Determining the size of a zone still eludes me. How do you determine the number and size of zones when you are in a combat situation in Dresden Files?


3 Answers 3


Zones represent ease of movement and the ability to manœuver. But also, remember that…

Zones serve the scene

[t]he GM’s primary tools for framing the scene are zones and scene aspects.

Zones are thus a tool to use as you see fit to frame the scene the way you want. They're decidedly not about simulating a place "right" or anything like that.

Is this a sniper battle? There are several zones between the parties, and they're long, narrow bands. This gives lots of opportunity for ducking into cover and being shot at if someone (foolishly?) tries close the distance.

Is this a fistfight? Do you need more than one zone? Consider Harry duking it out with the gang of lycanthropes by the highway. There are a few zones there, but the existence of each is strictly for scene-framing purposes:

  • There's the ditch by the side of the highway in which most of the fight happens. Harry doesn't move from this zone.
  • There's farther along the highway, where some of the lycanthropes gather and rally out of Harry's reach. So, there's a ditch, and it's split into two zones. The purpose of the split is to have "near" and "far" combatants.
  • There's the highway. This wouldn't even be a zone, except for the fact that vehicles stopping and people pouring out of them is a thing that happens.

So there you see how the zones are really determined by the needs of the scene.

Rules of thumb

However, there are some useful rules of thumb if the needs of the scene don't answer the question of whether something is a zone or more than one zone:

  • People have to be in the same zone in order to talk without screaming, or to fight in close combat. Any place where this should not be possible ought to be split two zones.
  • Aspects can be put on zones; therefore, a zone should cover an area that is reasonably homogeneous enough that Aspects can be used anywhere in the zone. (The entire main floor of Victor Sells' beachhouse would be one zone.)
  • Zone boundaries impede movement. Anywhere there is a distinct barrier that divides two unlike areas should also be a boundary between two zones.
  • A zone can be long and narrow, such as a hallway. It's easy to move along a hallway, so two people at different ends can easily be right in each other's faces pretty quick. Really long hallways, or hallways that are going to be used in a firefight, should probably be two long zones.
  • Zones determine ranges for thrown and fired weapons. You can only throw something one zone away. You can only shoot with a handgun two zones away. You start needing things like rifles to shoot three zones away. From this we can determine a few things:
    • Zones that are packed close together foil line of sight of firearms somehow, either through being full of stuff, being divided by doorways and walls, being on different levels, or something like that.
    • Large zones necessarily have terrain that makes closing with a shooter easy, and evading your target hard. A large field, if made all one zone, means that you can across it and punch someone before they shoot twice. Probably that large field should be divided by an "X" into four quarters to make running across it to get into hand-to-hand with a shooter is slightly harder.
    • If you feel like someone could throw a rock at someone else from a particular distance, they should be adjacent zones.

However, zones are necessarily an abstraction and one layout for a particular scene won't necessarily be the right layout for another scene in the same location. The sniper-fight layout of banded zones wouldn't make sense for a fistfight in the same street. Neither would the layout of Harry's fight with the lycanthropes by the highway make sense for a magical duel that raged across the whole highway, stopping traffic – nobody cares about half-ditches then.

So, zones are determined by how they need to serve the action that's about to unfold.

The nice thing about zones though, is that they're very forgiving. You could lay out the zones for a fight in several different ways, and all of them will work. They'll influence the scene differently of course, but all of them will be interesting. You don't have to get them perfect.

Example zone layouts

A highschool gym during a basketball game

  • The basketball court
  • The left audience stands
  • The right audience stands
  • A zone under each set of stands
  • The area between the end of the court and the exit doors
  • The same area beside the other end of the court
  • The hallways too the locker rooms

    Of course, if you're playing out a game of basketball (maybe as some kind of supernatural game of magic and skill between the two faerie courts or something?), then you're likely to divide up the court into multiple zones for manœuvering and passing purposes, and leave the court surroundings as maybe two zones.

Victor Sells' beachhouse

Judging just from memory of how the fight and the shooting with Sells, the demon, and the scorpions went, I think these zones would suffice (though of course some other layout would also work):

  • The ground floor (with Aspects that reflect it being filled with crates and furniture, and later smoke, for cover)
  • The open part of the loft (with a zone boundary with the ground floor that has a pass value that people can fight to alter, what with all the dangling from the railing that happened)
  • The kitchenette
  • The seating area toward the back of the loft
  • The balcony outside
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I adapted this very concept from Fate/Fudge/Dresden when I heard about it. Makes narrative combat simple. Mentally divide the scene into zones (rooms, combatant pairs/groups, &c.). Then movement is simply how many rounds it will take you to get from one zone to another. Want join the fight in an adjacent zone? One round. Want to run to the aid of a party member upstairs in the room off the hall? One zone for the stairs, one zone for the hall, one zone to enter the room; three rounds! \$\endgroup\$
    – javafueled
    May 25, 2012 at 17:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ Of course, inhuman speed makes for getting across zones faster. :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Cthos
    May 25, 2012 at 18:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Cthos That's handled by the text of the super-speed powers though. You don't need to adjust the zones much for that, except insofar as you have to lay out the zones according to the sort of use they have in the scene anyway. \$\endgroup\$ May 25, 2012 at 19:00

Simply put, in all Fate 3rd Ed Games (of which DFRPG is one; also Spirit of the Century, Diaspora, and Starblazer Adventures), the size of the zones is story determined.

They're big enough to require shooting past, small enough to go HTH with anyone inside, and divided as needed for story purposes.

When I last played SOTC, the GM had us in several combats with very different sized zones.

Combat one: The hotel hall. Each hotel room was a zone. The halway itself was a 3 zones, each with 4 rooms off of it. Bathrooms were ignored for simplicity.

| R1 | R2 | R3 | R4 | R5 | R6 |
|   H3    :   H2    :   H1    :    |
+--#-+--#-+--#-+--#-+--#-+--#-+ St |
| RC | RB | RA | R9 | R8 | R7 |    |

This gave us a good enough idea that he didn't actually DRAW the map, but simply described it. Numbering is mine, and the rooms aren't to scale.

The second example from the same campaign was the Queen Bee's lair - on an airfield in Norway...

Zone 1 Runway N (2,3)
Zone 2 Runway S (1,3)
Zone 3 Taxiway (1,2,4)
Zone 4 Apron (3,5,6,8)
Zone 5 Hangar front (4,5,8,9,10)
Zone 6 Hangar left side (4,5,7)
Zone 7 Hangar back (6,8,10,11)
Zone 8 Hangar Right side (4,5,7)
Zone 9 Hangar office (5, 10, 11)
Zone 10 Hangar inside main (5, 7,9,11)
Zone 11 Evil Machinery (7,9,10)

     1 ----- 2
       \   /
         3        -- 6 ---------+
         |       /  /            \
         |      /  /    9 -- 11   \ 
         4 ------ 5 ----+  /  +--- 7
                \  \    10 ------//
                 \  \            /
                  -- 8 ---------+

Note that I used two different methods of drawing the maps, too...

You can take a map (like the hotel) and just divide off large rooms as needed, using rooms as zones premade for you...

Or, you can simply use numbers or labels, and draw connection lines. Either works fine.

And fate isn't the first game in print to use such a system. Crimson Cutlass did so back in the 80's. And all the classic Interactive Fiction works do so as well... both on computer and in gamebooks and solo-modules. It's highly flexible, and reinvented often because it's so powerful.

  • \$\begingroup\$ i don't understand your second map... \$\endgroup\$
    – DForck42
    May 27, 2012 at 3:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DForck42 It shows the connections, not the edges. \$\endgroup\$
    – aramis
    May 27, 2012 at 6:08

The answer to his is highly situational, because like most things in the Dresden Files... there is no true answer.

There really is only a cost for moving between zones, so you don't want to make zones so big that it seems strange that your players and NPCs can easily move within such a huge area. Take the example of having a Wizard's duel at a baseball arena.

If the whole playing field was one zone, that means that people could enter the zone from opposite ends and immediately get into close combat, or move through the zone extremely quickly. Now that might be an appropriate zone size if all my players are Wizards with super speed or Werewolves high on the light of the moon, but is likely far too big for mortals.

From there you attempt to determine what is appropriate and dramatically acceptable. If they are going to get into close fighting, maybe I make the area around each of the bases a zone, as well as having the benches for each team being their own zones. Now you have a series of zones that are appropriate for the situation at hand.

If I am instead having a big chase scene where they are in cars and fighting it out while they drive through the streets, the zones of course need to be bigger. Then it might be appropriate to have every "street" be its own zone as they maneuver through the city.

When it comes to Dresden Files, I just go with instinct. There is no right way of doing it and there really is no wrong way either. You will quickly know if what you made is too big or too little and can adjust accordingly.


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