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A primer about Thedas, the Dragon Age setting


Context

Dragon Age is a cluster of low fantasy  stories. The core of it is a trilogy of major Bioware video games :

  1. Dragon Age: Origins (DA:O, 2009).
  2. Dragon Age II (DA2, 2011).
  3. Dragon Age: Inquisition (DA:I, 2014).

This is supplemented by fair few novels, comics, sourcebooks, web series, one animated movie, etc.. Which works out reasonably well, since the series features an awful lot of world-building. Said world is called Thedas.

This article is a primer to Thedas. This way, we don’t have to explain these basics in every Dragon Age character profile.

This article is in beta, since the Dragon Age character writeups arc will take quite a few years.

The current roster of Dragon Age articles is here.

We also have a technical guide about modding DA:O, if that helps.


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Canon playthrough

The games are classic Bioware fare. So the style is broadly similar to Mass Effect games, and an evolution over Baldur’s gate games. Which means :

  1. A focus on immersion and characterisation.
  2. Extensively customisable protagonists (species, gender, class, age, ethnicity, etc.).
  3. Branching, decisions-based storylines (to an extent).
  4. Recurring characters with evolving relationships.

For character profile purposes, having a set series of events and relationships greatly facilitates things. Thus I present the story as it occurred in my master playthrough. This concept is discussed in further details in the FAQ.

Generally, I keep an eye on matching the Bioware de-facto-canon. For instance, the comics feature a certain person as the King of Ferelden after the events in DA:O, so I align with that.

The sequence of “canon for writeups.org narration purposes” protags is :

  • Warden Alamen Tabris, the Heroine of Ferelden (DA:O).
  • Warden-Commander Adaia Tabris (DA:O).
  • Marian Hawke, the Champion of Kirkwall (DA2).
  • Her Ladyship the Inquisitrix Agathe, comtesse de Fer-de-Sixt d’Orlac (DA:I).

The RPG stats are based on a playthrough at the highest level of difficulty, with optimised player characters. All playthroughs also employ a collection of mods.

I’ve dumped some of my screenshots into a Flickr album, too .


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Thedas, the Dragon Age setting

Thedas features the usual elements of post-Tolkien , post-Gygax  heroic fantasy, such as Elves and Dwarves and mages. As a result, it is readily accessible for gamers without massive information dumps.

Over this neutral base it layers setting-specific, less formulaic elements. The setting was developed very much like a tabletop RPG Dungeons & Dragons  campaign would.

The core conceit is to draw from real-world European medieval history, as if a realistic History was occurring in a fantasy milieu. This means that credible elements structure the setting – such as politics, social stratification and religion. Most characters do not have an epic dimension à la Beowulf or Lord of the Rings.

Characters in the story are portrayed as everyday people who happen to live in a fantasy setting. Even the strongest and most competent may find the issues they face intractable. Success is often bought at a terrible price, and things may fall apart due to simple bad luck and human nature.

Dragon Age official art - building with stained glass windows

Typical Chantry stained glass artwork. Click for a larger version.

Low fantasy

The Dragon Age setting is primarily low fantasy in the RPG sense of the term (like, say, Game of Thrones ). However, it includes all sorts of high fantasy tropes such as mighty dragons and wizards, great supernatural evils, demons, etc.. The main missing one is fantasy interventionist gods.

The thing is, these high fantasy elements do not transcend the mundane anchoring of the setting. Even with the clear and present danger of an all-threatening evil à la Mordor , the bulk of the plot is about morally ambiguous political infighting and catastrophic mistakes by fallible leaders.

No renfaire

The setting doesn’t really to convey an “historical” vibe, or a “the past is another country” vibe. For instance, most sociopolitical issues can be engaged through a modern Northern American mindset.

Likewise the language, sense of humour, etc. are deliberately modern. There are no “thees” and “thous”, and the banter, some of the slang, etc. are something you could hear in a bar during the 2010s. Presumably, the intent is more to convey how the discussions feel *for the characters*.

Dates format

The dates in our character profiles are given using the Chantry’s (see below) calendar format. Its is simple to get :

  • Each century is called an “age”. So far there have been nine centuries/ages in History. But like on Earth, there’s a lot of small-h history that precedes Year Zero.
  • When a century reaches the end of its 99th year, authorities announce and name a new age. It starts with a year zero, not a year one.
  • The bulk of the relevant events occur during the ninth century, called the Dragon Age. It was preceded by the Blessed Age, which was… which was ? Yep, the eighth century.
  • A typical date would be given as 9:30, which means year 30 of the ninth age. Note that “year 30” is actually the 31st year of that age. Because of the year zero thing.
  • The dates are sometimes given as, say “9:30 Dragon”. Since almost every date we’ll use will be during the Dragon Age, we usually go with just “9:30”.

Language

Thedas has a “common tongue”. It is the King’s Tongue, a trade language originally deployed by the Dwarves. Just about every important character can be assumed to have full fluency in the King’s Tongue. Many will have an accent, however.

The stories generally dodge linguistic issues. The main exception is a sprinkling of French and faux-French when it comes to the realm of Orlais, and nearby areas.


Thedas – genders and species

Thedas is clearly dominated by Humans. But there is very little sense of intra-species solidarity, just like with Humans on Earth.

The nations of Thedas are ethnically mixed. This is presumably a result of large-scale slavery in the past, plus major population movements during wars and the like. The first Exalted March apparently was the main such factor. Most people have an appearance evoking Europe, but people that evoke Northern Africa, the Middle East and Central Africa are quite common.

(Howbeit it’s not that visible in the early games, in part due to the engine rendering darker skin tones poorly.)

Ambitious and/or adventurous women have plenty of opportunities in most cultures on Thedas. The priesthood is almost wholly female. In many militaries feminist trailblazers have created strong precedents for women soldiers – and even knights or commanders.

Every kind of people

The main not-quite-human species are :

  • Elves.
  • Dwarves.
  • Qunari.

Humans, Elves and Dwarves aren’t *that* different. Elves and Humans are even known to be somewhat interfertile, with the child being indistinguishable from a Human. It seems possible that all three races are in zoological terms one species.

Elves and Dwarves used to have large and thriving civilisations. But their times are past, and what remains is but a shadow of what once was.

The Qunari, on the other hand, are from the Humans’ point of view newcomers. They are powerful and dynamic, and their religion — the Qun — is spreading among other species.


Thedas – the powers during DA:O

The main players during Dragon Age: Origins are :

The Chantry

The equivalent of the Catholic Church. Its prophet was a Joan-of-Arc-like figure called Andraste (Ahn-DRAH-stay). She led an Exalted March (a crusade) that cut down the ancient magocracy that once dominated Thedas. The Chantry’s holy text is the Chant of Light (hence their name). Their monotheistic figure is called the Maker.

See our Leliana character profile for more.

The kingdom of Ferelden

This where the action of DA:O (and parts of DA:I) takes place. It is a bit like medieval Scotland, though it hasn’t been that long since Fereldans were barbarian tribals. Fereldans are a rugged but quarrelsome lot, known for loving dogs and their tolerance for the poor weather of their homeland.

See our Alistair character profile for more. Dragon Age official art - Skyhold

The ancient fortress of Skyhold became the headquarters of the Inquisition. Click for a larger version.

Orlais

Ferelden was occupied by the kingdom of Orlais, and only recently regained its independence after a war. Orlais is a sort of medieval France, known for its sophisticated culture and decadent nobility. There are still plenty of Orlesians living or trading in Ferelden, though they’re not terribly popular.

See our Leliana article for more.

The Circle of Magi

This institution monitors, trains and keeps mages in line. They are closely monitored by the Templars – the Chantry’s military arm, whose main job is to hunt down rogue mages (“apostates”).

See our Wynne character profile for more.

The Dwarves

These are, nowadays, a peripheral presence. Their might and population were greatly reduced by centuries of war against underworld invaders. However, one of their last surviving realms, Orzammar, is practically in Ferelden.

Dwarven life is dominated by :

  • Rigid castes and traditions.
  • Vicious political infighting among the nobility.
  • Isolation from the surface.
  • Being besieged from underneath.

The Elves

These are even more peripheral. Most Elves live in race ghettos in Human cities, called alienages. A minority, called “Dalish” Elves, live free as small nomadic tribes.

Thus, Dalish Elves attempt to preserve their half-lost culture and language despite centuries of devastation by Humans.

See our Alamen Tabris profile for more about ghetto Elves.

Tevinter

The ancient magocracy of Tevinter is but a shadow of what it was before Andraste’s Exalted March. It lies far to the North. But the Tevinter Empire still pervades history. Most of the ruins in Ferelden date from the Empire.

See our Magister Maevaris Tilani character profile for more about Tevinter.

The Blight

A Blight is a recurrent, cataclysmic event. Four Blights have occurred in the past, and DA:O is marked by a fifth. During a Blight, immense armies of monsters (“darkspawn”) come from deep beneath and devastate everything. In most cases, stopping a Blight before it obliterates everyone has been a close call requiring extraordinary mobilisation and heroism.

See our XXXXX profile for more about Darkspawns.

The Grey Wardens

The Wardens are a sort of Special Forces international organisation spearheading the armed response to Blights. However, when DA:O starts it has been 400 years since the last Blight. The organisation is quite weakened, as people increasingly see Blights as myth, or something that no longer exists.

See our second Alamen Tabris character profile for more about the Grey Wardens.

Video

The story trailer for DA:O.


Thedas – the powers during DA2

The main players during Dragon Age II are :

Video

An uncluttered trailer for DA2.


Thedas – the powers during DA:I

The main players during Dragon Age: Inquisition are :

The Inquisition – basics

The original Inquisition was created centuries ago, after the First Blight. It stood to protect people against magic.

The organisation was eventually absorbed by the Chantry, as their objectives converged. The Chant of Light condemned the rule of magic over man, and the Exalted March called by the prophetess Andraste fatally wounded the Tevinter theocracy.

Much of the original’s Inquisition methods and manpower was used to found the Templars. See our Alistair profile for more about the Templars.

The Inquisition – the Hands of the Divine

In 9:40 the Divine, the Chantry’s equivalent of the Pope, knew that it was time for the Inquisition to return. Divine Justinia V entrusted her two redoubtable lieutenants with this task. These were :

  • Seeker Cassandra Pentaghast, a.k.a. the Right Hand of the Divine, an incorruptible hard-arse holy warrior.
  • Sister Nightingale, a.k.a. The Left Hand of the Divine, a.k.a. Sœur Nyctale, a.k.a. Léliana, a deadly mistress of espionage and dirty tricks.

In 9:41 a magical catastrophe slew many important people, including Justinia V. This triggered severe chaos, and opened breaches from which came devastating demon attacks. Leliana and Cassandra designated a leader for the Inquisition – the Comtesse Agathe de Fer-de-Sixt d’Orlac, controversially seen as the Herald of Andraste.

(I’m not using the official and literal French translation for Sister Nightingale, as “Sœur Rossignol” sounds meh.)

The Inquisition – unto the breach

The Inquisition quickly grew into a formidable force. It became capable of engaging and destroying the demons that were now threatening the world. Within an amazingly short time the Inquisition’s military, intelligence and diplomatic oomph rivaled a large nation’s.

The Inquisitrix was also able to close the breaches that were opening into the Fade, preventing further demonic incursions. In time, she and her forces saved the world against a formidable threat.

The Inquisition – video

 

The tough lady with the scar is the Right Hand of the Divine, and the (briefly-seen circa 1:04) cowled redhead with the ominous gaze is the Left Hand of the Divine. The narrator is Varric Tethras, as usual.


Thedas – using magic

Magic is certainly a reality in Thedas, but not a comfortable one. The basics :

  1. Anybody can be born a mage, a bit like mutants in the Marvel Universe.
  2. Most cultures keep mages under tight, armed control.
  3. Magic is awfully dangerous, and mages are at constant risk of demonic possession.
  4. The source of magic is called the Fade, a realm of dreams and death.

For more, see our Morrigan character profile.


Technical TTRPG notes – power scale

Dragon Age has a stark, early Dungeons & Dragons– style power distribution. Most soldiers are probably going to be killed by a darkspawn. They have about 2-to-3 odds in a straight fight, and darkspawn rarely fight straight.

Most soldiers and darkspawn, even with armour, will likely die in two or three blows. Maybe a single one from a two-handed weapon. At least this is the way things go in cinematics. The gameplay is a bit different.

In DC Heroes, most soldiers would thus have rag-tag militia or basic grunt stats (from our Stock Soldiers technical article) and no Hero Points.

Gather your party (imaginary numbers remix)

The “early” stats for the protagonists will thus be low (albeit markedly above such soldiers’ since their odds against darkspawns are dramatically better). The four main reasons for this are :

  • We are, as often with video games, rolling better equipment into better stats. DC Heroes isn’t scaled to handle tiny bonuses from sundry bits of equipment, which do not necessarily make sense outside of video game logic .
  • Dragon Age, like many computer RPGs, has something of a reverse difficulty curve. Early fights against ordinary opponents are often more difficult than later fights against powerful opponents due to the lack of equipment and in-game skills, spells, hit points, etc. at low levels.
  • This represents in part the player’s learning curve. It takes some time to understand how to fight in Dragon Age, and getting a sense of how it works makes characters dramatically more efficient.
  • Some players have found Dragon Age: Origins fights at the default difficulty to be harder than equivalent combat in other video games. This wasn’t my experience. It seems to be mostly a result of people not realising that they are in (cunningly non-signalled) higher level zone, such as the Orzammar access area, and/or playing without the tactical pause.
    But it’s a further argument for relatively low stats for early Dragon Age: Origins protagonists.

Thus, writeups for the early versions of the protagonists will generally top out at 4-5 APs, though they become considerably more robust during the campaign. By level 14 at the latest, a well-managed party can take on a high dragon with confidence (as in From Ashes). Assuming the default difficulty level.

Once the adventuring party has picked up steam and levels, they become *much* tougher than the norm for the setting. This matches the lore. For instance The Calling mentions that it took thousands of Fereldan soldiers to defeat less than a hundred Grey Wardens back during the Dryden mess.


Technical TTRPG notes – healing

A key aspect of Dragon Age combat is quaffing healing potions. These are oddly described as poultices even though everything else points to them being AD&D-style drinkables. Potions use herbs, particularly the wonder plant called elfroot , to magically cure pain and wounds. The more proficient the herbalist, the more powerful the potion.

A Bioware short story about Dragon Age II protagonist Fenris (2-page PDF)  notes his surprise at encountering somebody he thought he had killed. As Fenris sees the healed wound on the man’s neck he curses healing potions. This would explain why Dragon Age character can recover from being taken down in battle, as long as one of them is still conscious and mobile.

Healing compounds (and this time it might actually be a poultice) presumably staunch and close even fatal or near-fatal wounds. If so, they only leave relatively minor wounds. These can be addressed by further medical care but aren’t life-threatening or severely handicapping.

Poultices, poultices everywhere

The side that wins a battle could thus considerably reduce or even eliminate their casualties. This would be done by having the survivors attend anybody who still has a spark of life – which mirrors gameplay.

However, most NPCs  do not seem to be “recoverable” by these means. For instance, the soldiers and knights who fight at the party’s side during some encounters will stay down.

Let’s hazard a No-Prize Hypothesis . Perhaps the full effects of elfroot necessitate a special diet to saturate one’s body with prepared elfroot. This diet ends up costing a lot over time. It also requires a competent herbalist for preparation – and monitoring the subject.

Since in a typical DA:O playthrough it’s mages among the party who have herbalism skills, this diet might even require the herbalist to enchant the elfroot and other herbs. This would make it markedly more difficult to prepare one’s metabolism to benefit from healing potions.

Interestingly, the “enchanted elfroot diet” hypothesis might also explain why the Circle of Magi recovers so well from what seemed to be a massacre. Generally meshes well with DA:O in-game dialogue and events. But still, it’s just a No-Prize Hypothesis  to explain the observed facts.

It could also help explain why some characters age amazingly gracefully.

DA:O spells

The healing spells available in DA:O (and seen in the prequel novels set in Ferelden) are more limited than in later games. Fiona, Morrigan or Wynne can sling some healing spells, but this clearly isn’t their speciality. Such spells seem to be a stopgap, emergency tool that :

  1. Efficiently suppress pain.
  2. Knit back the damaged tissue in a crude manner so the person can keep functioning.
  3. Staunches major bleeding, and glues things back together with enough strength that violent physical ability isn’t going to reopen the wound.

It saves people and keeps them in the fight, but the fixes are crude and mana-intensive. A wounded person will still need medical attention and rest for genuine healing to take place. On the other hand, these spells seem to address what would otherwise be the big killers – infection, gangrene, internal bleeding, punctured organs.

Since “DA:O healing spells” ain’t too diegetic , I suppose we could call these “battlefield healing spells”. It resembles battlefield medicine, and the spells likely were developed to fit military needs.

By Sébastien Andrivet.

Source of Character: Dragon Age games and transmedia.

Helper(s): Darci. And dragonageunivers.fr  for Leliana’s official French code name.

Writeup completed on the 28th of December, 2017.

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