I’m still waiting for June to start actually building a DFRPG campaign, but I’m starting to do some thinking about what sorts of decisions will need to be made. I want a lot of these decisions to be made jointly between me and the players, through discussion and consensus, which means I need to understand the ramifications of the different options available.
And that means I’m doing some thinking about things.
One of the first decisions that needs to be made in running a DFRPG campaign is the power level of the campaign. There are four different levels, each of which dictates the Refresh level, number of skill points available, and the highest level of skill you can take.Â There’s a good explanation of the different levels in the book, talking about what sorts of characters are available at that level, and what sort of abilities they’ll have.
This is a pretty far-reaching decision, with a sort of domino effect that cascades through the entire game. The power level will affect the types of characters created, which will influence the types of foes they face, which will shape the stories you tell and the themes you choose and even the nature of the setting.
So, what are we talking about, here? Here are my thoughts. Note that the conclusions I come up with are not the only ones supported by the game, but they show some of the ramifications of the power level decision.
Feet in the Water
6 refresh, 20 skill points, skill cap at Great.
At this level, you’re looking pretty much at playing mortals with (maybe) a supernatural trick or two. This means templates like Focused Practitioner, Red Court Infected, and True Believer. You can get a little more oomph by taking the basics of things like Champion of God or Changeling, but you’re not going to have much in the way of refresh to customize your character or buy extra stunts. At most, you’re going to have two skills at Great, which would leave you with only four other skills above Mediocre.
This is the game of the clued-in mortal, the small fish in the pond, and folks who are just starting out in their career of becoming big, bad monsters. Sample characters from the books are people like the Special Investigations Unit, the Carpenter family (excluding Molly and Michael, but including Charity), the Ordo Lebes, the Changeling kids from Summer Knight, and most of the members of ParaNet. The foes they’d be able to face on an equal footing (-6 refresh or thereabouts) are either mortal or very low-powered supernatural; things like the Chlorofiend, the chimp or baboon sized shen demons, some common fey like pixies and elves, spectres, and minor spirits.
This sort of power level really lends itself to horror stories, as opposed to action stories. In most cases, your characters are going to be significantly overmatched by the opposition, and they’re going to need to outrun and outthink them. Horror stories also tend to happen on a very personal scale – it’s you and a couple of friends up against the monster that’s going to eat you. You’re not necessarily trying to save the world. You’re just trying to save yourself.
The idea of personal scale and the limited array of foes also suggests that a game at this level would fit nicely into a limited-geography setting – maybe a college campus, or a small town, or a single precinct in a city. Of course, as the early seasons of Supernatural show so very well, it also works fairly well as a road-trip game.
Of course, you don’t have to go the horror route. If you truncate the power scale of the bad guys, eliminating most of the serious occult threats, you could run a strong action game, where the little bit of an edge that the characters have over mundane characters is enough to turn them into the last, best hope for keeping the evil under wraps. It changes the feel more to that of a Submerged level game, as noted below, because the range of power is narrowed so significantly.
Up to Your Waist
7 refresh, 25 skill points, skill cap at Great.
This is where the supernatural templates begin to be more viable as characters. Yeah, that one refresh point does make that much of a difference – it opens up things like the Sorcerer template, as well as giving you the buffer you need to customize and tweak the lower-level templates into something with a little more style. The skill points don’t give you an extra Great (or even Good) skill, but it does round out your range of skills with at least four more skills at Average or above.
Characters like Murphy, Hendricks, or Father Forthill are good examples of the kinds of characters that start being playable at this level, and more powerful foes (ghouls and sorcerers, for example, maybe even an actual vampire) start being viable to send up against the characters.
I can see going one of two ways at this power level: either ramp up from the Feet in the Water level, creeping from horror into more heroic horror, or else setting it as a starting point for action stories, with the characters being young, inexperienced, and just starting out. Think later-season Supernatural (where Sam and Dean have mastered fighting all the easy monsters) versus early-season Buffy (where Willow is just starting to dabble in magic, and Buffy’s only died once).
Setting can go either way, depending on whether you want your characters to be the big fish or the small fish. Keep it at the same small scale as in the previous level, and you’ve got some serious dedicated guardians in control of their little patch of ground. Ramp it up to full city size, and you’ve got some up-and-comers ready to be pawns for the other power blocs squabbling over territory.
You can even do both: consider the Alphas, who pretty much own their little section of the city, but are still very much a local phenomenon, and at risk from the bigger power players in the rest of Chicago. In fact, that would make a pretty cool campaign, but you’d have to adjust the Alphas’ listed powers from their stat blocks to get them playable at 7 refresh.
8 refresh, 30 skill points, skill cap at Superb.
Here’s where we start approaching the default power level of the novels. You can play a Wizard at this point, though not a terribly experienced one, and even a White Court Vampire. In fact, at this point, all the character types are available. If you play a less-costly character type, you’ve had the opportunity to upgrade and customize it a fair bit. You can start out with two skills at Superb, and have eight other skills at Average and above. You are starting at a level that the rest of the occult world has to start noticing.
This is where you’d start if you wanted to play the Alphas as statted, or a band of Apprentice Wizards like Molly Carpenter, or a group of experienced Minor Practitioners like Mortimer Lindquist. The FBI Hexenwolves start becoming viable opposition, along with things like the gorilla-sized shen demon, Bucky the Murder Doll, hunter goblins and the lesser gruffs, Black Court Renfields, werewolves, and the like.
The stories are moving strongly toward the idea of action, now, though not necessarily as pulpy as things get next level. Characters have the options and power to go toe-to-toe with a broad range of antagonists in whatever sense they choose, and can be extremely competent in a narrow range of abilities. They can be trapped in that middle-management hell of having to look after those weaker than themselves (many), and still obey those more powerful than themselves (still many). And they’re tough enough now that those above them are much more inclined to notice them and give them orders or demand favours.
Scale-wise for the setting, the world is really starting to open up. At this point, things are ripe for globe-trotting troubleshooters working for Monoc Security, or Strike Force Summer Lightning, keeping the Nevernever safe for their ladyships. If they keep to a smaller geographic area, they start to be real movers and shakers in their city, or the undisputed top of the food chain within their own small town/neighbourhood/precinct/college campus/shopping mall.
10 refresh, 35 skill points, skill cap at Superb.
The five extra skill points don’t add a whole lot, but the two extra refresh are huge. It doesn’t open up any new character types, but it gives you the flexibility to customize and combine different types. Here’s the quote from the book – I can’t say it any cooler than this:
[I]t becomes possible at this stage to be a Champion of God with a Sword of the Cross, or a Werewolf who can do earth evocations, or a Red Court Infected who becomes the Emissary of the Buddha as a way of taming his impulse control.
This is the default power level of the main characters at the start of Storm Front. With this, you could build Harry Dresden, or a very talented Karrin Murphy, or Michael Carpenter.
This is also the point at which all the antagonists really become viable as opposition, though there are still some that will crush characters of this level if you meet them head-on. But characters at this level have a broad range of different options to help them pick their battles and choose their weapons.
Action here can creep easily into the pulp ideal, and doing horror is really tough. Stories, which started to really expand scope at the last level, now deal with even larger issues than the personal stories of the earlier levels. Not to say that things don’t have a personal aspect – you need to make things personal enough for the characters to get involved, after all, and abstract concepts like saving the world just aren’t as immediate. I’m just saying that there will be world-saving going on.
If characters aren’t the biggest fish in their pond at this power level, then they are still pretty significant players, as opposed to pawns. If someone tries to push them around, even someone much more powerful, there will be repercussions. Political stories start being far more interesting at higher power levels, as the characters will be able to bring some leverage of their own to bear on the course of events set by the mighty.
Setting scale-wise, you pretty much have to open things up here to allow for enough opposition to generate interesting stories. If you’ve got four Wizards in a little farming town, for example, putting enough supernatural excitement in the town to keep the characters busy is really going to strain credulity. Expanding it to the five towns in the area and the wild spaces in between, though, and you’ve got yourself a ballgame. Or at least a roleplaying game.
So, there you have it. That’s the rundown on the four different power levels, and the way they can affect the game you build. It’s an important decision right at the start of the campaign, and I encourage groups to think about what the stories are going to be like with the different levels. Talk it over, and find what works for you.
At least, that’s what I’m planning.