Designing Dresden 6 – So, why Fate?

So, I’m a nerd.

Not a huge shock, but I figure I’m going to lay that one right out there to frame the question of “why use Fate, and not some other system?” because it’s easy to assume that the decision to go with fate was based purely on the fact that we wrote it. In fact, while there’s some truth to that, it’s not necessarily for the obvious reasons.

So, right off the bat, there are a lot of great systems out there that, if you want to run Dresden, you can totally do it with. To be perfectly frank, Eden’s “Witchcraft” game, especially tweaked with some of the Cinematic Unisystem changes from the Buffy & Angel RPGs, is about an 80-90% fit right out the door. Eden is a great company, and I mostly regret that Witchcraft supplements don’t come out frequently enough. If I just wanted to run a game this evening, rather than write something, it’s probably what I would use. However, there are three real downsides to it. First, it is almost harder to do a 10-20% tweak than it is to build from whole cloth, because dependencies are a pain. This is not purely limited to game design – there are very few fields where the last mile is not the hardest. Second, Unisystem is Eden’s system, and they have no licensing scheme for it that I know of. Now, they’re cool guys, and we probably could have called them up and said “Hey, we have this property, can we pay you some money to make it Unisystem?” and maybe negotiated something, but that’s an uncertainty and a definite hurdle. The final problem is the most substantial. Until recently, Eden held the licenses for the Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel RPGs. Obviously, these are two properties with a lot of overlap with the Jim Butcher fanbase, but as far as these things go, they are 800 pound gorillas, and with Unisystem, we would be consciously stepping into their shadow, which would simply not be a smart thing for us to do.

Now, the new World of Darkness system has similar licensing concerns, but even more pronounced because, were I White Wolf, I would tell us to take a flying leap if we asked. Why? Because the World of Darkness has its own cosmology, and much of its success is on the _strength_ of that cosmology. Something like Dresden could only dilute that strength. By the same token, we’d suffer from that sort of dynamic, so no go.

Those are the two that are the big fish for the thematic match, but from a business perspective, why not go with a D&D or d20/OGL based game? There’s a compelling case to be made for it – even though the market is flooded with d20 products, the good products still sell, and are more likely to get penetration into places that sell a limited selection. Now, that’s double-edged. The d20 glut has also meant many retailers are cutting their d20 orders down to the bone, but there are some business reasons to go with it.

What’s more, there’s a compelling argument of familiarity. D&D is still the biggest RPG there is, by a substantial margin, and don’t we want the game to reach that audience?

Now, the cool kid thing to do here would be to give a little sneering smirk and dismiss d20 with a wave, but that would reflect on my ignorance more than anything else. Yes, there are some terrible D&D and D20 products out there, but there are also some really smart, talented people who are making very _good_ products. I can easily argue against using D&D (it’s a bad match) or d20 Modern (It’s a bit too structured) but when you get to some of the real gems of d20, like Green Ronin’s True20 or Levi Kornelsen’s Perfect 20, it’s very clear that there are d20 builds that -could- work.

Which puts them in the same category as the other generic games.

Gurps. Hero. Tri Stat. D6. Risus. Name your favorite and put it here. And here’s where the true challenge begins because, to be perfectly frank, I could build a pretty darn good Dresden game out of any of these.

Now, some are easy to dump. Hero, Gurps and tri-stat all have owners that complicate things. Tri Stat has a reasonable licensing schema, but the system is strongly associated with anime, and that’s a problem from a marketing perspective. D6 and Risus would be more of a matter of filling the serial numbers off, and that would be both insulting and tacky, so we’re not going to do that. True20’s pretty good, but the license is expensive, so no thank you. It is under OGL though, so you can use the rules as long as you don’t call it True20, so that’s got some merit.

Considering these obstacles, we really want to avoid licensing headaches, so we want something under an open license, like the OGL or Creative Commons. The number available is growing, but practically speaking the options really come down to Fudge, Fate or a d20 OGL akin to Blue Rose/True20.*

Now, if we’re doing Fudge, we’re gonna do Fate, simple as that. We made that decision long ago, and we’ll stick by it. But Fate vs True20? Tough call. We know Fate better and can definitely tune it better. True20 has more potential market penetration. Both games are undoubtedly _capable_ of handling Dresden, so what to do?

In the end, it comes down to the Batman/Superman dilemma.

If you are playing a game that stats up characters in an even faintly logical fashion, Superman has at least an order of magnitude more “points” than Batman. They’re incredibly mismatched. On paper, they’re Angel Summoner & BMX Bandit. Yet side by side in the comics, they rock.

This issue is pretty important for the Dresden Files. Harry is a lot more powerful than Murphy or Billy, so how do you handle that issue? If the answer is “Harry is higher level” then you’ve just described a game I don’t want to play, because that more or less implies that the lower level characters are mostly there for color, not because they’re needed or are meaningful contributors. Ideally, I want something that distributes importance in a manner more akin to a novel or comic book.

And here’s where the rubber hits the road. Fate does that. D20 games don’t (nor are they supposed to, for anyone who thinks that’s a criticism of d20 – it’s not).

We want to make sure that when the group consists of the fae halfblood daughter of Jenny Greenteeth, the lover of a Muse, a Kung Fu wizard, the Autumn Knight and a pizza delivery guy, that everyone gets to be awesome.

So to do that, were going with Fate. It’s not the only game that this is possible in, but for our purposes, it’s the best match.

* Clinton Nixon’s Solar System, which powers The Shadow of Yesterday, gets short shrift here, for reasons that would take too long to go into, but I leave it at this: It’s an AWESOME game, it just wasn’t the game we needed.

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