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Tabletop Review: Valiant Universe: The Roleplaying Game

Valiant Universe: The Roleplaying Game
Publisher: Catalyst Game Labs
Cost: $9.99 (PDF)/$39.99 (Physical)/$54.99 (LE)
Page Count: 210
Release Date: 07/16/2014
Get it Here: DriveThruRPG.com or Battlecorps

Well, it’s finally here. After four Quick Start Rules sets and a Free RPG Day 2014 release, the final version of Valiant Universe: The Roleplaying Game is finally available to all…in PDF form anyway. You’ll have to wait a few more months for the physical copy. I have to tell you I am more than a LITTLE tempted by that Red Leather X-O Manowar version.

If this is the first time you are hearing about the Valiant Universe RPG, then welcome! Yes, much like how Green Ronin has the DC Universe license and Evil Hat has the Atomic Robo license, Catalyst Game Labs has added Valiant’s cast of characters to its RPG collection. No you won’t be seeing a crossover with Battletech or Shadowrun any time soon, but you finally have the chance to play as all your favorite Valiant Universe characters like Shadowman, Ninjak, Sting (Not Steve Borden), Livewire and more. Even better, the system is extremely rules-lite which makes it very easy to learn. The Cue System, or the engine that powers Valiant Universe RPG is a huge paradigm shift for a CGL game. Usually their products are extremely mechanics heavy, with all sorts of little rules for everything. Not the Cue System. This really feels designed for newer or casual gamers, which makes sense as this will be the first tabletop RPG for a lot of Valiant fans. If anything the system is kind of a mix of Cortex, Savage Worlds and the old Marvel RPG from TSR that first made me fall in love with gaming all those years ago. Honestly, the system will probably be a bit of culture shock to CGL’s longtime fans since it’s so streamlined, but for a super hero oriented game, the Cue System is a great choice as it focuses more on imagination and co-operative storytelling than letting the dice do all the work.

Now, a couple quick notes. First, the game is not up to date with current Valiant continuity. This is because new issues come out every month and games take a LOOOOOONG time to make. So characters like Rai, Dr. Silk or the antagonists from Armor Hunters are not in here. You also won’t see recent story developments so Flamingo is still alive, Monica Jim isn’t a member of the Renegades, and so on. It’s also worth noting for older gamers like myself that this only covers the current Valiant universe. There is no mention of the original Jim Shooter or Akklaim versions that came before it, so if you were hoping to see stats for Magnus, Dr. Solar or Turok….nope. That’s not going to happen for a whole bunch of reasons. On this particular note it also is important to note that the writers of the Valiant Universe RPG only have read the current Valiant Universe and the stat blocks for characters reflect what they have seen and not necessarily what some long-time fans know these characters are capable of. So yes, Master Darque is extremely underpowered in his character sheet and is lacking the ability to create undead creatures or summon demons. Things like this will probably annoy the more anal-rententive fans of the current universe or people like myself who own a lot of old trades/issue runs from the original Valiant era, but it shouldn’t. It’s a game after all and if you can’t wait for new stat blocks for these characters to be released, you can always tweak them to your own liking. House rules and all that rot. The point I’m trying to make is that Valiant Universe: the Roleplaying Game is written by readers of the new universe FOR readers of the new universe and I think that was the smart way to go. It prevents references to characters who have yet to appear in the current Valiant continuity and probably never will, like Mothergod, The Visitor or Nettie. Maybe someday we’ll get a look at “Classic Valiant” as a supplement (I’ll write it up!), but for now the focus is purely o the current version of Valiant’s offerings and that’s the way I like it.

So, remember how earlier I mentioned how the Valiant Universe RPG is extremely rules lite? Well, out of the 210 pages in this PDF, only twenty pages are devoted to rules. I can’t think of any other major release that has that little in the way of rules! This is both a good thing and a bad thing. The good is that this makes the rules easy to learn and memorize, but the bad side of it is that things can be a little too vague for gamers used to a lot of structure and mechanics, like Pathfinder or Dungeons & Dragons. So what else is in the book? Well, there are thirteen pages devoted to character creation. Yes, the character making rules are almost as long as the complete mechanics for the game. Now that’s different. This is mainly because character creation is pretty free form. We’ll take a look at that later. The bulk of the Valiant Universe RPG is about the comic continuity itself. Eighteen pages about the core nine comics, fourteen pages on various organizations and secret societies and a whopping EIGHTY-EIGHT pages devoted to Valiant characters. There are roughly three dozen major characters listed here, along with forty eight minor characters or NPCs to throw into your homebrew games. That’s pretty amazing. I can’t think of too many super hero RPGs that give you that many characters right off the bat. All the major characters right now except Rai, Ax, Dr. Silk and the Armor Hunters are here. Again, you might quibble on the stats. Faith probably should have a d4 or d6 in Might and Action instead of d8s and Archer is missing his ability to duplicate any super power or skill, but what’s here is pretty good, if not entirely accurate. Again tweak things to fit your own vision of the Valiant Universe. It’s your game after all.

So let’s talk rules. To be honest, not much has changed since I first reviewed the quick start version of the rules back in May. Each player takes turn acting as the Lead Narratior, which is the game’s equivalent of the Dungeon Master, Storyteller, Keeper or whatever you like to call the person running the show. This allows everyone a chance to both play AND direct. I like the idea very much. Of course, there are some people that like RPGs that aren’t very good at running games and some who aren’t good at playing characters, so you don’t have to do the regular switching of the Lead Narrator role if you are more comfortable using the standard way of doing things.

Characters have five stats: Might (Physical Build), Intellect, Charisma (Personality and force of will), Action (combat) and Luck. Each stat except for Luck has a die attached to it: d4, d6, d8, d10 or a d12. The bigger the die, the more powerful the character is, the better they are in that field. Powers are run the same way. Luck is unusual as it is a random number between 1 and 12. There is no intentional correlation with the Luck number and a character’s power level. When generating a new character, you are told to just pick a number and slap it in. Luck comes into play whenever you roll a die. If your Luck number comes up on a roll, BAM – instant success even if you would otherwise fail. Now the clever min/max gamer will realize something that others won’t. The LOWER your luck number, the more likely you are to actually roll it. Eternal Warrior has a Luck of 10. That means whenever he rolls a 10 on a die, it’s an automatic success. Let’s look at his stats. Gilad has a d10 Might, a d8 Intellect, a d6 Charisma and a d10 Action. Now since his luck is 10, he can never get a Luck success on his Intellect or Charsima. Those dice don’t go up to 10! Your best bet with Luck is to have it between numbers 1-4 as it shows up on any die, thus maximizing your chance for it to occur. However, that is MIN/MAX’ing, which I tend to frown upon. Plus, there is something to be said in a character who doesn’t need luck or is generally unlucky. So while a Luck from 1-4 is best for rolling, it might not be best for ROLE-PLAYING, am I right?

Making rolls is pretty easy. When a character needs to take an action they roll a D12 + the appropriate die on their character sheet. So if you are trying to be stealthy with Ninjak, you’d roll your standard D12 + his d10 in Adaptive Camouflage and then add the results together. Meanwhile the Lead Narrator would roll a d20. Whoever gets the highest wins the challenge. Now it’s not always that simple. There are occasional modifiers to the rolls and some powers might take precedence over a stat die. There are times where you can even roll both a power AND a stat die with the d12 and then you drop the highest, drop the lowest or keep them both! It all just depends. D12+ appropriate die vs. d20 is the universal equation for the Cue System though and it’s extremely intuitive.

There are rules for weapons, vehicles, combat in vehicles, mind control, breathing, being in space and other things that you’ll want for comic book style battles or situations. One thing that is notably missing are hard and fast rules for death. This is on purpose because 1) unlike other comics book universes with a revolving door policy on death, Valiant has been and always will be a place with only permadeath. Now that isn’t to say there isn’t necromancy or ghosts, otherwise we wouldn’t have characters like Dr. Mirage or Sandria, but when you are dead, you are DEAD here in the Valiant-verse. Because the game wants to keep that intact, death in tabletop Valiant only comes about when the Lead Narrator and players feel it is appropriate. Say a heroic sacrifice or it really fits the story. As such you’ll notice when a character loses all armor and health in the game, they are only Knocked Out, Pokémon style. I think that is a good idea, especially since you can’t raise the dead in some fashion here unless you are Master Darque and even then, it’s a mockery of life, not a second chance at things. I like this idea on many levels. This allows the story to come first and the dice to come second, which is how things should be. It makes death more interesting and meaningful when it happens. It also makes the group more co-operative because everyone has a say, not just a bad or jerky LN. This is just one of the many ways the Cue System and the Valiant Universe RPG really focuses on being a storytelling and role-playing game rather than a roll-playing dice fest. Some might not like it while other will love it. I’m definitely in the latter camp.

Let’s talk character creation. Better yet, let’s make one together! I’m going to make a classic Valiant character that might actually have a chance of showing up at some point in the current universe so everyone wins with this example. It’s a Bionisaur, one of the cybernetic dinos from the original Unity that shows up in the Valiant take on Turok: Dinosaur Hunter. I mean, I’m pretty sure Archer & Armstrong and/or Quantum & Woody are going to run into one of these sooner rather than later, right? So we have our concept. Let’s assign stat dice. You get a d6 two d8s and a d10 to make your character. I’ll give the Bionisaur a d10 in Might, a d8 in Action, a d8 in Intellect and a d6 in Charisma. I then have the option of turning my d10 into a d12 at the expense of turning my d6 into a d4. I am fine with this. Charisma is a dump stat for an evil cyborg tyrannosaur from beyond space-time after all. So our final build looks like this: Might: d12 Intellect: d8, Charisma: D4, Action: d8. We have a d12 in Might, so our health is as set on the character sheet – no changes needed. We pick our Luck and I’m going to choose 6 because it is my favorite number and because Bionisaur doesn’t need Luck on his Charisma roll. It gives him a really workable flaw to offset his sheet power.

Next comes powers. We have four levels for powers, with each one giving us more points to spend and a cap of powers. Now Bionisaurs are generally NPC cannon fodder for Valiant heroes, but this one we are making is special and a playable character. I’m going to choose the second tier of powers called “Hero,” which gives me 30 points to spend and a maximum of 3 powers. There are no set powers in the game. You get to use your imagination, but you also have to be pretty clear about what they do. The first power I will take is “Accelerated Healing” which comes from the cybernetic enhancements to the dinosaur. I’ll choose a d10 and the option to “discard lowest” as my option for this power, which means I roll the d12, the Stat Die, the Power Die and discard the lowest of the two non-core d12 rolls. I check the chart and this costs 10 points. So I have 20 left to spend. I next power will be “Tracking” based off of the Bionisaur’s keen sense of smell and its cyber gizmo doo-dads. I’m going to choose a d6 here and also “Keep Both” which will let me roll both the stat and the power die and then add each of them to the core d12 roll. This costs me 9 points so I have 11 left to spend. For Bionisaur’s last power I’m going to take “Protection Against Mental Manipulation.” Because he has a reptilian brain enhanced by computers I’m going to say powers like mind control, illusion, telepathy and the like have trouble with the alien nature of his thought process. This will also help shore up his Charisma based rolls in certain areas. I’m going to do a d6 and “Keep Both” again which costs another nine points. That leaves me with two points left over that I can’t do anything with. Which is fine, as the three powers we do have make him a good defensive villain that can be used as a PC or a midboss antagonist.

After that we get armor with is used (and depeleted) before Health starts to go down. Each character gets a minimum of 10 along with (Might+Action)/2 more points. In this case that’s an extra ten for a total of 20 armor points on Bionisaur. After that you pick your weapons (in this case big sharp teeth, tail smash and stepping on soft squishy mammals,) and you do the personality side of things. That’s it. It took us a page in Microsoft Word to give an example of character creation, which shows you how quick and easy this whole process is.

The book then closes with almost forty pages of adventure seeds, or Story Briefs, as is the vernacular here. These are divided into nine categories – eight for specific books and their characters like X-O Manowar or Eternal Warrior and then one four part story for immortal or time travelling characters like Ivar and Armstrong which will span literally thousands of years across the Valiant continuity. Some stores adhere closely to plots or story arcs from the comics, while some are completely original pieces. The sheer amount of briefs included means you won’t have to create your own homebrew adventures for a very long time. Of course, briefs are well, brief, so the Narrating team will have to flesh things out to make a full story out of them. This is how adventures for Valiant Universe RPG are done though due to the group effort of storytelling and the emphasis towards “on the fly” imaginative thinking. This is neither bad nor good – it simply is. I feel this affords new gamers a lot more flexibility than the on-rails format of most published adventures and it allows the group to think for themselves and become better GMs for it. At the same time, newcomers MAY want a little more structure and handholding with adventures, which isn’t something the current Story Briefs system offers.

Overall, I think Valiant Universe: the Roleplaying Game is fantastic. My favorite comic book universe is finally melded with my favorite hobby and the result is spectacular. The Cue System is a wonderful way to learn how to tabletop roleplay as the rules are simple and it really focuses on story telling over dice rolling. You have a great co-operative atmosphere that prevents the GM vs PC situations that develop with some other RPGs. Valiant Universe RPG is a very fun and easy to use system. The fact the PDF version of the game is only ten bucks makes this must buy for ANY superhero fan, even if you have little to no exposure with the Valiant Universe. Those same newcomers to Valiant might want to hold on the regular or deluxe version of the physical game as that money would be better spent purchasing a few trades (Start with Archer & Armstrong then pick up either Quantum and Woody or X-O Manowar). After all, you want to know you like the characters before you spend 30-50 bucks on a game you might not play. That’s why getting the PDF version first is the smart bet. At worst you’re only out ten dollars and even if you don’t like the game system, you might want the characters intriguing and want to learn more about them. At best, you’ve got a new gaming system to love and some new comic series to pick up! Again, with a ten buck price tag, any RPG or comic book fan should grab this without hesitation as the game is as well done as it is affordable. Valiant Universe RPG won’t be replacing TSR’s Marvel game or Mayfair’s DC Universe as my top two super hero RPGs, but I can safely say this one of the best new games of the year, Between Valiant Universe: The Roleplaying Game, Atomic Robo and the new version of ICONS, this is one of the best years for super hero RPGs in a very long time.

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