Choice, Cities and Dragon Age II

I finished Dragon Age II this weekend. I enjoyed it a lot, and will probably get around to reviewing it, but I’ll likely do another playthrough first. Partly this is because I like to re-playthrough Bioware games in general, but in this specific case it’s because the game REALLY left me feeling like the choices I’d made all along the way lead directly to the culmination of things. One of the reasons I really want to try playing it again is to see how true that is – will things unfold differently, or is it all just sleight of hand? I’ll say this: if the impact of the choices are half as real as they seem, Bioware has done something really magnificent here.

Playing the game also got me thinking about tabletop play, and I think there are a lot of lessons to take from the CRPG that could translate well into tabletop. First and foremost, the whole game is, effectively, a single urban campaign. The majority of play takes place within a single city and its surrounding locations. I love urban games, but I’ve always found them to be a real bear to run beyond a certain point, but this hangs together well enough that it really feels like it could just as easily have been one of the Plot Point adventures that Savage Worlds uses. Yes, there are a few random bits that might feel out of place (mugging seem to involve small armies) but the overall shape of it works very well. This is hard enough to explain succinctly that I’m going to have to chew on it for a while to create a useful set of lessons for people who haven’t played the game, but if you do play it, take some time to think about how well it would migrate to tabletop.

The big lesson, and the one that really stayed with me as I played, was how strong the story/roleplaying side of it was. The fights were fun and all, but Bioware (as usual) brought really strong writing chops to bear, creating a situation full of well-motivated characters in conflict with one another and no clear solution. Part of why I’m so curious to replay the choices I made is that the game goes to great lengths to make sure they have teeth. A lot of times games will offer you choices, but there’s one obvious good choice, and you only take the others if you’re curious. DAII had more than a few points where the choices were all bad – not in a punitive way, but in a way that made total sense to what has happened. Things like a friend passionately and honestly wanting to do something that’s a terrible, terrible idea: you can be loyal to your friend and back their play, or you can (in their eyes) betray them. How do you want to play it?

Oh, and for the weasels (like me) out there who try for the middle path of compromise all the time, thinking that’s what the game wants? Yeah, that might work. Or it might mean you get BOTH bad outcomes. You’re often better off making real choices.

But here’s the thing: They managed to do this with a game that is really about button-mashing ass kicking. The mechanical parts of your character sheet have only a minimum of interplay with these choices. And that drove home a point for me: it’s a cop out to blame a system for “not supporting role-playing” – hard choices don’t care what system you use. If you’re not making them in your play, the problem is not mechanical.

Now, to head off the obvious protest, yes, obviously, some systems have built in hooks to drive things towards hard, meaningful choices, but the reality is those are just tools to help get there. The system can’t makes choices matter – at best it can force a pantomime of the act of making a hard decision. Choices matter because your game, at your table, either goes there or it does not. If the problem is that you don’t know _how_ to go there, then fine. It can be learned, there are tricks that can help get you there. If you want to reach that point, you can do it.

But if you know how, and especially if you know how well enough to complain that X or Y game doesn’t allow it, then you need to take a hard look at your table and decide if the problem is that you can’t face the hard choices, or that you don’t want to.

And if you don’t want to, that’s fine. But cop to it, don’t blame the system.

(I am, I know, more or less equating good roleplay with hard, meaningful choices. That’s not all there is to it, and there are a lot of assumptions in there about what hard and meaningful mean, but by and large, I think I’ll stick by it.)

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