Dragon Age, Session Zero

November 26, 2010

After several infuriatingly close calls, I finally managed to kill off all of the PCs in my ongoing Dungeons and Dragons, 4th Edition campaign. Because the PCs were the “chosen ones,” were ferreting around life support MacGuffins to keep the gods alive, and had already had some hilarious missteps that had lead to the deaths of Iuon and Bahamut, there was nothing left to protect the world from a primordial who had gone sane (not a typo, he’d become sane), an aberrant invasion, and an amorous goddess of death who expressed her love for mortals in a number of surprisingly fatal ways. In short, the world was destroyed and I won another campaign.

So, my group had been between campaigns for a few weeks. We were passing the time with one-shot adventures and a few experiments with different games, including a Gamma World campaign, while I worked quietly on a new campaign. Then, I started hearing about Dragon Age, by Green Ronin publishing. A lot of people were talking about it, specifically about the dice mechanics. Sarah Darkmagic did a piece about it on her blog. Now, I was familiar with Dragon Age through the video game Dragon Age: Origins, a Bioware RPG for PC, Playstation 3, and X-Box 360. I’d played it briefly and really gotten drawn into the richly detailed setting and the story that emphasized personal and moral choices. I’d have kept playing it, but I don’t have that kind of time in my life. After twentyish hours, I’d only gotten through the prologue and the first real chapter of the story. Setting aside, Dragon Age sounded like yet another fantasy RPG.

But then, I was having a Twitter conversation with Dave “the Game” Chalker of Critical-Hits.com and Quinn “Gamefiend” Murphy of the At-Will Blog about game mastering styles and both of them suggested that Dragon Age might suit me pretty well. Given that those two particularly heavy hitters in the online gaming community had never steered me wrong, I started to give Dragon Age some serious consideration.

A day later, I found myself trolling the internet looking for new podcasts to make the morning commute a little more tolerable and I stumbled upon one called The Dice of Doom. I listened to Episode 9 and discovered a group of clever, witty, and insightful gamers talking up Dragon Age of all things. As an American, I was also impressed because the hosts, being Australian, had accents. As an American, I find that anything said in a foreign accent sounds instantly sophisticated and urbane. Of course, as non-Americans, they did break the spell somewhat when they realized they didn’t know the correct, English word for something and had to make up silly words instead. Seriously, guys, if you don’t know the word “entertaining,” could you at least come up with a better guess than “corking?” Also, it isn’t “shat,” it’s got an “i” in it. I blame the state of English education in Australia.

At any rate, between the recommendations and the reviews, and being between campaigns anyway, I decided to give Dragon Age a chance. So, I ran out and bought Set 1. Actually, to be completely accurate, I ran out, went to several local stores, discovered I couldn’t find Dragon Age, Set 1, went onto the Green Ronin website, bought the PDF copy, downloaded it, and e-mailed it to Staples for printing and binding. Same thing really.

Before I launch into the play report, though, a number of folks have asked me for a review and a general opinion of the game. So, with a read through and two sessions of actual game play under my belt, I’m going to give that a shot.

The Product

Dragon Age is being sold as a series of four boxed sets, the first of which is available now. The second set has just finished the open play test phase and will probably be released in a few months. The third and fourth sets are coming eventually. Set 1 contains the basic rules and enough material to play through experience levels one to five. Set 2, as evidenced by the open play test document, will raise the level cap to ten and offer some advanced rules and some new options for lower level characters. In that sense, it is very reminiscent of the old Dungeons & Dragons BECMI boxed sets.

The physical set contains two full-color, soft cover books, the Player’s Guide and Game Master’s Guide. Each is about 65 pages long. The set also contains a large map of the nation of Ferelden and a set of three six-sided dice. The PDF copy, available directly from Green Ronin or from a number of online RPG stores, contains PDF copies of the two books and a printable map of Ferelden. The physical set is 30 USD whereas I paid 17 USD for the PDF copy. It’s exactly what you’d expect to pay for what you get.

The presentation in the books themselves will come as no great surprise to anyone who has ever read any gaming rule book ever. The Player’s Guide begins with a chapter on “what the heck is a roleplaying game anyway.” Then it runs through the standard fare in standard order: description of the setting, character generation, magic, and dice mechanics. The Game Master’s Guide starts by explaining the role of the GM including the obligatory section ripped off from Robin Laws about classifying your players into categories like “guy who never talks” and “guy who will annoy the hell out of you by quoting the rules at you verbatim unless the rules would screw him over in which case he conveniently shuts up.” Advanced rules, bestiary of monsters, rewarding your PCs (if you really must), and sample adventure. The roleplaying core rules template is so standardized by now that a cartoon paper clip probably popped up  on a computer screen at Green Ronin and said “it looks like you’re typing a set of RPG core rules, would you like some help?”

I’m not knocking it, though. The format is standard because it works and it makes it very easy for players and GMs to get right into the game. Actually, that seems to be a running theme in Dragon Age: approachability.

For that matter, the books are very nicely laid out with very clear headings, logical organization, and a very useful index. Beyond the expository introduction to the setting, a lot of little details are woven throughout the books so that reading them is never a slog. The character generation chapter, for instance, manages to work a lot of race relations and setting details in amongst the rules and the chapter on magic seamlessly flows back and forth between the narrative and mechanical elements of magic. The books, for that reason, make a very good read.

Unfortunately, as much as that approach works very well for the rest of the rule books, it actually hurts the sample adventure. “The Dalish Curse” is a four-part introductory adventure that fills the last third of the Game Master Guide. While it is a fairly linear adventure, it does contain a good mix of encounter types, a lot of atmosphere, and, most importantly, a few strong personal and moral choice points that affect the progress of the adventure. In addition, sidebars are included to help a GM figure out how to modify the adventure if the party does something unexpected or makes an odd choice. It is actually a very strong introductory adventure. However, each encounter is described in a single, prose block of text several paragraphs long. No distinction is made between flavor text, rules and mechanics, stats, and back story. Parsing the text and finding the bits you need at the table is a little tricky and an inexperienced GM will need to read through the adventure several times and keep very good notes. I was running the game after a single read-through with no notes taken, and even as an experienced GM, I had a little trouble separating what I needed from what was merely interesting. A few extra headings, some bullet points, and better overall formatting would have helped the adventure immensely.

And finally, as much I think it is a very good product overall and well worth the price, despite the hiccup in the sample adventure, I want to say that I strongly dislike the four set release schedule. First, without an aggressive release schedule, a group playing a Dragon Age campaign may find their game stalled as they wait for the releases to catch up. From what I’ve heard, Set 2 has been slightly delayed, but Green Ronin did make an advanced play test copy freely available to the entire community. Second, though, I dislike the fact that Set 2 adds low-level options (and I’m assuming future Sets will continue that trend). Suppose a player in an ongoing game wants to use one of the new character backgrounds. He will have to retire his character and create a new one.

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9 Responses to Dragon Age, Session Zero

  1. Arcane Springboard on November 26, 2010 at 9:54 pm

    Excellent review Angry. Might have to check into this myself, as I loved DA: Origins.

    That said, there’s no good reason that one can’t introduce moral and ethical choices into 4e as well. Eberron I think would be very good at that.

  2. The Angry DM on November 27, 2010 at 12:37 am

    I don’t know why you bring that up. Yes, certainly one can introduce moral and ethical choices into D&D, or any game.

    At the same time, DA has moral relativism written into the very core of the setting. Almost everything, including race relations, is built around the idea that good and evil are not absolutes. In fact, you might say that, except in the darkspawn – the enemy of everybody – good and evil, as concepts, don’t really exist in the DA universe.

    By contrast, D&D traditionally takes a moral absolutist stance. There are definitions of good and evil and everything in the game world can be broken down along those lines. Every being, including the gods themselves, have an alignment and those alignments have objective definitions. While 4E certain scales it back a notch by removing game effects that rely on those effects, the core setting and all of the various campaign worlds accept that premise: there is a definition of good, a definition of evil, and beings can be classified by their moral stance. While that doesn’t remove moral choices, it does imply, at least on a subconscious level, that good and evil are still objective, measurable things.

    The DM who truly wants to achieve what DA does needs to go back to the beginning and design the campaign in a relativist way and remove every last bit of the alignment system to ensure that those concepts aren’t sneaking into players’ heads and the DMs head.

    This isn’t a failing of D&D, not by a long shot. D&D grew out of fantasy stories about the struggles between good and evil, order and chaos, light and darkness. It is traditionally a game about brave, bold heroes standing against adversity. Such things work best with an absolutist philosophy. So, yes, its possible. But if you want to weave it into the core of the game, make it one of the central campaign themes, and want it be there are artfully as it is in DA, you’ve got to work to get it in there.

  3. Arcane Springboard on November 27, 2010 at 10:39 am

    That’s a good point.

    It is something I’m wanting more out of my D&D games though.

  4. Colmarr on November 29, 2010 at 1:47 am

    Interesting observations about the assumptions behind Dragon Age’s world.

    I’m not sure I agree with your “everyone thinks they’re right” summary, but it did certainly strike me that “everyone thinks they have the right to…”. The dwarves are too concerned with their cities to respond to the blight. The elves won’t leave the forest. The templars want to disband the Circle despite the power they might bring to bear etc.

    It might be interesting to see how morality plays out in a DA game. The default D&D mythology of brave heroes against evil monsters engenders a certain good behaviour amongst most players. I wonder the default tone of DA might loosen those reins…

  5. The Angry DM on November 29, 2010 at 9:31 am

    Its not so much that everyone thinks they’re right, its that every side has enough valid points to keep it from becoming a world in which you can tell the jerks from the non-jerks. E.g.: the dwarves are more concerned with their cities than the Blight. But their cities are being attacked/conquered by the darkspawn, the source of the Blight. The dwarves, unlike the rest of the Thedas, are at constant war with darkspawn. Most of Thedas currently refuses to believe a Blight is a reasonable possibility and the dwarves are left on their on own. Given that, its no wonder that the dwarves are unwilling to leave one front to fight on another, especially to help Thedas fight a war to protect their nations that the dwarves, themselves, have been fighting for centuries.

    I will say that the themes and the setting definitely do change that party dynamic. We just completed our third full session of game play at my table and, despite a fairly simple “save the village from demons” story, the party is definitely trudging through some very gray moral swamp. Apart from just introducing the setting well and running it properly, I haven’t done anything to encourage or discourage this behavior. It is a part of the setting and invested players will internalize it. The adventure is very interesting to watch, despite being a simple plot, because the character interactions are very complex.

  6. The Angry DM on November 29, 2010 at 9:36 am

    As for the Templars wanting to disband the circle, look at the result in DA: Origins when a single mage faltered and allowed a demon to possess him in the Broken Circle quest line. The whole tower was nearly destroyed and many people died. Had the PC party not been there to intervene, it was pretty clear the Templars were going to be overrun and the threat would escape beyond the walls of the Circle. So again, they might have a point about the danger of magic.

  7. RupertG on December 2, 2010 at 3:51 am

    This is a very solid review that mirrors what we thought of the system pretty much as well. Particularly the mechanic and the ease with which it is picked up, the gritty setting and the short supply of information that’s ‘coming in later books’.

    I would like to clarify that ‘corking’ is a wonderful word to use at every opportunity you can find. Also, ‘shat’ is the past participle of ‘shit’ and was thus correctly employed in the circumstance in which you heard it…. :)

  8. Sleepy on March 26, 2012 at 9:05 pm

    I played this game with the family during a visit. Absolutely the most beginner-friendly system I’ve ever played.

    The problem is that it’s stuck that way. Combat really isn’t all that interesting, but again beginners are just fine attacking things with swords and donig the occasional stunt now and then, and again and again. The second problem is that it doesn’t really systemize any crucial mechanics like magic items or encounter levels. One aspiring GM thought it would be like the game where you fight hordes of darkspawn at once. He soon realized that anything more than three or four would be a slaughter.

    Overall, very good for newbies. But the depth of a complete system just isn’t there yet.

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