Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tommy's Take on High Valor

Disclaimer: I consider Tim Kirk to be a friend of mine.  That said, he and I both know we don't necessarily agree on all things regarding game design.  However, Tim trusts me to give him a fair review and I'll do that.  It's all I've ever tried to do with these things.  Honestly, if anything, I'm probably being a tad rougher in some areas because of it.

Silverlion Studios just released their second RPG, High Valor,  which is a new fantasy RPG designed for heroic fantasy role-playing.  The author states up front that he's not trying to reinvent the wheel, just provide an alternative for those who aren't pleased with their current choice of fantasy role-playing, or even those who just want to try something new.

High Valor was just released on RPG.now for $12.95 in PDF format.  The PDF not only has a table of contents and index, but is fully bookmarked and searchable for easy reference.  The book was released in black and white, but this was a thematic choice on the part of the designer, and honestly I really think it works.  Similar to how most of the supplements for the Midnight game line were all in black and white, it helps enhance the feel rather than take away from it.  I do know the author just received a print copy of the book, so I imagine a print release is also on the horizon, though I don't have those details at the time of this review.

High Valor
hits a few of my pet peeves right off the bat, in that it includes dwarves and elves, but renames them Dvegr and Sidda, respectively.  I don't mind dwarves and elves being in the game, but I'd just prefer them be called dwarves and elves.  The second pet peeve is that PCs are largely defined by traits and challenges, which are player defined (not unlike FATE or Over the Edge).  This one is alleviated, however, by a LARGE list of examples from various kinds of traits, rather than just a couple of examples to choose from.  The third thing that gave me an eye twitch was when I got the bestiary: Monsters and adversaries are pure description with a challenge score.  That is, say, a troll is a Heroic challenge, and that sets the difficulty for defeating a troll outright.  You can try to wear it down by making less difficult actions and thus taking less risk, however.  The final thing isn't a pet peeve per se, but High Valor is a “players roll” system, meaning that, well, players roll dice and the GM doesn't.  I don't have a problem with this, but in my experience this always leads to a few oddities in the system and I've picked up the odd place in the magic system where this might be the case.

From a design standpoint, there are a few places in the book where font selections made the text a little more difficult to read.  The author said this was meant to emulate a “handwriting” type of feel, and that would have been fine if those sections were just flavor text, but actual game information is in there, and that makes it disconcerting.

That said, those are my complaints.

High Valor is set in a world called Aiea, which is nearing the end of their Dark Ages when the Black Gate falls and the demonic Fane Lords return.  Thus, the time is ripe for heroes to rise and protect the world from the Fane Lords and their minions.  The setting is detailed, but not heavily so.  In fact, the timeline is left with blank spots for the GM to fill in their own events to flesh out the world.  The author provides details like coinage, verbage and the like to help give the world its identity, but there is meticulously detailing of every major NPC like you might find in a lot of fantasy settings.

Character creation goes in steps and is largely freeform.  First, pick you concept and then your kinship.  Kinship is equivalent to race in your typical fantasy game and includes the Dvegr and Sidda, as well as Humans, the magic-twisted Sidhain (still kinda human, just...different) and Fomoradgh, the animalistic former footsoldiers of The Fane Lords who have decided to fight their former masters.  Every kinship has an inherent trait and challenge or, in the case of the Sidhain, a list of traits or challenges to choose from.  After that, you pick background traits keyed to being a member of your kinship.  From there, select a profession and traits related to that and then three open traits for fleshing out.  Traits add to your die rolls where applicable and are ranked from Lesser (+2) up to Mythic (+10).  The challenge scale works on a similar scale of Lesser (8) to Mythic (28).  Character generation gives you the option in places of taking, say, fewer traits at a higher level, or more traits at a lower level.

Once your traits are complete, you have 5 dice to distribute among your FEAT Pools, which are Valor, Will and Faith.  Each starts off at 1, so you get that freebie.  Valor is generally used for physical type stuff, Will for mental type stuff (including magic) and Faith can be used to invoked divine miracles as well as ward off dark forces.

Everything you do involves rolling from those pools and applying relevant traits.  You take the highest die and add your traits.  HOWEVER, for every “10” that you roll, you keep it AND add the next highest die.  So if you roll four dice and get 3, 5, 6 and 9, you take the 9 and add the two highest relevant traits.  Had you rolled 3, 5, 6 and 10, you get the 10 and the 6 plus the traits!  You must roll higher than the target number to succeed.  If you roll equal to it, that's a stalemate and the GM or the player can take a minor setback for the character they have involved in the conflict in order to take the upperhand, or they can call that action a draw and move on to the next action.

When things are desperate, you can use other pools to bolster an active one.  Say you are locked in a physical struggle with a giant and you think your physical Valor will not be enough, you can borrow a die from your Will pool to bolster yourself for the struggle.  Or, say, a dark force is trying to corrupt you and your Will is fading...so you invoke a Prayer and add Faith to your pool.  The downside is that doing so diminishes the pool you borrowed from for an entire scene.  The only limits are that you cannot use Faith to bolster magic and you cannot Will miracles into existence.  However, your allied can lend you dice and they have no limitations on how they do that...literally, your allies can will you to greater heights.

The stakes for failure are based off of the difficulty of the action.  If something is of a Lesser difficulty, there shouldn't be any danger of death.  However, a Mythic challenge is very, very harrowing and so on.  When faced with a challenge that is just too overwhelming, with the GM's (or “Teller's”) discretion you can take smaller, less difficult actions to whittle the challenge down and increase your chances of success.  I definitely think this is something that'll take some getting used to for myself and my players, but could be very cool regardless.

Just about everything in the game is a Trait.  If you have a sword, but not a Sword trait, you roll Valor.  If you have your Father's Battle-Worn Blade (+4), you roll Valor +4.  Since you can add two relevant traits to an action, if you have your Father's Battle-Worn Blade (+4) and Swordsman (+2), roll your Valor +6.

Enchanted items work the same way, and a sample of Items of Power are included in the book, as well as tips on converting existing equipment to Items of Power, something I've always loved.  Don't get me wrong...it's cool finding a Vorpal Weapon +3....but it's a LOT cooler when you plunge your sword into a demon's fiery heart and from that day forward your blade is covered in glowing veins that are poison to those of demonic blood, am I right?

As noted above, there are two kinds of metaphysics in the game: Faith and Magic.

Faith has smaller applications, such as Blessings.  They can be used to lay a protective blessing on children, ward off demons for a day and so forth.  Minor miracles are the next step, and some of the examples supplied include gusts of wind knocking arrows aside or the sun emerging from the clouds to blind a foe.  Major miracles can summon Angelic aid, raise the dead and open sinkholes under enemies.  Note, however, that miracles can have setbacks and they can be intense, such as drawing the attention of evil forces or even encouraging the High Power to call the miracle invoker home...(death, basically).

Magic is divided into Low and High magic, which is not unlike the Blessings/Miracles division.  Low magic are very minor effects, that can be reasonably denied.  They generally add, at best, a +2 to an action like a Lesser Trait.  High Magic, on the other hand, can do wondrous things, but requires relevant skills to perform and can have much greater consequences.  In fact, every use of High magic WILL have setbacks...though the caster, with time, preparation and ritual can reduce the level of setback.  The simplest is Shadowplay, which is creating a short rhyme for the spell, said out loud, and reduces the setback level by 1 step.  No matter how much the caster prepares, though, they cannot eliminate the setbacks altogether.

Using a similar set-up to the Faith and Magic system, the book also details a list of herbs, poisons and plants that can be used to provide a variety of traits, such as mandrake, which can be used to both knock a person unconscious or kill them, the furze tree, which acts as a barrier against trolls and can be burnt to ward off all evil, and coltsfoot, used specifically to heal horses and their riders.

High Valor
uses an interesting advancement system, in which you track your Triumphs and Dooms.  These are your major successes and failures.  Once you have accumulated ten of them, you can advance your character, either by improving a Trait, adding a die to a pool, adding a new trait or removing a challenge.  The key in each is significance.  Beating up a shopkeeper and taking their money?  Not impressive.  Rallying the impoverished town together to wage war against the demon-influenced overlord and overthrowing his reign of oppression?  Much better.  And even if that attempt fails, the town is crushed and you're left for dead, that's still gonna fall under a Doom.  The key is to think Big.

The cover is very indicative to what High Valor is all about: A lone warrior, spear in hand, standing over fallen foes while another group of enemies rushes him and the demonic head of a Fane Lord appears overhead.  The setting included into the book has dark forces brewing, but unlike a Midnight or a Ravenloft, there is no sense that heroes will be crushed for fighting evil.  Quite the opposite, in fact...great evil is there to allow the PCs to rise up and BE heroes.  That's how I like my fantasy.  Heck, that's how I like my games, period: Dark, but not hopeless.  There must be a little spark that can be fanned into a glorious flame, and for the misgivings I laid out at the beginning of this review, that is exactly what High Valor provides.

High Valor is designed to provide the kind of fantasy adventure I wanted from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition, but never quite found because so much of the system was still geared towards killing things and taking its stuff.  High Valor provides a vehicle for that kind of epic, storytelling adventure while still keeping the “game” part of it present.