Perhaps I just surf in the wrong spots, but even though it’s been out a little while now, I haven’t seen much comment at all about the Dragon Age pen-and-paper RPG from Green Ronin. I wrote a while back about the Stunt system used in the game, a feature I particularly like, and I wanted to do a more thorough review. Well, with my local con last weekend and speed painting Battlemechs for the pink-slip tournament, I was never seemed to have the time.
Until today. Here is the first part of the review, covering the Player’s Guide.
My first impression when flipping through the books, when they arrived in the mail, was that the game would have an old-school D&D feel. Or, more accurately, the feeling of all the D&D clones that appeared in the early 80s. This initial reaction may have engendered a fond feeling about the system which makes me a little sparkly-eyed. But upon reading deeper, the old-school feel went away, but the fondness did not.
The cover sets the stage with a violent, bloody scene of a dwarf tearing open a werewolf’s head with a ridiculously huge axe while his companions fire arrows and spells into the other onrushing monsters. It’s pretty, if a little gory and over the top for my tastes. It certainly sets a tone.
Opening the box, you find two softcover books, a poster map of Fereldan (the main setting for this set) and three six sided dice. Two black, one green. The multicolored dice are important to the game mechanics. More on that later. Diving into the Player’s Guide, you find the obligatory opening with the “What is a Roleplaying Game” spiel. I still love reading these, after all these years, it’s nice to see what some kid’s first introduction to roleplaying might be.
After that it goes into setting material, with a section on the history of Fereldan, a bit about life in Fereldan, social structures, how magic and the non-human races (elves and dwarves) fit in. This material is well written and interesting. It covers the world well even if (especially if) you haven’t played the video game. A feature of this chapter I found very interesting is a little section called, “So, What Do I Know Exactly” which speaks to players about what their characters will know at the start of a campaign. I found this a little odd. The more I thought about it though, this approach made a lot of sense and really set up players to not have to constantly ask, “Would my character know this?”
Moving on from learning about the world, you begin to make your character. Character creation is very simple, and will be familiar to players of any level-based RPG. It’s fairly standard fare here, with characters defined by a background and class (familiar to Dragon Age video game players) but the range of backgrounds is different, adding some and removing others. The classes remain the same, with Mage, Rogue and Warrior.
One old school throwback in the book was almost jarring for me, having not done this for a long time. You actually make random rolls for your starting ability scores. Instead of keeping the raw score generated by the 3d6 roll, you translate those rolls into a modifier, ranging from -2 to +4. These modifiers directly effect the rolls you make to use your abilities.
Instead of skills, the game has “ability focuses.” You get these by virtue of your background and class. These range from Animal Handling, to Acrobatics, to Might. Whenever you have an appropriate focus on a roll, you can add +2 to your ability modifier for that roll. Skills = simple.
This set only covers levels 1-5 (out of 20) for characters, so it’s kinda like buying the old D&D Basic set (levels 1-3). Future sets will expand the world and add higher level abilities. As you level, each class has a clear progression of powers and you also pick “talents” which are your spells, special techniques, etc. The spells and talents will also look familiar to someone who has played the video game. They tend to be well-written and interesting, giving characters nice options for customizing their character some.
On the subject of customization, don’t expect too much. Dragon Age RPG is all about your main class. If you start a warrior, you are staying focused on that, at least in this first set. No multiclassing here.
Gear, equipment, weapons and armor come next, explaining how weapons do damage and what armor and shields do for your character. Your starting class determines your starting equipment. Rogues get certain choices, mages and warriors get other stuff. Everyone gets a backpack…
In this chapter we learn about the magic system, including a very brief discussion of the dreamlike world of the Fade, which is very important to mages in Fereldan. We also get an up-front explanation of the dangers of magic. These dangers are entirely narrative though, with no mechanical effects. They exist to provide GMs with story elements instead of dropping failure bombs on mages who don’t quite make their casting roles. I have no problem with this, it’s really a matter of taste.
Magic power is limited by a “magic points” style system, with the obligatory mages in armor suffer bit. Though in this case, wearing armor just makes your spells cost more to cast instead of limiting what you can do. Spellcasting is a simple roll, just like making ability or focus rolls.
We learn the game mechanics, which is really just optional systems and complications of the basic roll-and-add system we already know about from the beginning of the book. Combat is presented as just a further refinement of complications to this basic system. Combat is pretty fast-paced and narrative. The game offers a little sidebar about using minis and maps, but doesn’t expect you to.
Damage is a generic hit point style system. This is not bad, but I was surprised that they strayed away from any sort of system for lasting wounds or critical wounds, since these are a part of the video game. It’s not a huge critique, just an interesting observation of the translation. One of my players was very disappointed by this lack though, so, again, it’s what you like that matters, right?
I covered Stunts before, but they are a further refinement of the 3d6 rolling. Whenever you come up with doubles on the dice and you hit an opponent in combat, you get stunt points equal to the value of the odd colored die. These are spent immediately, and allow you to do extra actions, inflict unique effects on opponents, or improve your defenses, based on what you choose to do with the stunt points. I like this system. It’s a very simple add-on which I felt spiced up combat just enough to be interesting without becoming intrusive or annoying.
That’s about it for the Player’s Guide. I’ll get to GM’s guide soon. Overall, I really like this game. It is well-written, simple, and with enough complexity to give it a little modern “charm.” Honestly, I think I can revise my early comment. I’ve talked myself back into being convinced this game has old-school appeal. Give it a try and I think you will be pleasantly surprised. My girlfriend plans to run it as a summer campaign soon, and I’m looking forward to being a player in the game. I already have my first character made and ready to rumble.