Monday, January 4, 2010

Dragon Age Actual Play

Yeah, it's Monday, but I've been itching for this one, so I'll break my usual order of things.

I ran a game of Dragon Age tabletop on New Years Day, and it went quite well. The positives I expected were there (as were the negatives) but I still ended up pleasantly surprised.

Random chargen started out interestingly as one of my players nailed an 18 on the first roll, in plain sight of everyone. At ten end, the final distribution was a little unkind, with respective total bonuses of 12, 10 and 7. I let #2 and #1 at 1 and 2 points to their total respectively - this was entirely outside the scope of the rules, but I'm ok with that.[1] They ended up going mage, fighter and rogue.

We had 2 city elves and an apostate elf, so we decided they were cousins, the apostate having gone off to find the dalish and learn their magic for a while. Since I couldn't immediately find the recommended name list, they ended up going with italiante names(Bruno, Vinnie & Luccia). While this started a little tongue in cheek, it actually gelled nicely, since there is an Italian equivalent (Antiva) with elves, and one of the established bts of setting is that marriages are often arranged between alienage (elf ghettos) in different cities to keep the community connected. So their uncle Guido (Luccia's father) had come to Denerim (the big city of the setting) for an arranged marriage after things went bad enough in Antiva that it killed both his brothers, so he brought the kids along with him, so they grew up in the Denerim alienage.

Now, I don't mention this to get my shakespeare on, rather, I hold it up as an example of the strength of the setting. As I noted, it's very generic on the surface, but there's some decent depth behind it. I felt this was a good illustration of that in practice. It was easy to find a fairly generic idea to start with, and the setting gave me just enough material to flesh it out.

The plot of play was simple enough. A shipment of lyrium powder (magic stuff) is going form a mage to a templar, but for the duration of transit will be protected by neither. The players know where the delivery is happening, and can arrange to jump it. I actually stole a page from the CRPG and used one of the locations in Denerim where you get ambushed, using an old portcullis, except with the PCs as the attackers.

The fight that followed was straightforward enough. 3 PCs from ambush with 4 guards (2 trapped behind the portcullis initially) the cart's driver and their advance scout (who the Player's dubbed "The Cool Customer" because he kept making perception rolls to stay on top of the situation). To remove any suspense, the players won, but it was a surprisingly near thing. That out of the way, lots of observations on the fight:

  • We used minis, but no grid, just using the minis to show relative position. This worked out pretty well, since it kept certain features (like the portcullis control) in mind. For a fair part of the fight, the rogue was fighting off his opponent with one hand and trying to jam things in the controls with the other.
  • In combat, you get one major action (standard action, basically), and one minor action (which includes movement). The major/minor action split worked mostly smoothly. There were a few oddities, like whether or not you could draw a weapon while moving or if you are considered to have readied an arrow when you switch weapons to a bow, or if you also need to reload. It's one of the areas where you can feel the trade off between simplicity and complexity, but it works out.
  • In many ways, combat reminded me of D&D before attacks of opportunity. There's nothing keeping people from disengaging so things are much more free wheeling. Paradoxically, this can also mean things are more static: If you find an optimal position, you tend to stay there and just do the same thing every turn.[2]
  • Thankfully, the solution to this ended up being the stunt system. it works like this: if you roll doubles on your 3d6, check the value on your dragon die (your off-colored d6). You now have that many "stunt points" to add some english onto your attack. There's a little list of them on the reference sheet, and it's stuff like knocking someone back 2 yards costs 1 point, doing an extra d6 damage is 2 points, making another attack is 4 and so on (There's a similar list for spells). Not only does this make for one of the most fun critical hit systems I've ever seen, it can make the fight change up. As an example, our fighter started in an elevated position, sniping with his bow, and it looked like he'd be there for the whole fight. Then the driver got him with a shot that disarmed him, dropping his bow down into the fight, forcing him to follow. Felt nicely dynamic.[3]
  • Our fighter had a better dexterity than strength, so he and the rogue were both armed with dexterity-based weapons. This ended up being educational because the benefits of dexterity in the game are HUGE, but they're not quite as huge as they looked. The small damage output of dex-based weapons doesn't look like too big a gap on paper, but in practice they're total pea shooters. The way armor works is that even negligible armor tends to undercut most of your first die of damage. When the Driver pulled out a two-handed sword and rolled 3d6 for damage, the swearing around the table was impressive.
  • The mage was terrifying. Like, terrifying enough that at the end of the fight, everyone suddenly felt like the Templars and the Circle made complete and total sense as setting elements. I think it was the spell Walking Bomb that really just scared the crap out of everyone. Now, the mage was the one who'd rolled the 18, that combined with background bonuses to give him a +5 magic modifier, which is pretty crazily high, so maybe he was scarier than normal, but I'm not so sure of that. On the other hand, he was a total glass cannon - he got knocked down to 2 or 3 health twice, and he was totally out of mana by the end of the fight. Things had gone a little less well, he'd have gotten laid out pretty hard.
  • I was flying by the seat of my pants a bit in balancing the encounter, reminding me of my Warhammer 3 experience. But unlike WH3, It took only one or two rounds before I had a firm enough grasp of combat that I now feel comfortable making up adversaries. Enough so that I think the adversary rules are actually too complicated, or at least the statblocks are. They look like character sheets, so I can see the logic of a unified vision, but odds are good I'll just be putting this particular element up on blocks to tune up.

After the fight, we had some good non-fighty stuff. We leveled up, jsut to see how it worked (very quickly and easily, it turns out). The guys found more than they expected in the wagon, tried to fence it[4], and found themselves fleeing from The Pearl (a high class brothel) from a posse of angry looking templar. The flight involved ropes, falling, cross dressing and no small amount of alcohol, so I was good with that. We wrapped up with them paying most of their money on hand for passage on a smuggler's ship, and pulling away from the docks.

All in all, we had a lot of fun, and final thoughts include:

  • The character sheet needs more space for details. I had to print extra copies of the classes so the rogue and mage had their class abilities on hand, and I ended up just handing the mage the printout of the magic chapter because it was easier than trying to write them down. There were other things (like, it would be nice if there was a quick way to note known weapon groups, and I'd love it if the stunts were on the character sheet) and I'm hopeful that the 2 page character sheet from Green Ronin will address these. Otherwise, I'll just make my own.
  • Very, very few choices in chargen. This is pleasantly speedy, but makes it a little bit rough to serve a concept. If you're comfortable using chargen as inspiration, it's fine, but if you have an idea you want to support, it's a crapshoot.
  • I love stunts. They're just fun. My sole regret is that they don't kick in out of combat (or even in combat if you're doing something besides an attack). My players definitely were feeling like that was a gap. The counterargument is that this would make them too common, and that might be true.
  • I'm not sure if you're allowed to upgrade gear during chargen (rather than buying it outright). I allowed it (so the fighter turned in his class-granted armor for a discount on better armor) but I've got no idea if that's legit.
  • If we keep playing this (and it's a tempting choice fro more-or-less pickup play) then I'm worried that we'd clear level 5 before the second box set comes out. Not that that's a terrible problem to have, but it'll be aggravating if it happens. I'm also curious about advancement past level 5 - specifically you get a bonus point to your primary stat every other level (you can spread it around, but nothing makes you do so) and if there's nothing encouraging/forcing distribution, then the stat spread is going to start looking really weird by level 10 or so.

Anyway, while there were definitely some weird bits, they ended up causing far fewer problems than I expected, and the whole thing was just quick and easy to play. That's a measure I'm pretty good with.

1 - In fact, I'm explicitly ok with it. I'm running this with Red Box in my heart, so by god I will embrace opportunities to house rule. This game was written for someone with less experience than me, and it will work for them just fine, but the point of having more experience is the ability to tune it. On some level, this is a lot like buying one of the less-expensive cars explicitly to soup it up.

2 - 4e solves this problem with flanking and the grid, and that ability to keep fights from getting static is the reason I am willing to deal with that many maps and minis. Because of that, it was exceptionally interesting to me to see other solutions to the problem.

3 - I had been concerned that the stunts would feel a bit too much like a speedbump as you stop to look things up, but that didn't bear out. There are a few options, but not so many that you don't have to deal with decision paralysis. This means that while the mechanical range is only so diverse, that's only part of the equation. Stunt events are also cues to put some thought into the description of play, and that's really very handy.

4 - The mage also did a line of Lyrium, which suited the sensibilities of things quite well.


  1. A few questions:

    How much of this was homebrew scenario? I ask because I don't recall any mention of Lyrium in the DA:RPG books. Or is this something I'd know if I'd ever played the video game?

    How did you work out printing the PDFs? Initially it took a looooong time for me to print them: it wanted to "flatten" each page. In the end I exported to JPG and then regrouped those into a new PDF and printed that (this created a low-quality, yet larger, file, that was more easily printed).

    I definitely agree with the lack of space on the character sheets. The Languages/Talents space in particular seems too cramped.

    What does the CRPG acronym stand for?

  2. @Sam I think there are some lyrium potions in the GM book, but yeah, this was built off a seed from CRPG (Computer/Console RPG) which got into more detail about Lyrium, who has it and who wants it. The whole scenario was pretty much off the top of my head, partly to suit the characters that got made, but also partly because I don't really find the sample adventure to my taste.

    On the printing front, while it took forever to get them to print on my PC, my mac seemed to handle the printing much more efficiently. That said, it may also be that GR trimmed down the files some, since I was printing from the updated version.

    -Rob D.

  3. "Now, I don't mention this to get my shakespeare on, rather, I hold it up as an example of the strength of the setting. As I noted, it's very generic on the surface, but there's some decent depth behind it."

    How much does that depth comes out in the setting info that actually comes with the game? Could someone who hasn't played the video game (or just didn't pay as much attention) draw the connections you did for the PC backgrounds and the scenario plot?

  4. @lenny Absolutely not to the same extent. There is a vast level of detail that I can simply take for granted from having played through the game which is not present in the written material.

    Some of the depth is in the book - the nuances of the elves certainty - but other things aren't. For example, The dragon age CRPG has the best handling of dwarves I've ever seen, but that is a lot more subtle than the book can really convey.

    All of which is to say, the written setting provides more depth than the obvious Tolkein knock-off, but less you'd get if you also played the game.

    -Rob D.

  5. I agree about the skewed stats, particularly since the non-core primary abilities will be shortchanged in comparison to the secondary abilities increased on odd levels.

    [Then again I can't help thinking about what would happen if I changed the abilities to something that directly related to character's endeavours rather than something that directly describes the character. For example (off the top of my head): Melee, Missile, Influence, Stealth, Perception, Magic, Knowledge, Craft. It's tempting me to see what happens.]

  6. @rev My master list is:

    Fight (maybe split range/melee)
    Create (encompasses art & craft)

    With a possible extra for resources.

  7. Good fun and, as usual, you give a better take on it than I would have. Definitely worth a second or third session, but I'm not yet sure about its long term potential.

  8. Thanks for posting this. I've been curious about DA.

  9. Great write-up, Rob. I'm eager to see this game in action. The stunt system sounds a lot like the one we devised for the Coda-system Lord of the Rings game, in which you spend bonus successes for bonus effects. (It's something we did with the Storyteller system back in the day, too.) Good stuff.

    While you were playing that elf-cousins game on New Year's Day, I was playing D&D4 with a pair of dwarven cousins, cleric + warden, which prove to be a winning combo.

  10. @will Yeah, it reminded me a little of Secrets of Zir'an too (which let you spend your margin of success as currency).

    And oh, man, Cleric/Warden is a badass pairing. I continue to itch to try a Strength cleric sometime.

    -Rob D.

  11. Very informative and enjoyable. Thanks.

  12. Where is the website for the paper and pencil Dragon Age RPG?


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