Randomness in Dragon Age

Last week Dragon Age, the game I’ve been working on for the last year, had its electronic debut. It’s at print now (just got the printer proofs today, in fact) and will be in stores in January but you can buy the PDF version right now. This has naturally led to a lot of commentary on the usual gaming message boards.

So my biggest goal for this first Dragon Age release was to create an intro product like the industry hasn’t seen since D&D;’s famed red box from the 80s. I was thus quite careful about what went into Set 1 and what didn’t. I wanted this to be as attractive as possible to people who had never roleplayed. Thus it looks like a game (it comes in a box), it comes with the dice you need, and it includes two modest, 64 page books. I was simply not going to put a 300 page hardback in front of newbs and hope they’d read it. Nor did I want to create an intro product that was disposable. I didn’t want to say, “Spend $30 on this and then you can spend $100 on the real game.” So Set 1 is Dragon Age. It’s the core of the game we’ll be building on and it’s designed to be approachable and easy to learn.

Some long time gamers have expressed surprise at seeing that there are a couple of random elements in the character creation process. Surely we’ve moved past such antiquity methods, they argue. The randomness largely shows up in two places: generating your abilities and gaining some background benefits. The latter is trivial so I’m going to concentrate my comments on abilities. So why is that I decided to go with a random method for generating abilities? Four reasons.

First, I wanted to make this process easy for new players. Generating abilities is the second step of the process. If you are a newb making your first character, your understanding of the game is shaky at best. I didn’t want to ask them to assign stats at this stage. It is much faster and much easier to have them roll some dice.

Second, getting those dice out early in the process serves to engage people. You are making a character and rolling dice makes it feel like you are really doing something. Rolling 3d6 and adding the results together is the key mechanism of the game. This method begins drilling the importance of the 3d6 roll right at the start.

Third, when BioWare approached us about doing a pen & paper RPG for Dragon Age, one of their goals was to play up the old school nature of the Dragon Age property. It’s no secret that the roots of Dragon Age: Origins lay in the earliest days of tabletop roleplaying. While I was not looking to design a retro clone, I did want Dragon Age to have a certain old school feel. To me rolling for abilities strikes the right chord. This is why many people still refer to “rolling up” new characters, even when playing systems that don’t use random stat generation.

Fourth, rolling random abilities can actually lead to interesting characters in a way that other methods do not. You may not have planned for your warrior to be particularly smart, but if you roll a high Cunning, it may suggest a different and fun way to play the character.

Now all of that is fair enough, some folks say, but why not include an optional rule for non-random ability generation? Here’s why. Early on I decided that I did not want Set 1 to include a bunch of optional rules. Every optional rule is another choice that has to be made, and again I did not feel this was friendly to the new players. I’m comfortable putting optional rules in follow-up products because anyone who buys them will have enough experience with the system to make more informed decisions.

Set 2 will include a non-random option, but to prove I’m not a big meanie who is going to make you have badwrongfun, here’s a simple method you can use in the interim. Your abilities start at 0 and you get 10 points to buy them up. No ability can be greater than 3. Why not 4, you may ask, when the random table goes to 4? Well, on the table it’s a rare result. You have a less than 1% chance to rolling an 18 on 3d6. If you could simply buy a 4, that would become the standard not the exception.

I hope that answers everyone’s questions. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got proofs to get back to.

7 thoughts on “Randomness in Dragon Age

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Chris. I never had an issue with the semi-random chargen, and your points are all good ones.

    I did think the game lacks a very tight tie-in with the CRPG. The two big examples I've mentioned elsewhere (notably Rob's blog) are: Gray Warden PCs and questing.

    On the Gray Warden issue. I actually don't have a problem with the omission of Gray Warden PCs in set 1, but I would think that's a big expectation for anyone coming from the CRPG, and it only gets the briefest sidebar mention.

    On the questing, I thought this would be much more structured like the CRPG, which wouldn't run afoul of your points above since it would be a GM issue instead of a player issue.

    I'd love to hear your thinking about these two points.

  2. The thing to remember is that I didn't actually have the computer game when I was designing my RPG. I was working off design docs and the like. So the source material told me Grey Wardens were an elite order. I said, fair enough, that means you don't start the game as a Grey Warden; it's an honor to earn. The quest stuff I saw as a something specific to CRPGs. Didn't seem really necessary to me to structure it the same way.

  3. when are you RPG guys gonna realize that all you do is "design" the same game over and over and over and over? but if it keeps the bills paid, more power to you.

  4. Refreshing. This box set is exactly what is needed right now. I like your design philosophy and I'll make sure we're not only well stocked at my store, but that we're very comfortable showing off the game.

  5. Some people will complain no matter what you do.

    I think your on the right track with your "old school" approch is great.

    So does that mean after the last set we'll see a "rules cyclopedia"? lol


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