Dragon Age – Elhar the Pup

I have a new RPG character to add to my library!

Recently I joined a game on Roll20.  For once I’m not playing D&D.  Instead we are playing the Dragon Age RPG by Green Ronin which is based on the Dragon Age videogames by Bioware.  Green Ronin wrote a generic version of this ruleset called the Fantasy AGE (Adventure Game Engine) system for fantasy tabletop RPG campaigns outside The Dragon Age Setting (TheD.A.S. get it?).

Side note, does that make Green Ronin’s version the Dragon Age AGE?

Dragon Age’s rules are very similar to D&D 5th Edition albeit less elegant in many places.  There are a lot of fiddling small bits but really once you generate your characters and understand “The Stunt System” it is an easy game to play and a lot of those extra rules are not that important.  In my opinion, you could teach anyone to play D&D 5e in about 15 minutes.  You could teach anyone to play Dungeon World in 5 minutes.  Dragon Age is a bit more complicated, you’re probably looking at 20-30 minutes from Cold Start to Playing The Game.  I’ll explain more about the rules as I get into my character.

Point is, we’re using the Dragon Age RPG and the campaign is set some years after the first Dragon Age video game while taking inspiration and hooks from the second game.  Our PCs are members of a mercenary company called “The Hounds of Ferelden.”  We’re bottom rung, taking simple jobs, working our way up in the world.  This is a good way of introducing setting lore while not being overwhelming.  It’s also good because I only played the first videogame although I’ve read up on the plots of the others.

The setting is very much a core part of making the story and the characters.  Dragon Age is called A Dark Fantasy.  It is striving to provide the grittier realism found in Game of Thrones rather than the more epic or high fantasy from Lord of the Rings.  I realize that sentence is ripped off from the Dragon Age Wikipedia page but stay with me.  It was originally a Bioware game so the writing from the games was very good.  The games ask you to make weighty moral choices and tough decisions.  It’s a great plot with compelling drama.  You feel for the characters.

This is carried over to the RPG as well.  There are a few published adventures, not a lot, but they all feature a strong element of moral choices and shades of gray.  They have good stories and even if you’re not interested in Dragon Age as a system or a setting they’re worth purchasing.

So what does this mean for my PC in this campaign?  If you recall a previous post on my character library, I joined a Dragon Age game some time ago with an Elf Rogue.  That game folded after one session but I still want to play this archetype.  Fortunately no one else is playing an Elf Rogue.  I’m not sure why I want to play this race/class combo so badly.  I probably would not have if someone else already called it.

Usually when I come to play in an RPG I have an idea of the character I want to play when I sit down.  Abd part of that is in D&D you often sit down at the table with your character done, if only to save time.  I know that Vaelis Suncedar, Half-Elf Warlock, was a trader before he was shipwrecked and saved by a powerful Sea Hag who demands his service.  I know Tando Tossbottle, Halfling Rogue, is a minor courtier in the kingdom’s bureaucracy who adventures to amass wealth and power to join the nobility.  In Dragon Age it’s difficult to come to the table with that amount of detail because Dragon Age uses a lot of random elements in its character generation.

On top of that,  In Dragon Age, there are 4 races:  Human, Elf, Dwarf, and Qunari.  And there are three classes: Warrior, Mage, and Rogue.  That is so generic that it doesn’t automatically suggest a character.  I know my character is an Elf Rogue and he’s from a crime ridden slum in a big city.  What provides differentiation between two Elf Mages or two Human Rogues is the random character generation.  For starters, you roll stats and you roll them in order like older editions of D&D.  You can switch 2 stats around and there are 8 stats.  And if you’re not playing a mage you probably want magic to be your lowest stat.  Meaning if you wanted to play a Warrior I hope you roll high Strength.  And if you want to be a Rogue it sucks if you roll high Magic because you won’t be using that stat.  And since you can only switch two stats around, meaning you’re probably going to have at least one strength or weakness that just doesn’t fit the “ideal” version of the character.

For example, when I picture Tando, the Rogue-Mastermind Halfling, I picture someone who’s intelligence is higher than their physical attributes.  But in 5th Edition D&D there is little to no reason for Rogue to take a good intelligence stat.  A high intelligence stat is less useful than say, a high dexterity stat and diligent note talking.  In Dragon Age that choice is taken from you.  By rolling stats it is somewhat impossible to come to the table thinking, “I want to play a charismatic spice merchant who was cursed after a shipwreck.”  You can still play that character but you have to work around not only random stats but random skills.  This is why I don’t usually come to the table with a firm idea of who the character is.  I want to see my stats and my skills and then ask myself, “what is the most interesting explanation for this person?”

The generation is not entirely random.  You choose from over twenty backgrounds which give your character a firm push in a particular direction.  Each one gives you a stat boost, a skill, and some other benefit.  Then the random element comes in, you roll on a chart twice for two random benefits.  The choices are all things that would suit that character.  But it’s still random enough that you don’t know exactly who this person is before you make them.

I knew I wanted to be an elf rogue from the slums of this big city.  And he’s joining a filthy disreputable mercenary company.  So who is this person?  Surprisingly competent.  I actually rolled really really well with this guy.  Nearly all the stats were good with the best ones being Constitution and Willpower.  And at the end of the process I was left with an all round good character with skill bonuses to his perception and archery.  I figured this character would be something like a scout and he was.  He was good at pretty much everything.  With one glaring exception.  His negative score to Cunning, the Dragon Age stat for Intelligence.  Other than his useless magic stat his next closest stat is 3 points higher than his Cunning.  In a random generation system like this it isn’t unusual to have a negative stat or two.  What’s unusual is that I got very lucky with my rolls in making this character with this single obvious major flaw.  Then I asked myself, what if he’s an idiot?

The problem I had in my first game is that this character doesn’t really have a strong identity other than being an idiot.  All of his stats were pretty good, Cunning was the only distinguishing feature.  The skill bonuses he rolled were Bows and Seeing.  Which is stereotypical elf stuff.  During the first session, I definitely think I played too hard on “This character is not bright.”  You want to portray someone that the other characters want to hang out with but you don’t want him to be a clown.  Go too comedic and it starts to annoy the GM and the other players when every line out of your mouth is a joke.  I was contrasting him internally with another idiot Rogue, Jayne Cobb from Firefly.  Jayne is often comic relief.  Note how often Jayne gets hurt on the show and this often played for laughs.  At the same time, Jayne is marked by being the most evil and untrustworthy member of the crew.  I didn’t want my idiot rogue to be like this because 1) I didn’t want to join a new group and play a character working against the party and 2) I (rightfully) suspected the party would already have someone playing the pragmatic ends justify the means role.  I saw this character as more…I want to say optimistic but in a gritty setting like this it comes off more like naïve.

More than Jayne Cobb the character than occurred to me next as inspiration was Carrot from Discworld.  Like Carrot, Elhar the Elf Rogue is good at pretty much everything.  But Carrot was raised by Dwarves and they have a different outlook on things than humans.  Like Carrot, Elhar might not be stupid but he is somewhat oblivious.  I think my favorite joke in the Discworld series might be when Carrot unknowingly moves into a brothel thinking it to be a boarding house.  Elhar has spent his entire life in the city of Denerim and most of that in the Elf-Only district.  This leads him to a somewhat strained relationship with Samriel, the party’s elf mage.  The mage is a Daelish Elf, which are the more traditional elves who live in the woods and shoot bows.  He sees Elhar as shitty at being an Elf.

Elhar is a City Elf which is a thing in Dragon Age.  I’m not going to go into the backstory but there was a war and some Elves stayed in the woods while others moved to the cities and became 2nd class citizens.  This means Elhar is completely ignorant of sleeping outside, he’s used to elves being subservient to humans, he believes that mages are dangerous, and when the party goes walking to another castle Elhar thinks it looks like a toy compared to the city fortress he grew up around.  These are the traditional attitudes of a Dragon Age city dweller.  He’s a fish out of water and I love fish out of water humor.  When he signs up to be a mercenary, he’s never fought before.  And the recruiting sergeant, with the common “Racist Towards Elves” attitude of the setting hands him a bow because he figures “All Elves Use Bows.”  Elhar turns out to be great with a bow but this guy had no way of knowing that!  I also figured as an Elf joining the Hounds of Ferelden this guy would nickname him Pup.  I think the next session I would definitely try to dial back the idiocy to a less comedic level.  I want this character to be more unschooled and less stupid.  He’s a caravan guard, not an accountant.

The Session proper was really good.  I’m not used to a GM asking for feedback and talking about a social contract openly but this person did both.  I’m kind of awkward being that forward criticizing someone I just met over something like their RPG style which can be so personal.  The fact that the GM asked was very cool of them.  The plot of the adventure took a lot of inspiration and characters from the Dragon Age short film, Redemption.  We were set to transfer a prisoner, a rogue mage from a distant village to the capital city.  Wouldn’t you know, the mage is a Qunari.  The Qunari are this race of hulking humanoids that follow a strict religious/philosophical code that regulates all aspects of their lives.  The race itself has no name but they’re named for this religion they follow which, according to TVtropes, is a sort of Spanish Islam meets Taoism/Confucianism.

So the mage is a Qunari.  One other quirk of Dragon Age is that being able to cast magic makes one more susceptible to demonic possession and influence.  Every mage is a potential conduit, basically a potential gateway to hell.  So The Church, naturally, keeps a tight leash on mages in this setting, somewhat similar to the Dark Sun setting.  The Qunari keep an even tighter leash on mages, keeping them in chains, sewing their mouths shut, and assigning each of them a guard to kill them should they show sign of possession.

So we’re escorting him back when Felicia Day’s character from Redemption shows up and offers the PC on watch money to let him go.  Everyone eventually makes perception checks to wake up to see this.  And to my surprise everyone else seems okay letting this dude go for less money than we were promised to bring him into the Church.  It seems like no one was too excited about handing over someone to the Church for probable interrogation and execution.  But Elhar, being a naïve city elf, really believes that the Church is out to do good and that mages are trouble.  I shot at the mage, hopefully Qunari mages don’t hold grudges.  We end the session with the Sarge chewing us out for failing the job and sent to go explain ourselves to the Church who hired us.