If there existed one gaming system that worked for every gaming group, then every gaming group would play it.
Since no such system has yet been found, it’s not surprising that two very different gaming groups had drastically different reactions to the Dragon Age tabletop game by Green Ronin. One group absolutely loved it; the other, well, not so much. Here’s how the system played for each group.
Warning: this review contains minor spoilers for the Amber Rage adventure in Blood in Ferelden.
1. Group Backgrounds
Hannah: My group came from a slightly unusual background, in that all four of them had substantial experience in Whitewolf’s Mage: the Ascension system, and almost no experience with d20 systems. One of the players had never played anything else, two had dabbled in indie games, and another played almost exclusively indie games.
I think me being the only one with a d20 background made a big difference. There are things in Dragon Age that are much lighter and simpler than in most d20 games. But for someone who is used to more story-focused systems, Dragon Age seems restrictive in comparison.
As far as setting background goes, I’ve played through the Dragon Age video game twice. One of my players was about halfway through it, and the other three had never heard of it.
NewbieDM: My players and I have been gaming together for over 20 years, and we are mostly a D&D crowd. We’ve occasionally drifted towards Star Wars in all its various forms, but our main game has always been D&D.
Dragon Age seemed to us like the kind of game that would allow us to have more roleplay at the table, not because the game we were playing (4e D&D) prevented us to do so mechanically, but because battles were just taking too long.
My players decided they wanted to try something new. I had played the Dragon Age video game, so we’re giving it a shot.
2. The Core Mechanic
The core mechanic of Dragon Age is simple. Roll 3d6 and add the relevant modifier from your sheet. If you beat the Target Number (similar to Difficulty Class in d20), or if you roll higher than your opponent, you succeed. If not, you fail.
One unique thing about this mechanic is the Dragon Die. The Dragon Die is a differently colored d6 – part of the three you always roll – that determines margin of success. If you get a 1, you barely squeak by; if you get a 6, you’re massively successful.
Hannah: My group picked this up quickly, with only a little trouble getting used to Focuses (similar to skills) and the core Dragon Age stats. The trouble came in when the Dragon Die came into play.
The Dragon Die is different from other games for one major reason: your bonuses have nothing to do with your margin of success. You could have a +10 to a roll, make the Target Number with plenty to spare, and still just barely succeed because your Dragon Die came up a 1.
While games with critical hits and botches can have outstanding results based on luck alone on a high or low roll, the rest of the time, your bonuses matter. Roll anything in between a 2 or a 19 in most d20 games, and how well you succeeded depends heavily on your modifiers. With the Dragon Die, your margin of success is completely random.
My players hated this. Sure, a character with bonuses to pulling off acrobatics is going to manage to safely jump over the chasm more often – but whether or not he does cool tricks on the way over is totally up to chance. Someone with a lousy bonus is equally likely to do a triple back flip mid-leap, assuming they make it to the other side to begin with.
This leaves you in the awkward position of either ignoring margin of success most of the time, or having a world where total klutzes are paragons of grace one of out of the every six times they manage to avoid tripping over themselves. In addition, it’s just disappointing to roll well on two dice and have a great modifier, but only slightly succeed because the Dragon Die result was less than stellar.
NewbieDM: We love the simplicity of the core mechanic, even if what Hannah says above may be true. I tend to ignore the degree of success rule unless it’s significant to the story anyway, so in that regard the Dragon Die doesn’t bother me.
Keep in mind you still need to beat a target number, and your bonuses and focuses do matter. It’s not like the Dragon Die alone determines success or failure; it just determines how well you actually succeeded once your roll meets the target number. I don’t see it as a big issue at all, and it is something that can be used to serve a dramatic purpose or otherwise ignored in my opinion.
In Dragon Age, rolling doubles on any two d6s while attacking or casting a spell lets you perform a stunt. You can choose from a list of standard stunts available to everyone, stunts your character picks up as he or she advances, or environment-specific stunts like overturning a boiling kettle. The number of stunt points you have available to spread between stunts is the number on your Dragon Die.
Hannah: This is probably the thing my players liked least, and I think their background has a lot to do with it.
At first, stunts seem like a great idea – a mechanical way to add a little creativity to your fight. Roll doubles and you can knock opponents prone, go charging across the battlefield, or use the environment against your enemies.
The problem is, many other games let you attempt those things at will. My players repeatedly asked me if they could take called shots, attempt to knock opponents prone, move while attacking in ways besides a charge, and otherwise do cool things they thought would be helpful. My response was always, “There’s a stunt for that, so it looks like you must have stunt points to do it.”
My players were severely annoyed to find out that the ragers in Amber Rage could only poison you as a stunt. Poison is a property of the weapon, not of the attack. While it’s true that an otherwise successful attack might hit with the flat of the blade or a part where the poison has already rubbed off, it seemed unlikely to my players that transmitting an infection on a blow with your poisoned axe was a deliberate action, let alone one that you could only perform some of the time.
The general consensus was that stunts were a way for the game to tell you, “Hey, it’s time for creativity!” My players thought that was probably a good thing for groups who were used to taking the, “I hit it with my sword again” approach to combat, but that it was a massive hindrance to their own ability to roleplay.
NewbieDM: Our combats in 4e were taking forever because everyone looked over their character power cards and a bad case of analysis paralysis took over. So for us, the Dragon Age combat system is a perfect way to get the fights out of the way quickly, and get back to the story. The stunts are what keep things from getting overly monotonous, and for us it’s working just fine.
Are fights less tactical than 4e? Yes. Is it more of the, “I hit it with my sword” variety? Yes, it is, but the stunts allow you to vary it up and get creative. I ran the Amber Rage adventure Hannah mentions, and to be honest, the fact that a poison is transmitted via a stunt is something that I as a DM would likely keep close to my vest, and not let players now how it works.
I’ll tell you that rolling doubles in the game is fun, and my players celebrate it just as much as rolling a natural 20 on a d20 based game.
One major theme of the Dragon Age video game is meaningful choice. The player faces many situations where he or she must make a decision with no clear guidance on which path is best. Some are outright choices between the lesser of two evils, while others are all about moral shades of grey.
The Blood in Ferelden series of adventures tries to carry on this theme, presenting the players with difficult choices at every step of the way.
Hannah: My players really liked this idea, but were nonplussed about its execution. I think that Green Ronin did a great job with this in a lot of places in Blood in Ferelden. My players only got to see the choices that they encountered during their adventure, and there’s several of them that they weren’t too thrilled about.
An encounter that exemplifies this is the scene where a player character comes upon two children hiding beneath a wagon, with two enemies trying to snatch them. One child makes a break for it, to be pursued by one enemy, and so the player must choose – which child will they save? There’s only time to save one.
This seems like a gut-wrenching decision, and certainly there is no obvious good choice. The problem is, the choice is not a meaningful one. The character knows nothing about the two children. It’s not about saving the promising young warrior versus the bereaved widow’s only child; it’s just a young boy or a young girl.
Short of the character having a severe gender bias, there’s no particular reason to choose one or the other. In essence, there’s no choice at all – either way, the player is rescuing one unknown child while failing to rescue another unknown child.
No matter how bleak the choice, its outcome has to be meaningful to have any emotional impact.
NewbieDM: I ran this adventure, and used the encounter with the kids. Here’s where I strongly differ from Hannah. At the start of the adventure, the town the PCs are in is celebrating the opening of a new fort with a festival. The DM is encouraged to roleplay the PCs participating in events, and meeting the locals. It is here where the relationships that are meant to pay off later are introduced.
If the PCs never really have a chance to be introduced to the kids early in the adventure, then there’s no emotional attachment to the kids once their scene comes into play. In the end, they chose to save the girl, thinking that perhaps the boy could buy himself some time. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen that way, and because of that, this scene had a huge impact at my table and signaled to my players that Dragon Age was indeed a dark game.
5. The Setting
Dragon Age is set in Ferelden, the main kingdom explored in the Dragon Age video game. The core book fleshes out some parts of the setting beyond what’s apparent from the video game, and also gives details on other regions that might come up in other supplements.
The adventures in the tabletop game are assumed to take place shortly before the events of the video game. The Blight of monstrous darkspawn is only just beginning, and Cailan is still king.
Hannah: This was probably my group’s favourite part of the game. The two of us who’d played the video game thought Green Ronin did an excellent job fleshing out the setting. All of my players enjoyed Sothmere, the starting place for the Amber Rage adventure.
I especially liked the verisimilitude of the setting. Why would someone build a village on the edge of a wilderness inhabited by hostile raiders? Because that area is the best place to grow a certain kind of grain that makes for good bread and ale. The traveling merchants all know where the ale comes from, so it’s worth it to them to make a trip out of the way.
My group also had a lot of fun with the byplay between characters of different backgrounds. We had a Circle Mage and an apostate in the group. No one trusted either of them, and they especially distrusted each other. The local human warrior didn’t care too much about the elf, while the traveling dwarf warrior didn’t see much difference between them.
NewbieDM: What the Dragon Age setting does is take common fantasy tropes and turn them on their head. City elves live in ghettos in the big cities, while dwarves have a huge caste system they live by and are not remotely spiritual. They spin the common fantasy races in a way that makes them new to play, but having said that, I think my group and I would probably enjoy the system more if it were stripped from the setting.
Don’t get me wrong, I like what they’ve done, but I played the video game. My players have not, and I feel they aren’t as invested in the setting as I am. I made a document for them from the game’s wiki page, so they could have some more knowledge of the world, because I knew they weren’t going to play the video game.
What Dragon Age needs is a Campaign Guide, but I don’t see that coming anytime soon. Which leads to my greatest complaint about the game: the lack of support from Green Ronin.
I understand they are limited by it being a licensed property, but it almost feels like the game was released and then ignored by Green Ronin. Set 2 was recently announced, and rumors have it pushed back until June of 2011, 3 months after the release of Dragon Age 2 the video game.