My Tian Xia group just finished their campaign, and it was quite the epic ending if I do say so myself. I had expected them to prevent the world-devouring beast from hatching out of its egg and thus save the world. Instead… “The moon is a giant egg?!? We need to bust it open and see what’s inside!”
And they did, too.
Moving forward towards the next game, I threw 3 elevator pitches as I often do about what the next game would be about. They opted for a post-apocalyptic dystopia with themes of survival and creating the future. And they want to use the Dresden Files RPG.
Why So Challenging
Now let me be clear. I am not saying this is a bad idea. But it does present some unique challenges that I think are worth taking a closer look at. Especially since I am stepping out of my comfort zone a bit by running a game that is supposed to have a high challenge rating as opposed to the story-driven games I often run.
In essence I have 3 challenges here, and I want to discuss each of them in a little bit of detail. First of all, making any FATE game mechanically challenging is not all that easy because the mechanics really give a LOT of power to the players. Second, the Dresden Files RPG is very much built for a specific setting (modern fantasy), and no matter how many suggestions they have in the book, making it work for a different setting is challenging. Third: making a campaign work, as opposed to an interesting one shot that could never really support the themes we have chosen for the game.
Mechanical Challenges of FATE
The FATE system was designed to better share creative power between GMs and Players, and that is especially true in the Dresden Files RPG. City Building, Fate Points, and even Maneuvers are all set up to give the players creative ways to control the story. I mean, just like any game you can raise the difficulty of skill checks as much as you want. But how do you make a game that is mechanically challenging for survival when a player can spend a FATE point to say “Oh look, we found an Enertron!” any time they want?
If you are dealing with inexperienced players, then this problem often fixes its self. In the Dresden RPG, the rules are that you can spend a fate point for a +1 for your skill check, or a +2 if you come up with an aspect that encourages your success. Players often fixate on this and completely ignore the fact that they could make the floorboards break so that the zombie falls into the basement rather than get a +2 on their bad attack roll.
Fortunately there are better options that do not rely on player ignorance. The first is refusal. As a GM, you can reject anything they spend a fate point for (by giving them an additional fate point, granted). Then they are out of luck, and a new aspect is established. And shutting a player down, with a reward for their creative thinking, usually gets them to consider other options. Also, as a GM you have unlimited FATE points, so you can definitely outlast them!
But the best way to make the mechanics difficult in any FATE game is to establish Aspects ahead of time. When an aspect is created, it cannot contradict another aspect already in place. No need to dish out fate points to refuse a well popping up when there is already a “Water Is Scarce” aspect on the scene, or the game for that matter. And yes, players can overcome these aspects with a maneuver check, but that’s a skill roll that can have a high difficulty. In fact, it gives that spellcaster a reason to take some backlash in order to help her friends survive. And that’s the sort of decisions you want in a post-apocalyptic game!
Making Dresden Work
So for those of you not familiar with the Dresden Files at all, go watch the TV show. One season on Hulu or something. They are not as good as the books (they guy that plays Bob is GREAT, though!) but it will probably get you interested enough to read the books. Or listen to some good podcasts about a Dresden RPG play through. That should help a lot!
So now that we are all on the same page, Dresden Files RPG is a very distinct modern fantasy game, and the game is designed for you to build a city and live in it for your adventures. And the rule book has some great advice for how to expand all of that, but it is actually very difficult to do when the setting stops being a normal modern fantasy.
If you are fretting about it before the first session, then odds are you have some problems in mind. If not, go into the first session knowing that you may have to make changes afterwards. Be sure to remind everyone that the setting is different and see what you all come up with together. This is really a brainstorming session that grows into a game plan. You won’t use everything, and you will have some holes that need filled, but that’s the way it is with every City Building session anyway.
Once the session is over and you are starting to convert everything into the actual world, then you can start to panic! And once you are done panicking, make adjustments. Find out where the big problems potentially lie. You want to do this sort of theme, but you foresee that problem. Don’t freak out. You already got that over with. Instead, identify the problem.
Once you have the problems identified, see how many you can coral together. If all of your problems come from some of the characters having access to magic, that is just one big problem that can be dealt with at once. If you just took a break in the middle of city planning to think this out, work the problems out together with the group. Otherwise communicate with them about the problem or potential solutions and make sure everyone is ok with everything before you move on.
Making a campaign is very different from making a one shot. You cannot really let the players destroy the world if you still have to deal with that world. All actions will have consequences that need to be dealt with, or the game stops being fun. And everyone at the table really needs to care about advancing their characters. In other words, you really have to prepare for problems or nip them early if you don’t want the campaign to fail.
The good news is that campaign gaming offers opportunities to help overcome those challenges it creates by its very nature. If you are worried about player characters being too powerful to deal with normal everyday problems then scale back their power levels. Players are more likely to be ok with this if you work with them to plan for character advancement. Knowing they will have access to those powers makes them eager to move forward, and it gives you time to build up the scale of the adventure rather than just raising every difficulty to madness levels.
Another way to keep things interesting is to create social problems instead of mechanical ones. In the case of Dresden Files RPG, a dystopia’s citizens could be terrified of magic. This is a much better way of keeping your players from overusing their powers than just raising the difficulty a couple of points per check. Players are more likely to care about what other NPCs think in a campaign because it will affect future adventures.
As always, make sure that your players are on board with any adjustments you have to make. Most players making a wizard character would rightfully be upset if you suddenly made magic illegal to practice after they spent all day last week building a character with you, for example. Always be upfront about the game being challenging and be sure they understand what those challenges are.
If there really is no solution to a problem you see with a campaign, then scrap it. This is a last resort, of course, but it is still better than playing a BAD campaign.
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