Here Be Dragons

I’m not very good at most computer games (now there’s an admission and a half from someone writing on a gaming blog), usually because I panic and press all the wrong buttons when things get a bit tricky. But I am good at solving puzzles and spotting things, so here at Chez Pixie most of our console gaming is co-operative: he hits things and I tell him where to go and what to do. And that includes the racing games…

I have a massive soft spot for computer RPGs, despite my rather unfortunate first encounter with them via The Hobbit back in the dim and distant 1980s (but that’s another story). I also have a long and rich history with their table-top cousins; the first game I ever ran at University was using the original red box D&D rules and despite the fact that I only used them briefly (because all of the players had been raised on red box and as a result, I felt I couldn’t surprise them with it), I still have very fond memories of that set, crappy dice and all.

So when we were playing Dragon Age: Origins (by the mighty Bioware), I got a serious attack of the warm fuzzies – you know, that glowing nostalgia for an old-fashioned but much-loved game you thought you’d never see the like of again. I’m not a huge one for game mechanics (funnily enough), but the fact that you could see characters marching steadfastly through the basic D&D rules on screen made me chuckle. The dialogue, though corny in places, was perfectly in-keeping with its origins and I loved it to bits. Dragon Age 2 was also great fun, although I missed the freedom of choosing your starting character’s race. And if Dragon Age 3 isn’t centred on Varric, it’ll be a crying shame (Best Adventuring Companion Ever).

It was, therefore, with a sense of dread that I heard Green Ronin had announced that they were actually going to produce a “proper” Dragon Age RPG (and by proper, I mean table-top); after all, there have been some truly awful conversions of big name intellectual properties to other types of format in the past, RPGs included. But when I saw the box set nestled on the shelf of our Friendly Local Game/Comic Shop over Christmas, I had to have a look, just to see if it really was a train wreck in progress.

My first impression was one of amusement: the cover of the box is very tat fantasy, with an elf, a dwarf and a mage kicking the bejeebers out of some nasty Darkspawn greeblies. Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautifully executed and the elf-babe is actually fully dressed – in fact, its perfect for what it’s attempting to emulate (apart from the over-abundance of clothing). The back of the box blurb is straight to the point, too: this is old-school roleplaying and a portal into table-top for those not familiar with the form. Oh yeah, and it has free dice in it as well. Free dice. What’s not to love?

Apart from the dice (three of them; two white six-siders and a red one), you get a Player’s Guide, a Game Master’s Guide and a map of Ferelden. This particular set is for characters of Levels 1-5 (thus continuing the whole original red box theme). At this point I decided it must be mine, whether it was any good or not. Now, having read it, I can tell you that it is good; yes, there are flaws, but on the whole this is a smashing little system that does everything the new and improved current red box D&D tries, but fails, to do (which just goes to show that new and improved is not always better than old and allegedly inferior).

The Player’s Guide sets the scene for the players, with the obligatory “What Is A Roleplaying Game?” section and some notes on group dynamics and game concepts. You then get a far too brief section on the history of Ferelden. This is one of the major points for which the game loses marks for me: okay, if you’ve not played the video version of the game, I’m not quite sure why you’d pick this version up, but some of us don’t have perfect recall anymore and some of the background intricacies have kind of got mixed up with other properties (<cough> Skyrim <cough>), so it really could have done with a bit more oomph.

After the world set-up comes character generation. Nice and simple this bit: roll your 3d6 to generate eight ability scores, pick your background concept (pretty much whether you’re a human, dwarf or elf), tweak it and then choose your class (of which there are three: warrior, mage and rogue) and then tweak some more. The background concept is a little more involved than that, seeing as you have seven actual templates to choose between, but the system is streamlined enough to get a character up and running pretty quickly.

The next chapter goes into more detail about your character’s skills, known in this game as focuses (shouldn’t that be foci?) and talents. A focus is an ability specialisation and a talent is a more specific skill (like weapons training, for example), all of which help to differentiate the characters despite the limited starting choices. Next up is the weapons chapter, which comes with the most adorable set of armour paintings that made me long for a paper doll version of Alistair I could dress up in each one. As with character creation, everything is kept simple and there are no encumbrance rules (The One Ring, take note). Chapter Five deals with magic, another mercifully short and to the point section that gives you what you need to play, rather than endless lists of fireworks that usually bore me to tears and make me give up reading a game all together. The final chapter is an overview of the game rules, such as action resolution and health. There’s even a glossary and an index (and a photocopiable character sheet on the back!). For those of you not sufficiently Luddite, there’s also a link somewhere to a downloadable pdf version.

The artwork on the cover of the GM’s Guide is much more like it, with the good lady mage basically dressed like Morrigan-inna-hoodie. It starts with advice for the GM on setting up a game, creating a story (again, a bit brief, but solid nevertheless) and the different types of GM and player styles. I’m not sure I agree with all of their definitions, some of which may be down to proof-reading failures, which seem to be much more prevalent in this book than the Player’s Guide. Chapter Two looks at the rules in more detail, and even then, they’re nice and bijou.

At its most basic, each dice roll (or test) involves rolling your 3d6 and adding a couple of relevant modifiers. If you roll doubles on the dice, you generate stunt points which allow you to add particular special effects. The red die is known as the Dragon Die, and can alter the outcome of the roll (in terms of degree of success or failure), as well as telling you how many stunt points you get when you do roll doubles. In most cases you’ll be trying to equal or beat a target number, but you might be making opposed rolls (against someone or something else) or an advanced test, which aims to simulate events that take time and uses a threshold mechanism rather than a straight success/fail one. And that’s pretty much it in a nutshell – it really is introductory in every way, shape and form.

There’s a nice chapter on the type of creatures you’re likely to find in Ferelden, including Mabari war dogs (a must-have as far as I’m concerned), and a final one on rewarding your players (oh yes, XP!) before you get to the sample scenario. Now these things are a often a nightmare to write, because you have no idea what players are going to come up with character-wise, so it must be all things to all people. This particular one, “The Dalish Curse”, does suffer from being a bit rumpty-tumpty (and I can see some players running riot with it as written, or wandering off in totally the wrong direction), but it does its best under trying circumstances.

There’s nothing about the Grey Wardens in this set: they’re inBox2(Levels 6-10, or the old dark blue D&D box for those of you who remember these things). Its best to think of this first set as being the section of the video game at the beginning, when you blunder about working through your character’s initial background material (for us, it was all the political manoeuvring surrounding the new Dwarven King). And I enjoyed reading this so much, and making little “awww!” noises at it, that I’ve gone and bought the second box as well (much to the delight of the lovely lass in Travelling Man Newcastle, who was tired of only selling the starter box to people).

So if you want to indulge in a bit of misty-eyed wallowing that harks back to the alleged Golden Age of gaming, or are looking for a way into table-top through a familiar background, this is actually a pretty good place to start. Nicely produced, a good price and a fun, fast read. Go on, give it a go – you know you want to…

~FuschiaBegonia

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