Good news: Dragon Age: Inquisition is pretty great. Less-good news: Being a story-heavy role-playing game, it relies heavily on a familiarity with the Dragon Age series' dense lore. Newcomers might be a bit lost at times.
I get the sense that a lot of people who missed the first two games are going to give this one a shot. As well they should! Skipping right to Inquisition is definitely doable, but in order to have the best time, you'll probably want to brush up on your lore up front. And that's what I'm here for.
Before you start the game, I highly recommend going through The Dragon Age Keep, a web app that BioWare has set up to guide prospective players through the events of the first two games. As you do the keep, you get to make all of the major story-affecting decisions in both games, then import that world-state into your Inquisition game. The Keep is extremely cool, but, paradoxically, it can be hard to follow for someone who doesn't already know a templar from a grey warden.
To help with that, I thought I'd take the time to write an explainer for anyone thinking of picking the game up when it comes out next week. The finished article came out pretty long, but hey, the game itself is pretty long, so hopefully you're ok with long.
A couple notes up front: Obviously, this post will include extensive spoilers for both Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2. That said, while I've chosen to highlight some things you'll probably want to know for Dragon Age: Inquisition, this post will not contain any direct spoilers for the new game. While this post is intended for newcomers, it's still pretty dense with lore, so it will probably work just as well as a reference to keep handy as you play through Inquisition. Lastly, I will readily admit that while I'm pretty into Dragon Age, I'm not infallible, so if there are any mistakes in this post I hope you'll let me know so that I can correct them.
Ready? Let's go!
Hi! I'd love to know more about the world of Dragon Age. Can you give me the basics?
Why, hello! Sure thing. Let's start with the name of the world we're in: Thedas. Everything that happens in Dragon Age happens in Thedas, though there are some realms beyond it. It's basically like Middle-Earth in Lord of the Rings, or Tamriel in The Elder Scrolls. Fun fact: Thedas was originally shorthand for "The Dragon Age Setting," and the nickname stuck.
Thedas is comprised of a bunch of different nations, but three are more important than the others. There's Ferelden to the southeast, which is basically medieval England, where everyone is kinda ugly and dirty and life is pretty cheap. They're ruled by a king and queen. Orlais is west of Ferelden, and is closer to renaissance France, where everyone is cultured, the accents are basically French, and the nobles wage war with secrets and subterfuge. They have an empress, though she's currently embroiled in a civil war with her cousin, who claims the right to her throne. And then there's The Tevinter Imperium, which is to the north and is run by a bunch of power-hungry mages called magisters who wield unholy magicks, own slaves, and are pretty much just huge dicks to everyone. They're led by an Imperial Archon.
There are plenty of other clans and nations and peoples, which we'll get to, but those are the big three. Also of note: Historical eras of Thedas are broken into several different "ages," like the "Ancient Age" and the "Storm Age." The current age, and the era containing the events of all three games in the series, is the "Dragon Age." Hence the series' title.
Got it. So how do those three nations fit into the series?
The first game in the series, 2009's Dragon Age: Origins, took place in Ferelden. You sometimes met people from Tevinter or Orlais, but the game itself was mostly just concerned with the fate of Ferelden. The king dies at the start of the game, and a lot of the political manoeuvring in the story is concerned with naming his successor.
The second game, 2011's Dragon Age 2, takes place in a city called Kirkwall, which is located in a ruler-less region to the north of Ferelden called The Free Marches. You play as a man or woman named Hawke, and while you run into a lot of people from various different nations over the course of the story, you mostly just stay in Kirkwall (which was one of the reasons the sequel was so poorly received by BioWare fans).
Let's get on to the mages, the elves, the dwarves, and all that. It all sounds pretty familiar.
It is… and it also isn't. Before we dive in, here's a good thing to keep in mind: Nothing in Thedas is simple. Pretty much every race, class, nation, and organisation has some sort of internal rift, which is partly because that's how organisations work, and partly because it makes for good interactive storytelling.
Over the course of these games, you usually have to wind up siding with one side or the other in any given conflict. So, the elves, the dwarves, the mages, the organised religions, all of those things have at least one major rift running through them. That means that for each thing we cover, I'm probably going to have to explain both sides of its internal conflict.
OK. Where's a good place to begin?
Let's start with mages. They're pretty important, after all.
OK. So… they're mages. They use magic, carry staves, that sort of thing, right?
Yeah, though it's a little more complicated than that. In Thedas, mages are super powerful, but they can't always control their own power. They're actually sort of like mutants in X-Men, in that they're born with the gift for magic, and it's identified early on. But because people are terrified of mages, they're kept under lock and key and are never truly free for their entire lives.
Why are people so afraid of mages?
They're extremely powerful, and can lose control of their power and become very dangerous. It all ties back to the connection mages have with the fade.
The fade. OK. What's the fade?
The fade is a parallel dimension where magical spirits and demons live. It's a little-understood metaphysical realm where people go when they dream, and is super mysterious and deeply magical. Mages have more direct access to the fade than normal people, which also means that the spirits and demons within the fade have access to mages. If a mage isn't careful, a demon can use them as a vessel to come out of the fade, possessing the mage and turning them into what's called an abomination, a super powerful, deadly monster. Everyone's terrified of that happening, because if it does, your helpful friend the mage can suddenly and irrevocably become a monster that you have to destroy. Which is where the templars come in.
The templars? OK…
Right, remember how I said there were two sides to everything in Thedas? Well, one of the most common conflicts in every Dragon Age story involves mages and templars. The mages in Ferelden and Orlais are all identified at a young age, documented, and sent to live in one of a few Circles of Magi, which are like a combination between a training academy and a prison. Once in a circle, mages are watched over by templars, knights who have injected themselves with magic to become able to counteract the mages' powers should they need to.
Circle mages live sheltered, largely peaceful lives, but they're always under the watchful eye of the templars. If a mage steps out of line, or is discovered to have been visiting the fade to talk to demons, he or she is usually killed. Other times, the templars perform a ritual on a mage that makes them tranquil, which is like giving them a magical lobotomy -- it severs the mage's connection with the fade, removes their magical ability, and erases their personality and emotions. Some mages reject the circle, however, and go live in secret -- they're known as apostates. Templars, then, have their own mage-hunters who go out into the world, track down apostates, and kill them.
Sounds like the templars are kinda jerks.
Well, that's not really fair. There's certainly an argument that if left unsupervised, enough mages would fall victim to demons in the fade that the world would be overrun by abominations and all mankind would be exterminated. Also, power-hungry mages sometimes begin to practice blood magic, a terrifying form of magic that's expressly outlawed across the realm, even in mage-friendly Tevinter. Blood magic uses the blood inside of us to fuel powerful spells, and generally winds up involving mass human sacrifice, demonic summoning, and other messed up stuff.
Right. So, templars aren't just jerks who keep nice mages in line; they're the first and last line of defence between mages who could very easily -- even accidentally -- become demonically possessed supermonsters, blood-magic using maniacs, or some combination of the two. The templars don't always love their jobs, and some of them are pretty cool people, just like a lot of mages are cool people. Templars view their responsibility as crucial to the maintained safety of humanity. It's a holy calling, actually.
Holy? Actually, you'd mentioned religion before. How does that fit in?
Religion is actually a pretty big deal in Dragon Age games. Templars are actually a division of The Chantry, which is the dominant religion in Thedas. That religion follows the teachings of the prophet Andraste, a long-dead woman who is basically their Jesus Christ, and its followers are called Andrastians. As a term, The Chantry is used like how we say "The Catholic Church." The actual thing that people follow is called "The Chant of Andraste," which is basically the Bible.
OK, so who is Andraste?
Andraste was a slave who lived a super long time ago, back when the Tevinter Imperium ruled almost all of Thedas. Think of it like this: Tevinter was the Roman Empire, and Andraste was J.C. At the time, most humans worshipped the seven old gods, a multitude of pagan beings who were believed to resemble massive dragons. The old gods had names like "Dumat, the Dragon of Silence" and "Toth, the Dragon of Fire."
Andraste escaped her enslavement and claimed that she was visited in dreams by a supreme creator called The Maker, who told her that he had abandoned his creations because mankind had turned away from him and begun worshipping the old gods. She and her husband (who happened to be a warlord) eventually led a massive and largely successful uprising against the Imperium, all in the name of their new god.
At the height of her influence, Andraste was betrayed by her own people and publicly burned at the stake by the Imperium. Thanks at least partly to her martyrdom, her rebellion, and the religion she started, stuck around. In fact, the Imperium Archon who ordered her execution was eventually overcome by remorse and became the first person to convert to follow The Chant.
So, is the Maker real? Did he actually visit Andraste?
It's never clear, and that's the point. The Chant is a religion, and so it requires faith. Some characters in the Dragon Age games believe in Andraste, others don't. Some aren't sure. Scholars across Thedas endlessly argue about what really happened, which parts of Andraste's story are fact, and which parts are myth. You get to define your own character, so you can be a devout follower, an atheist, or a doubter. Just like with any religion, your faith is up to you.
Got it. What's The Chantry like all these years later?
The modern-day Chantry is a massive organisation with its own internal rifts and political strife. Generally speaking, they function a bit like the Catholic church does in the real world. The Andrastian Chantry is led by a woman known as The Divine, who is a lot like the Pope. Every so often, a new Divine is elected, and rules over the faithful across the whole of Thedas. At the start of Inquisition, the Divine is a woman named Justinia I, known simply as Divine Justinia.
I think that all makes sense.
To summarize: The Divine rules over the Chantry, the Chantry controls the templars, and the templars guard the Circle of Magi, which is where the mages live. The mages aren't actually part of the Chantry, they just submit to the Chantry's rule. Unless they're apostates, then they live freely, but are always at risk of demonic possession and on the run from templar mage-hunters.
Cool. So... you're really just talking about human stuff here, right?
Yeah, these are mostly just things that humans concern themselves with. Or at least, the stuff with mages, templars, and the Chantry are all generally organised and driven by humans. Really, humans drive a lot of what happens in Thedas, for better or (often) for worse.
So, what about the other races? The elves, the dwarves, and so on?
OK, let's get to those. There are a few different races we should address: Elves, who have pointy ears, live in the woods, and have lost touch with their cultural roots. Dwarves, who are short, like beards, live in kingdoms underground, and craft all manner of amazing shit out of stone. The Qunari, a race of towering, horned men and women who strictly adhere to their own fundamentalist religion. And The Darkspawn, a race of twisted beasts that rise up from beneath the Earth and constantly threaten to overrun it.
Some of those sound weird. Let's start with elves. I like elves!
Cool. In Thedas, elves look more or less like the elves you've become familiar with in other fantasy stories. They're small, thin, have big eyes and pointy ears. They can use magic, and are often good with bows and arrows.
So, they're like Legolas?
Not really. I mean, a little. No. They're not really like Legolas.
I like Legolas.
Yeah, I mean. I like Legolas too.
That part where he shield-surfs down the stairs, you know?
It was pretty cool.
OK, so what makes Dragon Age elves different?
Mostly, it's the way they're treated by the rest of the world. Elves have been grossly oppressed over the centuries, subjugated by just about every ruling human power. In cities, elves live in ghettos called alienages where they're denied access to the rest of the city and frequently live in filth and disease. They're not kept as slaves anymore outside of Tevinter, but they're often mistreated or fall into indentured servitude.
The thing is, elves actually have a rich history, and ancient elves were extremely powerful beings who harnessed the secrets of the universe in ways that even modern mages can't match. Unfortunately, ancient elven history has been all but erased, and the elves themselves have lost track of a lot of their own cultural identity. While ancient elven artifacts remain scattered about the world, most modern elves in Thedas have a thin-at-best connection with their ancestry.
However, some elves reject human society and choose to live in the wilds, attempting to preserve their culture and revive old traditions. They're known as The Dalish, and they live in forests, ornament themselves with elaborate facial tattoos, and greatly distrust outsiders. They keep to their own traditions, move their encampments from place to place, and consider themselves outside the law of the nations of Thedas. They also look down upon any elves who choose to go live in cities, join the mage's circle, follow the chant, or attempt to blend in with human-dominated society.
So, people are pretty mean to elves, huh?
Yeah. Elves are treated awfully a lot of the time, and casual racism toward them is even more pervasive than actual elf-hatred. People will call elves slurs like "knife-ear," that sort of thing. It's a bummer, and you'll see it quite a bit if you choose to play as an elf character.
OK, now dwarves! Let's do dwarves.
You got it. Dwarves in Dragon Age are a lot like the dwarves in Tolkien -- there's no big unique twist or anything. They're short and sturdily built, they're master craftsmen, and they build vast underground cities out of stone. However, they do not all talk with Scottish accents, which is nice.
Such a random trope, right?
Don't even get me started. So, dwarves live in underground kingdoms housed in cities known as thaigs, and organise their society according to a strict caste system. They have a governing assembly, and are overseen by a king. They also occasionally elevate a dwarf to the title of paragon, usually for some extraordinary deed. A paragon becomes the leader of a new noble house.
Dwarven society is pretty rigorously structured, and the caste system can be brutally enforced. Dwarven politics played a pretty large role in Dragon Age: Origins, and one of that game's many playable origin stories, the Dwarf Noble, allowed for a really fun navigation of the political underbelly of the dwarven kingdom of Orzammar.
They sound like basic fantasy dwarves. What makes them special?
Dragon Age dwarves are most notable for a few things: For starters, they are unable to enter the fade, and thus entirely unable to use magic. (They also don't dream! Aw.) Their disconnection from the fade makes them immune to the effects of Blue Lyrium, the raw magical material that both mages and templars use to channel magical energy and create magic items. As a result, dwarves are able to mine lyrium and make a ton of money selling it to circle mages and templars on the surface.
Secondly, dwarves all live underground, and are super hardcore about any of their number who go out and live on the surface. That's at least partly because for a variety of reasons, Dwarves numbers' have been dwindling over the years, and they're concerned about ensuring the future of their race. All dwarves have a preternatural connection with the earth, which they call stone sense. If a dwarf lives on the surface for too long, he or she loses the resistance to lyrium, as well as the ability to sense the stone around them. Once a dwarf has left to live on the surface, he or she is not really welcome back underground.
This last thing probably transitions us to our next topic: Dwarves are largely defined by their centuries-long conflict with the Darkspawn.
OK. Darkspawn. Let's do it.
Alright. They're monsters, they kinda look like orcs from Lord of the Rings, and they're called Darkspawn.
That's a pretty…
Don't say it.
That's a pretty silly name.
Yeah, I know. Everyone agrees. It's a dumb name. There's kinda nothing for it at this point. But they're a pretty big deal, so we should talk about them.
OK. What are the Darkspawn?
The Darkspawn used to be humans, but they have been hopelessly corrupted. As the legend goes, back before Andraste's time, the Tevinter magisters grew so powerful and reckless that, using a ritual that involved an ungodly amount of lyrium, blood magic, and a bunch of human sacrifices, they managed to open a door to the fade and physically enter it. That's a big deal, since usually the only way into the fade is while dreaming, with a mental projection of yourself.
So, the Tevinter mages opened a rift and made their way into The Golden City, a mysterious place at the heart of the fade thought to be the center of all creation. Their greed and pride corrupted the city, and it transformed into The Black City, which is what exists in the fade today. The magisters who stepped into The Golden City were blighted and became twisted beasts who immediately began to destroy everything in their path. Those magisters were very first Darkspawn.
Yeesh. This sounds kind of like original sin, yeah?
Yeah, it's kinda like that.
So, hold up. This sounds like religion stuff again. Did these things actually happen, or are these just myths that people in Thedas tell one another?
It's difficult to say for sure. In one of Dragon Age 2's DLC packs, the hero Hawke runs into and eventually destroys a super powerful Darkspawn named Corypheus who claims he's one of the original magisters who entered the Golden City way back in the day. It's left unclear whether his claim is true or not, but it certainly seems possible. So, while a lot of this stuff is kept deliberately unclear and open to interpretation, those events lend credence to the idea that at least some of these things really did happen at some point.
OK, so what happened after the magisters despoiled the Golden City?
The magisters, now Darkspawn, came back through the fade and attacked the world. If people were wounded by a Darkspawn in battle or became infected by Darkspawn blood, they would succumb to the taint (yup) and become a Darkspawn, so it was a bit of a zombie apocalypse. Everyone called the Darkspawn invasion the blight, and it lasted two hundred years.
It was. Everyone pretty much figured it was the end of the world. The Darkspawn swept across the planet's surface while digging into the depths below, making their way around via a vast network of dwarf-built underground highways known as The Deep Roads. They uncovered a buried elder god-dragon -- in this case Dumat, the god of silence -- and reanimated it. Dumat returned to the world as an unstoppable undead dragon, known as an archdemon.
Let's slow down. This is a lot to digest. So there's a blight, there are Darkspawn, and there's an archdemon…
Right. Those three things all sort of go hand in hand. Eventually, the Darkspawn were defeated, the Archdemon was killed, and the blight ended. But they never really went away. The Darkspawn linger down in the Deep Roads, and they're always digging, looking for new elder gods to uncover and bring back. Each time they dig up a new archdemon, it unites them and they invade the surface, kicking off another blight.
I think I get it. How did everyone stop the first blight?
With the help of an order of warriors called The Grey Wardens.
Grey Wardens. OK. Lots of different factions in this game, eh?
Yeah, but this is one of the last ones you'll have to keep straight. The Grey Wardens are a pretty big deal in Dragon Age. They were founded way back during the first blight when a group of elite warriors, desperate for a way to fight the Darkspawn, tried ingesting Darkspawn blood to see if it would give them special power. The blood killed most people who took it, but a few survived. Those few found themselves linked to the Darkspawn, able to sense their presence and to see into the mind of the archdemon.
Eventually, enough warriors survived the initiation to form an order called the Grey Wardens, who turned the tide of the blight and eventually killed the archdemon. As it turns out, archdemons are nigh unkillable, except by a Grey Warden, who can kill the demon by sacrificing his or her own life. So ended the first blight.
The intro cinematic to Dragon Age: Origins actually summed the whole thing up pretty well, you can watch that here:
How many blights have there been in total?
Five. The first game in the series, Dragon Age: Origins, told the story of the fifth blight. Players controlled a guy or lady who was conscripted into the Grey Wardens early on and eventually brought down an archdemon -- this time Urthemiel, the god-dragon of beauty -- thus ending the blight and saving the world.
But even when there isn't a blight, the Grey Wardens hang around?
Yeah, because there's always the chance that the Darkspawn will find another archdemon, and the Wardens will be needed again.
They're all a little bit crazy, since they live out on the fringes and are ready to sacrifice their lives, should the need arise. They're actually a lot like the Night's Watch in Game of Thrones -- they will accept anyone of any class, background, or race. They don't care if you're a criminal or a nobleman, and once you join, there's no un-joining. They're all kind of dour, and carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. But because the blight isn't always in effect, people sometimes stop listening to them or taking them seriously.
Got it. So, Grey Wardens are basically the Night's Watch, they're the Darkspawn-busters of Thedas. You mentioned that the Darkspawn have a special relationship with Dwarves?
Yeah. Because the Darkspawn live underground and travel via the Deep Roads, the dwarves have had to deal with them up close ever since the first blight. People who live on the surface rarely see Darkspawn unless there's a blight going on, but they're a constant menace for dwarves who live underground. The Darkspawn have greatly thinned the dwarven ranks over the years, and the Darkspawn taint is widely thought to cause sterility among dwarven adults. As a result, dwarves can get kind of testy with surface-dwellers about the Darkspawn. It's kind of always blight-time for dwarves.
Makes sense. Alright, let's move on to the Qunari. Those don't really sound like any fantasy race I'm familiar with. What's their story?
The Qunari are pretty cool. They're commonly understood to be a race of huge, horned people who live according to a strict religion they call The Qun. That said, anyone of any race who follows the Qun can be considered a Qunari, and if a member of the Qunari race abandons the Qun, they are exiled and become known as Tal-Vashoth. Inquisition actually gives you the option of playing as a Tal-Vashoth Qunari, which is a first for the series.
The Qunari are fearsome warriors, kind of like the vikings of Thedas. They do a lot of conquering -- they arrived in Thedas a long time ago as invaders, and nearly took over the entire place before losing a lot of their land in various wars. They currently occupy a region to the far northeast called Par Vollen, and are involved in a lengthy war with the Tevinter Imperium. That war is actually one of the main reasons the Imperium has lost so much of its power elsewhere
OK, got it. I think that's all the races, right?
Yeah, that about does it.
You've alluded to the stories of the first two games. Where do things stand at the start of Inquisition?
There's too much to summarize here, since each of the first two games was incredibly long, featured a shitload of different characters, and took dozens of hours to complete. The thing you should really do, once you finish reading this, is go and do the Dragon Age Keep.
Oh yeah, you mentioned that earlier. So, the Keep is a web app that will let me go through the stories of the first two games?
Yeah. It's slick, but it's pretty confusing if you don't understand all the basics I just laid out here. Once you know how the blight works, and what a Grey Warden is, and the difference between a Dalish elf and a city elf, it gets a lot easier to follow. Then, you can decide what happened in the first two games, which will change some stuff like who is the current ruler of Ferelden, what became of the mages in Kirkwall, that sort of thing. Then, you can import your custom world-state into your Inquisition game, no matter what platform you're playing on.
OK, I'll do that. For now, can you kinda just summarize?
Sure. Let's start with Origins. Origins took place in Ferelden, and told the story of the fifth blight, like I said. The player is some random jerk -- maybe a city elf, maybe a dwarven noble, maybe a circle mage -- who gets conscripted by the Grey Wardens and winds up at a battle where King Cailan of Ferelden's top commander, a guy named Loghain, betrays the king and lets him die, throwing the whole nation into turmoil just as the blight threatens to swallow everything.
That sounds like a pretty punk move.
Loghain had his reasons; the king was sort of a dope. That battle leaves the main character as one of the last of the Grey Wardens, and he or she has to form a coalition, enact a bunch of old treaties to get help from various nobles, mages, and others around Ferelden, unite the kingdom, and mount a last-ditch attack on the archdemon.
It was! Origins was a really good game. Things could go a whole bunch of different ways, but in the end, the heroes faced off against the archdemon and killed it, ending the blight and saving the world. Depending on the choices you made, the ending could mean your hero sacrificed him/herself to kill the archdemon, or let a friend do it, or let an apostate mage named Morrigan become pregnant with a demon baby that stops… the archdemon… or something…
Yeah, that's definitely the "weird option" for the ending. We'll get to Morrigan in a second.
So anyway, Dragon Age 2 is a pretty much totally unrelated story that picks up during the same time period as Origins, during the fifth blight. While the Grey Warden from the first game was off fighting the Darkspawn, the hero of the sequel, a man or woman named Hawke, led his or her family from Ferelden to the city of Kirkwall. Kirkwall is located in the Free Marches, which if you remember from before, is a ruler-less region located north of Ferelden, across The Waking Sea.
Sounds good. What is Kirkwall like?
It's kind of a shitshow, really. Upon Hawke's arrival, the city is overrun with refugees from Ferelden who are trying to flee the blight. There's a huge gap between the wealthy nobles and the poor folk in the streets, and the whole place is teetering on the brink of falling apart.
Meanwhile, the conflict between the city's mages and templars has gotten extremely tense, and templars are right on the verge of killing all the mages in the city once and for all.
Yeesh. So what happens in the game?
The story was more of a mess than the first game, and didn't have nearly as clear of a narrative thrust. It takes place over a decade in Hawke's life. A few key things happened in that time: The discovery of red lyrium, and the start of the mage rebellion.
OK. Let's start with red lyrium. You mentioned Lyrium before, that's basically a magic-infused material, right?
Yeah. It's this sort of blue glowing ore that mages use to craft magical items and templars ingest to make themselves resistant to magic. Think of it as "mana" from other fantasy RPGs, made into a sort of mineral.
Red lyrium is this aberrant form of lyrium that no one had really seen before the events of Dragon Age 2. Hawke went on an expedition led by a couple of dwarven brothers named Varric and Bertrand Tethras. Varric is actually the narrator of Dragon Age 2, as well as a party member, and he returns as a major character and party member in Inquisition.
Oh yeah, Varric. I think I remember seeing videos of him when Dragon Age 2 was out.
He's a cool dude, definitely one of the best characters in that game. So, the expedition uncovers some red lyrium, and an artifact made of the stuff makes its way back to Kirkwall. It falls into the hands of the leader of the Kirkwall templars, a woman named Meredith, and it turns out it's pretty much pure evil. It corrupts Meredith and she orders the murder of every mage in Kirkwall.
Yikes! Can she do that?
Technically, yeah, but really, everything in Kirkwall just kind of falls apart at that point. Hawke can choose to side with Meredith or with the mages, but it's the beginning of the end either way. When I played, I sided with the mages and eventually killed Meredith. She was kind of an arsehole even before she became corrupted by the red lyrium, so I didn't feel too bad about it. Actually, come to think of it, I had to kill the mages' leader as well, because it turned out he was practicing blood magic, so he became an abomination. It was all pretty dumb, really.
What about the other thing, the mage rebellion?
That's more complicated. One of the main companion characters in Dragon Age 2 is a mage named Anders, who is also a Grey Warden. Hawke meets Anders in Kirkwall and fights alongside him throughout the story.
Anders is opposed to the entire notion of the circle of mages, the templars, the the Chantry. He thinks all mages should be free. He grows more and more radical over the course of the story, and finally takes extreme action by setting off a massive blast of magical energy and destroying the Kirkwall Chantry, killing everyone inside.
That incident is a flashpoint for a mage uprising that stretches far beyond Kirkwall. Regardless of what players choose to do with Anders at the end of DA2 -- you can kill him, stick with him, or set him free -- the mage rebellion is underway. All around Orlais and Ferelden, the circles begin to dissolve, mages openly defy the chantry and begin to live as apostates, and everything gets pretty gnarly.
Which, more or less, is where things pick up at the beginning of Dragon Age: Inquisition. At the beginning of the new game, Divine Justinia has called a meeting with the leaders of the templars and the mages in an attempt to broker peace.
OK! I get it. I'm gonna go do the Dragon Age Keep now, but are there any other characters I should know from the previous games?
There are a few. Let's run 'em down.
Cassandra Pentaghast is a Chantry warrior/detective known as a "Seeker of Truth." She was sent in to determine why the Kirkwall Chantry was destroyed, and what had become of Hawke. Cassandra brings Varric the dwarf in for questioning, and their back-and-forth frames the story of Dragon Age 2.
Morrigan is an apostate mage who was a major character in Origins. She is first found living in the woods with her mother Flemeth and learning all sorts of ancient, mysterious magic. She wears a dress made out of leather belts and is a bit of a fan favourite.
Flemeth is Morrigan's mother. She's initially introduced as "The Witch of the Wilds," though at the end of Origins it's revealed that she's more than just some mage -- she has the ability to turn into a huge, extremely powerful dragon, among other things. She also turns up at the beginning of Dragon Age 2 to guide Hawke to Kirkwall, setting the events of that game in motion. Her true nature has always been a bit mysterious, as is truth of her relationship with her daughter.
Varric is the dwarf who narrated Dragon Age 2. I already talked about him. He's a good bro.
Sister Leliana is a lay sister of the Chantry; she's also a bard, an assassin, and a spy. She was a main companion character in Origins, a master archer who was super well-connected and always knew what was happening around the world. She wasn't in Dragon Age 2, but in Inquisition, she returns to serve as the Inquisition's ruthless spymaster.
That's it? That's not all that many extra characters.
Well, there were a lot more, but those are the only ones where references to them might be confusing enough that you'd want to know who they were before you start playing.
OK! I'm feeling pretty good about all this.
Cool! And hey, don't be afraid to take time out to read the in-game codex, or to browse the excellent Dragon Age Wiki. That's where I dug up a lot of the finer details here, and where I fact-checked the stuff I wasn't totally sure about.
Thanks for all the information!
We should grab a drink or get dinner sometime.
I'd like that.
Special thanks to everyone who helps maintain The Dragon Age Wiki for providing such an exhaustive, wonderful resource.