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.

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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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