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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.