King Cailan Wants YOU!

I mentioned previously my enjoyment of the Dragon Age video game. I also mentioned in that post that Green Ronin was coming out with a pen-and-paper version of the game. Well, about a week ago, maybe a little more, Green Ronin offered up the boxed set of the game for preorder, with the bonus of a .pdf version free. I jumped at the deal, and have been reading the game.

I like it.

Some specific comments, in no particular order:

  • I like the idea of a boxed set, even though that hasn’t made it to me, yet. I think it’s mostly nostalgia, the feeling of opening a Christmas present that I associate with the boxed sets.
  • There is a real old-school feel to the game, mixed with more modern concepts in game design. It feels, in a lot of ways, similar to the old D&D Basic Set, but with the system aesthetics of things like d20 and FATE.
  • There aren’t a lot of options for starting characters, but really this is the simplest thing to develop as the game line matures. You get three character classes (Mage, Rogue, and Warrior) and seven backgrounds (Apostate, Avvarian, Circle Mage, City Elf, Dalish Elf, Ferelden Freeman, and Surface Dwarf). While I don’t think we’re going to see more classes added, new backgrounds (even just adding the ones from the video game) are an easy way for the game to add variety and options.
  • The rules look simple, flexible, and fast. It uses 3d6, with a simple bonus from stats and focuses (skills), compared to a target number. The broad middle of a three-dice bell curve creates a different feel to the game from the flat probabilities of the d20 system, and the Dragon Die component of the system (one of the d6s is a different colour, and is used to determine degree of success, among other things) adds an interesting variety to the rolls.
  • For a small book, the Player’s Guide provides a surprising wealth of information on the game world. If you supplement that with the information you can pick up playing the video game, you get a very rich starting background.

So, I’ve been reading the game, and trying to think when I could fit time into my schedule to run the intro adventure in the Game Master’s Guide. What with it being the run-up to the holiday season, and all the work I’m doing on getting Scio Occultus Res ready to go, my schedule’s a little cramped. Last Thursday, I figured I was about a day-and-a-half away from breaking down and sending out an e-mail invite.

Fortunately, I was saved by my friend, Clint, beating me to it. He proposed a game for that Friday night, and then asked me to run it by his wife, whom I work with, to see if she wanted to play. We also roped in their daughter and her boyfriend – hey, we’re all gamers in this group.

So, I threw together a character (two, actually; each one took about twenty minutes, and that’s with paging back and forth in the .pdf Player’s Guide), picked one to play, gathered up some dice, and headed out.

Oh, I also printed out a hard copy of the Player’s Guide. I was playing a mage, and wanted to make sure I had all the rules for the spells and Mana and stuff close at hand.

Clint ran us through the first part of The Dalish Curse, the intro adventure in the game. I hadn’t got around to reading it yet, fortunately, and I’m not going to give out any spoilers. It was a fun evening, though, and we made faster progress through the adventure than I had anticipated.

Some observations on actual play:

  • Combat moves fast and can be really deadly. I was playing a mage, which class isn’t great in a stand-up fight, and I almost died a couple of times in different combats. We got through three separate combats, plus a fair bit of exploration and roleplaying, in a single play session that ran about five hours. That’s significantly more than we generally get done in D&D.
  • Healing, while not quite as ubiquitous as in 4E, is robust enough that the twenty-minute-adventuring-day bogeyman never showed up. Still, you can feel the pressure of multiple fights. Same thing with Mana points.
  • The stunt system in combat rocks. Basically, when you roll doubles on any two of the three dice in a successful attack roll, you get a number of stunt point equal to the number on the Dragon Die that you can spend on that attack. The list is fairly short, but flavourful, and includes things like moving the target (or yourself) a couple of yards, doing extra damage, knocking the target prone, penetrating armour, getting an extra attack, and things like that. Now, by my calculations (and I could be wrong here – need an actual math-guy to check my numbers) you’ll roll doubles on 3d6 roughly 31% of the time. Even if only half those rolls hit the target, you’re looking at about one successful attack in six generating stunt points, which is a pretty good ration. It actually seemed to happen a little more often than that in play, but that may just be my perception of it. It made the combats (and spellcasting – spells get stunts, too) very interesting and flavourful.
  • The stunt system is currently only for combat, but I would be terribly surprised if it remained that way. It seems such rich game development ground to produce stunt lists for other actions that I can’t imagine the designers ignoring it.
  • The system in general handled a number of very different combat and non-combat tasks very well, and very easily. The structure of the intro adventure is nicely designed to allow new players to try a little bit of everything – this is what intro adventures should be, in my opinion – and it worked smoothly and almost transparently, which is what I want in a game mechanic.

So, we had a lot of fun, and we’re probably going to get back together to finish the adventure soon. And Clint is talking about setting up a loose gaming group to play Dragon Age semi-regularly, with a changing cast of characters and GMs trading off duties in a manner similar to the Spirit of the Century Pick-Up League.

I’m in.

Don’t You Know There’s a Blight On?

My time has recently been sucked away by a video game – Dragon Age: Origins.

Bioware bills this game as a dark fantasy roleplaying game, the spiritual successor to the Baldur’s Gate games, and I can see that. It’s also taken a lot of influence, especially for the character interactions, from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic – the original, not the initially-brilliant-but-ultimately-disappointing sequel.

I really like this game.

The emphasis in Dragon Age is the story. The story drives everything forward, and the vast majority of the quests are concerned with moving the main quest forward. The few side quests that don’t contribute directly to the main story have an indirect contribution to make – getting a piece of gear or a companion to aid you, or winning the trust of a companion to help them aid you better. This focus on the main story and, to a secondary degree, the development of relationships with your companions, is something I’ve been looking for in a game.

Now, I also played through Fallout 3 this summer. I loved that game, too, but I prefer Dragon Age. See, the two games take a rather divergent view of building the story in the game. Fallout gives you a fairly thin main storyline, and then fills the sandbox of the world with a myriad of side quests, interesting areas to visit, interesting people, and other things to keep you busy. Every now and then, you wander back across the main storyline and advance the plot a bit – right up until you land on the plot railroad and rush madly to the story’s end.

It was a fun game, but the story, as noted, felt a little thin a lot of the time. The side quests were often of more interest and, at times, seemed to have a bigger impact on the world than the main story.

Dragon Age takes the opposite approach. The main storyline is deep, and rich, and features a number of interesting twists and turns. You stay on the main quest for most of the game, with only a few distractions here and there to follow up on something a companion wants, or something a merchant mentioned.

The only downside is that the Dragon Age approach has less replay potential than the Fallout approach. After all, by the end of Dragon Age, I will have played through almost all the quests and scenarios – like about 90% of them. Whereas in Fallout, there were a number of side quests and areas to explore that I jut didn’t get to. I figure I managed to play through about 60% of the content.

Playing these two games has got me thinking about this dichotomy in computer game design. The two schools both target the same base audience – the CRPG player – but each is optimized for a different segment of that market. One targets the story junkies like me, who want to squeeze the narrative out of any game we play. The other targets the action junkies, who want to always have something new and interesting to explore in a game. Both, of course, have features that will attract the rest of the audience – lots of neat battles and interesting quests in Dragon Age, lots of stories and interesting characters in Fallout – but the designers obviously made their choice about what the game was going to be, and stuck to it.

And I say good for them. For both of them. I’d rather have a game that unashamedly knew what it was and stuck to that than a game that tried to be all things to all people.

One last note of interest: Dragon Age is coming out as a pen-and-paper RPG, as well. I’m very curious.

Now back to the game. Ferelden needs me!