Late last night I couldn’t sleep so I got on Twitter and checked if my pal, NewbieDM, was around. We had talked about maybe doing some late night Dragon Age gaming but really, I would be happy with just some monster bashing for a bit. Newbie was around, but didn’t have anything planned, so we decided to run a combat encounter against one of the playtest Midgard creatures designed by Josh Jarman, the Young Cave Dragon (also one of the winners of March Monster Madness). Another one of our mutual Tweeps, Edwin (@TheRealEdwin) saw the exchange and wanted in, so off to Skype we went to fight a dragon.

It went exactly as you would think a fight against a dragon would go. And it was glorious. It also revealed a few lessons worth noting down both as playtest feedback but also as general information for other Dragon Age/AGE Game Masters.

The first thing you need to know is that we went in with a severely underclassed party: one 2nd-level Avvarian Warrior, a 1st-level Apostate Elf Mage and a 1st-level Ferelden Rogue, the last two being stock pre-generated characters available from the Green Ronin website. We knew we were not in the same league, so it wasn’t like a nasty surprise or anything. What we didn’t quite grasp going in was how severely underpowered we were against the cave dragon.

I won’t give you a blow-by-blow recap, don’t worry.  It would be too laughable and sad if I did. Suffice to say that in the first round the cave dragon took the Mage down to one-quarter Health, that it wasn’t until the fourth round of combat that we actually hit the cave dragon and did some paltry damage and that the Rogue could only deal damage on a roll of 6. Even my Avvarian warrior with a two-handed sword, normally a regular weed-whacker in the field of battle, had trouble hitting and dealing damage. In the end the cave dragon killed all three characters and feasted on their entrails in the dark cave.

Fun times aside, this revealed some interesting tidbits of info worth passing out.

The Law of Averages

A lot has been said about the lack of an encounter-building formula in Dragon Age. In Set 2, there’s a set of guidelines dealing with the concept of balancing an encounter between the strength of the monsters and the player characters. If I can summarize the basic suggestion given there for everyone it is this: the law of averages works. The use of 3d6 is fantastic because it gives a very nice bell-shaped probability curve that holds over repeated rolls. If you want to do some quick math, assume that 3d6 will always yield a result of 9 and go from there. When it comes to balancing combat, assume each unmodified attack roll will be 9 and use that to see how each PC will do based on their individual attack modifiers, get an average hit probability for one round, multiplied by the average damage (a result of 3 on each d6) and you should end up with a quick (but not entirely inaccurate) idea of how long it will take the characters to take down an opponent (AR adds a twist but we won’t go into that now).

In our combat against the cave dragon, my Warrior, with a +7 modifier to attacks with his two-handed sword, could only hit on a roll of 10 or more, which right off the bat meant that, in general, I wasn’t going to hit. Indeed, I had about four rolls that were precisely 9, leaving me one short of beating the cave dragon’s Defense of 17. My cries of frustration echoed through all the Skype calls going on at those moments.

I hate Statistics, but they work, especially here, so use them to your advantage.

Stunts Are King

This is nothing new, but I like seeing it reiterated every time I play Dragon Age. Stunts are the chocolate fudge on top of the sundae that is the AGE System. Stunts are king in this game. If you’re not generating doubles, and thus Stunt Points, you will be at a disadvantage, especially if the GM has Lady Luck on their side and is rolling doubles every 2 to 3 rolls.

Sadly, there’s no way to ensure doubles happen (short of weighed dice) so you’re stuck with the whims of fate. That said, again due to averages (and help me, math nerds, if you know the actual probabilities here), you *should* be getting a double every 3 to 4 rolls, at least anecdotally speaking. In our combat against the cave dragon, however, that wasn’t the case. While the GM rolled about four to five sets of doubles (generating a combined 15-16 Stunt Points over the entire combat!), we the players only managed two sets of doubles combined, one from the Mage and one from my Warrior. I rolled another set of doubles in my last attack but did not hit, so they were wasted.

Stunts are king in AGE. Stunts are the anti we-had-so-much-fun-we-never-rolled-dice mechanic and I love them for that.

The Right Mix

We had two players and three characters because we needed the extra help. We had a Warrior, a Mage and a Rogue. Guess what, that combination works! I know, it seems silly to point out the obvious, but it bears to be brought to attention every so often. The basic three classes work together even when the players aren’t really coordinating their strategy. We certainly weren’t and yet the synergy was emergent. The Warrior went into melee with the cave dragon, the Rogue went all stealthy to backstab the dragon and the Mage rained magical fire from the back. Despite the fact that our characters were simply ineffective against the cave dragon, the basics of this machinery were in place; a couple more bonuses here and there would have made a big difference. As it was, the Mage managed to pull a few neat tricks on the dragon via a Glyph of Paralysis in one of its burrowing holes (seriously, it turned into Whack-a-Cave-Dragon there for a bit) and a clever, if failed, attempt to use the improvised combo of flask of oil + Flame Blast.

I’m not saying other class combinations won’t work, but I am saying that the basic three work together so beautiful without even trying that it would be awesome to behold them in conscious harmony.

A Good GM

What makes a GM “good” is so subjective, but I can tell you that a trait I consider part of that definition is Inventive. NewbieDM is a good GM because he is inventive and is not afraid to take charge of the game away from the rules text when the need arises. Perfect example, what I mentioned above about the Mage using the flask of oil with his Flame Blast spell to create an improvised grenade. It’s the kind of thing you’d see in a movie and say, “Awesome!” Try it in a game and you run the risk of summoning the 10-minute-rulebook-consultation monster. When it came up in the encounter, the GM dealt with it matter-of-factly. When it didn’t work as expected, he adjudicated the results without pausing, narrating a scene that matched what we imagined would happen in such a situation and assigning game mechanics on the fly based on the basics provided by the game. The result was that, although the improvised grenade didn’t work, one of the burrowing holes was set afire, as was the network of tunnels it was connected to, and thus the cave dragon suffered some damage when it was hiding underground. Simple and brilliant.

I had fun with this little exercise. One thing I can tell you for sure, the Midgard AGE Bestiary is going to rock.