Background and Product
Dragon Age: Set 1 consists of two rulebooks, a poster map of the game world, three-six sided dice all in a box, which I think is significant enough to put in italics. The two rulebooks consist of a 64-page Player's Guide, and a 64-page Gamemaster's Guide with an attractive cover by Alan Lathwell, and aided by a team who also show some surprising consistency in style whilst also presenting violent and often dark fantasy pieces which show both creativity and skill. The books themselves are in two-column justified serif font with a good index, glossary, and character sheet. Whilst the layout is attractive and modern, the writing style is simple and apparently aimed at a younger audience. The Player's Book includes a several page introduction, a chapter on the default gameworld (Ferelden), a chapter on character creation, then ability focuses and other talents, then weapons and other equipment, a chapter on magic, and finally a chapter on applying the game system in actual play. The GM's book consists of a chapter on basic gamesmastering, using the rules, adversaries, rewards and concludes with a storyline "The Dalish Curse".
The poster map is attractive but like many fantasy maps is annoyingly designed without any attempt to include basic principle of geography. The three six-sided dice consist of two black and one green, the latter being used as a "dragon dice" for special effects, described below. The box itself is quite a sturdy creature, which is pleasing.
The game is based on the computer game of the same name, initially released by Bioware and in many ways is implicitly designed for players of the computer game to find their way to tabletop roleplaying games, although they may be a little surprised to discover that the Grey Wardens warrior order, a central components of most Dragon Age material, do not feature in the set except in passing. The game is also concentrated on beginning levels, 1-5, with four planned box sets each covering five levels of play. It is quite clearly similar to the early boxed editions (Basic, Expert, Master etc) of Dungeons & Dragons.
The setting is very important and somewhat systematically integrated in Dragon Age. As mentioned, the gameworld is centered on Ferelden, a gradually civilising people from a animistic and barbarian culture. Their opponents include the Avvars, highland barbarians who share a common ancestory, and the indigenous Chasind, swamp-dwelling shamanic primitives. In the past the region had been invaded by the Imperial Tevinter, but they too were driven back over one hundred years prior. For good measure there are also underground dwelling Dwarves, and semi-nomadic Elves who have suffered at the hands of human religious invasions in the past and continue to suffer prejudice. Finally there is a species of intelligent war dogs known as Mabari associated with the Ferelden people.
Religion is a significant component of the world with a visceral evil known as the Blight occasionally ravaging the lands, taking the form of "darkspwan", the equivalent of Orcs, and various other monstrosities. According to the Chantry, the main religious order, the Blight is caused by human hubris and evil, especially by mages who are carefully regulated by the religious order (i.e., apostates are hunted and killed). The empire worshipped Old Gods, ancient dragons, who provided magic; the founder of the Chantry, argued that turning from the Old Gods, by following the Maker, and by using magic to serve people rather than power, would lead to an earthly paradise. Finally, the time is "the Dragon Age", the ninth one-hundred year age, since the the Tevinter Imperium dominated the continent. It is so named by the appearance of a dragon, a species thought to be extinct, that ravaged the countryside.
Character Creation and Abilities
Character creation is an eight-step process; concept, abilities, background, class, equipment, calculate defense and speed, name, goals and ties. Concept is a one-sentence background. Abilities are the equivalent to attributes, consisting of Communication, Constitution, Cunning, Dexterity, Magic, Perception, Strength and Willpower. This are rolled, god help us, on 3d6 in order, although one does have the option of swapping two around. The value generated by the 3d6 roll are then cross-referenced to a chart, with no discernible equivalent mathematical function, to generate the starting ability, where an average roll gives a score of 1, and a range of -2 (from a roll of 3) to +4 (from a roll of 18). Abilities also come with some sixty-five 'focuses' (i.e., skills) which increase the ability by +2 for related actions.
Character backgrounds are a combination of race, culture and profession and class limitations. They include Apostate, Avvarian Hillsman, Circle Mage, City Elf, Dalish Elf, Fereldan Freeman, and Surface Dwarf. The choice of background also provides an additional benefit, based on a random roll, for focuses, ability improvements, additional languages. Classes consist of Mage, Rogue or Warrior, with each having three primary abilities starting health (read hit points), and knowledge of weapon groups. Dragon Age is a level-based game with starting characters beginning at level 1. Each level provides an additional 1d6 health, a +1 to an ability, a new focus, and level-based class powers.
Starting equipment consists of the equivalent of "adventurer's basics", plus some class or talent specific items. Characters also receive a fixed sum of coin with some minor random variation; the currency values (1 gold = 100 silver = 10,000 copper) does seem a little odd. Combat-orientated equipment receives the bulk of attention. Armor reduces damage, shields increase defense. The minimum armor rating is 3 (light leather), which does beg the question what clothing could constitute values 1 and 2, and the maximum is 10 (heavy plate). For the purpose of comparison an longsword does 2d6 damage, plus Strength. The list of "Adventurer's Gear" is rather unimpressive, the sort of things that could have been easily incorporated into class or background basics, although there are also lists of lodging prices, and animals, vehicles and mounts. The latter comes a short set of stats for each animal.
Disappointingly, the chapter on character focuses provides but a single obvious line of description for each. There are no example Target Numbers provided, which often causes major problems in play (for example, making traps, using herbs and poisons). Further, as should be clear by now, a focus is not something that can be developed; you either have it or you don't. In contrast Talents, a hodge-podge of natural aptitude and/or specialised training, at least come with two levels (Novice and Journeyman) and the description of the twenty-plus talents gives specific rules for their use.
Magic is based on a connection with The Fade, an otherworldly place of spirits and demons, and the use of magic can attract these beings which can result in possession, although this not something where there are actual rules. Magical spells are learned individually (with individual range etc), and are powered by Mana Points, based on 10+Magic+1d6/level and recovered, at the rather high rate, of 1d6+Magic per hour. Armor has a "strain" requiring further investment of mana per casting. In addition to a mana cost each spell has a Target Number which must be achieved for a successful casting. For some attack spells there is also a Spellpower rating, based on 10+Magic+Focus. The spell list, like everything else, is highly focussed towards combat activities. 'Walking Bomb' has already been noted by a number of players as being somewhat overpowered.
Finally, it is expected that player's determine three goals for their characters as driving objectives. Further each character should have at least one, even tenuous, tie to each other player character in the party. These are nice features and a good aid for both plot development and party interaction however they are not incorporated into the game system as such. There is a small selection of names provided for each background.
System and Play
The core mechanic used throughout the game is 3d6 + Ability + Focus + modifier vs. target number, a method which has a just awful variation for modifiers (GURPS, the Hero System et al also suffer from this problem) but is also unforgettably simple and clusters results around expected averages with some room for exceptional failures and successes. Tests are either basic (against a fixed Target Number) or opposed (against a variable Target Number). There is little in the game that suggests sample difficulties except for an adjective rating (Routine, Easy, Average etc). Degrees of success are not determined by how well one succeeds from the Target Number but on the result of the third, different coloured die, which provides six degrees of success. In combat, the target number is the opponent's defense, determined by Dexterity plus shield bonuses, Speed on a racial base, plus Dexterity, minus armor penalty.
Time is differentiated into Narrative Time and Action Time. In the latter, actions are carried out in fifteen second rounds which includes Initiative (based on a Dexterity plus Initiative focus test) with each character able to take a major action and a minor action or two minor actions. The application of non-magical Healing is a major action which seems an incredibly quick way to patch up a character for Dragon Die+Cunning health points. On that topic, unconsciousness occurs when Health Points reach zero and death at 2 + Con rounds latter if healing isn't received, a surprisingly quick period of time. Combat also comes with Stunts; if a double is rolled on any dice, then the Dragon Dice is used to generate a number of Stunt Points which are then used by the character to determine a special maneuvers (such as Mighty Blow, Disarm etc). Note that these occur after the actual test, a feature we found to slow play significantly, although it did provide a modest amount of tactical decision making. In particular we found the quantity of stunts quite limited and found it relatively easy to abuse the Skirmish stunt.
Gamesmastering and "The Dalish Curse"
The Gamesmaster's books begins with a very basic overview to the core tasks of a GM; rules adjudication, adventure preparation, running the game session, planning the campaign, along with descriptions of GM and player styles (adversarial, benevolent and director for the former, griefer, hack-n-slasher, hanger-on, junior Thespian, motivator, rules lawyer, spotlight hog and wallflower) and GM "Dos and Don'ts". The advice and descriptions whilst not wrong as such, is neither novel, complete or succinct. There is an all-too-brief (and actually incorrect) description of what constitutes 'dark fantasy', which is supposedly the sub-genre that Dragon Age aligns itself to.
The chapter on 'Using The Rules' is an elaborate repeat of material previously printed in the Player's Guide, plus the introduction of Advanced Tests where the Dragon Die is used to calculate progress towards a threshold value using either Basic or Opposed test mechanics. These are used to provide a sense of gradual development towards a conclusion. It's a nice idea, but the lack of example thresholds is very unhelpful. The various rules clarifications for combat in this chapter are not particularly significant, although there are the first tentative steps towards system development with attack roll modifiers, even if those values are a little improbable (e.g., only a +3 modifier if the defender is unaware of the attack!). Further there are rules for actions by flying opponents and a few hazards with damage ranges.
The 'Adversary' chapter is largely a 'Monster Manual' for Dragon Age, with Elite and Heroic as well some twenty standard creatures and generic NPCs. There is not really that much to say about this; it's stats and combat tactics for creatures to engage in fights with. Even the most minor ecological questions, such as the traditional markers of climate and terrain, frequency, number appearing, organisation, activity cycle, diet etc are largely absent. In what is largely an unimaginative collection, with a heavy emphasis on the undead, the additional powers and new combat stunts for a number of the creatures provide a modicum of interest.
The 'Rewards' chapter begin with levels and experience points, the former with the rather erratic progression of 0 XP for level 1, 2 000 for level 2, 4 500 for level 3, 7 000 for level 4 and 11 000 for level 5. Experience points are gained through encounters with a vague rating system of Routine (0 XP), Easy (100 XP), Average (200 XP) and Hard (300 XP) with equally vague rewards for completing adventures. Treasure is described as categories, another rating system, of Trifling, Paltry, Middling, Substantial etc providing randomly determined rewards again with erratic progression (1d6 silver, 3d6 silver, 2d6 * 10 silver, etc). Finally the chapter concludes with 15 sample magic items, both temporary (e.g., potions) and permanent.
The final chapter of the GM's book takes up a third of that publication; the sample story "The Dalish Curse", which comes with the old-fashioned boxed text meant to be read aloud to the players. The plotline involves a massacre at a farm, an encounter with local prejudices, the discovery of a deeper set of Troubles, and finally the discovery of Blight, born through a combination of prejudice and the desire for revenge. As a whole it is a very good introduction to the setting, the core themes and provides a good range of encounter styles (investigative, oratorical), although a significant amount of time will be dealt with the numerous combat encounters, and a bit of dungeon-crawling. As a narrative it is structured quite well, albeit with a fairly simple progression, with the opportunity for an epilogue.
Dragon Age comes with a simple, sometimes inconsistent, but largely balanced game system, albeit with a heavy emphasis on combat-orientated activities and a notable lack of elaboration of activities outside of this range. Pitched as 'dark fantasy', the presentation certainly suggests this, but as a genre it is not embedded into the game system.
Style: 1 + .6 (layout) + .8 (art) + .8 (coolness) + .7 (readability) + .7 (product) = 4.6
Substance: 1 + .3 (content) + .5 (text) + .6 (fun) + .5 (workmanship) + .4 (system) = 3.3