Dragon Age1 is a dark fantasy setting created by Bioware with much of the narrative orchestrated by head writer David Gaider. It takes place on an alternate Earth focusing on the southern hemisphere continent of Thedas2 and its residents.
The first mass market material for the setting was Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne on March 3, 2009, which was a prequel novel for the roleplaying video game Dragon Age: Origins released on November 3, 2009. Since then, the setting of the franchise has been fleshed out to Tolkienian scale.
Originally, dwarves held onto a massive network of underground cities, while everything on the surface of Thedas was controlled by humans and elves. Except for a large area to the south controlled by the splintered Alamarri barbarian tribes, and a few smaller countries, Thedas was ruled over by the Tervinter Imperium, an empire led by human mages of extraordinary talent. The Imperium warred with the elves and destroyed their ancient kingdoms. Any elf that didn’t become a slave scattered to the winds.
According to The Chantry (the major religion in Thedas), the Imperium mages became power hungry eventually founding a way to reach the “Golden City” (home of the seven old gods, possibly the afterlife). Their impudence resulted in the city being tainted and turned into the “Black City”. The mages where twisted by this taint and when they returned, they had become the first of the darkspawn, evil monsters that were a plague upon the land. The darkspawn dug into the ground and tainted a sleeping high dragon. It was possessed by one of the old gods, turning it into the first archdemon.
Whether this story was religious propaganda or not, the darkspawn were a very real threat. Going forth to spread the taint, laying waste to the subterranean empire of the dwarves, creating hordes of though infection, Thedas was besieged by the darkspawn. This was the first Blight. The skies darkened, crops failed, the very land itself was literally dying.
It wasn’t till an outpost of warriors foreswore their loyalties to any lord or country, and through the use of ritual dark magic managed to imbue themselves with the power to fight back against the darkspawn. These became the order of the Grey Wardens. Their reputation and influence grew as they slowly managed to reclaim lost land, so dwarves, other humans, and free elves joined them in battle. Fighting a hundred-year war of pragmatism and sacrifice, the archdeamon was finally slain and the darkspawn hordes defeated. The Grey Wardens knew though that the old gods of Tervinter numbered seven, so they remained vigilant.
Over the centuries things changed in Thedas. Blights came and went, each with the rise of a new archdemon. Unfortunately, during the long spans between Bights, members of the monastic order of Grey Wardens became viewed less as icons and guardians rather more as bothersome. What once was renowned as a badge of honor, Grey Wardens had to resort to conscription to fill their meager ranks. Meanwhile the dwarves’ war with the darkspawn never ended, and one by one their cities fell till only Orzammar remained.
A woman named Andraste, claiming to be a prophet of The Maker (the god revered by the Chantry), saying mankind must turn away from false gods and corrupting magic, raised an army and made war against the remnant of the Tervinter Imperium. She would have lost if not for a revolt where slaves, mostly elves, flocked to her banner. Andraste became a martyr when she was captured and burned alive, but the Imperium finally succumbed and accepted the ways of the Chantry. The elves were given land to rebuild their civilization but lost it again when the Chantry didn’t like what they were doing.
In the south, the disjointed tribes of the Alamarri fought numerous civil wars, including one against an army led by “the Witch of the Wilds”, a powerful sorceress named Flemeth. She was defeated, but tales of Flemeth and sightings of her daughters continued to circulate for centuries afterwards. There was a plague of werewolves resulting in their presumed extinction. Overtime the land stabilized with the Alamarri splitting into the kingship of Ferelden, the Avvar in the Frostback Mountains, and the Chasind in the Korcari Wilds. They would still skirmish against each other from time to time, with the Fereldens coming out on top, but would always come together to fight outside threats.
The aspects of Dragon Age that set it apart from other fantasy settings primarily have to do with its cultures and how magic, religion, and interracial politics are addressed.
Humans have several countries that span Thedas with each having cultures roughly analogous to those found in medieval Europe. Anderfels is Germanic. Antiva is vaguely Spanish. Ferelden, home to the descendents of the Alamarri barbarians, contains three flavors of Nordic culture; Avvar hillsmen, Chasind wilders, and Fereldens. Orlais is pretty much medieval France. Nevarr is somewhat like Elizabethan England. What is left of Tervinter has overtones of Rome but carries a lot of the general cultural vagaries found in most fantasy settings.
The Chantry is the name of the human religion, the organization behind it, and the temples where it is practiced. They revere a benevolent god called the Maker, through ritual recitation of an epic poem called The Chant of Light, and the prophetess Andraste serves as a messiah figure. The Chantry opposes any but the most controlled and overseen uses of magic to the point that it has a military arm called the Templars. While every country and kingdom has its own standing guard, the Templars have sanction to act how they wish within sovereign territories.
Sadly, the xenophobic tendencies of humans ring as true in this setting as they do in our world.
At first glance, elves seem like generic fantasy fodder, with slight builds, angular faces, exaggerated almond eyes, pointed ears, and a general nature motif, but when you understand their history of being oppressed and how they still deal with a lot of racial discrimination from humans you start to notice the differences.
Elves residing in human cities are secluded in ghettos called alienages and are expected to conform to human ideals. However, they are harassed constantly (referred to as “knife ears”), live poor lives, while struggling to get by on whatever work or scraps humans will give them. Dalish elves (referring to land of Dales they were given then had taken away) live a gypsy life out in the woods. They are proud and hardy folk, living off the land. The elves know that once they were immortal, wielding the power of nature, and worshipped animistic gods. But all that is gone now. The average elf has a lifespan slightly longer than a humans, and so much of their history and culture is lost to them.
Yes, the dwarves live underground, are rich from mining, craft some of the best items, and can be mistaken for tiny Vikings, but the things that set them apart from dwarves in other franchises run deeper than that (pun intended).
Dwarf society conforms to a rigid caste system. This is made up of the noble, smith/artisan, miner, warrior, merchant, and finally servant castes. Members of each caste have rights and responsibilities they are expected to fulfill, with all claiming loyalty to one noble dwarf house or another. It is not possible for an individual to move from one caste to another, but marriages between castes are allowed, if not always smiled upon. Beyond that are the casteless, dwarves who have been stripped of their caste for crimes committed or were born to casteless parents and can only look forward to a life of poverty and crime. Additionally, any dwarf who moves to the surface, either voluntarily or by force, is stripped of their caste.
Dwarven life in Dragon Age is surprisingly political. With individuals always walking the line between what they are expected to do and what they want to do.
The dwarves practice a form of ancestor worship. Dwarves who perform great feats in life or in death, are elevated to the position of Paragon. Statues are erected to them, and tales of their deeds become epics passed down as guidance for future generations.
The Qunari, which means “People of the Qun”, came to Thedas several centuries ago as an invading force from some unnamed land across the eastern sea. They failed to wrest control, but managed to hold tight to a few cities and outposts in the north-east of Thedas.
The Qunari are a race of tall (around seven foot) humanoids with grey or bronze skin, and a muscular build. They have white hair, red to violet eyes, and horns swooping back across the top of their heads similar to those of oxen. Some are born without horns, or have their horns removed; this is viewed as intimidating by the Qunari.
They follow a social philosophy called the Qun which dictates every aspect of their lives. They fall into three roles; soldiers, craftsmen, or priests. While they do have names (which equate to genealogical identification), they almost always refer to themselves by the title of their position in society which is a subset of one of the three roles.
They maintain an austere personality, which may or may not stem from the fact that their culture never developed cookies (probably not). They are zealous in adhering to the Qun, often showing little desire to do anything beyond what the Qun demands from situation to situation. In this way, the Qunari function as a singular whole, with each individual a single drop of blood in the “entity” that is the Qun. Some members of the other races see this life of selfless purpose appealing and have willingly converted, becoming one with the Qunari. Others have had conversion forced upon them by way of manner of brain washing.
The Grey Wardens' singular purpose is to fight the darkspawn.
Candidates to this monastic order of warriors come from all walks of life and from each race. A Qunari could could become a Grey Warden, but there have yet to be any in canon. They receive training, then after defeating their first darkspawn go through a ritual called the Joining. The details of the Joining are secret to all but the Grey Wardens. Not everyone survives the Joining, and anyone who refuses after learning what it entails is killed.
Unfortunately, the Grey Wardens lack the imposing presence and numbers of the Chantry, so they do not benefit from the carte blanche that the Templars enjoy in Thedas. While they do devote themselves to combating the darkspawn, they can only go where they are allowed. Fortunately, the dwarves are always sending expeditions to fight darkspawn in the Deep Roads and reclaim lost cities, so Grey Wardens there are given due respect.
Magic is almost universally feared in Thedas, even more so its practitioners. Magic comes from the spirit world, called the Fade. Anywhere that the barrier between the real world and the Fade is weak spirits, both benign and malicious, can cross over. This is especially true with mages who are, in a way, portals to the Fade.
Humans and elves who shows signs of being a mage are taken from their homes and families by agents of the Chantry and sequestered in one of the Circle of Magi’s towers. There they study magic, learning to control their powers, so that they can fight off the influences of spirits, less they become possessed and turn into abominations. All the while, they are watched by the wary and oppressive templars, an order of warriors trained specifically to combat mages.
The final test of a mage is called the Harrowing. Mages are not told what this entails until they finally undergo it. The pass/fail determination of the Harrowing is literally life or death. If a mage succeeds, they are allowed to practice magic outside of the tower. If they fail they are killed. If the mage takes to long to complete the Harrowing, they are killed. The only way to avoid the Harrowing is to become tranquil, a process by which a mage’s connection to the Fade is severed, leaving them little more than emotionless automatons devoid of magical ability.
Anyone mage who runs from the Chantry and the Circle of Magi is labeled an Apostate. They live out on the edges of civilization, always fearful of what their magic could turn them into or being hunted down and killed by templars.
Mages amongst the Dalish are trained to become Keepers. Keepers bare the responsibility of remembering the elves’ history, and serve as their clan's spiritual and literal leader. They do not rule the elves, but are deferred to in most important situations. The Templars know about the Keepers and hunt them, which is why the Dalish rarely stay in one place for very long.
Dwarves do not have to worry about this because, apart from normal craft, the riches of the dwarves comes from mining a mineral cold lyrium which is essentially concentrated magic. It is used in the creation of magic items and by mages to increase their own magical ability. Generational exposure to lyrium has rendered the dwarves immune to its effect; no dwarf can ever become a mage, but they are just as vulnerable to magic spells as everyone else.
The Qunari considered mages to be living weapons called Saarebas, meaning “dangerous thing”. They are bound in heavy chained garb, their lips stitched together, and their faces shielded behind a metal visor. Since they cannot truly control themselves, they are directed by a device held by another Qunari called an Arvaarad, meaning “one who holds back evil”. They hold a position of both pity and honor, because a life-long struggle holding back inner threats is considered extremely selfless and the highest virtue of the Qun.
1 The name “Thedas” is an acronym that came from the Bioware forums. It stands for THE Dragon Age Setting.
2 The term “Dragon Age” refers to the timeline of the world’s recorded history. There was the Pre Age (of which little history is known), Tervinter Empire (when the Tervinter Imperium ruled Thedas), followed by the nine ages on the Chantry Calendar each lasting roughly a century; Divine, Glory, Towers, Black and Exalted, Steel and Storm, Blessed, and finally Dragon.