High Valor is a new Role-Playing Game released by SilverLion Sudios and Better Mousetrap Games. Written by Tim Kirk, who brought us the “Hearts & Souls” Super Hero RPG, High Valor is a game about standing up against the odds, taking risks and making sacrifices in order to push back the dark forces that plague the world. It is a highly story driven, rules-lite game that where it might lack in crunchy rule bits it greatly makes up with story, setting, depth of character development and general ease of play.
Tim was awesome enough to send me an early copy of the Printer Friendly version of the PDF, which I’ve spent the last couple days reading and have had the chance to run a small session of.
Game Concepts and Setting:
Players take on the roles of heroes in a world inspired heavily by the folk lore and myths of Frankish, Gaelic and Germanic cultures. The Free Kingdoms of the West begin to rally their armies as the Black Gate of Daralgul fall and the Fane-Lords begin to march their dark armies forward. Players originate from 5 races (called Kinships): Dvegar (Dwarfs), Sidda (Elves), Fomoradgh (Feline, Beastlike creatures), Humans and their “elf touched” corrupted cousins: The Sidhain.
One thing I really like about the races and the setting is how prominent the different cultural influences are in their writing. Tim Kirk has gone as far as offering many different folks sayings and even elfish poetry to give examples for flavor and context. While the game mechanics are very narrative and abstract, he has gone to great lengths to flesh out and detail his world for those who want to use more details in their game. For example, while money is handled in a very abstract fashion and seldom comes into play, he has bothered to give us a very detailed listing of different currencies and exchange rates. Also, along with his examples of spells listed in The Grimoire section, he provides a nice list of examples of Shadowverses for incantations (more on magic in a bit.) The Setting alone gets a big thumbs up from me.
The PDF I reviewed weighs in at 150 pages, including a cover sheet, an index in the back and a character sheet. This was a “printer friendly” copy, but I will say the layout is easy to read, the fonts work well, the text flows together coherently, the columns are divided nicely and the organization is pretty spot on. The Table of Contents in the front was put together nicely, and the few pages of Index in the back seem thorough. The artwork is pretty decent. It’s not going to be on par with the level of production you get from Wizards of Paizo, but it fits perfectly with the mood and style of the game and didn’t take away or distract from the pages. The only part where I felt the art and style became a distraction was in certain sections where special fonts were used on a parchment-esque background. It’s still very legible, and the amount of sections that do this are minimal and not frequent throughout the whole book. Overall, the presentation still gets thumbs up from me.
Character Creation & Dice Mechanic
Creating a hero in High Valor is a very lined out process that offers plenty of customization and minimal stat crunch. Essentially, the character is built of only three “Feat Pools” and a bevy of Traits. The traits are ranked from Lesser to Mythic, for a total of 5 ranks. The Feat Pools are divided between Valor, Will and Faith. Each pool begins with 1 free point each, and 5 points are distributed between them. The traits a player may choose are based on a combination of their Origins (including their Kinship and Upbringing), their Profession, and even some from just their general experiences. During the trait selecting process, the player will have the choice between taking many Lesser ranked traits, a Greater and a Lesser, or a single Heroic trait. After all the traits are selected and the points are distributed amongst the 3 pools, all the player has left to do is pick a “Challenge” which is essentially a weakness or character flaw that will hinder him or her in play.
This alone offers a varied and wide assortment of character possibilities. But a real neat aspect for this system is the way Traits and Professions are set up: Since they cover a range of talents and skills both broad and specific, a player (along with his or her GM’s approval) can easily come up with many more of their own and still be able to work them into the game without having to change how the game is played, thanks in part to the dice mechanic of the game system. Every challenge a player faces has a difficulty rank, which pretty much sets the difficulty number from 8 to 28. When the player performs an action to defeat the challenge, they roll a number of 10-sided dice equal to the Feat Pool they’re using for the challenge. They take the highest die result, and add any related trait’s rank used in the action (every trait rank adds +2 to the dice rolls.) Also, if the dice roll a “10”, you get to add the next highest die to it. Beat the Target Number, you win the challenge. Fail, and you take a “setback”. Ties result in a “stalemate” where both sides may opt to take setbacks in order to still one-up their opponents. Every setback hinders your character, adding difficulty to the challenge. In a combat scenario, this could very well permanently maim or injure your character, and ultimately kill them.
Magic and Miracles
Magic in this system is very open and free form, and I have to say it kicks a lot of butt. While there are example spells listed in the book, pretty much anything the player can come up with is (in theory) possible. But with greater results comes greater risk. Essentially, Magic is broken up into “Low Magic” and “High Magic”, and even then it’s divided by different realms of casting (Conjuring, Enchantments, Sorcery or Wizardry.) Low Magic is the very low risk, low reward, can easily be blamed on luck or circumstance kind of spell casting. High Magic is the stuff where winds blow out of the north and freeze your foes, lightning cracks from the sky and fire erupts from your palms. With these much higher results, come higher difficulty and a much higher risk. Magic has the chance to not only blow up in your face, but possibly work but not in the ways as desired. It’s a system that while simple and fairly free form, still has a dangerous and mysterious element that feels on par for risk as games like Warhammer.
Divine magic also has a role to play in this game. Character with some Faith can easily perform prayers and rituals to receive blessings to protect or aid them. Those of stronger conviction can even pray for miracles that can play a pretty big role during a scene (lightning striking a bridge as an army crosses, for example.) Like Magic, Miracles come in the flavors of that which can be coincidental (a gust of wind knocks an arrow off course) to just plain amazing (Angels appear to assist the character.) It should be noted that these greater miracles generally happen about once per campaign or so.
What makes Magic and Blessings/Miracles interesting to me is the use of role playing to perform them. Magic uses “Shadowverse” which is essential a line of dramatic prose to cast the spells, while blessings and miracles are activated through prayers and chants. When we played this last night, there were some chuckles and bashfulness, but I really do feel adding a required, role-played out verbal incantation really added to the feel of the game.
Combat as Challenges
Combat in this game will probably be, for many, a complex factor for them not because of complicated rules, but the sheer simplicity of it. There is no formal initiative system or turn structure, and most NPC’s and monsters don’t even have any stats except for a lone challenge rating/rank. This challenge rating is essentially the difficulty to beat a foe, and is handled mechanically no different than any other task check. The Teller/GM has the freedom to raise and lower the difficulty as he sees fit, depending on the actions (for instance, against a regular monster, it might take a Greater or Heroic challenge to kill it in one strike. But it may be lowered to a Lesser challenge to simply strike and injure it.) Another interesting fact is that the system is set up so the Teller/GM never rolls the dice against the players. Whether the player is attacking his foe or vice versa, it all comes down a Feat+Trait roll vs the challenge rating of the opponent to determine whether the player is successful in his action (be it attacking or blocking or whatever) or if he suffers a setback (injury, stunning, in higher cases death etc.)
The other interesting aspect of how combat is handled in this system is that a scene involving multiple foes can be wrapped up as a single challenge. A room full of zombies, a pack of wolves or rats swarming the players could easily begin as a Heroic or Legendary Challenge, with players choosing their actions based on the risk and difficulty. Do they attempt to attack or fight off all of the monsters at once (as a Heroic challenge), risking the possibility of death or injury? Or do they focus on picking off their numbers (a Lesser to Greater challenge) which will take longer and multiple actions, but has lower risk? Or do they attempt to retreat while holding back the hordes? Do they flee like cowards? Even when players have assistance from NPC’s, it’s represented more as bonuses to their ranks or traits than actual characters getting to roll. This is to keep the emphasis on the scene focused on the players, and not taking the spot light away from them.
Personally, I enjoy the concept and the idea behind this more abstract way of handling foes as just challenges, but it’s really hard for me to break out of the standard RPG mindset. It may be easier to pick up over time, starting off with some basic form of “turn order” with my group (like clockwise seating) and attempt to ease into it. If not, it wouldn’t be hard to house rule in an initiative system for the time being.
Overall First Impressions:
For a rules light, story and role play heavy system, there is a lot to like about High Valor. Character creation offers a lot of potential for a variety of character concepts and styles. Even with the use of Professions, it’s easy to break the standard fantasy molds and develop a character as opposed to a class build. For people who felt D&D is too heavy in the Dungeons aspect and want to break free of the encounter math building and game balancing of dungeon design, High Valor will work well for a dynamic plot-driven game. There’s a lot of flexibility here, both in rules and setting. You could easily use this to run many other settings with just a quick brainstorming and minimal conversions. After our game last night, we discussed how it could work well with the likes of Dragon Age. But seriously, the amount of work the author put into his setting details (to even include sections on herbs, plants and poisons!) would be worth picking this book up for alone, and offers plenty for groups to play with.
The biggest hurdle to jump is the freedom and openness of the combat design, especially when coming from a structured, tactical D&D standpoint. Folks who are more akin to lighter systems will probably pick this up quickly, and those who enjoy more free-form role playing will also benefit from this title.
You can Order a copy of the PDF off RPGNow for $12.95