Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Green Ronin's Dragon Age RPG is Worth a Look


When Green Ronin announced they would be releasing a Dragon Age role playing game based on the BioWare computer and console game of the same name, I was initially skeptical about the endeavor. BioWare and Green Ronin are both held in high esteem by fans due to the consistent high quality of their products, but Dragon Age still seemed like less than a stellar idea by Green Ronin.

If there is one genre where the role playing game market is over saturated, it is in the Fantasy themed role playing game market. There isn't much room within the existing gaming marketplace for another Fantasy themed rpg, and the loyalty of consumers within the existing games' market share is pretty solid. Old school D&D players have games like Castles and Crusades and OSRIC. Mainstream Fantasy Gamers have the new Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder role playing games. Gamers who want things fast, furious, and fun have Savage Worlds and the excellent Hellfrost setting. Fantasy Flight Games introduced the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd Edition game this year to seduce board and card gamers into the rpg hobby.

That brief list only scratches the surface of products available for the Fantasy fan. In fact, it leaves out a game that Green Ronin released this past March. Their Song of Fire and Ice game is a Fantasy RPG based on the popular series of novels by George R.R. Martin. I found it truly surprising that Green Ronin would attempt to release two Fantasy themed RPGs in the same year. It should be noted that these are full role playing games, each with their own mechanics, and not campaign settings for existing gaming properties. If these were setting books, I would be much less surprised than I am by the release of two complete role playing games within the same year. This struck me as potentially counter productive, and that dividing the game design resources at Green Ronin might affect the game quality.

This was all true before I purchased the pdf from RPGNOW and GM'd a session with my gaming group this past weekend. I read through the rule books last week and prepared myself to run my group through the adventure. As I did so, I was struck by how simple -- yet robust -- the Dragon Age RPG system is. The basic mechanics are easy to teach and learn. All actions, for which there is a possibility of failure, are decided by a simple mechanic. The player rolls three six sided die (one of a different color than the others) and adds them together. The player then adds this total to one of their statistics (for example: Communication) which have ratings of -2 to +4, if the statistic has an applicable focus the player adds 2 more to this total. This number is compared to a difficulty rating ranging from 7 (routine) to 21 (nigh impossible). If the total is equal to or greater than the number, the action succeeds. If the action is successful, then the player looks at the different colored die -- called the Dragon Die. The higher the total of that die, the more successful the action.

I was impressed by a couple of things in this system. I am very fond of the fact that the game uses a simple roll of three six sided dice. Most people, even non-gamers, have three of these lying around their house. Second, the mechanic is easy to remember, yet has enough depth that it is useful in structuring narrative results without being completely dependent on the sum of the total. A character needing a total of 11 on a check, who rolls 11 can still be extremely successful if their Dragon Die result is a 6. This means that quality successes come more frequently than they might otherwise come if a normal die distribution were used to determine "level of success."

Let's see an example of an action and include the probability of success.

Torvald the Hunter is tracking a wild boar through the forest. It hasn't rained in a few days, so the ground is neither more or less receptive of tracks than on a normal day. Torvald is about an hour behind the boar, so the Game Master decides that this is a Challenging activity -- so it has a target number of 13. Torvald is no more perceptive than the average person (his Perception is +1), but he is trained in the art of Tracking (and will add +2 to this roll). Taking the Target Number of 13 and subtracting Torvald's bonuses, we see that he will need a 10 or better to succeed on this action. Looking at the chart below, we can see that this gives him a 62.50% chance of success.



Torvald's player rolls his three dice and gets one 2, one 2, and a 6 on his Dragon Die. His roll totals 10. Adding his bonuses for statistic and focus his total is 13, which is enough for a success. Rolling a six on his Dragon Die means that this is a remarkable success and the GM rules that Torvald is able to predict the boar's movements and move ahead of it making the hunt easier. Had one of the two's been the Dragon Die and the six a regular die, Torvald would still be successful in following the beast but that success wouldn't be as great.

Quick, easy, and it feeds a narrative spirit. The entire game is based on this simple mechanic, and in knowing just this much you could jump into a game easily. You would even be able to navigate the slightly more complex combat system.

The combat system works like any other task, except you need to keep track of when you roll doubles. If any two of your dice have the same value, and you succeeded at the action, you are allowed to spend a number of "stunt points" equal to your Dragon Die on creating interesting combat effects. These effects range from making a second attack to tripping your foe. I am in love with this mechanic. One of the difficulties in any system is getting your players to explain their character's attacks in an exciting and narrative style. Some players are naturally resistant to doing anything other than rolling and stating damage, but this isn't the real cause of the difficulty. The difficulty typically stems from a player describing an exciting action (for example: "Torvald trips Estvan with his Boar Spear") only to have that action fail when the result of the action is rolled. Most systems require attempts at tripping etc. -- the narrative effects -- to be described before the attempt, like visualization exercises. If the action fails, this can create narrative disappointments and lead to players giving up on trying to describe combat excitingly. By shifting the declaration of narrative effects (with real bonuses rather than being mere descriptors), the stunt mechanic makes combats more exciting than many other game systems.

The elegant mechanic design is obviously aimed at bringing gamers over from one medium, Console/PC gaming, into the medium of table top role playing, and I think it is an excellent attempt. Dungeons and Dragons and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay are attempting to appeal to the same market, but they are doing so by using design techniques from Console/PC/Card Game media. D&D and WFRP3 use "exception based" game design hoping that by emulating the style of other games, they will appeal to those gamers. I think that it will work, but I think what Green Ronin is doing will work as well -- and I think it will work for recruiting gamers who would otherwise be intimidated by the massive amount of rules most RPGs require players to learn.

Green Ronin's Dragon Age RPG is a "Red Box" for a new generation of gamers. The old D&D Red Box introduced an entire generation of gamers to a new hobby by simplifying and explaining a difficult game. Something that isn't attempted often enough in the current market. Chris Pramas remembers what it was about the Red Box that enticed the 80s generation of gamers, and he has brought those elements to a new generation of gamers with Dragon Age Set 1. It's a great Basic Set.



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