Dresden Files: Virtual Insanity (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love GMing)

Tea: Twinnings English Breakfast

Anyone who knows me well can tell you that I excel at procrastination. It’s just a natural talent I have, alongside possessing excellent facial hair and a knack using 10 words when 2 will do. There’s a stack of unfinished or flat out never-begun film scripts, novels and webcomics to bear testament to this, and tabletop gaming does not escape either. Despite having known Mawdrigen and benefited from his fine GMing skills for some 10+ years, I had never worked up the gumption to run a game myself. Was it a fear of failure? Was it sheer laziness? Probably a mix of both. That changed in the past few weeks, and the culprit was none other than that old rogue the power of love (tm Huey Lewis).

It was shortly before last Christmas when my boyfriend informed me that

  1. He was starting a Dresden Files RPG game over AIM
  2. I was going to play in it
  3. Everyone playing was going to take turns GMing

The Dresden Files, for those unfamiliar, is a contemporary fantasy noir series currently stretching 14 books, a short story compendium, 3 graphic novels, a short-lived TV series that took the concept of faithful adaptation round the back of the shed and beat it with the coal shovel and, yes, a licensed RPG. My other half had attempted to coax me into trying the series before, but the sheer daunting scale of the endeavour had led to the typical response of “Sure, maybe, at some point in the future.” As I said at the start; birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim, I gotta procrastinate like all Hell. Now though, my lackadaisical nature faced strong-arming (very loving strong-arming, mind you), so I manned up, bought the first book, started reading it on the train to my parent’s place on Christmas Eve, nearly missed both my stops due to engrossment, stayed up until 2am Christmas morning finishing it and then trawled Amazon to get every other installment.

Warning: the next paragraph contains intense fanboying.

Dresden Files is pulp in the very best sense of the word. It is unpretentious, two-fisted fun. It has good action, good humour and an ever expanding cast of characters you can’t help but root for. I heartily endorse it for anyone who enjoys that sort of thing (and really, who doesn’t?)

So, the series had won me over, which ensured my place in the game and obligated me to finally bite the bullet and GM something. Luckily, I was third in line to run, meaning I had 2 storylines during which to learn the system.  DFRPG (because acronyms, why not?) is built on the Fate RPG system, which prides itself on being rules light and story-focused. This is true up to a certain point, but I’ve generally found that how rules light a system actually is is very much dependent on the attitude of those playing. Fate, and thus DFRPG, is also heavily built around the concept of Aspects; one phrase facets of your character’s personality, ethics or situation that act as a double edged sword, allowing players to gain bonuses where applicable but also giving the GM a chance to invoke them to complicate situations. It’s a clever idea, but one that can feel somewhat nebulous at times, especially when you throw in the mechanic of Declarations; which let players add Aspects to locations, or Maneuvers; which create Aspects on opponents. I believe Mawdrigen intends to touch on all this in an upcoming post about a one off game of Spirit of the Century, another Fate based system, so his thoughts will be added soon. One exceptionally clever thing DFRPG does having initial Aspect generation coming from both formative events in the individual character’s lives, and from adventures the characters have had with one another before the game began. Thus rather than having what could easily be simply a bundle of stats with a random name attached, you’ve got at least the beginnings of a fleshed out character; someone who feels a part of the world, with the allegiances and enmities to prove it. Ideally you’d get that with any game, but this approach makes it much easier, though it can make character generation feel somewhat more intensive than normal. The game also makes quite a big deal about establishing your campaign setting, generating locations, themes and notable NPCs with their own agendas, but in all honesty our group rather left that by the wayside, preferring a slightly more adhoc approach to embellishing the real world setting of Apple Valley, California; a rundown former resort town on the edge of the Mojave desert (I’ve been there. It’s pretty, in a desolate, slightly Fallout kind of way).

And so the first few weeks of the campaign progressed, our familiarity with the system growing as we engaged in car chases with zombies (trickier than you’d think) and tussled with kidnapping incubus vampires (which proved our characters had no future in babysitting because we let a young girl watch Game of Thrones). The time for my GMing debut grew near. Fortunately I had hit upon a story idea during one of my walks to work, a heady brew concocted by a combination of Mawdrigen’s endorsement of the MMO The Secret World, the Jamiroquai song that gave the storyline its title and a little nugget of in-Dresdenverse conjecture about a certain famous piece of horror literature. I made notes, sketched out NPC profiles and prepped locations. I was ready.

This was of course the point at which I got a chest infection. Clearly a higher power was trying to tell me something.

Well, whatever it was, I didn’t get the message because the show went on, and, fingers crossed, seems to be going well so far. Events began with professional thief and pawn shop owner (and amateur were-raccoon) Chesmu was contacted by one of his contacts (the perk of PCs having a good contacts skill is you have an easy plot hook, I’m finding), asking him to investigate the suspicious death of a co-worker and friend. Thus our heroes engaged in the time-honoured tradition of gathering at a bar to gain information from their new employer. In less time-honoured tradition, and because I wanted a slight change from the previous 2 storylines having things start at the supernatural neutral ground roadhouse, it was a local gay bar called Ricky’s (karaoke on Tuesdays!). There, Chesmu, along with Shuck (professional underworld oddjobs werewolf, amateur guitar player) and Tyler (professional apprentice wizard, amateur mohawk wearer) met the contact, Jackie, who explained how Malcolm, her colleague at new software developer Dragonware, had apparently committed suicide, which seemed suspicious given he had displayed no signs of such intent and had just discovered something odd in the project files for an MMO under development entitled The Other World. Agreeing to take the job on, our heroes convinced Jackie to skip town for a few days to get her out of the line of fire (a nice touch I hadn’t anticipated) and made their way to Malcolm’s apartment. Shuck deployed his busking talents as an excuse to keep watch while Chesmu and Tyler broke in. As Chesmu applied his professional skills for mundane clues, Tyler activated his Sight (an inherent wizard ability to see the world in terms of spiritual and magical, AKA author/GM gets to apply metaphors happy fun time). Both proved productive, with Tyler divining the death was definitely murder and definitely inflicted by a supernatural being (though I feel my metaphor work was a little weak, simply because I had forgotten about the Sight and hadn’t preplanned anything, going with a black aura linger tangibly), and Chesmu discovering a USB drive hidden in a sock drawer with a note attached for Malcolm’s brother, explaining the contents were the relevant files and that if this was being read things were as bad as feared. With further searching yielding nothing more than a woefully bad faked suicide note, a porn stash and an old tube of athlete’s foot cream, the duo reunited with Shuck, who due to amazing dice rolling when it didn’t really matter was just finishing up a masterful 10 minute improv blues piece that earned $10 and a round of applause, and departed. A search of the drive gave them a file of computer code that meant precisely nothing to them. Passing it on to Jackie for analysis, they were informed the next morning that it was designed to rapidly flash images at subliminal speed at anyone playing the finished game. Of course, such things were unlikely to work and would be checked for by the relevant authorities anyway, rendering the whole plan moot.

At this point, our heroes decided they had 2 options: Break into Dragonware’s offices to look for clues, or go to Malcolm’s funeral to speak to his brother. It probably says something about me that I had anticipated the first plan but not the second (mainly “Yay crime! Boo awkward social situation!”), further cementing the big discovery I’ve made about GMing: players will never do quite what you expect, so learn to think fast. Deciding to leave illegality until after dark, they went to a pre-funeral viewing, where they lingered long enough to attract the attention of the dead man’s sibling. Managing to defuse his ire with careful talk, he agreed to accompany them to a local doughnut shop (cheap immigrant labour: makes secret conversations so much easier AND annoys conservatives!) where they brought him up to speed. Alex (for that was his name) was confused as to where he fitted in to all this, as he was not in any way good with computers (this combined with his earlier unwillingness to touch the USB drive when offered it just might set Dresdenverse-familiar folks’ noses a-twitching). Chesmu, meanwhile, had a brainwave and retreated to the bathroom to make a phonecall, contacting Jackie about the possibility of hiding information within a game, leading her to speculate that it could be achieved by fragmenting it through different files that then connected while on the hard drive (I have no idea if such a thing is possible, but then none of either PCs or players would either, so I let my ignorance run free) and causing her to discover a ‘tag’ in the file Malcolm found that just might be part of such a scheme. While this was going on (running a game via IMs makes simultaneous plot strands interesting to run, though it does require an irritating degree of window juggling), Tyler let slip the possibility of the involvement of wigginess, leading to Alex grabbing his hand, triggering the telltale shock that occurs when two magic users first touch. Malcolm’s brother was, it turned out, a wizard. I was worried I’d signposted that revelation a little too much, what with his technology aversion (wizards in the Dresdenverse can frag post-war devices with their mere presence), but talking to the players afterwards they thought it was nicely handled. Back together, the group decided that they would launch their dubious legality after hours investigation that evening, with Tyler and Alex standing watch outside while Alex and Shuck, with remote assistance from Jackie, would search for clues as to the purpose of this seemingly pointless MMO plan that had cost Malcolm his life. This is sure to go completely smoothly, because player plans always do, and it’s not like it’s a recurring occurrence in the Dresdenverse for people to get into situations they believe to be one thing, only for them to turn out to be something else entirely, right?

Cue evil grin and maniacal laugh.

So this is the beginning of my GMing life, the pleasurable frantic mix of collaborative storytelling, cat-herding and making up shit as it happens, caused by loving peer pressure and love of a setting. I could get used to this…

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