Stabracadabra: Third Session

For those of you just jumping in, this post is going to be a recap of the most recent session of my Dresden Files RPG campaign, Stabracadabra. The campaign is so named because, hey, come on, don't ask stupid questions. It's set in the seedy magical underbelly of Detroit, a city that was rich in underbelly to start off with. Our characters, in brief, are:

  • Marlowe Jones, Unpolished Ferromancer
  • Eudora Konstantinous, Excellent Computer Programmer and also a For-Real Siren
  • Holland Kester, Were-Bison Bartender and Noted Drunk
  • Vertigo, Punk-Rock Changeling

They got attacked by a couple demons in the first session and they've been trying to figure out WHAT THE HELL, MAN?? ever since. This is their story. Let's go!

We started the session off in the moment after the first one ended, on the drive back to mainland Detroit from Belle Isle, where Warden Sarantino has his workshop. I'm coming to really enjoy any time these characters are in a car together - all the players are very experienced improvisers, so they tend to establish where they're all sitting and then just banter for a while. The structure of scenes in the DFRPG really helps with this: they know that if they want to do something narratively significant, it can be a full scene, with beats and pauses and, generally, a story structure writ small. However, if they don't have anything in particular to accomplish, they just throw in a few lines of jokey dialogue as a scene transition. I can't decide if the Fate System (which the Dresden Files RPG is based on) is structured more like a movie or a book. I guess it can go either way depending on the group you're playing with. In the case of my group, I think it's more like a TV show. It's been very episodic so far, and I do intend to run it as a series of adventures, like seasons, and the players have been enjoying keeping it fairly tight story-wise. After the session we were all chatting and they mentioned that they enjoy that we can do some hand-waving if what they want to do isn't important. You want your character to pick up some lumber at Williams on the way to the next scene? At the beginning of the scene, they have lumber. It's as easy as that. This feels more like a TV show than anything else. Anyway, they got in the car and got out of the car.

Back in the first session when they were attacked by demons, Marlowe really wrecked the bar (/strip club) that Holland works at, and Holland volunteered Marlowe to fix it (which is only fair), so they spend some time doing that. They decided that their next move should be to investigate the storage locker to which they found a receipt at the summoning site. I'm not going to go into specific detail on their plan to get into the storage locker, but I'll say this: it all went to hell very quickly, and they succeeded. I honestly don't even remember if they had a specific plan in the first place, because once they got in there they all just started improvising anyway. What made it work was that they all relied on each other to act exactly like themselves. Marlowe bought them some credibility by actually legit renting a storage locker, which got them in the door, and Eudora hacked into the guy's computer while he was showing them around and erased the security footage of all the shady shit they were doing. Holland turned into a bison (which I really want to start referring to as "beefing out") and easily destroyed the lock holding their target storage locker closed. Vertigo...helped. He did his best. I compelled his Punk-Rock Changeling aspect to have him be totally convinced that the guy was a bugman in a human suit. To be fair, Vertigo's player brought up that idea in the first place, the fate point was just there to have it stick in his mind as a genuine belief.

They opened the storage locker to reveal several things: a workbench, a crazy wall of strange symbols, a wastepaper basket, two books, and a chest of random stuff. I had been hinting that I had been spending some time coming up with magical books, so they were pretty eager for that, but they gathered everything and made off with it.

This is where, I fully admit, the plot started to go off the rails.

A little background on the way that a certain power works in this game: a given character can have resistance to being hurt, we see this all the time in the novels, so the system gives you the option of taking that ability. Want to be a werewolf who can take a licking and keep on ticking? You can do that. However, the system also requires that your ability to be tough has a Catch. A Catch is anything that bypasses your magical toughness. This is where the silver bullets come in. WAY back when everyone was making their characters, I allowed one of my players (the one who plays Vertigo) to take one of these toughness abilities at a distinct discount because he was taking a really tough Catch - he had to be in love for the ability to be active. Like, currently in love. The idea was that his fae father was a gancanagh - a fairy known for seducing human woman and bringing ruin to them. He had been a soldier, stationed in Detroit as part of a force trying to claim the ley line nexus for the Winter Court, and had fallen in love with, and broken the heart of, Vertigo's mother. Vertigo had inherited some of his powers and complexes - Vertigo is kind of a serial White Knight, continually pledging his life and honor to protect woman after woman. This is all to say, yes, he is only Supernaturally Tough when he's in love.

Naturally, he decided that he should probably find somebody to love.

He and Holland headed out from the Great Storage Locker Heist of 2016 (yes, this session was last year) and offered to get lunch for everyone. They went to Big Boy, a restaurant with which I am not ACTUALLY familiar, except that I know they exist in Michigan. Fortunately, none of my players are particularly familiar either, so I pretty much played it like a Wendy's. Regardless, Vertigo asked if there were any cute women behind the counter, and being the good GM I am, I facilitated his story by saying yeah, there was. He proceeded to cook up the following scheme: he would write a love poem to her on a napkin and then slip it into the cash register. Holland decides to be a bro and give him an assist, which consists of a distraction - he breaks the ice machine. There's ice spitting out all over the floor, the manager is freaking out, old ladies are slipping and falling on their asses, and with that, Vertigo manages to get his little love note inside the cash register.

From there they all head back to the Sphinx and do some more repair work. Eudora takes the books they looted from the storage crate and starts to flip through them - these are just some books on magic that I came up with while I was bored and was getting antsy about the characters finding. One was a book called, appropriately, The Mysterious Book, which takes the form of a fiendishly difficult Choose Your Own Adventure novel. It requires some pretty difficult checks to get through, the first of which Eudora didn't make, so she put it aside to work on later. The other one is a book that's more directly about magical theory, but in the language of chess. This is also one that Eudora didn't particularly care about. I suspect that Marlowe might be a different story.

Later that afternoon, Vertigo gets a call on Holland's cell phone (he doesn't have a cell phone, or a land line for that matter - note that one of his aspects is Permanently Homeless). It's the girl. He rolled really well on his check to write the poem, so she ends up being kinda charmed by the whole thing despite Vertigo's best efforts. He agrees to get coffee with her in a certain park, and his plan on how to GET coffee (because he has no money) is to go get a job as a barista and then walk out of said job with some coffee, never intending to return. Yeah. He asks around for advice on which is the best coffee in Detroit, and none of the characters think what he's doing is sane at all, so they give him nothing. The manager of the bar, however, has an opinion (he's a loudmouth guy from Jersey), and he suggests Such And Such Coffee Joint (I don't remember the name of the place that I came up with, so this might end up being the actual canon name - this reminds me that I need to keep better in-session notes, since I have no memory of the names of any of the PCs I came up with for this subplot, since, hey, I had no idea this subplot was going to happen).

Anyway, he goes to this place, the barista behind the counter has no idea how to deal with him so she calls in her manager, who is a big, no-bullshit lady who basically calls him on his shit. He proceeds to ask HER out (which makes sense, because I was much more into playing this character than the other one, so she was thus much more interesting). She's like, huh, you're totally insane and weird, but I'm gonna be at a certain bar tonight after my shift, and I'm gonna have a drink, and if you're there too maybe we can have a drink together and see what we actually think of each other. I know it might seem weird that people keep falling all over themselves to date this extremely strange homeless youth, but here's my logic: the first time, he wrote an extremely sappy love note, and she was explicitly a teen in her first job, which suggests a personality profile that would fall victim to Vertigo's brand of Don-Quixote-esque bravery and courtly love. The fact that this is actually pretty creepy behavior has, I think, not occurred to Vertigo yet. The second time, it made sense in the moment because not very many people will pivot so smoothly from asking for a job to asking for a date, so she figured he had some gumption and she thought he was kind of cute (this is explicitly established truth), so she decided to test the waters in the most noncommittal way possible: a drink in a public place.

Regardless, on the way home from this (in fact, on the way to the Sphinx to borrow some money from Holland so he can buy a drink at the bar), a blizzard kicks in. I also compelled one of Vertigo's aspects to have his car break down at that point. To be clear, I could have just had his car break down at this point, but it might have felt kinda cheap. The fact that Vertigo's player got a fate point took the sting out of it. Regardless, his car breaks down not too far from the Sphinx, so he calls Holland at the bar on Holland's own cell phone, and Holland comes to pick him up. Holland doesn't bring a car, because he is a buffalo. While he's waiting, the blizzard gets worse. Like, whiteout worse. This is the kind of blizzard that a horse would get lost in and then die fifteen feet from its stable, because it literally couldn't see the bright light shining above the entrance.

Holland hears a voice out of the wind - "Sixes! Now!" He proceeds to be attacked by three people with some powers that he can't quite place. Holland arrives just as the combat is starting, and they go to it. It doesn't go well for our two heroes, and Vertigo tells Holland to run away and get help, which he does. Vertigo proceeds to lose, badly, and gets captured by the Winter Militia. Who are they? You'll have to wait and see!

That's the end of the session, but I want to take a second and talk about a couple of things - the first one is the concept of being fair. As a GM, I think it's generally advisable to be fair. That is, to not set up challenges that the players have no way of beating. This might seem like a roleplaying game decision, but in my mind it's not. Can a player fail? Yes, certainly, but it means nothing if the player failed for no reason. Under a certain way of thinking, a story can be either a comedy or a tragedy. In a comedy, everything works out in the end, and in a tragedy, they do not. Much Ado About Nothing is a comedy, King Lear is a tragedy. Under this way of thinking, however, Lord of the Rings is also a comedy, and Reservoir Dogs is also a tragedy. Regardless, you can think of roleplaying games in the same way. Can a character fail? Yes, but like in tragedy, it has to happen for a reason: Lear doesn't descend into madness out of nowhere - it happens because he is too proud and arrogant to see that Cordelia loves him the most. Everyone doesn't shoot everyone else at the end of Reservoir Dogs for no reason: it's an intricate play of character that, once it comes to a head, seems like it was inevitable from the very beginning.  This is what we mean when we say that you should "be fair" as a GM. Characters can fail and die, but it has to happen for a reason. I set up the encounter with the Winter Militia with this in mind: I intended it as a difficult fight, sure, but I didn't set out to kill Vertigo. That would not have been fair, unless he had done something to earn it.

That said, he lost, badly, and I got the impression that the player felt like I had created this encounter to fuck him over. This leads into the second thing I want to talk about: how to let players know that there are strategic options that they're not taking advantage of. See, I had done a few sneaky things with these characters to tip the balance in the favor of the players. If my players are reading this, you might want to skip to the nex paragraph to avoid spoilers. First of all, by the rules as written, the NPCs were mechanically a difficult encounter but not a deadly one. Admittedly, this system is a little more fudgey than others about how to set up equal encounters, but I had done my best. I also gave each of these characters very few fate points and several aspects that PCs could definitely figure out. These aspects were effectively huge liabilities that the PCs could invoke or set up for compels, and the fact that the NPCs didn't have very many fate points meant that they couldn't make much use of those aspects themselves. I also made sure that the main combatants, Vertigo and Holland, had a goodly number of fate points going into the fight. Finally, I put a big, obvious aspect on the scene ("Huge Goddamn Snowstorm") that the PCs could easily use in their favor, especially if their goal was to rabbit. None of this ended up happening, and the PCs felt kind of railroaded because of that.

I think my mistake was timing - I ended up hitting them out of left field, since this was a combat I had intended to throw at them much earlier but the moment never came up. The moment I ended up going with was one where they were (generally) hot on the trail of Trixy Black, the person who sent those demons after them, and Vertigo in particular had been banging his head against a fundamental difficulty of his character, the fact that he can't really function in the normal world, in a normal way. I also wanted to use this combat to demonstrate some basic DFRPG tactics, i.e. stacking bonuses from aspects in various ways to do big damage. I kind of went overboard with this and did a lot of damage to Holland, who is tough enough that seeing him get hurt really spooked the players. This is another one where you're gonna want to skip to the next paragraph, players. Going forward, I think I'm going to try to use different methods to teach them some of the tactics of the game - the incomparable Rick Neal, as always, has an excellent article on the subject. I'm also going to try to reward them for this combat - for better or for worse, Vertigo was pretty serious for the first time in a while, and he was taking something very seriously for once. They deserve some very cool scenes to pay that off. The Winter Militia is, I think, not exactly going to be what they expected.

Tune in next time, intrepid adventurers! Will Vertigo escape from the Winter Militia? Will the PCs ever catch up to the machinations of the elusive Trixy Black? Will they be able to save Detroit before it's too late?? WHO KNOWS