Dragon Age: An Interview with Chris Pramas

BioWare and Green Ronin both have reputations for making great story-based games. Where BioWare has given us classic computer-driven RPGs like Baldur’s Gate, Knights of the Old Republic, and Mass Effect, Green Ronin has created original RPGs like Mutants & Masterminds and licensed games like Song of Ice & Fire Roleplaying. Both companies know how to turn a story into a game world — and how to infuse a game world with story.

So as soon as I heard that Green Ronin and BioWare were teaming up to create a tabletop sibling for the forthcoming fantasy CRPG, Dragon Age: Origins, I pelted Green Ronin’s president and founder, Chris Pramas, with questions. Here’s what he had to tell us about the forthcoming Dragon Age pen-and-paper RPG, and what it’s like making a paper game dovetail with an electronic game.

An Interview with Chris Pramas of Green Ronin Publishing

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Gamplaywright: You spurred a lot of conjecture and theorizing online about just what game Green Ronin was announcing — players offered up a lot of opinions on what kind of games they’d like to see — so it seems like this kind of built-up announcement is as much an information-gathering technique as it is a means of piquing attention. Was that intentional?

Chris Pramas: It is always interesting to see what gamers say they want, though there is sometimes a difference between what they say and what they actually buy and play. For the most part though, we were just looking to build a bit of buzz leading up to the announcement.

GPW: How long have you been waiting to announce the new Dragon Age game? Did anyone guess correctly during the build-up to the announcement?

CP: In January of each year I write a message about where the company is heading over the next 12 months. I had hoped to announce Dragon Age as part of that, but the stars were not right yet. It took until May for everything to be settled and organized. And yes, there was one person on the Green Ronin forums who guessed correctly. Considering the clues dropped, that was impressive.

GPW: Who wrote the clues that appeared online? How were they chosen?

“RPG fans in particular almost have to be [web savvy] these days”

CP: I wrote them. I thought it would be interesting to use social networking to build interest and it really did get people talking. I tried to pick clues that related to the game or hinted at a BioWare connection.  For example, one of them was, “You’ll find great adventure beyond the gate.” Many folks believed I was referring to Stargate but it was actually a reference to Baldur’s Gate, a classic BioWare game.

GPW: Green Ronin produces a mix of popular PDF products and handsome hard-copy game books. Do you think your audience is more web-savvy than the typical pen-and-paper RPG gamer? Including Twitter, how many different channels were you using to tease the announcement?

CP: Tabletop gamers are pretty web savvy as a whole. RPG fans in particular almost have to be these days, as so many stores barely even stock RPGs anymore. Green Ronin is in a good position in that we still have a robust business in game stores and the book trade, but online communication and sales are also key to us.

I posted the messages on Twitter and Facebook. They were then carried to all sorts of gaming message boards, spreading the clues much further.

GPW: This kind of marketing effort, using Twitter to stimulate online discussion, doesn’t really have a real-world counterpart, certainly not for the pen-and-paper RPG market. On the one hand, it’s potentially easier than ever for a company the size of Green Ronin to communicate with its audience. On the other hand, the vocal online audience may not be representative of the audience as a whole. How representative do you think the vocal online community is of Green Ronin’s audience?

CP: One of the hardest tasks for a modern publisher is figuring out when internet chatter is representative of a real trend and when it’s just a few vocal people talking. You can’t jump to conclusions or you may make poor long term decisions.

The reaction of the online community was broad. Many of the folks who posted are not currently buying or playing Green Ronin games, and that’s good. Those are people we can reach out to and get interested in Dragon Age, as well as games like A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying, True20, and Mutants & Masterminds.

GPW: BioWare is clearly home to a lot of paper-RPG players — the BioWare blog is good evidence of this — but this is the first time they’ll be translating one of their video-game RPG titles into a paper RPG. How fleshed-out was their vision for the paper game when you first got involved in the project?

CP: Well, they knew they wanted to have one and wanted it to have a certain old school feel. The plan and format for the game we worked out together, and the rules they really left in our hands.

GPW: What can we expect from the game system for the paper RPG? How does it relate to the game mechanics in the video game?

“I felt that a literal translation of the computer game would be pointless.”

CP: Basically, BioWare built a great world and the computer game is one expression of that. The tabletop RPG will be another. They share certain things in common, but the underlying systems are different. The computer game uses a percentile system but the tabletop game uses 3d6 for resolution. Class and spell names are the same, but their implementation in each game are different. I felt that a literal translation of the computer game would be pointless. Our game had to be designed for tabletop play first and foremost, as well as providing a different way to adventure in the world of Dragon Age.

GPW: Storytelling is clearly an important part of Dragon Age‘s play experience, but the techniques that make a story work in a CRPG don’t always work at the game table. How do you capture the narrative style of the video game in the paper RPG?

“One cool thing about tabletop games is that your character can try anything.”

CP: I didn’t try to capture the narrative style of the video game — I tried to design a great tabletop RPG. And one cool thing about tabletop games is that your character can try anything. As sophisticated as computer games are these days, there are still limits on what you can do with your character. Why bring those limits into the tabletop game?

GPW: Many pen-and-paper fantasy RPGs devote a lot of attention to detailing and expanding their game worlds; will Dragon Age‘s pen-and-paper products show players parts of the game world they can’t see in the video game? How much of that new content comes from BioWare and how much comes from Green Ronin?

CP: Yes, absolutely. The first boxed set kicks things off in Ferelden, the nation in which the computer game takes place. I did that so players of the computer game would come to the tabletop game with some knowledge of the setting, and also because BioWare had created a lot of info about Ferelden already. There is a wider world though, and we’ll be exploring that in future products. BioWare provided me with a history of the world of Dragon Age and breakdowns on the various nations. We’ll be building on this info as our products explore the lands beyond Ferelden.

GPW: In even the most lavish video games, players can only go to those places the designers have created for them to explore, while the players in a pen-and-paper RPG typically have the freedom to venture off in unexpected directions. Are you concerned about players venturing off to unrevealed parts of the game world and getting attached to their homegrown alternative visions for the setting? How do you handle dreaded issues of canon?

“A creative GM can really take ownership of a world.”

CP: I’m not worried about it. What folks do in the home campaigns is up to them. If everyone is having fun, how close they cleave to canon doesn’t matter. I’m sure many people are going to mix in elements from other settings. Freeport would be an easy fit, for example, as it works well with the dark fantasy of Dragon Age. Really, this is one of the strengths of tabletop gaming. A creative GM can really take ownership of a world.

As for canon in the published products, BioWare is approving everything we produce. If we get too crazy, I’m sure they will let us know!

GPW: Have you gamed with the BioWare designers?

CP: I have not had the chance. I made one trip to Edmonton last year and that was just for a couple of days.

GPW: You don’t see a lot of boxed RPGs anymore – why debut the pen-and-paper Dragon Age as a boxed set? What can we expect to find inside that box?

CP: I wanted to do a boxed set for a few reasons. First, I’m keen to get new people into tabletop roleplaying and a box looks more like a game to folks than a book does. Second, I like being able to provide separate books for the player and the GM. Third, we wanted something of an old school feel and what says classic RPG more than a boxed set? The box will contain a player’s guide, GM’s guide, poster map, and dice.

“I’m keen to get new people into tabletop roleplaying and a box looks more like a game to folks than a book does.”

GPW: What was the biggest challenge during the design of Dragon Age tabletop RPG? Any unexpected hurdles?

CP: Usually when you work on a licensed game, the property has been released to the public. With Dragon Age I’ve been designing as the BioWare team continued to work on the computer game. Both games are coming out in the fall so I’ve needed to keep up with what they are doing while working on my own design. I knew it’d be that way going in, but it was different than other licensed stuff I’ve worked on. With the Black Company [RPG], for example, we had the complete series of novels to work from.

GPW: What did you take away from your new game; what surprises did you find in your own design process?

CP: I tend to spend a certain amount of time reading, thinking, taking notes, and doing research. Stuff sort of percolates in my subconscious and eventually ideas bubble up to the surface. When I first sat down with the project, I had a bunch of ideas that came from several years of thinking about fantasy RPGs. The surprises came from the process and seeing how those ideas changed and mutated when I was faced with practical design problems.

GPW: If I’m a CRPG player, foremost, why is Dragon Age the RPG to lure me to the tabletop?

CP: Two simple reasons: it’s fun and it’s easy to get into.

3 Comments

  1. Adam Drew
    July 2, 2009

    The question I would most like to know the answer to is “What mechanics or tools does Dragon Age tabletop bring to the game that makes it a DA game and not just another fantasy RPG?”

    I am curious about DA, as I know a few people who work at BioWare (one of them playtesting the videogame version) and they are tabletop RPGers as well, and so I’ve been in the loop on this for a while. DA the videogame clearly will have tools and style that make it stand out; but will DA tabletop have any, or will it be another fantasy heartbreaker with a fancy licence?

    Reply
  2. Will Hindmarch
    July 4, 2009

    Great question, Adam. I’d be more prone to ask it as we get closer to release (we started this interview right after the pen-and-paper RPG was announced), and will ask if I get the chance. I’m interested in the product’s development, in addition to the game’s, but find that prior to release it’s easier to talk about the product. When the game’s released — and thereby actually becomes a game, if you will — I’ll address that aspect.

    Reply
  3. Kenneth Trowbridge
    December 14, 2009

    can we expect to explore Oralis,Nevarra,Free Marches,Antivateviner imperium,Anderfels,Seheron,Rivain and, Par Vollen?

    Ferelden and its Dlc’s are very much loved although will the Developers expand apon this epic prolouge in wich ferelden has given gammers.

    please say yes – i’m hooked :)

    Reply

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