Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 12 March 2010

Do You Have Time For Serpents?

Last Saturday I participated in a demonstration game of Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying Set 1: For Characters Level 1 to 5, the new roleplaying game from Green Ronin Publishing based on Dragon Age: Origins, the computer game from Bioware. Our GM, Dickie, ran the scenario that comes with the game, “The Dalish Curse,” for myself and two other players. I played a Surface Dwarf Warrior called Gorim, and armed with a two-handed axe proceeded to cut a swath through a lot of the opposition, which is not to belittle the efforts of my fellow Mage and Rogue, but boy did Gorim tank his way through the scenario! Everyone said that they not only enjoyed themselves, but that they would play it again. I certainly would, as I really enjoyed myself! While it was fun dishing out lots and lots of damage, what really made it exciting was the game’s Stunt Points and Stunt Point system. Make a really good roll in combat, whether casting a spell, shooting an arrow, or striking with an axe, and a character gets to pull off spectacular manoeuvres. For example, I made a good roll when we were being attacked by three possessed wolves and choose to do Mighty Blow followed by Dual Action, which meant that Gorim could not inflict extra damage on the beast in front of him, but swing his axe with such force that he could strike at an adjacent beast. This means of handling Stunts added a dynamic aspect to the play of Dragon Age.

The first thing that you need to know about Dragon Age is that you do not need to have played the computer game to enjoy the RPG. For example, I have not, although I do want to try the game at some point. If you happen to have played the computer game, then you need to know that Dragon Age is set about the same time as the computer game. The second thing that you need to know is that the game is written to be played by both experienced players and those new to roleplaying, such that learning the game is really easy for the experienced player, and relatively easy for the neophyte player. The third thing that you need to know is that Dragon Age is a Class and Level game, one that comes with three races, three classes, and only covers levels one through five. Further boxed sets will detail five levels each up to level twenty, much like the 1983 version of Basic Dungeons & Dragons did with its Basic, Expert, Companion, Master, and Immortal Boxed Sets (though they actually took Basic Dungeons & Dragons from level one up to level thirty six rather the levels one through twenty of Dragon Age).

What you get in the Dragon Age box set is two books, one for the players, and one for the GM; plus a large full colour map of the game’s beginning setting, Ferelden. Lastly, the box contains three six-sided dice, two of one colour, and one of another colour. Both of the Player’s Guide and the GM’s Guide are sixty-four pages in length, in full colour, profusely illustrated, easy to read, and each come with their own index. The Player’s Guide gives the background for the setting, along with rules for character creation, magic, combat, and equipment, as well as how to play the game. The GM’s Guide gives the rules in detail, describes how to run the game, and gives both plenty of adversaries along with the beginning scenario, “The Dalish Curse.” Both books are also written with the neophyte in mind, so that the Player’s Guide has advice on how to be a good player and the GM’s Guide, advice on how to be a good GM. If a player reads through the Player’s Guide, he will have a good idea of how the game plays, and to be honest, the GM does not have that much more to learn from the GM’s Guide.

The setting for Dragon Age is the world of Thedas, with the first boxed set focusing on Ferelden. This is a nation of humans descended from barbarian tribes that has not long achieved independence after suffering invasions from other nations and darkspawn incursions known as Blights. Each Blight was brought about by a mage who grew too hungry for power, and for this reason, the use of magic is distrusted. Hence every mage must be a member of the Circle of Magi, or he will be hunted down as an apostate. Even Circle mages are monitored by Templars of the Chantry, watching for the use of blood magic or for signs of demonic possession. Any mage not part of the circle is known as an Apostate and is in danger of being hunted down. The Chantry is a powerful influence in Ferelden – and elsewhere – such that when the newly formed second Elven nation of the Dales refused to worship the Maker, the Chantry declared an Exalted March, resulting in the sacking of the Dales and the scattering of the Elves. Today, most Elves live as second class citizens, free though quartered in Alienages in Ferelden, but live as slaves elsewhere. Still some Elves choose to follow their own gods and live independently, but these Dalish Elves are even more distrusted. The only contact with the Dwarves is with the surface houses, which act as middlemen between those Dwarves that live underground and the surface nations, and so have got rich in the process. While other nations might regard the Ferelden people as barbarians, to the West lie the Frostback Mountains, home to the Avvar Hillsmen, tribes people who refused to join with what they see as the old and corrupt folk of Ferelden.

The setting of Ferelden is described as Dark Fantasy. It has neither Unicorns nor Pegasi, and it is rare for anyone to be of pure heart. It feels reminiscent of Saxon Britain, having been invaded many times, including by a once mighty but now fallen empire, and is still threatened today, while holding numerous superstitions and prejudices. Mechanically, it can be quite lethal for the player characters. In one encounter in our demonstration game, the rogue was cut down very quickly by an opponent as the mage held off another and I ran round the room smashing the other opponents down. Fortunately healing is freely available, usually from a party’s Mage, either from his Healing Focus, Chirurgy Talent, or Heal spell, but also from resting after a combat encounter.

For its mechanics, Dragon Age uses what it calls the “age” or “adventure game engine.” To undertake an action, a character rolls three six-sided dice – two of one colour and one of another colour, this single die being known as the Dragon Die – adding the result to an appropriate ability (or attribute) and if the character has one, an appropriate Ability Focus (or skill). For example, Gorim (see below) attacks a Genlock, a humanoid type of Darkspawn, with his two-handed axe. He rolls a total of ten (three, three, and then four on the Dragon Die), adds his Strength (three) and the bonus from his Strength (Axes) Focus (two) to get a total of fifteen. This is enough to hit the Genlock and Gorim can roll his damage.

Yet before Gorim can roll this damage, he gets to perform one or more cinematic stunts. This is because he rolled doubles on two of the dice. When this happens in combat, a character gets to spend Stunt Points equal to the number rolled on the Dragon Die, choosing Stunts from one of two tables. One table covers Stunts for melee and ranged attacks, while another covers spell combat. In our example, Gorim has four Stunt Points to spend. He selects Pierce Armour for two Stunt Points, which halves the Genlock’s armour, and then Mighty Blow, allowing him to deliver an extra die’s worth of damage. It is not possible to take a Stunt more than once in a combat round, but in this instance, it is enough for Gorim to inflict a mighty twenty six points of damage on the Genlock, killing the creature straight off!

Essentially, the Dragon Die works as an “Effect Die.” In combat it allows a character to undertake dynamic and exciting actions, while out of combat it works as a tie breaker in opposed rolls, as means to determine the length of time an action takes, and as a means to determine the quality of an action. We found that when playing, rolling four or more on the Dragon Die gave us lots more options than when we rolled under four. In addition, if you have a good GM, he will also let you suggest ways in which you can spend the Stunt Points to gain visually exciting effects.

The method of creating characters is primarily random. Three six-sided dice are rolled in turn for eight Abilities (or attributes) to generate numbers between -2 and 4. A 1 in an Ability is average with the Ability table weighted towards results of 1 or above. Abilities are rolled in order, but a player can swap one Ability result with another. Next a Background is chosen. Each Background – there are seven given in the Player’s Guide – determines a character’s culture, upbringing, and race. The seven available are Apostate, Avvar, Circle Mage, City Elf, Dalish Elf, Ferelden Freeman, and Surface Dwarf. In game terms, a Background also provides one Ability increase and one Ability Focus (or skill), but can provide one or more of either depending upon rolls made against a benefit table given for each Background.

Each Class determines a character’s starting Hit Points, Talents, and Weapon Groups besides the Powers that each Class grants. A Mage knows Arcane Lance, a free magical attack projected through a wand or staff, Mana Points, plus spells. Only seventeen spells are described, but these are enough for the moment. A nice touch is that several different sets of beginning spells are suggested to help a player get going with his Mage. The rules suggest that a starting Mage take the Heal spell and after our demonstration game, this is good advice. The Mage only knows the Brawling and Staves Weapon Groups, and will probably refrain from wearing armour as casting spells in armour costs more Mana points. In comparison, the Rogue knows more Weapon Groups, all of them light, and is trained in wearing light armour. He can also Backstab, an attack from an unexpected direction, so a Rogue cannot be adjacent to the target at the start of a combat round. A Rogue also has one of the Contacts, Scouting, or Thievery Talents. Lastly, a Warrior knows more Weapon Groups, wear better armour, and can specialise in various Weapon Styles, such as Archery Style, Dual Weapon Style, or Weapon-and-Shield Style.

Lastly, a player can choose his character’s name, purchase equipment – this in addition to the basic gear that each class receives, work out the game’s few derived stats, and set the character one short term and one long term goal. The character creation process is actually pretty quick and once familiar with it, a player could create his character in about five minutes. To prove it, and because I like the game so much, I include not one, not two, but three sample characters.

Name: Gorim of House Strakan
Race: Dwarf Background: Surface Dwarf
Class: Warrior Level: 1
Communication: 1 Constitution: 4 Cunning: 0
Dexterity: 2 Magic: -2 Perception: 0
Strength: 3 Willpower: 1
Defence: 12 Speed: 10 Hit Points: 37 Armour: 4 (Heavy Leather)
Foci: Constitution (Stamina), Cunning (Engineering), Strength (Axes)
Talents: Armour Training, Dual Weapon Style, Two-Hander Style
Weapon Groups: Brawling, Axes, Bludgeons, Bows
Languages: Trade Tongue (Speak and read), Dwarven (Speak and read)
Attacks: Battle Axe (2d6+3), Crossbow (2d6+1), Two-Handed Axe (3d6+3)
Money: 59 silver pieces

Name: Adanna
Race: Elf Background: Circle Mage
Class: Mage Level: 1
Communication: 2 Constitution: 1 Cunning: 2
Dexterity: 3 Magic: 3 Perception: 2
Strength: -1 Willpower: 1
Defence: 13 Speed: 15 Hit Points: 21
Mana Points: 17 Spells: Arcane Bolt, Heal, Rock Armour
Foci: Cunning (Arcane Lore), Cunning (Historical Lore)
Weapon Groups: Brawling, Staves
Languages: Trade Tongue (Speak and read), Ancient Tevene (Read)
Attacks: Arcane Lance (1d6+3), Quarterstaff (1d6+1)
Money: 58 silver pieces

Name: Blaen
Race: Human Background: Ferelden Freeman
Class: Rogue Level: 1
Communication: 2 Constitution: 3 Cunning: 1
Dexterity: 2 Magic: 2 Perception: 1
Strength: 1 Willpower: 1
Defence: 12 Speed: 12 Hit Points: 28 Armour: 2 (Light Leather)
Foci: Communication (Animal Handling), Willpower (Courage)
Talents: Backstab, Rogue’s Armour, Contacts
Weapon Groups: Bows, Brawling, Light Blades, Staves
Languages: Trade Tongue (Speak and read)
Attacks: Long Bow (1d6+3), Short Sword (1d6+2)
Money: 59 silver pieces

Character progression, made by being awarded Experience Points and gaining levels (Experience Points are awarded according to the difficulty of an encounter), grants a character increases to his Abilities, new Talents and Focuses, increases in his Talents – from Novice to Journeyman, and if a Mage, new spells. Of course, this boxed set only takes a character up to fifth level. Future boxed sets will add more.

The base set for Dragon Age only gives three races – Dwarf, Elf, and Human; and three Classes – Mage, Rogue, and Warrior. Depending on the Background selected, Elves and Humans can be of any Class, but Dwarves cannot cast spells and so can only be Rogues or Warriors. To an extent, this does limit choice, and hopefully, future sets will provide new Backgrounds and Classes, such as Chantry Clerics and Templars. Another problem with character generation is that despite the fact that the game describes the Classes as being quite broad, this not quite true. The starting Talents available to the Rogue – Contacts, Scouting, or Thievery, of which he can have just the one, do define his role. He either knows people, can act as a scout, or as a burglar. Thus the choice of Talent defines the Rogue’s role, but there are fewer obvious choices when it comes to the other two Classes. With the Chirurgy Talent a Mage can be a healer, but he is otherwise a scholar of some kind. With the Warrior, what defines his role is the choice of Weapon Groups and Style Talents known, and there is not enough of a difference between these to define an actual role beyond fighter.

Another problem with the random creation method used in Dragon Age is that a roll earlier in process will often determine what a character can select later. For example, if a Mage wants to be a healer and take the Chirurgy Talent available to him as a Mage, the requirements for the Talent are that the Mage have the Cunning (Healing) Focus, and this is only available on the Human benefit table for the Apostate Background and on the Elf benefit table for the Circle Mage Background. This also occurs in other cases because a character does not match the Ability requirements and so limits a player’s choice. Also, this is not obvious in the rules and can only be found out by actually creating a character.

In addition to the advice on being a GM and a more detailed explanation of the combat, the GM’s Guide provides a bestiary of some twenty or so adversaries. Most monsters and adversaries can make use of the same Stunt Tables as the player characters, with many entries listing the preferred Stunts. In addition, many creatures have their own Stunts, such the Black Bear’s Quick Bite Stunt. While advice is given on making these creatures tougher, there are no rules for the GM who wants to create his own. It also includes a detailed scenario, “The Dalish Curse.” This has the player characters come upon a farm that has been attacked and its inhabitants killed. Amongst the bodies, they discover a wounded elf, who when taken to the nearby village, arouses the suspicions of the villagers that an Elven curse has befallen them. This follows on from an altercation that the villagers had with some Dalish Elves that attended the village’s harvest festival. Worse still, the wounded Elf manages to tell the heroes that her fellow Dalish Elves were abducted and begs for their aid. This begins a scenario that should played through in a session or two, or just the one long session. It is quite detailed, and focuses upon two elements of the setting mentioned elsewhere in the two books – the prejudice against the Elves and the chance of demonic possession and transformation into a Darkspawn of some kind. It does lack advice for staging each scene though, which is pity given that Dragon Age is designed for the new GM as much as the experienced one.

From having played through “The Dalish Curse” I would recommend that the game be played with a minimum of three players plus the GM. And if there is just the three players participating, then they should play one each of the classes. Plus the mage should absolutely take the Heal spell.

Dragon Age is a lot of fun, but it is not quite perfect. One problem is with the map, which though very nice, is marked with the locations and their names for the scenario. I would have preferred a map that was more neutral in this regard. I also would have liked more background, if only to help me create more scenarios, and as much as I like the random method of character generation, it is disappointing that all too often it limits character choice. 

Interestingly, on the back of Dragon Age’s box, it claims to offer “A New Age of Fantasy Roleplaying!” whilst at the same time describing it as “old school roleplaying.” Which begs the question, is such a combination possible? The mechanics in Dragon Age certainly look back to the Old School Renaissance with their simplicity, with their lack of explanation for every eventuality, and for the room they make for the GM to interpret and apply them. As does the format with its multiple boxed sets designed to take a character from first to twentieth levels. It would have been interesting for the rules to have explained this use of the term “old school roleplaying” and in doing might have made it more attractive to players with an interest in that style, let alone explain its claim to herald a “New Age of Fantasy Roleplaying!” This I am less convinced about, and without the words to back it up upon the part of the author, it reads as hyperbole.

What is so refreshing about Dragon Age, is that it runs counter to the current trend in fantasy roleplaying games for complexity, for overburdening the players with choice, for the absolute need for playing boards and miniatures, and for making fantasy roleplaying games more like board games than actual roleplaying games. If you happen to be looking for a beginning RPG, then Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying Set 1: For Characters Level 1 to 5 happens to be an excellent choice. The basic rules tend towards the simplistic, but that also means that they are very straightforward, very easy to grasp, and in play the game proceeds at pace. On top of that, the Stunt Point system is a delight, being so easy to use, and will have players begging to roll doubles just so that they can use it. For experienced roleplayers, Dragon Age is very easy to pick up and play, and once the game gets going, playing is not just fun, it is a blast!