Dragon Age Ranting and Other Stuff

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m currently in a Dragon Age game.  It is a good game.  My normal exercise in DMing is on hiatus and I need a fix.  More than that, I need to recharge my creative batteries.  This does however lead to excessive comparison between this RPG and D&D 5E as I wait seven agonizing days between sessions.

Dragon Age is based on rolling 3d6 as D&D is based on rolling a D20.  Like 5E, it is attempting to be an elegant system and for the most part it is.  Where DA distinguishes itself is with what’s called the Dragon Die.  See, when you roll three six sided dice, one of them should be a different color than the others.  This is your dragon die.  In the original box set they include two white dice with black numbers and one red die with white numbers.  This die breaks ties and powers the game’s stunt system.

Stunts are meant to be quick situational modifiers to combat.  If you’re familiar with 5E D&D they are very similar to the Battlemaster Fighter’s maneuvers. There are 3 menus of different options for combat, roleplaying, and exploration. When you roll your three dice, if you roll doubles on any two dice, then you get stunt points to be spent immediately on that roll equal to the number on the dragon die.  For example, if I roll three 6s on the dice, I have 6 stunt points.  I might choose the Lethal Blow stunt which adds 2d6 damage to the attack for five points.  Or I might choose the Lightning Attack stunt to attack again and the Skirmish Stunt to move for three points each.

I’m making this sound more complicated than it is in practice.  If you want to see it in action, Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop actually did a session of Dragon Age.  You get acclimated to this very quickly.  Although some of the stunts are much more complex than others.  It is a problem of analysis paralysis.  A Stunt is a choice modifying a dice roll.  Meaning the most likely time this comes up is with the greatest frequency of dice rolls, meaning combat.  Meaning it’s probably meant to be a fast paced moment.  The stunt system is injecting a new choice at the moment when you are handing narrative control back to the DM.  I roll my dice!  Oh, I got stunt points, wait, wait, should I choose mighty blow or rapid reload?  It has the potential to be a nightmare if you have minmaxers who want to read the entire menu each time before making a choice or if you just have indecisive players.  If I was running a DA game I would say you have up to ten seconds to make this choice.  If you’re a player you should be thinking which stunt you want if you happen to get stunt points.  Maybe be a bit more flexible with the exploration and roleplaying stunts which are all more abstract and complicated than the usual cut & dry combat stunts.

This is a good DM and a good group that I’ve found.  Everyone has some RPG experience, no one’s character is too comical or off the wall.  The DM running things is really good.  It seems bizarre that we seem to keep failing upwards.  Like our first mission, the Apostate Dalish Elf Mage (if you’ve played Dragon Age those words might make sense) let the Qunari Mage prisoner we were escorting go rather than hand him over to the Chantry (The Church in this setting).  If I was DM I would’ve given inspiration for that but Dragon Age doesn’t really have that mechanic.

So in order to make things right with the Chantry, who were pissed, we agreed to take on a dangerous mission for them.  We needed to escort some lord to a neighboring kingdom.  So we trek out to meet him on the road as he’s on his journey annnnd he’s dead when we get there.  Worse, he’s not actually dead, he’s dying from an infected wound with no hope of cure or even treatment.  So we have to give him the gift of mercy before he turns into a demon monster person.  So when someone inevitably asks if we killed him, the DM will call for Deception rather than Persuasion.  The consensus of the group is that we’re going to impersonate the lord at this extremely important tournament he was going to.

In 5E D&D, Deception and Persuasion are different skills.  It makes sense.  Lying to people is a different sort of social muscle than convincing people even if they’re branches of the same tree.  The way Dragon Age uses skills is virtually identical to 5E.  You roll your dice, a d20 or 3d6.  You add the relevant ability modifier, Charisma in D&D, Communication in Dragon Age.  Finally if you are especially skilled in this particular ability you might get a bonus.  In 5E they call it proficiency.  In Dragon Age it’s called an ability focus.  What really makes these systems radically different is how you get these bonuses.

5E D&D has 18 skills.  As opposed to earlier editions of the game, many are different actions consolidated into one skill.  5E has an Athletics skill to encompass climbing, swimming, and jumping.  Dragon Age has 80 skills (called ability focuses) and they are much narrower.  Dragon Age breaks has a different ability focus for all three of those activities.  5E has a Perception Skill one can be proficient in, Dragon Age has Seeing, Hearing, and Smelling as three different ability focuses.

The difference in 5E D&D is that most of your skills are determined at character creation.  By the time you reach 3rd Level in 5E, your choices are made.  You might get something as you level up but for the most part, skills are all pre-determined.  In Dragon Age though, you get a new ability focus at each level.  My character got Bows and Seeing to start from the random rolls that make characters.  But there are still much more frequent choices to make than in 5E and much broader choices.  In 5E, you can pick any two skills with your background but your class restricts them.  For example, the Paladin class does not offer proficiency with the Deception skill.  Dragon Age, by virtue of having three classes instead of D&D’s twelve, makes those classes far broader in scope.  You can choose literally any ability focus with any class.

This sort of very broad class with very specific choices also makes itself felt in the Talent section.  Talents in Dragon Age are equivalent to feats in D&D.  Each one has three ranks you can get in it with increasingly powerful abilities.  As a Rogue Archer there’s no question I’m taking the “Archery Style” talent to qualify for a Specialization (Prestige Class) later in the game.  But reading through these talents also brings to mind something  the designers of 5E specifically tried to avoid with their feats.  They didn’t want to make feats that added mechanics to the game.  Dragon Age does not abide by this stricture.  Like overly narrow skills, I would probably house rule these for more flexibility.  For example, the first talent, “Animal Training” gives that character the specific mechanical ability to train animals, states how long it takes to train them, and how many different commands you can teach one animal.

Why can’t anyone train animals though?  Is that really only an option for people of 5th level or higher in this universe?  Same thing goes for the Contacts Talent.  You take it, you get an NPC contact who can be called on for favors.  I thought about taking it as a sign to the DM that “Hey I want to roleplay.”  But it really seems like the sort of thing anyone should be able to do with roleplaying.  And it stands in stark contrast to more mechanically oriented talents with effects like “Reload Bow As A Free Action” which essentially doubles the number of things a PC with a bow can do on their turn in combat.  Or “Reroll A Skill If You Fail.”

I’ve just realized this is turning into a long point by point explanation of the Dragon Age system.  My original intent here was to work through my thoughts on making a character and leveling that character up.  I have two decisions to make by virtue of being level 2.  Which somehow requires a lot of digital ink. I can increase one stat and pick one new ability focus tied to Dexterity, Communication, or Perception.  Dexterity is something of a God Stat for Rogues so it’s not a question to raise that.  The ability focus is a relatively minor mechanical bonus, +2 to your 3d6 roll.  But, it says something about your character and that feels like the more important part.

Compare this with 4E D&D.  Did it say something about your rogue if you took x vs. y Encounter power?  Maybe some people played that game like that but often with the various powers there were objectively better choices to be made.  I’m choosing Persuasion because it comes up a lot and I don’t think anyone else has it so I’m not stepping on toes.

Beyond that this character is sort of a blank slate by design.  I didn’t know who I wanted this person to be beyond “City Elf Rogue” and random character generation made that an impossible question to answer up front.  However the system has several options to make an archer the most archery character of all time and since I started with a +2 to bows, might as well commit to that.  Unlike D&D, you add your Dexterity Modifier to Hit and your Perception Modifier to Damage with a bow.  And at later levels, Rogues add their Cunning Modifier to damage.  So it is a bit MAD as the munchkin kids might say.  But since most of my stats are high there’s no reason not to keep boosting that low cunning stat as Elhar becomes less of an idiot over time.

With me committed to raising his intelligence and bow skill over time I am wondering if I should take this character in the direction of something resembling “The Order of the Bow Initiate” which was a prestige class from 3.5.  They’re basically Archer Paladins.  Religious knowledge and the ability to craft bows and a slew of archery feats (most likely granted from 3.5 Fighter bonus feats) were required to take the prestige class.  Dragon Age has something resembling Prestige Classes called “specializations” that have more in common with the character archetypes that 5E D&D characters get at level 3.  Everyone gets two specializations over time assuming they qualify for them and obviously I’m going to take the Marksman one.  Take ALL the bow shit.

I think in the end I’m just going to take things as they come.  I’ll take proficiencies based on how the story unfolds, whether we have intense physical challenges or have to hobnob with royals.  I think I might take Woodworking at some point if only so I can make more goddamn arrows.