With Valor: Villains, Creatures and Foes in development and the Kickstarter in full-swing, we wanted to take the time to get an inside look at what goes into creating Valor. Over the next few weeks, we will be sitting down with a number of people who made this game happen, from the designers, to the artists and to writers, to hear what goes into making a tabletop roleplaying system from start to finish.
Our first interview is with Austin MacKenzie, the Lead Designer for Valorous Games, and co-creator of Valor, the Heroic Roleplaying game. We asked him what went into his design for the original game, and what fans can look forward to in Villains, Creatures and Foes.
Staff: So tell me a bit about your design background. What made you want to design games?
MacKenzie: It’s something I sort of fell into naturally. When I was a kid, I always thought I was going to be some kind of great novelist. I’d always start trying to write a novel and lose steam after about 1 chapter. At the same time, I was playing a lot of video games and started designing my own tabletop roleplaying games on the side. While I never came close to completing one novel, I finished maybe thirty different games when I was a kid and was always eager to start on the next one. That got me thinking that maybe I might want to work in design. From there, I started doing some modifications and homebrew rules for the D20 system, most notably for the anime Bleach. From there, making my own system seemed only natural.
Staff: Basically you got bit by the design bug as a kid
MacKenzie: Yeah you could definitely say that. Or I spent too much time being grounded from playing video games because I never turned in my homework! Designing games wasn’t barred while I was grounded, thankfully.
Staff: Didn’t we all?
Staff: So did you always know you were going to design something that was more video game or anime focused, or was that something that just happened over time?
MacKenzie: Oh, Alan and I definitely knew it was going to be anime focused. One of the things I discovered working on Bleach d20 was that d20 wasn’t especially suited to anime. While there’s a lot of tactical crunch that I really enjoyed, the system is very specifically about this big epic fantasy and the inspirations are very obvious, Tolkien, Vance, it’s a very core part of the identity and anime works under entirely different rules.
When we launched Valor, our working title was “Shounen”, because we wanted to capture the feel of the shounen anime genre – big, loud, epic battles, screaming attack names, the very theatric, sometimes over-exaggerated pathos, that was definitely what we wanted from the beginning.
Staff: Would you say your work with Bleach d20 influenced Valor in any way?
MacKenzie: Definitely. When I made Bleach d20 I crafted this enormously elaborate system for the Zanpakutou – the magic sword each Soul Reaper carries that personifies their soul and personality. In the original system, I created a huge host of special abilities that you could give it in order to customize it and make it unique, this would provide some basis for the eventual Technique system you see in Valor.
Additionally, while d20 is very much a character class system, I used the stripped down generic 3 classes from Unearthed Arcana to create the baseline for the Soul Reaper, so you had the Warrior, the Rogue, and the Spellcaster. That contributed into our decision to do away with character classes entirely in Valor.
Staff: So in a lot of ways Bleach d20 was a test bed for what would eventually become Valor.
MacKenzie: You could definitely say that, although we did a lot of different things with the final result. We wanted Valor to be able to achieve far more than just Bleach, after all.
Staff: Were there any other things that you took inspiration from when creating Valor?
MacKenzie: When we were first plotting it out, we looked at the other existing major anime system, Big Eyes Small Mouth tri-stat (although there was a d20 variant we chose not to focus on that one) to determine what they did to capture the anime feel. We liked that they offered a wide variety of abilities that could be used to capture the feel of a more anime-based concept, but felt the different mechanics for each different ability made it a bit too confusing.
D&D 4th Edition hit early in the production of Valor and they did a lot of things we liked with regards to action economy and tactical gameplay, the system was very balanced and had all characters operating under the same basic ruleset – that would be one of our major guiding principles as we designed Valor’s core ability suite – we wanted everyone to know how their own character operated, and have a good idea of how other characters could operate.
Beyond that, we also took a lot of inspiration from the Super Robot Wars video game series, a grid-based game that is typically Japan-only due to it featuring a huge crossover between a bunch of different mecha series such as Gundam, Getter Robo, Mazinger, Evangelion, and even Gurren-Lagann in the more recent iterations. In Super Robot Wars, you have a stat called “Will” that rises naturally over the course of the battle and gives you access to more powerful attacks and abilities, as well as increasing your overall capabilities.
This idea perfectly encapsulated the idea of how things operate in shounen anime, in the big, important fights as the stakes get higher the heroes become more engaged and hot-blooded, which in turn makes them perform better or even breaking the “rules” of the setting. This concept was eventually adapted into the Valor stat, and remains one of the most important mechanics in Valor.
Staff: The Valor stat?
MacKenzie: The Valor stat is, I think, the biggest part about what makes Valor unique. In the start of any scene, combat or challenge, you start with 0 Valor and it slowly builds over the course of the scene. You gain bonuses if you do cool things like shouting attack names at the table or giving an epic speech, basically, the more like a shounen anime hero you act, the more Valor you get. You can then use it to do a lot of different things such as add +5 to your roll, even after the dice have already been rolled. It’s a great way to turn aside a powerful attack, turn a hit into a critical hit, and do all sorts of cool things, and it really encourages players to think and act in a certain mindset where they want to be valorous, be daring, and be bold.
Staff: So Valor encourages players to go ham.
MacKenzie: Absolutely. Valor players are big on pork, as it turns out.
Staff: I imagine it gets pretty crazy at the game table then. What is one of your favorite things that a player has done to get Valor?
MacKenzie: We’ve had some pretty epic table dynamics. We once did a Battle of the Bands demo and we had a guy rapping at our table, it was pretty awesome. In the same game, Free Bird often came up, and I found that it’s pretty much impossible for anybody to sing it and not sound drunk. Must be something about that song.
We’ve gotten some pretty incredible rival speeches as well, once in one of our earlier tests, one of the characters went up against the assassin who murdered her clan in a big season finale. She was getting pummeled and she kept spending Valor to get up and keep fighting, and was delivering fantastic speeches to keep her Valor up the entire time. At the end of the scene, because she was using Valor to heal herself, she lost all of the health she had regained which brought her so low she succumbed to her wounds and died, basically after putting everything into one final attack she defeated the assassin and just dropped dead right after the battle. I can’t think of a more perfect example of what Valor is and meant to do than that one scene.
Staff: What went into developing the book for Villains, Creatures and Foes?
MacKenzie: We’d already established with the core Valor book what the system was and what you could do with it, so for VCF, the goal was to create a lot of interesting enemies that a GM could throw at their party. What it also let us do was start adding new abilities that would be way too powerful for a regular Player Character but in the hands of a Foe could make for an interesting, unique and memorable scene. In all, we’ve completed 160 Foes for the book, I myself did about 110 of them and worked with some other fantastic writers for the rest. Making and testing the new mechanics has been a challenge, but the fact that we were able to create so much content in such a small amount of time – 9 months of serious work, in fact, was really heartening.
Staff: Where did you take your inspiration for the various Foes in this book?
MacKenzie: A lot of the Foes were based on popular mythology. It’s interesting when going into a book like this, you know generally that people expect certain things to be there. Dragons, for example, are an absolute must. Greek mythology always get a high amount of representation, there are just some Foes I feel like you have to have. We still wanted to do some interesting things though, and since we’re an anime system that meant one of the major focuses was on bringing in more Asian and especially Japanese mythology into the foes. Creatures like the Tengu and the Kitsune, for example, as well as some other creatures like the Rakshasa from Indian mythology and the Pennangalan from Southeast Asia.
We also grabbed some cryptids and urban legends, we actually have both Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. Some of this is due to some of the settings we’re working on developing that will need that, but in other cases we wanted to bring in some awesome creatures that you don’t see in other roleplaying games.
Staff: So which one is your favorite?
MacKenzie: That’s a mean question, I’ve made so many of these how can I pick just one? Probably my absolute favorite is actually a Valor original, the Mother of Life and Death who is the strongest endgame boss intended to challenge very powerful parties. She’s level 22 so she really breaks the rules since you can only go up to level 20, and she has the power to shift between two different forms, the Life form, which is a big control-focused spellcaster, and the Death form, which is a powerful high-damage assassin.
Some of the other fun mythology-based monsters are the Leviathan, which is on its own the largest Foe in the game taking up 15 x 21 spaces on a grid, as well as the Kitsune who have a really cool, varied skillset. I also really enjoyed making the high-ranking angels, the Cherubim and Seraphim especially, I had a lot of fun naming their techniques and flavoring them based on what they are in the Judeo-Christian lore.
Staff: Valor original?
MacKenzie: Yes, we have several original creatures that are designed specifically for Valor. The Mother of Life and Death is one, as well as the Malevolent Entity, intended to be a big endgame boss based on the “Malevolent Entity” flaw you can take as a character who has a literal demon living inside of them. Currently all our originals are big, high-level end-game Foes but I’d like to introduce a few more with the bonus content if we can.
Staff: Well hopefully you’ll have the opportunity to do so!
Staff: I imagine VCF has let you flesh out some of the rules for creating Foes. What tools will you be giving GMs to make their own Foes?
MacKenzie: We’ve included some tables to make it easier for a GM to plan their Foes, a lot of the different classes of Foes have different TP, Health, and SP totals and now they’re all together in one place. Beyond that, we’re clarifying how some skills interact with the different classes of NPC so that there’s no uncertainty. Some of the new skills and abilities are specifically for Foes, since Foes can have more specialized strengths and weaknesses it gives the GMs a lot more freedom to do really interesting things with them.
Beyond that, we’re also including easy rules for advancing enemies so if you really like a Foe but it’s not the right level, you can make them stronger and use them anyway. Our ultimate goal is making Valor as easy as possible for a prospective GM to run, since running any kind of roleplaying game is hard enough as it is!
Staff: So basically this book is a GM’s best friend and a player’s worst enemy.
MacKenzie: Pretty much! Although hopefully players will appreciate staring at all the cool abilities they can never have. From a distance. As they are used against them.
Staff: Now that you’re done with developing this book, what’s next?
MacKenzie: After this book it’ll be back to giving the players some love, we’ve already begun outlining and compiling a host of new abilities that will be included in Valor: Tools of the Trade. We had a bunch of ideas that were cut from the original Valor book due to time and space, so we want to bring these back around in a new book to greatly expand the options available to players. Maybe that will keep them from wanting to dig their hands into the Foe abilities.
The GMs will still get some love too as we’ll be introducing or expanding a host of optional rules. With Valor, we strive for modularity and customizability so you can really just grab whatever is appropriate for what you’re trying to accomplish and go. Tools should have a lot of great new options for players and GMs alike.
Staff: So is there anything else that you want to tell anyone looking at the Kickstarter?
MacKenzie: I’m just really excited to get this book released. Our goal with Valor is to create a great new system that’s flexible enough for Game Masters to really do whatever they want with it, and I think Foes is a fantastic step in this direction. I’m excited to release all this new content, and even more excited to see what people do with it!
Valor: Villains, Creatures and Foes can be found on Kickstarter through October 15.