Designer’s Corner: Making the Setting Your Own

In this Designer’s Corner, lead system developer Leonard Balsera talks about the game’s approach to setting.

While one of our goals for the Dresden Files RPG was to provide a comprehensive guide to the life and times of Harry Dresden and his friends (and believe me, given the size of our NPC — Who’s Who — and monsters — What Goes Bump — chapters, I think we pulled it off), it wasn’t the most important one for me. One of my biggest points of focus for the project was making sure that gaming groups had the space to make the world of the Dresden Files their own, without having to slavishly adhere to constraints set up by the books.

The first idea which supports that is our central conceit for the game itself – that it’s being written by Billy Borden of the Alphas in an effort to create a Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the 21st century. The information presented in it is the best he could do with the resources he had, but at the end of the day, it’s still just Billy’s best educated guess on the universe he lives in. Nothing guarantees that he’s 100% right about everything, and if you and your group decide that you see some things differently than he does – well, it’s your game, and what you say goes.

Our city creation system also gives you a large sense of ownership and control over setting, allowing you to choose a city and “Dresden” it up, investing it with characters and locations of your group’s choosing. You get to decide what the supernatural community is like in Denver, Las Vegas, Paris, Tokyo… wherever you want. You get to decide what the points of interest are. You get to decide what the themes and mood of the stories you’re going to tell in that city are going to be like. Include or ignore as much real history as you want. Know a lot about your city? Bring that detail into the game. Don’t? Make it up. What matters is that by the end, what your group creates will be your definitive stamp on the Dresden Files universe, your own niche of it to shape and carve.

Don’t want to go through all that work? No problem – we’ve included a sample city, Baltimore, completed as if it had gone through the city creation process, all ready for your characters to move in and make it a home.

And then, of course, there’s Chicago, the default setting of the books themselves. On the one hand, it’d seem that this would be the hardest thing for a gaming group to “own” – after all, a lot of the setting decisions seem to have been made in the books already, right? What if your group’s not interested in that?

Fortunately for you, the powers of erudition possessed by Kenneth Hite are here to help. Going beyond just the books, his chapter on Chicago is a veritable treasure trove of historical, geographical, and thematic tidbits – it’s essentially the research done for you, plenty of information for your group to use the city creation techniques, narrow down what matters, and apply that in your game, tweaking the city’s aspects and locations to fit. The Second City is a vast place, with room enough for campaigns about werewolves struggling through college, cops looking into the weird, and wizards struggling to keep the darkest of forces from hurting humanity. Your Chicago and Dresden’s Chicago may not have a whole lot of overlap when it’s all said and done, but it’ll be yours.

Finally, we provide advice, scattered about the book, on how certain setting deviations might be interesting. Here’s one, from the Who’s Who chapter, talking about how life could have gone differently for everyone’s favorite wiseacre wizard (spoilers ahead!)…

There are a number of times where Harry Dresden could have made a different choice (or suffered a different fate), which would have changed the overall nature of the Dresdenverse. If you don’t like Harry Dresden as the hero portrayed in his case files, make him a villain — or at least an anti-hero.

Here are some suggestions for “alternate Harrys”:

  • Pre-Storm Front: Harry (and Elaine) are Justin DuMorne’s thralls; Harry is DuMorne’s enforcer.
  • Storm Front: Mr. Dresden, Supernatural Security Consultant to “Gentleman Johnnie” Marcone.
  • Fool Moon: Harry the Hexenwolf (he keeps the belt he stole).
  • Grave Peril: Count Harry of the Red Court (infected by Bianca or Susan).
  • Summer Knight: Winter Knight Harry (he accepts Mab’s offer).
  • Death Masks: Harry Denarian (he accepts Lasciel’s coin); there are two chances for this.
  • Blood Rites: Harry Dresden-Raith, husband to Lara Raith (basically Lara’s sex-slave or thrall).
  • Dead Beat: Harry Demigod (he consumes the Vortex rather than Cowl).
  • Proven Guilty: Winter Knight Harry or Harry Denarian.
  • White Night: Harry Dresden-Raith or Harry Denarian.
  • Small Favor: Winter Knight Harry or Harry Denarian (though this latter one is very tenuous). Slightly more likely is Harry taking up Nicodemus’ offer of support, since they seem to have common enemies.

The three most likely options for an alternate Harrys are Winter Knight Harry, Harry Denarian, or “the thrall of Lara Raith”. Of those, “marrying” Lara is possibly the biggest stretch, and accepting Lasciel’s full power, the least.

Which says something about Harry, doesn’t it?