Hey everyone, this is my first article here at the Dragon Age Oracle, and I thought I’d write a bit about the game and running it versus the other game I run, D&D 4e. This isn’t a comprehensive comparison, just some general thoughts about the subject. I now have two Dragon Age sessions under my belt as a DM–pardon me–GM, and feel a lot more comfortable in the role, so I wanted to write about the experience so far.

First and foremost let me get this out of the way: I really like this game. Here’s the deal, do you like the old D&D Rules Cyclopedia? Well if the Rules Cyclopedia were to hit the gym for a few weeks before senior prom, it would be Dragon Age. It’s old school-ish, but with some meat on its bones. It’s got that old school vibe, where the DM gets to not necessarily be a rules repository and is instead a judge or referee of situations. I like that, it’s fun.

It can be abstract, or tactical. It’s really up to you as a group to determine how you’d prefer to play. I’m going the battlemap route, even though many of the things ingrained in my brain from two years of 4e do not apply. Things like attacks of opportunity and difficult terrain don’t come into the picture, and the difference is noticeable. The fights seem to fly by when compared to 4e, simply due to the fact that stuff like conditions and powers to pick from don’t slow down the fight.

Also, it’s not really a tactical game where positioning and movement have a lot to do with it, so the fights get out of the way faster. That sounds like very simple combat, right? But the designers introduce something to fighting that makes it a ton more fun: stunts. Stunts come into play when you roll doubles, and they can cause you to make things happen like disarming your opponent, adding extra damage, or knocking someone prone for example. Rolling doubles is this game’s version of the d20 critical hit, it’s what everyone is waiting for at the table, and believe me when I tell you that they come often enough! But stunts aren’t limited to martial characters, as spellcasters have the ability to use spell stunts as well.

And guess what? In the second boxed set, they are introducing stunts to roleplaying and exploration encounters as well. Think things like “You twist the knife, delivering a provocation or insult in such a way that a single NPC you designate must choose between either attacking you or storming away from the scene” and you get the idea. Yeah, stunts are cool, and the stuff that will be introduced in set 2 takes it to another level. So how is it to DM? Well, and of course I speak now as a DM who’s had almost 3 years of experience, but I think it’s easy enough for any newbie DM to pick up and play. All I can do is compare it to D&D 4e, which is the game that got me into DM-ing.

Let’s take a look at monster stat blocks for example:

A Dragon Age stat block on the left, and a D&D 4e one on the right.

All the information you need is there, and if you have these things printed out as cards, there’s no need to shuffle through the adventures. I wouldn’t be surprised if these stat blocks were inspired by 4e. It kind of looks like a 4e stat block, no? The only cross-checking with other sources you would have to do is the stunts information, available in both the Player’s and the GM’s Guides. Yep, monster have stunts as well, and some include custom stunts available to them only, like this spider’s Poison Bite.

One thing this 1st DA set doesn’t do a good job at is teaching DM’s anything about encounter building against the pc’s levels or abilities. In fact, there is none of that here. The GM’s Guide includes monsters that would obviously be appropriate to PC’s in the 1-5 level range (what the boxed set offers for PC advancement) but there’s no talk of encounter math, or balanced encounters for example. In the 2nd boxed set, however, there will be a section on encounter math, but I feel that the first boxed set should have had something regarding encounter building in it. Also, the way encounters are presented is not as organized as in 4e. D&D really goes out if its way to provide DM’s with an easy time running their encounters. The 4e monster tactics, maps, and rewards are setup and organized in a way that makes each encounter virtually dummy proof. That’s just not the way with Dragon Age. While encounters are separated as such with a header in the text, they are then written as just another paragraph of text, and not laid out as clearly as D&D’s. While still easy to run, I prefer the 4e presentation a heck of a lot more.

An interesting thing that I (and my players) found when playing is that Dragon Age afforded us more time for roleplaying and story building when compared to 4e. Be mindful of what I’m saying here though: I’m not saying that you can’t have that in 4e, all I’m saying is that Dragon Age gave us more time in our night to get to those aspects of the game. We were used to the 45 minutes of combat in 4e that we simply have not run into in the two nights we’ve had playing Dragon Age. In fact, in our last session, we had two combat encounters, roleplaying and exploration encounters, and finished the story we were doing, ending our session a bit earlier than I had planned. “We would have never gotten this much done in one night with 4e,” was heard at the table. Make of that what you will.

What about the setting? Well, the setting is neat. It’s a nice spin on classic fantasy tropes. But one of the problems I have with it is that the game is really, really tied into the setting. And I understand I am making a complaint about a game created wholly for the setting. I get that. But I’d like to see this game engine stripped of setting and applied to other genres. I am salivating at the thought of a Star Wars game using the 3d6 AGE (Adventure Game Engine) System, for example. And although due to licensing rights it’ll never happen, nobody can stop fans out there from creating their own mash-ups. Get to work people! But really though, you need to know a bit of the setting if you are going to run a game in Ferelden. The character creation process uses backgrounds tied to the setting, and many aspects of the game assume a familiarity with it. Playing the video game can help, but there are online sources of information as well. As a DM, I feel I need to take a bit of time in learning the world before I can plan a long-term campaign for it. It’s just part of the deal. One thing that came up in the post game talk with my players was running the system using an old Forgotten Realms boxed set as the campaign world. That may take some exploring and tinkering, but it’s exciting to us.

So let me wrap this up with some final thoughts. So far, I like the game. The monsters are easy to run, the encounters aren’t as easily laid out and as dummy proof as D&D, but are easy to get once you read the material. The setting is the thing that puts you at a big disadvantage because you need to have some knowledge of it to run the game, simply because the two are intertwined too much. It’s not like Forgotten Realms and D&D; no, here the game and the setting are much more a part of each other.

Now, I wouldn’t be doing my job as NewbieDM if I didn’t link you to some useful stuff regarding Dragon Age, so here goes:

  • Dragon Age Codex. This takes all the bits of knowledge that the video game provides the player and puts it on a web page. Great background material for the game.
  • GM Resources – This is a page full of stuff for Dragon Age GMs. Good place to look around.
  • Character Journals – This links you to the Green Ronin forums, where someone has created booklets for characters, and they look pretty cool.
  • Of course, there’s always the Official Dragon Age site.

That’s it, be sure to visit my site, NewbieDM.com for more DM-ing goodness!