Summer Break RPGs with Kaylee, #2: Dungeon Age? Dragon World?

So I’m pondering Dungeon World with only one player, but player characters in DW need bonds with other characters, and maybe I can solve this with… companions? Persistent NPCs the player’s character can interact with in depth? This tickled something at the back of my brain – a region scientifically known as “that bit that makes me give BioWare too much money.”

As I’ve mentioned, I like Dragon Age (the RPG) and that’s at least partly because I love the setting for the Dragon Age video games – Thedas is a rich setting, and more than that it manages a potent mix of fresh invention and classic tropes – one might almost say cliches – of the genre; in many ways, there’s nothing especially new about the world BioWare presents in Dragon Age. Rich history, countries VERY OBVIOUSLY AND DIRECTLY based on real-world cultures, a rising evil, and a hero leading a motley band of misfits to save the world. It has, to put it lightly, been done.

But BioWare does it really, really well (most of the time). Then they do it again, then again, then again…

In short, it occurred to me that if I wanted to front-load some kind of heroic fantasy “thing” in a world with which I was quite familiar and which I already associated with the kind of “hero plus a double handful of role-play-linked NPCs”, I could hardly do better than starting with Thedas.

Thedas

With that said, there are all kinds of potential red flags with using this sort of solution with Dungeon World, mostly having to do with the fact that the game expects a lot of world building to emerge in play. But I had a pretty solid counter argument to that:

“Fuck it, it sounds fun.”

Still, I needed to make sure Kaylee agreed, so one evening we sat down and I went over the setting from roughly -6400TE to Sometime Yesterday Afternoon to see if anything in there sounded cool.

Result: LOTS of stuff sounded cool to her. The challenge then shifted to narrowing down to one or two places (both physically and temporally) that really grabbed her. We eventually winnowed it down to:

  • The Qunari arrival in the lands of Thedas (Zen-Communist Utopia Warriors invading evilish wizard empire).
  • The Grey Wardens (secretive organization dedicated to stopping the recurring arch-demon-led “Blights” that rise up to wipe out all life – who seem to know the only way to stop the Blights, with members from all sentient species and all disciplines).

We also talked about the various countries, and she really seemed to dig the reverse feudalism of Ferelden (where a noble’s job – one they can easily lose through incompetence or negligence – is essentially to protect local land owners and other civilians from predation, in return for… you know, payment).

So knowing she was into Grey Wardens, thought the Qunari were pretty cool, liked the idea of fighting a Blight, and liked Ferelden, it seemed pretty obvious we could basically start off in the same time-frame for Dragon Age: Origins, and then see how far we can blow those events to smithereens and do our own thing.

Thinking on it some more, I came up with a basic list of things to watch out for, and how to deal with them.

  • Don’t let the game run on video-game rails. This one is pretty obvious, but luckily it’s also pretty easy to deal with. The thing with Dungeon World (and, conveniently, my own play style) is that rather than some kind of meta-plot of events, you want to focus on people (well… “people”), what they want, and what they’re currently doing about it (see also: Towns in Dogs in the Vineyard). Anyone who’s played Amber with me knows that my between-game prep was basically just flipping through a complete deck of trump cards for all the NPCs (and places) and thinking about what they were doing either on their own or in reaction to whatever happened in previous sessions, and then playing accordingly in the next session. This is pretty darn close to how DW suggests managing the game’s “Fronts,” and conveniently, after mumble-hundred hours playing DA:O, I’m familiar with the various Fronts in that storyline, what they’re up to, and what they’re planning to do to get what they want. Out of necessity, the video game presents this stuff linearly, with set points in the story where interference is possible, but I can just wash all that cruft away and let the thing live and breathe. Spend a few evenings sketching out Fronts in the Dungeon World style, and I’m prepped.

  • Don’t try to map every event directly. Or: “don’t try to play through every single fight in DA:O.” Again, obvious, but worth keeping in the back of my mind. I want to focus on important social and martial conflicts, focus on the fiction, and focus on what my player is doing.

  • No custom playbooks to match the setting exactly. This may be something that makes both Dragon Age purists and *World hackers shake their heads a bit. In short, I’m just going to use the “classic” classes presented in Dungeon World – the ones pretty much any fantasy RPG player knows: Fighter, Cleric, Thief, Wizard, Ranger, et cetera – and shoehorn them into the roles presented in the Dragon Age fiction. There will be some tweaks made to Paladins to focus more on anti-magic stuff (since paladins will be templars) and basically all other magic-users (from Clerics to Wizards to Bards to whatever) will, within the fiction, just be different flavors of Mages (either Circle Mages or Apostates), and I’ll probably tweak the settings on multiclass moves so the lines between the spellcasting classes are a bit fuzzier, but otherwise, that’s about it. Dwarves won’t be clerics, and I might drop clerics entirely in favor of Circle Mages who use a move to learn spells from the Cleric list, just to keep magical healing roughly in line with the setting as presented.

But mostly, I don’t think I need to customize things. As much as I like the Dragon Age RPG, there are lots of different game-system ways to present Thedas, if you focus on the fiction.

“Focus on the fiction” is one of those tricky rules-that-don’t-look-like-rules that tend to crop up in Lumpley games, and it kind of tripped me up in our first session, which I’ll write about next.


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