We've already covered much of the basics of starting a new game in BioWare's upcoming role-playing game Dragon Age: Origins...because we've played through them. If you haven't already, take a look at our previous story covering the origins of the human mage, which also covers the basics of character creation and interface elements. We won't be repeating those here. Instead, we'll jump into the origin story for dwarves who begin their careers as lowly commoners in the streets of Orzammar, the subterranean metropolis. As a dwarf commoner, you can choose to play either as a rogue or as a warrior. There's virtually no difference whatsoever in the experience or gameplay, except that each class has its own skills and that certain fights seem tougher if you play as a rogue who didn't specialize in combat skills. On that note, please be advised that this story contains minor spoilers.
Even though the tall, stony architecture of Orzammar looks impressive in some places, the life of a dwarf commoner isn't pretty. According to the introductory cinematic sequence for this origin, the dwarves have a rigid caste system that forbids dwarves of lower classes to mingle with highfalutin nobles. And your character is at the very bottom of the barrel, a "casteless" character marked with a brand on his or her face that tells the world that you're the most common of commoners.
You begin your adventure being harangued by the local dwarf slumlord Beraht, who has recruited you to do his dirty work while he "encourages" your kindhearted sister Rica to catch the eye of a dwarf noble. Beraht's potentially not-family-friendly scheme is to marry her off into a noble family to give birth to an heir, elevating her, you, and "Uncle" Beraht to noble status. (Interestingly, while mages speak with the prim and proper BioWare British Accent made famous in Knights of the Old Republic, dwarves all speak American/Canadian English; there's no evidence of a British accent or Scottish brogue in sight.)
Beraht then storms off, reminding you that you have more dirty work to do before the day is done. Before you go, you can chat with your sister to get more insight about your situation and the world of the dwarves. For example, you learn how most of your people remain below ground rather than above where they would have to deal with repugnant, smelly surface dwellers like humans and elves. You also learn how the darkspawn, the game's villainous monsters, have risen from the depths of the earth to claim the lives of most members of the noble and warrior castes, which leaves the nobles desperate for heirs. It also seems that Rica has caught the eye of a potential suitor, but with no promises made on either side, you're better off heading out to Orzammar for some more shady dealings, at least for the time being.
You leave your sister and immediately meet Leske, a dwarf thief and cohort who also works for Beraht and who also has the hots for your sister. (In fact, if you create a female dwarf character, he'll actually make a pass at you as well.) After reminding him that his attentions are unwanted, you get the details of your next mission. You are to locate, shake down, and ultimately kill a smuggler who works for Beraht but has been skimming lyrium ore (the enchanted metal used to power magic spells and forge enchanted weapons) to sell to illicit parties on the surface.
The common areas in the dwarf city, much like the halls of the mage tower, are full of ambient characters that go about their business and occasionally have independent conversations that touch on bits of the world's lore, such as the political tension between the current dwarven king and an ambitious dwarven prince. And if you happen to be a rogue, you can also use the profession's free skill point in the stealing skill to relieve some commoners and guards of their coins and healing poultices--the latter of which will prove to be a godsend later on in the game.
When you find the smuggler at the local tavern, you and Leske seat yourself at his table and can reenact a classic BioWare conversation quest path of either killing the marked man outright or letting him go and lying to your boss about doing the job anyway. This is a quest we've seen in some form in both Baldur's Gate II and also Knights of the Old Republic. We decided to keep things civilized and instead blackmail the smuggler for all the ore he was carrying before cutting him loose. We figured we'd pocket the proceeds without any questions asked, just as we had in previous BioWare games (and we were wrong, as we'd find out soon enough).
By using "intimidate"-based conversation skills (bolstered by our character's "cunning" statistic, which we boosted when creating our character), we were able to convince the poor sap to part with his ore and skedaddle. We also convinced a terrified Leske to go along for the ride with a generous 50-50 arrangement. Leske came around and pointed us to a nearby merchant who took the ore off our hands at a reduced price, pointing out that demand for it is poor below ground (dwarves are inherently resistant to magic and cannot be mages, so they have little use for the stuff in its raw form) and that it would be difficult to move it to the surface. We pocketed the few coins we were able to get and reported in to our crime boss.
Said crime boss and his number one gal, Jarvia (an angry female dwarf who can't seem to say anything without phrasing it as a threat), were waiting at a nearby merchant shop. When we lied about killing off the escaped smuggler, the slumlord didn't exactly buy what we were selling. Apparently, one of his cousins was also at the tavern at the time and watched the smuggler get up and walk away. Fortunately, Leske was quick-witted enough to come up with a lie of his own about how we later bumped off the traitorous cheat in a back alley, preferring not to make a scene in the tavern.
And fortunately, Beraht actually took the bait and dispatched us to our next task. We were to rig the "proving ground" arena battles being held for visiting grey warden Duncan, who was rumored to be in town in search of new recruits to battle the darkspawn (hint, hint). To rig the match, we were instructed to drug the water of one of the arena champions to ensure the victory of a different competitor offering long shot betting odds (on whom Beraht had a pile of coin) and were handed a phony pass to get into the arena area.
Upon entering arena hall, we encountered Duncan himself, whom we greeted on a dare from Leske and exchanged pleasantries with before the grey warden took his leave. We then paid a visit to our long shot gladiator to check on him, only to find that the mighty warrior was dead drunk. After a brief, "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" conversation with Leske, we decided to don the warrior's armor and his maces and swords (which fit just fine, even though we were playing a rogue) and masquerade as him. However, we also made the decision not to drug the rival gladiator and instead decided to enter the fight as a true test of skill. We pilfered the plastered pugilist's possessions, equipped them, and headed out to face our first match in another familiar BioWare setup: an arena battle with consecutive one-on-one battles.
Unfortunately, because we were playing a sneaky thief who specialized in speed and trickery, we didn't have a character with a very high strength score, so we were unable to equip the drunken warrior's better weapons. So, we readied a light battle axe and shield for our battles, which began with a tougher-than-expected scrape that we survived only by using some of our purloined healing poultices. The same could be said for our second and third matches, which were both against determined dwarves looking to prove themselves. By the end of the third match, we were out of healing poultices and ready to beg for mercy, but that was cut short when the inebriated gladiator we were impersonating staggered into the arena and accused us of being an impostor. Knowing we were caught dead to rights, we removed our helmet to reveal our character's branded face (the mark of a lowly casteless dwarf) to the great consternation of the arena crowd and the dwarven arena master. However, Duncan, the guest of honor at the proving match, seemed impressed by our performance.
One blackout later, we awoke in a strange cell. Apparently, the match results had been renounced and we had been trounced, first by arena guards, and then, by Beraht's men, who had us taken back to the crime boss's lair. Jarvia returned one last time to taunt us before leaving us in the capable hands of a single guard. Fortunately, our rogue character gained an experience level here, which let us get a glimpse of the advanced character classes he'll one day be able to select (assassin, bard, ranger, or duelist). He also had a basic knowledge of the "deft hands" skill and could pick the lock on his cell. He made a break for his confiscated belongings, equipped himself with his original leather armor and an axe, and made short work of the guard before freeing Leske and sallying forth. Luckily, because we were playing a rogue character, we were able to spot and disarm some of the hidden traps lining the floors.
So began the dungeon-hacking portion of the dwarf commoner's origin story. Our party of two made its way through Beraht's cellars, looting any open chests and barrels for a handful of trinkets and fighting small contingents of guards. Rogues begin with a basic skill known as "dirty fighting," which deals no damage but briefly stuns its target. They can also specialize in dual-weapon talents or archery talents, but they must first learn the combat training skill. When creating our character, we preferred to make more of a stealthy burglar character and weren't as prepared for head-on battles, but we did make liberal use of the rogue's backstab ability, which deals extra damage and is triggered automatically when you properly place a rogue character directly behind your target. By periodically using both our character's, and Leske's, dirty fighting skill to stun other targets, we were able to focus in on our enemies one by one and keep the thugs focused on one party member while the other snuck in as many backstab attacks as possible. (As it happens, we later played through the dwarf commoner origin again as a fighter and found the battles much easier, especially because we specialized in two-handed weapons, which have powerful and quick-to-recover attacks that can deal unusually large amounts of damage or just send your foes sprawling.)
Finally, we made our way to the boss, who was in the process of putting a price on our heads to two more of his greasy thugs and saying some less-than-polite things about our sister. We went right into battle but had to retry this fight a few times because Beraht was a tough fellow who seemed immune to being backstabbed and we hardly had any health poultices (and because, again, we created a relatively wimpy rogue character). With determination and carefully timed applications of the dirty fighting skill to control the other thugs and focus on picking off our enemies one by one, we finally brought the brute down. And we emerged from his hideout victorious to find the furious dwarf arena master waiting for us with a group of guards, Duncan, and...our sister? Even more curious, there was no sign of Beraht's second-in-command, the sharp-tongued Jarvia. Hmm.
It was at this point that Duncan made the offer to join him as a grey warden, saving us (just like with the mage origin) from capital punishment for a grave offense. We spoke with Leske (who insisted we take the opportunity) and Rica (who, as it turned out, had begun a storybook romance with her suitor) and received their blessings to join Duncan in his quest. We were on our way out of our origin story to see the rest of the realm of Ferelden. And you'll be able to hear more about origins and Ferelden by following GameSpot's ongoing coverage of Dragon Age: Origins. Come back next Friday when we explore more of the game.