovingly, absolutely unbalanced. In particular, the magic mechanics really sent things off the rails, and I found my first gamebreaking system loophole pretty easily.

But I still have a fondness for the setting, so when I voiced an interest to my fellow Cannibal Halflings, it was brought up that a new version had been released based off of the Fate Accelerated tweaks from Evil Hat. So, with the past in mind, I took a foray into the system update.

I am happy to say that a lot of the non-mechanic features made their way back in. Dresden Files Accelerated carries over a tradition from the other books, in that it maintains the fiction that the rule book is a practical survival guide that is getting published in the Dresden Universe as a RPG Core book. It is a reference to the source material, in which they claim that Dracula was secretly published as a way to distribute the weaknesses of Black Court vampires, and as a result the entire book is filled with “sticky notes” from the “editors” (the characters Ivy and Kincaid) as they prepare a disguised guide of their own. Their notes keep the tone from the other books, and help provide helpful notes to players, as well as offer a few jokes. (One heading is entitled “That’s what Sidhe said”) The artwork continues to be pretty, keeping with the style of the Dresden Files graphic novels. It’s well put-together, and fun to read. One warning, though: it has massive spoilers for all books up to Skin Game, the most recently published novel, so be careful if you don’t want any surprises. Personally, I enjoy the change, because story events have made the setting so different that it could be hard to play in.

Now in terms of mechanics: overall evaluation, I do think that Evil Hat succeeded in their goal of making the game more streamlined. One of the more difficult hangups of the previous version was the setting creation process, which required a lot of moving parts to be spelled out. For some play styles, that was fine, but it made the plot dependent on initial GM and player planning before you began play, in which you would have to build out areas and NPCs of importance. This has instead been replaced by “Factions” where the GM and players discuss the sort of threats and other things of interest that will be showing up in your campaign. In Accelerated, you pick a number of these (five are given as an example) and, if desired, you link your PCs to them. For each faction, the players and GM will pick a Face of the organization, and will give a rough outline of their goals, their obstacles, their resources, and their weaknesses. GMs can control exactly how much player influence they have, and can introduce secrets to these groups, handle some of the details on their own, or introduce one of their own without telling players.

In general, the GM has the responsibility of keeping track of what these groups are doing in the background. If the players aren’t getting involved with them, it is assumed that they succeed in what they are trying to do. I like this addition, as it helps keep player driven games going. They can indeed choose to go all out against one faction, while letting another consolidate that power, but the GM is given a lot of plot hooks to yank when they do so. PCs can’t be everywhere at once, so there should be plenty of plot simmering in the backburner without needing to intently document each move.

DFA simplifies the gameplay as well. It continues the Accelerated trend of replacing a multitude of skills with “Approaches” (as has been detailed in such articles as Do: Fate of The Flying Temple), where players prioritize how their characters would deal with a situation. Overall, I’m a fan of this as well. It might be nice to have a Drive skill for cool chase scenes, but when you start rolling untrained for getting through rush hour traffic, you aren’t really driving the plot. The simplified approaches can let the players add some flavor to how it goes down. Using the Force approach might be moving through traffic by hitting Ramming Speed, but might cause extra scenery aspects, while Focus and Guile might pose less risk.

Character creation has undergone a major streamlining as well. The first edition had players taking 7 Aspects (quick descriptions which define the character) during character creation: the standard High Concept and Trouble found in most Fate settings, along with five others. In theory, you were supposed to link them to stories about your character’s history and their interactions with other characters, but most groups I was with found this unwieldy. Instead, it has been streamlined to three, which is much easier to generate, and causes fewer problems with players (and the GM) forgetting Aspects.

A more comprehensive change is in how classes are handled. Previously, classes would have required abilities that characters would have to take at start, and you could build from there by spending from your refresh. I honestly like this method. You could, in theory, mix and match and build any combination you like, or easily splice on a talent or two for flavor. The game also provided notes about the different power levels you could set your game at, with lower ends being grittier, horror based games closer to early seasons of Supernatural and Buffy, to later seasons of both, to full fledged sorcerers and wizards (and beyond!) The downside is that on the flip side, if you had a concept you really wanted to play but the power level wasn’t set high enough, you couldn’t take it. There were also complications with balance, when Magic could become a one size fits all solution, as opposed to investing in skills or stunts. More on that later.

In Accelerated, players instead choose “Mantles”. As the book describes it, they are “organized sets of related stunts and conditions reflecting how its possessor leverages their power in the world.” Abilities and stunts are listed for the players, often with a check off, similar to the Stress mechanic from Fate Core. Players fill them in as they take on the effect, and there is often a description of how to clear them so they can be used again. Included in these are Conditions that reduce damage, such as In Peril, or Doomed, which can be checked off to stave off incoming Stress (Damage) in blocks of 4 and 6 respectively to prevent the character being knocked out, at the cost of potentially causing lethal harm later.

There are non-supernatural mantles, such as Criminal, Medic, or Monster Hunter, and these can be stacked, in some cases, with supernatural mantles (Changeling, or Red Court Vampire Infected). The types can somewhat be sorted into four categories: Clued-In Mortal, a human given (or affected by) an outside supernatural power (Fae, Angelic, Demonic, Vampiric), certain supernatural creatures (True Fae, White Court Vampire) and mortals with magical gifts of their own.

Overall, the classes are a bit more balanced: There is far more differentiation between types of pure mortals with unique abilities. Focusing on one single variety of magic is made a far more compelling option as well, when previously it made almost no sense to stay that way. My biggest concern are the occasions where players build off of non-supernatural mantles to get both, which begs the question: is there mechanical reason to take a non-supernatural mantle, if you can get the benefits of both? I also do miss the ability to take a wider variety of talents freely between classes. In theory, you can still do this, but it seems a bit less codified. In the end though, making the system run smoother is worth that loss, even if it does sting a little.

Now, for Magic. Without getting in too deep, magic caused a number of balance issues in the original version. Evocation in particular could let a non-optimized magic user at lower power levels hit with a Weapon value closer to battlefield explosives, with a corresponding effect on Physical Defense rolls. Any sort of magical action depended upon the same skills (Conviction/Lore for intensity, and Discipline for control), so you could pretty much dump skill points entirely into those.

Now, with Approaches replacing Skills in Fate Accelerated, magic becomes more of a flavor in how you enhance those rolls. Water magic could easily become a dense fog or a sheet of ice under a foe’s feet for a Crafty character just as easily as a Forceful character could drop an iceberg on a hard target at terminal velocity. There are special conditions to amp up the effect, and they do potentially push single bursts to incredible levels, but boy, do you pay for them if you don’t time it out. Some of the boxes to check off take multiple scenes to clear, some for the entire session. There are stunts that allow you to effectively Cast From Hit Points, to gain bonuses by filling in your In Peril and Doomed boxes . . . and I will let GMs think about what they can do with that. The balance between a Focused Practitioner and a full Magical Practitioner is a lot more balanced now: Magical Practitioners can do a lot more things, and can react to broader situations. Focused Practitioners have one knack or talent, but are given liberty to explore it in a number of different ways. A kinetomancer (magic with kinetic energy) might be a standard evoker most of the time, but under pressure might have an incredible knack for absorbing physical attacks and adding them to his own power. A seer might be able to see attacks coming seconds before they arrive. In many years of roleplaying, I’ve seen some players who show their creativity best when they can have multiple tools while others are more creative when they have to make do with what they have and come up with cool ways to use abilities in unconventional ways. I think the changes in DFA give both types of players options.

In conclusion, I think that Dresden Files Accelerated is an upgrade over the original DF RPG. You can lose some of the incredibly detailed immersion, but I find that the changes to gameplay make the game considerably easier to run,  and the details that are mandatory in the original’s creation process can be built as the game goes on without quite as rigid a structure.

Now, you might be asking, “Wow, this sounds fun, if only I had a character to play?” To which I would respond “Well, very convenient hypothetical person, you should stop by soon, where we delve into a fresh Meet the Party (And City)!”

See you soon!

Aki is willing to take suggestions for characters to build @WHalfling on Twitter, and would love to hear more Dresden Files play stories. Here’s hoping for something that can match up to one friend’s kinetomancer mime!

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