Sunday, October 17, 2021

Heads, Hearts, and Headcanons in Dragon Age Origins

OGHREN: Let's show them our hearts, and then show them theirs.

One of the greatest things about RPGs is how personal they feel, and of course that's by design. They're role-player games by definition, after all, and the best of them, like those in the Dragon Age series, allow us to immerse ourselves in their world, creating characters, atmospheres, relationships, and more. We feel like we're there; we feel like we're them. And that's fantastic.

If you read this blog, you already know I'm a headcanoning fool, and I know from my fellowships with many of you out there that I'm not unique in this! As with the greatest fiction, I love the feeling that I can transport myself and feel like I'm somewhere else while I play—that wonderful sense of escape the moment that opening music starts up, whether it's Inon Zur's haunting and delicate melody, or Trevor Morris's more somber, thoughtful overture. And right away, just from those first few music notes, I'm the Warden, I'm Hawke, I'm the Inquisitor, I have fabulous mage powers, I'm surrounded by a found family of cool, interesting companions, and (of course) I'm instantly attractive, fascinating, and talented. What's not to love?

So let's talk headcanons, and all those little things you find yourself thinking and imagining that add texture to your Dragon Age world as you play. Each of us has our favorites—so here are some of mine!

I'll start with Origins in this post, but I'll be looking at each game to follow, in separate posts, too. I was going to do all of them in one post, but—incredibly!—I am actually not going to put them all in one giant post for once. (I KNOW! WHAT'S HAPPENING TO ME??)

But onward.

Imagining Origins

I have some odd little headcanons when it comes to Origins

First off, when it comes to the effects of drinking from that cup for the Joining, I always felt like it was, a little bit... personal. I felt like, when your Warden undergoes the Joining, that they not only get that connection to the Archdemon that we hear about, but that the Archdemon also gets that connection to you. I mean, personally. That the Archdemon sees you in those nightmares, knows you, and you are now on a very short list. 

That's the reason—to me—for that piercing moment during the Joining when the Archdemon looks right at you. Because it does. It sees you. It hates you. You, personally, among the others on that very short list. And it is going to get you. That's pretty damn terrifying.

I also headcanon that there's a LOT of guilt to Duncan over the Joining, or there should be, because he's pretty morally damn shady there on a number of levels. It's a situation where the Wardens are actively suppressing the actual danger of the ceremony, because (understandably) if it were common knowledge that the Joining was lethal, even fewer would volunteer than already do (although they also conscript people, but that's a discussion for another day). So instead, we get that heartbreaking ceremony where people like Daveth don't survive the sip, or where Ser Jory says, "Um, WHAT JUST HAPPENED? And... er... what are the odds again?!" and then gets skewered to preserve the secret, etc.

And to be fair to poor Jory (who gets a lot of flack from the fandom), I don't think he's a coward. I think there's a world of difference between volunteering for a straight-up fight with a sword against an enemy —and volunteering for a service that also involves undergoing a secret mystical ceremony in which your odds of survival have been hidden from you for PR reasons until now. I always feel sorry for him, and for Daveth, and for poor Mhairi in Awakenings (I adored her), another who simply doesn't survive the sip... and countless others. 

Want a different take on the Grey Wardens? Play a conscripted Cousland—it's an interesting and more complex point of view to play a protagonist who didn't volunteer for this or choose it in any way (although the Circle Mage origin is basically a "do this or die" situation as well). Suddenly, Duncan and even Alistair are a little darker around the edges.

I do appreciate that Duncan is all quietly regretful and nobly sad about Jory and everything, but let's face it, once you get past the hotness and Shakespearean magnificence of Duncan and his beard and voice and general hotness (wait, I said that already), he's still maybe not walking on the side of the angels, here. I just think, knowing  if he's the good man he presents himself to be (or seems to want to be, if we want to talk semantics), that he's probably suffered his share of guilt-stricken sleepless nights. 

(In which case, CALL ME, DUNCAN! Wait, oops, did I say that out loud? Never mind...)

Messages in Roses...

And then there are the companions who become our Warden's family. I definitely headcanon that we see the last vestiges of innocence for both Alistair and Leliana in Origins, and I find that especially moving in hindsight. Leliana might be an experienced bard in DAO, but there's still enough innocence and belief to her that a simple rose can inspire her to an odyssey that will change all of Thedas. And for Alistair, a different rose may inspire his feelings of first love.

It's especially fun for me to think about Alistair's internal journey in Origins too, because he's such a contradiction—someone we really see finish growing up. The Alistair as the story begins is an innocent young man who still has a lot of the boy to him—he's sweetly unsure of relationships and is still full of awe and wonder about a lot of the world. 

But while Alistair is wide-eyed and naive in some ways, he's a contradiction in others. He's lighthearted and funny, true, but there's real sadness underneath—this is a guy who was hated and resented by his stepmother and sent out to sleep with the hounds. 

I'm always affected by the idea that, even in the Blight, part of Alistair is living the dream for much of Origins. At last he's free to be the hero he dreamed of being in all those cold nights, and he's finally free to travel like the heroes he imagined, and stand right alongside his adored father figure Duncan. Being a Warden is all Alistair has ever wanted, and when I think about this, and about the lonely little boy he must have been, it's no wonder that he falls so hard for a female Warden, or bonds so quickly with his companions. I also get a kick out of how quickly Alistair bonds with Wynne as the instant adoptive Mom he probably always wanted but never had, so I headcanon some homely moments at camp like Wynne teaching Alistair how to wash his own socks, or the basics of camp cooking, and more.

I also think about Leliana here... she's someone whose faith is so deep and profound that I have no doubt she's talking to the Maker on the regular in those quiet evenings when she's alone and thinking about her path.

The Quieter Moments at Camp

I always love going back to camp in Origins, and it's where I have the most fun imagining the relationships playing out as our companions evolve through the story.

First off, after seeing his expression during Leliana's song at camp, I absolutely think Sten's tent is always somewhat near Leliana's, simply because he is starved for things like music and art and softness, and he loves to sit and listen to her play or sing, even if he won't admit that out loud. I think the DAO party trails a constant stream of rescued cats and kittens that Sten feeds, pets, and plays with at camp (gruffly, of course, and loudly claiming he is "training" them), and that Alistair is a sucker for Barkspawn—I think he'd always have a fondness for them, so my headcanon is that Alistair would give Barkspawn lots of treats and playtime, while Sten watched disapprovingly, worrying loudly about Barkspawn being "spoiled"—but then of course he'd sternly lecture Barkspawn about all of this later on... and then give him treats.

I also like to imagine that Morrigan's little witchy separate campsite moves closer and closer and closer to the main campsite night after night as they travel, so that eventually it's right there next to leliana's, while she's still loudly protesting that she doesn't really like any of these people, and 'tis laughable that they'd ever accuse her of such madness.

I also privately believe that Oghren is more upset about Branka than he appears to be, and that there may have been some quiet tears in the late nights over at his side of the campsite. This is also why I think he's so constantly drunk, as well—as a way to manage his grief.

Shipping Origins

Romantically, do I have ships? Oh, yes, so many ships. Starting with the fact (and yes, this will shock those of you who read this blog regularly) that Sten means "kadan" in the romantic sense when he uses the word for his Warden. It doesn't help me that not only does he do this, and it's enormously affecting on that front, but Sten also has that ridiculously beautiful voice (thank you Mark Hildreth), which makes it even more swoonworthy.

Interesting side note: I've written a fanfic about this (yes, be afraid, be very afraid), but I will note that while I think Sten loves the Warden (and vice versa), for me there's even a headcanon reason why he's not a romanceable choice in-game. There's a reason he doesn't speak. It's hopeless. This isn't a situation for happy endings. Sten will leave after all of this and go back to Seheron (or Par Vollen). 

I've written about this before, but Sten is an interesting character to me precisely because he is a series of contradictions. He falls in love with the wide world outside of Seheron in DAO, and falls in love with its kittens and cookies and art and new cultures... but he is not a convert. He still sees these things from the point of view of the future conqueror. So he will not stay here. He will go back home. And even if he loves the Warden—he's still leaving if he survives. Unlike Bull, I believe nothing can sway Sten from belief in the Qun.

But on to happier ships. Most importantly, when it comes to my internal headcanons, if Zevran does not hook up with the Warden? I think Zevran totally hooks up with Wynne instead. This is a headcanon for me on the same level of belief as Adoribull. It's real for me, and it makes me profoundly happy. Nobody talks that much about somebody's bosom without being actively interested in seeing and touching said bosom. And I think they'd be good for each other. She'd drop some of that overly prim exterior (methinks the lady protests too much), and he'd have an emotional relationship that went beyond political expedience, work, or momentary pleasure.

The other little sort-of romance happening in Origins for me is Shale and her feelings for Sten. Now, this isn't exactly headcanon since it's something that we actually see via the banter dialogue (and it is funny, charming, and oh-my-God so subtly heartbreaking), but that dialogue leads to some headcanons for me, too. We know from those banters that Shale and Sten evolve their friendship to "kadan" levels of comradely affection, and we also know that Shale slips up at a later moment to reveal that she actually has feelings for Sten that not only seem to be romantic, but genuinely physical and sexual.

The fact that she feels these things almost 1200 years after her transformation, with her spirit confined to a hulking body made of stone, is really sad to me, especially because it seems to me that Shale doesn't seem to feel anything on a sensory level, to the point that she casually references being "whittled down" during her time in Honnleaf, for instance. She's truly a prisoner of stone. Since a sensual life is denied to Shale as part of the tragedy of being a golem, the revelation that she does in fact desire Sten physically is even sadder to me.

Which means that I headcanon that there are plenty of nights at camp where Shale contemplates the stars, unsleeping, listening to the small noises of the sleepers around her, and feels ancient and separate... and very, specifically, lonely. Although she will of course never admit it.

(Note: for some reason, the Dragon Age Wiki on Shale is currently referring to her as "it," and I'm very confused by whoever made this change, since Shale openly identifies as female in her dialogue. Or is she now considered nonbinary? In which case, shouldn't her pronouns be "they"? Sound off if you know!)

The Witch and the Bard

So many ships, so little time!

Let's see... yet again, there's the obvious fact that, as with Sten, the game won't let me romance someone I want to romance (Morrigan with a female Warden), which means I immediately ship that, and I always will. I'm still sad about that female Warden/Morrigan romance not being possible, because I do think (as with Cass in DAI) we're given glimpses of an interest in our heroine that goes beyond friendship, at least in moments. And I think there would be something soft and charming to it, and it would illuminate Morrigan in ways that a more stereotypical heterosexual romance (where she seems more focused on dominance and gamesmanship) does not.

Beyond that, I also ship Leliana and Morrigan a little in Origins. They're both so prickly with each other, and Morrigan is so completely over the top in her venom if they're rivals for the Warden that I feel like there's more than simple envy there. Especially since Morrigan relentlessly implies that Leliana is  inexperienced and frigid, and I'm sorry, it seems to me like Morrigan is forgetting that Leliana is a bard, and by her own accounts a skilled one in every sense of the word. She slyly talks about assassinating a mark after taking them as a lover, so Leliana even in Origins is certainly not the blushing nun Morrigan rather hilariously insists she must be. 

But beyond this, I do feel like there's real interest there as well, a spark between the two women. Leliana talks openly about Morrigan's beauty, and wants to take her shopping! I mean, I admit that this isn't exactly "go on a date with me," but come on, shopping with Leliana could totally be a date. Besides, we're in my mind, anything goes.

Meanwhile, while we're talking about ships here, let's face it, there's enough open snark, bickering and banter between Morrigan and Alistair that they're practically begging to be a rom-com and are inches away from realizing that all their arguing was actually just love in disguise. In some other universe, they realize their mutual attraction, throw themselves at each other, have surprisingly good sex for about two weeks, then break up, to both of their mutual relief.

Now none of us has to see the movie! You're welcome.

Schmooples, Barkspawn, and a Dash of Pounce

Meanwhile, I also headcanon that Barkspawn takes a little while to get used to Schmooples, but eventually plays with him, that Oghren is constantly secretly plotting to eat Schmooples, and that Schmooples has to sleep in Leliana's tent with her, curled up at the foot of her bedroll, so that Oghren won't make bacon out of him. Even if/when Leliana hooks up with anyone else in the party.

I also think Sten would have played with Schmooples secretly (since he's a softie about animals), and we already know he talked to Barkspawn, so of course he played with him as well (which I've already detailed earlier here too). My favorite mental image is of Sten getting Barkspawn to practice fetching in all these sort of gruesome scenarios, like, Barkspawn brings him a skull and he's all, "You are a good and honorable creature. I will boop the nose." 

Still, as far as animal headcanons, my favorite one in all of Dragon Age, however, has to be the mental image of sweet, brave little Ser Pouncealot leaping at the faces of Anders's enemies in Awakenings. Because in my head, he's basically riding around in Anders's backpack, and in battle, he crouches on Anders's shoulder, then jumps right out at people. Mrreowrr! Attack!

Goddesses and Archdemons

I adore Flemeth as a character, although even three games in, I'm not sure if I trust her, so I love every single scene we get with her, and especially listening to the gorgeous combination of violin-meets-rusty-gate that is Kate Mulgrew's fabulous voice. And I especially love her subtle amusement at our complete befuddlement at the greater events of Thedas. I mean, here's our young Warden, who depending on the chosen origin story is varying levels of traumatized, scared, tired, and new to all these great matters, talking to what we will later realize is basically an ancient queen and demigoddess. 

Flemeth sees all of Thedas as a chessboard and, for good or ill, is moving those pieces. Meanwhile, we're just trying to get through all this with a little nightmare-free sleep and a clear idea of the next 24 hours, and most of the time, we're failing at both. Flemeth's operating at a whole other level, and so, it turns out, is Morrigan. Morrigan may hate her mother, but she, too, still seems to serve that larger picture, because even if we kill her mother in her dragon form, she will still show up in the end to offer the Dark Ritual.

When it comes to Flemeth and Morrigan, it's interesting that Flemeth sends Morrigan off as her Official Swamp Witch Representative of sorts, even while knowing (it's pretty clear) that Morrigan will not only betray and attempt to supplant her, but that on some level Flemeth deserves that betrayal. Seriously, listen to the stories Morrigan tells about her childhood. Flemeth was a truly horrific mother, and Morrigan's tearful gratitude over the beautiful little mirror as the first actual freely given gift in her life will always enrage me.

So it's interesting for me to headcanon that Flemeth expects Morrigan's betrayal and may have even orchestrated it as a necessary next step. And whether or not we try to kill Flemeth on Morrigan's behalf (which I pretty much don't do anymore, because the fight's a tough one, and it's much more interesting to talk to Flemeth instead), I always imagine that afterward, when we leave, she goes back into that lonely little hut, and maybe she finally allows herself to realize what she did to her daughter. Flemeth may be ancient and cold, but yes, I think there are tears.

I don't love Anora, meanwhile, although I think she's an interesting character, but her instant pragmatism and willingness to betray us if we rescue her always makes me laugh. There's not even a break in the action, she's just, "Nope! They are not my rescuers, and I am not a part of this in any way!"

Nevertheless, when I imagine the Landsmeet, if Loghain is executed, from the Origins gore that instantly sprays across her face as her father dies, I definitely headcanon that poor Anora went off afterward, had the appropriate breakdown, and thereafter lost most of her taste for statecraft. Or, in an alternate universe, it's fun to imagine the moment sending Anora into a cinematic-level revenge spiral.

Meanwhile, the final battle with Urthemiel is sort of comical for me in some ways, because I spend the entire thing divided between my attacks on the Archdemon and spamming heals to protect my adorable Hot Young Teagan from harm. (I used to protect First Enchanter Irving too, but after Dragon Age II and what Kinloch Hold (keep in mind, reputed to be one of the "kinder" holds) put Anders through, honestly, Irving can fuck right off.)


Depending on how that last battle goes, I have a number of minor headcanons. We get some sketchy details on life after the events of Origins, and of course most of those are presented as rumors (a very smart choice, once the game became part of a series).

If the Dark Ritual is refused and the Warden dies, like most of us I usually imagine the lives of their Companions afterward—not just the obvious sadness of the romanced Companions who have lost their love, but the effects of that loss on the lives of the others, too. There's some incredible fan art out there that explores some of these, and one of my favorites, by Remington-Zero, involves Zevran talking with the Warden, for instance, and it turns out he's making the latest visit to their gravestone.

Of course, we can also end Origins not just with the loss of our hero and avatar, but with the potential loss of so many of our friends—with the loss of Alistair or Sten as companions, with the deaths of Sten, Leliana, Wynne, Zevran, Shale, or poor Barkspawn (NEVER HAPPENING! Don't "at" me!), and in every case that loss is potential fuel for imagined grief.

We do know some of the fates of our friends who survive, and see many of them again in later game story chapters. Among those we don't hear much about... among the aftermath stories I imagine with Origins is the idea that Shale goes and finds the secret to unlocking her dwarven female form again, and while I don't think she goes and romances Sten and finds true love or anything, I do like to think that she meets up with him again in some far-off time and place, probably after he's Arishok, and that he smiles when he realizes who she is, and hugs her. (Yes, I headcanon that Sten hugs people, albeit grudgingly, and that he gives great hugs, although no, probably not quite at The Iron Bull-level of hug greatness).

As far as Barkspawn, after I saved him (since I always save him) I imagine that he had a long, long life, and that even as a Grey Warden canine, he was old but still alive at the time of Inquisition's events. I also absolutely know, with certainty, that after all the adventures of Origins are done, that when he returned to Par Vollen, Sten carried a rescued cat in his satchel... as well as a recipe for cookies.

What are your favorite Origins headcanons? Please share them in the comments!


  1. I absolutely believe Sten loves the Warden, but because he is such a staunch adherent to the Qun he doesn't have sex with those he loves (as Bull told us they have tamassrans for that).

    Greagoir and Irving have absolutely engaged in hate sex, it's what makes their arguments so charged and get keeps them working so loyally together. They're three steps away from being an old, bickering married couple.

    I believe Flemeth loves her daughter, but let revenge consume her to such a degree that the only way she could show it was to make Morrigan strong. I think her last thoughts were of her daughter, and her gratefulness that, despite the harm she'd done in raising her, Morrigan found good people who cared about her.

    I also believe that when Morrigan Inherits, her son goes to live with Alistair and the Warden, who, though they can't have children of their own, absolutely love Alistair's son and declare him their heir, raising him together with Morrigan serving as the guardian deity of the family bloodline.

    1. I love yours! Poor Sten. (cries)

      I LOVE that Greagoir and Irving have hate sex.

      And yeah, I agree with you on Flemeth. And I love the idea that Alistair adopts his son with Morrigan.

  2. Will you ever do a post on any of the DA: Novels. They are QUITE the insight into the world of Thedas and expands upon it in ways the games don't.

    P.S.: Speaking of the Cousland Origin, may I recommand this story based off of it:

    Do tell your thoughts if you ever get the time to read it!

    1. I definitely plan to! There's so much content to cover, but I especially want to address the novels at some point because they are so important to the lore. And thanks for the fanfic recommendation!

  3. I think the wiki might refer to Shale as 'it' because they don't refer to themself as having once been a woman until after you've completed their companion quest, and then only in a way that suggests they're ruminating on their past, not in a way that they identify as female. Shale also refers to other golems as 'it' in their banters with Wynne. And, in a banter with Leliana that occurs after "A Golem's Memories," Shale denies they are a woman.

    Leliana: I did not realize that you were a woman.
    Shale: That is because I am not. I am a golem.
    Leliana: But you were once a woman. And a dwarf. Doesn't that... mean anything to you?
    Shale: The bard speaks of someone who lived five centuries ago. What have I in commmon with her?
    Leliana: You share a soul.
    Shale: I do not... it talks in riddles. Desist, or I shall crush its head.

    It is kind of weird, though, when the wiki editors could just use a singular 'they,' especially since 'it' is rather dehumanizing. (Though of course Shale is not human... but you know what I mean!) Shale only ever refers to themself in the first person, so why the wiki editors chose 'it' instead of 'they' for Shale is anyone's guess, but it's probably better than gendering Shale as female if Shale does not identify as such.

    1. Hmm, that's a good point. I had thought Shale self-identified as female. Thanks for sharing that banter!

      I'm with you that I think "they/them" is more appropriate for Shale than "it," however, but of course the Wiki is also constantly evolving, so who knows.

  4. There's also some cool trivia on the wiki - there's a painting of part of Val Royeaux showing a dwarf next to a bunch of dead pigeons - maybe it's meant to be Shayle returned to their living form. :)

    1. I love that, I've heard of that picture but I don't think I ever looked at it -- and it is hilarious!

  5. These are so much fun! Though not as meaty as yours, Blog Author, I have a pragmatic fantasy for the time span after Origins leading into Awakenings:

    After all the post-Archdemon fuss in Denerim, Warden Zura and Alistair, joined sensually at the hip, are now parted by duty. Zura answers the summons to build Warden numbers in Amanranthine. But Alistair could wait no longer to sojourn to an ancestral home to construct by hand a lasting monument in honor of his true father, Duncan. After completing his solemn task, Alistair turns to Amaranthine, with a lightened heart eager to rejoin his lady love. Expecting Zura to have been busy with tedious repairs and paperwork, he strides into the aftermath of Awakenings, very seriously like WTF happened here.

    1. Thanks for reading -- and what a wonderful idea -- that Alistair honors Duncan with a memorial!

      And no kidding -- anyone running into Amaranthine would definitely be gobsmacked (I'm assuming Zura was okay!).

  6. My guess on why the wiki switched to referring to Shale as "it" was because Shale is assumed to be genderless like any golem until after the discovery of her origin as a dwarf female. I don't recall Shale identifying as female until after that discovery, at least, but I also haven't played Origins in a while and don't have the dialogue memorized.

    1. I agree. I think I overidentify Shale as female because I was so moved to discover it, and then there is her transparent crush on Sten. So I was overthinking it a bit.

  7. Regarding Shale on the wiki, it looks like the general consensus (via the Talk page) is to refer to Shale as "it" because being female is considered a spoiler, as it's something you discover late-game after doing the personal quest or bringing Shale along to the Anvil of the Void.

    I also assume it's related to the conversation where you ask "'re female?" and Shale's response is "I am a golem. I have no gender." I don't know that Shale ever says definitively one way or another, though.

    1. That's a good point -- that the discovery of Shale's mortal gender is a spoiler. Thanks for noting it!


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