Dragon Age – Session 3 & GMing Advice

The third session of our Dragon Age RPG (Rules by Green Ronin) is complete.  This is a group I found on Roll 2o and I really like them.

After trekking from Denerim to Orlais last session we reached this Grand Tournament.  I joined an impromptu “after dark” archery contest among the Elf servants.  I was doing well until a red-headed female elf arrived and she is a ringer.  This is the same elf who made off with our Qunari Mage Prisoner in the first session.  Tallis, aka Felicia Day’s character from the short Dragon Age film, “Redemption,” and Dragon Age 2.

There was a steep entry fee to joining the different contests and we could only afford one and only the Warrior could take part.  So we opted for the Grand Melee where he had the best chance of success.  Since it was two weeks since the last session I got the PC names mixed up, including the one masquerading as nobility.  Cue furious dice rolling by the GM.  It was actually very in character for my low intelligence elf who can’t tell humans apart, especially when their avatar photos are both gruff bearded white dudes.

At the Melee, we try working the crowd and searching for Tallis to little result.  But a few rounds in the fucking earth opens up and darkspawn begin pouring out of the thing.  Our Mage was running back to our tent for weapons, including my bow, so the Warrior and I start laying into them with edged weapons.

This fight goes on with more and more Darkspawn pouring out of the hole eventually producing an Ogre.  In Dragon Age, Ogres are a breed of Darkspawn rather than being idiot giants like in D&D.  What are Darkspawn you may ask?  Without getting into too much backstory, they are the Always Chaotic Evil mindless horde of Dragon Age.  They’re somewhere between Undead and Tolkein Orcs.  They share characteristics with Zombie Hordes.  They are obliterating all life and their blood is a toxic black ichor.  This blood is what killed the noble we were originally going to escort to the tournament.  After a particularly good strike spattered me with gore the GM starts asking me to make Constitution checks.  Uh oh.

Eventually NPCs show up including the King of Ferelden, Aedan Cousland.  The GM made running a bunch of friendly NPCs look effortless.  This is one of my most hated things to do in D&D, adjudicating Friendly NPCs in combat.  Nothing pisses me off more than needing to fit eight pixies into an encounter for someone who Didn’t Bring Pixie Minis.  You know, 5E Conjure Spells should have d100 charts for what you get.

Sorry I was ranting.  Point is, Aedan Cousland.  The RPG that we’re playing is in a canonical version of the Dragon Age Videogames.  This version holds that the “Human Noble” Origin Story happened and that the Grey Warden from the first game married Anora to become King of Ferelden.

Eventually we defeat the Darkspawn.  But oh no.  My character’s veins are turning black, a clear indication that I have been infected with their lethal blood.  In Dragon Age, being infected by Darkspawn blood is a death sentence.  A slow painful death and you likely become a Darkspawn in the end.  The King sees this and takes me aside.  There are two treatments for Darkspawn infection and he offers he a choice between them.  1) Summary Execution.  2) I undergo The Joining ritual and become a Grey Warden.  I went with the non-death option.

The Grey Wardens are the stars of the first Dragon Age game.  They are heavily inspired by the Night’s Watch from Game of Thrones.  They are an apolitical militant order devoted to waging war against the Darkspawn.  They sort of vaccinate themselves with Darkspawn blood through this Joining ritual and in doing so accomplish two things.  Number One, They gain special powers to fight the Darkspawn.  They can sense them and only the Wardens can kill the Archdemons, which is what happens when Darkspawn infect an ancient dragon slumbering deep underground.  This infection causes a massive increase in the Darkspawn population and is called a Blight.  This has happened five times in the Dragon Age Setting’s “history”.  The Fifth Blight was the setting for the First Game, Origins.

Number Two, The Wardens condemn themselves to an eventual death.  The Darkspawn Infection is always fatal.  The Joining buys you about 30 years as opposed to a matter of days or weeks.  Then you start to go insane.  Grey Wardens who live that long exile themselves beneath the earth to take as many Darkspawn as possible with them.  That part is secret lore though, my character doesn’t know that.

In the Green Ronin Dragon Age RPG joining the Wardens brings mechanical benefits.  You gain an ability increase and a talent (Dragon Age’s Feat equivalent).  Hence one of the other players called me a “lucky bastard” for being conscripted into the Wardens.  I’m happy to have a new direction to push my character in.  When I wrote this character I was fine being in a supporting role shooting people with arrows.

This angle is total GM Fiat though.  If you think about telling a story, characters don’t usually get sick unless being sick plays into the story somehow.  D&D characters walk through oceans of blood and filth and most of the time you just don’t really think about the ever-present disease of medieval times.  But this is not just, “you failed a constitution check and have a cold” or some kind of easily fixable filth fever.  This is a permanent character ending ailment.  The Dragon Age book encourages GMs to tread lightly with this.  It’s Dragon Age, ya gonna fight some Dahkspawn.  But this particular illness is more of a plot device.  The intent is not to have every fight with them carry the risk of being Save Or Die.  You’ll note that the fighter did not need to make these rolls.  The reason given was that he was wearing heavy armor with a full helm, I’m willing to suspend my disbelief though.

The GM was taking kind of a gamble doing this “join or die” angle with my character.  We didn’t talk about this beforehand although I’m pretty mellow when it comes to my RPGing.  But this moment and my own D&D campaign, especially with the Amber Temple and the choices there have brought me to a realization.  Don’t be afraid to seriously injure your characters in the plot rather than a combat encounter.  I hadn’t even considered making my character a Warden but I’m genuinely interested in where this is going.  Players like to write this kind of stuff on their character sheets.    The bar can’t really be set too high when it comes to giving your players a serious handicap or obstacle to overcome.  And while I was happy with this one should, as a rule, seek the player’s consent before subjecting them to horrors.  In my Curse of Strahd game, the Amber Temple killed one PC and left another one unplayable really through no fault of their own.  But, there was a way, without breaking the 4th wall, for me to fix these problems so these players could continue playing their characters.

In closing, my point is, don’t be afraid to give your players seemingly insurmountable odds.  I don’t mean sending mind flayers after level 1 PCs in an encounter.  But what if there is a Mind Flayer running the show in their podunk starter village?  Think outside the encounter.  What could possibly go wrong in your PCs lives?  Then make it even worse.