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Dragon Age, Session Zero

November 26, 2010

The Setting

The Dragon Age RPG uses the setting that was established in the Bioware CRPG series of the same name. And if there is one thing the folks at Bioware know how to do, it is creating rich and detailed settings. Dragon Age touts itself as a dark and gritty fantasy RPG, and that is a pretty fair assessment. It is quite atmospheric and the game emphasizes personal choices, moral shades of gray, racism, bigotry, pride, and sin. Apart from the darkspawn who are basically generic evil humanoids who it is always okay to kill, it is very difficult to tell who the good guys and the bad guys are and such moral absolutes are pretty useless in Thedas (the world of Dragon Age).

Despite that, the setting is incredibly approachable. There are three races: humans, elves and dwarves. And there are three classes: warriors, rogues, and mages. To a greater or lesser extent, the stereotypes we know and love are unabashedly present. Elves are long-lived, wise, magical people who are very good with bows. Dwarves are grumpy miners and craftsmen who don’t care much for magic or anything that isn’t a dwarf. Humans are populous, prolific, adaptable jerks who don’t care for much of anyone, even other humans. While I could call this unoriginal, that would probably be unfair. The setting begins with these elements precisely because they are familiar. Any fantasy gamer can step into the world of Thedas and know the major players. I won’t complain that Dragon Age isn’t original for the same reason I don’t complain that baked goods are unoriginal because they always start with flour, eggs, and sugar.

The history of the world also hits on all of the right stereotypes. A thousand years ago, a big empire managed to take over most of the world and turned to the worship of dark gods to obtain magical power. Taking over the world wasn’t enough, so the empire decided to smash in the doors of the local equivalent of heaven and usurp the throne of the creator deity. Unsurprisingly, the guy who created the entire universe and everyone in it, including the evil empire and the dark gods they were worshipping, turns out to be kind of powerful. He throws the imperial mages out, they turn into monsters because of the evil in their hearts, and go crying back to their evil old gods. The evil old gods start breaking free to attack the world, one at a time, proving that they would eventually become responsible for most modern ninja movies. The world has to unify to push back the armies of darkspawn and the archdemon which is actually a dragon but actually a reborn old god tainted by the darkspawn (this part gets confusing because there are dragons who aren’t archdemons and demons who are not dragons, darkspawn, or old gods).

Meanwhile, in the nation of Ferelden (where the game takes place) a bunch of barbarian tribes unify against the darkspawn and then for good measure decide to take down the evil empire. A prophet appears, speaking the word of the Maker (creator deity), but through a funny series of misunderstandings and enraged jealousy, she gets burned at the stake. The upshot is that the whole world realizes they love her and it was all a big mistake and starts a church in her name called the Andrastrian Chantry because, apparently, Ferelden is not a nation big on pronounceable names.

While all of this is going on, the dwarven empire collapses, leaving the remaining dwarves bitter, grumpy, and isolated in two underground cities. And the elves, who had been enslaved by the empire, are visited by the prophet (or the Maker) and revolt against the empire, but then they turn against the Maker in favor of their old gods and the church decides to have a crusade, leaving the elves to either (a) wander in voluntary exile or (b) integrate into human civilization by living in segregated communities as second class seconds.

Today, the world is a bit calmer and things seem very peaceful in that open hostilities and actual bloodshed only happen about once a month and, following the success of their “reenslave the elves” and “make the world terrified of mages” campaigns, the church of the Chantry has calmed down and become a little more level headed. But everyone is a bit bitter about everything, no one is really getting along, and there might just be a new darkspawn invasion massing underground.

Now, there is nothing in that story that isn’t a strong fantasy cliché. Evil empire, magic leading to corruption, enslavement of indigenous peoples, the martyring of a prophet leading to the creation of a religion, a zealous church that does questionable things in the pursuit of its dogma, and so on. But this, again, makes the story very approachable. The story feels familiar and the world makes sense. It’s easy to jump into and find a role.

What the setting of Dragon Age does very well, though, and what makes it unique, is that all of the elements that would be moral absolutes in other settings are much more questionable in Thedas.

We have, for example, a very zealous church that crusades violently against the worship of the old gods and against the free use of magic. In other settings, that might be taken as an excuse to call the church corrupt and overbearing. But when you look at the fact that it was the old gods who encouraged the evil empire to try and overthrow the Maker and the result was hundreds of years of invasions from twisted, vile monsters who poison the world for decades after they are gone, one starts to see the Chantry’s point. Further, any mage who lets his guard down for even a moment, or mispronounces a spell, or just learns to like magical power a little too much risks being possessed by a demon and turned into a very powerful abomination who starts setting fire to puppy orphanages and bunny farms. So, the Chantry has a point there too. Maybe magic isn’t something that should be used freely. Set 1 doesn’t actually include mechanics for this to happen to PCs, but Set 2 does. Yes, when using advanced magic, there is a slim chance that a critical failure will turn the mage PC into a horrible, demonic abomination and destroy his soul.

Likewise, it is easy to call the racism against elves unfair. But, after the Maker’s prophet helped free the elven slaves from the evil empire, the elves rejected her and the Maker and turned back to the worship of their old gods (see above) and practicing magic again (see above). It might seem brutal, but the Chantry’s fears were justifiable and their response to force the elves to drop their dangerous ways and integrate into human society was really preferable to genocide. Moreover, Ferelden is a meritocracy where anyone can get ahead just by proving they are working for the betterment of society and for the good of all. The elves, by this point, were a bitter and broken people and those who integrated basically become segregated non-contributors with little interest in the society. Both sides could have handled the integration better, to be sure, but neither side is clearly “the bigger jerk” in that light.

The dark tones, the moral ambiguity, and justifiable bigotry and fear all serve to create a very unique atmosphere and the Dragon Age RPG does a very good job of helping a DM bring that atmosphere to the table. The first adventure includes a part where a group of villagers attempts to capture and burn an elf NPC who they believe has cursed their village. The party, by this point, may have learned (or inferred) that the elf had nothing to do with it. So, the party has to decide how to deal with the situation. The mob will kill the PCs and the elf without hesitation so the party can call it self-defense if they respond with like force, but that may not be the best choice. And their handling of the situation will come back to help or hinder them later in the climax of the adventure.

However, because the setting is fairly detailed and the atmosphere relies heavily on the ambiguous nature of right and wrong, a GM needs to take his time to really familiarize himself with the world and all of the various ways of looking at different events and the players need to quickly get to know the world themselves. While the books in Set 1 do give a very good introduction to the world, the game will be most rewarding to those who have played the CRPG and read through the in-game journal or browsed the Dragon Age Wiki. The strength of Dragon Age’s setting depends heavily on the amount of work the group is willing to put into it. And without the atmosphere, the setting runs the risk of becoming just another generic fantasy setting stolen from Tolkien.