Dragon Age, Session Zero

November 26, 2010

The System

At the heart of the Dragon Age RPG, and the thing that has gotten a lot of people talking, is a very simple core dice mechanic. Roll 3d6, add an ability score, and compare the total to a target number. If the result equals or exceed the target number, the roll (called a test) is a success. Otherwise, it is failure.

The ability scores run the normal gamut: strength, constitution, dexterity, intellect (cunning), willpower, communication, perception, and magical aptitude (magic). The starting scores range from -2 to 4, with the normal human average being 0. Characters can also have focuses which represent particular areas of aptitude or training. While they are comparable to skills in other games, they are, conceptually a little different. First, you either have a focus or you don’t. Second, they reflect particular areas of ability that your character is better than normal at. For instance, a character with a Communication of 3 is assumed to be pretty good at interacting in general. He can be polite, deceptive, and he can haggle. But if he also has a focus in, say “Bargaining,” he gets a bonus to haggling and negotiation interactions. In that respect, your ability scores and your education, training, and natural talents both have a pretty even influence on what your character can do. Contrast this with D&D, for example, where training in skills (and other bonuses) can quickly overwhelm any influence by your ability scores and render them obsolete very quickly. In Dragon Age, a strong character will always be a better climber, and all of the training in the world won’t count for much if you don’t have the upper body strength to hold your own weight up.

The 3d6 + ability mechanic is, again, nothing new or original by itself, but Dragon Age adds another element, called the Dragon Die. One of the six-sided dice is always a different color from the other two. In standard dice tests, the Dragon Age doesn’t do much more than add some color. However, in more complex tests, the Dragon Die measures degrees of success. If the test is a success, but the Dragon Die shows a one, the test just barely succeeded. If it shows a six, the test was an overwhelming success. In competitive dice tests, the Dragon Tie breaks ties. In extended tests (like researching, crafting, or complex interactions), the Dragon Die measures progress toward a long term goal.

Combat uses the same mechanic. Initiative is a Dexterity test. Attack rolls are either Strength or Dexterity test against the target’s defense score. Aggressive spellcasting is a Magic test, but the target gets to try to resist many spells with different tests. However, in combat, the Dragon Die really gets to show off. Whenever an attack is rolled, either with a weapon or a spell, if any of the three six-sided dice show doubles, the Dragon Die grants the attacker a number of Stunt Points which can be used to modify the attack or spell. The game provides a number of basic stunts such as knocking prone, adopting a defensive stance, forced movement, free follow-up attacks, free movement and so on. Each stunt has a Stunt Point cost and a player can apply as many different stunts to a different attack or spell as he has points for (as shown on the Dragon Die). With a lucky roll, a hero can slash at a foe, disarm the foe, drive him back, and advanced to keep up, all with one attack. For those interested in the math, stunt points become available on about 45% of all attacks, but can only be used if the attack actually connects.

And that’s it for the game mechanics. I don’t mean that’s it in the sense that D&D uses the d20 system to resolve actions and attacks, but there are a whole bunch of other moving parts like powers, marks, situational modifiers, conditions, and so on. I mean that is literally it. Well, there is a short table of attack modifiers for visibility or advantageous positioning, and obviously there is a fairly standard hit-point/injury/death system. But you could sit down at a Dragon Age game and join in using only the summary above and a list of the available stunts.

Well, perhaps that’s not quite fair. There are quite a few ways in which the Stunt System and the game rules interact to very good effect. For example, different class abilities and training in a number of talents can either reduce the cost of specific stunts or else allow the player to make use of different stunts, not available to anyone else. As a result, the stunt system does allow players to grow into a particularly combat style and favor particular stunts over others. Thus, choosing the most advantageous stunts usually coincides with choosing the stunts that make the most sense for the character’s weapon choices and training, but in specific situations, the character can still perform other tricks. He just has to work a little harder at them. Whereas in D&D, 4E, a fighter might have to choose between being able to trip a foe and being able to drive a foe backwards when he chooses between two powers, in Dragon Age, the fighter might be better at driving foes back, but in a pinch, he can push himself and knock the foe prone instead. The reason I compare it to 4E at all is because the stunt system is essentially the same as the power system, except that the list of riders (the stuff after the “1[W] damage and …”) is separated from the attacks and the player can basically build his own power with each successful attack that includes stunts.

On the other side of the screen, the stunt system actually gives the GM a few very versatile opportunities. First, each monster has a few favored stunts called out in the stat block to both make it easier for the GM to quickly spend stunt points and to emphasize a certain fighting style and inject each monster with some personality. Second, some monsters have unique stunts that only they can perform, such as the blood sucking blight crows being able to, well, suck blood. Third, the GM can make certain special stunts available in particular encounters. For example, if a PC and an NPC get into an honorable duel, the GM can add a four-point stunt called “first blood” that allows that fighter to declare himself the winner. For another example, if the PCs are fighting some creatures on a narrow log stretched across a ravine, the GM can modify the Prone stunt so that it knocks the target off the log and into the ravine.

The Dragon Age core mechanic is simple, but it manages to add a great deal of excitement and versatility into the game without a lot of rules. Overall, it’s a very elegant system that is easily extended by a clever GM. It does take some getting used to, though. During the first few combats, players and GMs will be slowed down by the stunt system as they try to decide between their options. However, once the players and GM get used to what’s available and, also, as character abilities begin to emphasize certain stunts and styles of play, combat becomes very streamlined.

However, for those who love complex, tactical combat systems, Dragon Age doesn’t offer a lot of tools. While they come up on almost half of all attacks, stunts are still essentially random and you simply cannot plan strategies around them. While the game offers specific combat and magical styles to train in, they mainly interact with the stunt system or provide static bonuses. The classes do not have large numbers of class features that provide tactical tools beyond attacking and performing stunts.

The system relies very heavily on GM fiat and adjudication. There just isn’t much depth to the game. Again, this might be off-putting to some groups. On that subject, it should also be noted that the system does not give the GM a lot of tools to work with. The advice on building balanced encounters, setting difficulties for tasks, and awarding treasure and experience is all very vague. Inexperienced GMs may find themselves struggling a bit to find the right balance and the system doesn’t offer much help.

Overall, Dragon Age has one very elegant and versatile core mechanic, but it is very light on rules and mechanics. It has a very old-school feel to it, when the GM had to function as judge and referee and didn’t have a lot of mechanics to rely on. That isn’t to say it’s not fun, but it really does change the dynamic between players and GMs if you’ve mainly gotten your fantasy RPG fix from D&D 3.5 or 4E. Despite the interesting combat mechanic, it is not a combat-oriented game. I think there is a danger in overusing combat encounters in that, even with the stunts, they essentially boil down to trading blows back and forth until somebody dies from it. Creative players and a creative GM can forestall that with the stunt system to some extent, but not forever.

But Dragon Age never promised to be a combat game. The game is really about the setting, the story, the characters, and their personal and moral choices. A GM needs to keep that in mind and stay away from too frequent use of overly mechanical encounters and combat-centric adventures.

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10 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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  10. R Scott Taylor on October 17, 2014 at 11:39 am

    Angry,
    Scott here from Art of the Genre and TSR/Gygax. Do you think you could shoot me an email when you get a chance, I’d like to talk if possible. Thanks!

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