Dragon Age

Dragon Age (in following: DA) is a pen-and-paper adaptation of BioWare's eponymous dark fantasy role-playing video game series, designed by Green Ronin Publishing's founder Chris Pramas. Originally released in three sets between 2009 and 2010, Green Ronin has re-released the game as a complete core rulebook in 2015, which will be referenced henceforth.

Core Mechanic

The core mechanic of DA (referred as an "ability test", p. 46) is similar to that of D&D (unsurprising, given Pramas' work for Wizards of the Coast before Green Ronin), but instead of using a single d20, the player rolls 3d6, one of which (the "Dragon Die", p. 47) is colored differently from the other two. The procedure is as follows:

  1. The player declares their character's objective and how they attempt to achieve it.
  2. The GM assesses the "difficulty" of the attempted action as a number typically ranging from 7 to 21 (p. 48).
  3. The GM tells the player which primary ("ability", ranging from –2 to +4, p. 11) and secondary ("focus", whose value is effectively +2 if the character has it unlocked, and 0 otherwise) stats apply to the attempted action.
  4. The player rolls 3d6, sums up the results, adds their character's applicable ability and focus scores, and announces the end result, as well as the value rolled on the Dragon Die, to the GM.
  5. If the end result is equal or greater than the difficulty, the character achieves their objective (Yes), otherwise, they fail (No). If successful, the gradient of success is based on the Dragon Die result: the larger its value, the more impressive the PC's success (so a 1 can result in a Yes-But and a 6, in a Yes-And, at the GM's discretion).
  6. The GM and the player collaborate in narrating the outcome of the PC's action.

Two variations of the basic ability test are described on p. 213. An "opposed test" is used when the PC's action is in direct competition with another character's (PC or NPC): in this case, the competing character's player also performs steps 1 through 4, and the character whose player has the higher overall result wins the competition (their Dragon Die results serve as tie-breakers). An "advanced test" is used when a character's objective cannot be achieved with a single action, but requires multiple successes, usually within a limited span of in-fiction time (i.e. a limited number of rolls). In this case, the GM sets not just the difficulty, but also a "success threshold", and the player makes multiple ability checks, summing up the Dragon Die results from successful ones: the advanced test succeeds if this sum reaches the success threshold before the character runs out of time or some in-fiction factor cuts their efforts short.

The most important primary stat (ability) to a social agent is "Communication", and almost all relevant secondary stats (focuses) are also tied to it, including "Bargaining", "Deception", "Leadership", "Persuasion", and "Seduction". A notable exception is the "Intimidation" focus, which is instead tied to "Strength". In opposed tests, depending on the type of interaction, the patient may resist influence with "Communication", as well, or with "Perception" ("Empathy") or "Willpower" ("Courage", "Morale", or "Self-Discipline").

Role-Playing Encounters

In Dragon Age, like in D&D, the player characters' adventure consists of a series of "encounters" – situations where they have a specific objective and one or more obstacles in the way of achieving it (pp. 219-225). Unlike D&D, DA explicitly categorizes encounters into "combat" (where overcoming obstacles requires physical violence), "exploration" (environmental obstacles), and "role-playing" (social obstacles), and it is in the latter that persuasion mechanics come into play. While the book does not provide an additional procedure specific to role-playing encounters, it does outline multiple considerations that go into their design on pp. 223-225.

First, it outlines two typical objectives ("goals") of a role-playing encounter: obtaining information from an NPC and convincing them to take a specific action (it is obvious at this point that this system is primarily designed for the "PC agent, NPC patient" configuration). Obtaining information is further subcategorized into "briefings", where the NPC willingly gives up all relevant data (of no interest to this survey), and "interviews", where the PC agents must first convince the NPC patient to share their secrets. Gaining the NPC's compliance occurs in "persuasion" encounters.

The "obstacles" in role-playing encounters are further categorized by whether they stem from the NPCs' "stance", objectives, or character traits:

  • A stance is the NPC patient's attitude towards the PC agent and can be antagonistic, disinterested, or friendly. It is also specific to the agent's current objective, so NPCs can also exhibit "mixed stances", freely assisting the agent in one matter while actively interfering with them in another.
  • Objectives are specific goals the NPCs have in a given interaction, which can align with, run contrary to, or go in a completely different direction than the PCs' (a mixture of these is also an option). The book suggests that figuring out the patient's true objectives can be an important sub-challenge of a role-playing encounter.
  • Character traits are characteristics of an NPC patient that hinder the PC agent in influencing them, ranging from transient states (e.g. drunkenness), through characterization (e.g. extreme belligerence), to disability (e.g. deafness).

As mentioned, unlike most titles in this survey, DA does not offer an explicit procedure tying the core mechanic to overcoming social obstacles and achieving social goals. Multiple procedure ideas, however, are suggested in the section "Roleplaying & The Rules" on p. 214, ranging from resolving role-playing encounters based entirely on the players' performance and the GM's judgment calls or, conversely, reducing it to an opposed ability test between the PC and the NPC; through a mixed approach, where role-play precedes and provides bonuses or penalties to the decisive opposed test; to an advanced test, where players make several rolls whose difficulty is affected by their role-played performance, in an attempt to reach a certain success threshold before the NPC patient stops listening.

In the "Roleplaying & Roll-playing" side bar on p. 225, the book also identifies and discusses the core issue with implementing persuasion mechanics in pen-and-paper RPGs. Because role-playing is a social interaction mediated by game rules (Montola), letting players talk "in-character" allows them to effectively bypass said rules and to insert their own oratory skills directly into their characters' in-fiction social interactions. (The same is generally impractical for physical interactions but does occur in regards to mental challenges whenever a character's problem-solving skills are significantly better or worse than their player's.) While acknowledging this inconsistency, the rules recommend that GMs simply accept that the character and their respective players' persuasive skills are roughly equal by default and only call for ability checks when the gap between the quality of a player's performance and their character's numeric stats begins to stretch the group's suspension of disbelief.