At a glance
Factsheet: 3d6 + Stat roll against target number mechanic, mana-based magic, miniatures optional, rules-lite, lightweight skill systems, damage determined by separate weapon dice roll, armor reduces damage, passive defense
The Highs: Simple but fun stunt system, accessible mechanics, fluid combat, effective system, serviceable introduction scenario, lightweight experience system
The Lows: Lack of fluff, no NPC generation rules, lack of goodies to give out to players, no specific GM tips for the setting, dual wield rules not well defined
The Quirks: Random character generation, mechanics are bit too generic, adaptation decay, is it really dark fantasy?
Summary : Micro-lite D20 with 3D6 and a stunt system
Dragon Age: Origins
is Bioware's next-generation fantasy role-playing offering, and Green Ronin's pen and paper take on it was announced even before the computer counterpart was finished. Expectations were rather high; so how does the pen and paper game holds up?
This is a review of the rule-book and the play-test session. Here's the lowdown: I'm an experienced GM who likes rules-lite systems, such as Advanced Fighting Fantasy, Unknown Armies and Fate 3. Of the five players, two are no strangers to pen and paper games, all have experience with MMOs and computer role-playing games. Everyone enjoyed themselves, which is a major plus, and I ran the introductory scenario, The Dalish Curse.
First, let set the criteria for the review. The design decision, according to Chris Prama, was to create a introductory-level game to bring more people into the hobby. I will be commenting how the game fares according to that. At the second time, I will also be looking at the game from my biased worldview of how such a game should be.
Second, we have to settle on what the game is not. It is not a complete game - meaning, a bestiary, lore-book, world-book and rules cramp into one gigantic tome of roleplaying. So when discussing the fluff aspect of the game, I won't be addressing its completeness or lack therefore, but simply on "was it enough for me to run an evocative game?"
Third, the material given in the first set only covers character level 1 to 5. More options may open up in the later levels which may address certain complains in the reviews. Therefore, there is a need to read the review bearing in mind that "this is just for level 1 to 5". Hopefully, Mr. Prama would listen to feedback and read reviews to see what the fans want and expect from the game.
Fourth, this game is a review of the pre-order PDF and not of the actual hard-copy book.
Creating character is a fast affair; it's also largely left to chance as well. The rules ask for a roll for 3d6, and taking the number to look up the actual result.
It really hard to get a character whose score in the abyss - to get a -2, you need to roll a 3 on the 3d6. To get a -1, you need to roll a 4 or a 5. Conversely, it is hard to get a stellar character: to get a +4, you need to roll a 18.
The only choice you get to make about your character is the gender, class, name, background and starting items. Everything else is random. You are to go down the list of abilities - Communication, Constitution, Cunning, Dexterity, Magic, Perception, Strength and Willpower. I have ended up with some atypical characters such as the rogue with +1 Magic, and the Avvar highlander with 0 Strength (for they are supposed to be strong and brawny).
Players then roll 2d6 twice on a background table to determine random boosts to abilities, focus or talents. Classes also give some boost as well. "Skills" are called "ability focus", and they give a straight +2 bonus. For example, the Dexterity focus Light Blades give a +2 bonus when striking with daggers and shortswords.
In my playtest, I have 3 players initially, so the ideal combination would be a warrior, rogue and mage. Unfortunately the rolls all favor rogues and mages, and the party went without warriors. Later, 2 more players join, and I make one slight change - they are able to assign the stats in any order they like, and hence I got my warriors.
The players didn't complain about the random generation, though I can see some issues (already, the official forum has posted house rules for a point-buy system). I think whether points-buy vs. random is subjective at best, but I see one good aspect of random generation - it avoids cookie-cutter builds. It is however a deviation from the CRPG where it uses a point-buy system.
Of course, this leads to that the characters that I have are not the "optimal build" - there's a warrior with +2 Communication (and he did well in the social challenge) and the aforementioned Avvar rogue who has a Strength of 0 and but has the Might focus. I suspect players given free choice of all focuses and stat assignment will min-max everything; though whether this is good or bad is up to each group to decide.
(Ironically, the sample characters seem to be using a point-buy system or at least have stats assigned from a pre-defined list of at least one +4, one +3, two +2, three +1 and one 0)
Warriors, rogues and mages - the time-honored building block of a functional party. Despite the game being mainly stats and skills driven, there are enough difference between the classes to set them aside.
Warriors have access to armor training and heavy damage weapon groups, while rogues can backstab. Mages, of course, use spells, and they have a magical attack which costs no mana and has unlimited uses (ie, the Arcane Lance). The rules promise more abilities and different stunts for the classes in the future sets. So this is all I would touch on about classes.
As mentioned, the system is a 3d6 + stat + modifiers vs. a target number. Nothing ground-breaking here, nothing to stumble over; overall, it is a safe and effective mechanic. The players pick this up with no problems at all.
The only thing that come across as 'illogical' and which would promptly jump at experienced pen and paper role-players is the 'dragon dice'. This is a die which color is the odd one out, and it is used to generate degree of success (for advance tests). For example, an advanced test has a threshold of 8. For each successful ability test, you subtract the threshold by the dragon die. So once the threshold reaches zero, the advance test is passed. So you could roll a ,  and  for the dragon dice, but still pass (maybe because of your high abilities) and have a degree of success of 6, while someone else could roll ,  and  for the dragon die, and end up with an even higher roll and still reduce the threshold by 1.
However, thinking about it, this is how it works in combat too (even for D&D) - your hit roll has no influence on the damage. Thinking it this way helps me to forgo this issue all together.
The other cool thing is that the dragon die is useful as a randomizer as to determine what happen from a successful roll. As an example from the introductory scenario, the information gleaned from a tracking roll is determined by the dragon die. All the information given is useful. This allows me to quickly determine what snippets of clue to give out in case of multiple rolls.
Other than that, the mechanics of Dragon Age is remarkably...conventional. It also happen to be remarkably efficient and easy to learn too.
In keeping with the conventional mechanics adopted, combat will be familiar to veteran pen and paper role-players. Roll 3d6 and add Dexterity for Initiative. Ranged and light weapons use Dexterity as modifier to the attack roll, while heavy weapons use Strength, and roll vs. a passive defense. Add Strength to melee damage and Perception to ranged damage. You can either perform 2 minor actions or 1 major action per round. Nothing earth-shaking, but nothing mind-blowing as well.
The players new to pen and paper games pick this up quite quickly, so despite the mechanics being "hey didn't I see this before? Lots of times?", the barrier of entry is low (I guess I'll be repeating this again and again). There are some hiccups about the to-hit roll and damage (that you could roll high for to-hit but low for damage is a source of constant amusement for the CRPGers), and dual wielding.
The dual wield weapon style (if you have the talent), gives you either a +1 to melee, or a +1 to defense. The rules didn't mention whether you strike with both weapons or you alternate, or it doesn't matter. This is important because in the CRPG, a dual-wield warrior or rogue is one of the core builds. Going by the PnP rules, dual wielding is weak and damage dealing is ill-defined (which weapon damage do I roll?) This was brought up by the two warriors who were dual wielding.
And the rules didn't define properly what can be dual wielded. One of the warriors in question was dual-wielding two bastard swords, which is rather kickass, considering that you need a high Dexterity and a high-level talent in the CRPG to do that. In the end I toss in a house rule in the middle of the game: the second strike is at a -2 of the original attack roll, and must be a light weapon, and do no strength bonus. Also, I just lump all the damage dice together.
The other thing of note is the backstabing rules for the Rogue; you must not be adjacent to the opponent, and must approach him with a move action, then attack. You have to roll 3d6 + Dexterity against his 3d6 + Perception. I was wondering - why is Defense a passive stat, but to avoid being flanked an opposed roll? The players never bring this up, though, so I let it slide. Backstabbing gives a +2 bonus to the attack roll, and an extra 1d6 damage, though I have no idea what to do if the rogue fails the initial Dexterity sneaking roll. I just rule the rogue makes a normal attack if he fails to move into a backstabbing position.
There is no ranged backstab attack. At least from level 1 to 5.
What works well in the combat is the stunt system. Upon rolling a double (on any dice), and if you hit, you gain a number of Stunt Points equal to the dragon die. You can spend those Stunt Points to fire off special attacks, and you can chain them together, though you cannot use the same stunt more than once.
As an example, suppose you roll a double, and hit. The dragon die is 5 so you gain 5 Stunt Points. You can do a mighty blow (+1d6 damage, 2 Stunt Points) and a lightning attack (target another opponent adjacent or within 6 yards if using ranged attack, 3 Stunt Points). Stunt Points not used are gone by the end of the round.
This works especially well in place of a critical hit. In fact, the players refer to that as a critical hit! As a GM, I appreciate them because each monster/enemy in the game has a list of favored stunts, and rolling doubles remind me to use them. For the players, there is the excitement of rolling doubles, pulling off cool maneuvers and most importantly of all, they do not have to do any book-keeping or suffer a penalty to their rolls.
In RPGdom, there are always a couple of ways to pull off combat stunts. It's either you suffer a penalty to your roll (sometimes making them not worthwhile considering the risk) or do book-keeping (Mana points or in the case of SoTC and D&D 4E, "cooldown"). For Dragon Age, it is admittedly luck-based, but somehow it makes the combat smoother and doesn't really remove the fun (at least for me and my players). I feel that a game in which each time you could use a stunt every round sometimes diminish the excitement, and to be honest, I have forgotten how many times a player couldn't remember what special abilities (feats or stunts in SoTC) he has! Or have to check up the rule-book to see what sort of modifiers to apply (for example, in my Qin play-test game, players frequently don't do double-blocks, direct-hit and when they do, we have to look up the rules).
I only manage to reduce one player to 0 HP in the play-test game - and that is with 3 enemies pounding him and with a stunt chain. For a setting labeled 'dark' (and a CRPG where being 'hard' is touted as a selling point), Green Ronin's Dragon Age gives the character enough Health points to be a notch above the average. A starting warrior, for example, has 25 minimal Health. An average attack takes away 1d6+3 Health. Bearing in mind armor, which even rogue can wear, the life expectancy for the characters are rather high.
Because of "armor reduces damage", the monsters are durable and could take a beating as well. Fights are longer than what I have expected because of this, but thankfully no combat dragged more than 30 minutes because of the simple combat rules.
Healing in combat is also too easy. One mage has the Heal spell, which can cure 1d6 to 3d6 points of damage depending on mana spent. GMs who want to make the game darker can nerf this spell. One hold-back from old-school games is that Heal has a range of touch; in the CRPG, it is a ranged spell.
The rules presented by the game doesn't cast the setting as a dark fantasy feel (not yet, maybe). There are no insanity rules or morale rules (which is actually just GM's fiat). The horror of magic and demon possession is not present (yet). The distrust against Elves and magic-users is not explicitly stated. That dwarves are forever and constantly battling the darkspawns is not mentioned.
Concerning CRPG Combat Troupe
As MMO becomes popular, some of the troupes from there have generally slipped over to the pen and paper players. During my game, terms like "aggro", "tanking" and "DPS" are uttered by the players.
There's no official 'aggro' rules in the game; no marking (as in D&D 4E), no rules for catching monster's attention and so on. I just do it in the traditional manner - last touch and "who hurts me the most!". Likewise, equipping a shield doesn't change you into a tank. Shield gives a fixed Defense bonus, and considering that a weapon focus plus high ability far out-strips the defense bonus given, equipping a shield just increase your chance to avoid damage slightly. Indeed, the players which did higher damage frequently are the warriors - they can use heavy weapons which does 2d6 damage instead of the light weapons' 1d6 and because they can wear heavy armor, can soak more damage than others. Warriors are therefore "DPS and tank", much like the traditional PnP games.
Experience and Reward
The GM's guide suggested breaking a game into encounters, and give XP according to how challenging it was for the players. Not on paper, but during the game itself. So if due to bad poor rolls players are dying left and right, then they get more XP from that encounter. The XP grant goes like this - on the highest challenge scale, the XP given is 300 XP for a fiendish challenge, while just 100 XP for something ranked as 'Easy'. Encounters which are quickly resolved without the players sweating gives no XP.
This is interesting, for logically it means that to get the most XP, players should make life difficult for themselves. This is not suggested anywhere in the rules, it is just following the thought process of a min-maxer. Unfortunately, I feel the player's guide didn't mention using role-playing to make life difficult for yourself to gain more XP! A mage could add in a flaw to a character, perhaps, to be proud and haughty while dealing with mundanes who couldn't use magic as to shoot himself in the foot while attempt to persuade others to gain more XP. Of course, whether this is the intention of the designer is a question mark.
The GM's guide gives a short list of items to give out to players. Anyone who played any CRPG as a rogue with skills in lock picking and pick-pocket would pilfer anything they could - so this is what they did while exploring the introductory scenario's dungeon, and I have nothing in mind to give them! There are many beginning-levels items in the CRPG missing, and I have to invent them myself.
GM Material and Fluff
As I have done my fair share of GMing, I didn't read through the GM's guide entirely, only concentrating my attention on the bestiary and the introductory scenario.
The small bestiary features a number of darkspawns, humanoid NPCs and wild animals - definitely not enough for GMs used to other complete-in-one-book games. There is also no guideline for creating your own monster, something which would be helpful.
There is a lack of fluff throughout. The first chapter in the player's handbook opens with an introduction to Freleden, the setting of the Dragon Age CRPG. It mentions important places and cultural snippets in passing, but are missing in some crucial information. From the players came this quesiton - How long is this after the events in the CRPG? Others I have asked myself - when should I set the events of the scenario? How do I go about running other adventures for this setting? The GM's guide is lacking in adventure seeds and an important "who's who" listing, which would be useful for custom made scenarios. Perhaps more are coming in the later boxed sets. I feel it is a glaring omission for the setting of Dragon Age is quite fertile.
Also, many names of legends and tales are no present - Flemeth, for instance, who could be a great source of adventure ideas. If Unknown Armies score a 100 for Fluff, Dragon Ages probably gets about 10.
For a game designed to be introductory, one of its key concern would be the first adventure a novice GM would run. Like the CRPG, the adventure is more of events driven (or "cutscenes",as my players would say).
As I am not a first-time GM, I honestly cannot say how suitable the first adventure is. However, I feel that there isn't enough advice. Using Advanced Fighting Fantasy: Dungeoneer (one of the most 'newbie GM'-friendly book I have), the introductory adventure falls short. First, it opens with combat but doesn't not explain how to keep track of range or give any tips about that if you are not using miniatures. Second, there are little to none conversation topics given, meaning that the new GM must improvised quite a lot. Third, there are combat encounters where you have up to 12 NPCs to control.
The first adventure is also slightly on the long side, with six combat encounters. I have skipped two of those and still clock up to about 5 hours with 5 players. Maybe a new GM does not need as much hand-holding as I thought he would, but perhaps two adventures of shorter length could be better and less daunting than one long adventure. (At least there wasn't any intensive dungeon crawling!)
The good things are that the adventure is well written, touch on some of the issues raised in the CRPG (human's distrust of elves and elves' dislike of humans for depriving them of their homeland) and the possibility of demon possession. The adventure is 'modern' by today's standards - no death-traps that strain disbelief, no unrelated random monsters popping up suddenly inside a dungeon complex, and some suggested plot hooks instead of a "you all meet in a tavern". Unfortunately, without the Grey Wardens, the motivations for the players to adventure fall back on traditional cliches.
During the playtest, players asked for:
- being grey wardens
which are all not mentioned. Perhaps the later sets would include those, but there were not 'beginners' material'. In fact, poison could be listed as one item under the "one-use item" section in the GM's guide.
Art and Layout
The art and the layout works; layout is something which we harped on when it fails to present important information. When it works, it is invisible. The PDF comes with bookmarks to important sections and there is an index. The art is a mix of Bioware's concept arts and those produced by Green Ronin, and alas, the latter does not really invoke dark and gritty.
Headings are well defined and stands out, and it is not difficult to find what you want. There are typos here and there, and there are a few important game-breaking ones, such as a chance for Elves getting the Bows ability focus when it should be training with the Bows weapon group.
Stat-blocks for NPCs use large-sized font and thick headings. They are easy to read but waste unnecessary space.
All in all, the game has met its design goals. Easy to pick up? Yes. Uncomplicated combat? Yup. Solid and cool GM's advice? Could be better. Quality of the introductory adventure? Some issues, but overall a good job.
However, the settings information could be better. The first chapter which gives an overview of Freleden is best described as a tourist's guide. It's not evocative of the depths of the setting; the in-game CRPG's codex does a better job. Also, failure to focus on what's unique about the setting somehow make it feels like just another fantasy heart-breaker. Flemeth, the witch who adopted girls as her daughters so that she can supposedly extend her life through them, makes for a fascinating story but wasn't mentioned. The Mage Collective, a potential source for intrigue and adventures, was left out even though they could be mentioned along with the Circle. That lyrium could drive someone mad, and was used by the Templar in excessive at times could be used as a shuddering plot hook. And really, no mention of blood magic?
Of course, one could argue that players coming to the game through the CRPG already knew these things. It is just that the first book could be better if a section was just dedicated to how those existing knowledge could be used for more adventures.
If I would do it my way, I would begin the books with a series of stories written in the style of the Codex, reflecting the views of men, elves and dwarves. For the stunts I would use more material from the game. I would introduce some beginning tiers poisons and herbalism rules. I would make the introductory scenario simpler and give 2 or 3 adventures so that the beginning GM can have more 'practice'.
Meanwhile though, I am happy with what I have so far. The players had fun with the game too.