What Dragon Age Taught Me About D&D

I should start by saying I had a hard time finishing Dragon Age. I restarted the game once after beginning as a Dalish Elf Rogue and getting bored. And, even when I replayed as an Elf Wizard (at it’s core, the game is made for wizards), I still found sections of the game tedious in parts, enough to cause me to stop playing a second time. Eventually I powered through the sections I didn’t like (the Fade and the Dwarven caverns), and in the end, I feel I was well-rewarded.

At its core Dragon Age is D&D as a video game. It’s no wonder they call it a spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate 2. They might have “shriekers” instead of of umber hulks and “genlocks” instead of orcs, but fundamentally, it was single-player D&D video game. To me, one of the questions Dragon Age raised is the feasibility of a “single-player” tabletop D&D game. I’m not talking about getting rid of the Dungeon Master, but instead, having one Dungeon Master and only one player. To Bioware’s credit, it makes some damn compelling NPCs—or perhaps SPCs, “semi-playable characters.” I was so interested in the stories and dialogue between the SPCs that I wanted to kick my own character out of the group so I could have more of the others. Having played a fully-voiced main character in Mass Effect, I was disappointed by the switch back to a non-voiced main character in which 80% of my dialogue options led to the same reaction from the nonplayer characters. With such vivid SPCs, I was left wondering whether the same thing could be accomplished with D&D—whether a D&D game, with only a player and a Dungeon Master, could achieve a similar dynamic of gameplay.

Green Ronin recently released the Dragon Age RPG, but from what I have been told, it does not endeavor to do this.  I think if a Dragon Age RPG is to represent an extension of the video game and avoid becoming just a setting book, then it should aim to have the Dragon Age “feel” in the roleplaying game. Let one player have a PC and a bunch of allies, which are basically dumbed down PCs—maybe they’re controlled by the player but role-played by the Dungeon Master. It might feel strange, two people playing the game, so it might be necessary to get three or four—regardless, I think a game that emulates the Dragon Age feel needs a change in the way a tabletop RPG is approached.

Dragon Age is a great source of material if you’re ever looking for inspiration for the NPC; I’d say the same thing of Mass Effect 2 (I was going to write a blog about that, but Sly Flourish beat me to it!). In my opinion, Dragon Age doesn’t offer a wealth of setting material. The setting has many of the qualities of a high fantasy setting, but it’s generic enough that I suspect few will be compelled to use it. In terms of roleplaying, character hooks, and NPC personalities, it’s a great resource.

If you’re already a creative Dungeon Master or player who doesn’t need inspiration for characterization and roleplaying, then you might not have much to gain from the characters, though. Ultimately, what I appreciated most about Dragon Age was the idea of “allies.” In my game last weekend, I began an experiment to see how I could apply the “ally gathering” in Dragon Age to D&D. The characters in my game are fighting their way through the fortress of the Prince of Frost, and along the way, they have the possibility of earning cards that call people to their aid. I designed the encounters to be especially hard, requiring careful strategy or else the use of the allies they muster. As they visited rooms or spoke to people or creatures in the palace, they gained more allies to call in the impending final fight. Some cards let them dismiss enemies (they collected evidence of a conspiracy between the drow and Prince of Frost against the fomorians, who were currently at court and could be turned against the Prince). In another case, they gained the ability to summon the Colossus of Cendriane to their aid. Rather than statting out the creature, I have it simple defenses, boxes representing hit points that got marked off each time the creature got hit (regardless of how much damage), and a single special power.

(Setup for one of the “hard” encounters; included three elites, five standard creatures, five minions of the PCs’ level or higher)

Dragon Age employed a similar system for summoning allies to your aid in the final fight. I didn’t want to bog down the D&D battlefield with minions and NPCs, and I wanted the player characters to have more control of these allies than Dragon Age offered, so this streamlined design was my alternative. So far, I think the players are enjoying it—we’ll see how it plays out in the final battle.

As for my own experience playing Dragon Age? I’m probably done for now. I might play Dragon Age: Origins eventually, but I think I’d rather wait and see what improvements they make on future editions of the game. Now that they’ve got the world created, I’m hoping to see them push the envelope more. For me, the perfect version of Dragon Age would be one that I could play with my friends—not like World of Warcraft, but something in between the two games: a small multiplayer online roleplaying game (SMORPG?) with a intricate story and vivid characters or personas that each of my friends could adopt. Maybe it’s not for everyone, but that sounds grand to me, and it looks like I might be getting what I want.

Then again, I could just play D&D.

Next Blog: “Heroic Actions in Skill Challenges” (Thursday)


One thought on “What Dragon Age Taught Me About D&D

  1. Something more along the lines of a Neverwinter Nights 1 & 2 setup for multiplayer would be perfect! I agree they really should implement some sort of multiplayer, it would make for good times.

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