Thursday, January 19, 2012

Followed by a new age: a Dragon Age!

This past weekend, I got to play the Dragon Age RPG for the first time. I thought I'd give it a review.

For those who don't know, Dragon Age is a relatively new RPG put out by Green Ronin. It is based on the popular video game of the same name. In all honesty, I don't play video games, so I have only the vaguest understanding that this is supposedly a good game with a rich back story. I was mostly interested in Dragon Age because it is the game that converted NewbieDM away from D&D 4e. He (and others) has had a lot of good things to say about the game.

On the surface, Dragon Age is a pretty bog-standard D&D-style fantasy RPG. Humans, elves, and dwarves live in a medieval realm and face down nasty monsters, sometimes using magic. And, honestly, there isn't a whole lot to the setting to disabuse you of that notion. It really is pretty typical fare. Nothing bad, but nothing all that revolutionary, either.

There are a couple interesting tweaks to the elves and dwarves. The elves lived in a utopian society of nigh-immortal beings once upon a time. Then humans came in. Not only were they crude and violent, but they seemed to act like a disease, weakening elves and removing their immortality. The elven empire collapsed, and the elves were enslaved by the humans. They are no longer slaves now, but are still definitely second-class citizens.

The dwarves live a complex, rigid life deep beneath the earth. They are constantly fighting back a tide of evil monsters, which the other races never even suspect. (For me, this was already done in Warlord: The Accordlands, but it's probably new to other people.) Dwarven PCs, and those dwarves the PCs meet, are the exception to this rule, though. They are nearly outcast, sent to do the dirty work of dealing with the other races. Not amazing, but a neat angle on the old cliches.

The system is kind of fascinating. When I read through the book, I was highly disappointed at first. The options for PCs are very limited (half a dozen possible origins, and three classes). The powers and talents are underpowered compared to their D&D equivalents. The system is specifically designed to strongly reinforce the stereotypes presented in the setting, making it very difficult to create, say, a nimble acrobat of a warrior. (I give this last a pass, as it is a good design goal. It was just frustrating to me, as my chosen concept didn't fit into one of those stereotypes.)

I sat down to play, trying to keep an open mind. I'd heard some really good things about the game, so I wanted to enjoy it. I wasn't filled with confidence, though.

The play at the table totally changed my mind. What I had failed to recognize when reading through the rules was that the system had pushed most of the interesting options into the individual actions, instead of into character traits. The game comes with a great selection of actions to perform in combat. Actions outside of combat are simply resolved with a skill check, in a pretty intuitive way.

The core mechanic is a simple "beat the TN" system, using 3d6 instead of a d20. This has the strong advantage of creating a bell curve to the results that makes your characters' actions much more predictable. I had toyed with the idea of replacing the d20 with 3d6 in the d20 system before for that reason. I hadn't really realized just what a pervasive and subtle change it makes to the feel of the action. It actually makes bonuses mean more than they do in D&D. When the majority of your rolls are going to be between 8 and 12, shifting that range up by +2 makes a big difference in what tasks you can reliably perform. And, it really reduces the whiff factor for common tasks. I'm sold on the bell curve.

The unique addition to the system is the "dragon die." One of your 3d6 needs to be a different color, and is called the dragon die. If you are making a standard skill check, the result of the dragon die determines the quality of your success or failure. If you roll doubles on your check and succeed, you gain a number of stunt points you can spend equal to the number showing on the dragon die. This is a lot like critical hits in most other systems. The advantage here, though, is that you have a range of possible critical results, and you can pick which one(s) you want.

One thing we did notice is that combat is very "swingy". Most opponents will have a fairly high Health rating, compared to the amount of damage you can typically do. If you are just getting a series of standard hits, combat can start to drag. One or two good stunt results, though, and the opponent is suddenly out of commission. Similarly, one or two good results on the part of the bad guys, and your party can suddenly be in trouble. (Though, since the GM can choose which stunts to use, he can opt for effects that inconvenience or incapacitate the PCs instead of outright killing them.)

If your group is looking for a quick and easy fantasy RPG, you can do a lot worse than Dragon Age. It is a "rules medium" option, reminiscent of the OSR games that try to recapture Basic D&D. It will take you a couple of combats to get the hang of the different actions and stunts, and to get a feel for the right rhythm to make it all sing. The game is not set up for the rules to ever fade into the background, but they are designed to help you express your character well and create "moments of awesome."

Conclusion: A solid recommend. Clean and simple, with a strong focus on reinforcing the setting.

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