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Designing the Dragon Age Tabletop RPG

Alexander Macris | 4 Nov 2009 16:00
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You mention that you adopted the "pillars" but not the mechanics. Have the video game mechanics of Dragon Age: Origins appeared in the Dragon Age RPG in any way at all? Obviously a lot of computer game mechanics can be explained by reference to the underlying tabletop games that inspired them. World of Warcraft has classes, levels, hit points, and paladins ultimately because Advanced Dungeons & Dragons had them. But in the recent 4th edition D&D, we've seen tabletop mechanics inspired by video games. D&D 4e's Marks for instance, and per-encounter powers. I think it's inarguable that video games are now much more mainstream than tabletop games. So should tabletop RPGs be taking their cues from computer RPGs, because that's what people play now? Wizards seems to think so, but the indie game movement argues that approach is a design dead-end for tabletop. Where do you fall?

As a game designer you always have your mind open for useable ideas. It's a weird way to see the world I suppose, but I've been doing it since I was 10 years old. I'll run across a cool idea in a song or a book or a museum exhibit and think, "How can I use that in a game?" It's no surprise then that tabletop designers would end up taking some inspiration from videogames. But should computer games lead and tabletop games follow? I don't think so. If we try to compete with computer games by emulating them, we will lose. There are some things computer games just do better. Tabletop RPGs should play to their strengths in my opinion.

The mechanic most similar to that in Dragon Age: Origins is mana points, which are used to power spells. Of course, spell point systems date back to the early days of tabletop RPGs and were a common house rule in D&D campaigns. I created such a system when I was 13 and I was by no means alone in that.

You mentioned that when tabletop games try to compete with computer games by emulation, they lose. But we've seen a lot of that type of emulation lately. At one time, tabletop role-playing games were the licensors to computer games. SSI's Pool of Radiance was the first Dungeons & Dragons computer game, and BioWare's Baldur's Gate was of course based on D&D. Now, tabletop role-playing games are the licensees - there's a World of Warcraft tabletop RPG, for instance, and now Dragon Age. This seems to reflect a change in who's "in the driver's seat." Has this changed how you design games? Is the Dragon Age RPG aimed primarily at tabletop gamers, or at fans of the computer game?

I think a lot of that is about brand power. In the early days of computer games, there was much to gain from licensing D&D. Today World of Warcraft is a bigger brand, so it makes sense the licensing went the other way. None of that has changed how I design tabletop games though.

As for Dragon Age, we hope it appeals to fans of Dragon Age: Origins, existing tabletop gamers looking for a more user friendly game than most on the market now, and new blood looking to give tabletop gaming a try. I think bloated, over complicated RPGs are shrinking the current audience and in many cases creating a barrier to new players. If Dragon Age can help fight those trends, I will be a happy designer.

Any plans to bring your other Green Ronin brands, like Mutants & Masterminds, to the videogame market?

We've talked to several companies about bringing M&M into that space, but none of those deals worked out. I'd certainly be open to it, and bringing other properties like Freeport and Blue Rose into a different medium, but it's a matter of finding the right company to work with and making sure we see eye to eye.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Chris! Best of luck with the Dragon Age boxed set.

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