Since playing Dragon Age last week, I’ve been wanting to do it more, but my GM, Enrique, is out of town for the holidays. I was sitting at home, very bored, on Saturday night, eating Chinese food (National Jews Eat Chinese Food Day) when I decided to run an impromptu game of Dragon Age online. I got a few takers but having never hosted an online virtual tabletop, I eventually decided to move it to Sunday night. Sunday during the day I sent out invites to a few people who had expressed an interest, and managed to get four players. At 11 PM EST (and with players literally all across the US), we got on Skype to play The Dalish Curse, the introductory adventure included in the Dragon Age Game Master’s Guide (no spoilers below).
As I mentioned, I have never hosted a game via an online virtual tabletop (VTT); I have played in games that have used MapTool, but someone else has done all the heavy lifting and I simply connected and played. I spent a good chunk of Sunday downloading both MapTool and Gametable, and fiddling with all their infinite nifty features — and there are a ton of them, nifties that would’ve made the game very attractive visually — but eventually realized that I’d been wasting hours trying to set up something that was way more complicated than what I needed it to be for a one-shot game. So eventually I scrapped the VTT idea and decided to use good ole Skype coupled with Google Docs for maps and info reference. I pulled the maps from the PDF copy of the GM’s Guide I have, pasted them onto individual Google Docs, and put together a Stunts reference sheet for the players, then shared the folder with everyone. For dice , we used an online dice rolled found at Catch Your Hare, which is especially neat as it displays the dice results graphically and by die, as opposed to the sum of all dice rolled. Each player picks a color for their dice, and I ruled that the middle die is always the Dragon Die, making it easy to see how many Stunt Points were generated on a roll of doubles. Easy peasy.
My four players were Tamara Deeny, Thomas Deeny, Ryan Macklin and Brennen Reece, and all four signed up for the game via my post on Twitter. We used When Is Good? to figure out a time when we could all play, and jumped on Skype at the appointed time for some dark fantasy adventuring. To save time, I had the players choose from the pre-generated characters available on the Dragon Age RPG website. The party consisted of Masarian, a Dalish Elf apostate mage (Ryan); Ackley, a Ferelden Freeman rogue (Thomas); Kedwalla, a Surface Dwarf warrior (Tamara); and Shinasha, a City Elf rogue (Brennen). We played using the rules in Set 1, though I added the Exploration and Roleplaying Stunts available on the Set 2 Playtest document so we could take them out for a spin.
We played for a little over four hours, counting pre-game info session and a couple of breaks, and thanks to Ryan, the entire session was recorded (though I’m still deciding what I’ll do with that audio). We had a good mix of exploration, combat and roleplaying scenes, as the adventure is fairly balanced in that respect and I actively wanted to make sure we hit all types of encounters during our time playing. Of the five of us, only Ryan had played the Dragon Age videogame and was familiar with the setting, so along the way I recruited him to share setting information with the rest of the group in order to enhance the world around. No one but me had played the RPG, and even I only have one session under my belt and only as a player, so it was a learning experience for everyone involved. This means that things went a little slow in the beginning but picked up as more and more rolls were made and everyone got more comfortable with the rules and their characters.
I’ve already written a post about how Dragon Age feels from the player side, but I can tell that from the GM’s side it is as easy and enjoyable as well. The simple mechanic of the Ability Test means that I rarely, if ever, have to fuss about making a call during the game. A player wants to do something? If it’s routine, they do it; if there’s a chance of failure, they roll, and I use the result on the Dragon Die to determine the extent of the outcome rolled. That’s it. I love that, due to the game not having skills per se, I never had to tell my players “You can’t do that.” Sure, an Ability Focus provides a bonus to a specific use of an ability, but someone wants to Stealth their way past someone? Just roll Dexterity and see what happens. The system supporting me not blocking my player’s desires to do stuff makes me a happy GM.
Though I was not planning to use the map during combat and perhaps run it more free-flow, the advantage of simply seeing where everyone was in relation to each other, the terrain and the enemies meant we went to the map fairly quickly, though by no means did we turn it into a square-counting exercise. We actually ran combat in a fairly narrative fashion, using the markings on the map to simply keep track of position, a happy medium, I think, especially considering the online/voice-only nature of our game. During combat, it took a few rolls and me rolling doubles for one of the enemies for the players’ dice to get the idea and see how it was done, but once the doubles started to fall and Stunts started flying, it was on. I encouraged the players to narrate the use of their own stunts while I hammed it up on the description of the damage they were inflicting. Rogues leapt in the air to deliver death from above, warriors split monstrous heads in half, mages summoned magical fire to deliver a puissant arcane smite, and arrows weaved in between hand-to-hand combatants to pierce the brains of a nightmarish beast. Yeah, that all happened. Yeah, it was that cool.
In addition to combat, we had some exploration scenes as the characters sought to piece together the bloody events at the farm where their first combat happened. Since we were using the Exploration Stunts from the Set 2 Playtest, the players had a chance to make some good use of doubles rolled on Ability Tests, significantly increasing their yield in terms of information gathered and the speed at which this was done. As a GM, I was extremely glad to see the Stunts in action and how they made an impact in what the characters were doing outside of combat. Adjudicating Exploration and Roleplaying Stunts is more an art than a science; as GM, it calls for me to get creative with the way the Stunt is worded to see how to make it fit into the ongoing story and be of true benefit to the player. It was a great exercise for me.
Likwise, once the characters rolled into town, they had a chance to use the Roleplaying Stunts as they hadn’t even finished entering town when a local loudmouth came to challenge them, a challenge that was met by the business end of the mage’s arcane lance, to great stunning and comical effect thanks to the quick wit of the mage and the human rogue with the aid of a couple of Roleplaying Stunts. There was more exploration in town, and we had the chance to delve a bit into racial issues as the Dalish Elf mage got to connect with other Dalish Elves in town in relation to the events of the adventure. It was a moment where the setting took center stage and was brought into play in a meaningful manner to give context and gravitas to the events in motion.
After the party gathered at the local inn to exchange information gathered during their brief time in town, we brought the game to a close for the night with the hopes of being able to gather once more around our virtual game table to finish up the adventure.
Both as a player and as GM, I am falling in love hard with Dragon Age. Its simplicity of system allows me to tailor the level of complexity I want, allows me to wing it when needed and get down to the nitty-gritty when called for it. It supports the play in the most general of ways, and finds way to make the characters be awesome with mechanical backing to support roleplaying boasts. The setting is compelling, even for people who have never played the videogame, with built-in conflicts by the dozen for players and GMs to sink their teeth into.
My players all got into character fairly quick, which to me is always a pleasure to see, but especially when using pre-generated characters. Ryan’s Dalish Elf apostate mage had a great attitude that I hope I get a chance to utilize to my ends as the adventure comes to a climax (*evilgrin*), Thomas’ human rogue had quick wit and flair which managed to defuse a potentially-tense situation even before it began, Tamara’s dwarf warrior was just a pillar of strength who let the business end of her two-handed axe make her most impassioned speech, and Brennen’s City Elf rogue faced some interesting moments as she finds herself an outsider among her own race.
Thank you to all the players for their time and joining my impromptu game. I had a lot of fun and I hope you did as well. Here’s to being able to get back together to discover the truth behind The Dalish Curse.