A few weeks ago our resident tabletop expert Charlie Hall asked if anyone on staff would like to investigate Green Ronin’s pen and paper Dragon Age RPG. I had to sheepishly raise my hand (or do the email equivalent) and admit that I’d already been playing a campaign in it for about a year.
The Dragon Age Core Rulebook is nominated for three ENnie Awards at this year’s Gen Con in Indianapolis, and it’s no wonder. If you’re a fan of the Dragon Age games who likes to tabletop role-play, take it from this fan of the Dragon Age games who likes to tabletop role-play. Green Ronin’s adaptation is worth a look.
Welcome to the world of Thedas — on paper
Green Ronin does a great job of converting Dragon Age’s setting, and even its mechanics, to the tabletop format. Three player classes (Warrior, Rogue, Mage) is pretty standard for digital RPGs, but claustrophobically small for pen and paper. Still, Ronin makes its game feel like there are a multitude of ways to play by replacing the chapter other fantasy RPGs might devote to racial modifiers with no less than 30 distinct Backgrounds for players to choose from.
It’s in those Backgrounds, in my opinion, that Ronin shows its dedication to the vast world that Bioware has painted for its Dragon Age series. There are three different "Backgrounds" just for human characters from the country of Tevinter and four for Orlais. The chapter ranges from easy to explain concepts like "Circle Mage" to deep lore cuts like "Seheron Convert."
Specific class bonuses and abilities are awarded sparingly as characters level, and the game instead favors open-ended ability score improvements and free choices of a wide range of Focuses, Talents and Specializations (D&D players should would recognize those as Skills, Special Abilities and Prestige Classes) that allow for character customization. Two sixth-level Warriors can look very, very different, depending on how their players decided to allot their Focuses and Talents.
As in the Dragon Age series itself, Specializations — such as Blood Mage, Bard or Berserker — are locked to a specific class, with one exception. Green Ronin’s Dragon Age Core Rulebook devotes more than an entire page to the Grey Warden specialization, as well it should, for a concept so close to the core of Dragon Age. Half that description is spent simply explaining the serious plot and role-play repercussions that should follow a player character choosing to become a Warden. As a fan of the series and a serious lore junkie, the rule system’s adaptation of Grey Warden abilities and initiation was one of the first things I looked for when I got my hands on the book, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Dragon Age calls for dragon dice
Green Ronin’s Dragon Age rule system eschews the 20-sided die and the rest of the serious role-player’s diverse bag of polyhedrons to rely entirely on the humble d6. Every check, bar none, is made by rolling three six-sided dice, totaling the results and adding the appropriate modifier.
Rather than a critical hit rule or a bewildering chapter of combat options for players to remember, the Dragon Age Core Rulebook combines both into its Dragon Dice rules. It recommends that every player roll two dice of one color and a third of a different color — the Dragon Die. Whenever a player rolls doubles on any of their three dice in combat, they are allowed to use Stunt Points to buy a bit of flair from the Stunt Point table. The number of Stunt Points available to them is equal to the value rolled on the Dragon Die.
Doubles across three dice happens a lot more often than the traditional ‘natural 20,' and the Stunt table offers a wealth of tactical options, from the standard (adding an extra d6 to damage) to the situational (disarming your enemy, giving an ally a bonus on a check, or gaining a whole extra attack).
Intriguingly, the rulebook also offers an optional Stunt Dice table for exploration and role-playing checks. I wouldn’t recommend it, as my group found that it merely halted our natural RP conversations in order to look up the table and incorporate the Stunt — we could have just accepted it as a critical success and RP’ed on our merry way.
There are some limits to my impressions of the Dragon Age Core Rulebook. For one, I’m just a player, not a game master, and my perspective largely comes from my experience with that side of the game. For another, I’ve been playing a rogue — so I can’t speak authoritatively to the game’s magic system, though our resident mage-player seems happy with it. (Yes, Green Ronin has added Magical Mishap rules that may send your mage directly to the Fade without passing go, if you roll poorly enough.) I also can't properly speak to the game's magical item system, because our campaign has so far taken place what I'm going to call a resource-scarse locale.
My Dragon Age group got together about a year ago — we’re a mixed group who all have some experience with narrative role-play, but only some of us had ever played a full-on sourcebooked RPG before. But we also had the advantage of an experienced GM.
Though Green Ronin’s game is no more complicated than, say, Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition, I’m not sure I would recommend it to a group that was completely new to tabletop RPGs, if only because of the source material. Dragon Age wouldn’t feel like Dragon Age without mature handling of sex, addiction and dark ritual — challenging subjects that can turn a poorly managed game into an uncomfortable experience.
But I also wouldn’t necessarily recommend the game to pen and paper role-players who aren’t familiar with Dragon Age — or at least not a whole group of them. Not because I think the game’s only draw is its tie to a major video game franchise, but just because if you’re not into Dragon Age I’m not sure why you’d be into playing a Dragon Age tabletop game when there are a million other systems out there to choose from.
But if you and a few friends happen to be in the center of the Venn diagram of People Who Like Dragon Age and People Who Like Tabletop RPGs — and at least one of you is an experienced GM — you owe it to yourself to check the game out, and maybe have as much fun as my group and I have over the past year.