Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Dresden Lives

I've mentioned before that I've been honored with a position with Phoenix Outlaw Productions, a larp development company run by my friends Shoshana Kessock and Josh Harrison. While I'm more or less a general staff member, my primary focus is directed towards storytelling for Dresden Lives. Dresden Lives is the live action role play adaptation of Evil Hat's Dresden Files RPG, a developed by Phoenix Outlaw and produced by Evil Hat.

For those of you that don't know, the Dresden Files is an urban-fantasy noir series written by Jim Butcher. The series is narrated by Harry Dresden, Professional Wizard (seriously, he's in the Chicago Yellow Pages, under 'Wizard'). He finds lost items, helps the fledgling magic users as much as he can to hone their craft, and is sometimes contracted to consult with the Chicago Police Department's Special Investigations office when something that can't be easily written into a report is presented before them. Fifteen books in, and Harry has defeated countless bad guys and made allegiances and rivalries with some of the most powerful moral and supernatural forces in the modern world. There's magic, creatures of great beauty and terror, and enough sarcasm and wit to make it all very humble and self deprecating.

Dresden Lives is an expansion of Harry's World, where the supernatural forces deal in the dark places while Wizards and the few mortals in the Know get embroiled in each others schemes and plots. Depending on the gamerunners, the actions of Harry and Chicago (especially in some of the later books) may affect the storylines of those games. The players and characters get to explore the themes of the Dresden Files: Order Versus Chaos, Temptation, Predation, Faith, Hope, Love and the balance between Humanity and something Other.

I've mentioned before that I've been a long time fan of the Dresden Files series, was a main fixture of the Jim Butcher forum for a long while (under the name Uilos, in case anyone is asking), was blessed with being friends Priscilla Spencer and Richard Shealy, two of Jim's beta readers and Matthew Merbeck, who is the star and driving force for the Dresden Files Fan Films. So working with making the Dresdenverse a living thing for others to explore and play in is a major and amazing thing. So when I was given the chance to do a playtest for Phoenix Outlaw and Evil Hat, I jumped to do it.

The system for the game is based on the Fate system by Evil Hat. It is, by it's very core, a narrative experience that values role play over dice rolls. Character creation involves giving your character some flavor (it even helps in dice rolls) and by listing a very basic skills like Physique (physical strength and endurance) Shoot, Fight, Will and Discipline to name a few others. You can do magic with a straight Discipline pull, and then narrate the action with the rest of the group to respond to. This is in contrast where every magical power in the White Wolf games has clearly spelled out powers. My copy of the Fate corebook is currently in the mail, and I intend to do a full review on it. The short gist is that you and the storytellers and other players are in a game where collaboration and role play aren't just suggestions, they're kinda the central core concepts of play.

So I gathered a handful of players, got them to read the beta-test material, make some characters while I made up a setting and got a studio in the City and played a game. It's actually not that difficult to find studio space for a larp game in New York? Potentially expensive as all hell, but worth it if you have enough support from your friends and players. The game itself was set around an auction, and the various parties and factions in New York sent delegates (the players) to bid on the items. Not everyone there was what they seem, and not everything there was what it seemed either.

I've been storytelling for the MES games for nearly three years in some capacity or another. Dresden lives was hands down the most fun I've had doing it. I'll admit, I was in a room full of people I knew and trusted and who understood what the core of the game was about. But I got to do a combat scene, which I never get to do, and got to do a good one that put some people down and gave them consequences. I got to do a story that, by the end of it, had the characters eyeing each other suspiciously and having a full on conflict pop off. The general consensus was that the book needed to be more clear on a few things as to what they can do. It's an odd paradox when the choices are left open to a player. It's like the book has to spell out "no, really, you can create these on your own". 6 of the 8 were White Wolf/MES veterans. 1 was a new larper and 1 has actually played in the Dresden Larps that Dresden Lives is built on. So a lot of the issues with mechanics were just unlearning what we've spent years doing. I've had several players wanting to play more games and I've had at least one person who hadn't read the series (I wanted some people to focus on the game and not the series) tell me they were now going to read the book.

I consider that a victory.

After the playtest, I was hired on by Phoenix Outlaw to help narrate for their future Dexcon games. Dresden Lives, which started as an unofficial larp based on the RPG and is now gaining legitimacy and publication, has grown in size. We had well over 50 participants at Dexcon this year, playing everything for Wizards, to Sorcerers, to Fae and their Changeling counterparts and White Court Vampires tempting emotions on which to feed. The game was set in medias res, requiring the players and characters to figure out what the hell had happened before they got to that point, leading them to a dark hospital that carried dark secrets. In the end, I got to play a Warden, the soldiers and cops of the Wizard government, and things got very interesting very quick.

The game was played in the conference center's learning annex, where some of the rooms were transformed into the evil Hospital (which let me tell you, took a while to build it right) and the Night Market, an area of St. Marks where the magical can congregate and purchase whatever they need. There was also the Cold Room, a space in the annex where the ventilation is nil but the AC is blasting, making it a perfectly chilly space. Turn off the lights and this is the area where characters who are so inclined to talk to Spirits or Gods or Powers get the chance to talk to them.

Watching the game from a detached perspective of a narrator allowed me to watch the spirit of the game. The players were responding to the world around them, creating ties with each other and the world they were in, including an antagonist that hadn't gone off yet. This lead to a series of comments between Shoshana and I where she finally went "Wait...they haven't KILLED him yet!?" They wanted to see where it went.

Which leads to a critique of the game itself, a lot of the information the players were basing their actions on were based on the books over the game they were in. The books are told from the perspective on one man who consistently has his notions of things rocked. It's also a perspective that has experienced a lot of things out of the norm and therefore knows more about the ground game of the supernatural, most people don't speak across the aisles, making known information about groups and types of people all the more difficult. The next game, I think that there should be a general announcement going "Focus on what your character would know. Harry's casefiles aren't public knowledge and he's just one poor shmuck from Chicago whose mouth gets him into more trouble than is worth."

That's what's the problem with games based around published media. You run the risk of playing what you've read and not what your character should know. This is true of the White Wolf games, which have all of the antagonists and histories written out. One of the things that we, as storytellers and game runners have to do is note what the limits of knowledge are, or else where is the discovery in a thing? Some people have argued that that gets rid of the suspense but telling us we don't know there's something out there. Suspense isn't being revealed a bomb, suspense is knowing there's a bomb and waiting for it to go off.

But now that I've seen the games, worked through their system and seen people play it. My next question is "Well, when do I get started?" There are ideas I have forming in my head for what I'd like to do, modules and NPCs I'd like to introduce and some side plots to give some of the characters. Oh, I have ideas. Right now, my copies of the Fate corebook and the Dresden RPG are on their way, and I'll be thumbing through them to get my foundation going. I intend to do a full review of Fate once I'm done with the book, there's talks of doing something by the autumn for another game and then we'll have a few more things set up.

Until then, Later, and Dresden Lives.