The folks at Evil Hat Productions asked me if I’d like to review their newest Dresden Files RPG book, The Paranet Papers (TPP), and being a big Dresden fan I jumped at the chance. Evil Hat sent me a print copy of the book to review, and 2,000 words later, here we are! Let’s get started.
I like folks to have an idea of where I’m coming from before reading my reviews. In this case:
- Like I said up top, I’m a Dresden Fan, though I’m pretty new to the series. I’m currently on the sixth book, Blood Rites — which, as it happens, means I haven’t encountered the Paranet in the books.
- I’m also a fan of the Dresden Files RPG. My face-to-face group just wrapped up a Dresden campaign set in Boston, and I loved it. The RPG is a great implementation of the books.
- This is a “reading review,” not a playtest review. Our campaign ended before I could circulate TPP, so we never got a chance to use it.
- Apart from the very lightest of spoilers — “There’s a Paranet,” plus the stuff you might be able to read in the pictures below if you squint — this review won’t spoil the novels for readers or the secrets of TPP for players.
Note: Pasty white fingers pictured below not included with copies of The Paranet Papers.
What’s this book about?
In the Dresdenverse, the Paranet is a global organization of good-aligned folks that fights against all sorts of supernatural badness.
With respect to the RPG, TPP isn’t a straight-up sourcebook about the Paranet. Rather, it’s a grab-bag of resources for the game — think Unearthed Arcana for 1st edition AD&D, or 13 True Ways for 13th Age, although TPP is very much its own animal. It retails for $49.99 and runs 364 pages.
Roughly half of the book covers “flashpoints,” locations outside Chicago that have been impacted by Harry’s cases, while the other half covers the Nevernever and provides more stuff about spellcasting, more monsters, and updated as well as new characters based on the Dresden novels published since the two core books for the game came out. Here’s a quick overview of the different sections of TPP:
- Las Vegas, Russia, the Neverglades, and Las Tierras Rojas: The first four chapters each cover a specific location: the city of Las Vegas, Nevada; the city of Novgorod, Russia; the city of Okeeokalee Bay, Florida; and South America, Central America, and Mexico.
- The Ways Between: All sorts of stuff about the Nevernever.
- Spellcasting: This chapter elaborates on the magic rules, delving into stuff the previous books didn’t cover as well as providing new goodies for spellcasters.
- Goes Bump: Monsters! This chapter is full of critters from all the novels between Your Story/Our World and TPP.
- Who’s Who: Updates to existing characters, plus loads of new ones.
Finally, it’s a supplement. It might be interesting to Dresden fans as a standalone book full of stuff about the Dresdenverse, but gamers will need Your Story and Our World to use TPP.
So, how is The Paranet Papers?
For starters, it’s gorgeous. The first two Dresden Files RPG books set a high bar in this department, and TPP lives up to that standard. Like its predecessors, it’s written as an in-world artifact, which by all rights should be incredibly annoying but isn’t — it’s brilliantly done, just like the first two books.
It’s well-written and well-edited. TPP is a smooth, easy read — almost conversational — and the writing is excellent. Ditto the editing and proofreading. A lot of work clearly went into making TPP live up to its license, and it shows.
It’s a big book. At 364 pages, TPP is an appropriately meaty companion to the first two DFRPG books. I’m generally not a fan of big gaming books these days, but for a toolkit like TPP a high page count is a plus. You don’t need to read it cover to cover to make good use of it; you can skim it, slow down for the bits you need, and come back to it at any time.
The first half. Roughly the first half of the book covers real-world locations. These chapters are broadly similar in approach (though not identical, which I’ll get into further along), so let’s delve into the Vegas chapter as an example of what they’re like.
The Vegas chapter opens with a two-page intro to the city. This is followed by a two-page bird’s-eye view, a two-page street-level view of mortals and supernaturals in Vegas, two pages summarizing its recent history (from the novels), and finally a four-page section on the major players. In 12 pages, I’ve got a great picture of Vegas in the Dresdenverse, enough context to get me past not having read this far in the series, an idea of what makes the place interesting, and a good sense for whether it’ll have an entertaining place in my game.
The balance of the chapter addresses Vegas themes, major conflicts in the city, detailed faction write-ups (including statted-out characters, both mortal and supernatural), and closes with a look at some key locations. In other words, pretty much what you’d get if you used the fabulous city creation rules in DFRPG to create the Las Vegas of the novels, which means that it fits perfectly into how DFRPG handles places; that in turn makes this chapter insanely easy to use.
Want to run a game set in Vegas? Your work is done. Want to visit, whether for one session or five? There’s more useful, entertaining meat here than you could burn through in a single campaign — and it fits into less than 50 pages! This is a master class in gameable setting design.
Broadly similar, but not identical. The chapter on Novgorod is about that city in 1918, during the Russian Revolution. The intro explains that the situation then is pretty similar to the situation now, in the present-day Dresdenverse. The chapter is full of excerpts from journals and letters from 1918, and it presents information a bit differently than the Vegas chapter — though, in the end, it conveys pretty much the same kinds of things.
Connecting 1918 Russia to contemporary Russia is one way to make use of this “outdated” information. If your group has an investigative bent, digging into the history of Novgorod in-game would be a great device for learning about present-day Novgorod, or other factions within Russia. That’s a bit of a long walk for my preferred play style, but there’s nothing wrong with this approach; it’s just different.
The Neverglades. This chapter follows the “Vegas model” to a T, with the same results. Okeeokalee Bay comes to life, with all of its factions and major players and themes and troubles, and it would make a great place to visit — or, like Vegas, to set your whole campaign.
South America. The chapter covering Mexico, Central America, and South America also follows the excellent Vegas template, just writ large in order to encompass a much larger area. Which is neat in and of itself, because it’s a good example of how the DFRPG city creation system can be “blown out” to frame up an entire region. Like the preceding three chapters, there’s a ton of useful content here as well.
But I don’t care about Place X! This is why TPP’s grab-bag approach is so great: You don’t have to care about these places. If you do, awesome; use them to the fullest extent. But even if you don’t, the first four chapters are jam-packed with factions, NPCs, and places you can lift as-is and drop into your corner of the Dresdenverse, or re-skin to apply some local flavor.
As a GM, I rarely bother to build characters or creatures mechanically from the ground up. I’d rather spend my time developing them as characters and only address stats when they’re needed — and then, generally, I use a template or other character as my baseline. TPP is a fantastic toolkit to support that style of GMing. It vastly expands your pool of pre-generated characters, and that’s before even getting to the chapter on characters.
The Ways Between. The chapter on the Nevernever is a bit different. While the Nevernever could be treated as one location, it’d be tough to do it justice like that. So TPP doesn’t. Instead, this chapter looks at how the Nevernever works, how to traverse it, and how to convey what it’s like in the game, and then provides a ton of what it calls episodes.
Each episode centers around a place that intersects with the Nevernever, its inhabitants, their struggles, and what’s going on there — always interesting, and always gameable. It’s not just fluff you can’t use: You could pick up any one of these short write-ups and spin a session or two out of it, sandbox-style, with zero issues.
What I do know is that if my group were still playing this campaign, the player who was playing a spellcaster would have read this chapter in one night, gleefully, and immediately put it into practice. And the player who wasn’t intimidated by DFRPG magic would likely have worked a couple of elements from this chapter — sponsors and cheer-saving thaumaturgy, maybe — into the game when it was his turn to GM.
Sweet, sweet monsters. I love monster books, creature chapters within larger books, weird blog posts about monsters — all things monster. I like how DFRPG presents supernatural critters and characters, and TPP is no exception. The stat block is intuitive, the write-ups are useful, the artwork is evocative, and little notes from Dresdenverse icons help bring them to life. It’s a solid chapter.
If a character has changed over the course of the books separating TPP from the original DFRPG release, they’ve been updated here. If someone important was introduced, they’re in here as well.
Should you buy The Paranet Papers?
The Paranet Papers is a fantastic supplement. Its toolkit approach makes it useful no matter where your DFRPG campaign is set, as well as supporting a variety of play styles and preferences — from re-skinning elements and moving them into your game, to “side quests” to colorful, far-off locales, to setting a campaign in one of TPP’s iconic locations.
Some grab-bag or toolkit supplements feel like cash-ins intended to profit from stuff that should have been left on the cutting room floor (and which was rightly cut from the core book or books). Not this one. While you may not find a use for 100% of its contents, there isn’t an ounce of fat on TPP’s bones. It’s a big, colorful book that takes full advantage of being big and colorful without ever straying into “bloated” territory.
TPP reads like it was written by huge Dresden Files fans who not only know the series, but know how to turn it into a brilliant game — and in this case, into a brilliant supplement. It’s hard to produce a book like this one without a few sour notes, or without presenting things that feel like they’re just there to fill pages, but there’s none of that in TPP. It’s a lean, evocative, useful, and above all gameable supplement — best-in-class in every way.
If you’ve got questions about the book or this review, I’ll be happy to answer them in the comments.