Designing Dresden 5 – Stressing Out

Hi there. I’m Fred Hicks, one of the designers on the Dresden Files RPG, co-author of Spirit of the Century, and author of Don’t Rest Your Head. Rob’s been writing these Designing Dresden columns so far, but I thought it might be time to get involved myself and talk about some of the fiddly game system decisions we’ve been working through.

As you may know by now, the Dresden Files RPG will be using a system based on the core engine used in Evil Hat Productions’ other Fate project, Spirit of the Century — which is not to say it will be the same game as that.

Spirit of the Century was written with the goal of supporting cinematic, pulp-style action, where heroes can face down against a mob of ninjas without mussing their dinner jackets. Characters in Spirit can take a lot of punishment without injury — and that’s intentional. And weapons and armor are mere “color” trappings in Spirit. A gunshot poses no more risk than a fist; what matters more is who’s behind the attack.

But the Dresden Files operates on a different footing. Getting outnumbered in the Dresden-verse sucks (if you aren’t prepared for it). A gun is still something to be feared — Harry’s able to hold off an entire pack of Lycanthropes, at least for a time, with the threat of a single pistol. And there are plenty of things out there that, if they can lay their hands on you, can rip your face off in a hot second.

Given all this, it’s clear to us that we need to revisit our core ideas for how damage (called “stress” in Spirit of the Century) is handled in the Dresden Files RPG. In this article, I’ll talk about where we’re at with that, right now, and why we arrived there.

But is this the final form of it, that will see light in the published game? Possibly not — and you can be a part of that. Consider this an open “concept playtest” if you’re already familiar with Spirit of the Century, you’re on a good footing for giving the ideas we outline here a test in the laboratory of your own play (and in fact, owning a copy of Spirit will put you on a solid footing for any future ideas we decide to air on this blog, and playtesting in general).

So, enough for the setup. Let’s get on to the particulars!

The Basic Needs

Let’s look at the basics of what we need a damage system to support in order to give us the world of the Dresden Files as written by Jim:

  • Fights, when they happen, hurt. It’s not that we want to avoid combat, but anyone who gets into a fight — whether it involves fists, knives, guns, or supernatural abilities — should expect to come out the other side bruised and bloody at minimum — and maybe even with a burned, crippled hand, psychological trauma, or something else equally nasty.
  • It needs to allow for “amped up” lethality — if the Nasty Thing can get its hands on you. Harry would have been dead several times over if it wasn’t for some quick reflexes and an ensorcereled leather duster.
  • Getting outnumbered stinks. A three on one fight sucks for the “one” in that equation. There’s no cinematic sensibility saying that you can fight off a dozen creatures all at once (unless you’re Michael Carpenter fighting a pack of Red Court vampires — but he’s an exception that we’ll back up with the supernatural powers stuff).
  • Preparation can mitigate some of the nastiness here. If you have time to get up a shield, or come into a fight armored to the gills, you’ve got a better chance. Maybe not a greatly improved chance — but a better one all the same.

There’s more to it than that, sure, but that’s a pretty workable list at the outset. I’m not going to get into drawing the connecting lines between each of those bullet points and the implementation we currently have on deck, below — I leave that as an exercise for the reader — but I want you to look at this list and keep it in mind as you read about (and possibly use) the system I talk about below. In practice, it should hit all of those points, and more — but we’re going to keep kicking it around our lab (and maybe you will too, in yours) until we’re dead certain of it.

Back to the Challenge Track

In Spirit of the Century‘s free predecessor, Fate 2.0, we had something called the Challenge Track. But as we put together the pulp version of Fate 3.0 found in Spirit of the Century, we realized that it wasn’t a good fit for what we wanted to do. So the challenge track got set aside and, to some extent, forgotten.

Fast forward to today. While the effects of the Fate 2.0 challenge track don’t quite track as cleanly in the current implementation of Fate, the concepts (and physical layout) of the track definitely have some value for us. We can take the idea of the “stress track” (to use Spirit’s term) and divide it up into “tiers”, like the challenge track did in Fate 2.0. Then, we can combine all of that with the modern Fate 3.0 idea of consequences to produce something pretty exciting. Here’s what a standard stress track might look like smashed together with the Fate 2.0 concept of the challenge track:

Let’s break down the basics of how this would work in play:

  • The numbers on the left hand side represent the range of shifts (stress) on an attack that should cause one (or more — see below) boxes to be checked off at that level (or “tier”).
  • Each tier has a consequence level associated with it. When all the boxes on that tier fill upthe character takes a consequence of that level of severity.
  • Later on, if stress hits a tier that is already full and has a consequence, then a single box on the next tier gets checked off instead, as “roll-over”.

At it’s core, that’s it. But the nice thing about this set-up is that there are a lot of ways to play around with its functions, to get a richly textured (but still pretty straightforward) system of toughness and lethality. So let’s get into that.

Getting Tough

Toughness in the Dresden Files really breaks down into three categories: mortal resilience, armor and basic protection, and supernatural invulnerability (or particularly impenetrable armor). Let’s briefly dig into each one of those.

Particularly tough mortals can take a lot of minor punishment — bruising, but if you shoot or stab them, they’ll still bleed pretty badly. Looking at the challenge track, this sounds like someone who gets several extra boxes at the “Mild” level — they can take a lot of minor punishment before it adds up to a setback (a consequence) — but leaves them just as vulnerable as the next guy when it comes to the nastier stuff in the Moderate and Severe tiers. Pretty simple. At supernatural extremes, this might even extend to the idea of the “Mild” level having unlimited boxes — never producing a Mild consequence, or at the least, never “rolling up” to something worse.

For basic protection — extra-thick hide, kevlar, and so on — there are two ways of looking at it. One is simple damage avoidance — invulnerability, in other words, so we’ll push the discussion of that off to the third category, below. The other form is damage mitigation. So let’s look at that: first off we have the basic idea of toughness as presented above — extra boxes. Certain types of protection might add boxes, then — though they might pad out things at a higher level, like Moderate and Severe, depending on their nature.

But let’s dig at this a bit, and look at, say, a kevlar vest. Conventional wisdom suggests that if you get shot in the chest while wearing kevlar, you’ll still feel it — and the next day, you’ll probably have some nasty bruises on your chest and an ache that won’t go away for a while. So we can conclude this: kevlar certainly doesn’t keep you from getting hurt — it just makes the hurt less nasty. So how would we produce that effect with our challenge track? Easy: change the range. Maybe a Kevlar vest changes the tiers from 1-2, 3-4, 5-6 to 1-3, 4-6, 7-8. While a 5-point hit might put a normal person into Severe consequence territory (“Bleeding From a Gunshot”), a kevlar-adjusted hit would take that down to Moderate (“Deep Bruises”). There we go.

We can combine the effects of these first two approaches to toughness and create, say, an Ogre-blooded changeling who can take a load of punishment that would drop a mortal in short order:

Finally, invulnerability. With invulnerability, we have the idea that the damage that lands could simply have no effect — not even progress towards a consequence. This sort of thing should be used pretty sparingly, but it definitely has its place in the world of the Dresden Files, so we need to support it.

Invulnerability would work pretty simply: after the “stress” value of a successful hit is determined, it would be reduced by a certain number (usually small). If this reduced the stress to zero or below, the hit would slide off of the target with no effect. Certain types of faerie folk, Denarians, Loup Garou and more have all shown signs of some extent of this over the course of the Dresden Files. (Nicodemus in particular has a crazy amount of invulnerability … unless you hit him in a specific weakness. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Read Death Masks — one of my absolute favorites!)

Taken together, these provide us a nice amount of texture for “toughening up” the opposition (and the player characters, to at least some extent). We have several ways to make low and middle tier bad-guys tough, but not unbeatable, while allowing for top-class opponents like Cowl and Nicodemus to get cars and masonry dropped on them with only mild inconvenience.

Getting Deadly

The flipside of toughness, lethality, can be just as much fun — though from a design perspective, it can be pretty tricky. In general, I have a strong preference to use a fairly light touch with lethality in my Fate implementations, in part because I don’t want to throw effects into the game that are ruinous to fun. While a very tough opponent can certainly be a challenge to keep interesting and non-frustrating, few things can be less fun to a player than having his character dropped in a single blow.

But with the Dresden Files RPG, we’re also looking for some verisimilitude with the novels and real risk to life and limb. We’ve got to find a good middle-ground, where the fear of getting your arm torn off by a super-strong werewolf is enough to make you run, and the risk of a gunshot wound is bad enough to make a gang of lycanthropes think twice about jumping on you.

Looking at the stress track examples above, we have two clear paths to making something nastier: increasing stress on a successful hit, and increasing the number of boxes marked off when you hit. Both options are pretty nice on their own, but in combination, you can get some real depth (without a lot of complexity). Let’s look at what each technique offers us.

Increasing stress on a successful hit will “pump up” the potential nastiness of any consequences that result. Something that offers a +2 to damage on a hit will jump to the next nastier tier; using the default mortal stress track, a +2 pretty much means you’ll be skipping right past mild consequences and go straight into moderate or worse — feels like a good fit for a knife fight or gun-play. We could call this kind of boost potency or force, if we were coining terminology (this one’s hardly set in stone).

But using the default stress track, this method also doesn’t guarantee a consequence on a “fresh” target. With two boxes per tier, and consequences only happening if all the boxes on a tier fill up, you can hit someone for 5 and not produce a consequence.

Which brings us to our second technique — increasing the number of boxes that get checked off on a hit. Without “potency” involved, this simply accelerates the rate at which a hit will produce a consequence at the level at which it lands. So this technique seems to indicate the amount of trauma or wounding the attack represents: automatic gunfire (and gunfire in general), baseball bats, and so forth may be good candidates for this.

In combination the ideas of potency and trauma (curses! I cannot escape terminology!) work pretty well. And the fact that we can increase one, the other, or both gives us the ability to create some entertaining configurations for deadly things in the Dresden Files, whether they’re mundane weapons (Knife: +1 stress; Crowbar: 2 boxes; Pistol: +2 stress, 2 boxes) or supernatural abilities (Hands of Flame: 2 boxes; Ogre-Blooded Strength: +1 stress).

By the Numbers

So, at the beginning, we said that getting outnumbered stinks. Do we have that already, or do we need to do something about it? At present, I think the answer is that we have it already. Using a standard combat setup from Spirit of the Century — though probably without the minion rules in effect — the simple fact that each opponent in a three-on-one fight is going to get a whack at you, and possibly land a hit, eating up a box, is bad enough (much like the “trauma” concept from above, it’s a fast-track to Consequenceville). So, while we may feel the need to put in some additional rules to address the effects of numbers, for the moment I’m going to table this portion of the discussion and see how it shakes out in the lab.


So there you have it — the “State of the Hat” on the subject of toughness and lethality in the Dresden Files RPG. Combine it with your copy of Spirit of the Century and you’ll have a fairly robust (if occasionally brutal) damage system to spice up your fights. If you do decide to do just that and give these techniques a whirl, drop us a line — either by using the feedback widget or by leaving a comment on this blog post.

Stay tuned in later months as we dig into other sides of “Designing Dresden!” — and possibly revisit this very topic!

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