Thaumaturgy, or How to Break the Rules: Magic in DFRPG, Part Three

This may be my longest post – it’s closing in on 7000 words, which is a respectable length for a short story. Thaumaturgy is a big subject to cover, because it’s a big system in the game. Just wanted to warn you before you start reading.

Quick recap. First, I talked about general magic theory in DFRPG. Then, I went into detail on evocation. Now, I’m tackling thaumaturgy.

What is thaumaturgy?

This is kind of a tough question to answer. The basic answer is, “You know what evocation is? Well, thaumaturgy is everything else.”

Thaumaturgy is the careful crafting of a complex, sophisticated spell construct that can reach beyond the immediate presence of the spellcaster to have an effect. It is the scientific and artful application of mystic knowledge and training to produce an arcane solution to a problem. It is a ritual designed to produce change in the world.

On the one hand, because of the careful preparation and ability to work slowly gathering power, thaumaturgy can produce effects of such staggering power that they dwarf the most potent evocations. On the other hand, because of the fine control that the caster can exert over the energies gathered, thaumaturgy can create effects of immense subtlety. You are limited only by your imagination and creativity when it comes to deciding what you can and can’t do with thaumaturgy – once you come up with the idea and structure of the spell, your ability to cast it is governed primarily by the cool stuff you can think of to make it work.

With care and precision, thaumaturgy can be the safest kind of magic to cast, sacrificing speed for safety. However, when it goes wrong, it goes wrong big time.

What can you do with it?

The key with thaumaturgy is that you’re using magic to, in essence, break a rule that the rest of the world has to follow. Little things like conservation of mass, the Laws of Thermodynamics, basic physics, stuff like that. Tracking someone down when you have no leads. Curing a disease without using medicine. Traveling 200 miles on foot in 20 minutes.

The biggest stumbling block in using thaumaturgy in the game is paralysis brought on by too much choice, at least in the beginning. You can do anything, really anything, that you can conceive of*. The rules break things down into a few broad categories, but really you can work out a ritual for any magical effect you can conceive of or have read in a book or seen in a movie.

The broad categories are meant primarily to provide some guidelines for determining complexity. As you read through the descriptions, you’re going to see a lot of overlap, and you’ll be able to think of how to accomplish the examples using one of the other categories. This, I contend, is a good thing: it provides room and system support for Here are the categories:

Solve improbable or impossible problems.

This is almost a meta-category that all the other categories could be said to be part of. More specifically, in the way it’s defined in the book, it’s doing something that could be done with a skill, given enough time and skill and favourable conditions. Thaumaturgy doesn’t care about that* – it lets you get what you want in situations when the skill wouldn’t work.

So, need to climb a modern skyscraper? Athletics lets you climb stuff, but the difficulty of climbing the sheer glass sides, plus the extreme height, makes the success of an Athletics check somewhat problematic. Thaumaturgy to the rescue! Whip up a little spell to let you walk up the side of the building, or even just fly you to the top.

Trying to find a tiny key hidden in a scrap metal dump? Alertness lets you spot things, but one little key among the piles of metal has a pretty high difficulty, and searching will take a long time. Again, thaumaturgy to the rescue! A little spell can pick the one key you need* from the vast, steely junkpile.

The key question here is, “How would I do this without magic?” If the answer is a skill, then this is the category you’re looking at.

Create lasting changes in people and things.

Turning lead into gold, or people into frogs, or live people into dead people. The key thing with this concept is that you’re essentially engaging in a contest with the target, and you use your magic to (hopefully) overwhelm their defenses and make change happen. The change can be as simple as adding or removing an Aspect from the target, or as complex as ripping the soul from someone and binding it to yours service.

These sorts of changes, while lasting, are not necessarily long lasting, which is why Wizards aren’t all rich from all that aluminum they’ve transformed into gold. Generally, the longer you want something to last, the more difficult it is to do, and the more power it’s going to require, unless the change is something that cannot be reversed – like killing someone.

So, if you want to turn yourself into a gerbil, this is how you do it. If you want to put someone into a dreamless sleep, this is how you do it. If you want to reinforce the door of your lab, this is how you do it. If you want to cause someone’s heart to burst out of their chest, this is how you do it. If you want to cause a thunderstorm, this is how you do it. If you want to reinflate a collapsed lung, this is how you do it.

Now, it’s worth noting that these types of changes often run afoul of the Laws of Magic, so practitioners looking to try something need to think carefully about how they’re going to do it. But these sorts of things also deal with personal shapeshifting and healing, so there are safe applications.

Provide inaccessible knowledge.

Here, we’re talking about things like scrying, precognition, mind reading, and things like that. You can spy on remote people and places, or you can make assessments on targets. Basically anything that lets you know something you otherwise couldn’t. This is a pretty broad range of things, and has a great deal of overlap with the other categories, depending on how you choose to go about it.

Let’s say you’re going up against a nasty monster, and you need to know what its weaknesses are. You’ve got a number of possibilities to find that out, as long as you’ve got some sort of link:

  • Use scrying to spy on the creature and see how it behaves.
  • Summon up a spirit of intellect and interrogate it.
  • Mystically analyze some of its hair or its true name to see what the arcane correspondences tell you.
  • Call up the ghost of its last victim to help you by whispering its secrets in your ear.
  • Use automatic writing to channel the lore of the Akashic Library into your pen and onto your page.
  • Ritually tune your eyes and mind so that when you next encounter the creature, you will just be able to tell.

Each of these options touches on at least one of the other categories, but they’re grouped here because they all do the same kind of thing. They help you to know something.

You can also use magic to make declarations. Assessments and declarations are, after all, two different ways of knowing something about something. With assessments, the GM tells you what he or she has decided the target is like. With declarations, you tell the GM what you’ve decided the target is like. As with mundane declarations, though, if you get greedy, you’re gonna get slapped down*.

Allow interaction with the supernatural.

Summoning demons, trapping faeries, communing with nature spirits, and channeling ghosts all fall into this category. So do exorcisms and mystical assaults against these creatures*. There are lots of beings that mortals just can’t see or interact with, and this category is all about breaking that restriction.

The most basic kinds of interaction we’re talking about here are things like summoning something, binding it to your service, and then dismissing it. So, if you wanted to put a genie into a bottle, this is what we’re talking about. Or if you want to call up an assassin demon and send it after your enemies. Or tempt some of the wee folk into a magic circle using pizza as bait, and then bargain with them for service.

Beyond that, though, there are other applications. The right kind of spell with the right kind of links can damage a demon itself, rather than the ectoplasmic body it’s built for itself to walk around in. It can allow you to touch a ghost physically or hear the complaints and secrets of the spirit of a house. You can use it to ghost-proof a room, or make all the invisible spirits in an area visible. And, in extremis, you can use it to drive the possessing demon out of the little girl before she eats her daddy.

As you can see, there’s a lot of overlap (as usual) with the other categories.

Shape magical energies into physical forms.

Now we get into things like brewing potions*, crafting wards, and conjuring swords*. It’s creating something from magic that has a lasting presence in the world and an impact on physicality. Yeah, it’s kinda fuzzy, but so are all the other categories. Really, what we’re looking at here is producing something from nothing, as far as game system is concerned. So, setting up an invisible wall of force that will seal a doorway for the night falls into this category, as does forming a suit of ectoplasmic armour to wear into battle. So, too, does making a magical booby trap, or creating a temporary body for a spirit to inhabit, or conjuring a feast out of the air.

This is potent stuff, and it has the same big catch that creating lasting change does: duration. Making something permanent from nothing is impossible; the magic maintaining the thing will naturally* decay as time passes, and dawn and dusk are important thresholds in the day that sap the strength of ongoing magical effects. Eventually, unless the caster spends time, effort, and energy to refresh the magic frequently, the spell will wear off and the conjured thing will go away. So, the armour vanishes, the sated guest becomes suddenly hungry again, the pile of gold melts away, and so on.

But if you really need a rope for a few minutes, or a plank across a chasm for thirty seconds, or an impressive mansion for the evening, this can do it for you.

How does it work?

The basic structure for thaumaturgy is the same as for evocation, but the emphasis on what’s going on – the interesting bits where the story gets played out – are different. With evocation, it’s all about the risk of walking that fine line between power and control, when your ass is on the line and you need to think hard about what you’re willing to risk to achieve your goals. With thaumaturgy, it’s all about the set-up and the story of the spell.

So, while the basic metaprocess of spellcasting is the same – form the spell construct, empower the spell construct, release the spell construct – the system for thaumaturgy focuses very heavily on the preparation for the spell.

Spell Construct Phase

The first step in using a thaumaturgic ritual is the same as in using an evocation: figure out what you want to do and how you want to do it. While the choices for evocation are somewhat limited, the wide variety of things that you can apply thaumaturgy to can be overwhelming. Don’t let it paralyze you; you don’t need to solve every problem with magic. When a good idea comes to you, go for it. When one doesn’t, let it go. If you really need to use magic and you don’t have an idea about how, talk to the other players and the GM. They may have suggestions.

Start with practicalities: what’s the goal? What are the obstacles? What would get you past the obstacles to the goal? Let those simple ideas guide your magic. If the goal is to get into the building and the obstacles are security guards and a security system, what gets you past them and into the building? Maybe invisibility. Maybe intangibility. Maybe a disguise. Maybe a quick shortcut through the Nevernever. Maybe a distraction like a demon materializing to slaughter the hapless mortals*.

The option you choose is another great chance to showcase who your character is and what sort of person he or she is. Your strengths are, of course, going to play a role in the choice – if you’re good at veils, invisibility is a solid choice, after all – but that’s just another way of revealing things about your character. The kind of person who is good at veils is different from the kind that’s good at demon summonings, for example.

Once you’ve got the effect and the method chosen, you have to figure out how tough the spell is to cast.

Determining Complexity

This is the most complex part of thaumaturgy, mechanically speaking. It’s the calculation of how difficult the spell is to cast and how much power it will require, which are the same number but mean different things. The complexity of the spell determines the power requirements, so let’s just talk about figuring out the complexity.

This is where you start looking back at the categories of thaumaturgic effect described above to determine what the mechanical effect of what you’re attempting with the ritual is going to be. Here’s how you work out the complexity:

  • If the spell is going to reproduce something that could be accomplished with skill use, the complexity is equal to the roll result that would be required with that skill. So, if you could climb up the side of a building with an Legendary (+8) Athletics roll, the complexity of a spell to get you quickly to the top of the building is 8.
  • If the spell is going to essentially perform a maneuver to add or remove an Aspect from a target, the complexity is equal to the defending skill of the target, with a minimum of 3. So, if you’re trying to open a Great (+4) lock with magic, then the complexity is 4. However, if the target is another character (or anything capable of an active defense), it gets a defense roll, so to make sure you land the maneuver, you have to increase the complexity to match the highest possible defense result. That means that, if you’re using a glue spell to make someone Stuck to the Floor, and they have Great (+4) Athletics, the complexity becomes 8 (4 for the Athletics, plus 4 for the maximum possible roll).
  • If you want to stick someone with a lingering Aspect – essentially, a consequence – the complexity has to exceed the defense skill plus the maximum roll, plus a number of extra shifts equal to the appropriate Stress Track, plus a number of extra shifts equal to the kind of consequence you want to inflict. So, if you wanted to cast an amnesia spell on someone with Good (+3) Conviction, the complexity becomes 17 (3 for the Conviction, plus 4 for the maximum roll, plus 4 more for the Stress Track, plus 6 for a severe consequence). Killing someone means you have to match the defense skill, plus the maximum roll, plus the Stress Track, plus every consequence, plus one to take the target out – complexity 29 for someone with Average (+1) Endurance.
  • If you’re creating something, the complexity is going to be equal to the quality of the item, plus any modifiers. So, throwing up a Superb (+5) ward for an hour* is complexity 5, or 7 if it covers an entire zone, or 10 if you want it to cover an entire zone for a full day.
  • If you’re doing any of the above but adding or removing some aspect of the effect, the complexity goes up or down, depending on the case you can make to the GM.

Now, if you’re trying to do something cool, you’re quickly going to see the complexity of the spell start to climb into double-digits. Don’t sweat it. You don’t need to roll to meet the complexity at any point; with enough preparation, any spellcaster can cast a spell of any complexity*.

Preparation Phase

Now that you have the complexity of the spell determined (and thereby the power requirement of the spell), you have to prepare the spell. In game-world terms, this is when you build the external, independent spell construct – the ritual, with all its paraphernalia and weird little requirements.

There is one thing you need to have to cast a thaumaturgic ritual, and that’s a symbolic link to your target. If you’re casting the power on yourself, then hey, easy. Otherwise, you need some sort of arcanely significant representation of the target – blood, hair, a picture, a map of the location, the true name, whatever. You must have a minimum of one symbolic link, or the spell cannot find the target. You can use more links if you want, and each of these is effectively a declaration, giving you an Aspect that you can tag for making up the Lore deficit, as described below.

The amount of preparation you need is based on the complexity in comparison to your Lore. If the complexity of the spell is equal to or lower than your Lore skill, you know all the tricks you need to know in order to pull the ritual off with the stuff you have in your pockets – you can move directly to the next phase. Of course, complexity scores for thaumaturgic rituals can quickly range up into double-digits, so that’s not always going to be an option.

When you have a deficit between your Lore skill and the complexity of the spell, you need to make it up before you can cast the spell. To do that, you need to go through the kinds of things that Harry goes through in the books in order to gain bonuses to your Lore. When Harry needs to cast a big spell, he spends time, talks to people who might be able to help, looks things up in books, ritually purifies himself, and buys strange and expensive ingredients, and that’s what you need to do, as well. Here’s how it works with the game mechanics:

  • Spend Fate Points. You can spend as many Fate Points as you like to invoke your Aspects to give you a +2 to your Lore. If you haven’t got any applicable Aspects*, you can spend a Fate Point to get a flat +1, as usual.
  • Take extra time. Having your character sit out a scene gives you a +1 to your Lore, as he or she is getting ready to cast the spell. There’s an interesting discussion about this on p262 of Your Story about the ramifications of this to player groups that you need to read before really considering this option.
  • Take consequences. Taking consequences gives you +1 to your Lore for every box of Stress the consequence would offset: +2 for a minor, +4 for a moderate, +6 for a severe, +8 for an extreme. This is some sort of self-sacrifice that you’re working into the casting of the spell. For physical consequences, the images are fairly obvious – blood sacrifice, flagellation, scarification, starvation, etc. Mental consequences can show how you short out your mind by trying to hold too much of the spell in your head, or maybe just indicate the extra effort you’re putting into the casting or the lack of sleep as you’ve been preparing. Social consequences get a little trickier, but I think that, if you’ve been putting together a spell that requires some unwholesome ingredients or acts, Arrested for Graverobbing could work, or maybe a Wild-Eyed Crazy Demeanor after spending all that time looking into forbidden books. The rules also suggest Oaths to other beings as a good way to boost your Lore – something like I Owe a Favour to Mab*.
  • Inflict consequences. You can get the same boost to your Lore skill by inflicting consequences on another being, whether they are willing or not. Note that this is a pretty dark route to go, even if the sacrifice is willing, and will probably have repercussions, but consider that killing another sentient being nets you +20 to your Lore skill for purposes of casting the spell – it can be a real temptation for the right kind of Wizard*.
  • Make declarations. This is really the meat of the thaumaturgy system – it lets you cast more powerful, cooler spells by coming up with cool stuff for the preparations. What you’re doing with this option is looking at your skills, and coming up with some interesting way that they can contribute to the spell. Then you roll on that skill, making a declaration to place a temporary Aspect on the spell that you can tag for a free Lore bonus. So, maybe you want to make a Lore skill roll to Research Sumerian Rituals, and then make a Resources skill roll to buy a Cuneiform Tablet to use in the ritual, and a Contacts skill roll to borrow some Shedu Blood from a friend, and top it all off with a Discipline roll to undergo a Purifying Meditation. Bang. You’ve just added +8 to your Lore skill for this ritual, as well as adding a bunch of cool details to it.

Once you’ve made up the deficit between your Lore skill and the complexity of the spell, you’re ready to move on to the next phase.

Drawing and Controlling Power Phase

Now that you’ve got the spell construct… er, constructed, it’s time to fill it with power. You need to draw in a number of shifts of power equal to the complexity of the spell, but you don’t need to draw it in all at once. Generally, you want to call in power equal to or less than your Conviction each turn of casting – calling in more does that pesky old Mental Stress, one point for every shift of power above your Conviction skill. Unlike evocation, though, you don’t take any Mental Stress if you keep the amount of power you channel each turn equal to or less than your Conviction skill.

The mechanic here is pretty simple: decide how many shifts of power you’re going to draw in a given turn, roll your Discipline score to try and control those shifts and, if successful, add them to the running tally of how much power is invested in the spell. When you’ve called and successfully controlled a number of shifts of power equal to the complexity rating of the spell, it goes off. Normally, there’s no targeting roll needed – you made sure it would hit the target when you set the complexity.

Of course, sometimes you don’t make that Discipline roll, and that can be bad.

When you fail a Discipline roll trying to control the shifts of power you’ve summoned on a given turn, all the power you’ve currently got gathered for the spell becomes uncontrolled. That can mean massive amounts of loose energy that you’ve got to figure out what to do with. If you let any of it go as fallout, the entire spell fails, period. So, in addition to maybe having the building collapse on you and your friends catching fire, the super-special escape spell didn’t get you out of there. The alternative is backlash, but considering you may be dealing with double-digit shifts of power, this is a good way to redecorate the walls with your brains. The upshot? BE CAREFUL.

Now, it’s not always that grim. If there’s no time pressure, there’s no need to roll. The GM just tells you how long it takes to cast the spell, and the spell goes off. This is probably going to be a longer time than if you had rolled, but no need to get impatient, right? Better slow and living than quick and dead.

The Story of the Spell

Thaumaturgic rituals can either be the most interesting, engaging part of the game, or it can be a quick bit of mechanical business that gets the characters from one bit of the story to the next. Which it’s going to be is going to depend on the needs of the game at the moment. If the spell itself isn’t really important, you can gloss over it pretty quickly and move on. Otherwise, you want to devote a little attention to it. That means telling the story of the spell.

Lenny Balsera posted this on the DFRPG site a couple of months ago, and it tells how he came to the idea of the story of the spells, and the impact it has on play. I can’t improve on what he says there, so just go read it.

The core of the idea is that what’s important in a thaumaturgic ritual is not the mechanical hoops you have to jump through or the dice you roll or even the way you work out the effect. What’s important for thaumaturgy is the impact casting the spell has on the story in the game. And not just whether the spell works or not; the entire process of attempting to cast the spell is important to the story – the things that the caster is willing and able to do to prepare, the way the effect is accomplished, the choices of how to build the ritual, the way he or she goes about casting it – all of it.

That’s where you should put your attention when someone starts talking thaumaturgy.

So, when you look at performing a thaumaturgic ritual, you need to think about a way to make the preparation you do fit into the story and say the things you want it to say. Look at the skills you’re using in the preparation phase, and string them together in a way that makes sense and adds cool to your character. If your Wizard bases his or her magic on the Enochian rituals of John Dee, then the preparations are going to be different from a Wizard following the ecstatic traditions of the Sufis, or a Wiccan practitioner – use this opportunity to set him or her apart and make the spell more interesting.

You want a great example of a story of preparation for a thaumaturgic ritual? Go see Iron Man 2. Watch Tony Stark put things into place to create the new element for his chest reactor*. He alienates his friends by keeping his secrets (takes a social consequence – Drove Friends Away), gets the box of his father’s stuff from SHIELD (Contacts, Messages From Dad), tries to get Pepper’s help (Rapport, Pepper’s Got My Back – failed!), finds the model of the expo (Alertness, The Secret of the Expo), guts his house to access the power and room he needs (Might, Remodeled To Death), buys or salvages the parts he needs from his expensive cars and other toys (Resources, Got Everything I Need), figures out the necessary element (Scholarship, New Element Template), puts together a particle accelerator (Scholarship, Kit-Bashed Particle Accelerator), and finally flips the power switch and lets it go.

That’s the kind of thing you’re striving for with a good thaumaturgic ritual preparation.

The Art of the Montage

Here’s the downside. It takes time, and focuses things strongly on the spellcaster for as long as it takes for the preparation and casting to play out. Sure, you can cut back and forth from the spellcaster to other characters, but it still effectively focuses the spotlight on one character for a significant amount of time. Especially because, if the characters have decided to eat a huge amount of time doing a ritual like this, everyone else is probably waiting for the outcome.

So as not to unbalance the spotlight time too much, it’s best to not run through every little bit of the preparation every time the spellcaster decides to trot thaumaturgy out. Take a tip from 80s action movies*, and use a montage. Just describe something you’re doing for preparation in a simple (but colourful) sentence, make your roll, and move on to the next item. Imagine a power ballad playing over the short cuts of your character going from task to task.

Of course, there are some situations where you want to focus the game on the preparation and casting of a ritual spell. In those cases, go for it. Roleplay all the preparation scenes, delve into the difficulties encountered along the way, and revel in it. Make it a set of scenes that everyone in the game is going to remember and talk about.

Conversely, there will be some situations where you don’t even want to spend the time it takes to do the montage approach. Maybe it’s a simple spell that the caster has done many times before, with no really dramatic outcome, and no time pressure. How do you handle the preparation then? Well, just say it all works and the spell goes off. Forget even rolling. Just take it as read that the spell works as described, and move on with the game.

The key here is to give the spell as much story as is good for the overall story, and no more. Deal only with the things that are going to matter, and drive on. But when it’s interesting and makes a good addition to the story, throw yourself into it.

Using Thaumaturgy Effectively

Those are the pieces that make up the thaumaturgy system, along with some comments on how they fit together and how to use them in play. Now for some thoughts about how to get the most out of thaumaturgy for your character. I want to be clear, here; I’m coming at this from the viewpoint of the GM – I’ve never actually been a player in a DFRPG session. These are just the things I’ve picked up from my reading of the system and running it from the other side of the screen. But they’re things that I think will hold true for most campaigns, subject to the whims of the GM.

Prepare as a player.

Because of the wide range of things you can do with thaumaturgy, it can get overwhelming to use it in play. And if you don’t use it in play, then you’ve wasted 3 Refresh and surrendered a huge amount of flexibility and functionality for your character. The best way to make sure you’re not paralyzed by choice is to do a little homework as a player to build in some options for your character. Here are some tips:

  • Work out a selection of rituals that your character might want to use beforehand. Can’t come up with anything? Look at the story bits you wrote for your character during character creation – especially the novels – and pull some ideas from there. Figure everything out at leisure, including working out all the math you need, what you’re going to do for preparation, and so on. Write it down and build a spell book. Add to the spell book, putting in the new spells you work out during play.
  • Take a look at your list of skills, and figure out a way each one can help you prepare for a ritual. Write it down and put it with your spell book. Add to it as you come up with new ideas, and keep updating it. In addition to this giving you a range of options for the preparation phase, it lets you look for ways to express themes in your magic and the way you practice it.
  • Work out your bonuses for different types of thaumaturgy, based on your focus items and refinements, in advance. Keep it up-to-date as your character advances.
  • Look at your specialties in thaumaturgy and make a quick list of some neat things you think you’d like to do with that ability. Keep expanding the list, and every now and then convert one of the ideas into a fully-worked up ritual for your spell book.

These things will accomplish two different goals: first, it will give you a bunch of pre-built stuff that you can use in play when you’re out of ideas or you don’t want to spend a whole bunch of time agonizing over what to do; and second, it will build your confidence and skill in using the system on the fly.

Think outside the box.

You can accomplish pretty much anything with thaumaturgy if you’re creative enough. So get creative. Look to your specialties for the obvious starting points in coming up with ideas, but look for ways that you can apply them to effects that may, at first, appear to be out-of-bounds.

Let’s say you want to curse someone, sticking them with the Real Bad Luck Aspect. You can do that by messing with the laws of probability if that’s your specialty, or you can do it by summoning a demon to interfere with the target at inopportune moments if that’s something you’re better at. You can conjure and interrogate a ghost for information if you’ve got a specialty in ectomancy, or you can enter a trance and access the Akashic Record if you’ve got a specialty in psychic magic.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again*: the measure of a Wizard is not how powerful they are, but how creative they get with what they’ve got*.

Take your time.

If you have no time pressure when casting, then you’re being foolish or cocky if you summon enough power in a given turn that you can fail the control roll. If your Discipline is Good (+3) or lower, of course, then you always have to make the Discipline roll, but if you’re Discipline is Great (+4) or higher, then you can summon a number of shifts completely safely each turn.

Do that.

Aside from its broad range of effects, the big advantage to thaumaturgy is that it hurts less to cast properly than evocation – if you do it right, you take no Mental Stress. However, it can be far, far worse if you fail, because suddenly you have to deal with all the power you’ve summoned into the spell up to that time. That can mean dealing with double-digits of uncontrolled power sloshing around messing the place up..

Now, if you’ve got to rush, then take the biggest risks earliest, when a failure will have the least amount of power to ruin your day. As you go on, drop the number of shifts each round to minimize your risk.

Let’s look at the odds* of things going badly. Assume you need 10 shifts of power and you’ve got a Discipline of Great (+4).

  • If you’ve got the time to go 1 shift per round, then you’ve got no chance of failing. Yay!
  • If you’ve only got 3 rounds to pull the spell off, and you summon power in blocks of 3 – 3 – 4, then you have an 18.5% chance of sucking up 3 shifts of power on a failure, an 18.5% chance of sucking up 6 shifts of power on a failure, and a 38.3% chance of sucking up 10 shifts of power on a failure.
  • If, under the same circumstances, you summon power in blocks of 4 – 3 – 3, then you have a 38.3% chance of taking 4 shifts, an 18.5% chance of taking 7 shifts, and an 18.5% chance of taking 10 shifts.

Those odds speak for themselves.

Sometimes, magic isn’t the right answer.

Thaumaturgy is wide-ranging, powerful tool kit, but sometimes it’s not the best solution. Don’t ignore the other facets of your character in favour of relying on spellcasting. Harry carries a revolver and keeps his contacts happy with him. He knows when to use divinatory magic and when to ask Karrin Murphy to look someone up for him. Keep in mind that, though magic is probably central to your character, it is not the solution to every problem.

Combat Thaumaturgy

One of the main distinctions between thaumaturgy and evocation is that evocation is combat magic. But thaumaturgy can be combat magic, too, as long as you can perform it all within the confines of a conflict scene. There is, in fact, something deeply cool about the idea of a Wizard scrambling to pull together a ritual amid a nasty firefight, with his or her companions fighting desperately to provide the needed time.

If you’re looking at doing this, there are a few things you need to keep in mind. First, the casting time of a thaumaturgic ritual is going to be dependent on how fast you can summon the necessary power, which means how big a risk you’re taking trying to control the power. Budget wisely.

Second, if you’re coming up with the ritual in the middle of a conflict scene, you’ve really got to keep an eye on the complexity. If you need to do any preparation, it’s going to take time, as you get ready to cast the spell, and some options may just not be available because of the circumstances. Of course, you can by-pass this by doing some preparation beforehand that can give you Aspects suitable for magic that you can attach to whatever ritual you start to put together. This is subject to GM approval, but it can work pretty much the same way as the preparation tips I gave for evocation.

And there you have my thoughts on thaumaturgy. Hope it was useful.


What’s Next

So, I’m not sure what people would like to see here next. I’ve got some ideas for a few different posts:

  • Math and Miscellany, where I talk about how to calculate your various bonuses to power, complexity, and control, and deal with some of the corner-cases of magic rules, like The Sight, crafting, and hexing.
  • The Grimoire, where I walk through building a few evocations and thaumaturgic rituals.
  • Preparation Cheat Sheet, where I look at ways to use each of the skills to help make up the deficit between Lore and the complexity of a thaumaturgic ritual.
  • Something Else, where you’re tired of me wonking on about the spellcasting system and would rather read me wonking on about something else having to do with the game. And just what might that be?

If you’ve got a preference for one or another of the above topics, please feel free to post it in the comments section.

*If the GM lets you, of course. Back

*Well, it cares about the time thing, sort of. Back

*As long as you’ve got a sympathetic link to it. Back

*And, being a GM myself, I will laugh. Back

*Pretty much the same thing. Back

*Though this is really handled by a sort of subsystem in crafting that I’m going to talk about another time. Back

*Although there’s a good paragraph on p275 of My Story as to why this last idea is not always a good plan. Back

*Or supernaturally. It is magic, after all. Back

*Probably not this one, unless it’s that kind of game.Back

*Durations are a little slippery. It’s ripe ground for negotiation between the spellcaster and the GM as to how long a ward would last as a default duration. Back

*In theory, anyway. The higher the complexity climbs, the more power you’re going to need to gather, and the more rolls that’s going to take, which increases the odds of rolling that disastrous failure on the control roll that lets 30 shifts of power loose in your immediate vicinity. But no guts, no glory, right? Back

*And really, why wouldn’t you? Didn’t you read this post? Back

*But really, who’d go THAT crazy? Right, Harry? Back

*This is, of course, a violation of the First Law of magic. Inflicting Mental or Social consequences may be violations of the Third or Fourth Laws. Back

*Okay, some may be arguing that this is science and not ritual magic, but he still has to assemble all the items and information he needs before he can perform the ritu… I mean, experiment… that lets him do something impossible. I stand by my assessment. Whether you call it magic or science, this is a near-textbook example of the idea of the story of the spell. Back

*Is there anything we can’t learn from 80s action movies? No, there isn’t. Back

*Harry’s said it, too. Back

*And doing the unexpected is the most fun in play, I find. Back

*Odds are pulled from this site. Back

Lucky Origins Folks…

Today The Dresden Files RPG debuts at Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio. While I have had .pdfs of the books for some months, now, I still covet the physical things fiercely. My preorder is in, and I’m checking my mail eagerly every day.

So, those of you who manage to make it down to booth #418 and pick up your copies from the guys at Evil Hat, please take a moment amid your reveling and your gloating to spare a thought for those of us still waiting for our books.

Try not to cackle too maniacally.

And then look up my name in the index.

Evocation, or How to Blow Stuff Up: Magic in DFRPG, Part Two

Last time, I talked at a high level about the nature and process of magic in DFRPG, both in the game world and in the game mechanics. This time, I’m going to take a closer, more detailed look at evocation – what it can do and how it works.

What is evocation?

This is the magic of the fire blast, of the force shield, of the earthquake and the tidal wave and the tornado – magic tied to the power of the elements.

Evocation is the brute force, quick-and-dirty application of magic. It happens fast – in a single round – so you don’t get to apply a lot of finesse, and you don’t get to draw on outside power sources. That makes it somewhat limited in what you can do with it, and also very draining to use. With evocation, you grab hold of a big* chunk of power and slam it into the shape you want, holding it there through pure force of will.

It can be very effective combat magic – indeed, it’s pretty much the only magic that can be cast in combat* – and a Wizard with decent Conviction and Discipline scores can do more damage than a howitzer. Or take the damage a howitzer dishes out.

But only for a little while. Then he or she needs to have a little lie-down.

What can you do with it?

In the novels, Harry points out time and again that the true measure and power of a Wizard is not his magical ability. It’s his knowledge, his resourcefulness, and his creativity. This is a theme that carries over into the game in a big way, and I was very pleased to see it.

On the surface, evocation looks pretty limited in what you can accomplish with it: you can use it to attack, block, perform a maneuver, or counterspell*. Each of these things, though, has some surprising depth to the variations available. It’s not four things that you can do; it’s four categories of things.


Attacking is taking the energy you can conjure and hitting someone with it. It is the second most limited use of evocation, and the most straightforward. Scoop up a brainful of fire, and rub it in somebody’s face. Your goal with an evocation attack, as with any attack, is to damage your opponent. As I mentioned in a previous post, however, while attacks are necessary in combat, you shouldn’t just keep blasting away at your opponent until he, she, or it goes down. Given the cost in Mental Stress to using evocations, this is doubly true for magical attacks like this.

But there are some interesting variations you can throw on your attack. You can spend shifts of power to turn it into an area attack, blasting everyone within a zone, or you can split your shifts of power and targeting roll between multiple opponents, to only damage enemies. This gives you some very flexible firepower, letting you zap everyone or only select folks.

The big deal with evocation attacks, however, is their damage potential. Putting together a Weapon:7 attack with your primary element is pretty easy to do, and that’s roughly twice the power of a shotgun blast to the face, in game terms. It outdoes a claymore mine. And if you tweak your build properly and have the Fate Points, one or two Weapon :11 attacks aren’t out of the question – you’ll just pay for them.

Keep in mind, also, that attacks don’t necessarily have to be physical. Spirit evocations, in particular, are well-suited to attacking the Mental Stress track of an opponent, but I’ll talk a little more about this when we get to the elements.


Blocking is taking the energy you can conjure and sticking it in something’s way. You can block an incoming attack, or an individual creature’s actions, or seal off an area to prevent anyone going in, or do pretty much anything that involves you using power to actively interfere with what someone else is doing. The key to a block is that you’re trying to prevent something.

Blocks have a little more variety in implementation than attacks: you can do the same sort of thing where you try to cover an entire zone, or where you split the result among different targets, but you can also convert the block to armour, extend its duration beyond the instantaneous, and even use it to interfere with non-physical things, like perception.

So, Harry’s force shield is a block. Molly’s veil is a block. Harry’s armoured duster is a block. Wrapping someone in ghosts to prevent them from moving is a block. Putting up a mental defense to keep someone from messing with your brain is a block. Putting fire in the doorway to prevent someone from leaving is a block.

And, like attacks, the strength of the block is determined by how much power you channel into it. You’re probably going to be spending more shifts on extras for blocks than you do for attacks, but you can still throw up a pretty effective shield for a few rounds without instantly frying your brain.



Performing a maneuver is taking the energy you can conjure and using it to change something around you in a relatively non-invasive way. This is really using evocation to jockey for advantage in combat, either by removing an impediment to you or by imposing an impediment on your opponent. That means adding an Aspect to or removing an Aspect from your target.

Maneuvers are where evocation really opens up, and your creativity can work wonders. The huge variety of things that can be maneuvers is limited only by the imagination and the creativity of the spell caster, and is another chance for the player to express his or her character.

Basic maneuvers are pretty cheap, power-wise. You need at least three shifts of power for the maneuver to work – more if the target has an opposing rating of Great (+4) or higher. If you’re not targeting another character, the amount of power you’ll need will be something of a judgement call on the part of the GM, but the guidelines are pretty lenient.

You can use your excess power for a number of nice little customizations: affecting an entire zone, affecting multiple targets, and making the Aspect sticky, for example. It can get pretty easy to rack up the shifts you need if you get greedy, though, so it’s not always a good idea to pour everything into a single maneuver.

On the other hand, every maneuver costs at least one point of Mental Stress, so if your Discipline can handle it, you might as well pull in a number of shifts equal to your Conviction and use the extra shifts to add some extras. It all costs the same, up to that point, so the only thing you need to worry about is making your control roll.

Just as I mentioned in the post on combat, maneuvers are where you can realize big gains for your efforts. With evocation, though, you are limited by that Mental Stress cost, so you need to be careful.


Counterspelling is taking the energy you conjure and using it to attack the structure of another spell. It’s really just a special case for the attack action, but is broken out on its own because it can only be targeted at a magical effect, and it can only make that effect go away.

It works just like an attack spell, except what you’re trying to do is call up enough shifts of power that you can overwhelm the shifts of power in the effect you’re attacking. This is an all-or-nothing kind of thing: either you wipe the spell out, or nothing happens. It works on all types of magic, but the time needed to perform it is (slightly) longer than most other evocations, so it’s not going to be very useful to dispel the fireball that the sorcerer has just launched at your head.

Well, you can try, I guess. The catch is that, unless you take a second to make an assessment on the spell you’re targeting, you’re just guessing how much power is needed. If you you don’t call up at least as many shifts of power as are in the targeted spell, you’ve just wasted your time and some of your energy. And if you call up too much, you’ve got the standard control issues. You can make an assessment roll as a free action using your Lore to tell how many shifts of power you’ll need, but that takes a split second, and by then your eyebrows are gone.

So, for the most part, you’re going to be using counterspells against ongoing effects, like blocks or maneuvers or thaumaturgical effects.

Counterspells only do one thing, but they do it very well.

How does it work?

So, that’s what you can do. How do you do it? Well, I covered the basics last time, but let’s go through things in a little more detail.

Spell Construct Phase

First you need to decide what you want to do and how to do it. Within the game world, this is essentially creating the spell construct in your mind. Within the game, you pick whether you want to attack, block, maneuver, or counterspell, and what element you’re using. You also get to decide on the jazz of the effect: what it looks like, what you do to make it happen, things like that.

The jazz is important – don’t neglect it. It may not necessarily have a game effect*, but you should play it up because it gives you a few seconds to spotlight your character and the way he or she does things. Use the opportunity to add cool to your character. Keep in mind all the variations that you want on the spell, and what sort of dramatic impact you want it to make as you describe what you’re trying to do. Sweeping a wave of flame over a mob of goblins looks and feels very different, and is different mechanically, than targeting a dragon with a focused beam of pure righteous anger.

Drawing Power Phase

Once you know what you want to do, you need to calculate the power you’re going to need. For evocations, this is generally pretty easy: maneuvers require three shifts minimum, plus whatever extra shifts you want to add to make it harder to resist, or make the Aspect last longer. Everything else, the power is split between the power of the effect (as weapon or block rating) and any extras you’re adding, like multiple targets or longer duration.

Mechanically, this is the most complex part of casting an evocation, as you try and balance the amount of power you can channel without hurting yourself (determined by Conviction) versus the amount of power you can easily control (determined by Discipline and a dice roll) versus how much stamina you have (determined by your Mental Stress track and consequences) versus how much power you need (determined by what you’re trying to accomplish).

Controlling Power and Targeting Phase

Once you commit to the amount of power you’re using and how it’s going to be split, you make a Discipline roll to control the power. You need the roll to meet or exceed the number of shifts of power that you’re using – failing means that some or all of the shifts of power are uncontrolled. The amount of uncontrolled power is the difference between the roll you needed* and the result of the roll. So, if you’re channeling a Great amount of power (4 shifts), and the result of your Discipline roll is Average (+1), you’ve got three shifts of uncontrolled power.

This is where things can really start to hurt*.

You get to decide what to do with the uncontrolled shifts of power. One option is to take backlash, where the energies rip through you, but you manage to focus them into the spell anyway, getting the result you want. You also take a hit to either your Mental or Physical stress track equal to the number of uncontrolled shifts of power – in this case, a three-point hit. While you get to choose which track you take the hit on, you can’t split the hit between tracks. You can, of course, take consequences as usual to offset the stress hit partially or entirely. The power still goes into the spell, however; you get the result you wanted, but it cost you a little more than you had planned on.

A second option is to let the power spill out of you as fallout, running loose in the area around you, messing with your stuff. You take no damage*, but the environment isn’t so lucky. What you’re doing here is handing the uncontrolled shifts of power to your GM, making puppy-dog eyes, and racking your brain to try and remember if you’ve done anything especially upsetting to him or her recently. The GM gets to decide how to apply the power, maybe by sticking nasty Aspects on the scene and your allies, or maybe just applying stress to unintended targets. But not to you. No, you had your chance to be all self-sacrificing, and you gave it up – now you get to watch others pay the price. The power of the spell is also reduced by the amount of uncontrolled power you let loose as fallout, so it’s going to work less well, if at all, on top of everything else. With three shifts of uncontrolled power, the GM has enough to put an Aspect on the scene or a character (need 3 shifts for a maneuver), or blast another character with a 3-stress hit*, or even targeting all characters in the zone with a 1-stress hit (1 shift of power for a Weapon:1 attack, 2 shifts to target the zone).

The third option is to split the amount of uncontrolled power between the two options, taking some as backlash and giving some away as fallout. This gives you most of the disadvantages of both choices, without all of the benefits, but sometimes it’s the way you have to go to keep the spell power from falling below a minimum threshold, or because you can only absorb so much damage before dropping, or any number of other reasons. You get to decide how to split the uncontrolled shifts of power, and this can be a pretty important decision.

It’s also another opportunity to show what kind of person your character is.

But enough about failure. What about success? Well, if your Discipline roll is successful, you control the power and you get the spell off, and it works the way you want it to. For attacks and maneuvers, this Discipline roll is also the targeting roll* – your result is the difficulty that the target has to beat with a defense roll to avoid the effects of the spell. If they can beat your targeting roll, they effectively get out of the way and the attack or maneuver fails. If they can’t beat it, you hit them with the spell, and they get stuck with the Aspect or take damage from the attack.


Calculating damage from a spell is the same as calculating the damage from any other weapon, with one little twist: the weapon rating is based on the shifts of power in the spell. So, if you use 4 shifts of power in the attack, you’re attacking with a Weapon:4. The formula for damage is:

targeting roll in shifts – defense roll in shifts + weapon rating

So, if your targeting roll is Great (+4), and the defense roll is Fair (+2), and you’re using a Weapon:3 (3 shifts of power in the evocation), you do a total of (4-2+3) 5 shifts of damage. That means a 5-stress hit to the target, which is enough to get anyone’s attention.



Rotes deserve special mention. These are spells that your character has learned well enough that he or she can essentially cast them in his or her sleep. What this means in the game world is that the character has the spell so thoroughly practiced that he or she can fling it off with but a thought, and with almost no effort.

In game terms, you never have to make a Discipline roll to control the power of a rote. It’s assumed that you’ve rolled a 0 on the dice, so you automatically control a number of shifts of power equal to your Discipline. This is a valuable resource, so pick your rotes wisely – you only get a number of rotes equal to your Lore skill rating. I suggest trying to pick an attack rote, a block rote, and a couple of maneuver rotes. That gives you a nice arsenal of combat magic that you can rely on.

With rote attacks, you still need to make a Discipline roll to target the spell, so it’s not all gravy – a rote spell does not guarantee a hit.


So, I mentioned earlier that evocation is tied to the elements. Elements are really just the physical* manifestations of the power you’re tossing around with evocation – as the rules say, it’s hard to visualize using the ramifications of thermonuclear force to harm a target, but easy to visualize a blast of flame burning someone. Because magic exists first and primarily in the mind of the spellcaster, they tend to categorize the forces they’re playing with in easy-to-conceptualize forms, thus being able to pull off a quick attack or block without having to parse from an abstract equation to a concrete effect.

Most spellcasters use the standard Greek elements: air, earth, fire, water, and spirit. There is a note in the rules, though, talking about how some casters use concepts based on other traditions: Listens To Wind probably uses elemental associations based on the Native American medicine wheel concepts, and Ancient Mai probably uses one of the Chinese elemental groupings. There’s no reason your character can’t use a different set of elements and associations, too – subject, as always, to GM approval.

What you’re looking for in a set of elements is a combination of physical manifestation – fire is gouts of flame, air is blasts of wind, etc. – with a range of non-physical associations – fire is purification, air is motion, etc. The write-up of the various elements in Your Story covers the five Greek elements very nicely, showing what you can and can’t do with them. This is the kind of detail you want to establish if you’re using a different set of elements.

One thing to keep in mind with elements is that there are multiple ways to interpret and parse the same effect for different elements. Lightning, as a sidebar in the rulebook points out, can reasonably be created using air or earth, and in Storm Front, Harry associates it with fire, so you’ve got three of five elements covering it. If you want to freeze water, you can do it using water evocation, or fire evocation to draw all the heat from it, or earth or air to apply cold to it. If you want something to explode, fire can do that, but so can the erosive power of water working on the forces holding the object together, or air expanding inside it, or earth causing the polarities of the molecular bonds to repel each other, or spirit causing the anima of the components to fly apart.

Thinking of creative ways to use your elemental powers to perform a wide range of effects is a fun exercise in creativity and tactics. It also can tell people a lot about your character: someone who just uses fire to burn things is different from someone who uses fire to heal by sterilizing a wound. As I’ve pointed out before, Harry says often enough in the books that the real measure of a Wizard is his or her knowledge and resourcefulness, so look for ways to apply the tools you have to the problem at hand.

Using Evocation Effectively

Everything above makes evocation look pretty straightforward, and it is. But there are some important things to remember when using evocation, and some non-intuitive things you can do to maximize the effectiveness of your spells.

Watch Your Mental Stress

This is the battery that powers your evocations, and you take a minimum 1-stress hit every time you use an evocation. If you’ve got a Great (+4)
Conviction skill – not unreasonable in a spellcaster character – you can toss out a maximum four evocations in a single combat without having to worry about consequences. This number goes down if you pull in more power on any of your evocations than your Conviction rating. That’s a tough limiting factor, so you need to be aware of it.

Good news is that, if you have a little time after using an evocation to catch your breath, the stress goes away. Consequences will take longer, so that’s another factor that you have to budget carefully.

Bad news is that fallout can really drain your battery quickly if you take the hits to the Mental Stress track. It’s very worthwhile considering dumping fallout damage into the Physical Stress track to keep your Mental Stress track available for pumping out the magics. Of course, in the middle of combat, you may have other things eating up your Physical Stress boxes, so it’s a delicate balancing act.

Every time you look at using an evocation, you have to make sure you get the biggest bang you can out of it, because you only get to toss a few around before things start looking grim for the home team. So husband them, using them when they’ll do the most good.

Don’t Neglect the Non-Physical Correspondences of Your Elements

Fire is great for purifying, water is great for eroding, earth is great for strengthening, air is great for thinking, and spirit is great for emotions. Any of these can be used in non-physical form as an evocation – attack, block, maneuver, or counterspell. In particular, look for opportunities to attack physically tough opponents in their Mental Stress track – it’s likely less robust than their physical one. It’s also a good place to kick enemy spellcasters – they probably have better mental defenses, but any hit takes away some of the battery they can use to attack you back with evocation.

Attacking someone’s Mental Stress track is a good way to avoid an accidental First Law violation: you’re less likely to kill someone that way. But you need to be careful about the type of attack to avoid a Third or Fourth Law violation. This can have unpleasant consequences for your character, though it can also provide some interesting drama and roleplaying.


If you’ve got some time before going into battle, gird your loins. Take a little time to employ some maneuvers to stick Aspects on yourself that you can use in the combat to come. This is a common stock scene in books and movies, and works great as a little montage over the soundtrack of your favourite ’80s power ballad. Some suggestions:

  • Assemble a pouch of little charms that can help your spellcasting. Resources skill to add the Aspect: Magic Charms.
  • Spend a little time ritually purifying yourself. Discipline skill to add the Aspect: Ritually Purified.
  • Paint warding runes and sigils on your hands and face. Lore skill to add the Aspect: Runes of Warding.
  • Scout the battlefield. Stealth skill to add the Aspect: I Know the Terrain.
  • Do some research on your opponent. Scholarship to add the Aspect: I Know Their Tricks.

These give you some nice free invocations to use when you need them in combat, making sure that when you use one of your precious and limited evocations, it’s more likely to be worth it.

In addition, it’s not a bad idea to use some thaumaturgic rituals to enhance your effectiveness. Veils, armour, enchanted weapons, a bandoleer of potions, and so forth, can go a long way to making sure you’re ready for anything.

Maneuver, Maneuver, Maneuver

Evocation maneuvers cost Mental Stress just like every other evocation, but mundane maneuvers cost you nothing but time. Come up with maneuvers in combat to help you land your evocations and maximize their impact. Some examples:

  • Snatch a lock of an opponent’s hair to provide a magical link to your target. Fists, Athletics, or Weapons skill to add the Aspect: Sympathetic Targeting Link.
  • Do a mystical medicine dance to attract the attention of the spirits and help you. Performance skill to add the Aspect: Favour of the Manitou.
  • Use mystic gestures to carefully weave the spell energy into the form you need. Athletics skill to add the Aspect: Arcane Arm-Waving.
  • Shout the names of powerful beings that you have uncovered in your studies to supercharge your spell. Lore skill to add the Aspect: Power of the Secret Names.
  • Sneak up behind your target. Stealth skill to add the Aspect: Blindsided.

Don’t Forget Your Fate Points

If you’ve had time to prepare and are taking time in battle to perform maneuvers, you probably have a number of Aspects you can tag for free on a given turn. Sometimes, though, you really need to push an attack over the top, and that’s where Fate Points come in. Failed evocations can really deplete the resources of your character, what with the cost to even attempt them and the potential fallout and backlash, and the limited number of evocations you can cast in a given combat. If nothing else is going to work, spending a Fate Point to avoid that sort of loss is a good choice. Or if you think that bolstering this evocation is going to really make the difference in the fight.

Pick Your Battles

Sometimes, the fight just isn’t worth unleashing your magic, either because the enemy can be fairly easily defeated by mundane means, or you know there’s a tougher battle coming up, or you’re fighting normal mortals and don’t want to risk killing them. It’s a good idea to have a mundane fighting skill or two to fall back on, and to know when it’s time to run away and avoid a battle that is just going to deplete your resources without really advancing the plot or your goals.

And if you can’t run away, but you don’t want to fight, and can’t afford to waste your magic, concede. I know, it goes against all the instincts of the experienced gamer to just say, “I give up. You win.” But if you’ve taken a consequence or two in the fight up to that point, you get Fate Points, and you also get to decide how you lose. Maybe, if you’ve been fighting your way through mooks to get to the big bad, conceding is the way to get captured and presented to the boss, giving you a chance to blast him or her without having exhausted yourself on the minions.

So, that’s a pretty detailed look at evocation. We’re pushing 5000 words with this post, so I’m gonna stop writing now. Next time, I’ll talk about thaumaturgy.

*Or not so big, depending on what you want to do and what your capabilities are. Back

*I’m going to do some talking about combat thaumaturgy in the next post in this series. Back

*There’s a section in the marginalia of the rules where Billy suggests using it to move, but Harry points out some pretty telling flaws in that plan. I could see allowing spellcasters to do it, but it’s pretty much a last-ditch, hail-Mary thing that’s gonna end badly. Back

*Though it could, if you roll well and your GM is benevolent. Or if you roll poorly and your GM is… less benevolent. Back

*That is, the number of shifts of power you called. Back

*Though, to be fair, not as much as if you failed a control roll with a thaumaturgic ritual. Back

*Well, not directly, anyway. But being stuck in a collapsing building can certainly present opportunities for more damage to come your way. Back

*If the GM is feeling benevolent, the target may get a defense roll. Or not. As one playtest character’s Aspect puts it, A Wizard’s Mistakes Are Big And Messy. Back

*Why is Discipline pressed into double-duty as both the control of the power and the targeting roll rather than something like Athletics or Weapons or Guns? I can think of three reasons:

  1. Mechanically, it eliminates another roll in the spellcasting process, thus speeding up play in one of the more complex pieces of system.
  2. Also mechanically, Wizards already need to have three fairly high skills: Conviction, Discipline, and Lore. Adding another skill as a targeting skill makes it significantly harder for Wizards to have a variety and range of skills, as they would need to optimize a fourth skill to make their character effective in their (supposedly) core competencies.
  3. Story-wise, it’s just cooler to have the Wizard guiding the blast of fire with the force of his or her will.


*Things are slightly less simple with attacking multiple targets, but the essence remains the same. Back

*Or not so physical, in some cases. Back

Mystic Theory 101: Magic in DFRPG, Part One

Spellcasting is easily the most complex part of The Dresden Files RPG. This should come as no surprise; the game is based on a series of books about Wizard, and the books are full of all the cool things Harry does with magic. To be true to the source material, the game needs to model that kind of play.

The complexity arises from the flexibility of the system. If you want to be able to do everything that Harry does in the books, you need a system that can be twisted and bent to accomplish anything. That means it needs a robust backbone, so it can bend without breaking, and components that can be adapted to any situation the players come up with. This means that designers are left with a limited range of choices in how to implement the system:

  • Come up with sub-systems for each possible application of magic.
  • Use a very high-level system, where the GM and the players make all the calls with minimal rules.
  • Find a middle ground, where there’s enough mechanical support to let the GM and players share an understanding of the capabilities of the system, but few enough rules that they can be mastered.

Evil Hat went with the third option, using a mechanic that can be adapted to a wide variety of situations, and tons of examples to help show how to do that. I think it was a good choice, and it results in a good mechanic.

But it also results in a lot of reading for spellcasting types. And while the language they use is very precise, the distinctions between some of the terms can get lost in the fog.

Over the next few posts, I’m going to talk extensively about spellcasting in this game, with the goal of demystifying the concepts, process, and mechanics. I’m going to start talking about theory, both in-world and in-game, so that the terms are clearly defined. Then, I’m going to move on to evocation, and finally thaumaturgy. At the end of those three topics, I may post a few spells, showing how they were created and what decisions were made along the way, but only if there’s a demand for it.

So. Let’s get going with theory.

In-World Magic Theory

Magic in the Harry Dresden books is structured and codified – that’s how you get Wizards. Jim Butcher does a good job of laying out the ideas behind spellcasting, so that you can get a solid grip on what magic does and doesn’t do, and the mechanism behind it. I’m starting with looking at this in-world theory of magic, because it’s important to know what the system is trying to model before we start looking at the model.

Note that I’m using a number of terms in this section that will show up in the in-game section, but the definitions in the in-game section are far more precise than the usage in-world. So, in this section, when I’m talking about complexity, I’m talking about how complicated something is. In the next section, when I’m talking about complexity, I’m talking about a very specific game term.

All magic in the game is basically shaping energy to work your will. That means you need two things to work magic: energy, and your will. You use them in concert to create a change in the world that you want to see*.

The high-level process is the same for all types of spells, as follows:

  1. Form the spell construct.
  2. Summon the energy into the spell construct.
  3. Release the spell construct.

Wizards break down spellcasting into two categories – evocation and thaumaturgy – but really, casting both has the same high-level process. It’s just the details that differ, and that’s really the function of the complexity of the spell construct.

Forming the spell construct

A spell construct is a pattern that will produce a change in the world in accordance with the spellcaster’s will once it has been empowered. It is a pattern of thought and symbolism bolstered by the spellcaster’s will that serves as a receptacle and template for the energy that will be used. Simple spell constructs can be held in the Wizard’s mind, enhanced by simple tools such as words, gestures, wands, rings, etc. More complex ones are too difficult to be held internally, so they rely on more symbolic tools, like magic circles, candles, lengthy chants, ritual dances, external power sources, and the like.

The simple spell constructs that can be contained within the Wizard’s mind entirely are generally evocations: they are quick, use minimal tools, and accomplish a very simple thing, which is pushing raw energy around. More complex spell constructs are generally thaumaturgy: they require more time, rituals, and special components, but can accomplish more varied effects, and more powerful ones.

Building a spell construct is half of what spellcasting training is about. Whether it’s being able to hold a simple form in the mind to channel a blast of fire through, or knowing the elemental correspondences of different colours and gemstones, these are the tools the caster learned in training, and the pieces that he or she uses to build the spell construct. Some simple constructs, called rotes, are so well-practiced that the spellcaster can form them with hardly any thought at all, while more more complex constructs may require research and preparation to assemble properly.

The more complex the spell construct, the more energy is required to fully activate it, and the more far-reaching effects it can have.

Summoning the energy into the spell construct

Once the spellcaster has created the spell construct, it must be empowered with energy for it to have an effect. Energy has to come from somewhere, and calling in and controlling energy from various sources is what the other half of spellcasting training is about. If the caster is in a hurry, he or she can use his or her own energy, but this can exhaust the caster in short order. The energy of a single human body is generally all needed to keep the body functioning properly*, so using too much is not a good thing. This is why fast evocations tend to be so tiring for the spellcaster.

With more time, the spellcaster can draw in energy from other sources: the environments, special components, ley lines, energy from other living beings*, or even just trickle his or her own energy in at a speed that allows it to replenish itself without so rapidly depleting the caster. Complex, external spell constructs can contain the energy as it comes in over time, often within a magic circle, allowing the spellcaster to take longer to supply the requisite energy.

This is another place where the difference between evocation and thaumaturgy differ. The simple spell construct of an evocation doesn’t require a lot of energy to empower, but you can funnel as much energy as you care to risk through it and out into the world. Complex spell constructs, like thaumaturgy rituals, are so precise that they need a very specific amount of energy to enact, calculated by the spellcaster when he or she creates the construct.

Drawing and controlling energy can be tricky, and this is where Wizards can wind up blowing themselves (and their surroundings) right to hell*. If the spellcaster’s concentration falters, or if he or she has tried to use too much energy too quickly, he or she can lose control. The caster can then either let the energy escape into the world, usually with destructive (or at least inconvenient) consequences, or they can try and contain it, letting it tear through their body and mind. Neither one is a very welcoming prospect, so most spellcasters are careful about how much energy they try to handle at one time.

Releasing the spell construct

Once the construct is fully empowered, the spellcaster releases it out into the world and it does what it was designed to do. The construct is shattered by this release – not necessarily destructively, but mystically, meaning that a new spell construct needs to be created if the spellcaster intends to cast the same spell a second time.

Quick and dirty spell constructs, such as those used in combat evocations, are not very precise, and the target of such a spell usually has a chance to avoid the effects, even if it’s simply by diving for cover. However, a more carefully designed and thoroughly researched construct, like a thaumaturgic ritual, usually takes effect without giving the target any chance to avoid it, as long as the assumptions made by the caster at the time of casting are accurate. If he or she has misjudged some aspect of the situation, such as not having a strong enough symbolic link to the target, or not knowing that the caster has some level of magical protection, the spell will have a diminished effect, possibly failing entirely.

And that’s a basic run-down of how magic works in the Dresdenverse.

In-Game Magic Theory

The game system models this style of magic with two similar systems: one for thaumaturgy and one for evocation. The high-level basics of both systems are the same, so that’s what I’m going to deal with in this post. Subsequent posts will look at each style individually and in more detail.

First, though, let’s define the terms we’re using.


  • Spell. A magical effect created by a spellcaster.
  • Spellcaster. Someone who uses magical spells.
  • Evocation. Quick combat magic involving only the spellcaster’s own energy and simple effects that are produced by pushing power around with a brute-force approach.
  • Thaumaturgy. Ritual magic involving creating more elaborate, elegant, precise, or powerful effects. Takes a longer time to perform, and has a much broader range of possible effects.
  • Power. The energy needed to make a spell work, measured in shifts.
  • Complexity. An abstract measure of how difficult a thaumaturgical spell is to cast, measured in shifts.
  • Control. The effort of the spellcaster to keep the power focused on the spell and doing what he or she wants. This is a roll using Discipline.
  • Targeting. The Discipline roll the spellcaster makes to control the power serves as the targeting roll to hit the target. It sets the difficulty for the target to avoid the spell. This applies only to evocation.
  • Conviction. A skill. Governs how much power the spellcaster can draw on a single turn.
  • Lore. A skill. Governs how complex a spell the spellcaster can cast.
  • Discipline. A skill. Rolled against a target of the shifts of power drawn in a single turn to see if the caster can focus it on the spell.
  • Backlash. Damage taken as a result of a failed control roll, either as physical or mental stress and/or consequences. Does not reduce the power in the spell.
  • Fallout. The effect of a failed control roll on the environment, based on how many shifts of power the spellcaster chooses not to take as backlash. This reduces the power of the spell.

Whether you’re using evocation or thaumaturgy, the high-level process is the same:

  1. Decide what you want to do.
  2. Determine the complexity/power requirements.
  3. Draw power.
  4. Control the power/target the spell.

Deciding what you want to do

On the surface, this step can look like the easiest part of the process, but it can quickly become the most daunting. In other games, you have lists of spells to choose from, each one doing something very specific. In DFRPG, magic can accomplish pretty much anything you can imagine, which can lead to a little bit of paralysis from too much choice.

There’s also more than one way to do pretty much anything you can imagine. Want to protect yourself while you sleep? Well, you can make a force field over your house, or rig a fire trap to go off if something evil crosses your threshold, or bind some spirits to keep watch for you. Want to hurt an enemy? You can blast him with fire, or buffet him with air, or cause the ground to swallow him, or even just give him a fatal disease. Not only do you need to decide what you want to do, you have to decide how you want to do it – what mechanism you’re going to use to accomplish your goal.

This is very much effects-based magic. Picking what you want to do and how you want to do it is fundamental to everything that comes afterward. Mechanically, you need to figure out what you want to do and how you want to do it first because that lets you figure out how complex the thaumaturgic ritual is and how much power you’re going to need to pull off your spell*.

With thaumaturgy, the field here is wide open. Basically, if you can imagine it, there’s a chance that you can pull it off. No guarantees, of course; some things you want to attempt will wind up being beyond the capabilities of your character, or beyond the resources of the situation. With evocations, you have a much more limited range of options: attack, block, maneuver, counterspell*.

Determining complexity/power requirements

Once you know what you’re doing, you’ve got to figure out how much power you’re going to need.

For evocations, this is pretty straightforward: decide how big a hammer you want to hit your target with, and that’s the number of shifts of power you need.

For thaumaturgy, you need to figure out complexity. Complexity is kind of a slippery concept in the game, and I’m going to talk at length about it when I get to the post on thaumaturgy. For now, let’s just say it’s a pretty arbitrary number based on how difficult the spell is to cast. There are guidelines of how to determine complexity, but in the end, you’re going to be eyeballing what you want to do and setting the complexity in negotiation with the GM.

The power you need to perform a thaumaturgic ritual is a number a shifts equal to the complexity.

Aside from power, complexity also determines how much preparation you need to do to set up a thaumaturgic ritual. Compare the complexity to your Lore skill. If your Lore is equal to or higher than the complexity, you know what you need to do and have everything you need to get started right away. If the complexity is higher than your Lore, then you need to prepare for the ritual, using maneuvers from your skills to add Aspects to the spell that you can tag for a Lore bonus*. Once you’ve made up the deficit, you’re good to go.

In terms of the in-world rationale for what you’re doing at this point, consider this the part of the spellcasting process where you are creating the spell construct, either by holding it in your mind (evocations) or by assembling the ritual components and preparations for the casting (thaumaturgy).

Once you’re ready to cast the spell, you need to power it.

Drawing power

Now you need to empower your spell construct. The amount of power you can safely draw on in a single turn is equal to your Conviction skill. You can draw more than that, but you take stress for doing it, so it can wear you out pretty quickly. If you need more, it’s safer to draw it in smaller amounts over a number of turns.

Unfortunately for the Wizard in the midst of a battle, you may not have time to draw power in slowly. For evocations, which are quick and dirty, you are drawing on your own power, and you need the whole amount of power you’ve decided to put into the spell right now to get the shield up before the ogre takes your head off. Working under pressure like that is tough; any evocations do a single point of stress, plus an extra point of stress for every shift of power you draw over and above your Conviction skill rating. You can, of course, offset this stress by taking consequences, as usual. Try and draw too much and you risk blinding headaches, nosebleeds, exhaustion, and your eyes exploding.

That sets a practical limit on evocation power levels, especially when you also need to control all that power, as outlined in the step below. Thaumaturgy doesn’t have that sort of limit on it. The main limitations on thaumaturgic power is time and creativity.

The elaborate spell construct of a thaumaturgic working and the reduced time pressure* allows the spellcaster to summon the power needed slowly, over a number of turns. Each turn, the spellcaster decides how much power to summon, rolls to control it as described below, and adds it to the total amount of power accumulated for the ritual.

Controlling the power/targeting

Every turn you summon power, whether it’s to store in a thaumaturgic ritual or unleash in an evocation, you need to roll to control the power summoned. This is a Discipline roll, with a difficulty equal to the number of shifts of power you’ve summoned this turn. If you succeed, everything is peachy-keen. Failure means you have some pain coming to you in the very near future.

Failing to control your power means that the power is uncontrolled. It’s going to do some damage to someone or something, and you get to decide whether that someone or something is you. You can decide to take some or all of the shifts of uncontrolled power as backlash, meaning that you clamp your sovereign will down on the chaotic, elemental energies of the universe and force them to do your will. As you may have guessed from the description, it’s gonna hurt, either in your brain or in your body. You take a stress hit equal to the number of shifts of uncontrolled power in either your Physical or Mental stress tracks, but you can’t split the stress. It’s all got to go to one stress track.

Good news is that you get to keep those shifts of power in your spell. Bad news is that you might die if you you’re dealing with too much power.

If you don’t want all that primal force echoing around inside you, messing the place up, you can let it out to run rampant through the area around you, messing the place up. This is called fallout. Basically, what you’re doing here is handing the shifts of uncontrolled power to the GM and saying, “Here. Use this to mess me up.”* This is how houses get burned down, and friends get blasted, and people wind up with donkey heads, and so forth.

Good news is that you don’t take any direct damage. Bad news is that the spell’s power is reduced by the number of shifts of uncontrolled power that you let free as fallout. Really bad news is that you might still die if you’re dealing with a lot of power, as the building collapses around you.

You get to decide how much uncontrolled power you’re taking as backlash and how much you let loose as fallout. This can be a very important decision to make, so consider the upside and downside of it carefully.

There’s an extra little wrinkle for thaumaturgy with control rolls. Because you’re adding power a little at a time to the spell construct, doing a delicate balancing act turn-by-turn, holding the power and the spell construct together with your will, failing a control roll can be worse than with evocation. If you fail your Discipline roll, all the shifts of power you’ve gathered over all the turns of casting this given ritual become uncontrolled, and you have to choose how much to take as backlash and how much to let go as fallout. If any is loosed as fallout, it destroys the fragile spell construct, and the spell fails. So, you may be tempted to take everything as backlash, but keep in mind that with thaumaturgy, you may wind up dealing with ten or more shifts of power. That’s gonna leave a mark no matter what.

This is why it’s a good idea, if there is no time pressure, to draw the power for a thaumaturgic ritual a single shift at a time. It takes much more game time, and more time rolling, but it can prevent exploding heads and burning forests.

There’s also an extra little wrinkle for evocation with control rolls. Just because you managed to successfully control the raging torrent of flame that you’ve focused into a lance with the force of your will, it doesn’t mean you hit your target. Your Discipline roll also determines the difficulty for the target to avoid your spell. This is the targeting roll. The target can take normal defensive actions to avoid the spell with a contested roll on an appropriate skill.

And that sums up the process of casting a spell, both in-world and in-game. Next time, I’m going to take a detailed look at evocation, talking about the little twists and turns of that system.


*Unless, of course, you botch the spell. Then you might create changes that you don’t want to see. Back

*i.e., the energy is needed to keep the caster alive. If you don’t have the muscle power for your heart to contract, things start getting pretty bleak on the survival front. Back

*Sacrifice of this nature is frowned upon, but needs must when the devil drives, right? Back

*Possibly literally right to hell. Back

*And it gives you a real opportunity to add some colour to your spellcaster. A Wizard who tosses around waves of fire at every problem that comes his way is a very different character from one that gets things done with carefully applied divinations. And part of the fun of playing a spellcaster is seeing how you can use different tools to accomplish your goals. Back

*Though there’s a fair bit of leeway in what constitutes a maneuver, and the special effects of a given spell are a great way to make play exciting. I’m going to be talking about that a fair bit in the evocation post. Back

*I’m going to be talking about this extensively in the thaumaturgy post, both because it’s an important topic, and because it gives players a great opportunity to add coolness and character to what is essentially an extended stint of dice-rolling. It is, in my opinion, one of the coolest things about this system. Back

*Not always the case, if the spellcaster needs to whip up a powerful veil in a hurry to hide from a rampaging monster, for example. Then the character may decide to draw more power than is, strictly speaking, safe. Back

*And your GM will grin evilly, and say, “Thank you.” He or she may or may not cackle maniacally. Back

Fearful Symmetries: The Shadow of War

Last night was the latest Fearful Symmetries session. To prepare for it, I had asked last session for the players to send me some idea of what they wanted their characters to do in Prague. I got a nice, high-level list of goals that I intended to use to plan the next scenario.

Unfortunately, as I worked on the scenario, I found that I was having to make more assumptions about what the characters were doing and would do than I was comfortable with. The goals I had, while useful for planning the larger story arcs of the campaign, weren’t as useful for putting together an individual scenario – at least, not this early in the campaign, when I haven’t really got a firm grip on what the characters are like, yet, and therefor can’t properly judge or predict their actions and attitudes. I need to be more familiar with them before I can do that, and that will only come as we play.

So, I sent out another e-mail message, asking for a list of two or three specific things they would like their characters to do over the next couple of weeks. They (almost immediately) sent back a nice list of specific things they wanted to do. And at this point, I want to mention that neither of them had any trouble coming up with stuff for their characters to do that was important to them; part of this is that I’ve got creative players that really get into their characters, but another big part of this is the collaborative city creation process. There are built-in hooks, threats, and storylines that both the players and characters are interested in and have some connection to. I know, I’ve said it before, but I’m surprised and pleased anew each time a situation comes up where the groundwork we laid during city and character creation comes back to make play that much better.


With their lists in hand, I looked things over, picked a few of the things that seemed most likely to come up during play, and started fleshing them out. I followed the advice in Your Story to do this – well, sort of, anyway. I looked at the items that I had picked off their lists one by one, and looked at the master Aspect list I had put together for the game, pulling out and listing the character and setting Aspects that tied most directly into the chosen situations, and making connections between them. I even found a cool little app for my new iPad called Idea Sketch that let me sketch out the scenario ideas in flowchart form, the way I prefer when planning scenarios.

With three or four scenario ideas fleshed out, and enough material to improvise if the players decided to go with one of the items on their lists that I hadn’t fleshed out, I felt comfortable letting the players set their direction and choose their goals in a very sandbox style. I just made sure I had a few stock antagonists statted up in addition to the stats for the fleshed-out scenarios.

When we got together to play, I spent a little time tidying up loose ends from the previous session, which also served as providing a recap for the players, and then asked them what they wanted to do. After a few little pieces of business they wanted to take care of, they decided to head out to visit Marta, the maid who had virtually raised Izabela after the death of her mother. They had found out, back in the very first session, that Marta had got too old to work, and gone off to a nearby village to live with her son.

So, we’re talking June, 1620, near Prague. The city is under constant threat, the lands around it are being picked clean by the Bohemian foragers trying to supply the army, as well as skirmishers and saboteurs from the Catholic forces, and bandits preying on everyone. One of the threats we came up with for the setting is that bands of near-feral shapeshifters, ghouls, and other monsters are using the cover of the war to rampage through the countryside, letting the various human armies take the blame for the atrocities they’re committing. But I didn’t want to bring them into it, just yet – I wanted at least one session where the horrors had a completely human source.

After some discussion about hiring horses, and the expense, the characters decided to use magical mounts: Emric has a Spirit of War trapped in a ring that takes horse form, and Izabela used her ectomancy to conjure a horse from ectoplasm. Izabela then used the money she would have spent on hiring a horse on putting together a care package for Marta. Then, at dawn, they set out down the road to visit the old woman.

I had told them that Marta lived about thirty miles from Prague – a long day’s ride – past another village on the same road. As they rode out, I described the lands around them, and how there were fewer people than there should be in the fields, and how they started giving way to abandoned farms and fallow fields, and things like that. Then I threw in a little encounter with Captain Amiel, the swiss mercenary they had met previously, and his company of men.

The Captain was once again polite and friendly, and strongly urged them to return to the city, saying that there were bandits and skirmishers out in the lands around Prague, and that the roads weren’t safe, as he and his men were confined in their patrol to no more than five miles from the city walls. When it became obvious that Izabela and Emric would not be persuaded from their journey, he wished them luck, and let them pass on their way. Emric promised to visit the Captain at the Gored Ox to buy him a drink when he returned.

As the characters continued on their way, the abandoned farms changed to burned-out farms, and the fallow fields turned to scorched earth. I mentioned a cloud of circling crows in the distance as a piece of colour, but the characters decided to go investigate it. I had originally planned to have them beset by bandits on the road, woefully outnumbered, so that they had to flee, and I’d get a neat chase scene, so I thought I’d give them a glimpse of what the bandits had done to a nearby farm to prove they meant business.

They found the farm with the main buildings burnt and the animals slaughtered in the yard. The fact that the animals were slain rather than taken led the characters to the conclusion that this was done by bandits rather than soldiers, which was the point I had wanted to make. They found the family dead inside the house, which had had the door nailed shut before the roof was fired, and one young boy who had fled the slaughter and hidden down the privy hole had passed out and drowned after being down there several hours.

Again, the point was to show the horrors of war, and to drive home the fact that these things were done by normal humans. I figured that, after seeing this, the bandits would be more frightening when encountered on the road.

But the characters were deeply offended by what had happened, and wanted to hunt down the bandits, which I hadn’t prepared for. Izabela used magic to speak with the ghosts of the family to find out what had happened, and found a piece of a horseshoe to use in a finding spell. Emric scouted around and found tracks, so between the two of them, they were able to follow the trail, first to an old campsite, and then to the farmstead where the bandits had set up housekeeping.

Now, in this system, a dozen armed men with armour riding at you across the field means that you’re in trouble, pretty much no matter how powerful you are. But preparation and surprise are amazing equalizers, so finding the bandits at their leisure, unmounted, and spread between the house and the barn, and having the time to veil themselves, meant that what would have been an overwhelming force in an open battle became a much more manageable target.

They scouted the area under a veil, which Izabela is getting quite good at casting, figuring out where everyone was, and taking out one of the sentries. Then, Emric used his pyromancy to cause the fire in the fireplace to flare up suddenly, giving them the opportunity to climb in through the window and be among the men in the house before anyone knew what was happening. The burst of fire, plus the burning grass outside the window from the fallout Emric took when he failed his control roll, kept people distracted long enough for them to kick in the bedroom door and find the bandit leader.

I was pleased that the players had read my post about combat in this system, and it showed in the fight that followed. They worked together, using their skills and the environment to put Aspects on the targets, setting them up for killing blows. Aside from being more mechanically successful, it also made the fight much more cinematic, with people throwing tankards around, tripping each other, getting pinned under the furniture, and swept up in whirlwinds. They kept the bandits from effectively ganging up on them, and took them on in small groups, which they could easily handle.

After they had killed the bandits, they realized they couldn’t make the next village before dark, so they cleaned out the barn, found a wagon, loaded it with the food, valuables, weapons, and armour the bandits had acquired, and settled in for the night. Izabela set a ward around the barn, and they spent a moderately restful night under cover.

Next morning, they made it to a village that had been fortified by sealing all the ways into town with barricades, and setting large carts in the roads to act as gates. The knight commanding the village refused to let them in when the characters wouldn’t answer his question about whether they were Catholic or Protestant, so the players went on their way to Marta’s village somewhat miffed.

Marta’s village had a better natural defensible position, being on the far side of a small river from the road, with a single bridge crossing just before the millpond. The constructed defenses were much fewer, consisting of a ring of stakes and a big wagon in the middle of the bridge. Izabela let the guards know she had come to see Marta and, once they had verified her identity, they were invited inside. Izabela had her nice little reunion with Marta, and she and Emric gave the food and weapons they had taken from the bandits to the village to help them defend themselves. The miller, who was the de-facto mayor of the village, called it a miracle, and opened a keg of ale to host an impromptu street party.

The characters decided to stay around for a day or so, helping the villagers improve their defenses, and get some idea of what was going on in the surrounding area. They heard more stories of looted and destroyed farms and, as they gained the villagers’ trust, these tales got more elaborate and grim, leading Izabela to conclude that werewolves or ghouls may be responsible for at least some of the attacks. When they asked directions to the nearest farm that had been so hit, the directions included reference to a standing stone at a forest crossroad, which caught Emric’s ear, as he has been wanting to scout the area for places of power that could be put to Prague’s defense.

They decided to head off to investigate both the standing stone and the farm, and that’s where we left it last night. I’ve got a few weeks to flesh out the next stage of the adventure, and I’m going to take advantage of it.

I’m still really enjoying running the system, and am constantly impressed with how easy it is to whip up stats for something on the fly. It gives me a great deal of freedom in setting up scenarios, and allows me to give a great deal of freedom to the characters in terms of setting their own agendas and choosing the direction of the campaign. It’s very gratifying.

That said, the complexities of the spellcasting system are still somewhat daunting in play. Handling spellcasting still takes more time than handling pretty much anything else. I think that spellcasting  is going to have to be the subject of my next post about the system. And it will probably take more than one post to cover.

But we’re having fun, and are all anxious for the next game.

Down and Dirty: The DFRPG Combat Paradigm

Important Note

In this post, I’m talking about combat: physical conflict, as the rulebook calls it. I’m choosing this focus because it has some of the clearest examples of the things I’m talking about, and is the most readily accessible example of conflict for people new to the FATE system. Everything I say below is also true for mental and social conflicts – keep that in mind as you read.

One of the biggest things to get used to in DFRPG is that combat works very differently than in pretty much any other game I’ve played. In most other roleplaying games, the combat strategy that works best is to hit the target, depleting its hit points (or whatever that system calls it) until it falls down. All other aspects of combat are focused on increasing the opportunities to do damage or the amount of damage done. Teamwork generally means focusing on a single target or working to enhance the damage-dealing ability of one of the primary combatants.

DFRPG combat looks similar on the surface: characters have stress tracks that you’re trying to deplete to put them down. It’s easy to think that the best strategy is just to hack away at the target, wearing down the stress track until you can take the target out. That’s what I thought at first. After all, the character is taken out if it takes a stress hit that goes off the end of its stress track.

Now, this is complicated by consequences: the character being hit can buy off stress by taking consequences of varying degrees. These are the actual damage being done to the character – this is where you get a split lip or a ruptured spleen. But consequences won’t put you down; only stress hits will do that.

The Damage Model

So why is stress different from hit points?

Two reasons that I can see right now: first, it reflects resistance to getting hurt rather than capacity for getting hurt, and second, you can bypass it.

Resistance vs. Capacity

Hit points in D&D (and a lot of other games) measure your ability to continue fighting. As you lose hit points, you become damaged. In early versions of D&D, and in other games like RuneQuest, hit points were a direct measure of how much physical damage can be done to a person before they fall down. In 4E D&D, hit points factor in things like fatigue, morale, skill, and all the other things that keep you on your feet and fighting. But it’s still a value that decreases as damage is applied, and is the main value that you need to preserve to keep on fighting.

Stress in DFRPG (and other FATE games) doesn’t measure how hurt you are – it measures how close you are to becoming hurt. It is, in many ways, more like ablative armour than the D&D idea of hit points. As long as you’re taking stress hits, you’re still good. It’s only when you start taking consequences that you are actually being injured. So taking a hit to one of your stress boxes is… well, it’s not necessarily a good thing, but it’s sure better than taking a consequence or being taken out. It’s your padding, and it’s where you want to shift all incoming attacks to.

But it is still a finite resource that you have to husband carefully.

Bypassing Stress

Ideally, to take a character out in one attack, you want to apply a stress hit that goes off the end of their stress track, even after they’ve applied all their available consequences to it. Now, a normal human character has 2 physical stress boxes, plus 4 consequences (minor, moderate, severe, extreme) that can buy off a total of 20 stress – that means that you need a 23-point stress hit to take someone out with one hit. Now, the majority of opponents the players will fight generally won’t fight to the death – they’re effectively taken out at much earlier points, depending on whether they’re nameless, supporting, or main NPCs.  The non-vampire example of Tim the Sniper in the rulebook (p328 of Your Story) can be taken out in a single 11-point stress hit, because he concedes after suffering a moderate consequence.


The meat of the damage system, though, is consequences. Consequences are when things really start hurting a character They are wonderfully descriptive injuries, and they also have inherent wound penalties, because they are Aspects and can be tagged for all the regular Aspect fun and games.

By default, each character only has one of each type of consequence – minor, moderate, severe, and extreme. These are shared by physical, mental, and social conflicts: if you’ve taken a moderate physical consequence (Sprained Wrist, say) then you don’t get to also take a moderate mental consequence if you get into a mental conflict. The rationale for this is two-fold: one, it keeps the game balanced a little better, and two, if you’ve got a sprained wrist, the pain is going to make it a little harder to concentrate on the fine points of the Unseelie Accords that you’re debating, for example.

One of the coolest things about consequences is that each player decides when to take them for their character, and gets to pick what the consequence is. Yeah, this means that you get to decide how your character is hurt. You get to weigh how hurt you’re going to be against the buffer that is your stress track, and what you need to do to finish the fight. You get to choose the wording of your consequence – subject to GM negotiation, of course – so you can decide where the bullet hits or the claw slashes.

Husbanding this resource can be a little tricky: minor consequences offset 2 points of stress, moderate ones do 4, severe ones do 6, and extreme ones do 8. You don’t get change back if you don’t need to offset the whole amount of stress the consequence is capable of eliminating. That means that, if you only have to offset a single point of stress, you need to use a minor consequence, and the extra shift of stress that you could have offset is wasted. Seeing as you have a limited number of consequences, it’s wise to spend them carefully.

Despite my focus on consequences as real damage as opposed to the damage buffer of stress, they are just another buffer keeping you from being taken out – though a buffer with a more direct affect on the combat.

Taken Out

This is what the game calls losing the fight. If you take a stress hit that goes off the end of your stress track, and you can’t reduce it by taking consequences, then you’ve lost, and you are taken out. That means that your opponent gets to decide what happens to you, limited only by the scope of the conflict that got you here. For example, in a physical combat, you could be dead, knocked unconscious, paralyzed, whatever. In a mental conflict, you probably couldn’t be killed outright.

This is a bad thing to have happen to you. Very bad. This is pretty much the only way a character can die in DFRPG. Thankfully, you can always avoid this by conceding the combat.


If you don’t want to get killed in combat, you can concede. This means you still lose the fight, but you get to choose how. So, instead of your opponent taking you out with his sword and saying, “I decapitate you and toss the head into the river,” you get to say, “You cut me across the throat and I fall into the river, washing up a few miles downstream, cold and mangled, but alive.” You can choose to concede at any point up to when your opponent would take you out.

This is a big deal. What this means is that, if you pay attention to what’s going on in the combat, your character only really risks death if you decide it’s important enough. If the objective of the combat is big enough that your character is willing to fight to the death, well, he may die. If it’s not, he can be defeated and live to fight another day – albeit, he may be living in a more problematic fashion, such as imprisoned by the enemy.

This is also a great way to mine Fate Points. You get a Fate Point for every consequence you’ve taken in the combat up to the time you concede. Why did you think Harry keeps getting the crap kicked out of him? He needs those Fate Points.

Summing Up Damage

So, the important points about the damage system:

  • Stress is a buffer that keeps you from getting damaged.
  • Consequences are damage, and a buffer that keeps you from being taken out.
  • Getting taken out can kill your character.
  • Conceding loses the fight but can save your character.
  • You get to choose what consequences you take and when, and whether or not you want to fight to the death.


So, what does that mean in terms of combat tactics? It means, primarily, that it can take a long time to whittle down an opponent if all you’re doing is attacking. To make combats go faster – and, incidentally, to play out more like a good scene in a movie or from one of the books – you need to look at all your tools, and make good use of them.


Attacks are good. Attacks are how you hurt the opponent. But attacks alone aren’t going to be enough to carry the day most of the time. Let’s look at the example of Tim the Sniper I made reference to earlier. Sure, you can take him out with a single 11-point stress hit, but the odds on that are pretty small (assuming you have a Superb Guns skill, roll +4, and are using a Weapon:2, you can do it if his defense roll is Mediocre or worse, but that’s a long shot). So, you whittle away at him with a number of smaller hits, depleting his stress and consequences, until he concedes or you take him out. At some point, you’re going to have to attack, but there are things that you can be doing instead of attacking that make it more likely your attacks will be effective. This is especially true if you’re using Evocation in combat, because each time you use it, it causes stress to you, depleting your own stress tracks.


Blocks are a good way to keep someone from doing something – either attacking you, or escaping, or using magic, or whatever. While they don’t necessarily do anything to deplete the opponent’s stress or consequences, they keep you in the fight (and him from running) while you set things up to take him out.


This is should be your go-to action in combat. First off, maneuvers are easier to land (in most cases) than attacks. Second, they can layer Aspects on you or your target to make sure that, when you attack, you can maximize the results.

Each successful maneuver puts an Aspect in place. These can be offensive maneuvers (aiming at your target, tripping him, throwing sand in his eyes, etc.) or defensive maneuvers (diving for cover, grabbing an impromptu shield, jumping to high ground, etc.). Every time you put an Aspect on a target, you get a single free tag of that Aspect. Save them up, and use them on a single attack to make it really count.

For example, let’s say you’re shooting it out with Tim the Sniper. You spend one round using a maneuver on yourself (Discipline: Calm and Focused), then another round using a maneuver on the scene (Athletics: Sniper’s Perch), and a third round using a maneuver on Tim (Alertness: In My Sights). On the fourth round, you pull the trigger. Assuming a Superb Gun skill, a roll of 0, and a Weapon:2, you can tag all three Aspects for free and give you an end result of 13 shifts. That means you take him out if his defense roll is Fair or less. And that’s on an average roll for you: it gets better if you roll well, or if you spend some Fate Points.

Anything you do in combat, anything that can give you an advantage over the opponent, is a maneuver. Sticking him with an Aspect by tricking him or blinding him or aiming at him works. Sticking yourself with an Aspect by moving or dodging or preparing works. Sticking the scene with an Aspect by tipping over a barrel of oil or setting something on fire or crashing a car through a wall works. Look for opportunities to do something cool, think about what you would like to see in a movie, and go for it.

Other Aspects

Aspects placed by maneuvers aren’t the only ones you can use to your advantage. Figuring out Aspects already in place in the scene or on your opponent is just as good. This is where assessments come in – you can use an assessment to try and figure out what sort of Aspect something has. Or you can guess. Guessing’s good, too. Most GMs will give you a bit of a clue as to what types of Aspects are in place in a scene or on a character through description, so pay attention to that. If something is reasonable to expect within the scene, odds are there’s an Aspect representing it: a cluttered warehouse probably has Piles of Crates, while a haunted house probably has Rickety Floors. And, if you guess something really cool, the GM will probably allow it even if he hadn’t thought of that Aspect himself.

And then there’s declarations. Declarations are a kind of maneuver, really, when you use a knowledge skill like Lore or Scholarship to stick something with an Aspect. This is a bit trickier, and the GM can set the difficulty rather arbitrarily high if he thinks the Aspect is a game-breaker, but it’s a good way to show a smart and knowledgeable character using that knowledge to shape the combat.

You’ve got your own Aspects to invoke, as well. That can be a little costly, requiring Fate Points, but they are tailored for you and many should be generally applicable. Don’t be shy if you need them.

And there’s another place Aspects can come from: consequences. While it’s nice to take a target out in a single hit, that’s not always going to be possible. Hitting him enough to put a consequence on him not only makes him easier to take out because of depleted resources, it also makes him easier to take out because you get a free tag on the consequence.


Teamwork can be huge in this game. Consider these scenarios:

  • One character uses Athletics to slip around an enemy, sticking him with the Aspect Flanked, while the other character uses Weapons to press the enemy, sticking him with the Aspect Hard-Pressed. Next round, the character in front of the enemy uses Intimidate to stick him with the Aspect Rattled, and the character behind sticks the shiv in with an extra +6 right off the hop.
  • One character uses an Air Evocation to whip up a windstorm, tagging the scene with a Raging Winds sticky Aspect, while another character uses Might to push down a tree, tagging the scene with a Fallen Tree Aspect. Now, either one can tag one or both Aspects to provide a +2 or +4 defensive bonus against incoming gunfire.
  • One character uses Presence to get a monster’s attention, tagging it with the Focused On Me Aspect, while the other uses Discipline to stick himself with the Focused Power Aspect. Next round, the first character uses Athletics to tag himself with the Nimble Aspect to help dodge an incoming attack that he knows is on the way, while the second character unloads a blast of fire with a +4 bonus from the Focused Power and Focused On Me Aspects.

Look for ways to help each other out in combat, building the kinds of plans and tactics that you like to read about or watch in a movie. Team comic books – X-Men, JLA, Teen Titans, etc. are great sources for ideas.

Summing Up Tactics

So, the important things about tactics are:

  • Don’t focus on filling up the target’s stress track.
  • Stack up positive Aspects using maneuvers, assessments, guesses, declarations, and consequences.
  • Use blocks to keep the target from getting away or hurting you while you’re stacking up Aspects.
  • Unload with an attack, using your stacked Aspects, to take the target out – or at least inflict a consequence.
  • Don’t forget your own Aspects.


This is a very different approach to combat in games like D&D or RuneQuest or World of Darkness or pretty much any other game I’ve played. It’s a new way of thinking about combats. It values more elaborate strategies and more cinematic actions. It leverages teamwork to an amazing degree, as people co-operate to bring down tough opponents. And it puts pretty much all of the most important decisions into the hands of the players. The attack isn’t the be-all and end-all of the combat – it’s just the cherry on top.

That said, don’t sweat it if it doesn’t come together right away. Like any new thing, there’s going to be a learning curve. That’s fine. Relax and go with it. Just keep playing and having fun.

It’ll come.

And you’ll like it when it does.

Fearful Symmetries: Blood Hunt

Last Friday was the latest episode of Fearful Symmetries. We had ended last session with a cliff-hanger of sorts, our heroes down in the tunnels under Old Town, surrounded by a swarm of Red Court Vampires led by a Black Court Vampire. I wasn’t sure at the time which way things would go – if I wanted to lay the whole vampire plotline out so soon, or if I should try and keep it at arm’s length for a little longer.

During the time between sessions, I did some thinking about it, and decided that I didn’t want to expose everything vampire-related just yet; that, I believe, would have made the vampire plotline central for some time in the game, and I didn’t want to dictate the focus for the foreseeable future to the players, preferring to let them find what they care about most in the game.

So, when I opened up the session, I did it with talking. The characters got to have a rather tense conversation with the Black Court woman, during which they gave the name of the Red Court Vampire who was stepping over the line. There were veiled threats, implied promises, and some less-veiled threats, but in the end, Emric, Izabela, and Marco made it back to the surface safely.

At which point I was a little stuck. The story had reached a point where it could conceivably end, though not in a very satisfying manner. The main focus of the characters as they talked about what to do next seemed to be to adopt a wait-and-see attitude, and kill any Red Court Vampires they found above ground. I didn’t want to degenerate into just having the characters wait around for stuff to happen, so I decided to make stuff happen right away. I killed Marko.

Time for me to spill a dirty little secret about my GMing. I hate sending an NPC along with the PCs into a dangerous situation. For one thing, it’s too easy to use the NPC has the mouth-of-plot, which can undermine the choices of the players. For another, players can come to rely on the NPC too much, which makes it very easy for the GM to use the character as his own PC. And the third (and most telling) thing is that I’ve already got enough stuff to keep track of without having to worry about the NPC spear carrier.

Balanced with this is my desire to establish NPCs in the setting that the characters have a real connection with, for good or ill. That means fleshed-out NPCs with characters that are consistent and sensible, and that continue through the campaign, so that the relationships can build and change.

Emric had already made a good, solid connection with Marko, and I think he liked him a fair bit – certainly, he respected the man for being brave enough to go with him into the lair of a vampire. I weighed things in my head, and decided that killing Marko would be a good impetus to get Emric pushing to get rid of the rogue Red Court Vampires. To make the threat come home to both the characters, I had Marko killed and left outside the rooms Emric was renting for him to find.

It got the players moving, alright. Izabela whipped up a divinatory ritual, and saw how Marko was killed by two women who looked very much like a couple of prostitutes that used to work for Zuckerbastl. She also went back to the brothel (burned to the ground the night after they had visited), and conjured up the ghosts of the people who had died there to get some information about Dregana, the woman who had been running it. After that, she started trying to figure out how to find where Dregana was hiding (and also to take care of the children of one of the women who had died in the fire).

In the meantime, Emric took Marko’s body to Zuckerbastl, letting him know what had happened. Zuckerbastl was grateful, and he and Emric bonded a little, before Emric went off to try and find someone who could help him find Dregana’s hiding spot. He rousted Amadan from his rooms, and convinced him to use his resources to locate her. After a stroll through the parks in Hradcany, they retired to the Goblin’s Brewery, where Amadan revealed the address of Dregana’s house.

Off went our heroes, a good hour or two before sunset.

The fight here didn’t go as easily for the characters as the previous invasion. The bad guys were waiting for them, but no mortals were really a match for either of them. In fact, in the confusing muddle of the fight, Izabela blew the head of what seemed to be an ordinary (non-infected, non-ensorceled, non-enthralled) human mercenary, and is now quite upset over what might be a First Law violation. The warped dogs were much easier to deal with.

It was the nest of four Red Court Vampires, newly turned to help Dregana now that her support from the tunnels had been cut off, that really caused a problem for the characters. The vampires used maneuvers and group tactics to gang up on the characters, and proved to be a significant threat. Still, in the end, through co-operation and a good use of Aspects, they managed to eliminate the four vampires and finally confront Dregana. The fight with her was relatively brief, leaving her lying on the ground with all three consequences used up, pleading for her life. And Emric ran her through.

Leaving the house, they were met by a small man with coppery-red skin of indeterminate age, who thanked them, and said that his master was pleased that they were able to do this favour for each other. He gave them each a ring as a token of his master’s esteem, bowed, and went away. The characters think he probably represented the vampire king in the tunnels that they have heard about, but never met.

And so our heroes retired to lick their wounds, and plan for a new day. I gave them a significant milestone at the end of this session, and asked them to start thinking about what their goals are in Prague, so that I can tailor the later scenarios to them. All in all, we were all happy with the way the session went, and the way the campaign seems to be going.

Meta-game-wise, we’re all getting more familiar with the system, and things are flowing more smoothly when it comes to mechanics. I made up a cheat-sheet for Izabela that helps us handle her spellcasting abilities in a more timely fashion during play, and it worked pretty well – well enough that I’m making one for Emric, as well.

Now I wait to see what sorts of goals my players send me, and then I make a new scenario.

The Lightning Bug and the Lightning: Aspects in Dresden Files RPG

This post has been a tough one to write*. The topic of Aspects in DFRPG (or any FATE game) is so central, so important, and so rich that trying to write about it can be daunting. More than the dice mechanics, or the powers, or the stunts, or the skills, Aspects are the beating heart of the system.

Mark Twain famously wrote:

The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

The same is true of Aspects. And what I’m trying to do in this post is to help you choose the right Aspect, rather than settling for the almost right Aspect.

Now, Your Story has a nice discussion about picking Aspects that highlights what I call the Aspect trick: you need each of your Aspects to do triple-duty for you:

  • You have to be able to invoke the Aspect when you need a bonus or a reroll.
  • The Aspect has to complicate your life to some extent, so it can be compelled to gain Fate Points.
  • You also want to be able to invoke the Aspect for effect.

Most of the time, an Aspect is going to lend itself better to one or two of these than to all of them, but the ideal is come up with at least one situation you can envision in play where you can use the Aspect for each of the three ways to use them. Let’s take a look at each of these functions.

Invoke for Bonus

A sucky roll is a sucky roll, and that’s the truth from system to system. And sometimes even a great roll isn’t going to be enough to let you do what you need to do. Now, you can always just spend a Fate Point for a +1 to the roll, but you get more bang for the buck (or point, anyway) when you use that Fate Point to invoke an Aspect: +2 or a reroll of all the dice. Now, from a statistical point of view, the reroll only really makes sense if you’ve rolled -3 or worse on the dice, but it’s nice to have that option there. So, for this to work, you need to have your Aspect say something positive about your character or his or her abilities.


Fate Points are the currency of game play. You want Fate Points. You get Fate Points when one of your Aspects constrains your character’s options in a way that causes you some difficulty. Got an Aspect called Bad Temper? You get a Fate Point whenever you blow up at someone and it makes your life difficult. This means you want an Aspect that talks about a complication in your character’s life.

Invoke for Effect

Let’s say you need to get in to see the CEO of a company. You don’t have an appointment, and none of your skills are up to the challenge of hoodwinking the CEO’s personal assistant. You’ve only got a single Fate Point to spend on trying to get past the gatekeeper. Well, you pay your Fate Point and say, “Because I’m a Wealthy Man About Town, I’ve met the CEO at the Sinclairs’ fundraiser last week, so I just tell the assistant to let him know I’m here. He’ll want to see me.” Boom. You’re in. This is invoking for effect. Getting to do this is an often-overlooked bit of Aspect capability, but potentially the most powerful. To make this work for you, you want your Aspect to state or imply some ability or association that has its own effects.

Beyond the three mechanical functions of your Aspects, there are a few non-mechanical things you want to think about when choosing an Aspect.

You want your Aspect to have a story.

The Aspect should come out of what’s happened to you, and should tell people a little bit about your character. Now, this may seem like a no-brainer, especially with the way character creation phases work, but it can get lost in the mix if you’re not careful. Make sure that, when you choose an Aspect, there’s a reason coming out of the phase that grants you the Aspect that supports it. And make it intriguing enough that, if someone were to find out about the Aspect, they’d want to know the story behind it.

You want your Aspect to link you to stories.

The GM advice in Your Story for creating scenarios recommends looking at the Aspects the characters have, and the Aspects you’ve created along with the city, pick the ones that catch your fancy for this scenario, and work with those to create the situation and opposition. So, you want your Aspects to give lots of good ideas to the GM, because then they’ll get incorporated into the scenarios, and your character will get to strut his or her stuff.

You want your Aspect to support your high concept.

You’ve picked a high concept for your character. All the other Aspects should feed into or flow out of that high concept. Now, that’s not to say that if your high concept is Wizard of the White Court all your Aspects have to be about wizardly magic, but they should all be about what kind of wizard you are, or what kind of person being a wizard has made you, or what made you become a wizard. High concept is very central to the character; your other Aspects add detail, colour, and shading to the high concept.

You want your Aspect to be cool.

Hey. This is your character we’re talking about. You want to make sure that, when you look at each of the Aspects you’ve chosen, they all make you glad you’re playing this character. Each one has to do its share in bringing the cool to your character, reinforcing and supporting the original cool idea you had.

Okay. So now we know what we want our Aspects to do. We still need to figure out what to use for Aspects. I generally take something from the following list:

  • Something you are. Your job, your nationality, your hobby, your race, whatever.
  • Something you do. More of an avocation – helping the helpless, reading voraciously, good cook, things like that.
  • Something you say. A catchphrase, or a line that sums up some facet of your character.
  • Someone you know. A friend, an enemy, a rival, a lover, a family member, and so on.
  • Something you have. An item with special meaning for you – your grandfather’s sword, a custom car, a friendship bracelet from your daughter.

Now, a lot of these shade over into each other: a friendship bracelet made by your daughter really says more about your relationship with her than about the bracelet itself. But still, the list is a good place to start looking at Aspects. Once you have one, run it through the test: ask how it meets the mechanical demands and the non-mechanical ones. If it’s weak in one area or another, look at ways to fix it.

Selecting Aspects can be tough. There’s a lot of ground you want to cover with each one, but you also want to keep it fairly short and snappy. The best way I can show you some of the tricks I’ve come up with is to walk through the Amadan example I used for the character creation phases to show what I came up with, Aspect-wise. In the examples below, I lay things out as if I were creating Amadan in a vacuum, but it’s important to remember I was working through the character with two other people, and we brainstormed different Aspects for each of the characters as a group. Some of the brilliant ideas below probably came from either or both of them – one of the joys of group character creation.

Aspect 1: High Concept

This one is often the easiest to come up with. The template you’re using for your character gives some guidelines for what needs to be in the Aspect – Wizard, or Changeling, or Soldier of God, or whatever. But you don’t want to just leave it there, because that’s usually not cool and unique enough.

For Amadan, I knew that I wanted a trickster fey, so that goes into the high concept: Faerie Trickster. But I want something to say a little more about what makes him different from all the other tricky fey concepts out there, so I thought about the rest of his background – too close to mortals, cast out by his court, trapped in the mortal world. And I decided to make him a drunkard. Faerie Trickster Drunkard, however, felt a little too comedic for what I wanted – it didn’t have the sense of hurt and sadness that I wanted to come across, so I twisted it around to Dissolute Faerie Trickster. That, to me, gives the right feeling of partying to hide the pain.

Now, for the test: Invoke for bonus? Check, especially for pranks and tricks. Compel for Fate Points? Hello, dissolute. Invoke for effect? Well, his fey nature and trickster predilections gives me some ideas for that. It is linked to my entire backstory, and gives me an interesting Byronesque (yet pre-Byronic) image of the character, so that fulfills the other requirements.

Final Aspect: Dissolute Faerie Trickster

Aspect 2: Trouble

Well, the common trickster problem is that they often get caught in their own plots, and wind up hoist on their own petard. Hoist On My Own Petard has some potential for this Aspect, but it’s hard to see how it can be invoked for a bonus, so I start looking a little farther afield, thinking about what it is that gets the trickster into trouble. And it’s usually trying to be too clever. Too Clever, though, doesn’t quite have the ring to it I’m looking for. I play with it a little – Too Clever For My Own Good, Not As Clever As I Think, Too Clever By Half. I like the sound of that last one.

The test. Invoke for bonus? Check on the clever. Compel for Fate Points? Check. Invoke for effect? I can see invoking it to just happen to have some obscure item that fits a situation, because of an extensive and convoluted plan involving something else entirely. Of course, that means that I’d have to come up with that convoluted plan to persuade the GM, but that could be fun, too. So, check on that. It ties into the story, supports the high concept, give the GM a hook for stories, and I think it reveals some cool things about the character.

Final Aspect: Too Clever By Half

Aspect 3: Where did you come from?

For this phase of character creation, I came up with the following:

Fox-like faerie trickster of the Summer Court who prefers to spend his time among mortals, enjoying their passionate nature and gullibility.

Based on this, and building on the high concept and trouble, I think of a few of things that could work: Student Of Human Nature, What Fools These Mortals Be, People Are Toys.

I like Student of Human Nature, but it doesn’t really lend itself to compels very well. Also, it’s not very catchy as a phrase, especially not when compared to What Fools These Mortals Be – kinda hard to top Shakespeare for good quotes. People Are Toys has two problems: one, it’s a little too on-the-nose, and two, it makes him seem more like a heartless manipulator than I want him to be.

Of the three, I like What Fools These Mortals Be best, so I run it through the test. Invoke for a bonus? Big time, when fooling mortals. Compel for Fate Points? Well, one of the things that makes Puck work in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is that he thinks this about mortals without really understanding them at all, winding up looking more foolish than the mortals in a couple of situations. So, working with that vibe, underestimating mortals makes a good compel. Invoke for effect? I can see using it to produce a number of ongoing scams to net the character resources: “I’ve been running a crooked dice game at the tavern, with these foolish mortals, so I’ve got enough silver coin in my pockets to melt down for bullets to use against the werewolf.” Check. Again, it comes out of story, showing Amadan’s preference for mortals and his sense of superiority over them, which also reinforces the high concept while setting him apart from other fey. It suggests possibilities for stories and it’s a good quote, so the cool factor works.

Final Aspect: What Fools These Mortals Be

Aspect 4: What shaped you?

My story for this phase of character creation was:

After an elaborate prank embarrasses the Summer Knight and, by extension, the Summer Lady and the whole Summer Court, Amadan is shunned by his fellows, and not informed of the decision of the Courts to withdraw from the mortal world. His first inkling is when he tries to return to Court and finds all the Ways barred, and he is trapped in the mortal world.

So, he gets ditched like a geek at a junior high party. The ideas I’m working with for Aspects here are being left out in the cold, abandoned, but not officially kicked out. Just, as I say, ditched. I start with that idea, Ditched, as my Aspect, but it’s a little colourless, and I think I’d have to go through too many convolutions to invoke it in any sort of positive way.

Ditched By Summer has some potential, because by adding the reference to Summer, I can think of ways to invoke the Aspect to reinforce the fact that he is officially part of the Summer Court, as well as to gain favour with those who don’t like Summer by relying on the Ditched part. Still, though, I don’t like the phrasing – Ditched sounds too modern for a 17th-century game. Playing with different synonyms, I get things like Exiled, Cast Out, and Outcast, before I get to Cast-Off. This has the right feel of being thoughtlessly discarded, so I go with Summer’s Cast-Off, and run it through the test.

Invoke for bonus? Check, as discussed above. Compel for Fate Points? Check. Invoke for effect? Sure. Tied strongly to the story of the character, supporting the high concept, and offering convenient story hooks to the GM? Check. Cool? Well, I like it. It gives me some thoughts about the spiteful rage that’s probably simmering under the dissolute, friendly-seeming surface of the character.

Final Aspect: Summer’s Cast-Off

Aspect 5: What was your first adventure?

Here’s my first adventure:

The Long Journey Home

Left behind when the fey retreat, Amadan finds all the Ways back to the Faerie Courts closed to him. He travels the world, seeking desperately to find a way back, but eventually comes to realize that he prefers life among the mortals.

The story is there to give the character a reason to linger in Prague, no longer searching so desperately for a way back to the Courts. I can see a lot of different ways to go with an Aspect here, from giving him something that reflects traveling the world, to one that further emphasizes his connection with mortals, to one that links him more strongly with Prague. If this were a PC instead of an NPC, or if the game was more of a road-trip game, I’d probably go with the first or the second. But Amadan is an NPC in a game centred in Prague, so I’m going to emphasize that.

The first thing I thought of for this Aspect was Right Where I Belong. The more I thought about it, the better I liked it. It could be read as either satisfaction or resignation with the current situation, and it has a lot of good uses, both positive and negative. It’s the kind of Aspect that I like most: evocative, flavourful, and generally applicable without being bland. So, it passes the test with flying colours.

Final Aspect: Right Where I Belong

Aspect 6: Whose path have you crossed?

This phase had me co-starring in Izabela’s story:

The Warlock of Vienna

Sent to infiltrate a suspected Huguenot movement in Vienna, Izabela falls in love with a young rebel and they end up working together to stop a powerful warlock from sacrificing a group of children that he has kidnapped. Amadan trades favours with Izabela, using his knowledge of the Mittelmarch to spirit the children out of the city in return for a future favour.

My thoughts on coming up with this section were to make Amadan more of a favour-broker, giving me a way to tie him in with the characters later on. I thought about an Aspect like And What’s In It For Me?, but that felt too mercenary, and didn’t develop the web of relationships I sort of wanted to create here. I settled on A Favour For A Favour, which had more of a bargaining feel to it, and the suggestion that Amadan is keeping track of a complex network of who owes him and who he owes.

So, the test. Invoke for bonus? Sure, especially in the area of bargaining. Compel for Fate Points? Yes, because he owes favours as well as being owed them. Invoke for effect? Definitely, paying a Fate Point to say that someone owes you a favour is gold. It’s tied into the story of the character, and it supports the high concept, and gives story hooks. Cool-wise, it adds a side to the character that I hadn’t been expecting, so score.

Final Aspect: A Favour For A Favour

Aspect 7: Who else’s path have you crossed?

The final phase had me co-starring in Emric’s story:

Blood Eagle

The last of the Svear dynasty resurrects an ancient, bloody ritual to direct the wars of Gustav Adophus. Can Emric save his friend, the new king, and put a stop to the sacrifices? Izabela observes the dark wizard’s preparations and advises Emric on how the ritual can best be interfered with or stopped. Amadan disguises himself and Emric to infiltrate the ceremony. When they are captured and brought to be sacrificed, Amadan magically frees them both, claiming that this was his plan all along.

In this bit of Amadan’s backstory, I wanted to build in the idea that his plans are either very convoluted – his claim – or random guesswork, luck, and desperate improvisation – what most people believe. My first impulse was a very Black Adderish Aspect: I Have A Cunning Plan, but that reference would work mainly for laughs in the game, which wasn’t the vibe I really wanted here.

I did want to hang on to the idea of a plan that seems to go horribly wrong, only to somehow actually work out in the end. See, one of my favourite ex-characters always had these brilliant plans that were terribly, terribly risky: they would either work, or doom everyone involved. Mostly, he had the ability to make them work, but it was often a close thing, and he wound up taking the brunt of the consequences no matter what happened. I just loved the look on the other players’ faces when I said, “I have a plan.”*

But I also wanted a little more flexibility and subtlety, and the ability to adapt things to the game a little more easily. I wanted Amadan to have the reputation for dangerous, risky plans that often came through, but I also wanted the feeling that he was often working on many more layers of plotting than most people suspected. Which led me to think of the Dune series, and gave me the Aspect I needed: Plans Within Plans.

I ran it through the test: invoke for bonus? Check. Compel for Fate Points? Sure, because plans can grow too complex, fed by or feeding into his trouble. Invoke for effect? Tougher, but doable – if he were a PC, I’d probably want to rethink the wording slightly, but being able to spend a Fate Point to prove that you had planned for a given eventuality is not too bad. Again, it builds on the story, ties into the high concept (and especially his trouble), and gives a GM a whole heaping helping of ways to wire him into a story. And it says some cool things about the character.

Final Aspect: Plans Within Plans

Other Aspects

Well, that’s how I build Aspects for characters, and the sorts of thought processes I go through to get the right sorts of Aspects. Now, when I’m pulling together Aspects for things other than characters, I use the same sort of thought processes, though I scale it based on how important the thing I’m creating the Aspect for is to the story. If it’s a part of the overall setting developed during city creation, you better believe I put the same sort of thought towards it, making sure it’s doing the duty I need it to, though I’m more concerned about how it fits story than with any mechanical functionality. Same thing with the faces.

On the other hand, Aspects on scenes that aren’t going to repeat – a fight in a random alley, exploring an unremarkable cellar, things like that – I don’t sweat the Aspects so much. I make sure there are a few Aspects to every scene, but I just jot them down quickly as the scene starts, based on the description I give to the players. I don’t need to be too precise, here, unless there’s something very specific I need to accomplish with the scene. And if there is, I’ve probably planned it out in advance. With scene Aspects, precision and poetry isn’t really necessary or desirable; you want Aspects whose existence is suggested by the description of the scene, and that the players have a chance to guess. An Aspect on a scene that they can’t figure out is like a secret door in a dungeon that they can’t find – it might as well not be there.

Temporary Aspects – especially consequences – require a middle-of-the-road approach. You want the Aspect to be cool and colourful and serve a mechanical purpose, but you also don’t want to spend five minutes in the middle of combat having to think one up. For these, I generally take a minute or two and brainstorm with my players to find something that fits what we agree is going on.

And that’s pretty much what I have to say about Aspects.

The important thing to remember with Aspects is that they are a phenomenal way to add cool to your game. Yes, they encourage roleplaying. Yes, they work in an interesting mechanical way. Yes, they substitute for a number of modifiers that otherwise would need charts. But the real thing they do is build cool stories.

Keep that in mind.


*Also, a long one. Back

*I miss Julian. Back

Tell Me A Story: Character Creation Phases in DFRPG

Last time, I talked about the three initial decisions that you need to make for creating a DFRPG character. This time, I’m going to walk through the five phases of character, talking about how to use these to really bring your character to life.

First thing we need to do is talk about the phased approach and collaborative character building. I’ve come out before in favour of collaborative character building, and I think it’s pretty much vital in this game. It ties in strongly to the phased approach, and really helps you come up with a group of characters that work together to make great games.

By moving through the process in a phased approach, you get the chance to build on what you’ve done before with the character in a reasonable, natural way. It lets you grow your character, rather than assembling it out of the stats you come up with. It also keeps everyone on the same track for the collaborative process, so that you’re all working on the same part of the character at the same time. This is vitally important for the collaborative aspect. At least, it is if you want to get the benefit out of it.

For the collaborative approach to work well, you need to do a few things:

  1. Be enthusiastic. Get excited about your character, and about everyone else’s character. Get pumped about the group.
  2. Talk about your character. Don’t keep your ideas to yourself. Make sure you share your thoughts with each other, so that you can get excited about all the characters.
  3. Talk about the other characters. If someone is stuck, brainstorm. Pitch ideas for Aspects or events or connections. Talk to each other about how your characters would get along, or how they would fit together.
  4. Listen to each other. If someone is asking for help, listen to them. If someone makes a suggestion, listen to it. If someone voices a concern, listen to it.
  5. Be respectful. This is the big one. Don’t shoot down ideas you don’t like. Don’t try and pressure someone into changing their character to be something they don’t want. Do offer constructive advice, or elaborations, or concerns, but remember that, in the end, only you get to decide about your character, and you only get to decide about your character.

By following the phased approach, as I mentioned above, the discussions you have as a group during character creation will be focused on the current phase, and will tend to be more productive. To help keep the conversations going and keep everyone on the same phase, when I run character creation sessions, when everyone has completed a phase, we go around in a circle and read what we’ve come up with. That lets everyone know what the other characters are, and gives people another chance to ask for help or offer suggestions.

So, let’s get moving on the phases.

1. Where did you come from?

This phase and the next one tend to kind of blend into each other in a lot of ways. This one deals with your “early history,” whatever that means to your character, and the next deals with your “middle history.” Where one stops and the other starts is open to interpretation, and will change from character to character. For example, if you’re playing a fifteen-year-old changeling, this first phase might last from birth until the month before play starts, while if you’re playing a two-hundred-year-old wizard, this phase might last until your mid-seventies.

What it depends on is having a defining moment transform you from what your were all your life to what you are now. That defining moment is the next phase. This phase is your life up until that moment.

Now, if you’ve started with a solid character concept, you probably have some strong ideas about this part of your character’s life already. Here’s where you get it down on paper, and choose an Aspect. Aspects are a big enough deal that I’m going to talk about them in detail in their own post, so let’s focus on just getting the story straight for now.

And that’s what you want here: the first bit of a story about your character. The rulebook suggests looking at things like nationality, ethnicity, family life, schooling, friends, and an explanation of your supernatural origin, if you have one starting out. What I like to do with my characters is look at the High Concept, Template, and Trouble, and think, “Where should I have started from so that these things make sense, and so that the journey is an interesting story?” And then I start from there.

I’m going to use the running example of the NPC I created during the Fearful Symmetries character creation session. Now, he’s not a PC, so I made some choices that are somewhat less playable along the way, but it still illustrates the process fairly well.

The character is a 17th-century version of Amadan, but he doesn’t match the modern version very much, except in basic character. I decided to make him full-fey rather than a changeling, for one thing. For another, I tied him into the whole story of the Faerie Courts closing their gates on the mortal world. So, here’s where we started:

High Concept: Dissolute Faerie Trickster

Trouble: Too Clever By Half

Template: Fey

Now, the idea I had is that he’s too close to the mortals, and so gets left behind by the Faerie Courts. We already have his “nationality,” in that he’s a faerie, so we just need to flesh out the idea and lay the groundwork for the nest stages. I like to keep the stuff I write at this stage fairly short, giving me room to elaborate and expand later, filling in details during play or whenever appropriate. So, I came up with the following bit of story for this section:

Fox-like faerie trickster of the Summer Court who prefers to spend his time among mortals, enjoying their passionate nature and gullibility.

There, I’ve got the foundation for the rest of the story, which hints at a lot of interesting things about the character, but still leaves room for growth and change and revelation. It’s got a couple of good questions hanging from it, as well, like why Amadan chooses to spend time with the mortals, and what the reaction of the rest of the court is to that.

This is the sort of idea you want. A story that tells you something interesting about where your character started from, with good fodder for further character development. Leave yourself room for growth, and a couple of good questions to explore during play.

2. What shaped you?

This section builds the bridge between the previous phase and your High Concept. It is a pivotal change in your character, either a single event or a slow, gradual change, that sets him or her on the path that you will walk during play. It should tie solidly into your Trouble, too; either produced by, or producing, that Trouble.

If we’re talking in terms of the Hero’s Journey, this is when the Hero leaves the village.

This change can be internal or external. For example, it may not be dramatic, but the decision to go out into the world and seek one’s fortune because of boredom is a solid internal change. It could be more profound, like the realization that you’re walking an evil path, and you need to make restitution for what you’ve done – still internal change, but more dramatic. On the external side of things, maybe having your home destroyed to put you on your way, or being given a quest and sent off to accomplish it.

The important thing to look at with this stage is that it should make sense to you that change would come. It can’t be forced, and there must be change, otherwise you’re short-changing the character. The change should grow out of the previous stage, incorporate your Trouble, and lead naturally to the High Concept.

This isn’t as tough as it sounds. We all know stories. We know how stories work, and what this sort of change is like. We know when something rings true, and when it doesn’t.

So, for Amadan, I want something that leads from the basic idea of the first phase to the Dissolute Faerie Trickster High Concept. Particularly, I want a reason for him to be dissolute. I’ve already determined that he’s been left behind when the Courts withdrew (otherwise he wouldn’t be here to be an NPC, right?), so it’s easy to see that the dissolute quality comes about because of being kicked out of his Court. Why did that happen? Well, his Trouble is Too Clever By Half, so it makes sense that he caused his own problem. Here’s what I came up with:

After an elaborate prank embarrasses the Summer Knight and, by extension, the Summer Lady and the whole Summer Court, Amadan is shunned by his fellows, and not informed of the decision of the Courts to withdraw from the mortal world. His first inkling is when he tries to return to Court and finds all the Ways barred, and he is trapped in the mortal world.

I thought of having him formally cast out of the Summer Court, but decided that I wanted the feel to be less formal, more junior high school. So, the cool kids stop talking to him, and don’t let him know when they change the address of the big party. That leaves him alone, bereft, and probably steeped in both spite and self-pity.

If this were a PC rather than an NPC, I might go a different way with this, making it more of an official exile, so that the result is more of an active character, seeking to redeem himself (or avenge himself), rather than just wallowing as a 17th-century emo kid. But as an NPC, having a more passive character is not always a bad thing.

The point is, I looked at where I was starting from, where I wanted to get, and incorporated the Trouble to make a solid progression in the story from first phase to High Concept.

In many ways, this ends the definition of the character – the next three phases are elaborations of the character. You have formed the core and shaping influences for the character; next, you show how those element interact.

3. What was your first adventure?

The next three stages are one of the most brilliant ideas I’ve come across in gaming. Like all the best ideas, when you look at it, you smack yourself in the head and ask, “Why didn’t I think of that?” It not only develops the character, but it develops the relationships between the characters, allowing you to avoid the standard you-all-meet-in-a-tavern-and-decide-to-go-adventuring start to a campaign. With these three phases, the group has a history, and the characters have relationships with each other, and attitudes about each other.

The first two phases deal with what made your character the way he or she is; these next three deal with what your character does.

The conceit is simple: you write a short blurb describing a story about your character, and what your character does in that story. Then, you pass the story to one of the other players so that they can add their character to it, and then it goes on to a third character, building a shared story with three characters involved. There’s the history and relationships built right in.

Now, in my group, we’re pretty much all word-whores. It’s easy for us to fill up a page with a brief (for us) story about the character. The problem with that is that it usually doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for other characters to fit in, or at least it limits what they can do, which restricts their character development. The solution that I came up with is limiting the story you write in this phase to two sentences: one to set up the situation, the other to say what your character does. It’s not a hard and fast rule, of course; sometimes we go over, and we always seem to come up with lengthy complex sentences. But it’s a good guideline to make sure that there’s enough room in the story for future elaboration, either by other characters adding in their bits or later during play.

When you write your story, you want to look for ways to illuminate facets of your character that have not been covered by the previous phases – things that are important to your concept, but not necessarily as central as the first four Aspects and the Template you’ve picked for your character. Maybe you need one more step to get you past the formative story you completed in the first two phases, or maybe you want to show another opportunity for change and what impact it has on your character. Or maybe you just really want to make sure you cover a certain relationship or character trait you have in mind.

The important thing is that it should grow out of the character you’ve already defined, and toward the character that you want to play. It should fill in some blanks, move the character closer to the ideal, and generally just make him or her more cool.

So, for Amadan, I wanted to put a little bit of resolution to the story about him being left behind when the Faerie Courts left. I decided that the logical thing for him to have done is to have gone looking for a way back to the Courts – and to fail, so that he’s still here. But I also wanted to make him a little more content with the way things are right now, so that he sticks around and I can use him as a recurring NPC. This is what I came up with:

The Long Journey Home

Left behind when the fey retreat, Amadan finds all the Ways back to the Faerie Courts closed to him. He travels the world, seeking desperately to find a way back, but eventually comes to realize that he prefers life among the mortals.

With this story, I bring his quest for a way home to a close off-screen, satisfying the dramatic imperative of the character to try and find a way back, while still keeping him active for play. And I’ve left plenty of room for other characters to jump in and interact – indeed, with Amadan’s search, it makes perfect sense that he would run into the other characters in the course of his travels. I’ve made it easy for them to add their own touches, which is what happens in the next two phases.

4. Whose path have you crossed?

One of the nice bits about this phase is that you’ve got another player helping you think about your character in a different way. I try not to have any ideas for this phase before I get to it, so that I’m not trying to shoe-horn a preconception into the story I get handed. That way, I can read what the other player has written, think about how my character might contribute, and then come up with something cool.

But not too cool – this is the balancing act of the last two phases. You want to do something cool so that your character gets cooler, but you need to remember that this is not your story. Your character is not the main hero of the tale. He or she is a supporting character. So, you need to find a way to do something that, while it makes your character cool, helps make the main character of that story cooler. Don’t steal their limelight; help shine it on them.

What I like to look for at this phase is inspiration for my character to be a little bit different than I had originally envisioned – affected by the situation, or the other involved character(s), or just struck by a new idea. I like to see if there’s something that the new story suggests to me that I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. At the same time, of course, it’s got to build on what I’ve already done with the character, staying true to the original concept.

Again, when I run the character creation sessions, I usually impose a one-sentence limit on this phase. Mostly, people wind up going to two or three sentences, but a limit of one sentence generally means they don’t write more than the original character.

So, here’s the story I got for this phase from Izabela’s character:

The Warlock of Vienna

Sent to infiltrate a suspected Huguenot movement in Vienna, Izabela falls in love with a young rebel and they end up working together to stop a powerful warlock from sacrificing a group of children that he has kidnapped.

Now, I want Amadan to be important to that story, but not central. He’s got to contribute in some definite way, but not steal the show. Here’s what I came up with:

Amadan trades favours with Izabela, using his knowledge of the Mittelmarch to spirit the children out of the city in return for a future favour.

With this addition, we find out how Izabela got the children to safety, but it’s still clear that she’s the one that saved the children. It also establishes a good, solid relationship between Amadan and Izabela, in that now she owes him a favour. And it sets him up as a crafty fellow, willing to barter favours, but never giving anything away for free, which is in keeping with the character up to this point, though not explicitly stated, nor anything I had thought of before.

5. Who else’s path have you crossed?

All of the above concerns pertain to this one. Lather, rinse, repeat.

What this whole process leaves you with is your character’s story, from origin to start of play, mapped out and linked together, with the Aspects you choose at each phase showing how history has shaped him or her. It gives you a solid background, and understanding of the forces driving the character, as well as some history with the other characters. It’s an incredibly rich way of putting together a character, especially if done as a collaborative exercise.

Give it a try.

Next time, I’m going to tackle the beating heart of the FATE system: Aspects.

Fearful Symmetries: Court of Thieves

Last night was the second session of Fearful Symmetries. The previous session, the characters had learned that the King of Thieves in Old Town, Zuckerbastl, was keeping a monster that he used to keep his prostitutes in line. Judging from the prostitute that had attacked them, they figured that the monster was a Red Court Vampire.

So, they decided to go see Zuckerbastl, and find out if it was true.

When I was fleshing out Zuckerbastl, I had initially planned to make him the suave, dashing King of Thieves stereotype that seems so popular in stories, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt that was a cop-out. What I did instead was make him someone try to act with the same kind of panache, but not really have his heart in it, so that the brutal, vicious mind underneath kept peeking through.

When the characters showed up at his warehouse (directed by the prostitute who had attacked them), Izabela was concealed behind a veil, and Emric tried to lurk (rather unsuccessfully) in the shadows in order to see who came and went for a while before approaching. That didn’t work out exactly as planned, because of a low Stealth score and bad roll on Emric’s behalf. He got approached and half-threatened, half-invited inside after he said that he was there to see Zuckerbastl and showed them the token he had from the thief he had helped earlier.

Confession time. I hadn’t really done a lot of prep work for this session; most of my game-prep time over the past three weeks had been eaten up with getting ready for the Armitage Files game and typing up our Setting Bible. What that meant was that, while I knew they had to find a link to get them from Zuckerbastl to the Red Court Vampire who was behind the disappearances the characters were investigating, I hadn’t actually figured out what that link should be. I decided to wait and see if the characters could point me in a reasonable direction during play.

Also, I lost one of the pages of my notes, with a bunch of stats I had put together just in case*.

There followed an audience with the King of Thieves, in his warehouse court. Emric presented himself to Zuckerbastl, while Izabela remained concealed behind her veil. Emric found the thief he had aided earlier tied to a pillar, severely beaten, but when he told his story (which corroborated the thief’s own tale), the man was released and restored to his position. Izabela used her magic to check if there were any vampires present, and found a few of Zuckerbastl’s thugs showed the influence of the addictive saliva, but no Red Court Vampires or Infected.

Well, in the ensuing discussions, our heroes managed to convince Zuckerbastl that he couldn’t trust some of his men. Emric was given a purse of coin, thanked, and dismissed, after Zuckerbastl got rid of most of his other men. Emric left, but Izabela hung back invisibly to watch Zuckerbastl give tell Marko (the thief who had been tied to the pillar) to round up some hard boys and burn “her” out, because “she” must be behind it. They then sealed off the maze through the warehouse crates to Zuckerbastl’s court, with Zuckerbastl on the inside alone and Marko hitting the streets to do his job. Izabela was on top of the piles of crates, watching everything.

With the party split, and Zuckerbastl (for all intents and purposes) alone, I figured it was a good time for a vampire attack.

I sent in a single full Red Court Vampire, creeping across the ceiling, wanting to get close enough to Zuckerbastl to get him with its saliva. Izabela spotted it, though, and lit it up with a nice evocation*, which let Zuckerbastl also see it. The vamp tried to swoop down on Zuckerbastl, but got tangled in the ropes and pulleys used to move the crates around*, and Zuckerbastl ran for a blunderbuss.

Another quick Spirit evocation later*, Zuckerbastl and Marko were back in the fight, and things didn’t go well for the vampire after that.

Faced with this rescue, Zuckerbastl gave up the name of the woman who he figured must be behind the vanishing prostitutes and the vampirism – Dregana, who had poached some of Zuckerbastl’s girls and opened up her own brothel. Izabela, Marko, and Emric decided to go pay her a visit the next day, just after dawn.

In the meantime, Izabela did a divination on the blood of the dead vampire, determining that it was probably a few decades old, and was originally a young, Greek man named Demetrios.

Next day, with Izabela once again heavily veiled, they went to the brothel, and broke into the back, finding a number of Red Court Infected and a couple of full vampires. They killed most of them, but one of the infected escaped down in the cellar, and our heroes gave chase. We wrapped up the evening on a bit of a cliffhanger: our heroes chased the fleeing infected thug right into a whole gang of Red Court Vampires, with a Black Court Vampire among them.

Fade to black.

Couple of observations:

  • I talked a little bit before the game about how combat works in the system, the value of maneuvers, and the different paradigm of what happens during a fight from other games like D&D. I think that really helped make the fight scenes work better for the players, but I’ve got to remember the same advice I gave them, and have the bad guys use more maneuvers and such, rather than just going for the attack.
  • Spellcasting is the most complex part of the game, and we’re all still trying to get a handle on it. Looking at the rulebooks this morning, I see a couple of errors I made, and judgment calls that probably should have gone a different way. Still, play proceeded fairly quickly, and a lot of interesting things got done.
  • One of the things I messed up was veils. I forgot that they make it harder to see out as well as in, unless they are specifically constructed to be one-way transparent (extra complexity).
  • Another was that I messed up the way you can use skills during preparing a thaumaturgy spell to tag the spell with a temporary Aspect that you can use to boost your Lore skill for free when comparing it to the complexity of the spell.
  • I need to make a big list of period names to assign to random NPCs. Especially Czech and Slavic names, but also some German, Italian, French, etc.
  • Ditto Prague street names.

All of that is just the learning curve of any new system, though. We all had fun, and we’re looking forward to the next session.

Oh, and I’ve built the preliminary wiki on Obsidian Portal. So far, it’s just got the stuff from the Setting Bible and a few minor additions from the play sessions, but it’s there. Enjoy.

*Which page of notes I have just found. Timing.

*Spirit evocation maneuver, sticking it with the Aspect Lit Up Like a Christmas Tree.

*Bad, bad Athletics roll as it tried to sprint.

*Sending a mental message to Emric that Zuckerbastl was under attack by a vampire.