Ronin Round Table: A License For A Newer World

Green Ronin’s shogun, Chris Pramas, recently wrote a Ronin Roundtable about licensing in the hobby-gaming business. Developer Jon Leitheusser, of Mutants & Masterminds and DC Adventures fame, followed that up with a post about his licensing experiences. I’m here to talk about the unique circumstances of working on the Dragon Age RPG, which is, of course, also a licensed game. I’m Will Hindmarch, the ronin who develops the Dragon Age tabletop RPG products.

Dragon Age is a unique property to work on in a lot of ways. It spans many media—from video games to novels to comics to a web series to a forthcoming animated movie and beyond—yet it’s still fairly young, having debuted just a few years ago. Dragon Age isn’t the decades-old sprawling universe of the DC Adventures game but neither is it the focused vision of a single writer, like the novels that A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying are based on.

Thedas, the world of Dragon Age, is a big, dynamic place designed to accommodate stories, games, and other adventures of many different styles without surrendering its particular atmosphere and themes. Like a lot of the worlds that appeal to us gamers, it’s built to have room for many stories.

This kind of fictional universe is sort of like a compilation album, with lots of different voices singing songs in the same key, with some shared instrumentation. Individual songs can strike out in new directions, and no one song is necessary to understand all the others, but every song should sound like they belong on the same album, more or less. So it’s our job to harmonize with what makes Dragon Age distinct and compelling without just imitating what’s come before.

We don’t make books of lore, reflecting what’s happened in other media, we make a game for players who want to capture or recreate their own Dragon Age-style adventures. My job, as developer of the tabletop RPG, is not just to capture and contribute to the Dragon Age vision, it’s also to deliver an experience that builds on Chris Pramas’ vision of gameplay and supports the kind of adventures our players want to create in their home campaigns.

That’s three different visions at work together: BioWare’s, Green Ronin’s, and yours.
This would be an impossible job if it wasn’t for the cooperation and creativity of all the parties involved. BioWare’s vision for Thedas is clear but also diverse—they know that a tabletop RPG needs a lot of room to wonder "What if?" and to explore its own adventures. Many of the people at BioWare are familiar with tabletop RPGs, too, so they know what they like in a paper RPG and easily understand our need to serve not only BioWare’s vision but the needs of home campaigns. We can’t just mimic BioWare’s work all the time, we need to adapt the material to our game. BioWare gets that.

The Dragon Age RPG isn’t just a port of the Dragon Age video-game rules to the tabletop. Neither BioWare nor Chris Pramas wanted that. Tabletop RPGs have their own customs, demands, and ambitions—they do different things well—and we want to focus on what makes our game work. One example of this is the brilliant stunt mechanic that Pramas designed for the Adventure Game Engine, giving a bit of a tactical element to every combat and making each character suitably adventurous and dynamic without bogging things down. (I love the stunt mechanics a whole lot.) Likewise, consider things like specializations. The tabletop game is less granular than the video games, so all those branches in the various talent trees get translated into three distinct degrees—Novice, Journeyman, and Master—for easier reference and more direct game balance. That kind of balance plays a different role in the multiplayer environment of the tabletop RPG than it does in the single-player video games, after all, where a player can reload a saved game to try out a different character spec.

The Dragon Age universe is a source of inspiration we share in common with the video games and the novels and everything else. Rather than try to match the video games percentage point by percentage point, we take the lore and the mechanics as inspiration for our own game rules and develop mechanics that exist in parallel to the video games, rather than descending directly from them. It’s more art than science. When designing the Shapeshifter specialization for our game, for example, should we model the legendary lore of these beings or the game mechanics put forth in Dragon Age: Origins? Should a PC Shapeshifter be able to adopt more forms than Morrigan? How does that change the role of the specialization (and our notions of Morrigan’s power) within the game world? It’s a complex question. We seek solutions that satisfy you and us and BioWare, all at once.

Thankfully, BioWare has been wonderfully open with regard to the lore and philosophy behind Thedas’ creation. Talent at BioWare, like Mike Laidlaw and Mary Kirby, have happily answered my questions about the writing and design behind certain characters and monsters, helping me understand and adapt their vision for tabletop play. You saw this in action in our Tallis RPG DLC, which looked not just at the lore of that character but at Felicia Day’s vision for her as a fictional character. This is a luxury not all licensed games in our hobby have and it’s been a great boon.

The approvals process for the Dragon Age RPG, while sometimes complicated when our busy schedule collides with BioWare’s, goes beyond fact-checking. The designers at BioWare look over our material at the early stages of design (when the project’s about 10% done) and at the late stages (when the project’s got about 10% left to go), giving us creative and constructive notes that help us sharpen our projects and align with the voice of Dragon Age.

With the Dragon Age universe expanding, it feels to me like there are many more ways we can tie our RPG into the larger game world, making it easier for you to weave established threads into your campaigns. We’re exploring some of these options in the coming weeks, with new tabletop DLC in the works (featuring the faces of familiar friends and foes) not just for Dragon Age but for the Adventure Game Engine, too. In the meantime, I’m also wrangling a few new adventures for Set 3 and beyond, to bring various regions of (and underneath) Thedas to life in your campaigns.

Coordinating the many visions and voices of a licensed world can be tricky and time consuming. This was, in fact, my greatest fear when I took on this gig. Surrounded by people, both in Green Ronin and BioWare, with a passion for this game makes it all feel much easier—and hearing stories of your adventures makes it all worth it.