Valence - Science-Fiction Roleplaying
From: Valent Games
Reviewed by: Ron McClung
Valence - Science-Fiction Roleplaying is a new PDF Core Role Playing Game (RPG) book from Valent Games.
Right off the bat, I was impressed with Valence because of the inspirations the author sites - Babylon 5. I am a huge fan of Babylon 5 and, in fact, just got my first adventure published for B5 d20 in Signs and Portents #19. It also had an initial Traveller look and feel. I like Traveller as well.
In the basic sense, Valence is another epic sci-fi space opera, with some elements of hard sci-fi and some elements of science fantasy. Apparently, there is a long history behind this game (as I guess there is with every game), and this is the second edition of Valence.
From the website:
“The year is 3029 AD - Galactic Year 592. The Human Empire fell 125 years ago, and it is a time of rebuilding.”
Content: After the standard introductory information, the What is Roleplaying? section every game seems to have, and a short history of the galaxy, the alien races are introduced in detail. I have to say that I am pretty overwhelmed by the originality of some of these races. Each are generally described below.
The Inuueliting are said to be the galaxy’s oldest species. They are physically human-like, generally, but there are several subspecies within the Inuueliting species that populate each of the five castes. From the winged Dai to the short Maltec, each have their own function within the Inuueliting society. In reality, they are five races in one.The Budetug are a insectoid species and are said to "match some of our worst nightmares, with a dozen legs, great crab-like pincers, and a hard exoskeleton." However, they are very innovative and pragmatic and are less fearsome in personality than in appearance. They are the workers of the new galaxy.
The Caractingessen resemble a dinosaur crossed with a dragon and are just as fearsome as they appear. Divided into two distinct types (Greats and Serpentine), all are apparently characteristically high tempered.
Another species somewhat like humanity in appearance, the Halla are smaller and their skin is quite wrinkly. At one time, they commanded a great trading empire, however it was short-lived, collapsing a few hundred years before Humanity reached the stars.
The Valorians are an amphibious, quadruped, tentacled species who are said to be the most quiet race in the galaxy. They are also very intelligent and rarely involve themselves with galactic politics.
The mysterious Archangels as described as a race of animated plate mail. They apparently are a warrior culture that have a built-in inability to lie and a strong affinity to the arcane ability of Lording (see below). When discovered, it was determined that they were not native to the world they called home.
The Nesti are a plantlike race that are interestingly warlike, argumentative, and unintelligent. Although I can see plants as being dumb, I struggled to see planets as warlike. "Attack of the Salald! Arm yourself with tongs!" Allied with the Caractingessen, they are quite bizarre and counter-intuitive. Anyone see the Day of the Triffids?
The snake-like Sa’crontor are a young race compared to most species. They are ambitious, characteristically talkative, agile, and inquisitive. They average about three meters long and even have a cobra-like hood.
There are three Ogre species - Titans, Trolls, and Draconians. Just prior to the discovery of the Humans, these species were discovered. They had served the Caracts as bodyguards and shock troops before they were liberated from the service of the dragon-beasts. All humanoid and ape-like, they are the youngest spacefaring species in the universe. Initially just two races evolving in parallel on one world, a third arose when the Caractingessen sought to create a slave race - the Draconians.
And then there are the Humans of Earth. It also makes a short note about Minor Races, indicating there is room for the GM or player to make up his own race(s). Cultures are explained in terms of the mega-corporations or the governmental organizations that colonized the stars centuries ago - Genetech, Ægis, Coalition, and Armageddon Industries are examples. Each are explained in detail. The author makes it a point not to make too many blanket statements. His philosophy on culture is that he does not assume that species and culture are the same thing. So each species has as many varied cultures as humans do. I find that, although realistic, it is difficult to represent that fact in a role playing game. I think he discovered that because in some cases, he goes back on his statement. Case in point, the Caractingessen culture - "the Caractingessen culture is shared by nearly every Gess in the galaxy." (pg. 49) I guess in some cases species and culture are the same, while in others they are not.
After the species, the author presents several short sections of life in the galaxy. In order, these are the subjects he covers - Love, Mega-Corporations, Religions, Entertainment, Timeline and The Fall, a section on interstellar space travel (Tesseracts), Interplanetary Communication, and Galaxy Cartography. The Timeline is in terms of Earth years, dating as far back as 10 million years BC.
Aside from the time period and the races players can play, the top three things I look for in a science fiction game are (1) what supernatural stuff it has; (2) what technological equipment it has; and (3) what weapons it has.
The supernatural facets of Valence is called Lording. Lording is power that stems from another dimension. It is basically magic with several schools linked to it and several ways to approach the powers. There are many schools of Lording as well as spells. Up front, it tells you that the powers of Lording is limitless by supplying you with a spell creation system. However, it does provide over forty spells including Ice Storm, Force Shield, Flame Generation and Invisibility.
Technology in Valence includes genetic engineering, cybernetics, a galaxy-wide cybernet call the Lattice, and a short chapter on basic equipment. What is missing is any kind of detailed chapter on starships. I am the type of game master that could play a sci-fi RPG without ever needing a ship construction system or a complete list of stat'ed out starships, but I know there are tons of gamers that require it. You will find neither in this book. The genetic engineering aspects are represented in terms of "templates" - there are two: ultramercs and demons. The cybernetics is reasonably thorough, including cybernetic equipment and weapons one can add to their character. The Lattice section includes sections on computers, building them, building programs and using them, which is more than I can say for most sci-fi games.
Weapons are ever-present in sci-fi. Valence includes a good number of weapon types - lasers, disruptors, and plasma weapons as well as ancient weapons. Also included is a unique concept called entropy weapons (at least unique to me) - a weapons that increases the entropy of its target, which reeks havoc with force shields, as well as a short weapons modification system with seven ways to modify your weapons.
As the standard counterpart to weapons, Valence supplies the players with several styles of armors. From light armor to heavy powered armor, there is more than enough to work with. On top of that, it has an interesting armor modification and customization system, which is not always found in many sci-fi games.
The remaining content are sections with GM Advice and sample characters. Things that are missing: starships, vehicles, a variety of equipment and robots.
System: Character generation is somewhat class-based, but not as restrictive as that classification would imply. Each class gives a set of skills, some base levels of Charisma and Knowledge, and a special ability. Classes are categorized in three areas: Soldier, Rogue, and Scholar. Soldier classes include the Arctic and Star Commandos, Space Troopers, Furies, Paladins, and Space Jockeys. Soldiers are strong in discipline and their combat abilities, of course. Rogue classes include Assassins, Bounty Hunters, Merchants, Ninja, Operatives, and Street Thieves. Rogues are strong in ingenuity and stealth. Scholar classes include Archmagi, Bio Docs, Diplomats, Interface Knights, and Tech Docs. Scholars collect knowledge and avoid combat, traditionally. In this system classes define what skills are easier to get and what skills are harder to get, but there is no limitations to what one can be skilled at. Characters spend points to buy skills and how much is based on class, level at which he wishes to buy the skill, and any other outside factors. Multi-classing is possible, but not easy. It is considered leaving one's class into another and costs a lot of experience and game time.
Ability scores or attributes are determined through point allocation. There are eleven attributes. They are typically ranked from 0 to 10, though they may rise above 10 for exceptional characters. Attributes are Agility, Charisma, Creativity, Dexterity, Intelligence, Knowledge, Lording, Mental Endurance, Stamina, Strength, and Visualization. Skills are based on these attributes and are categorized in several areas. Combat, Athletic, Engineering, Computers and Leadership are examples. Skill levels start at 1, of course. At level 26 and beyond you are considered Grand Master of that skill. Tasks or Checks are a roll of a d20 die plus one's attribute and skill level of applicable skill and is compared to a difficulty level. In my experience, this type of mechanic is a sound system, because it leaves a lot of freedom to the GM to control the situation and power gaming.
Another key element in character generation is background generation. There is nothing more important to me than a solid background generation system. I am a huge fan of Task Force Games Central Casting series of books.
From page #9:
“The galaxy is picking itself up from one of the biggest disasters it’s ever faced.”
The ingenuity of Valence comes in its core system, from combat to the Hero Point system; from Renown to Battles of Conviction. Combat is handled like any other RPG, in rounds, with dice rolls to determine success. It allows for passive or active defense and in the case of active defense, opposed rolls are made. Many people like this approach as opposed to the static defense stat in WotC d20. Initiative is not rolled but is a number from 1 to 10, and determines the number of actions a person can do in a 10-second round. The damage system is based on a series of numbers added and subtracted together including weapons damage, the target's armor rating and defense shields. The damage system is fairly realistic and deadly.
One interesting aspect that Valence supplies is something called the Battle of Conviction - a system of political and social battling that can have interesting results. Conducted like combat, this system can be used as an alternative interaction system. West End Games's Masterbook system had a similar interaction system. I tend to like systems that supply alternative systems for combat. Valence also has a Renown system, which is similar to the d20 Reputation system in Star Wars. Hero Points can be spent to effect rolls in a variety of ways on a one-to-one basis. Characters start out with 20 Hero Points. I have seen many hero/action/force point systems. Some are too powerful and balanced out by giving very few of the points. However, the GM always runs the risk of giving out too much and unbalancing the game. This system, although restrictive in its effectiveness, is a little more balanced than most. The GM doesn't run the risk of giving out too much unless he gives out multiples of tens of points.
The Lording system works with skills - specifically Lording Control Skills. Powers or spells are the result. It is fairly simple and concise, but like all other supernatural abilities in sci-fi, it tends to cause some imbalance in the game. In my experience, only the GM can counter-balance that with equally power items for non-supernatural power users.
Layout: The Layout is reminiscent of Traveller rulebooks. Its not bad, but not very flashy. They obviously had a lot of information to convey because there is very little artwork in it. The art that is there is acceptable but nothing to rave about. The racial pictures needed to be a little more clear and some do not have any pictures at all. It was obvious the author was concentrating on content and not appearance. Not bad, but it is kind of plain.
In conclusion, I found Valence interesting and inspired, but there was not enough there to drive me to want to play. It had some unique qualities, and there were some very inspired aspects of the politics, social structure and environment, including the attempts to make the socialization of people in the far future realistic. Combine that with a more complete sci-fi game, and I may be interested, but it just did not feel complete to me. It is obvious that this author put a ton of work into the game. I have done similar work myself. In and of itself, it had a feel of the old Star Frontiers in a lot of ways, although I felt that Star Frontiers had a little more than this did in some areas. I sympathize with the author on the subject matter of realistic alien societies and galactic spanning societies as a whole. It is a well-done piece of work but missing a few key aspects of sci-fi to make it complete. The technology of a sci-fi game defines the universe, and gives that sci-fi fan the first taste of the feel of the game. The missing sections were key in that. I also did not find many of the character races very inspiring or desirable to be played. Most were either odd or simply unoriginal. I probably would find myself trying to convert other races into the game system.
To his credit, he attributes one of the best sci-fi TV shows of all time (in my opinion) as an influence - Babylon 5 - so if in game, it plays like that universe, it has hope. It is a complete roleplaying game, more or less, however. Although not a complete sci-fi game, it does include all the elements one would need to play a character in a relatively rich and well-imagined universe in epic chronicles of galactic conquest and exploration. It encourages the players and GM to play out a story and not concentrate on the usual trappings of sci-fi, like star ships and vehicles. It is quite apparent that the author is more a role-player than a roll-player. I commend him on his effort overall.
For more details on Valent Games and their new PDF Core Role Playing Game (RPG) book “Valence - Science-Fiction Roleplaying” check them out at their website http://www.valentgames.com/.
[3 of 5 Stars!]