Sunday, January 31, 2010

Play-Thru: Dragon Age

Last night I ran Dragon Age for the first time. I won't be posting "actual play" here because I'm running the included adventure in the GM's Guide. I'm not a fan of spoilers, either in the giving or the receiving. If I ever post true actual play, it won't be with a published adventure. In my previous post, I started talking about Dragon Age, but for completeness, I may repeat some of what I said there, here.

For those not in the know, Dragon Age is based on the video game of the same name. Chris Pramas of Green Ronin designed it with a new system called the Adventure Gaming Engine (AGE). I've played roughly 90 minutes of the video game, so I don't feel I have the knowledge to compare the two, so I will be ignoring any comparisons to canon.

My understanding is the pen and paper version of Dragon Age is meant to attract newcomers to the hobby, so it's written with novice players in mind. To that end, everything about the presentation of this game evokes "entry to the hobby." The player is primed for the setting, taught to make a character, then taught how to use it. All the while, excellent play advice is given. The GM's Guide gives tons of advice on running a game, which can most often be applied to any game. There's some additional rules info as well. A small bestiary is included, along with guidance on rewards. The book finishes off with an introductory adventure, which is designed to introduce the players and GM to the mechanics of the game. The GM is treated to inline advice on running the game, including reminders to remind the players of their options.

One final note on the books. This is "Set 1," and it only covers levels 1 to 5 (sound familiar?). Many have complained about this fact. I, on the other hand, applaud the choice. For one, I love the Red Box feel of that. For two, I think it allows this first set to really drill down on getting the players going. The message is clear: here's what you need today; now go play.

We played through the first three scenes of the game last night, and so far, I'm impressed. My only quibble with the books is the rules for Advanced Tests are only in the GM's Guide. Advanced Tests are AGE's way of dealing with extended actions and remind me of Skill Challenges from D&D 4E. This is great since Skill Challenges are one of the few positive takeaways I have from 4E (I reviewed 4E on TGTT awhile back, and it was mostly positive, but I soured on the game rather quickly). Before getting into the details of Advanced Tests, I should discuss the other mechanics of the game.

Character creation is mostly random, which turns out to be a good thing. First, it evokes old school, an obvious design goal of this game. Second, it makes creation easier for newcomers, another design goal--mission accomplished. I was initially turned off by the randomness, in part because the sample characters Green Ronin provides could not have been made unless all the players were extremely lucky or cheated on their rolls. I was going to use a point buy system but decided it was counter to the goals of the game. So I went with an old D&D house rule. Since abilities are derived by rolling 3d6, I had the players roll 3d6, but re-roll ones and twos. My instincts were dead on, as the characters the players came up with were pretty well in line with the samples.

Characters are made up of Abilities, Focuses, and Talents, essentially. Abilities are your basic stats; there are eight: Communication, Constitution, Cunning, Dexterity, Magic, Perception, Strength, and Willpower, and they start out ranging from 1 to 4. Those Abilities are derived from a 3d6 roll and a table reference. Average is considered a 1. Focuses are used instead of skills; they're attached to Abilities. If you have a Focus, you add two to your result. Focuses aren't required unless otherwise noted. Talents are similar to Feats or Edges. They give you little extra things you can do, like re-roll a failed result, use an action faster, etc.

After you roll up your Abilities, you'll choose your Background. Backgrounds add a layer to race and class. Basically, they give you Focuses, Ability raises, Languages, and Weapon Groups. They are also how you choose race, and they're the gateway to the three classes, Mage, Rogue, and Warrior. I had a concern about Dragon Age only having three classes, but Backgrounds make it much more interesting, alleviating my concern.

Like Backgrounds, classes give you access to Weapon Groups, but they round you out with Talents, Class Powers, and Starting Health. Mages will choose spells as well.

Gear is handled well. Characters have starting wealth, but they also receive automatic adventuring equipment in addition to their money. It sets you up with the basics, plus weapons and simple armor. Everything you need is in here, but I must say the first thing I looked for was a 10-foot pole and was disappointed (only on a nostalgic level).

OK. So you have a character; what's the system like? I have to say AGE is very cool. In other media, I might say awesome! Here's the gist of the system: roll 3d6 (one of which is a different color--the Dragon Die), add the Ability, and add +2 if you have the focus. Target Number (TN) is determined by the GM, with 11 being Average, and it goes up or down by twos.

In combat, a character must have the appropriate Weapon Group or suffer a -2 to their attack roll and half damage. Characters can still take a Focus later, to add the +2 as well. There is no listed botch mechanic (unless I'm forgetting), and the Stunt Points system takes the place of critical hits.

If you roll doubles when making an attack roll (or casting a spell), and you succeed, the number on the Dragon Die gives you Stunt Points, which must be spent immediately or lost. Stunts are effects that can be added in addition to normal damage. The obvious one is here, adding additional damage. All the other Stunts are most commonly found in other RPGs as maneuvers declared before an attack, and in those cases, they usually cause the innovative player to take penalties and often fail. For instance, if you want to knock a character prone in a given RPG, you'll often have to do some special maneuver that requires opposed rolls, penalties to your attack roll, or worse: both. In Dragon Age, this stuff happens after you roll. It also makes it more cinematic, and, in my opinion, more like fiction.

In fiction, the protagonist often gets the best of her opponent through providence--the character either sees an opening or has an epiphany. Stunts mimic that perfectly. You make an attack; you roll doubles and get Stunt Points. Here's how it could be narrated:

I melee attack the guard on my right, and when I strike my target, I see that he's off balance, so I follow through, knocking him prone. My momentum carries me through to attack my other opponent. I deal 14 damage to the prone guard; then I hit the second opponent for 11 damage. I then step past the downed guard, putting some distance between me and the standing one.

You can totally do that in AGE, if you get a 6 on your Dragon Die. What I like is the game rewards you for rolling the doubles rather than penalizing you for having interesting ideas.

The one drawback I expected to the Stunt Point system is the potential for analysis paralysis, and I was right. When doubles were rolled, it stopped the table cold. I expect the issue will improve in extended play. Here's the interesting part: it didn't hurt the game. Even with the extra time things took--we only got through the first three scenes of the adventure--everyone had a blast. And by the end of the one combat we did, veteran gamers were already flying through the stunts.

The Dragon Die has a couple other uses in the game. For one, it determines how well you succeed at a given task. So if a rogue is jumping between rooftops and gets a 1 on the die, he barely makes it or at least lands clumsily. If he gets a 6, he may look like an Olympic athlete. The included adventure also has tables for investigation bits, where the Dragon Die determines the level of detail found on success. I can conjure many uses for the Dragon Die, thanks to this little detail.

The final use of the Dragon Die is for Advanced Tests. Like I mentioned, this is when you are taking an extended action that requires detail and/or the measurement of time. Basically, you have the task TN, like a normal action, and you have a Threshold to reach to complete the task. When you succeed at a roll, the Dragon Die gives you a number of points toward meeting you Threshold. Each roll can be a measurement of time to say how long something takes, or it could be used for social encounters. An example for social could be to convince an angry crowd to not maul you to death, say TN 13, Threshold 10.

Health in the game is very straightforward. If you reach zero, you're dying. Your friends have rounds to save your bacon. There are numerous ways to heal to keep your character going. I like this, and it doesn't feel as forced as the way 4E does it, meaning it never feels like you clicked on something to heal--though I guess that feeling would be more appropriate in Dragon Age, given it's actually based on a video game IP.

The magic system in AGE is interesting. There are Stunts available, and they do everything from making spells cheaper to use to strengthen them to making them harder to resist. Spells cost Mana points to cast, and there's a skill roll. Many spells give opponents a chance to resist. The ability to resist is determined by the spell and the TN is determined through a Spellpower: Magic ability plus 10, with a +2 if you the mage has the appropriate Focus. One cool thing about mages is they all have an ability called Arcane Lance, which is a low-powered, ranged attack that doesn't use Mana points, so a mage is never completely useless in combat, regardless of Mana level.

I look forward to exploring the AGE system more. I sincerely hope this system is expanded out and used for other genres. Giving the system a separate name from the IP certainly paves the way for more genres and even licensing.

To be honest, it's hard not to gush about this system. It's an inspiring design, and I want more. I'm already coming up with multiple ideas on my own. I'm going to love tweaking this game. My only hope is that Green Ronin a) gets the other boxes out quickly and b) decides to use this system for other things and/or license it out.

Who is this for?

I'd say this is definitely meant as an entry level RPG, though the system has so much potential. It's also an excellent rules light system. Indie gamers looking for a crossover product should check this out as well.

Who should stay away?

If you like "crunchy" systems or a lot of attempts at realism, this is certainly not your game. If you are looking for a treatment on the Dragon Age setting, be warned: this is just a primer on a small section of the world.