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Q&A: Good Writers Steal: Understanding Dragon Age and Pillars of Eternity

You know when you compare the lore of Dragon Age and Pillars there a lot of similarities and it wouldn’t be that hard to put both settings in the same world.

No, they really don’t fit together.

This is kind of ironic, because that’s how we got Dragon Age‘s setting in the first place, and why I’m answering this.

Let’s start with what the two settings still have in common. Both games are based around evolving D&D into a new, non-licensed system. In both cases, the long term goal was to pave over some of the more idiosyncratic elements, and create new settings that could be used without raising the ire of Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast.

In both cases, they started with an approximation of D&D’s Forgotten Realms setting, and then started mixing in other inspirations; and that’s when the wheels come off this wagon.

To condense: Forgotten Realms is a “standard, Tolkienesque fantasy world,” where numerous immensely powerful civilizations have fallen into ruin. There’s a full chronology of empires rising and falling throughout the setting’s history. The modern cultures often live directly adjacent to civilizations so advanced that their residual magic defies comprehension. This is the setting of games like Neverwinter NightsBaldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and the MMO Neverwinter, along with, literally, hundreds of novels.

Pillars of Eternity starts from that point, and plants the clock firmly in the 17th century (though the overall technology doesn’t perfectly match any specific point in history.) It then uses the altered setting to talk politics and philosophy. Up front, I’m a fan of this kind of approach to fantasy. Speculative fiction is at its best when it has something to say, and can do it without getting preachy. Taking your “normal” fantasy prejudices, and then pulling that apart and using it as allegory has a lot of merit. I’m also a big fan of taking a setting (in this case, the “standard fantasy setting”) and pushing the clock forward, asking, “what happens next?” What does colonialism look like in a world where you have dragons and wizards?

On the surface, Dragon Age may look somewhat similar. There’s no colonial themes, firearms, or advanced sailing ships, but it is building off of the same, standard fantasy setting template. Where Pillars looked to real history, Dragon Age went someplace a little different: Warhammer.

I’ve talked about Warhammer Fantasy before. A lot like Pillars it’s adapting the fantasy setting to a specific historical era, in that case it’s target is the late 15th, early 16th century. It’s less interested in saying anything, but it was designed for a tabletop strategy game, where the narrative was, at best, ad hoc. Along the way, it’s embraced the mindset of the era, and pulled a lot of the conflicting tones from that time in history together into a weird amalgam. This is a setting where the church is under siege from literal daemons, instead of the protestant reformation. It’s a setting where new ideas are starting to stream in, and simultaneously are mixed with incredibly dangerous concepts that threaten to, quite literally, rip the universe apart.

I love Warhammer; it is a brilliantly stupid setting, and within that context it has a real identity. I know I said I like settings that have something to say, but you can get by on sheer charm. Warhammer is an incredibly bleak setting that turns the pitch black horizon into comedy.

Warhammer is a postlapsarian world. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, this is a concept from Christian literature holding that humanity is a fallen race; separated from divinity for our sins. Warhammer pulls this out as part of the philosophies and outlooks that define its era, and runs screaming into the night with it.

Like, Warhammer, Dragon Age is also postlapsarian. The specifics are different, and more solidly tied to human hubris. It’s setting mimics middle ages Catholic church politics, complete with the schism between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. It skips over the Protestant reformation that dominates Warhammer’s thoughts on the subject, but some of that is a function of time.

The biggest difference is tone, and part of the reason why I’ve spent 700 words leading up to a tear down.

Dragon Age wants to be a serious game, about serious people, doing serious things. If it would make up its mind, or lighten up a bit, it could have been pretty great. (Or, arguably was.) Now, let me explain why I sidetracked into talking about Warhammer up there: Dragon Age is a poorly executed riff on Warhammer, not Forgotten Realms.

In Dragon Age/Warhammer, mages are unstable and risk corruption by demons/daemons from the fade/warp. They’re constantly struggling to keep control over themselves, and the demons/daemons are always nibbling at the edges of their minds. If a mage loses control they can become possessed by a demon/daemon, and become an abomination/a daemon, physically transforming the unfortunate mage in grotesque ways. Because of this, mages are hunted down by Templars/Templars of Sigmar, sometimes/usually called Witchunters, who have enormous authority granted to them by The Chantry/The Church of Sigmar.

Travel through the fade/warp is possible, but extremely dangerous without a trained mage (or a functioning Gellar field in WH40k), this can allow an experienced mage to travel vast distances (Warp travel is technically an FTL system.) The fade/warp is a substructure of reality shaped by the subconscious psychic energy of the universe’s population, and the demons/daemons within are direct manifestations of vices/base emotions.

Civilization is threatened by incursions from the Darkspawn/Chaos, a mix of strange fade tainted/chaos warped creatures, who come from the south/north, but can pop up nearly anywhere.

Now, to be fair, there are differences between the settings, the Dwarves are being pushed to the edge of extinction in a handful of holds, having lost their once grand empire because of prolonged combat with the darkspawn/greenskins (orcs, goblins, and some other critters.) I also, don’t really want to get into a full discussion of the similarities between the Lizardmen and the Qunari, because that quickly gets esoteric. There’s also a lot of armies in Warhammer that simply don’t appear in Dragon Age. Some like the Skaven and Greenskins appear to have been rolled with the Chaos armies, others like the Vampire Counts, Tomb Kings, High Elves, Dark Elves, and Wood Elves are basically absent.

So, where’s the problem? A couple things.

It doesn’t bother me that Dragon Age was heavily inspired by Warhammer. After all, Warcraft also began life as a Warhammer game, and that splintered off into its own identity. Everything we do as writers builds on things we’ve consumed. The material you read will seep into the things you write. That’s fine. That’s the nature of being a creative. Look outside yourself, see things, take a look, and incorporate the parts that make sense.

You’ve heard the old quote, “good writers borrow, great writers steal?” That’s here. You see a neat thing in text, in a game, or on screen, you’ll remember it, you’ll try to snarf it up and consume it. It becomes a part of you, it affects how you look at the world (even in a small way), and will affect your writing. This means that, most of the time, when you see someone saying, “they just ripped off X,” and list one or two things, it’s not.

In taking inspiration, see something you like, take it, digest it. Look at the concept from all sides. Roll it around in your head. Ask yourself what it means when it gets dropped into your work. Don’t just lift entire systems, or characters, and transplant them without considering them. The goal is that, on the other end there’s no way to know, and that the previous paragraphs I wrote where I describe both settings with a simple proper noun replacement scheme can’t happen. (And, I could have gone on for a lot longer. The similarities vastly outnumber the differences.)

If Dragon Age‘s setting is Warhammer, it’s rules are Forgotten Realms. This is something of a problem. You’re presented with one system for how the setting works in text, prose, and fluff, and you’re presented with a completely different setting when you actually engage with the material directly. I wish I could say this is a problem unique to games with narratives, but that’s not entirely true. This can become a problem any time a writer establishes one set of rules for the, “little people,” of their world, and a different set of rules for their protagonists.

Magic in Warhammer is dangerous. A wizard is channeling the power of the warp, and hoping they can keep control over it. In Dragon Age, magic is described as dangerous, and in both cases the characters risk drawing the attention of a demon/daemon. But, in actual game play, the only threat Dragon Age mage faces from casting is running out of mana. Magic can never slip from their control reeking havoc outside of a cutscene. Untold horrors can’t spill forth from a tear in the fabric of reality. They’ll never be possessed against their will (again, outside of a scripted sequence, when the power of plot compels them.) Dragon Age‘s magic is built off of Forgotten Realms (even though it ditches D&D’s Vancian system), because the gameplay was designed without regard for the setting. Or, put another way, the protagonists follow different rules from the rest of their setting.

As a writer, if you look at Dragon Age you need to assess that fundamental cognitive dissonance first.

There is another piece of dissonance between Dragon Age and Pillars, their approach to humanity. (I’m abbreviating here, as both settings have many non-human individuals that fit inside this context of this argument, while still being explicitly something other than human.)

Postlapsarian views humans as fundamentally fallen. Pillars solidly rejects that entire thought process. There’s a full state of nature debate in there, and if you really believe people can’t be trusted to managed their own bowels, you have the option to say so, but the story doesn’t endorse this. Dragon Age enshrines the idea that people broke the world, and all of the horrific monsters wandering the world are their fault. In Dragon Age magic is an emblem of (and conduit to) that original sin. In Pillars magic is another tool for advancing civilization’s understanding of the world (in addition to being a highly destructive weapon that’s significantly affected the setting’s history.) In fact, the metaphysics of Pillars are under the control of characters. This is reminiscent of how D&D’s gods tend to be ascended adventurers, but it creates a setting where the sentient races are in control of their destiny, and aren’t being told they need to atone for anything.

If you want to take two settings and blend them together, the first step is to pull them apart and start sifting through the individual pieces. See how they connect to the rest of the setting/story, and ask yourself what it affects and if it makes sense. Also, remember you’re free to disagree with the authors on their conclusions. Don’t simply take something, make it your own first.

-Starke

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