In 2010, Green Ronin Publishing released a pen and paper style role playing game for the popular PC and Platform game, Dragon Age. The Dragon Age role playing game was authored by Chris Pramas, a founder of Green Ronin Publishing and a well respected fantasy role playing game author with works associated with Dungeons and Dragons (for Wizards of the Coast), Warhammer Fantasy, Dragon Magazine, and many other fantasy role playing games and sources. Dragon Age RPG was released in a boxed format edition, with a players guide book, a game masters guide book, both in full color, along with a set of dice and single sided color map of Ferelden.
To preface, I am a huge Dragon Age, the PS3 edition, fanboy. I have logged hours and hours beating the original Dragon Age game multiple times and just recently got done crushing evil in Dragon Age 2, the PS3 game, with my Apostate Mage, the powerful and butt whipping Hawke! I have often admired the great world that Dragon Age’s Thedas represents, with its dark fantasy aspect, its dangerous and rebellious Mage society, its magic police, the Chantry, and many other great game world characteristics Dragon Age has to offer in a game. So it was not a surprise to me to see a publisher pick up the rights and launch a pen and paper RPG based in the lands of Dragon Age. It not only seemed to be like a bankable project, but in today’s world of Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition versus Pathfinder from Paizo, going at it for your fantasy RPG dollars and time, it seemed like a great time to launch something different and new into the fantasy RPG world of 2010 and beyond.
By the time I had gotten around to shopping for the boxed set of Dragon Age RPG, Green Ronin had already released the Game Masters GM Screen as well as Blood in Ferelden, a collection of starting adventures into the Dragon Age RPG world. Prices were more than reasonable on all the aforementioned items, so I splurged and bought all three items to run my first game with. I will review the other items in separate articles in the future and stick to the core first release of Dragon Age RPG boxed set for now.
As I began my initial read through of the material, I was keeping my fingers crossed for something other than 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons mechanics and feel. I would have settled for something along the lines of 3rd Edition DnD or Pathfinder, but really was hoping to strike into a mechanics and game system more along the lines of 2nd Edition or more classic Dungeons and Dragons. I also wanted something with more “role playing” and less table top battle mechanics. Hours and hours of dice slinging battle has been monopolized by 4th Edition DnD, so I was really hoping for something more or something well balanced in mix between role playing, world adventure, exporation, magic, and battle. I also had set my sights, as a game master, on better Magic or Spell casting system, where mages are mages, not mages are fighters are clerics, etc, which is the infinite loop 4th Edition is stuck in right now. Lastly, I was hoping the role playing game of Dragon Age, kept very close to the Dragon Age world the video game had offered us. Brutal, dark, choices of consequence, legends and lore, greed, lust, danger. These were the words that came to mind instantly when I thought excitedly about my hours logged in the Dragon Age video game world of Thedas and I could only hope the RPG brought that to light and let it flow through the RPG. After reading the material in the boxed set, I was pleasantly surprised and very excited about what I saw.
In the initial launch, this boxed set would cover the creation of characters, the game world of Thedas, the mechanics of the Dragon Age RPG, and adventuring and running games in this colorful yet dark fantasy world. This basic set covered levels 1st through 5th for your characters advancement and game material. You are limited to three classes, the Mage, the Warrior, and the Rogue, although do not let this get you stifled, each of these three classes have flavors baked within them that allow for a huge array of role playing opportunity and character creation. Besides, when you roll up a Sorcerer, a Warlock, a Necromancer, a Blood Mage, a Summoner, or a Wizard, aren’t they all a type of Mage? When you play a Paladin, or a Knight, or a Templar, or a Ranger, or a Beserker, or a Barbarian, aren’t they all just different types or back grounds or specializations of Warriors? I think that is the flavor Green Ronin and Chris Pramas was going with for this boxed set release. As you delve through the ideas of classes here, you also notice only three races, Human, Elf, and Dwarf. Again, at first glance, this may seem limiting, but through the diverse splash of back grounds, you can range from a Dhalish Elf Apostate Mage, to a City Elf Mage of the Circle, etc. With back grounds, classes, races, and character development ideas a plenty, you really have a lot to work with when rolling up your characters. I thought this was a classic example of less was more and applaud Mr. Pramas on this idea.
To cover some of the mechanics within this set, the game has basic weapons that do damage, magic, magic items, hit points, and everything else you would expect in your fantasy RPG world and system. There are spins or takes on some of these classic mechanics that are similar to DnD and some that are different. The armor system for example, has armor creating more of a damage shield or points you reduce from the hit point loss, rather than provide a miss chance. The Defense rating (AC) or miss chance in combat is pulled from your characters Dexterity, which also fuels initiative and other quick reflex like qualities in the game. There are eight stats that make up the meat of your character roll up process and these eight stats also fuel things like your hit chance, your bonus damage, your health total, your success chance in tests or challenges, etc. The game runs off of a pure D6 game mechanic, with most of the results coming in the form of 3d6 mechanics, with one of the D6 being a “Dragon Die” or off colored die that has additional benefits, rewards, and tie breakers in certain game situations. Whether you are negotiating the climb up a rugged mountainside, trying to recognize the tracks of a stag in the snowy path, or focusing your power to cast a spell, you will be rolling 3d6 in a type of Test or Challenge with a targeted success number to strive for. Pluses and minsus are situations, ranging from in world modifiers to your core stat the test is pulled from. There are also character Focuses, that allow your character to specialize in things like Swimming, Negotiation, Tracking, etc, that will add more pluses to your core roll to determine your success at hand. Rolling doubles is a kin to a critical or Nat 20 in DnD, as you can perform Stunt Actions with weaponry and spells alike when you roll doubles amongst your 3d6 rolls. These stunts are a neat mechanic, allowing your Dragon Die to come into play and for your Hero to try and do things like lower the mana cost of a spell cast, or take an extra attack, or do more damage, or knock a foe prone, or disarm a foe potentially, etc. Overall, the character creation walk through is simple, the magic based system of Mana points is easy to use and more akin to 2nd or 3rd Edition DnD over the infinite power based system that is 4th Edition DnD. The combat system is pretty easy to pick up and can be brutal at times, which I loved for multiple reasons. Role playing games today cater too much to the “player characters never die” rules these days, in my humble opinion. This waters down the characters true value and deeds from my perspective and makes for a glossed over version of a true hero. I am glad Dragon Age RPG did not completely stumble down that rabbit hole and tried to stay true to dark fantasy and danger.
Where the Dragon Age RPG really shines though is in the game world of Thedas. Chris Pramas and the other authors that helped develop this RPG and its Adventures really stayed true to the Dragon Age world and make obvious promises or commitments to this world not being soft and cuddly. Elves are really enslaved and racially discriminated against in Thedas. Magic is outlawed and on a softer sense, controlled, and if you don’t like that, welcome to the world of the Apostate, which is similar to glimpses into the world of Logan’s Run when your hand gem turned red. Oh, and for those of you who enjoy being a run away Mage like myself, lets get demons involved, hovering in the Fade where your magic sources from, constantly tempting you to give in and let them join with you to corrupt your soul and do great evil. If the demons take hold, never fear, here comes the Chantry and its Templars to hunt you down like Witches in Salem and burn you for your transgressions. People in Ferelden and Thedas steal, lie, cheat, whore around, buy elections, can be corrupted, are greedy, are political, take advantage of the poor and weak minded, and every choice seems to have consequence. A cause and effect basis system with moral choice and consequence. It is what should be at the core or all good RPG’s. In todays gaming world, game makers and game worlds like Mass Effect, Fallout, and Dragon Age get this and blend it into their game worlds more and more. But RPG’s seem to lack this and shy away from it more and more, which is puzzling to me.
This dark fantasy world the author lays out in Dragon Age RPG is very alive and the feel is present in every bit of travel, every conversation, every NPC, every interaction, and especially in every choice your players and characters make. I thought this was excellent and loved that type of real world with real hard choices feel. The darker and grittier the world and the harder the choices or sacrifices that are made, then the greater the hero in my mind. And if you are not playing a role playing game to be a hero or a legend of some sort, then why are playing it? That last statement might be a bit bold, but I think it strikes true in many respects.
I recently ran my first adventure in the Dragon Age RPG for my gaming group. I was a little nervous at first, as I was smitten with world, the system, and the thought that this could be something really fun and different from our normal 4th Edition DnD weekly game. But, sometimes change is bad for some people, and I worried a little about this when introducing this world and game system to my group. My fears quickly dispersed as my players enjoyed it almost as much as I did I think. My small group made a couple of Avvar Hillsman Warriors and an Apostate Mage who was Avvar in back ground, but secretly was Chasind in his origin as he had been raided as an infant and raised by the Hills Folk as their own. The game had many great role playing opportunities and the world was as dark as the authors emphasized. The battles were quick, brutal, and in my mind, very cinematic. The characters quickly became interesting, the players became committed, and the role playing world took it from there and provided hours of fun for all involved. This Dragon Age RPG was a great success and I am very happy with its initial launch.
Overall, I rate the Dragon Age RPG as a 4.5, but I am going to give it a rating of 5 as it is closer to 5 than 4 and the great Dragon Age world really tips it over on the scales for me. The system is not perfect, you cannot yet play a Grey Warden, the spell system is not great, just good, but these slight imperfections only take it down a half a peg or so for me. My gaming group and I will be playing a lot more Dragon Age RPG in our future and I hope you give it a try. Green Ronin even has the follow up edition, a more advanced set, covering levels 6th through 10th, with more classes, spells, backgrounds, Grey Wardens, and more, coming out this June (2011) with much anticipation.
The Dragon Age RPG retails for $29.95 in most retail locations, but I have seen it for as cheap as $20 at some retailers, depending on where you look. You can pick up the Dragon Age RPG at retailers around Denver, I would recommend trying Attactix in Aurora, Black and Read in Arvada, Valhalla Games in Wheat Ridge, The Haunted Game Café up in Ft Collins, The Wizards Chest in Denver, and Enchanted Grounds in Highlands Ranch for your best bets on finding Dragon Age.