Bioware’s Dragon Age: Origins promises to be the most exciting new computer RPG release of the year. But Dragon Age isn’t just coming to computers and consoles: It’s a tabletop RPG as well. We sat down with Chris Pramas, the designer of the upcoming pen-and-paper version of Dragon Age by Green Ronin Publishing, and talked tabletop.
How long have you been doing tabletop games, Chris?
I’ve been working in the hobby game industry since 1993. I have worked on many RPGs over the years, from the Whispering Vault to Dungeons & Dragons, and I designed games like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd edition, V for Victory, and Dragon Fist. Today I’m the president of Green Ronin Publishing, which will be celebrating its 10th anniversary next year.
And Green Ronin is, arguably, the most successful new entrant into the tabletop roleplaying game industry since White Wolf. You’ve published Freeport, True20, and Mutants & Masterminds, and secured two very sexy licenses, A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying and Dragon Age RPG, at a time when even long-established companies have been on the decline. Any advice for readers interested in entering the tabletop gaming industry?
If you have the passion, just go for it. The industry has changed a lot since I got into it, largely as a result of technological innovation. It’s much easier to get your own company going than it used to be because you can start publishing electronically with little more than a copy of Adobe Acrobat. When I started my first company, you couldn’t do an economical print run of under 1,000 books and then you had to get your stuff into distribution if you wanted anyone outside con attendees to see it. Now print on demand technology is such that you can take your PDFs and make nice looking printed versions in small numbers with little risk. You can sell those books and the PDFs direct to consumers or through sites like RPGNow and Lulu.
So if you are willing to do the work, you can get your own company going. Then concentrate on putting out quality material and building a reputation for it. So many of the opportunities that have come along for Green Ronin have followed from that.
Speaking of opportunity, tell us a bit about how you secured the Dragon Age RPG license and what we can expect from the game.
It was pretty simple. BioWare came to us and said, “How’d you like to do a tabletop RPG based on our upcoming Dragon Age: Origins game?” I had enjoyed the hell out of games like Baldur’s Gate and Knights of the Old Republic, so of course we said yes.
The computer game has been described as BioWare getting back to its roots, and I think they saw having a tie-in tabletop RPG as a way of reinforcing the “old school” feel of the property. I had been doing a lot of thinking about the roots of RPGs and how the games have changed over the years, and I had started writing notes on a theoretical class and level fantasy game based on my analysis. It was really just a thought exercise that I didn’t expect to actually make into a game. When the Dragon Age project came along though, I realized that a lot of my ideas would work perfectly. So instead of using one of Green Ronin’s existing systems like True20 or A Song of Ice and Fire, I thought we should create something new and that I would do the game myself.
I decided pretty early on that I wanted to do Dragon Age as a classic boxed set if I could. I’ve always loved boxed sets and I thought the format still made a lot of sense. 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 also make it easy to break out player info and GM info, as well as include things like dice and maps. And the fact that they feel old school certainly was a plus on this particularly project.
I also decided that I wanted the game to be friendly to new roleplayers. Most RPG companies traditionally rely on D&D to bring in new blood to the hobby. If you look at the state of the RPG industry right now, it clearly hasn’t been working too well and I don’t think we’ve seen a real successful acquisition product since red box D&D. At Green Ronin we’ve tried to bring in new roleplayers with a couple of games: Blue Rose and Faery’s Tale. Both games were successful but admittedly narrow in focus. With Dragon Age I saw a real opportunity to do a game with broad appeal that could get more people into tabletop roleplaying.
All this led to our final plan, which is to release the game as a series of four boxed sets. Each one will cover 5 levels of play, and include player, GM, and source material, as well as an adventure. Set 1 handles levels 1-5, Set 2 levels 6-10, etc. Releasing it in digestible chunks makes it much more approachable and it means you don’t have to read a 300 page hardback before you can play the game. It also means we’re not asking people to spend $20 or $30 on an intro set so they can later spend $50 or $100 on the “real” game. When you spend your $30 on Set 1, you won’t be getting something with designed obsolescence. It’s the actual game.
So is Dragon Age going to be an ongoing franchise for Green Ronin that we can expect to see supported? If so, what supplements are planned?
Yes, absolutely. The core of the game will be the four boxed sets. We’re supplementing those with several collections of short adventures. We want to make sure that GMs can start and support campaigns without a lot of prep work. The first release after the game is a GM’s Kit, which is a hardback screen and an adventure by Jeff Tidball. Then we plan on an adventure anthology and then on to the Set 2.
Awesome. What sort of cooperation and access did you get from BioWare in putting together the tabletop version?
When we first made the deal, I flew up to Edmonton for a few days to meet folks face to face and get a look at the game. That helped get me grounded in what they were doing, and subsequently I was given many documents and assets about the game world and their system. I had to then synthesize that info and figure out how to best use it in a tabletop RPG. Throughout the process the BioWare guys have been very helpful, answering my questions and giving me any extra info I might need. We’ve also gotten to see and in many cases use their fantastic art assets.
BioWare’s CEO Ray Muzyka describes Dragon Age: Origins as a ‘spiritual successor’ to the Baldur’s Gate series, which itself was based on the tabletop RPG Dungeons & Dragons. Would you say the Dragon Age RPG is a ‘spiritual successor to Dungeons & Dragons in any way, or is it a new design?
My favorite iteration of D&D is the basic version, which culminated in the awesome Rules Cyclopedia. When I was starting the Dragon Age project, it was this version of D&D that was my touchstone. If I was able to capture its spirit, I will consider Dragon Age a rousing success. That is really for gamers to judge though.
To be clear, however, Dragon Age is not a retro clone of BECMI D&D. I designed a new game to capture the feel of the Dragon Age world, but I did so very much mindful of the history of tabletop RPGs. There is a tendency these days to look back on the games of the 70s and early 80s and pat ourselves on the back about how far we’ve come from such primitive beginnings. I felt like there were still important things we could learn from those games, lessons perhaps forgotten over the years to the detriment of the hobby. With Dragon Age I was trying to take inspiration from the old school while still creating a modern design. I guess you might call it a neo-retro approach.
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.
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.