Dragon Age Tabletop RPG

IMG_6147 dragon age dice

Three stunt points generated

Green Ronin has developed an RPG based on the Dragon Age video games and set in the same world. Currently, there are two boxed sets out, roughly following the basic/expert example set by Moldvay and Cook/Marsh. Set 1 covers the base system and takes characters from level 1 to 5. Set 2 takes characters from level 5 to 10, introduces character specializations, and includes subsystems for crafting poisons and traps. The system manages to navigate between simplicity and complexity in a very pleasing way, and it is worth looking at for the game even if you are not interested in the franchise that it is based on.

There are eight abilities: communication, constitution, cunning, dexterity, magic, perception, strength, and willpower. Starting abilities range from -2 to 4, with 1 being called out as average. They are determined randomly using a table that maps 3d6 to ability numbers. Characters also have things called ability focuses, which function somewhat like skills but are only very lightly specified. Really, no info other than focus name is needed in most cases, as they are all pretty obvious in function, and are presented in the book without unnecessary padding. More products should take this approach. A simple overview of the system, followed by a list of focuses (organized by governing ability), followed by an example of use in play.

The basic resolution system is 3d6 + ability against a target number, with the potential to bring in an ability focus for a further +2 bonus if it makes sense contextually or is explicitly called for. Thus, one might make a willpower (self-discipline) test, which would be 3d6 + willpower for most characters, but 3d6 + willpower + 2 for those with the self-discipline focus. Attack rolls are handled identically, as each weapon group has a focus; for example, to attack with a sword, a character makes a strength (heavy blades) test. As characters increase their abilities as they level, no separate attack bonus or attack table is necessary to model the increase in competency; the ability test system carries the entire load.

Of the three dice used, one is special (called the “dragon die”) and must be distinguished in some way from the others (three dice come in the Set 1 box with one being a different color). When doubles are rolled on any two of the three dice, stunt points equal to the value of the dragon die are generated. These stunt points can be used for extra effects such as more damage or a chance to immediately cast another spell (for mages).

The character creation process is elegant. I am usually quite averse to character creation with too many options or steps, but the approach Dragon Age takes makes the choices accessible. The procedure alternates between randomness and choice to help players create characters that are not entirely random but nonetheless have some interesting, unpredictable features, guaranteeing that characters of the same class and even background are distinguished mechanically.

You roll for ability scores (having the option to switch one pair), then pick a background, which determines your race and class options. Next, you roll for a random background benefit (which can be something like an ability increase or an extra focus). Importantly, the background ideas are mostly clear without needing to do extended research. So, for example, if you want to play a magic-using character, you take either the apostate or circle mage background, and then follow the procedure outlined in the background (in the case of circle mage, you pick either human or elf, roll for a benefit, and take the mage class). The last few steps involve noting down several basic class features, making one or two more choices from short lists for things like class talents (which further guide the player into choices about things like spells), and then finally equipment (I would prefer a table to roll on for equipment, but even as is it is streamlined compared to “here’s some gold, go buy stuff”). Players end up playing the class they want, in a unique way, without needing to hunt through option lists or feeling like they need to do homework to understand the choices. There is almost zero sense of missing out on synergies due to lack of system mastery despite the large array of possibilities.

If focuses are the AGE equivalent of skills, then talents are the equivalent of feats, in that they further customize and focus a character’s class (thus the difference between a dual-weapon warrior and a two-handed weapon warrior is handled in the system by providing a talent for each). Some direct examples of talents include¬†archery style, poison-making, and entropy magic. The talents available to a particular character are determined by class, so only mages have access to the magic talents, for example, whereas other talents might be available to multiple classes (archery style is available to both rogues and warriors, for example). Each talent has three tiers (novice, journeyman, and master), which become available as the character levels, and each tier offers some benefit. The journeyman level of archery style, for example, allows faster reloading. Mages gain new spells through their talents, which helps balance them against the other classes in a way that does not feel forced.

Many talents do have prerequisites, which I tend to dislike in these sorts of systems, as they often require knowledge of later options before informed decisions can be made about features even during character creation. However, the options are presented in such a logical way, and introduced gradually through the levelling process, that I think this common stumbling block has mostly been avoided (though I would like to see it in play). For some examples, the contacts talent requires a communication of 1 and archery style requires training in the bows group.

It is worth noting that the default assumption of the Dragon Age RPG, in line with the experience of the video game, is a greater focus on combat and tactical play than is usually true for classic dungeon crawling games. Thus, most of the spells are designed for combat (which actually makes sense in the world of Thedas, as mages are only kept around to combat darkspawn, but I digress) and the game does seem to have a slight case of numerical inflation, at least coming from a predominantly OD&D perspective. For example, warriors begin with 30 + constitution + 1d6 HP, and all classes gain 1d6 + constitution HP per level achieved. That’s a lot! To put this in perspective, the bastard sword does 2d6+1 damage and the two-handed sword does 3d6 (with strength also adding to melee damage). Aside: ranged weapons add perception to damage rather than strength, which is a nice touch. That said, my initial impression, looking at monster stats, is not that combat will turn into a slog of HP attrition, but it’s hard to say for sure without playing it. The resolution system using ability tests, is, however, heavily bounded, with opportunities for bonuses few and far between, making me think that the overall power curve of the system is gradual.

Strangely, for an RPG inspired by a video game, scant attention is paid to gear. While this is probably a good thing overall, given how common magical items seems to devalue enchanted items in games that make use of the upgrade treadmill (sword +1, sword +2, etc), it still seems somewhat odd. The example magic items are mostly consumables, and don’t include things like magic staffs that increase spell power. Though Set 2 includes some crafting rules (for poisons and traps), enhancing weapons with runes and enchantment are not covered, despite their prominence in the Dragon Age video game. Perhaps such rules will be included in the upcoming Set 3. While I would rather an emphasis on gear be omitted rather than implemented poorly, even better would be to see the challenge of creating an elegant system surmounted (especially since I am attempting to create such a system for Gravity Sinister). I really appreciate the gradual introduction of complexity behind the overall design, and I can see how introducing enchantment as content for levels 11+ might make sense, though it does feel somewhat off that lower level PCs can’t pay for having enchantments laid on their weapons (for example).

While I am tremendously impressed by the core engine and the character advancement system, there are still some shortcomings. The GM book, other than the monster entries, is mostly a discussion of things like how to deal with player types and plot arcs rather than useful procedures that can be followed. Thus, I don’t think the Dragon Age sets would make a good introduction to the kind of games that I like to run, and though I can see myself running the game pretty much as written in terms of player options and resolution systems, I suspect I would need to import many tools (dungeon stocking, random encounters, reaction rolls, etc) on the referee side. There are some offhand remarks about being open to player choices that seem to caution against preplanned plotting, but little is done to emphasize the “play to find out what happens” ethos (Apocalypse World, page 108) that I think is the true strength of tabletop RPGs.

For another deficiency, the art is extremely bland to the point of being entirely forgettable. There is plenty of world flavor in the mechanics (summoning healing spirits from The Fade and so forth), but you won’t find anything interesting in the visual presentation (I feel mostly the same way about the video game, actually, despite really enjoying many structural aspects of the setting). The mechanical excellence of the system mostly makes up for the aesthetics, in my opinion.

There’s still a lot more to say, such as a more detailed consideration of the mana-based magic system and a discussion of the integration with the default world of Thedas, but I think this post has droned on for long enough. Perhaps I will continue to write about other aspects of the game if I don’t get distracted by something else. Free quickstart rules are available that contain the base system and several pregen characters (though without the full character creation procedure). PDFs of Set 1 and Set 2 can be bought (sans RPGNow-style watermark, thankfully!) from Green Ronin’s web site. Though the physical production of the boxed sets is nothing special (booklets, a few maps, and some quick reference cards), it’s nice to be able to read the books in printed form and I’m not unhappy with the purchase. The Set 1 box includes 3 standard pip-style dice, with one die of a contrasting color for use as the dragon die (I mention this only to make clear that you won’t be getting fancy dice with a dragon icon instead of a 6 or something).

Last word: not perfect for me as a complete game, but probably the best mechanical implementation of distinctive player character development that I’ve read so far.

8 thoughts on “Dragon Age Tabletop RPG

  1. PW Shea

    Lots of thoughts about this! Here are some:

    1. After running and playing quite a bit of this game, I’ve come to think of this as essentially a system wherein players run through a series of already established and planned scenes. That is, it’s about play-acting in your favourite licensed setting, not about a robust, do-whatever game (thus the lack of gear, the advice in the GM guides about story arcs, etc).

    2. A lot of it feels like an attempt to keep the kind of character gen and modification fiddiliness of Pathfinder without the complexity, which I really appreciate (Kobold Press’s Midgard setting book has a number of really cool backgrounds, specializations and new spell schools). The background creation charts have found a number of uses in my D&D games.

    3. God yes, the art is so dull. A lot of it, I believe, is concept art from Dragon Age Origins (with the DA2 Qunari thrown in). But then, DAO’s art was pretty generic (DA2 was better insofar as there was more contrast in the pallet and they added lots of points to things).

    4. I personally hate the way poisons, traps and hazards work. Like page 42, I appreciate guidelines, but assigning some pre-determined metric for how they are always meant to work feels so dull and limiting to me.

    5. The bell curve requires you calibrate encounters to party level, which I find really boring. That is, as soon as the enemy starts to slip from the median down either side of the curve, they become either a cakewalk (never hit the party, are easy to hit) or a brick wall (really hard to hit, almost always hit party). This is exacerbated, I think, by the systems failure to include useful alternatives to traditional combat (basically, making a single flask of oil [aka grenades] is a late-game ability and buying a single flask costs like 333% as much as a suite of full plate mail). Morale is included but is wonky (GM determines the criteria, which seems OK, but I prefer there being some better guidelines, based upon the monster), but then the GM also determines the TN, which seems crazy. Like, what’s the criteria there? What constitutes an “average” morale check vs, say, a really easy or really difficult morale check?

    6. Like you, I dislike pre-reqs on player options, but I think we might be in the minority on that one (Pathfinder). Frankly, I think this can be easily ameliorated with re-structuring these kinds of things into progression trees (one of these days, I’m going to dust off my graph theory books and come up with talent trees).

    7. I wish skills (ahem, foci) were handled a bit more loosely. Like, let people pick whatever they want to focus on, don’t give pre-existing categories.

    Reply
    1. Brendan Post author

      @Pearce

      I feel like I should see the system in action really before being able to substantively contribute anything beyond this initial impression, which is probably of limited utility. Nonetheless, I still have some responses!

      1. I see where this is coming from, and surely you’re right in the sense of designer expectations, but I don’t feel like the basic mechanics presented are necessarily limited to this kind of set piece play in the same way that, say, 4E benefits from significant planning of set piece encounters (due to the geometric complexity of the tactical options in that system).

      2. I had no knowledge about these options from Kobold Press, so thanks for that! More spells, specializations, and so forth might be useful to me in the future (though I’m not sure a campaign setting where the major new races are gearforged, kobolds, and minotaurs is really for me).

      4. I do like how delivering a poison is a stunt, which sort of emphasizes (to me, at least) the abstract rather than cinematic nature of combat (that is, all “hits” with, say, a poisoned short sword are not actually literally slashes in the body of the enemy). The poison guidelines seem more flexible to me than the trap guidelines, and I think I see what you mean regarding the preset mapping of target number 17 traps to 5d6 damage (for example). I’m not sure if there is a better way to do this that doesn’t somehow circumvent the talent system. Some level of abstraction is certainly necessary here.

      5. This is interesting to me, because the restrained target numbers looked like they would be accessible to a wider range of PC levels. I will be very curious to see if I have the same experience, assuming I can get around to running something.

      7. It seems like free form focuses would be easy enough to just drop it without needing to mod any other part of the system. You get a more unique skill but trade away likelihood that the rules will call out your explicit focus commonly, which seems reasonable.

      And thanks for going the trouble of writing out such an extensive response. It’s really appreciated, especially given your experience with the system.

      Reply
      1. PW Shea

        In re to your replies:

        1. Yeah, I agree. I ran a seven month underground hexcrawl wherein the players try to navigate machine cultists, lightning elementals, an enormous thieves guild selling alien parts as drugs, and star-born aliens bent on resurrecting the half-dead sentient star in the bottom of the thing. Oh and star cultists in the above ground city. And gangs of vampire farmers. Like, I think the intention was for set pieces, I think the system is easy enough to hack.

        2. I like the gearforged (minotaurs are a bit dull). The appeal of the setting has been, for me, that it’s a mashup of a bunch of eastern european, lovercraftian and russian stuff. I don’t use the setting, per se, but I take chunks of it.

        5. Yeah, that’s true, the constraints help. My point was that the change from “this is challenging” to “this is a TPK” seemed to be pretty precipitous and not obvious from looking at the monster’s stat block.

        Part of this is also my own fault. Like, I capped armour at mail after reading on the forums and looking at the math and realizing how huge plate would be and how easy it was to get (Xander mentions this problem below, sort of). And I tried to run this as a hexcrawl, so there were plenty of situations where the PCs ran into something that was outside of their comfort zone but because neither of us were familiar enough with the system, I couldn’t properly telegraph that to them and they had trouble telling the difference between a series of unlucky attack rolls and a simply challenging opponent.

  2. Xander

    After GMing this for a year, and just finishing up while almost to level 5, I can say a few simple points.

    – When it came to character creation, most of the players would create almost identical characters stat-wise. Of the 10 or so people I’ve ran with, 2 even had exactly the same, down to stats, weapons, equipment, focuses and talents, even after a few levels. I ignored most of the character progression ideas, since they were static and I allowed the players to choose how a basic upgrade could occur. (example: changing what stunt one can use easily)
    – When it came to difficulty, the characters were always succeeding without effort. Most enemies have a defence value of between 10-15 and the warriors attacks were rolling an average of 18.5. Most damage done to players wouldn’t get through armour, so I was doubling or even tripling damage, always aiming to cause armour penetrating damage. Enemy health would almost always be increased to maintain entertainment, since it’s disappointing if the Big Bad can’t last a single round.
    – Had to work in a lot of house rules. Which can bad or good thing, depending on preference. I don’t want to sound too negative, I prefer it.
    -The stunts were a big hit, and I’ll most likely convert the idea to other games. Most people immediately followed a certain pattern, but since different amounts of points meant different stunts were used it stayed fresh. I also let the players use a large number of custom stunts as well.
    – Creation was simple and fast, yet evocative. Making the player choose a background (or origin for those who like the video game) worked quite well in idea development.
    – Since having a focus meant a flat +2, I found myself asking for basic ability checks and allowing the players to select a focus that they may wish to try and use. Obvious most of the time, but allowed a few stretches, assuming the players could explain or describe the use.
    – As for set 3: http://greenronin.com/2012/02/dragon-age-set-3-playtest.php

    Overall it’s a good game.
    Xander approves +5

    Reply
    1. Brendan Post author

      @Xander

      I wonder also if they are waiting with Set 3 to incorporate aspects of the upcoming Inquisition game.

      I’d be curious to see the final set of house rules that you ended up with. Did you consider decreasing PC hit points rather than increasing monster damage? While I can see that there might be a psychological barrier to such a decrease (loss aversion), it would be a more elegant system modification (probably best done at the start of a campaign).

      Reply
      1. Xander

        In relation to lowering players health, I agree with you, and but yeah, the players always enjoy being able to take 10d6 damage to the face and walking it off. The players were used to how much they could do by the time I wanted to change the rules.

        As for house rules:
        – I changed the armour talent to include three levels of armour proficiency light/leather, medium/mail and heavy/plate, instead of two levels, since everyone would try and get as much armour as they could.
        – As said in my above comment, basic ability tests were a simple change.
        – I tried to introduce encumbrance rules, but got a resounding ‘no’ from the players. They really like the idea of carrying around their 600 pounds of frozen crab meat. Even the witch had 16 pairs of pretty shoes.
        – I was always asked if the characters could “rest for a few hours and heal” so I let them get back health as long as there was a mage that could cast healing resting with them. This was just a re-wording of how mages could rest and gain mana, and then use that mana for healing immediately, but they never noticed.
        – From ‘Esoterica from Thedas’, especially the first volume by Doug Newton-Walters, I took the weapon, shield and armour costs.
        http://dragonageoracle.com/2012/02/23/esoterica-of-thedas/
        – I used weapon style dependent stunts by Saisei, even if they were a bit overpowered: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/21080063/Dragon%20Age%20New%20Stunts%20by%20Saisei.pdf
        – I had considered allowing a person to forgo the ability to generate stunt points to directly perform a stunt if they increased the difficulty of a roll (such as +2 x stunt points required normally) but I thought that might lead to patterns and I never got around to testing it.

        That all I can think of for now.

  3. Archaos

    @Xander
    My 6 players don’t have the same character, with the Set 3 specializations it’s more easy to have differents characters.
    I’m agree with the fight’s problem.
    Another problem is the 3 sets and the GM’s screen is only for the Set 1. It’s not convenient. I created a spell list and my own GM’s screen to solve this problems (there are on my web site : http://www.archaos-jdr.fr/medfan/index.php?page=Dragon-Age).
    The stunts are very fun and i’m trying to add them for Shadowrun. I found a interesting stunt system failure in http://www.koboldquarterly.com/k/front-page13653.php.
    I like the ability to generate stunt points if the difficulty is increased. I will try it.

    Reply

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