Designer’s Corner: Feeling the Pain

This time in Designer’s Corner, Leonard Balsera talks about the nature of pain.

Violent conflict in the Dresden Files is almost always depicted as chaotic, intense, and dangerous. Harry often survives a battle only by inches and almost never escapes a fight without injury or consequence. Others in the series fare even worse. Without supernatural assistance (and even sometimes, with it), violence is not a thing to be engaged in lightly. If you’re familiar with our other game, Spirit of the Century, you know that player characters can be rather hard to take down. Coming into the Dresden Files RPG, it was clear from the get-go that some changes needed to be made in order to fit the mood of the books better. Here’s a short tour of some of the most important features that reinforce this mood:


Stress in the game is a measure of temporary harm that’s easily shaken off as soon as you have a moment to breathe – glancing blows, mounting exhaustion, scrapes and bruises, and so on. Most combat damage in the game is first dealt as stress. In Spirit of the Century, player characters had a default of five boxes of stress they could take, which could be raised by skills. In Dresden, they have a maximum of four boxes. This, combined with the fact that weapons (and supernatural powers like magic) do additional points of stress damage when they hit, means that it doesn’t take much for an armed attacker (or rampaging wizard) to give you a seriously bad day.


Consequences represent lasting harm, things that you have to live with for a while before you recover from them. If you take too much stress, you can use consequences to “absorb” that stress for you, at the cost of having a more permanent injury to deal with. As stated above, it doesn’t often take long before you have to start using these, so like in the books, it’s pretty likely that a violent encounter will leave your character with bruised ribs, broken bones, and other unpleasant things. And compared to Spirit of the Century, they take a lot longer to recover from and deal with unless you have supernatural assistance. In fact, there’s a level of consequence that changes one of your character’s aspects – in essence, it’s a way in which conflict changes who you are on a fundamental level.


All this adds up to one inevitable conclusion – eventually, when you fight in this game, you’re going to go down hard. Harry has before and more than likely will again. But this kind of danger can’t be random, and it isn’t in the books – when Harry and his friends risk their lives, you know it’s because they’re willing to die to advance their cause.

To add another dimension to the notion of defeat, we’ve strongly upgraded the role of concession in the system. Basically, it goes like this: straight up losing a fight (aka being ‘taken out’) puts your character’s fate in your opponent’s hands. Period dot, end of story, do not pass go and collect $200. That means that if the opponent wants to kill you, taking you out gives them the authority to say they can do that. Concession lets you, at any point in the conflict before you’re taken out, volunteer to lose in exchange for being able to dictate (within reason) your character’s fate. So “killing you” can become “leaving you for dead by the side of the road”, and so on. And you still lose, which means you don’t get to stop the evil ritual, or save the hostage, or any of that. Sometimes, that can be just as bad as dying.

But it never comes down to “oh, this random die roll got me,” and wrangling things from there. When you put your character’s life on the line, like Harry and his friends, it will be a time when they’re good and ready to give up their life for something. The combination of absolute, terrible risk and dramatically appropriate outcomes reminds me strongly of the Dresden Files, and I hope it will remind you of them as well.

So what are you willing to die for? What price are you willing to pay?

Your adversaries await your answer.