RPGs You Need to Play: Dragon Age Box Set 1

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Sometimes it doesn’t hurt to take a step back and consider RPGs that have been on the market for a while.  Sometimes, in all the hustle and bustle of wildly-successful Kickstarter projects and widely-touted new releases, there’s some solid games that might get overlooked.  Though thanks to some recent coverage on Wil Wheaton’s web-series Table Top, that may very well change for this particular game.

Back in 2010 in the wake of BioWare’s very successful Dragon Age: Origins video game, Green Ronin’s Dragon Age RPG, as designed by long-time industry stalwart Chris Pramas, was released, making use of the newly designed Adventure Game Engine, or AGE for short, to allow players to step into the medieval fantasy realm of Thedas, creating their own heroes and telling their own stories outside of the constraints of the video game.  Given that it was released when the heyday of WotC’s 4th Edition D&D was winding down, it was deemed a welcome breath of fresh air from the overly-tactical wargaming and crunch-heavy mindsets that 4th Edition and Paizo’s Pathfinder espoused.

While the release schedule for Dragon Age supplements has been strewn with bumps and delays, there’s no discounting that Green Ronin put together a game system that is at once refreshingly simple yet surprisingly robust.  It’s true that a great many of AGE’s initial mechanics were geared towards support of the Dragon Age setting, but quite a few enterprising minds have taken this system and devised a number of rulesets to enable gaming in quite a few other settings, such as Diablo (AGE of Terror), AGE of Conan, and even Star Wars (AGE of Rebellion, set primarily during the Rebellion Era).  There’s also been officially supported alternate material for AGE, which includes material on Green Ronin’s own Freeport setting as well as a ruleset for divine-based magic.  I know a few other folks have been tinkering at one point or another with AGE system hacks, so the versatility is certainly there.

However, let’s take a look at where this all began back in 2010, with the Dragon Age RPG Box Set #1, shall we?

In a time when a lot of RPG products were either hardcover main books or soft cover supplements, Green Ronin did something a little different, and released the first Dragon Age RPG product as an actual box set, using a fairly sturdy cardboard and evoking a feel that was reminiscent of the old D&D Red Box that many of us older gamers got our start with.  Inside could be found a nice poster map of Fereldan, the region that was the primary focus of Dragon Age: Origins, a Player’s Guide, a Game Master’s Guide, and three six-sided dice, two white and one red as befits the ‘Dragon Dice’ mechanic that I’ll be discussing in a little bit.

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Production values are solid, as has often been my experience with every Green Ronin product that I’ve paid for.  While there may have been a few supplements that didn’t offer a lot of bang for the buck in terms of crunch material, I can honestly say that none of them have looked horrible or fell apart in my hands.  The cardboard box that I purchased the initial rules in has held together quite well, and in fact I use that to keep all my Dragon Age RPG materials in a single location that’s easy to grab off of my gaming shelf, and the books themselves have held up equally well, in spite of being soft-covers.  The art used throughout the book is evocative of the Dragon Age setting as well as being quite pleasing to the eye, something that’s always a plus.

AGE’s dice resolution system works around a rather simple 3d6, with the wrinkle being that the third dice, referred to as the ‘Dragon Die’ is only counted in special circumstances instead of being added to the roll.  This gives a number range of 2 to 12, with an 11 being considered an Average difficulty.  However, you do get to add various bonuses to your roll, specifically an ability bonus and a skill focus bonus, so it’s not just straight dice rolls (unless your Dragon Age character is really deficient in a particular aspect), but again we’ll cover those in a little bit.  Now, the third die, the Dragon Die (which the game suggests be of a different color to differentiate it from your main task resolution dice) really only comes into play when it’s important to know how well you succeeded on a task or if you roll doubles on your other dice, at which point the Dragon Die determines the number of Stunt Points your action generates.  These Stunt Points can be used to enable a variety of extra effects, be it inflicting extra damage on an attack, making a brief dash across the battle field, up to striking multiple targets.  The first Box Set was limited to combat-themed and spell-related stunts, although Box Set 2 provided roleplaying and exploration stunts so that non-combat actions could get a similar benefit and become cooler than just an ordinary success.

As would be expected, the Player’s Guide gives players a basic rundown on the history of Thedas, as well as the various cultures found within and around Ferelden, from its rather unusual system of nobility to the Dalish and the Dwarves of Orzamarr, as well as the influence of the Chantry and the existence of magic.

Character creation is a bit different in a few aspects than what most gamers are used to.  The default method of generating your character’s ability scores is a straight-forward roll of 3d6, but instead of keeping that value, you compare it to a chart to get your actual ability modifier and then ditch the number you rolled.  So a roll of 13 on your 3d6 would translate into a +2 ability score, but a 9 would only get you a +1.  Once you’ve got your abilities, the next step is selecting your character’s background.  Instead of the usual method of choosing a race, the Dragon Age RPG (and AGE in general) uses a Background system based upon the culture your character is from.  A Surface Dwarf is going to be quite a different character than a City Elf, an Apostate Mage, or a Fereldan Freeman, and the Background system reflects this.  While this does mean that there’s very little crossing of concepts (mages being a moderate exception), this does mean that the PCs are likely to be quite different from one another, particularly as each Background requires a pair of random rolls used to determine what additional perks your hero-in-the-making gets in addition to the standard perks offered by your Background.  As for what the Backgrounds offer, each of them grants a choice of one of the three base classes, a +1 to a specific ability, and a choice of one of two skill focuses that relate specifically to the Background, with the random bonuses ranging from an additional +1 to an ability score to extra skill focuses and even the occasional weapon proficiency (particularly for elves and bows; my how those knife-ears love their bows).

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After that, it’s on to picking your class.  Much like the video game it’s based on, there are only three classes available in the Dragon Age RPG, the warrior, the rogue, and the mage.  Unlike D&D or its cousins, there’s no division between divine magic and arcane magic; in this world, magic is magic and that’s all there is to it.  The first box set only concerns itself with levels 1 through 5, so advancement is a bit limited, but with the way level advancement works in this game, there’s really no such thing as a “dead level,” even if some of the apparent choices offered by your class are a bit less than exciting.  Once you’ve decided on your class (the choice of which may be quite restricted based on your Background selection; after all, not much sense in being a Rogue if you took Circle Mage as your Background), it’s off to finishing up the minor details such as movement (measured in yards), Defense, and armor values.

The next chapter moves into Focuses and Talents and, unlike various d20 games, the skill system in AGE is direct, to the point, and very simple to grasp.  Rather than worry about skill ranks or if your character is trained or untrained, AGE’s method simply provides your hero with a +2 bonus to any roll where an ability focus would apply.  So a warrior with the Strength-based skill focus of Heavy Blades would enjoy a +2 bonus on top of his Strength score when rolling to hew a blight wolf in half with his long sword, but wouldn’t get that bonus if he were to try using a battleaxe.  Now the other side of the equation, Talents, tend to focus more on making your character better at specific tasks, such as permitting re-rolls when a certain ability focus would come into play (which you typically need in order to select the Talent in the first place), or making you better able to use certain types of weapons and armor, such as the Weapon and Shield talent allowing the character to get the full benefit of using a shield when fighting with a one-handed weapon.  From there it’s on to Weapons and Gear, providing a pretty standard allotment of fantasy weapons, armor and adventuring gear.  Talents in AGE are interesting in that their value can be enhanced by increasing your rating in them as you level up; this can range from providing a discount on performing combat Stunts to additional re-roll opportunities.

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Next up is the Magic chapter, detailing how magic works as well as providing a list of ‘beginner’ spells that once again draws heavily upon the source material and is influenced by that source material being a video game.  What that means is that the spells offered are primarily centered on combat usage, dealing damage and offering status buffs, with little to nothing in the way of general utility magic.  For those gamers that enjoy playing Wizard!Batman with a variety of spells that let them handle a wide array of situations from the mundane to mortal peril, the lack of such utility magic can be a tough hurdle to overcome, and one that not all of them will.  Mages in this game can unload some pretty impressive effects, particularly if focusing on the Primal (i.e. elemental) school of magic. Due to the lack of division between arcane and divine magic, that means the party mage may also be pressed into duty as the party medic once the fighting’s done.  The last chapter of the Player’s Guide goes into the nuts and bolts of making ability checks in AGE as well as combat actions and a summary of the various stunts that players can perform.

Now we move onto the Game Master’s Guide, which starts with the usual ins and outs of running a game, with a brief mention made of how Dragon Age is a “dark fantasy” setting as opposed to a “heroic fantasy” setting that most D&D campaigns tend to be.  From there the book discusses making use of all the various rules, such as setting the difficulty for an ability check, when to call for them, and various hazards the GM can throw at the adventurers.  After that, it’s on to the Adversaries chapter, covering a number of ‘common’ monsters the heroes might encounter while traversing across Fereldan, such as brigands and mabari war dogs, but also the darkspawn and similarly tainted creatures such as blight wolves and ghouls.  After a brief section on rewards in the form of experience points and treasure, the rest of the book is given over to the introductory adventure “The Dalish Curse.”  I’ve played through this adventure, and I must say that for gamers expecting the usual “1st level fairly easy cake-walk adventure,” this one drives home the point that Dragon Age, for all its wonders and fantasy elements, is a fairly grim setting.  I’ve heard stories of PCs getting wiped out in the initial combat simply due to poor rolls on their part and good rolls on the GM’s part, and later combats can be just as deadly if the PCs don’t play it smart.  While AGE may use a hit point system similar to D&D, it can be fairly easy for the bad guys to hit the heroes and whittle through those hit points at an alarming rate, particularly if the bad guys are generating a lot of Stunt Points.

Beyond that, the adventure is a pretty solid one, introducing players that are new to the setting to some of the key elements of Dragon Age, namely that their actions and choices have consequence. How violent they get in dealing with certain adversaries in an early encounter can have adverse effects in the final encounter, so particularly bloodthirsty players may find the final battle against the adventure’s primary antagonist to be a lot harder than a group of players that were more merciful.  Also present are the “shades of grey” aspect, as the lines between good and evil in Dragon Age: Origins are quite blurry and this adventure brings that across as well; the heroes may have done good work by the adventure’s end, but the question of who’s ultimately at fault for the entire situation becoming what it did is tougher to answer.

Since the release of Box Set 1, there have been a few additional supplements for the Dragon Age RPG, consisting of a trio of adventures titled “Blood in Fereldan” that can be used as follow-ups to “A Dalish Curse” and “A Bann Too Many,” another introductory-level adventure sold with the GM Screen.  The last big release for Dragon Age has been the second box set, which not only expended character advancement out to level 10, but also offered players the chance to select specializations for their heroes, allowing them to better focus on a certain aspect of their class and providing mages with plenty of new spells to learn, though again much of the focus is on combat magic.

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Box Set 2 also covers some of the territories beyond Fereldan, such as the Free Marches and the Dwarf kingdom of Orzamarr, with added Background choices for these new regions as well as some new options for existing regions, plus covering the Grey Wardens who feature so prominently in Dragon Age: Origins. They are suitably badass should your hero be fortunate enough to join their ranks.  In short, if you were to buy just one of the supplemental materials published, I’d strongly suggest Set 2 for the wealth of additional options it provides to your players.  As well as those dead-tree materials, there are also several PDF options to be found, either from Green Ronin’s own online store or through various PDF retailers. Amongst these is a free Quick Start Guide which can get a group of would-be players and their GM up and running in short order. With a basic run-down of the setting, the rules, five sample player characters, and an introductory adventure “An Arl’s Ransom,” it is one that I think does a better job of teaching the game to new players without being too potentially lethal, at least in the initial encounters.

The third box set has been in the works for quite some time now, and to my knowledge there’s still not been a firm release date announced by Green Ronin, though it has been expanded to cover levels 11 to 20 rather than 11 to 15 as was originally intended back when Set 1 was released.

Well, that’s my review of the Dragon Age RPG.  Sadly, nobody in my area really seems keen on running or playing fantasy RPGs at the given moment, which is a real shame because it’s a wonderful RPG that can hit the required tropes of a medieval fantasy setting without getting overly bogged down in rules, but has enough variety that combats can be a great deal more interesting that just “I move up and swing at the monster” or “I cast a fire spell at that creepy thing over there.”  If nothing else, and you’re bored of D&D and Pathfinder, I’d really suggest downloading the Quick Start Guide and Sample PCs from Green Ronin’s website and giving this game a try.  You might just be surprised at how enjoyable this game can be.

If you’d like more information about the Dragon Age RPG in particular, you can check out Green Ronin’s dedicated site.  Or if you’re intrigued by some of the AGE system hacks I mentioned earlier in this article as well as many others, check out the Dragon Age Oracle blog.  If you want to see this game played live, you can view the Dragon Age RPG episode of Table Top on YouTube.

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