In my first design diary, I talked about how the game came to be and some of the early decisions I had to make about adapting Dragon Age: Origins to the world of tabletop RPGs. This time out I'm going to discuss the core game mechanics of Dragon Age, so you can get a sense of what the game is like.
So let's start with the heart of the game: the ability test. Characters in Dragon Age are defined by eight abilities: Communication, Constitution, Cunning, Dexterity, Magic, Perception, Strength, and Willpower. Six of these you may recognize from Dragon Age: Origins. I added two more, Communication and Perception, to account for things that the computer game handles in different ways (conversation trees, for example). A starting character can have abilities that range from –2 to 5, with 1 being average. When your character tries something with a risk of failure, you take an ability test. To do so, you roll 3d6, add them together, and then add your ability. Your total is the test result. You compare this to either a static target number or another character's test result if it's an opposed test.
Test result = 3d6 + ability
I chose 3d6 for resolution because of the lovely bell curve it provides. The 20-sided die is classic but your chance of rolling any particular result is a flat 5%. In play this often means that Sir Awesomesauce, master of the sword, fails to hit the most pathetic of opponents. The bell curve allows for extreme results but rolls tend to cluster around the middle of the spread. About 70% of the results of a 3d6 roll are in the 8-13 range. Practically speaking, this means that on average someone with a higher ability will win a contest, which is as is should be. However, spectacular success and failure are both still possible.
Experienced RPG players may be wondering at this point if there is a dedicated skill system in Dragon Age. The answer is no. The game features what we call "ability focuses" instead. Basically, each ability has a number of focuses, which are related specialties. Stealth and Riding are Dexterity focuses, for example. You get focuses through your character's background and class and they have a simple effect. If you have an applicable focus when you take an ability test, you get a +2 bonus. So the full formula for ability tests is thus:
Test result = 3d6 + ability + focus
When adventures call for ability tests, they are written with the focus in parenthesis. For example: "Gamers must pass a Target Number 21 Willpower (Self-Discipline) test not to buy the Dragon Age RPG the day it becomes available."
You'll note the effect of focuses is quite straight forward; you get a +2 bonus on applicable ability tests. You will not find an enormous and unwieldy skill system here. You will not find pages and pages of very specific rules on how to handle hundreds of situations and special cases. Such skill systems may be thorough and they may seem realistic, but I find they add way too much minutia for the payoff they provide. Dragon Age has a different philosophy behind it. I would rather give the GM a set of tools and let him or her apply them to the endless situations that come up when playing a RPG. That means the GM assesses the totality of the situation before the dice are rolled and either sets a target number (for basic tests) or assigns bonuses and/or penalties for opposed tests. The GM also has another option, the advanced test, which can be used to track completion over time for activities like research, but that is used more rarely.
Many tests in Dragon Age are pass/fail so you either succeed or you don't. Sometimes, though, it matters how well you succeed, and that's where the Dragon Die comes in. The Dragon Die is a major feature of the game and I'll talk more about its applications later. What you need to know for the moment, however, is that when you make an ability test, you need to designate one of your 3d6 as the Dragon Die (usually by using a different colored die than the other two). If you succeed on the test, the result of the Dragon Die measures the degree of success. So a 1 means you just made it and a 6 means you did it spectacularly. The Dragon Die is also key to the game's stunt system, but I'll cover that in another design diary.
So that's the heart of the Dragon Age RPG in brief. Next time I'll talk about character creation, and explain fun stuff like backgrounds, classes, and talents. I should also mention that as of the writing of this design diary (November 19, 2009), the game itself is finished and in BioWare's hands for approval. Once everything is approved, we'll do a PDF release and send it to print. It shouldn't be long now!