Designing the Dragon Age Tabletop RPG

Alexander Macris | 4 Nov 2009 16:00
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Retro gaming styles have grown very popular lately, as we've covered in our High Adventure column series. With regard to your neo-retro approach, does that reflect an overall "Chris Pramas" style of roleplaying game design? Do your game designs reflect how you run games as a game master?

My style is apparent to a greater or lesser extent depending on the project and its particulars. When I was doing 2nd edition Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, for example, there were certain elements that I felt had to be carried over from first edition to make it WFRP. While you can certainly see my design principles at work in the game, if I started it from scratch I may have taken a different approach in some areas. It was really important to get the feel of WFRP right though. I mean, I could have just thrown out 1st edition and done my own thing, but there would have been little point in calling it WFRP then.

But yes, I think I do have a style. It has evolved over the years, but generally I'd rather provide an easy to use set of tools than a rule for every occasion and I prefer simple rules to complicated ones. You can go down a slippery slope when writing rules because your natural inclination as a designer is to make sure everything is covered. When playtests start and corner cases turn up, it's the easiest thing in the world to start writing special rules for those occasions. Before you known it, you've got a big muddle of finicky rules and exceptions that are unfriendly in play. I can live with some weird corner cases if it means the game is more playable overall.

The way I GM informs my game design. When I'm running a game, I don't like to halt the game to look up rules if I can avoid it. I find it ruins the pacing, so I often will just improvise a solution and move along. This is why I'd rather give a GM tools that can be used to resolve many situations easily. It's also why when I run games I often end up ignoring certain sections of the rules, particularly when dealing with a game that's overly complicated to begin with.

This isn't the first licensed game you've been involved in. You mentioned Warhammer above, and you were a co-author of Star Trek: The Next Generation RPG by Last Unicorn Games. What are the challenges you face in designing a licensed RPG? How does Dragon Age meet them?

The big challenge is to take a property from one medium and bring it into a new one. You need to be true to the essence of the property while creating a fun and playable game.
So my first job was to educate myself on the Dragon Age: Origins rules and world. I quickly determined that rules for the computer game were not ideal for tabletop play. And in fact the lead designer said the same thing when I met with him at BioWare. A videogame has the computer to do all the fiddly back end work for you; a tabletop game does not. What I decided to do then was to identify the most important parts of the computer game's rules-I started thinking of them as pillars-and use them at the core of the tabletop game. The rules built atop those pillars were designed for tabletop play, however. If you play both games, you'll see they both have the same three classes (mage, rogue, and warrior), a level range of 1-20, and the same names for things like spells. The mechanics work differently though.

One thing that was different about this particular project was that I was not working with finished source material. BioWare was designing its game while I was doing mine. When we did the Black Company adaptation, for example, all ten books were out and were a ready resource. I didn't have the finished Dragon Age: Origins to fire up until very late in the process and some of the background material changed over the course of the design.

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