Last Friday was the latest session of my Feints & Gambits campaign. I had four players, and had planned to make this session much more focused, with a clear objective and a problem that could be solved in one evening, as a contrast to the longer, more sandboxy style of the last couple of scenarios. At the same time, I didn’t want to make things too straightforward; that always smacks of railroading.
This can be a fine balance to strike in a game like The Dresden Files RPG. To be faithful to the source material, you need an element of mystery and investigation, but this creates the hazard that the group will flail around looking for the plot coupon that lets them progress. If the coupon is too obvious, then they feel led around by the nose, which can make them obstreperous. Telling the group, “You need more information. How do you get it?” can result in them trying the same things, but doing them harder1. And, when they run out of easy ideas, they can fall back on the old standby of divinatory magic2. This can make mysteries and investigations both frustrating and boring for the players.
Now, when I run a game with a wide-open mystery, I try and make every path a path forward, but the value of forward changes with the path. So, with the whole Easter plot, any avenue of investigation would lead them in to the main plot, but from different angles. Thus, they followed the thirteen black iron daggers, and found the necromancer cult, instead of following the threats from the fey and finding the ghostly battle, but in either case they wound up dealing with the ghosts of the Easter Uprising, and the plot to take control of them. That said, it gets hard to tell in a game like that if you’re actually making progress towards anything really important, because you don’t know what the end-goal is.
So, this session, I wanted something that had a very definite goal, and a short trip from finding out about it to resolving it. I came up with several options, most of them reflecting some part of the changed nature of Dublin now that all the ghosts had been loosed. One in particular really got me thinking and planning, but I quickly realized that it would work best as a longer arc, so I’m saving that for later. In the end, I went with a quick note that one of the players had sent to me immediately after the setting creation session back last October. Here’s what she sent me:
Location: Dublin – Pussy’s Leap, Templeogue area: The large black canine which walked his area created the sound of jangling chains with each step it took.
Now, I have to say, one of the things that attracted me to this hook was that there was a black dog at a place called Pussy’s Leap, but that’s just me. A bigger factor was that I wanted to throw in a good, old-fashioned monster hunt, where the folk didn’t need to be terribly worried about bystanders and could just cut loose. But I also wanted to tie this in to the new Aspect on Dublin, All the Ghosts are Free. To that end, I tweaked things a bit from the standard black dog stories, building a new backstory3 and a hook into the story for the characters.
There was another thing I wanted to try out this session. I haven’t been happy with the lack of flow in the Fate Point economy – mainly, I haven’t been happy with how rarely I compel the characters, and thus hand out Fate Points. This has led to the characters valuing Fate Points very highly, and hoarding them when they can. They are reluctant to spend them. As Fate Points are a currency of cool in the game, this means that the characters haven’t been as cool as they could be, all tying back to my infrequent compels4. I’ve told the players to let me know when they are compelling themselves, but my group seems to think it’s a bit gauche to have to ask for Fate Points just because they’re roleplaying, so that doesn’t happen a lot.
Then Ryan Macklin posted about player-on-player compels on his blog, and I thought, “Wow. That’s a great idea. Clean, simple, and engaging. I wonder if it’ll actually work with my group.” And the best way to find out if it would work was to try it. I put a big glass goblet full of the poker chips I use for Fate Points in the middle of the coffee table in front of the players, and outlined some simple rules:
- Any player can take a Fate Point from the goblet to compel an Aspect on any other player at any time.
- Players facing a compel from another player may decline it if they choose without buying it off5.
- Any player may call foul6 on any compel, which then must be retracted.
- GM compels must still be bought off with a Fate Point.
To get the game rolling, I ran a short scene for each of the characters. This was to deal with a couple of things that had come up after the last session, during advancement, and to start slow in order to give people a chance to try the new compel structure. So, we had:
- The Warden of Ireland visiting Mark O’Malley, who now has almost everything he needs to be a full-on Wizard7, to offer him apprenticeship with one of the White Council. Mark, who really wanted to be a full Wizard, turned it down when it was explained that he would be leaving Dublin and be under the supervision and tutelage of his master for six or seven years.
- Nate being accosted by a Snowbird8 in the market on Moore Street, and blasting him when he wouldn’t back down. Then running away, because Constable Fergus was coming.
- Firinne being evicted from her apartment, and conning the garda enforcing the eviction into taking her to a shelter and getting her permission to stay there for a couple of weeks.
- Rogan’s mother coming to visit, to express how much the family misses her, and couldn’t she have been more careful with that necromancer, and her second cousin, who only had a little of the blood, had noticed a lot of ghosts gathering in St. Stephen’s Green, and could Rogan perhaps do her job and look into, please?
There were several compels handed back and forth during these scenes, and it made me pretty happy about the whole thing. And then, having the plot in hand, they gathered together to go look into the ghosts gathering in St. Stephen’s Green.
The ghosts were, of course, gathering around the Fountain of the Fates, and Mark whipped up a ritual to allow the group to see them. It was a disparate group, with clothes from the past 150 years or so, though many of them were wearing high boots and carrying rods and creels. Rogan drew upon her Bloodline of Power Aspect to force them to recognize her and speak with her. She got the story that they were fleeing to the Fates for sanctuary after being chased away from Pussy’s Leap by a big black spectral dog covered in clanking chains.
The gang then trucked off to Pussy’s Landing in Templeogue to track down and stop this ghost dog. Nate asked what he knew about ghosts, and I gave him the basic run-down about how they were not the actual spirits of people, but more like echoes or stains left behind after death, and that one needed to make them acknowledge you to be able to affect them9, or else confront them in the Nevernever. They came up with the idea to use Firinne as bait, glamoured to look like a fisherman, while Rogan, Nate, and Mark followed her unseen along the paths near Pussy’s Leap.
And so we wound up with Firinne getting jumped by chain hound, Mark opening a portal into the Nevernever swamp adjacent to Pussy’s Leap to get everyone in and focusing on the hound10, and they started piling on.
I described the thing as looking like a giant of a man that had been twisted into a doglike shape by the chains wrapping around him, which trailed off into the darkness, and also reached out to tangle our heroes up. Viewing the thing with The Sight showed something strange: it was a ghost, but there were tattered remnants of a real, human soul, now long-destroyed, clinging to it. They tried to bring it’s human mind to the forefront, damping down its savage nature, and got it to scream out the name, “Caitlyn!” but couldn’t get anything more coherent from it.
The struggle was interesting to me, because I had made the thing up with a -15 Refresh cost, to pit against four characters who are effectively at Up To The Waist power level. I figured it would be a tough fight, though not all that threatening, but the group used the two secret weapons in the DFRPG: surprise and teamwork. They layered something in the order of five or six different maneuvers on the thing, and then Nate, once he was assured that the creature didn’t count as a human for the purposes of the Laws of Magic, dropped a mystic nuke on it, with about ten or twelves shifts of power.
I liked this, and stole a couple of his shifts for some pure-flavour fallout, blasting the Nevernever environment, and giving everyone some instant sunburn, while eradicating the hound.
Our heroes then ran like bunnies, because they heard other things moving through the Nevernever swamp towards them, and they didn’t sound happy.
That’s where we left it. Over all, I’m happy with the session, though I was interested to see that the player-on-player compels pretty much dried up once the group started in on the plot. Hopefully, that will change as people get more familiar with the mechanic, and see it as a way to stock up on Fate Points when they’re running low.
Looking at the actual events, it doesn’t look as if much happened this session, but it still ran later than usual. This was due in part to the introduction of the new compels, the amount of socializing we did, and the initial scattered nature of the beginning of the game as I did the individual scenes. Much as I enjoy these individual scenes, I think I need to cut back on them.
Still, I’ve got a few loose threads from this session, and some other ideas, forming a rich base for the next scenario.
- Whatever that means. “You don’t find anything under the bed.” “I look harder.” “Sigh.”
- Want a good tip to keep divination magic from overwhelming investigation? Make the the spellcaster be very specific about what the ritual is looking for, and how it’s going about it. It forces the group to view divination as just one more investigatory tool, rather than the magic solve-it button. “I use divination to find out who killed the ogre.” “Cool. How?” “Ummm… How about if I take blood from one of the wounds and use it’s connection to the murder weapon to lead me to that?” “Awesome! How complex are you making this?” Like that. Now, the spell can get them some valuable information, but doesn’t short-circuit the mystery. And other investigatory skills are still valuable.
- Which I’m not going to mention here, because the group failed to uncover it, and some parts of it may have consequences.
- It also means that I’m not giving the players the kinds of character problems they took Aspects to get, which means, for example, Rogan doesn’t have any problems keeping her beast nature in check, and Firinne is remarkably restrained for a trickster changeling.
- I added this mainly to make the player-on-player compels less threatening, and so encourage them to take place.
- We call this the “Dick Move!” rule.
- Lacking only Wizard’s Constitution.
- That’s the gang of minor Winter fey led by Baglock.
- Strangely, he did not ask how to make ghosts acknowledge you at this time…
- This is the moment that Nate asked, “So, about getting ghosts to acknowledge us…” It’s all in the timing.