Dragon Age, Session Zero

November 26, 2010

Character Creation

Let’s get this out of the way right now: in Dragon Age, Set 1, character creation is primarily random. And it is aggressively random. Old-school random. You begin by rolling 3d6 once for each ability score, in order. And you go from there. Now, Set 2 will add a point buy mechanic, but, to be fair, the random generation actually works better than it seems. And it works very well with the setting. I realize there are many gamers out there whose blood boils at the mere mention of random character generation, but it’s important to understand what Dragon Age is trying to achieve with this system before you reject it out of hand. And it is also important to look ahead to future levels.

As noted, you begin by rolling 3d6 once for each ability. You then look the result up on a table to get a number from -2 to 4. It should be noted that you are very likely to get a 0 or 1 and that getting a negative number is extremely rare (so is getting a 4). After you have generated your ability scores, you are allowed to swap any one score for any other.

After that, you choose a background. In Dragon Age, a background describes where your character was born and where he grew up. The background also determines which race and class options are available to you. For example, a human can be born as a Ferelden citizen or be born into one of the less civilized barbarian tribes. In either case, they can become a warrior or rogue. Or he can be born the gift of magic and either grow up as a legal, practicing mage in the Circle of Magi, or you can be a rogue mage on the run. Or you can be a shaman of one of the barbarian tribes, which still translates to rogue mage. Elves can be born in one of the segregated, impoverished elven communities or in one of the wandering caravans of voluntary exiles trying to keep their own culture alive. Again, they can be warriors or rogues. Elves with the gift of magic could have been raised in the Circle of the Magi or else be rogue mages, either on the run or within one of the wandering caravans. Set 1 offers about eight backgrounds, some broader than others, and Set 2 looks like it will double that.

Your background provides you a bonus to at least one ability score and a choice between two or three skill focuses based, all of which are thematically tied to your background. In addition, each background also has a table of other bonuses and skill focuses and characters receive two at random.

Once you’ve chosen your background, you finalize your race and class choice (depending on your background). Your class gives you some additional bonuses, weapon and armor training, and a choice between a few basic starting talents. Talents are areas of aptitude, training, and expertise and include such things as particular combat styles and areas of specialized knowledge like medicine, specific types of magic, horsemanship, or music.

After that, you buy some equipment, do some math, and you have a character.

So the character creation is random and provides only a limited level of customization. And, on reading through it, you might be tempted to run for the hills or even try something drastic, like GURPS, where you can customize every aspect of your character provided you have some university level mathematics skills. But, as I said, the character generation does achieve some very important things and it also has to be taken as part of a whole.

Let’s leave aside the random ability score generation for a moment (particularly because you can download the Set 2 playtest PDF and use the point buy system instead if you want to) and look at the process as a whole. First of all, in terms of ability scores, it is difficult to end up with a character that is either very powerful or very weak. Most of the characters will start off fairly average with one or two “good scores.” The good score can be moved with the free point swap and that point swap is extremely important and useful.

The thing is that the starting ability scores don’t matter much because of the math of the system. The game is based on a 3d6 mechanic. Unlike a d20 system where every die result is equally likely, rolling 3d6 is much more likely to give an average result (9-12) than any other. That means that, assuming a test of average difficulty, the character is pretty likely succeed or come close enough that a +1 or + 2 is all it takes to push it over. A character attempting something very easy is unlikely to fail without an overwhelming penalty and a character attempting something very difficult is probably not going to succeed without a very large bonus. The dice mechanic just isn’t very swingy. More than that, a lot is riding on the dice themselves. Stunt points, degrees of success, and so forth, those are all dependant on the dice, regardless of bonuses and penalties. So, the starting ability scores really don’t matter much at all.

Where the ability scores matter is in meeting prerequisites that a few of the starting talents carry or else in meeting the minimum strength requirements for some of the more powerful weapons. But there aren’t too many of these prerequisites and they aren’t very aggressive. Unless you’re trying to build something very odd (e.g: an agile elf dual wielding bastard swords), you’re going to be worried about just one score: strength for tough guys using big weapons, dexterity for nimble rogues using light weapons, and so on. That’s where the point swap is very important.

Starting characters in Dragon Age are admittedly pretty humble and not very distinct from one another, but, at the same time, they are perfectly functional and effective. The combination of bonuses from your background and class, starting talent, and point swap ensures that your character will be functional at his chosen, basic trade. It’s just that your character won’t be much beyond that.

However, new talents, focuses, and ability score points come very quickly during game play. For example, you gain a new ability score point at every experience level. You gain a new skill focus at every level as well. You gain a new talent (or advance in an old one) at ever odd numbered level. At level six (assuming you move on to Set 2), you can choose a specific career path based on your class. Characters quickly grow in power, but more importantly, they evolve. Your warrior might begin knowing how to swing a longsword effectively at first level, but as the game goes on, he will evolve into a powerful armored knight, wielding his bastard sword offensively and defensively, and, through increased combat awareness, able to defend himself against groups of foes assailing him from all sides with a combination of powerful sweeping blows, parries, and exceptional reflexes. Or else, he might become a master of the longsword and shield, becoming a one man wall, able to turn aside every blow and waiting for the opportune moment to penetrate his foe’s defenses with a single, timely attack.

The point is that characters in Dragon Age start out functional, but not powerful, and they haven’t quite settled into their style or groove. The character does not simply grow in power, he grows and evolves into a specific role, by picking up new tricks and increasing his skills and abilities throughout play. He doesn’t simply start out as a weaker version of his ultimate, epic self; he starts as a blank slate of useful, but minimal, skills and quickly starts to move beyond that.

This is a very effective way of dealing with character growth, in my opinion. It certainly reduces the sense that you are simply adding more power to an already defined character and otherwise just keeping up with a growing challenge level. Instead, there is a very real definite sense of character growth and evolution.

Now, as for the random elements, there are a few reasons why I think they work very well in Dragon Age. First, as noted, the big, important choices aren’t random at all. You choose your race, class, and background and the one time point swap makes sure you can start off on the path you want to take your character along. The starting bonuses from your background and upbringing merely provide a bit of flavor and they also add a bit of the unexpected. The dwarven warrior in my current game started with a few skills that suggested he was a merchant (bargaining, driving, etc.) This drove his story in an unexpected way and challenged him as a role-player to incorporate those elements into his character concept. More importantly than giving a little bit of the unplanned and the unexpected, it also gives the PCs useful useless things, something which carefully crafted characters are often sorely lacking.

When a player begins character generation with a very strong concept, they choose every element to match that concept, but they also choose only things that are useful within that conceptual framework. A player will rarely take, say, a crafting skill unless they’ve already written craftsman into their background. Instead, they will go with a skill that their character will find useful in the future. There are few aborted arcs in crafted characters, few instances of failed training and having to start again, few things that the character tried and just didn’t like. It’s as if the character spent his whole life becoming exactly the character he wanted to be.

While that’s not necessarily bad, it does remove those moments when the dwarven warrior suddenly turns out to have a good singing voice or a knowledge of religious texts or a surprisingly good rapport with animals. So he can’t shrug it off and say “yeah, I used to drive carts for this merchant and I got on better with the animals than the people.”

Anyway, Dragon Age is about choice, it’s about where you go, not where you’ve been. It’s not about making the right or the best choice, it’s about how you deal with the situation you find yourself in. Things like racism and dogmatic belief are the result of dealing with the world through the lens of preconceived notions, not growing, not changing; or else being stuck on how you think the world should be without stopping to consider how it actually is. That sort of behavior has lead the world of Thedas down many dark and dangerous roads. To rise up against darkspawn incursions the world has to put its prejudices and ideals aside, unify, and deal with the situation they face together. Likewise, to excel in Dragon Age, a character has to grow into something more, he has to evolve, adapt, and learn. In that sense, I think the character generation system is thematically appropriate for the game.

That is not to say that if you choose to remove the random generation in favor of one of the other options in Set 2, you’re sucking the soul out of the game. It’s just important to understand what something achieves in a game before you change it, and the character generation system in Dragon Age sets up the start of a true heroes journey. And this is something I thing RPGs have lost a bit of lately.

Like the setting, the character creation and customization system is something that needs buy-in. Players have to take the time to build their characters throughout the game rather than starting off with a perfectly crafted masterpiece. If you only play one or two levels and then move on, I think you’re losing a lot of what the game has to offer.

Again, those who like having a lot of options and the ability to customize many different aspects of their character will find character creation a bit limiting. I want to say “it gets better later” but I can also understand that, to some, this is the equivalent of saying “wait for it to get fun.” For those who can enjoy (or accept) having their hands tied a little in the beginning and for those who like the sense of building a character over time, I think Dragon Age will pay off.

Overall Assessment

Dragon Age is a highly atmospheric game with a very old-school feel. Mechanically speaking, it is extremely easy to pick up. Character generation is a quick affair and there are not many rules to master. The game is streamlined and the dice mechanic, while simple, can be used to great effect in a wide variety of ways by a creative GM.

However, the game is deceptive. While it is easy to pick up and play, it is, by no means, a simple game. The setting and atmosphere require some investment and character customization requires patience. Despite the fact that it looks like an introductory box set, Dragon Age is a game that really needs to played for the long haul. It needs to be savored. Without that investment, it becomes a fairly pedestrian fantasy RPG with limited character generation and an interesting dice-rolling gimmick.

Ultimately, the quality of Dragon Age is going to depend on your personal preferences, style, investment, and whether or not you like the setting and the atmosphere. If you prefer simple rules, a high degree of GM freedom, low combat, and a richly detailed fantasy world, and a lot of moral ambiguity, this is definitely the game for you. If you like a complex, tactical system, a heavy ruleset, and a very action oriented game, you probably won’t enjoy Dragon Age. If you are looking for a good one-shot game, Dragon Age can be fun, but it isn’t as rewarding when played that way. And if you are an inexperienced GM, get some experience under your belt and then give Dragon Age a try.


11 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

    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!

  11. Harry Flashman on January 17, 2015 at 8:16 pm

    Also, corking is a perfectly legit, if old fashioned, word, as in “corking good read”

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