Check for Traps
Check for Traps #1 - Starter Set

Alexander Macris | 30 Mar 2010 21:00
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Dragon Age RPG: Set for Characters Level 1 to 5

The Dragon Age RPG: Set for Characters Level 1 to 5 is the starter box for a new line of tabletop games set in the world of BioWare's award-winning Dragon Age. The decision to release the RPG as a series of boxed sets has been controversial among hardcore gamers who wanted the advanced rules from the start, but designer Chris Pramas had good reason: "A boxed set looks like a game, for starters. Show a non-gamer a typical RPG book and they get confused when you tell them it's a game. Boxed sets make it easy to break out player info and GM info, as well as include things like dice and maps... I wanted the game to be friendly to new roleplayers. With Dragon Age I saw a real opportunity to do a game with broad appeal that could get more people into tabletop roleplaying."

Since I'm recommending the game in this column, you can safely conclude that Pramas succeeded in his design goals. And how he succeeded! The box is chock-full of stuff, including a 64-page Player's Guide, 64-page Gamemaster's Guide, an Introductory Adventure, a poster map of the game world and three six-sided dice. The production value is very high and the rulebooks are inviting to read.

Like its spiritual ancestor Dungeons & Dragons, Dragon Age uses randomized character generation. You roll 3d6 to generate 8 Abilities, using a table to convert the resulting range of 3 to 18 to modifiers of -2 to +4. That's a process instantly familiar to anyone who has played D&D 3.5, of course, but Dragon Age dispenses with the legacy 3 to 18 range and uses just the modifier in play. Once your abilities are determined you pick a character background (like Dalish Elf or Ferelden Freeman) and class (Mage, Rogue or Warrior). Character backgrounds, starting health, and starting mana points are also randomly determined. As with Treasure Awaits, the use of randomness is more than just nostalgia for old school D&D, it's a deliberate design decision - it's much easier to roll up characters than it is to build them.

Like D&D 3.5 and Treasure Awaits, Dragon Age uses a task resolution mechanic of die roll + ability modifier + skill (which Dragon Age calls a "focus"). The die in this case is a roll of three six sided dice ("3d6"), but with an elegant twist. One of the dice is a "dragon die". If any two of the dice are tied, you earn a number of "stunt points" equal to value showing on the dragon die. You can then immediately use your stunt points to do something awesome - for example, in a swordfight, rolling 2 stunt points lets you "pierce armor" and halve the opponent's defenses, while for 4 stunt points you can "seize the initiative" and take another turn at the top of the round. Which stunts are available to you depends on the action you've taken and the focuses your character has gained.

I cannot sufficiently express how amazing the stunt point mechanic is: With one rule, Dragon Age handles critical hits, aimed shots, multiple attacks, improved combat options from high skill and more - mechanical challenges that most tabletop games take dozens of pages to deal with. It is simply the most elegant new game mechanic I've seen in a tabletop RPG since the invention of dice pools. To find it in a licensed starter set is akin to finding the Rosetta Stone in your Ikea Catalog.

The stunt point mechanic is not the only innovation in Dragon Age, but covering everything would take more pages than I've got. The game has everything you need to kick off a campaign in the land of Ferelden. The boxed set, at $29.95, is currently out of stock; but the PDF is $17.95 and worth getting today, especially if your pool of potential players are fans of the videogame.

The Adventure Begins!

Treasure Awaits and Dragon Age RPG are two of my favorite starter sets, but they aren't the only products worth checking out. For the truly old school experience, Mythmere Games has recently released Swords and Wizardry White Box, while Goodman Games has announced a Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG in 2011. Those seeking a more modern game could check Wizards of the Coast's new Red Box later this year, part of their strategy of reaching new gamers with Fourth Edition.

Whatever game you choose, you'll be in a good place. If you've always wondered what all the nerdy ruckus is about, these games are your chance to dive in. If you've been away from the hobby, welcome back. Either way, it's time to get started.

Alexander Macris has been playing tabletop games since 1981. In addition to co-authoring the tabletop games Modern Spearhead and Blaze Across the Sands, his work has appeared in Interface, the Cyberpunk 2020 fanzine, and in RPGA AD&D 2nd Edition tournament modules. In addition to running two weekly campaigns, he is publisher of The Escapist and president and CEO of Themis Media. He sleeps on Sundays.

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