Obsidian Portal Campaign of the Month May 2017 – Dresden Files: Nawlins

There is… a house… in New Orleans…. They call the Rising Sun… *sigh* if only they really knew. It’s actually a blue’s house, and the locals pronounce it Nawlins, but it’s okay. Just don’t cause any problems with certain portions of the clientele and you won’t end up like the Red Court. The place itself might be neutral ground, but that doesn’t mean they won’t find you later, I mean this is Dresden Files: Nawlins, May’s Campaign of the Month! So keep your head down and try not to look like a tourist. I’ve got us a booth in the back, GM mistaya can answer all of your questions, and should be here any minute.


Welcome mistaya and team, and congratulations!  We love getting to know each other here so first off, Where are you from?  What do you do aside from gaming?  Alter Egos?  Wife and kids?  Where can we stalk you on the internet?  Let us know if you feel so inclined!

Hello!  I’m from Phoenix, Arizona, but my players are actually from all over the world.  Aside from tabletop gaming I like video games, puzzles, and writing stories.  Mistaya has been my name online for a good decade or so, if you see that name in a game or MMO there’s decent odds you’ve found me.  I’m engaged to a guy who’s at least as nerdy as I am, though about different things, and have two affectionate cats, (as long as I give them treats.)

Tell us about “Dresden Files: Nawlins” in a nutshell.  How did it come to be and how long has the campaign been going on?

Nawlins’ origin is a funny story.  Back in February of 2012, I’d just finished reading the Dresden Files novels and I was craving some more.  I found out there was an RPG series, and even though I’d never played a tabletop game I wanted to try it out.  The trouble was I had no real-life friends who were interested in playing, and no experience.  So I turned to the internet.  I found a game being run on the SomethingAwful forums, and joined the IRC channel for the players.  That game wasn’t accepting new players, but I did get to absorb how the whole thing worked for a week or so before it fell apart, (as these things do.)  No one else was going to run another game, and I’d nearly given up on the idea, when one of the people in the chat told me I should just run it myself.  So I did.


It’s been 5 years, three full campaigns, and one spin off series since then.  I regret nothing.

Your Home Page states that you play on the “Something Awful” Forums.  Tell us about that.  What are they all about?  How often do you play?  How come you got to using those forums along with the Obsidian Portal platform and wiki?  Do you use any other tools or sites?

So the one unfortunate thing about the SA-Forums is they are behind a 10$ paywall.  I can say that it’s entirely worth it because it’s a great community of gamers.  I’ve met a lot of people who I consider to be close friends through that site, several of which I’ve met IRL.  The forums themselves range every topic from politics to pets to video games.  It’s the origin of Let’s Play, and has a long (and sometimes sordid) history.  But it really is the best thing about the internet, as far as I’m concerned.


The game itself is what’s called Play-By-Post, which means the game is constantly going.  There’s no weekly meetup because we’re not physically close to each other.  I have players in Michigan, Canada, the UK, Argentina, New York, Kansas, and have had some in other places as well.  We use an IRC channel to communicate with each other with a dice-bot program written by one of my players to make rolls, and we write our character’s actions in Google-Docs.  Often we will write together, back and forth, as if we were playing live, but if people are busy (or to deal with time-zones) we can play asynchronously this way too.


Once a scene is completed we post it to the thread on the forums, so it’s a full archive of every session.  Reading the thread is basically like reading a book written by six or seven people.  It’s fun to go back and read the older campaigns to see how much we’ve grown as writers over the years.


There’s one exception, the spinoff series set in Washington D.C. which was a three-session short story that’s posted entirely on Google-Docs and is free to read.  D.C. was our beta-test game for Dresden Files: Accelerated.  My players and I are accredited in the DFAE book as testers, which I’m very proud of.


Other than Google-docs, OP is the only site I use for my game.  It does everything I need it to.


Tell us about your artwork.  It all looks pretty specific to your campaign?  Have you got an artist friend or do you commission?  Please elaborate on how you feel this art adds to your campaign.

Yes!  All of the art on the front page was commissioned by my friend Danielle, and I have been looking into other commissions on the side.  I try to get something done every year on the anniversary as a ‘thanks’ for my awesome players.


Art adds a lot for me personally because it makes the characters really come alive.  You can show them to people who don’t play and point out all the little details, especially if the artist knows your characters well like mine did.  I actually have a framed poster of the Nawlins’ cast on my wall that was signed by Jim Butcher!

Dresden Files has a rich basis of reference in both book form and television.  Where does your team draw your main influences, and how does the game compare with either the books or the series?

We play it very straight and true to the book series.  This game is just focused on New Orleans and the adventures of one very unlucky Warden and his group of misfit Deputies, instead of Chicago’s infamous wizard detective.  I have referred to a handful of Butcher’s characters, (they exist,) but New Orleans is self-contained and plays with original characters with very few exceptions.  The story itself takes place in Dresden’s 2011-2012, which is directly after the events of Changes.  Each of our campaigns is referred to as a “Book” and I structure them and plan my plots as if they were individual novels.


As far as other influences, I would say video games tend to be my heaviest.  Dark Souls, Silent Hill, Resident Evil, and other horror-esque games tend to be my favorite places to find monster encounters. But as far as characters I like to comb myths for the forgotten gems, like Circe from the Odyssey, Dodona the Oracle, or King Midas.  I have thrown some cameo characters in as well, from Tolkien, Narnia, and Final Fantasy.

Dresden Files is such a modern type of fantasy?  How do the influences in such a modern fantasy compare to the older sources like Tolkien, Moorcroft, even Lovecraft?  Does this affect the way you play or the way you visualize fantasy monsters and races?

Modern fantasy is absolutely building from a foundation of the older sources.  We all learn from those who wrote before us, and authors love sprinkling references to works they enjoyed in their own writing.  Tolkein was drawing from the people who wrote before him too, you just have to follow the chain all the way back and you’ll run smack into Homer, and you can keep right on going.  So I’m just continuing the process, borrowing from what I love and putting my own spin on it.  It’s great to have such a deep well to draw on.


The way I try to visualize fantasy races or monsters is simple: Remember first and foremost, they’re all people.  If you think of them as people, they’ll behave in interesting and compelling ways and won’t just become tropes or stereotypes.  Now, people doesn’t have to mean human, and they don’t have to be sympathetic, but what they want and how they try to get it has to make sense and can’t just be because they’re born good or evil.


What other RPGs have you played?  What drew you to use the Dresden system and how would you describe it to those of us who have not yet played it?

What drew me to Dresden at first was, well, Harry Dresden, but that was my gateway into all the other games I’ve played over the years.  DnD 3.5, Exalted (2E and 3E), The White Wolf 2E catalogue (Vampire, Demon, Werewolf), a ton of PBTA’s (Urban Shadows, Monster of the Week, Apocalypse World, Monster Hearts, Masks.)  I would say that I tend to prefer games with more story and less crunch.  I’m here for the characters, the dice just make them more interesting.


Which brings me to Fate, which is the system Dresden is based on.  I’ve played every iteration of Fate from Spirit of the Century all the way to Atomic Robo.  It’s my favorite system by far and every iteration of it has been stronger.  It’s the perfect balance for me, there’s enough crunch and rolling to keep things unpredictable, but the game focuses super hard on characters and how they live in their world.  Nawlins has actually transitioned twice, from the original DFRPG system, to Fate Core when that was released, to modified Atomic Robo when that was released.  I plan to update it at the end of the third campaign with a more robust Robo hack that includes some of the Dresden Files: Accelerated systems.


Fate Accelerated isn’t a great fit for my main campaign since it becomes a little too rules lite, though I use DFAE for the D.C. side stories.  (Of which there is a second round currently in progress!)  It’s fun for fast sessions and shorter campaigns.  It’s hard to divorce from the source though, the DFAE and DFRPG systems are very much tailored to telling stories in the Dresdenverse, but that makes them truly excellent at it.


In general, I’d describe Fate as a character defining system that demands you to play your characters to the hilt.  Everything revolves around who they are, what they value, and what they’d do if you put them into the story the GM is telling.  It’s a teamwork oriented system, where you want to help your allies and will accomplish much more together than alone.  It’s a system that lends itself to big moments of success, equally devastating failures, and the narrowest of escapes.  It’s got a quick learning curve, and is newbie friendly, while having room for the system mastery guys to go hog wild.  It’s great.

How do you map out the future adventure paths of your team?  Do you plan well into the future?  Do you use set scenarios?  Do you get inspiration from the books and the TV Series?  Where do you stand on the “Straight Narrative” vs “Wild Sandbox” styles of playing?  What works for you and your players and why?

I start with an idea seed.  “What if the White Court Vampires who feed on despair set out to summon another hurricane, so that they could cement their power in New Orleans?” was the initial pitch for my first campaign.  I gathered up the characters, had them stumble on a murder, and let them run off into the dark from there.


I keep goals in mind, like I’ll know early on who the villains are and what they are trying to accomplish, but I don’t really run the game on rails.  Whatever the players decide to do, it’ll eventually pay off.  One thing that’s been very handy for me personally is the NPC Warden Cole, who is my main cat-herder.  If something important gets missed or needs looking at, he’ll direct them towards it.  But the decisions are always theirs.


Personally, I run straight narratives.  We’re writing a complete story, and it can be read as a story.  I don’t pre-determine how that story goes but I do set the tone and make sure the plot follows a traditional story structure.  Introducing major events and set-pieces and making sure the NPCs support the heroes as they save the day is my job.


I don’t run sandboxes or scenarios.  I don’t dislike them, and have enjoyed playing in those kinds of games!  But I really love telling a good story, so that’s how I prefer to GM.  It’s a story where the players are the heroes, before I sound too controlling.  It’s up to the dice if they look badass or fall on their faces… though the dice seem to have a great sense of dramatic timing.


What does the future have in store for the characters in Nawlins?  Without giving the game away, is there anything you can surmise……?

We’re just coming into the climax moment of the third Book, and a lot’s happened that I just can’t spoil on the off-chance anyone decides to read along.  But I’ll say this much:  the lawbreakers of New Orleans are going to be pushed to their limits in their quest to reach Yggdrasil, and the fate of two timelines rests on their ability to prune and re-graft a false branch onto the Tree of Time without losing it to the Outsiders.  It’s not going to be easy.  They might, in fact, doom us all.  But that seed of hope could just be enough.  I’m rooting for them.  (Pun intended.)

How long have you been using Obsidian Portal?  What brought you to the site and what keeps bringing you back?

Obsidian portal has been part of our game since the very beginning back in 2012, since it was a place to consolidate character sheets.  I use the wiki for my extensive chapter index and keep my GM notes on there as well (hidden, of course.)  It’s something I can show my non-gamer friends to explain what I do for fun.

If you had to pick just one thing, what would you say Obsidian Portal helps you with the most?

Organizing!  When you’ve run a very long campaign it’s hard to keep track of say, how many characters you’ve named Steve and why did they all meet terrible ends?  (Don’t be a Steve in one of my games. It’s a kiss of death.)

What would you say the single biggest highlight from your game has been so far?

This is one of those “choose your favorite child” questions, because it’s really hard to point to one thing in a five year multi-campaign game!  But our biggest single set-piece was definitely the climax of the first Book, when Warden Cole led his team of misfits out onto the empty field of the New Orleans Superdome to confront Mel’Karshok, an Arch-demon summoned by the White Court who’d enslaved the spirit of a hurricane to devastate New Orleans all over again.


Two angels helped fight off an army of demons while the Warden frantically tried to close the portal they were pouring in through. The players confronted the Arch-demon herself.  They severed her connection to the storm with some quick thinking and freed the hurricane, while thunder and lightning ripped across the field through the hole in the roof.  It eventually took three of them to lift and throw a huge radio antenna that impaled and destroyed her.


An honorable mention goes to the wizard’s duel fought by Ada, a young blood mage, against Circe, the witch from the Odyssey.  She was willing to break the laws of magic for love, knowing the consequences. That scene actually upstaged the Book 2 climax, where the party took on a rogue Denarian who’d come to town looking for his children.


Okay, before we get out of here, give us some of your best GMing pearls of wisdom.

As a Play-By-Post online GM my best advice is that your game lives and dies by two things:  Firstly, how often you post to it.  When I see a PBP game die, in 9 out of 10 cases it’s the GM who gave up, and the players who wish they hadn’t.  PBP games are like sharks, they have to keep swimming, or they suffocate.


Secondly, you need some form of communication outside of the forum or it’s hard to make friends with each other.  And being friends with each other is how the game prospers.  There’s no way Nawlins would have lasted this long without IRC, where the players can talk to each other about the game and things outside of it.  It doesn’t have to be live, but it does have to be a place where you can message each other.  Discord games have become very popular nowadays for a good reason, and I have had great experiences with them as well.


For more general GMing, I think my advice is that if you give the party two options, they’ll split and do both 100% of the time, so just expect that.  If they adopt an NPC, have fun with it, and even if they weren’t important before, make them special.  Don’t be afraid to poll the group for ideas if you’re not sure what happens next, and don’t freak out when things go off script.  Go big with your story when the dice do, make those memorable rolls really change things.  Always make sure what the characters are doing matters to the story.  Look for ways to tie things together.  Give your characters the big spotlight moments they deserve, and make sure to spread the love.


Oh, and have fun!  You’re the one running the show.  If you’re not having fun, no one else will.

Alright gang, that’ll wrap it up for this month. Until next time, keep up the great work, and let us know about any campaigns you’d like to see showcased here in the nominations thread on the forums.

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