Sunday, February 10, 2013

Tommy's Take on Dragon Age Set 1

I kinda like boxed sets. So releasing Dragon Age as a boxed set was a cool thing, to me. I’m a big fan of the video games, and Jodi Black of Beautiful Brains Books & Games gave the pen and paper version a stellar endorsement, so I wound up ordering the first two boxed sets. This is the review of the first one…

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: The set retails for $29.95, though the PDF is available for $17.50. This review is of the physical boxed set. The boxed set includes two 64 page books: The Player’s Guide and the Gamemaster’s Guide. Additionally, it includes a full color, foldout map of the nation of Ferelden, featured in the Dragon Age: Origins video game, and three six sided dice (two white and one red, the latter being the Dragon Die). Finally, it is worth noting that this set only includes information for character levels 1-5.

The boxes are sturdy stuff (I know because I accidentally set a chair on Set 2, and the damage is easy to miss), and the books are all full color and with some good production values. The Player’s Guide does a really good job of speaking to the reader from a “first time gamer” standpoint, probably a wise move.

The first chapter gives a decent overview of the setting, bringing you up to speed with the important elements like the Circle of Mages, the Chantry (who police the Circle), the lives of Elves and Dwarves and so on. It sets a rough starting point for the campaign, not pinpointing an exact year. It is also worth noting that Grey Wardens, a big feature of the first game, are mentioned at the beginning of the book, but only telling you that the Grey Warden information will come later.

Character creation is pretty simple, rolling 3d6 for eight abilities (Communication, Constitution, Cunning, Dexterity, Magic, Perception, Strength and Willpower) and cross referencing against a chart for a score ranging from -2 to 4. Additionally, you can gain Ability Focuses, which raise your effective Ability by 2 when using it for the related a Dwarf with the Constitution (Drinking) Focus trying to outlast a rival in a bar. Next, you pick a Background. The Background will either determine your Race outright, or limit your options, and will likely do the same with Class. For instance, an Apostate must be a Mage, and can only choose between an Elf and Human. An Avvar Hillsman can only be Human, but can be a Warrior or a Rogue. Similarly, a Surface Dwarf is locked in as, you guessed it, a Dwarf, but can be a Warrior or Rogue. (I use these examples because these were the backgrounds used in our game last weekend.)

Once this is selected, you generally get a choice of a relevant Focus, then roll twice on your Background’s Benefit chart (which can grant you Ability bonuses, new Focuses, new Languages or new Weapon Groups).

Once you have your Class, record your appropriate Class Powers. Mages cast Spells and have Mana, as well as a Ranged Attack called Arcane Lance. Rogues can backstab and ignore armor penalties for lighter armor. Warriors are skilled in more weapon groups. Additionally, you gain one or more starting Talents (one for Rogue or Mage, with Warriors gaining two Weapon Talents). As you advance in level, you gain new Talents (or improve existing ones), gain new spells (if you are a Mage) or learn to use some Stunts easier than other characters. Every level gains you *something*.

Characters are rounded out with a starting equipment package and money to spend on more personalized gear, and every player is encouraged to create goals for their characters, as well as connections between their PC and the other PCs.

While Focuses give your characters bonuses to your rolls, Talents grant you other benefits and are ranked (in this set) as Novice and Journeyman. For instance, a Novice rank Command Talent gives all of your allies a +1 bonus to Willpower (Courage) rolls as long as you spend an action making a grand gesture first. Journeyman rank Horsemanship allows you to mount as steed as a free action AND increases your steed’s speed by 2.

The equipment chapter is your standard fantasy fare, on the low magic end as you can’t buy things like healing potions and the like.

Magic is cast by making a roll, like anything else, and beating a target number. Additionally, you have to spend Mana in order to cast the spell. The first set includes 18 spells and five starting Spell packages that can be selected so you can make a Mage and drop right into the game. These include basic attack spells like Arcane Bolt, defensive spells like Rock Armor, standard healing stuff like Heal and slightly more off-beat stuff like Walking Bomb, which turns your opponent into a ticking time bomb, and if they die before the spell ends, they erupt in a damaging explosion. The book hints at more dangerous magic to come in later sets.

The mechanics chapter only takes up a few pages, as the game is pretty straight forward. In combat, for instance, you roll 3d6, add your relevant Ability and Focus (if you have one) and try to beat the opponent’s Defense. If so, roll damage and add the relevant ability (usually Strength) and subtract the opponent’s armor. Where the fun begins is if you roll doubles and succeed on the roll, because you use the value of the red die to generate Stunt Points, which let you do things like inflict extra damage, make your attack affect two targets, immediately reload a missile weapon or even change the initiative order! The Stunt system can also be used with spellcasting, making spells easier to cast, or making the spells stronger.

The game assumes that you will not be using maps and minis, but includes a sidebar on doing just that if you prefer.

The Gamemaster’s Guide is written very much to try to walk a new GM through the process of running a game, featuring a lot of material that’s going to be old hat to experienced GMs. For instance, I don’t need advice on my game space. I’ve gotten that one worked out over the last 20 years or so of gaming. This also includes pros and cons of GM styles (Adversarial or “killer” GMs, Benevolent GMs and Director GMs) as well as eight kinds of “Problem Players” to look out for (Rules Lawyers, Wallflowers, Hangers-On, etc). There is also a bit about Dark Fantasy versus Standard Fantasy, which is kinda helpful.

The GM has a chapter on the mechanics, guiding them through the penalties that might apply to tests, as well as advice on setting Target Numbers. Dragon Age also recommends the use of Morale rolls, rather than having every enemy fight to the death every time. There’s also a bit on Hazards, with some mechanical support and then examples, like a Pit Trap or a Burning Inn.

The bestiary begins with a pair of templates to make quick and dirty boosts to the stat blocks, to make Elite and Heroic versions of the monsters included. The bestiary covers animals like Brontos, Mabari War Dogs and Giant Spiders, as well as NPC types such as Dalish Raiders, Fereldan Brigands and Avvarian Hunters, plus undead types like Enraged Corpses (corpses possessed by Rage Demons), Fanged Skeletons (possessed by Hunger Demons) and Shades, and finally a selection of Darkspawn, such as Genlocks, Hurlocks and even Blight Wolves.

The Rewards chapter gives advice on awarding Experience points, as well as summarizing what each character gains by going up a level, as well as a guideline to treasure rewards and a list of magic items, from basic stuff like Healing and Lyrium (magic) potions to more powerful items like a Spawn Cleaver (a sword that gives a bonus to damage versus Darkspawn) and Boots of the Outlaw which penalize attempts at tracking the wearer.

The Dalish Curse adventure puts the PCs in a rough spot between some Dalish Elves and some human settlers, as well as introduces two new Darkspawn and a horrific adversary. There’s a couple of points where the PCs’ actions can definitely have consequences, which is always promising.

The back of the Player’s Guide includes a one page character sheet and the back of the GM’s Guide includes a summary of the mechanics as well as the Stunt charts.

WHAT WORKS: The stunt system is very fun in play, and character generation is optimized to be fast and easy, while still allowing for customization. The production values are top notch, and fans of the Dragon Age setting will find a lot to get excited about. We had a first time roleplayer play it, “get” the system quickly and have a blast. Did I mention I love boxed sets?

WHAT DOESN’T WORK: The “this will be included in later sets” thing can get annoying, especially if you were dying to play as a Grey Warden. As with any system that uses randomization in character generation, it can be easy to wind up with a character that just doesn’t work, which happened with one of ours. It could use a random adventure generator. EVERY book could use a random adventure generator.

CONCLUSION: The proof is in the fun and my first Dragon Age session was an incredible amount of fun. The four of us that sat down to play this had never played or ran it before, and it ran nearly as fast and smooth as Savage Worlds does for us now, which is really impressive for being our first time with the AGE system. The stunt system was HUGE for us, with everyone eagerly awaiting rolls of doubles. If I had to do it over again, I would have used maps and minis, as some of the tactical options would just work better with some kind of concrete imagery, I think. It IS worth noting that when we played, we also had access to Set 2, which includes three sets of handout cards, featuring the rules and Stunt Tables, and I would say those are almost invaluable in play, ESPECIALLY for the first time running the game.

Dragon Age gets picked on by some for being “incomplete”, but the tiered releases was done by Dungeons and Dragons first, and Dragon Age actually has character creation rules, unlike the new Star Wars RPG, which has had a Beta and a Quickstart and still doesn’t. The combat CAN get a little “swingy”, as stunts can make a huge impact on how quickly an enemy is defeated, an Dragon Age doesn’t have a Drama Point or Benny style mechanic in place to save PCs from great rolls by the bad guys.

As a Dragon Age setting fan and a pen and paper gamer, I’m incredibly pleased with my purchase and I dearly, dearly hope to run Dragon Age again soon.