The Dragon Age games have captured my imagination like few other series have ever managed. Every quest is a roller coaster full of tough choices. For Origins, the best quest involved dwarven politics and a magical anvil. We take a closer look in this video.
If you can't watch the video, here's a transcript:
I'm a huge fan of the Dragon Age series. They have crafted a memorable world full of characters that I've come to truly care about. It has lore and politics that I genuinely give a shit about. That isn't a small feat. I think a lot of this comes down to solid quest design. Dragon Age quests might not reach the philosophical heights of games like Planescape: Torment or Tyranny, but they do offer intricate and varied ways to express your character and leave a mark on the world. One of the best quests in the series is A Paragon of Her Kind from Dragon Age: Origins.
A Paragon of Her Kind is the main quest associated with the dwarven city of Orzammar. A Blight has fallen over the country of Fereldan, which has sent the bloodthirsty darkspawn to the surface. You are a Grey Warden tasked with forming an army to fight them, using ancient treaties to ask for aid from all the various races of the realm. When you reach Orzammar, the city is in disarray. The last king has passed away and two possible successors seek the throne. Their champions and supporters fight in the street. In order to get dwarven support for your army, you need to help one of these candidates get elected.
There are two choices. Bhelen is the deceased king's son. He's a progressive who pushes against the society's caste system and wants to open up contact with the surface. But he's also manipulative and deceitful. In the opening of the game for dwarven noble characters, he arranges for the death of one brother and the player's exile. He's forward-thinking but power hungry and cruel in his quest for the throne.
You can also support Lord Harrowmont. He's an honourable sort, favouring displays of martial strength and devotion to the ancestors. However, he's a traditionalist. He rigidly believes in the caste system and even though he is fair in his dealings with other nobles, he seems less concerned with the plight of commoners.
For the purposes of this analysis, we'll side with Bhelen and note divergent paths. Both candidates are paranoid and ask the player to perform a task for them to prove their loyalty. Harrowmont wants you to fight for him in the dangerous Provings. This focus on combat is a nice mechanical difference when compared to Bhelen's task. He wants you to tell two nobles that Harrowmont has cheated them out of land and claims to have the documents to prove it. The more honourable candidate wants you to fight and honour violent traditions. The politically savvy characters sends you on a quest of guile.
The difficult thing about Bhelen's quest is that the documents are false. Crafty players can ask clerks to verify their authenticity to learn that they are forgeries. Yet this quest, as dishonest as it may be, is not violent. Still, players are able to back out of the task if it is out of character for them.
An important thing to note about the structure of the political quest here is that is slowly begins to interweave with other concerns. Travelling around the city means the player will have to meet Oghren, a dwarven warrior whose wife has disappeared in the monster filled Deep Roads on a quest to find a magical artefact called the Anvil of the Void. Both Bhelen's task and Harrowmont's also send the player to the pub where they can talk with Oghren for more details. These moments lay a foundation for the latter half of the quest and introduce the player to a future party member.
Companions are an important part of Dragon Age's design, providing perspectives on the world. Weaving them into the main story in relevant ways helps increase player investment. Having your companions care about the quest and take hard opinions can also make tough decisions even tougher.
Quests can only have so much divergence and this point is where branches begin to get cut. Meeting Bhelen in person shows him to be enthusiastic in supporting the surface and even though you can express displeasure with his underhanded dealings, he's willing to put disagreements aside to help the surface. Harrowmont is similarly willing and both candidates send you on the same task: To dispose of a gangster named Jarvia.
One of the strengths of A Paragon of Her Kind is that it really strives to send you all around the city. From high ranking nobles to disgraced and desperate casteless dwarves, the player gets a true sense of how stratified the society truly is. It also feels a lot more like a traditional western RPG quest. Jarvia's lair is full of traps and enemies. It's a good dungeon crawl. The boss fight is challenging and although I'd prefer a few different ways to deal with Jarvia through dialog or special conditions, the process itself provides a beefy action sequence.
It also provides a good barometer for players to judge how strong they are. The Orzammar quest grows more and more combat intensive. Having an initial boss that players can use to judge their strength helps contextualise further encounters. It also gives a sense of escalation; you're going to go from killing petty gangsters to some of the more dangerous monsters in the game.
The final task is to head into the Deep Roads to find Branka. She's a Paragon, a deified member of dwarven society whose endorsement could sway the election. As the player approaches the Deep Roads, Oghren joins the party. The stakes are now personal as well as political.
We should take time to note that while Jarvia's hideout was a good dungeon crawl, the Deep Roads are a goddamn slog. It's thematically cogent in many ways. It helps illustrate the size of the darkspawn horde and really stresses how dire some the duties of Grey Wardens can be. But it's really damn long and so annoying that I tend to use a mod to skip over it.
The most important thing in the Deep Roads is learning what happened to Branka's expedition. Led on by her lover Hespith, the party is drawn into the layer of a broodmother. Broodmothers are what happens when a woman is infected with the Blight. The boss fight here is tough but drives home the depths of the dark spawns depravity. It also tells us a lot about Branka. She's been allowing members of her expedition get captured and changed into darkspawn in order to make it through the traps that block access to the Anvil of the Void.
So we come to the quest's major conflict and it's a damn good one. The Anvil can be used to craft golems, stone soldiers who would be of great use against the darkspawn. But the Paragon smith Caridin has spent untold years guarding the artifact to prevent misuse. It doesn't just make golems; it has to painfully convert people into them. It's an interesting side by side juxtaposition with the darkspawn. Having Shale in your party only makes this more interesting; she is a golem who doesn't know her past and can learn it from Caridin. When the time comes to either help Branka claim the Anvil or protect it against her, Shale will actually fight against you if you side with Branka.
Under the right circumstances, this means you have a party of at least two characters with deep investment in the artifact's fate. Oghren is hesitant to kill his wife, in spite of her misdeeds. Shale is willing to die to prevent an army of golem slaves. I prefer to destroy the anvil and side with Caridin but it's entire valid to side with Branka. In fact, persuasive characters can side with her and still convince her to destroy the anvil. It's a high stakes moment with a variety of outcomes and player decisions.
Either way, a crown is forged for the new king. You must decide who to give it to. In some ways, this undercuts earlier player decisions. For instance, it is possible to change your mind and give the crown to Harrowmont after hours supporting Bhelen. This decision can seem like a cop out but it can also come off as a sneaky bit of politicking.
There's actually an invisible number tracked that determines a candidate's popularity, but it isn't used for much. Mostly, it affects how much support Bhelen will have if Harrowmont is chosen. Bhelen doesn't go quietly and attacks with a mob of supporters. The variable number determines their strength. It strikes me as a missed opportunity but given how strong the quest ends otherwise, it's a minor quibble at best.
A Paragon of Her Kind integrates all of the things I think makes Dragon Age great. A world of intriguing politics, stories with companion involvement, an interesting push and pull between idealism and pragmatism, good dungeons and numerous player decisions.
For that? It was definitely worth taking a closer look.