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Dragon Age, Session Zero

November 26, 2010

After several infuriatingly close calls, I finally managed to kill off all of the PCs in my ongoing Dungeons and Dragons, 4th Edition campaign. Because the PCs were the “chosen ones,” were ferreting around life support MacGuffins to keep the gods alive, and had already had some hilarious missteps that had lead to the deaths of Iuon and Bahamut, there was nothing left to protect the world from a primordial who had gone sane (not a typo, he’d become sane), an aberrant invasion, and an amorous goddess of death who expressed her love for mortals in a number of surprisingly fatal ways. In short, the world was destroyed and I won another campaign.

So, my group had been between campaigns for a few weeks. We were passing the time with one-shot adventures and a few experiments with different games, including a Gamma World campaign, while I worked quietly on a new campaign. Then, I started hearing about Dragon Age, by Green Ronin publishing. A lot of people were talking about it, specifically about the dice mechanics. Sarah Darkmagic did a piece about it on her blog. Now, I was familiar with Dragon Age through the video game Dragon Age: Origins, a Bioware RPG for PC, Playstation 3, and X-Box 360. I’d played it briefly and really gotten drawn into the richly detailed setting and the story that emphasized personal and moral choices. I’d have kept playing it, but I don’t have that kind of time in my life. After twentyish hours, I’d only gotten through the prologue and the first real chapter of the story. Setting aside, Dragon Age sounded like yet another fantasy RPG.

But then, I was having a Twitter conversation with Dave “the Game” Chalker of and Quinn “Gamefiend” Murphy of the At-Will Blog about game mastering styles and both of them suggested that Dragon Age might suit me pretty well. Given that those two particularly heavy hitters in the online gaming community had never steered me wrong, I started to give Dragon Age some serious consideration.

A day later, I found myself trolling the internet looking for new podcasts to make the morning commute a little more tolerable and I stumbled upon one called The Dice of Doom. I listened to Episode 9 and discovered a group of clever, witty, and insightful gamers talking up Dragon Age of all things. As an American, I was also impressed because the hosts, being Australian, had accents. As an American, I find that anything said in a foreign accent sounds instantly sophisticated and urbane. Of course, as non-Americans, they did break the spell somewhat when they realized they didn’t know the correct, English word for something and had to make up silly words instead. Seriously, guys, if you don’t know the word “entertaining,” could you at least come up with a better guess than “corking?” Also, it isn’t “shat,” it’s got an “i” in it. I blame the state of English education in Australia.

At any rate, between the recommendations and the reviews, and being between campaigns anyway, I decided to give Dragon Age a chance. So, I ran out and bought Set 1. Actually, to be completely accurate, I ran out, went to several local stores, discovered I couldn’t find Dragon Age, Set 1, went onto the Green Ronin website, bought the PDF copy, downloaded it, and e-mailed it to Staples for printing and binding. Same thing really.

Before I launch into the play report, though, a number of folks have asked me for a review and a general opinion of the game. So, with a read through and two sessions of actual game play under my belt, I’m going to give that a shot.

The Product

Dragon Age is being sold as a series of four boxed sets, the first of which is available now. The second set has just finished the open play test phase and will probably be released in a few months. The third and fourth sets are coming eventually. Set 1 contains the basic rules and enough material to play through experience levels one to five. Set 2, as evidenced by the open play test document, will raise the level cap to ten and offer some advanced rules and some new options for lower level characters. In that sense, it is very reminiscent of the old Dungeons & Dragons BECMI boxed sets.

The physical set contains two full-color, soft cover books, the Player’s Guide and Game Master’s Guide. Each is about 65 pages long. The set also contains a large map of the nation of Ferelden and a set of three six-sided dice. The PDF copy, available directly from Green Ronin or from a number of online RPG stores, contains PDF copies of the two books and a printable map of Ferelden. The physical set is 30 USD whereas I paid 17 USD for the PDF copy. It’s exactly what you’d expect to pay for what you get.

The presentation in the books themselves will come as no great surprise to anyone who has ever read any gaming rule book ever. The Player’s Guide begins with a chapter on “what the heck is a roleplaying game anyway.” Then it runs through the standard fare in standard order: description of the setting, character generation, magic, and dice mechanics. The Game Master’s Guide starts by explaining the role of the GM including the obligatory section ripped off from Robin Laws about classifying your players into categories like “guy who never talks” and “guy who will annoy the hell out of you by quoting the rules at you verbatim unless the rules would screw him over in which case he conveniently shuts up.” Advanced rules, bestiary of monsters, rewarding your PCs (if you really must), and sample adventure. The roleplaying core rules template is so standardized by now that a cartoon paper clip probably popped up ¬†on a computer screen at Green Ronin and said “it looks like you’re typing a set of RPG core rules, would you like some help?”

I’m not knocking it, though. The format is standard because it works and it makes it very easy for players and GMs to get right into the game. Actually, that seems to be a running theme in Dragon Age: approachability.

For that matter, the books are very nicely laid out with very clear headings, logical organization, and a very useful index. Beyond the expository introduction to the setting, a lot of little details are woven throughout the books so that reading them is never a slog. The character generation chapter, for instance, manages to work a lot of race relations and setting details in amongst the rules and the chapter on magic seamlessly flows back and forth between the narrative and mechanical elements of magic. The books, for that reason, make a very good read.

Unfortunately, as much as that approach works very well for the rest of the rule books, it actually hurts the sample adventure. “The Dalish Curse” is a four-part introductory adventure that fills the last third of the Game Master Guide. While it is a fairly linear adventure, it does contain a good mix of encounter types, a lot of atmosphere, and, most importantly, a few strong personal and moral choice points that affect the progress of the adventure. In addition, sidebars are included to help a GM figure out how to modify the adventure if the party does something unexpected or makes an odd choice. It is actually a very strong introductory adventure. However, each encounter is described in a single, prose block of text several paragraphs long. No distinction is made between flavor text, rules and mechanics, stats, and back story. Parsing the text and finding the bits you need at the table is a little tricky and an inexperienced GM will need to read through the adventure several times and keep very good notes. I was running the game after a single read-through with no notes taken, and even as an experienced GM, I had a little trouble separating what I needed from what was merely interesting. A few extra headings, some bullet points, and better overall formatting would have helped the adventure immensely.

And finally, as much I think it is a very good product overall and well worth the price, despite the hiccup in the sample adventure, I want to say that I strongly dislike the four set release schedule. First, without an aggressive release schedule, a group playing a Dragon Age campaign may find their game stalled as they wait for the releases to catch up. From what I’ve heard, Set 2 has been slightly delayed, but Green Ronin did make an advanced play test copy freely available to the entire community. Second, though, I dislike the fact that Set 2 adds low-level options (and I’m assuming future Sets will continue that trend). Suppose a player in an ongoing game wants to use one of the new character backgrounds. He will have to retire his character and create a new one.