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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.