Dragon Age: The Joy of 3d6

With the Dragon Age RPG having been featured on Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop this week, it seemed a decent time to make a quick post that I’ve been thinking about for a while. After playing a bit of Dragon Age last year, I was really impressed – the system is nice and slick, and while it takes no time to get to grips with the core mechanic, it makes for entertaining combats thanks to the stunt system.

I like the system so much that I’ve been contemplating doing a bit of home brewing to run something in a low magic campaign setting, with brutal and bloody combats in the vein of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law books. The base of the system has been shown to be robust enough to cope with some tinkering – NewbieDM has come up with a Star Wars hack, which looks great (PDF available from Dragon Age Oracle), and there are a bundle of other hacks and home brews kicking around on the Green Ronin forums.

We actually played our Dragon Age taster back to back with the first D&D Next Playtest pack and even allowing for the D&D system not being polished yet, the Dragon Age mechanics made D20 feel a bit clunky to me.

Note: This isn’t a review of the system as such, and presumes you’ve got a passing familiarity with how the game works. RPG.net has a review of Set 1, which gives a description of how most things work, and should give you enough info to go on. Or watch the Tabletop video, which is well worth watching anyway.

Three Things to Love About 3d6

So all that said, what exactly is it that I like so much? What makes Chris Pramas’ mechanics click with me? Well, here’s a few reasons for you – most are a direct comparison to D20 based mechanics, as it’s the most commonly known baseline and probably the most likely contender for anyone looking for an alternative for a similar style of game.

1. The Base Mechanic feels familiar, but is simple for new folks too

The base mechanic is a dice roll + your character’s stat + skill modifiers. Sound vaguely familiar? Yep, it’s pretty much the same as any D20 based system. Familiarity is a great helper when introducing a new RPG system to an existing group, and helps things move along quickly at the table. If people at your table are completely new to RPGs, then it’s simple enough to be easy to explain and to not be intimidating.

2. Diminishing returns are build right into the base mechanic

The big advantage for me of 3d6 vs D20 is that the results of 3d6 follow a bell curve rather than an even distribution. This makes working out probabilities much more difficult if you really want to hammer things out, but in general means that once you hit the point that you’re hitting most enemies on a 7 or 8 plus on your 3d6, you’re well into diminishing returns territory if you think about adding any more bonuses to that roll. Anything that encourages players to spread their stats out a bit is welcome in my book.

This also comes into play if you’re handing out bonuses. In D20, if you give someone a +2 to their roll, you’re always increasing their chance to hit by 10%. This makes for some easy decisions – for example, in combat you give the bonus to attack to the person who’s going to hit hardest most of the time. In Dragon Age, it’s usually going to improve the odds of hitting more for the player with a +3 attack bonus than the one with a +6 to their roll. It’s an extra thing to consider.

3. ‘Crits’ happen often, and give the players lots of options

For better or worse, our group quickly took the Stunt system as being analogous to critting. This made them very happy very quickly, as you roll doubles on your 3d6 a lot. It’s a great little sub system as well; it gives the player the choice of moving themself or the enemy around, piercing armour, doing more straight damage, or even an extra attack, or some combination of these. It means that even in a fairly simple fight, there’s plenty of decisions to make.

One of my pet hates in D&D is the fact that you’re no matter how much better you are at fighting your opponent, you have no extra chance of landing a crit. Surely a well trained adventurer would be much more likely to land that killer blow against someone untrained, rather than it being a 1 in 20 fluke? Well, in Dragon Age, someone having a low defense means far more of those combinations involving doubles are hits. If someone is worse at dodging your blows, you’re also more likely to get stunt points off of them.

Outside of the Core Mechanic

The solid core is definitely what makes me like Dragon Age, but there’s a lot to like about the system that’s built around it too. The advancement system builds on the diminishing returns aspect by making players spread their stats between primary and secondary stats. The backgrounds as presented in Set 1 give players skills and stats based on where they come from in the world. Armour reducing damage done rather than being rolled into your defense and mana based spell casting are big plus points for me.

The Green Ronin blog post Green Ronin in 2013 says that we can look forward to a new campaign setting using the AGE system this year. I’m really looking forward to seeing what comes out of that, and to seeing what they can do for this great little system without a lengthy approval process holding up the release schedule. I hope that being featured on Tabletop brings some attention their way as well – anybody coming into RPGs for the first time on the back of watching the show are going to get a great introduction to gaming.

2 thoughts on “Dragon Age: The Joy of 3d6

  1. You might also look at the GURPS system. It also uses 3d6 for checks, but it’s 3d6 compared to modified skill or ability number. It also has some other nice features, such as character traits that are frequently just flavor actually have real game consequences, and their balance ramifications are taken into account during character creation: If a character has a phobia, there are definite rules for the effects of the phobia, and that disadvantage is counterbalanced at character creation with more points for other things.

    GURPS is intended to be a “universal” system as well, so there’s a lot of flexibility in terms of what rules you use and allow.

    1. I haven’t had a look at GURPS for a long time – I bought the core book way back 15 years ago when I first looked at getting into RPGs, but can’t remember anything about it other than the universal system part. I’m guessing a lot has probably changed since then – I’ll maybe give it a look 🙂

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