It is from this cauldron of tension and hostility that you select your character.
Your first two hours playing as a human noble have almost nothing in common with those of a dwarf commoner or Dalish elf. While you're taught the basics of combat, and introduced to party mechanics, the rest is unique. Select a mage (either human or elf - dwarves have no affinity with mana) and you must go through the Harrowing - the test all mages must face before leaving their apprenticeship. This involves entering the spirit world of the Fade to do battle with dreams and demons. Select a city elf (either rogue or warrior) and you play through a tale of wedding-day excitement, terrifying attacks, and rape. A human noble faces terrible loss, while a Dalish elf gets hands-on experience with the Darkspawn. Play as a casteless dwarf, or the son or daughter of the dwarven king, and the contrast is dramatic.
What each opening eventually has in common is the arrival of Duncan, a Grey Warden attempting to recruit armies to join the fight against the Blight. Hundreds of years ago each race signed an accord to provide armies on demand should the Darkspawn rise again, and Duncan is asking people to make good on that promise. Along the way, a promising candidate for the Wardens themselves catches his eye. Which would be you.
Once recruited, you arrive in Ostagar with Duncan, meet king Cailan Theirin, and begin the ritual of becoming a Grey Warden. At this point all six beginnings converge. But this isn't a case of a couple of hours of unique story before being dumped on the same path as all the others. Your race and your social position have an enormous impact throughout the 80-hour long game. Once you're through the ritual, your goal is to visit the elves, dwarves, humans and mages to convince them to send their armies to fight the Blight.
Most extraordinary about this opening choice is the incredible sense of being of that race, and the part that race plays in history. I know much about the elves, the dwarves and the mages: I've been to their homelands, experienced their cultures, influenced their lives and been influenced by them. But I've no idea what it's like to be a Dalish elf. I can tell you all about being a noble human, my family's past, our relationships to the ruling classes, and most of all, the horror of loss and betrayal that surrounded me. No part of the game is without this enormity of history.
The world is so vast and detailed you could believe it was a hundred years in the making. Much of the background is delivered to you via the Codex. This encyclopaedia of the game's world, past, laws and characters is constantly updated as you explore new areas, read new books, talk to strangers, or get to know friends better. You need not read it, but each page is beautifully written, often funny or dramatic, and mostly a pleasure to look through.
The main quest - to get all the major races to send their armies to join the Grey Wardens - gives you the freedom to explore the world in the order you choose, and influences much of how you experience the game. Head to the capital city, Denerim, and you'll find the main market district. Here you'll meet not only key characters for the main story, but dozens of others who might send you off on side quests. In Denerim alone you'll find quests from underground organisation The Blackstone Irregulars, the Mages' Collective, dubious work known as Favours For Certain Interested Parties, and missions from the Chanters' Board outside the local Chantry.
These swell up your list of current quests, some to be sought out when reaching later cities, others adding new areas to the map. These can range from simple conversations or fights, to battling your way through huge dungeons. Characters such as rogue bard Leliana, fellow warden and warrior, Alistair, and Witch of the Wilds, Morrigan, join you early on. Other members of your gang will sign up once you've visited their homelands.