The first free release for Evil Hat's Dresden Files RPG is here - and let me tell you, it's a doozy.
Clocking in at a hefty 25 pages, Neutral Grounds presents newcomers or fence sitters for DFRPG with a solid, enjoyable offering that could be wrapped up in about 1-2 sessions, depending on the group involved and their familiarity with the FATE system as presented in the Dresden Files RPG. Neutral Grounds is presented as 3 PDF files - a Mac friendly format, the full-color version, and a printer-friendlier file as well.
The writing is highly conversational, which might put off those looking for the bare facts needed to run the adventure. I found Clark Valentine's asides and advice enjoyable and quite tone-setting, along with being in keeping with the in-character style of the DFRPG books. Art in the casefile is provided by Amy Houser and Chad Sergesketter, and provides nice flavor for the scenario - all of the PCs and major NPCs are given the full-color treatment, and the artwork carries a quality that might be best described as the sort of work you'd get from particularly talented street artists, which further reinforces the feel Evil Hat is aiming for in the Baltimore/Nevermore setting.
Neutral Grounds acts as expansion material to the Nevermore setting presented in the Your Story corebook for DFRPG, and provides 7 pre-generated PCs to play. These characters are not, the text notes, fully fleshed out - thus giving players a chance to customize before play or, as recommended, during play, providing a nicely organic customization.
After the basics on the PCs and a few important NPCs, Neutral Grounds provides some guidelines on filling in the Aspects left open, utilizing a series of questions relevant to the scenario at hand, allowing players to further flesh out the provided PCs.
After the initial presentation, the scenario launches into a brief description and setup - the PCs, members of Baltimore's supernatural community, arrive at the titular coffeehouse to find a pair of local college students dead inside. Several clues as to what's happened are presented at the outset, and the author takes care to advise on setting the scene and mood using small but important details - the shop's bookshelves in disarray, bullet holes in the walls. There's a twist in the opening scene that leads to some action along with the investigation as well.
Act 2 of the casefile heads back into investigative territory, and, as the author puts it "could go any which way." Several options are presented for the PCs to follow up on, and, depending on the group and GM, the antagonist can be swapped out. Red herrings abound, and the danger steadily ratchets up for the PCs, though it's left entirely up to the GM's devices how the group is led to the bad guy and the scheme behind the events in the adventure.
Act 3 follows on from the consequences of the prior Act in the adventure, leading up to a final confrontation with the antagonist responsible for all of the mayhem and mystery. Suggestions for Aspects on the scene are offered, though spare; the Act assumes quite a bit of improvisational ability on the GM's part.
If Neutral Grounds has a weakness, it's a personal quibble I have - the actual scenario is about 3 pages long, with little details as to how things should go, instead relying on the GM and players to fully guide the scenario. While this might seem a fault with the adventure, the fully-fleshed NPC and PCs provide ample opportunity for an enthusiastic group to springboard from. Ample advice is provided on playing everyone involved, and there's an occasional humorous shout out given - such as the illustration for a tattooed ghoul on page 9. It's all in good fun, and in keeping with the tone of the Dresden Files RPG and novels.
Overall, this is a strong offering for Evil Hat's first adventure for the DFRPG, and an excellent introduction to the kinds of trouble a diverse group of PC can get up to in the game. It's also an excellent move for Evil Hat to pull in the interested - the adventure could easily go for at least $4-5 in this reviewer's opinion, so the free price tag is icing on an already excellent cake. Highly recommended.