Monday, May 2, 2011

Review: Dragon Age (Set 1)

Bioware, a computer and video game company that made its name developing games based in "Baldur's Gate", a city within the Forgotten Realms campaign, which is itself a D&D property. Over ten years have passed, since which they have developed many more games and built up their own fantasy setting for their own game Dragon Age, which began as a video game. And Green Ronin has adapted it as a roleplaying game.

Much as I like Green Ronin, I have trouble dealing with certain parts of this package. Some of it's just me, of course—I make unreasonable demands. But I don't consider "room for character growth" to be one of them.

[Image: The Dragon Age kit, spread out across my table. Consists of two books, a map, and three dice (two white, one red).]


This section is simple: this is a tabletop, paper-and-dice roleplaying game set in the world of, and therefore based on the intellectual property of, the Dragon Age: Origins computer game. That means you get to adventure in the world of Ferelden as either warrior, rogue, or mage, combating evils and meeting challenges in order to make a name for yourself.

If that doesn't sound especially distinctive, then congratulations, you've spotted the same first problem that I have: there's really nothing to differentiate this particular fantasy setting from the twenty or so other fantasy settings that you could pick up at your local hobby shop, except that this one has the name cachet of being based on a video game.

"DLC, not TLC" (or "Bite down on something—I'm going into your wallet dry")

In the old days, when you bought a video game, you got a disk or a cartridge. Back then, the console you'd be playing it on wasn't hooked up to your home network or a telephone line. It couldn't do anything online, even if it wanted to.

These days, video games are both a bit more extensible, and a bit more aggressive with their interactions with the outside world. Things like phoning home to make sure they're still being used on the system they were first authorized to run on, for instance—in other words, DRM. The other big reason to communicate with the outside world is to get add-ons from whatever virtual storefront the console's or game's manufacturer sets up. These add-ons are called downloadable content, or DLC for short.

Now, a lot of games have supplements, but the Dragon Age RPG expands on that notion in a way that I find most distasteful: Set 1 only covers characters of levels 1–5.

Seriously. The otherwise very pretty boxed set contains only the first five levels worth of content. They even say that certain skills will likely be published in future editions, which means that you're not getting a complete ruleset.

The Trojan LOLcat

So far, I've commented on an ordinary setting, and an incomplete system. Is there anything I actually like about it? Believe it or not, yes.

For some time (though not necessarily here), I've said that tabletop RPGs stand head, shoulders, and various other body parts over computer RPGs. Sure, you can play a computer RPG alone, but you only have those actions available in-game that the designers thought to code for. The game experience is limited when the computer is the GM. The computer can't improvise. The computer can't extrapolate and create additional NPC encounters when the PCs decide to take a different approach. And the computer can't find novel and creative ways to kill the lunatic player who insists on doing things all the wrong ways.

Here is a game riding on the coat-tails of a popular computer RPG, featuring a dead simple system. I can believe this is an intentional attempt to get computer and console RPG players to try this and start playing. This is a gateway RPG. Consequently, if it gets legs, it'll be good for the hobby because it brings in players from a different medium.


It's right there in the subtitle: "Dark Fantasy Roleplaying." Given the depictions of blood, death, and mayhem in the rulebooks, it's safe to say that the focus is going out and vanquishing those responsible. Sounds almost like it's going to be a monster stomp, right?

Admittedly, the GM's guide goes into a little more detail. A few paragraphs and subheadings under "Dark Fantasy" (p. 12) give the buzzword not just meaning, but bite. This is a campaign world in which the "good" are few and far between, and those in power are as a rule not "altruistic." It's a game world of hubris, injustice, distrust, and deception, and even though there are some plenty bad monsters out there, humanity has brought the worst problems upon itself.

There's another word that's usually applied to this sort of setting: Noir. It lacks the literary equivalent of trench-coats, but many elements, especially that of the powerful getting their own way oblivious to any notion of right or wrong, are in abundance.


The lead designer, developer, and publisher is Chris Pramas, who has a goodly sized body of work going back as far as 2nd edition AD&D.

After him, admittedly, there are copious other credits that become a blur.


The game comes as a boxed set featuring a 64-page Player's Guide, a 64-page Game Master's Guide, three dice, and a map of Ferelden (classical continuous style, not hexes or squares).

The pages are all semigloss and feature a lot of art kept a fair distance from the text. The book is not only colorful but easily readable too.

They're pretty, but given that this package has an MSRP of $30 and only covers characters up to 5th level, it feels overpriced.

Green Ronin is taking preorders for Set 2, which is a hardbound book covering levels 6–10. Its MSRP is $40.

The Easy Introduction

Lending credence to the theory that this is a game intended for people who have never played an RPG before is the first half of the GM book explaining how to GM. This includes details on not just how to use the rules to best effects, but how to organize the game session in the first place and what kind of space to play in.

While many groups don't have access to a perfect play space, some things can be done to enhance what is available. First, don't assume you must play in someone's home or a game shop. Libraries, community centers, apartment clubhouses, and sometimes even utility co-ops often have rooms for free or available either for free or a very small fee.

Game Master's Guide, Dragon Age RPG, p. 5

There may be some wisdom in those sections for experienced GMs, but I expect 80% of them to make a dismissive motorboat sound with half their lips and dog-ear the section with the monster stat blocks to save time in the future.

[Scene Missing]

If you've followed the development of video games at various other companies, you might be familiar with the notion of the "game bible." That's the documentation, sometimes filling multiple binders, about how the game world works: who's in control where, what factions exist that the players could get help from or run afoul of, etc. It's the kind of thing that could easily fill a sourcebook or two. Look for instance at various incarnations of Star Wars RPGs for how that might look.

Given that this is based on a video game, you'd expect a goodly volume of world information, right? Not if you read the subheading above.

In the Player's Guide: 9 pages of world background, which includes three half-page blocks of art. In the GM's Guide: 12 pages of stat blocks of monsters the PCs might face, and a 23 page introductory adventure including five and a half pages of stat blocks for NPCs and monsters the PCs will likely face.

If this is indicative of Dragon Age: Origins' game bible, then I'm not feelin' the faith, brah.


I'd used the words "dead simple" to describe the system. It's not an exaggeration, either.

The game comes with three dice, two white and one red.

The two white dice, plus any applicable attribute, represents a test. If you beat the arbitrary number set by the GM, you succeed at the test.

The red die is called the "Dragon Die", but those familiar with other systems (Chivalry & Sorcery, In Nomine, etc.) will recognize it as a "check die," "crit die," etc.— once you succeed or fail, the "dragon die" will tell you how impressive your success was.

Additionally, if you roll doubles on the white dice, the "dragon die" also says how many stunt points you get to spend immediately for extra effect. Stunts are chosen by class, and while there's a standard list of stunts, each class gets its own stunts at higher levels.


The characters, thankfully, have a little more nuance to them, albeit in spots not much.

There are eight "abilities" (or attributes), and it's been a long time since I've seen this: you roll them. That's right, you generate them randomly. You'll roll 3d6 on a table which will give you a value from -2 to 4 for each. Strangely, according to the rules you come up with a character concept before you roll the dice and find out what your character is actually good at.

After that, you choose a background (there are seven), a class (there are three—warrior, rogue, or mage), scads of focuses, and some talents.

What Dragon Age knows as "focuses," most other systems know as "skills." Each such focus adds 2 to the relevant attribute when testing against that skill/focus. And there are a lot of focuses.

There are also "talents," which feel rather like "feats." Only are a few are available depending on background or class, and each has a basic and advanced ranking.

After those, you pick equipment. If you're playing a mage, there are 18 spells to choose from. I'm sure more will be included in the later editions.


The systemic base of this system is simple enough it could be applied in other ways, but such isn't really presented here. This game ships with the one setting, and expects it'll be played the one way.

How can this be a good thing? Well, it's also a game targeted at beginners. Multiple settings and lots of optional rules would be confusing to new players.

Play This Game If...

  • You really liked the video game
  • You're very new to roleplaying games
  • You want to play with a very simple system that manages to sneak in a few small and pleasant surprises
  • You like buying games 5 levels at a time

No comments:

Post a Comment