Role-playing games have changed greatly over the years. They’ve become more accessible, more forgiving, and more popular. One of the more radical changes to the genre has been the elimination of random battles. In most modern RPGs, players can see their enemies, monsters exist in the actual game world instead of an imaginary battlefield, and the genre is better for it. In retrospect, the random battle was a terrible mechanic, frustrating, relentless, and ever-present; they were a chore. So, it’s surprising that they play such a major role in Dragon Age: Origins, many gamers’ pick for the best RPG of 2009. Instead of just removing this annoying mechanic, Dragon Age: Origins twists it into something new and better, something that improves the RPG experience rather than breaking it.
Random battles never happen when you’re in control of your character, only on the world map. You get your first look at the world map a few hours into the game. It’s a literal map, with places of interest highlighted, and when you select a destination, a trail of blood droplets fall onto the paper that mark your progress across the country. This is the only time a random battle can occur: the drops stop, you hear swords clash, and you enter the battlefield. By confining these fights to the world map, Dragon Age ensures that they never become the annoying interruption that most people remember. They only happen when we’re inactive, when we’re watching instead of playing. This also encourages exploration, since we’re free to run around any environment as much as we like without fearing a constant barrage of unseen enemies.
Random battles only happen once per trip and sometimes not at all. If we get into a fight and win, we know that there will be no more trouble until we reach our destination. By limiting the battles like this, Dragon Age once again ensures that they never become annoying, but the game also manages to make them appealing. Since a fight is never guaranteed, every trip has an air of unpredictability to it. As the blood drips across the map, we hold our breath, waiting for that clash of swords; there’s an eagerness and excitement to our waiting. Dragon Age has turned fast-travel into a suspenseful event.
The random battles help bring the world to life. The roads we travel feel busy, populated with a variety of characters and creatures. Sometimes we meet a traveling merchant, sometimes we’re attacked by a pack of wolves, sometimes bandits, sometimes assassins, and sometimes we stumble into the middle of an ongoing battle. This array of encounters tells us that while we may be the hero the world doesn’t revolve around us. Fights can begin and end without us getting involved; characters have lives outside of their conversations with us. Since many of these random encounters are violent in nature, we experience first hand the harshness of the world. When a merchant says that he wants to travel with us for protection, his fear of the countryside is understandable. The world of Dragon Age is a violent one.
Many of these random battles aren’t actually random but quest related. A lot of the quests that we’re given involve meeting someone on the busy countryside roads: A swindler sold mages fake documents, so we have to watch for him on the road. Some soldiers are going to falsely accuse a mage of performing illegal magic, so we have to stop them on the road. After you snoop too close to something secret, you’re ambushed on the road. When the antagonist hires an assassin to kill us, we encounter the killer on the road and so on. All of these encounters serve to further their individual sub-plots. We’re still progressing through the game even when our travels are interrupted by a random battle. We never feel like our time has been wasted with a meaningless fight.
The random battles show the progression of time and the growing threat of the darkspawn. In the beginning of the game, we only fight bandits and wolves, but as we progress and the darkspawn advance further into the country, fights with them become more common. Whereas other characters don’t think that the darkspwan are a major threat, we know differently because we’ve watched their growing numbers. Once we convince a faction—elves, dwarves, soldiers, or mages—to help us push back these monsters, we often run into our new friends while they’re in the middle of a battle. These encounters serve to showcase our own growing numbers as well as to prove that all our efforts at recruiting these friends are not in vain; they’re actually helping.
Dragon Age makes random battles fun by making them important. They show the passage of time, they relate to the story and sub-plots, they develop the world, and they’re never intrusive. Instead of scrapping random battles completely, as most modern RPGs do, Dragon Age improves this oft maligned mechanic in a way that’s sure to be copied by future games. And the imitations are well deserved.
// Notes from the Road
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