Creating Believable Characters in Dragon Age

the panel

Mike Laidlaw - Creative Director
Sarah Hayward - Lead Cinematic Designer
Patrick Weekes - Lead Writer
Dan Plunkett - Senior Cinematic Designer

Drawing Up Characters

Laidlaw described in length the role of the character: represent multiple points of view, showcase natural alliances and natural contrasts (especially since Dragon Age is a very party-centric game), and act strongly in light of their beliefs and goals instead of being simply Yes-men. Additionally, they should voice their own opinions on the core story. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, the developers strongly focused on that, in order to minimize the idea that companions were "affection dispensers" (Morrigan Approves +10).

In creating a character, the writing and art teams work closely together. Each character has a "unique silhouette" that allows them to be easily recognizable and memorable. Best example used was Cole's hat. Additionally, characters will have a distinctively characteristic pose. Cassandra has an A-pose, Josephine presents a higher center of gravity, Vivienne's shines all the way up to her neck, and Sera faces down. 

Solas has feelings. Complicated feelings. On Mythal.
— Mike Laidlaw

Important goals in creating a character is hitting the right beats, points of change, and opportunities to change. The developers hope that they got better at passing the characters on to the cinematic teams, where they can make "character development happen without a word spoken". The cinematic team will ask multiple questions: What kind of scenes? How do they drink their tea (cause it's never the same with each character)? How much can they afford to make them unique?


For NPCs, setting up importance is even more difficult. Adding uniqueness to a NPC depends on their importance to the plot and how long the player will see them. NPCs adhere to certain archetype poses as well, set up for certain NPCs at certain times. Mother Gisele, written by Patrick Weekes, was intended to set up the Chantry plot and to be an example that Chantry members are not all "conniving and awful". Don't get him wrong - all characters are important, but some like Mother Gisele need more staging time to set up the plots. 

Strangely enough, some sceneries even act like a character. Hub areas like Haven and Skyhold emit a certain mood for all the characters. In Haven, everyone is worried that "it isn't defensible" and other NPCs question "why are we building these trebuchets?" In Skyhold, NPCs felt confident and safe within the walls. 

Every conversation has a purpose. "Hey, there are too many sick people" gets you to believe that a NPC is more than a character, but a person. The reminder that they have a family or a child adds to the gravity and reality of that moment.

In creating the advisors, banter is a huge part of characterization, and posed a huge challenge for the developers. "Can we make these characters really present?" For Mass Effect 3, the developers felt there was a lot of catch-up work with having Traynor and Cortez important in the midst of the firefight. When comparing Cortez to Kaidan, there's a lot more depth into Kaidan's background versus Cortez. It was solved by having Traynor and Cortez call Shepard often, but in Dragon Age, that is not possible. Strengthening the player's connection with Josephine, Cullen, and even Leliana was a difficult task

Representation and Diversity

During Dragon Age's development, one particular scene had all male soldiers. Karin Weekes pointed it out and asked "Why?"

The biggest thing is to remember how to ask the question. While it's understandable on a technical side that adding female characters could potentially be a memory-chugger, in many cases, it's not. It's just "default soldier" who was a guy, and was replicated repeatedly. Just having that question makes the equal representation happen. In Dragon Age, male and female soldiers serve equally. Using the Frostbite engine allowed more flexibility in showing the world as a bigger, organic environment. 

Adding more representation in Dragon Age includes Krem, Lieutenant of Bull's Chargers and the second Transgender character in all of Dragon Age. A couple years ago at a PAX panel, one person requested a trans character who wasn't "a punchline or a monster", adding that "it's not going to happen until Bioware does it". Gauntlet thrown, Bioware did it. After the panel, the developers talked about the situation at the bar. Although the companions roster was already set in stone, the Bull's Chargers were not. 

In the game's architecture, it's always male or female with a drop down menu. They had to actively think about it. After many talks with the developers within Bioware, teaching and informing everyone of the decision, Krem was put in the game. Interestingly enough, Iron Bull's BDSM relationship caused more worries than Krem.


Each character has what the developers call a "Razor". For Josephine's romance, the razor was "Disney Princess". The romance was cute, innocent, doesn't end in a sex scene, and is just adorable. For Iron Bull's razor, Weekes states Bull's romance was for the the player who "is married and has a mortgage and is tired, and needs something that is fun, and escapist, and assumes I know what sex is, and will have fun". 

As an aside, they will never ship a game without "cute". As Patrick Weekes said, there is nothing wrong with "cute".


Warden Commander Clarel and the Grey Wardens

It's too easy to make Clarel a villain. Instead, the developers focused on two things: she's a Grey Warden and she is the "epitome of Grey Wardens," which is why her last words are reciting the Grey Warden oath. 

Clarel wasn't always a lightning-specific mage. In the first iteration, Laidlaw says she threw a fireball at the dragon. "No, it's a dragon! That's not going to hurt it!" To keep the narrative grounded, the developers changed her spells to have lightning. Since the dragon scrabbles and spasms, lightning magic felt appropriate since it was like a big tazer was used against the dragon. While the magic doesn't kill it, the moment is made more realistic in-game. 

The Grey Wardens aren't completely evil or completely good. The beat board, which was basically a flow chart of emotions, mapped out the emotional path which would show both sides of the Grey Wardens. There are different beats that the player takes from the plot; for example, the Wardens help out the Elven woman in Crestwood from death, but they leave the town to its fate. The player's brought to a dilemma, whether to side for or against. Sometimes they are too extreme, but too necessary.

Cole's Original Arc

In the earlier version of Cole and his personal quest, the Inquisitor had three decisions

  1. Side with Solas and make Cole more of a Spirit
  2. Side with Varric and make Cole more of a Human
    and the decision that never came to be...
  3. Let Cole kill the Templar

As Cole is a spirit of Compassion, the path would be an emotional interference. Patrick Weekes personally hated the option, thinking "well, there's gonna be that one player". Apparently, the scene had way more knife cuts than necessary for the kill. But, an issue came up with the third option: the budget. "We have the budget to do two really well, or three kind of. And it was changed."

Weekes was admittedly happy for the change, as he described himself a "light side hippy", but the bigger question was whether he cut it because it genuinely fit or if it is something he personally doesn't want. As a writer, that's the difficult thing to discern. But the choice for Cole was cut for the better of the story.

Even More Cole

Previously, the player never did Cole's personal quest, but took Cole to the finale, Corypheus took control of Cole and forcibly turned him on the Inquisitor. However, it would have been a cutscene. To remove him from the party is difficult, and combat designers would have had to deal with balance issues of having a group of 3 versus a group of 4. But the whole thing was cut.

In order to have this happen to Cole, a huge chunk of resources would have been directed to those who never took the time to know or care about Cole. The developers cut this option and allowed the game to reward Cole's decision and fate to players who talked to Cole and gave him the time of day. 

The Dragon Age Format

Dragon Age relies on full cinematic scenes that are more extensive and more time consuming. The games are very QA (quality assurance) intensive. As developers, they have chosen this approach, as it is typically more accessible for a larger audience, versus the older games that were more isometric and the like. Bioware does this so they can support the choices they can afford to make.

Favorite Characters

  • Mike Laidlaw - Mordin, because of his character arc
  • Sarah Hayward - Tali, because she's "so cute!"
  • Patrick Weekes - Cassandra, because she's strong but doesn't compromise her femininity 
  • Dan Plunkett - Cole