The Dragon Age RPG is one I’ve been excited about for a while, not because it’s based on a video game I’m nuts for, but because of its avowed goal of being a game to bring people into the hobby. Games make that claim all the time, but there were three things going on with DARPG that raised my interest: It’s a boxed set (hopefully a real one, not a faux one like the 4e starter set), it’s got a hook into a good franchise that is neither too weird nor too overwhelming but can still bring in eyeballs, and it’s by Green Ronin, a company that I would describe as pretty darn sharp.
As if to demonstrate that sharpness, Green Ronin put DARPG up for preorder recently, and offered up a free PDF along with the preorder. It boggles my mind that this is not standard practice, but it’s not, so GR gets props for a smart move. They get an initial wave of buzz and interest based off people reading and talking about the PDF, and they hopefully can build on that when the actual game releases.
It’s also a move that benefits me a lot because, hey, I get to read it. I’m always happy to cheer on my own enlightened self interest.
Here’s the short form: The Dragon Age RPG looks to have the shortest distance from opening the box to playing at the table of any game I’ve seen in over a decade, possibly since red box D&D. It is not a revolutionary game by any stretch of the imagination, and for most gamers with a few games under it’s belt, it’s going to seem absolutely tired. Old ideas like random chargen and hit points are all over the place. With the exception of the Dragon Die and the stunt system, experienced gamers aren’t goignt fo find much new here.
But that makes it exactly what it should be. As a game for existing gamers, Dragon Age is ok, but not as impressive as other Green Ronin offerings. As a game for a new gamer, it’s exactly right.
First, by sticking to very strongly established mechanics (many of which will be at least conversationally familiar to people who’ve played video games) with a minimum of complexity, they’ve made a game that is easy to learn to play. The simplicity, brevity (main rulebook is 64 pages) and the clarity combine to make a game that can be learned from the text, without depending on arcane oral tradition. I think back to my youth and this seems a very big deal.
Second, the setting is equally familiar. Not just because some players will know it from the video game, but because the video game’s setting is designed to be quickly recognizable. Elves live in the woods and have bows. Dwarves live underground and have axes. Humans run the show. Magic is mysterious and risk-filled. Sure, each of these points has more depth as you drill into them, but the basic are immediately recognizable to anyone with a little pop culture knowledge.
Last, the game minimizes the barriers to play by avoiding the temptation of weird dice. By making it playable with nothing but the dice you can salvage from a Risk box, you get a couple of advantages. There’s no awkwardness as you finish reading the rules but find yourself needing to wait until you’ve taken a trip to that creepy store  to get supplies. There’s more of a sense of the familiar. And perhaps best of all, you can scale up with your group size – adding a few more d6s is a lot easier than, say, having to share one set of polyhedrals.
Put it all in a box set and you’ve got a product that I’m really excited about. I could see giving this game as a gift to a non-player, and that’s almost unprecedented.
Now, it’s not all sunshine and puppies. As noted the game is pretty simple (though I admit it’s at a level of simplicity I dig, since I think my wife would not be bothered by it) and a few corners got cut to support the size and the release schedule. You can’t play a Grey Warden, which is kind of a kick in the head, since that’s so central to the computer game. The logic’s clear: this set covers levels 1-5, next one will be 6-10 (then 11-15 and 16-20 or so I understand) and subsequent sets will be adding rules for things like specialty careers including things like Grey Warden. I suspect we’ll also get magic items and runes in later sets too.
There are a few layout decisions that raise my eyebrow – magic precedes combat, which is weird in terms of the order rules are explained for example – but they’re all quickly set aside by the presence of indexes, glossary and comprehensive reference pages. It should not be so exciting to me to see a game do what should be the basics, but it is.
The sample adventure is in the GM’s book rather than in its own booklet. This makes sense in terms of cost, and it’s not a bad thing, but I admit I flash back to my well worn copy of Keep on the Borderlands, and I regret that as long as they were trying to recapture the magic of redbox, they didn’t revive that tradition.
And that’s really what’s going on here. Unlike the old school, this is not an attempt to recreate old D&D, rather, it’s an attempt to answer the same questions, only with decades of experience with how it went the first time. This makes the choices of what rules are included (and which ones aren’t included) really fascinating to me. The Green Ronin guys know their stuff, and you can assume every choice in the design is a deliberate one.
Choices like a very traditional hit point and damage system are not made because they couldn’t think of another way, but rather because that choice maximized the accessibility of the game. On reading, it really feels like they pulled it off, and I’m genuinely excited to give it a play sometime and find out. One way or another I wish them luck: success with a game designed to bring new players into the hobby benefits us all.
1 – The only other real contender in the intervening time is Feng Shui. There are simpler games, sure, but they lack the structure to answer the question of “OK, what do I do now?”.
2 – Randomization has one huge benefit for new players – it removes optimization choices. There’s more to it than that, but by putting the harder decision of chargen in the hands of the dice, game-stopping questions are removed from play.
3- Yes, that’s an unfair characterization, but not everyone is lucky enough to be near one of the many friendly, clean, well lit gamestores with helpful staff. And even for those who are, the store is an unknown, and unknowns are scary and off-putting, especially for teenagers.