One of my favorite computer games, or stories really, is BioWare’s Dragon Age II. This may not come as a surprise to readers of this blog, the series means a lot to me, but Dragon Age II may be an odd choice.
Dragon Age II got a fair share of criticism upon release, and some of it was undoubtedly justified. Any fan of the series has heard it all before: repeated areas, an empty city, the ninjas of Kirkwall, and so on
However, that is not the point of this post. I have two goals for this post. First, between a fine-tuned three-act structure, great companions, cut-throat factions, and city adventures, Dragon Age II is a superb framework for a new city-based fantasy roleplaying game campaign.
Second, educate me on how story structure works and what we can learn using Dragon Age II as an example.
Let’s break up the three acts (and the game makes this really easy) into eleven basic story beats. This will, of course, include spoilers for the game
Act One: Adventurers in Lowtown
So, a new career in a new town (right?), and the protagonist has fallen on hard times as a refugee. The story begins in poverty, living hand-to-mouth, with low prospects and exploiters lining up to take advantage.
- Escape and Arrival. The protagonist deal with debt, social stigma, threats, and unemployment. The protagonist sets out on adventures, meets the companions, and rubs shoulders with several factions in the city while gathering resources to fund a grand adventure. The relationship to family and companions states the theme of the story: you cannot run away from responsibility.
- External Threat Appears. An armed force appears in the city as an external threat. The force is too powerful for the government to simply kick out and tension ramps up quickly
- Internal Threat Appears. Meanwhile, there is the lingering internal threat of rival factions in the city. Both factions hate each other and are too powerful for the government to successfully reign in.
- The Big Break. The protagonists embark on a big adventure at the end of the act and successfully fend off betrayal and escape in the climax.
In Dragon Age II, the protagonist Hawke escapes the horde invasion in Ferelden and runs into an ogre fight that requires rescuing from the wicked witch herself, Flemeth. Suffering a significant loss, Hawke soon ends up in a new city facing poverty at the mercy of criminals.
Kirkwall is divided by unstable mages and oppressive templars, facing the external threat of the Qunari. The city government, represented by a faltering viscount, tries to balance the factions, but the outlook is bleak.
Hawke needs to pick a patron, where one is dodgy, and the other is outright bad. There is hope, however, in the promise of riches if Hawke gathers the resources to buy-in on a grand quest into the depth of the earth.
Important sub-plots include Hawke’s family, the companion quests, and any romances.
The best part, in my opinion, is that Hawke is not a Chosen One. Hawke just wants to find a place and protect the family – it is a small and personal story that grows out of circumstance.
The first act ends with the underground adventure and a dark twist of fate in the deep.
Act Two: Hard in Hightown
The second act is where the fun and games begin as the protagonist embarks on the road to real power. The success in the first act led to wealth and influence, and are tools for upping the ante and adding layers to the story. The conflicts introduced in the first act are still firmly in place and now move to the foreground.
- Moving Up in the World. The big adventure has left the protagonist wealthy and someone of note in the city. Returning to the city, internal strife and a failing government leave the protagonist room to maneuver as the quest log fill up with new opportunities.
- Rising Tension With the External Threat. The foreign military force in the middle of the city remains a threat, and the tension increase as the problem remains unresolved, and the stranded army grow increasingly frustrated.
- Rising Tension With the Internal Threat. To add to the problem, the city is in tatters. The government is incapable of dealing with the tension while the rivaling factions are at each other’s throats. The conflict is already violent, just hidden from the public view.
- External Threat Explodes. The tension between the foreign army and the city, represented by the government, inevitably explodes, and the protagonist gets a chance to play the hero.
The underground adventure has made Hawke wealthy and influential in Kirkwall. Wealth and influence lead to more work as the various factions of the city want Hawke on their side, and power leads to responsibility.
The rivaling factions interfere with Hawke’s personal life, and the family subplot grows darker as the story progresses. Who says games are just for kids? Not me, that’s for sure.
The tension finally explodes at the end of the second act as the situation with the Qunari becomes impossible, and Hawke gets a chance to step up.
Act Three: Claiming Power
The protagonist has entered the city’s leadership after surviving the second act. The real threat is now revealed, the conflict has become more dangerous, and the survival of the city is in the balance.
- Leadership is Hard. The protagonist is a leader in the city after dealing with the external threat in the second act and is now a contender for the crown, should the position open.
- Rising Tension With the Internal Threat. The internal threat in the city skyrocket, and both factions attempt to use the protagonist.
- The Internal Threat Explodes. The internal threats in the city clash, meaning the mage rebellion and the templar oppressors go at each other, and the protagonist gets to tip the balance and potentially claim control over the city. Alternatively, the protagonist has the luxury of walking away, potentially creating a legend.
The rise to power, the rise of the Champion of Kirkwall, draws to an end, and Hawke must choose a side in Kirkwall. The rival factions in the city can no longer stand each other. Mental illness and outside corruption spiral the conflict out of control, and Hawke’s choice decide who controls the city.
In the end, Hawke’s struggles did not really change much, or at least that is how it appeared at the time. However, the story set up Dragon Age: Inquisition and undoubtedly Dragon Age 4, whenever that game is released, in addition to numerous tie-in stories. The entire game is but a setup for a larger story.
Alright, How is This Useful?
This sketchy outline opens for endless variations. Copy and paste the story beats, swap and change the details of the factions, and get a different story without messing with established dramatic structure.
For instance, change the templars with an assassins’ guild, the mages with merchants, and the viscount with a clan of dwarves. Integrate the revised story into your fantasy city of choice, remove everything that does not fit, and build on that. Dress it up a little, and you have a completely different story.
This should work with any roleplaying game system of your choice and preferred style of play. Fantasy Age seems an obvious choice unless you want to go all-in and actually play the Dragon Age tabletop roleplaying game, but nothing stops you from using other systems.
The Reading List
The Dragon Age tabletop roleplaying is fast and easy to learn, and Green Ronin’s production values are superb. It is highly recommended for both fans of Dragon Age and folks new to tabletop roleplaying games.
There are novels, most recently Tevinter Nights (2020) and Hard in Hightown (2018), but fun reads for fans fo the series.
There are plenty of books about the pacing and story structure. One of my favorites, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! (2007) should be obvious from the above to anyone who has read it.
Anyone eager to celebrate Dragon Age, check out the Dragon Age Day website. Thank you to everyone involved. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Also, play the game!