When adapting a tabletop RPG, the ideal original work is one that allows for more people in the setting than just the main characters. Star Trek, in its various incarnations, allows for other Starfleet officers, creating an instant hook for an RPG. Television, though, works best with a limited cast, mainly for budgetary reasons, with a broad hook. Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files was prime for a TV adaptation, with one central character, a small core of supporting characters, and numerous recurring guest characters. For an RPG, though, that isn’t the best set up.
Or is it? As the series of novels grew, Butcher expanded the setting. Harry Dresden isn’t the only wizard in the world, just the only one to open a detective agency. Over the course of the series, Harry picks up an apprentice, deals with the various threats both mundane and supernatural, has to work around the wizardly White Council, and keeps the peace among the supernatural factions and the Mob in Chicago. There is a world beyond just Harry Dresden. This is where Evil Hat Productions comes in.
Evil Hat developed the Fate RPG by building on the Fudge system with elements that went beyond just attributes and skills. Called Aspects, these elements allow players and GMs to use drama points, called Fate Points, to modify the narrative. Players can invoke the Aspects to gain an advantage for their characters; GMs can invoke the same Aspects to put the characters into a disadvantageous position. Fate doesn’t encourage the old “killer DM” play; the goal is for everyone to have fun and be challenged.
At this point, there’s two levels of adaptation going on. First, the adapting of The Dresden Files as a tabletop RPG. Second, the adapting of Fate to The Dresden Files. Fate is Evil Hat’s house system, a concept seen widely in the tabletop RPG industry. Game mechanics take time to develop and playtest. Many RPG publishers, once their mechanics are worked out, don’t want to reinvent the wheel every time a new game is released. When licensing a title, one of the issues faced by RPG publishers is making sure that the work can fit into their mechanics.
Evil Hat’s approach to Fate, especially for The Dresden Files and their previous game, the original work Spirit of the Century, was to emulate the writing process. While that approach may not work for some players, it does set the tone of the game, reflecting Dresden‘s literary background. The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game, released in 2010, comes in two volumes, Volume 1: Your Story and Volume Two: Our World. That’s not unusual for tabletop RPGs; while getting both mechanics and setting into one book is ideal, if there is too much information, printing over two thick volumes makes sense.
Our World details Harrry Dresden’s Chicago, as presented in the novels. The city isn’t just the landmarks that can be found in a Wikipedia entry. Our World adds the elements that have appeared in the novels – characters, themes, the vampiric Red and White Courts, the police, the Mob, the morgue, and even Sue, the Tyrannosaurus Rex from the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History that became a zombie. Anything and everything players could want if they want to play in Harry’s Chicago.
Your Story contains the mechanics of Fate, how to roll the dice and how to create a character. Being an urban fantasy RPG, the Dresden game has to include not just regular skills but also supernatural abilities, with some extrapolation from what’s seen in the books to provide players a range of options. To help players, the game includes templates based on characters who appeared. Included in the templates are Wizard, like Harry, Champion of God, like Michael, Were-Form, like Billy and the Alphas, and White Court Vampire, like Thomas. Most templates have a Fate Point refresh cost, so some may not be available depending on the initial amount of points available at start. However, Pure Mortals, like Karrin Murphy and Waldo Butters, gain two Fate Points for use to buy stunts, to offset not having access to supernatural abilities, reflecting how such characters in the books can survive being around Harry.
Fate was designed as a generic game system, one that can be modified as needed for different settings. The core easily takes additions, though some care is needed. Gameplay revolves around the Fate Point economy, encouraging players to let their Aspects restrict them so that they can use those very same Aspects to save the day. Characters, though, aren’t the only ones who get Aspects. Everything can, from the city the game takes place in to a specific location to the current scene. The approach at the time was new, but one that gained a following. The GM and players work together to create their own city, if they want one, allowing the campaign and its theme to be personalized for the group.
Presentation in RPGs often helps sets the tone, With the Dresden RPG, it’s not just adapting the mechanics for the settings, it’s also the maginalia commenting on the main text. Used often to help explain a concept, either by directly commenting or refering to an event in the books, the marginalia is written as Harry, Bob, and Billy, in different handwriting. At one point, when the main text is using Harry himself as an example for character creation, Harry corrects his player, Jim, and then tells him to roll better.
RPGs have a tough challenge when adapting a work. They have to take the work, extract information, and make the setting playable for others beyond the creators while still providing players options to go beyond what has been produced. Evil Hat managed to hit this mark with The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game, taking Jim Butcher’s creation and presenting it in a way that players can have their own adventures in Harry’s world, whether as Dresden and his companions in Chicago or as their own group elsewhere.