The Dresden Files RPG loses the tavern by creating relationships during character creation
The Game Master has a challenging job for the first few sessions of any new campaign. They have to write and design the adventure, sure, but he or she also has to give all these people an excuse to be near each other, as well as a reason to work together. In many games the players simply go along with goofy situations in order to get things moving—have you ever noticed how many adventures begin in a tavern?—but the writers of The Dresden Files table-top game have a wonderful solution for this problem. The characters in the game, and their relationships, are actually created and written alongside each other in a separate session that takes place before the adventure begins. The main campaign isn’t the first time these characters have met each other, and this allows the story to begin organically, as well as giving everyone a head start on developing relationships and motivations. This novel approach does many things at once: The Game Master has an easier job, the players get to write their own stories and histories, and everyone has a known history with their friends to work from as they step into their roles. So how does it work?
You already know each other
I won’t go through all the rules for character creation, it's spelled out very well in the source book, so let’s focus on the story of who you and where you come from. You start with a high concept, a two or three word description of the character. Then you come up with your “trouble,” which is exactly what it sounds like: Some kind of trouble that impacts your character's day to day life, based around their high concept. After that you write your character’s background, including things like gender, nationality, your family’s circumstances, education… the works. This is where you came from, and how it shaped you. Next up is the “rising conflict”, which is a major event your character has had to deal with to become who they are. “This phase represents your character’s ‘middle history,’ when his high concept most strongly comes to the forefront,” the book explains. “Think about his high concept and a situation that would call it into sharp relief, forcing him to make a choice or otherwise take decisive action.” All these things are written by yourself or with the help of the Game Master, but the real fun comes next, when you work on Phase 3, your first real adventure. This could be anything, although your first adventure has to be something that tested your character and changed them in some way. Consider this a movie that your character starred in, before the movie you’re about to experience with your party. This is written, or role-played if you prefer, with other characters in the game. That’s because the other characters act as guest stars in this story. My character is a member of the Fellowship of Saint Giles, a sort of half-vampire, and I was sent to kill certain Red Court vampires as part of his initiation. Since I’m new at this lifestyle, my character left too many clues, which attracted the attention of a police officer with a sense that something out of the ordinary was going on in his city. Just to make things fun we brought in a third player-character, a priest, from whom I sought guidance. At the end of the adventure, the police officer helped me out during a hit gone bad, found out about the existence of vampires, brought me to the priest so I could hide out, and we decided that the best thing was for me to leave the Fellowship. The police officer juggled some files, marked me down as deceased, and no one knew the difference. This led to my “trouble,” which is that to the supernatural elements of the city I’m dead, and the Fellowship would have a large problem with me leaving their tutelage to strike out on my own. This makes me a fugitive, and forces me to operate in shadow and disguise my appearance. But let’s look at the interactions between the characters here. I had my own adventure and was helped by a player character, who I helped to usher into the world of the supernatural, and gained the trust of a member of the clergy. When the policeman needs help, he now has a supernatural friend who owes him a favor. When I need information on the goings-on around the city, I have a police officer and a priest I can call. This took us 30 minutes to write, put all the characters in interesting situations, and gave everyone an excuse to interact with each other. We have history, we owe favors, and the relationships are real. There is actual trust between the characters, because we've all shared experiences and hardships in our back story. The next phase is simply your co-starring role in the main story of another character, which allows you to play a role in their development. The stories don’t take long to write or role-play, but they establish a very real world in the game before the “real” campaign takes place. During each phase you come up with aspects, which give you guidance on how your character looks at certain situations. You gain fate points by role-playing these aspects, much like the system in Mouse Guard. The two games are similar in some respects, including how much emphasis is put on character and their motivations. The Dresden Files RPG is based on the FATE system, while Mouse Guard uses the Burning Wheel system.
Wait, so how is this different?
Everything that I've described above happens before the game begins and can be written and decided upon in an hour or so if you know the system. It gives the Game Master an incredible amount of context and story thoughts for your character and, even better, when the wheels of the main story begin to turn every character already has a reason to turn to each other for help or guidance. When the police officer in our group needs muscle in dealing with something supernatural, we know how and why he has a vampire friend he can bring in. When I need spiritual guidance, I already have a history of turning to a priest who is a player character and involved in the politics of the world. We've all met each other, and it makes sense for our stories to interconnect. Creating your character can be a solitary activity in many games, but the first session in the Dresden Files game is dedicated to creating characters, finding out how they fit together, and writing the stories of their lives and past interactions. This is thrilling if you're a fan of games that focus on the characters, and it's a wonderful help to the Game Master; they don't need to think of reasons to bring the characters together, they just need to find a string to pull and watch the knot tie itself.