Wednesday, December 29, 2010

RPG Review - Dragon Age

I've played games based on comic books. I've played games based on movies. I've played games based on historical events, novels, and geographical oddities. But until I played Dragon Age, I don't believe I ever played a roleplaying game based on a roleplaying game (well, not counting every RPG that came out since D&D).

The guys at Green Ronin decided that the video game Dragon Age: Origins was so bitchin', it needed to be a tabletop game. So they figured out how to turn a video game RPG into a tabletop RPG, and they did a really good job of it. When you play Dragon Age, you'll feel like you're traipsing around Ferelden fighting darkspawn and getting cussed by mistreated city elves.

The setting for Dragon Age starts off with your basic Tolkien ripoff - dwarves and elves and dragons - but then twists it up and takes it to a dark place. Dwarves are reclusive and anti-social. Elves are downtrodden and abused, either working as servants for humans or wandering around in nomad caravans and being hated by everyone. Humans even have bad hemmorhoids. Everyone is miserable.

And then, because there's already too much joy, unholy monsters crawl out of the ground and overrun entire nations. These boogeymen, called darkspawn, have poisonous blood, brutal intelligence, and a hard-on for killing people. They come in lots of varieties, which means when you're facing a bunch in a fight, you can take your pick of what you want to kill, kind of like a Chinese buffet restaurant. Avoid the eggrolls. They bite back.

What you don't have in Dragon Age are a whole bunch of nonsensical monsters and various races of critters. There are undead hordes, but they're created when demons break through from the dark side and possess dead bodies. There are no orcs, goblins, kobolds, fish people, dog people, snake people or magical floating eyeballs. The bad guys basically come in three flavors - demons, darkspawn or regular ol' people. Those last ones can be the worst - the demons and darkspawn might be hell bent on destruction, but nothing rivals the twisted power of a decent man driven mad by hatred, greed or an overwhelming addiction to cough syrup.

Despite having a limited array of foes to kill (what, no land sharks?), Dragon Age has a wonderfully involved and compelling setting. Sure, the Bioware writers did all the heavy lifting, but I finished the video game and still didn't know half of the stuff I learned when I read the first couple chapters of the player's book. There are decadent Orlesians, the Trevinter Imperium assholes, the barbaric Avvar and the rough-and-tumble Fereldens. There's a history here that actually makes sense, instead of just being a chronicle of various magical wars and invasions by dragons. The players will have a place in this world, and they'll be part of the stories beyond simply the mechanical constructs that plod through the dungeons. In fact, the history is more than just an overlay to help us pretend that this next dungeon matters. The stories you play will be part and parcel of the background of the world. That ruin you're investigating to find the rage demon was once part of the Imperial Road, and it has a reason for being deep in the forest, beyond being a convenient place for a lich to set up shop and hire out a squadron of rotting corpses to fetch his slippers.

But all this consistency and depth doesn't do you any good if you can't play the game, and one thing about Dragon Age is that it's incredibly easy to play. You don't need a bucket of dice in various shapes and sizes. Each player just needs three regular dice, the kind you can find in Risk or Monopoly. Want to know if you can cross the slippery bridge? Roll three dice and add your dexterity. Want to know if you can stab the ogre in his soft parts? Roll three dice and add your strength. Want to know if you picked up gonorrhea from the farmer's daughter? Yeah, so do I.

Another thing that's brilliant is that unlike many games, everyone is in the fight, all the time. You know how in D&D, the wizard kind of hides in the back and waits to see if anyone needs him to blow something up, but he rarely does because he's only got four spell slots left and the fighters can probably handle the giant rats without help? That doesn't happen. The rogues can handle themselves in a fight, and the mage can throw a magical ranged attack for free. When you really need some firepower, the mage can light it up, but he doesn't have to. He can probably hit people pretty well with a stick, too.

A system this easy means you're going to find that your fights run a hell of a lot faster. We routinely ran into players saying, 'it's my turn again already?' You roll once, you roll damage, and you're on to the next guy. You can handle a pretty big fight with minimal fuss, and thanks to a really cool stunt system, there's plenty of room for big maneuvers and surprise assaults. For a game with limited rules, there are a surprisingly high number of options when violence breaks out. The simplicity of the system leaves plenty of room for cinematic takedowns, last-minute saves and courageous acts of heroic proportions. Plus you can totally stab stuff.

The rules for Dragon Age come in two books - one for the gamemaster, and one for the players. But unlike many roleplaying games, these books are short and succinct. You'll know how to play after just a couple hours of reading, and you won't have to read them all twice just to be able to remember how to do a five-foot step. Quite frankly, it's a relief to play a game with rulebooks that are only 64 pages long, instead of the enormous tomes required to play nearly any other game. For the sake of comparison, War and Peace is a shorter read than most paper-and-pen roleplaying games - but not Dragon Age.

Dragon Age is easy to play and easy to run, but in order to accommodate this simplicity, it has to get rid of some of the customization that you see in lots of other games. The rules tell you to create goals for your characters, but there's no reason to do so unless the GM specifically intends to use them. Character creation involves very few choices, and allows for little in the way of creative optimization. Sure, you dispense with a lot of the rules, but you don't get to create the glib conversationalist who can talk his way out of anything because his Diplomacy score gives him a bonus to Sense Motive and Bluff. You can't combine spells for creative experimentation, or train in a series of powerful moves that let you behead three rabbit people in a single blow.

Personally, I don't care if I do lose some of that tweaking, because all that fine tuning is a pain in my ass. When I'm running a game of D&D, I end up feeling like the master accountant and treasurer. Plus Dragon Age doesn't send me spelunking down endless, incoherent tunnels, stumbling across random conglomerations of monsters who never have toilets, and simply advancing from one room to the next like an overnight cleaning crew. In fact, the introductory adventure has exactly one dungeon containing only three areas. There's a fight at a farm, a monstrous demon slaughtering innocents, a harrowing battle across a yawning chasm and a terrifying night attack by gibbering lunatics, but no home invasions. When you go somewhere, you have a reason.

Dragon Age doesn't have the character-based storytelling of Burning Wheel, or the endless customization of Dungeons and Dragons. Instead, it has a solid background, a rich history, and consistent plots. It's quite possibly the easiest time I've ever had running a game, and it doesn't ever leave anyone completely out of the action. It's exciting, dark and just plain fun. Plus you can totally stab stuff.


Rich background that provides a purpose for your adventures
Compelling stories
Simple, flexible system with plenty of room for exciting moves
Fast and fun, for a game where the rules get out of the way and let you play
An emphasis on difficult moral choices

Very little customization
Not a lot of support - yet

The starter set for Dragon Age comes with both books, a map, and three dice. That's everything you need to play characters up to fifth level, and hopefully Green Ronin will come out with set 2 before you get bored with what you have. You can get a pretty good price on the game at Noble Knight Games:


Anonymous said...

this actually sounds pretty interesting as far a RPG goes, not so much homework for the DM.

Great read as always


Thomas D said...

There's the open playtest document for box two available at Green Ronin's website, which you can use to take your characters up to 10th.