For many, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien is their quintessential introduction into the fantasy genre, but that isn’t how it went with me. Today, I’m getting personal and sharing my own introduction into the fantasy genre, a world that few would expect: Thedas, the lands where the stories of Dragon Age take place. However, before I explain how Thedas is my Middle Earth, I need to provide some context. So, please indulge as I share some of my personal history.
Growing up without the fantasy genre
Growing up in an extremely conservative religious home is rough, especially for a little queer boy who eschews sports and other traditionally commendable pastimes in favor of books. Books, television and movies were rigidly monitored for inappropriate content. I wasn’t allowed many Disney movies,= due to the presence or glorification of magic, super hero censorship was hit and miss due to violence and the only reason I got away with watching things like Pokemon, Digimon and so on was because the creatures were cute and thus harmless. Don’t @ me; that’s just how I grew up. And The Lord of the Rings was an absolute no no.
My parents weren’t without decency or a concept of fun though and I did grow up with a Gameboy, which later evolved into a Gameboy Advance and by that point I was in my mid-to-late teens so my parents grip on the media I consumed had lessened. As such they were none the wiser when I picked up a copy of Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones for a measly $6 on clearance at Circuit City (remember those stores?).
I fell in love instantly with the concepts of heroes, magic and dragons, and being completely unfamiliar with staple fantasy genre tropes it all caught my imagination as nothing had before. I played the hell out of that game but I had no idea there was a whole fantasy genre… yet.
Eragon & Avatar
I loved telling stories as a kid but most of the time they were little comics strung together with a loose continuity. However, shortly after playing Fire Emblem, I discovered a book by a kid not much older than I was: Eragon. When I saw the dragon on the cover I was instantly interested and I voraciously read the book, discovering that books were more than Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. While my parents didn’t initially approve of my reading it they decided not to stop me, as I was a teen who “needed to begin developing his own tastes and standards.” So I burned through the Inheritance series (pun intended), much to the chagrin of my parents.
Eragon even inspired me to write my own fantasy story (though I still didn’t know there was a fantasy genre, as such). The story and world were uncannily similar to a series that premiered on Nickelodeon, Avatar: The Last Airbender. Even though I initially suspected someone had bugged my room or stumbled across my now deleted fiction.net page, I fell in love with Avatar. I didn’t care that the story was similar — though I would come to find out later its story was more of a trope setup in the fantasy genre — I was just thrilled to be watching a story unfold similar to something I had envisioned on my own. Thus, ATLA cemented itself as one of my favorite television series of all time.
While that’s all well and good, we still haven’t gotten to Thedas. How does it factor into all of this?
Dragon Age: Origins
I moved out of my parents’ home at 18 years old to attend college halfway across the country. Now that I was finally on my own I began to ask myself a lot of the big questions: questions about my sexual orientation, my manner of dress and my love of fantasy, all things I’d grown up being told were a waste of time and potential (at best) or an abomination worthy of death (at worst). I developed my own worldview and learned to accept myself (and my interests) at face value, as a special part of myself: a person worthy of self love.
Being a college student I now had freedom to do with my money from my job as I pleased and a new, intriguing game trailer caught my attention: a trailer for Dragon Age: Origins. I actually went to the game store on the day this game released just to pick up a copy and I was so happy I did. This was my first grown up fantasy, as it were, and since my roommate picked it up too he promptly educated me on the existence of the fantasy genre and enlightened me to the broader scope of worlds it offered. I learned I’d been a fantasy fan all my life, without ever realizing it. Hell, I’d even written a fantasy story without understanding what I’d done.
The gritty mirror of our own world that was Thedas captured my imagination as no other fantasy world had done before. It was my first non-anime inspired fantasy and something about how it examined social issues in our own realm through a fantasy lens absolutely enthralled me.
Here, the elves were not noble musicians with a magical language. Elves in Thedas were a broken people, stripped of their home, their culture and their dignity. Dwarves were born into their respective castes. Their only escape: an alienating, unknown world. Even humans struggled, much as they have in our own historical context, and that offered me glimpses into times long since past.
While the animated fantasies I loved in my formative years were special and nostalgic, this world, Thedas, asked hard questions about right and wrong. It commented on the gray lines that blur what to stand up for and when to lay down your aggression in favor of peace. While the other worlds of animated fantasy were colorful and vibrant, Thedas felt real, and that was what made its wider world capture my interest and inspire my imagination as no fantasy before it.
A little known fact: I never even watched The Lord of the Rings movies or read the books until after I finished the main story of Dragon Age: Origins. When I finally watched the movies they held my interest and I still go back and watch them to this day, but they never sparked the wonder Thedas did. Maybe it’s the nostalgia talking? Maybe it’s just that I discovered Thedas first? Whatever the reason, Thedas was the first fantasy world that inspired me to delve deeply into its greater world lore. It inspired me to want to write stories in its setting, and for me Thedas is what I think of first when I think of the fantasy genre.
What makes Thedas so special?
Thedas is such a special world because it’s a fantasy where I can envision myself existing. Middle Earth, Tyria, Azeroth and others may inspire wonder, awe or a sense of vibrancy but Thedas feels real. It’s not necessarily a world you’d always want to be a part of. In fact, I’d say it’s probably dread living in Thedas before any of the other aforementioned settings, but it’s the realism and grit that enables it to so effectively examine big questions many of us ask in our own world.
The Dragon Age games have forced many big questions into my mind, questions that have changed how I view the real world. The characters in this world may not aspire to greatness yet when the time comes to stand for what is right it’s a real choice. In Thedas if you stand for what you believe in you will make people angry, even if you’re right, and the world will make you question if you are right at all. Sometimes the best solution is the hardest. Sometimes evil controls the law. And no society, no religion is strictly good or evil, right or wrong. Everything is nuanced, much as it is in our own world.
The setting addresses racism without filtering it through pretty lenses and it normalizes groups usually marginalized in our own society, like queer people. Thedas was the first place I was able to romance someone of my own gender in game, and when faced with racism toward elves, dwarves or qunari I realized how wrong it was yet I understood why certain races held the views they do. Nothing was clear cut, but this didn’t mean there was an absence of right and wrong. In Thedas being a hero is costly but the world also reinforces how desperately it needs heroes. Adventuring isn’t a day job in Thedas; it’s a calling, a calling to be more than you ever thought possible. And it’s a calling that requires sacrifice.
Dragon Age Tabletop Roleplaying Game
Several years ago now Geek & Sundry (a then up-and-coming website that catered to people like me) featured Chris Pramas on a segment called Tabletop. It was only a few months prior I’d joined a tabletop RPG group at college and I was more than interested. To say I bought the resources quickly would be an understatement. I followed Green Ronin as they published a total of three sourcebooks, two Game Master screen resources, a compendium of all of the source material and a book called Face of Thedas, not to mention a few adventures as well.
I dove into the RPG and I loved the stunt system but most of my friends were still playing fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons at the time so the many materials I’d purchased gathered dust. Occasionally I’d pull them out for reference and I learned the ins and outs of the system.
Then, due to some sudden life events with our 5E D&D DM a few weeks ago our Wednesday games came to an abrupt halt. Panicked texts and Discord messages littered my notifications. Who would run game night for us? Did anyone have anything they wanted to run?
This was my chance. I pounced on it so quick, suggesting to my players that we try the DARPG. Though skeptical, everyone was game and while I did homebrew some things to make the game more accessible, it’s largely intact. Having played several sessions at this point, I feel like I’ve got a pretty good grip on things, enough to make a review of the DARPG by Green Ronin Publishing.
You can find my review on my YouTube channel, or down below:
Thedas is my Middle Earth
Getting back to the title, why do I call Thedas my Middle Earth? Simple: it was the first fantasy world whose expanded lore captured my imagination, much as Middle Earth did for so many others. It’s thanks to the Dragon Age series I really understood what the fantasy genre can be and it inspired me to pursue my passion of telling fantasy stories of my own. That changed my life forever.
What do you think?
Have you played the DARPG by Green Ronin? What do you think of Thedas as a world? Let us know in the comments!