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ToV Tuesday: Tales out of School

ToV Tuesday: Tales out of School

Hi, this is Jeff Quick, ye olde blog editor and, coincidentally, lead editor and developer of the Tales of the Valiant Player’s Guide.

We are launching Tales of the Valiant Player’s Guide and Monster Vault real soon, and we are so excited to tell you stuff about it.

Last year, when we decided to hoist the Black Flag and take the future of 5E into our own hands, our senior designer, Celeste Conowitch, laid out a document of concept notes. Thanks to some carefully laid kobold traps (i.e. asking politely), that document has now fallen into my hands.

This document contains a lot of the seminal thinking about what ToV emphasizes as a fork of the SRD and parts of the 5E experience that we thought we could improve on.

Today, we’re taking one section of that document called “5E complaints to fix” and Celeste and I are going to talk about how we tackled them. Some approaches that worked, some that didn’t, and any interesting digressions that pop up along the way. My comments are in black. Celeste is in blue.

Race as a Concept

[Jeff] “Race” as a concept in RPGs is something that doesn’t quite work right. If your dwarf character was an orphan raised among halflings, why would he know how to use a battleaxe? That’s a weird disconnect, and one we can fix.

[Celeste] Once upon a time, we only had three or four novel series to turn to when we needed definitive facts about what a fantasy race called an elf or a dwarf was.

And those novels became the foundation for how we thought about fantasy. With good reason!

But the fantasy genre has exploded beyond that source material. We have more stories than ever featuring and focusing on fantastical people. And honestly, it no longer makes sense to say, “A-yup, being a dwarf means you’re really good at swinging axes.” Any heroic fantasy adventurer can learn to swing an axe.

So! We started doing the thing that science fiction figured out a long time ago: defining different types of creatures by super neat biological adaptations like breathing in water, not needing to sleep, hyper-sharp senses, the ability to see in the dark, etc. Once those inborn traits were established, we could create heritage options to represent learned behaviors.

But as much DNA as sci-fi and fantasy share, they still feel different. We need to maintain what makes fantasy feel like fantasy. So rather than turn “race” into “species” (my preferred term was phenotype, but somehow that didn’t catch on), we settled on “lineage.” In a bigger, weirder fantasy idea-space than Tolkien created, we need ideas that are more encompassing.

Decoupling biological and learned traits in this way allowed us to create yet another opportunity for players to enrich their character’s backstory. Which is always a great thing in our book.

Ability Scores Tied to Race

Having ability scores pumped or junked according to race is something we heard a lot about from fans.

Here’s the thing. It is ridiculous to say that every human in the real world is exactly as strong, fast, or charismatic as every other human. It doesn’t take a game designer to tell you that. Sure, some folks are born with an aptitude for certain skills or talents, but ultimately, the choices we make in our lifetime determine our overall “statistics.”

You might be born with a powerful frame, but you must spend years training and exercising to become a professional weight lifter. Some people are born with great instincts, but true wisdom is only gained through experience.

If you follow that line of thought to its logical conclusion, you’ll likely end up asking the same question we did: Why design mechanics that force a person (whether a human, a dwarf, an elf, etc.) to have statistics that don’t reflect the abilities they’ve spent a lifetime cultivating?

It’s certainly easier to say, “All orcs are strong,” and never have to learn or think about orcs any other way. But! In a world where we’re forging more human bonds and telling more human stories through our non-human characters, making sweeping assumptions about how all members of a species are or aren’t is a disservice to the fantasy genre at large and the stories we can tell at our own tables.

The Ranger Problem

Has the ranger ever not been a problem? I mean.

The ranger has had an unquestionably rough history in tabletop games. Everyone seems to love the IDEA of the ranger, but time after time, the ranger’s mechanics fail to make those ideas work.

I’ve seen so many new players roll into my games excited to play their shiny new ranger class, then walk away feeling like they didn’t get the same experience in play that they were promised on paper.

I love a ranger, played plenty in my time, but I’ve had a different experience as a GM. I’ve rarely had players try one, because there’s this received wisdom that they suck a little. When you’ve got so many classes to choose from, you don’t want to pick the one that everyone agrees is lame.

But from Aragorn on down, there’s a place in the canon for this kind of character being a thing. And dammit, rangers should be cool. I think we’ve got a really good take on the ranger this time.

The moment we started fiddling with base classes, giving the ranger the glow-up they deserved was a clear priority. After grappling with “the ranger problem” for weeks—

Years, really.

—we identified our core task was to focus on enhancing the things the ranger was conceptually good at. We focused on targeted prey, having a wide variety of skills, and adaptability to terrain. And we cut away any conditional restraints that limited how and when those strengths could be used.

Things like “great at moving quickly through forest terrain” were upgraded to features like “good at climbing in ANY terrain.” Things like “good at tracking favored foes” became “good at tracking ALL foes.”

With the removal of all those conditions, rangers get to be cool more often. They get to be the character that’s good at picking out one enemy and bringing that foe down, across space and time. Even if that space happens to be an inconvenient type of terrain.

The fact that our ranger class redesign won playtester approval across the board, even at the earliest stages of playtesting—by far and away more than any other base class—has us grinning ear to ear.

16 thoughts on “ToV Tuesday: Tales out of School”

  1. Stephen Dragonspawn

    I’ve read the playtest packet with the Ranger and I think you have a winner here. Very much looking forward to running a game using ToV.

  2. I’m one of those people that feel that some sort of stats should be tied to your race. Elves should have a predisposition to higher dexterity, Dwarves should have a predisposition to higher con. However, it doesn’t have to be an all or none position. You could easily appease both crowds and have a +1 tied to a racial predisposition and a floating +1 to wherever the player wants to put it, or whatever your break down is +1 to race specific and +2 floating. At least there is some connection to race without being too dissuasive for that race to play roles not normally associated with it. Also I find it confusing to not use the word race. You can still use the word race and just don’t tie learned traits to it. it just seems silly to scrap the term when it is perfectly usable and well known. Just have race tied to biological traits and then heritage to learned traits.

    1. Craig W Cormier

      This is the general approach I take. All PCs get a floating +1 to put anywhere. Then each race/ancestry gets a +1 to a choice between two scores, for Dwarves it is Con and Wis. Then each class gets a +1 to a choice between two or three scores, for Fighter it is Str and Dex. Finally, each character gets a +1 to a choice between two scores from their Background, for Scholar it is Int or Wis. No score can be increased in this way by more than 2. So there is still a ton of room for choice, and the players actually end up with an additional +1 more than would be normal for 5e.

      Humans are the outlier in that their racial +1 can be to any score, because I agree with the idea that humans are hugely diverse, coming in an enormous range of dispositions, physical builds, etc. In my mind at least, all the other races are biologically different from humans. Dwarves, as an example, are more robust physically (which is shown by their resistance to poison and their potentially higher Con) and generally more level-headed, patient, and thoughtful (which is a result of their long lives and their potentially higher Wis).

  3. …i, also, think lineage should determine primary ability score bonuses; that’s kind of a fundamental aspect of fantastic diversity…

    …that’s not in any way dismissive of a character’s personal heritage, background, or focused study: those aspects may be captured how a character distributes her ability score array, or in secondary bonuses…but to say, for example, that a population of goliaths and a gnomes carry exactly they same ability potential is ultimately dismissive of the essential diversity those fantasy lineages represent, regardless of other tacked-on mechanical features…

    1. Thomas Faßnacht

      I quite agree with you about primary ability score bonuses for the lineages – mostly: Strength is AFAIK a no brainer (your Goliaths and Gnomes), same with Dexterity (cats vs dogs) and Constitution (dandelion vs orchid). And why shouldn’t Elves and others have “better working brains/more neurons” than humans – Ravens have a higher cognition than (nearly all) other birds. Hell, even a bonus to Wisdom could be explained with physical aspects – your “six senses” (Perception) *are* physical, your “seventh sense/gut feeling” (Intuition) could be subconscious using your six senses.

      BUT: Charisma is IMHO nearly 100% nurture, not nature…

      AND something that never made sense: Magic
      Why should a (using 5e: +2 Wis) Firbolg Cleric have a better “connection” to his godess than a human? Why had a dwarven paladin (with a malus on Cha in the older editions) lesser magical apitude to his (dwarven) god than a human devotee?

      All in all I wish that the boni would stay… and IMHO it would be an error to abolish them. I’m absolutely sure that Mrs. Conowitch (and many many others) have good intensions (and the “heart”-part of me applauds her endeavor, but my “brain”-part… not so much) and it is of course not ideal to dissect her short statements but that is all I have so I pick just two points:

      “It is ridiculous to say that every human in the real world is exactly as strong, fast, or charismatic as every other human.” But that’s *exactly* what getting rid of the ability bonuses is saying: “Every species is (baseline) exactly as strong, fast, or charismatic as every other species”, every 3 foot gnome is as strong as a 7 foot minotaur, every fink is as strong as an eagle. Yeah, it *is* ridiculous. A human (with no boni and mali) should be the baseline for the other races.

      “Telling more human stories through our non-human characters”: They are *NON-HUMAN* characters – a dwarf is not just a small stocky human with a beard, a elf is not a human with pointy ears, orcs are no green humans…
      AND: The *player* tell the story – and they could make it as “human” or “alien” as they like – the designer should help them telling the story with the rules, the “crunch” and the “fluff”.

      It seems to me these endeavors in ToV and other rpgs are based more in a (wellmeaning) agenda than in designing the best possible rules. And yes, (for example) getting rid of a strength bonus for male characters in rpgs in times long past was IMHO the only right decision even if “in the real world” human females are 74-92% as strong as human males.

      Last but not least: Giving *the GM and the players* the abiliy to get rid of (well designed) aspects of a game is IMNSHO always better than forcing the GM to (re-)design cut/missing parts – maybe poorly (in the eyes of the players at least). Explicitly telling the reader “it’s your game, you can do what you want – and we, the designer want to help you to realize *your vision*” and using ability score boni as example for a easy “rules hack” is IMHO a way to realize two things: Showing novice roleplayers their immense power and giving opponents of things like the ability boni a “official” way out. And furthermore: By getting rid of the boni nobody wins something and some people lose. By preserving/designing (for some people osolete) ability boni for the lineages nobody loses and some people win information.

  4. Really looking forward to TOV. Haven’t seem much since the Alpha release so I am very curious how things have evolved in the past 7 or 8 months. I am hoping to see some redesign to game mechanics as well. I think dumping spell slots for a mana system would be nice but unlikely, however melee classes could really use some love too. I would love to see more combat options, similar to weapon options from past KP products but geared toward the class itself. That way its not all “swing my weapon” but other things. Every martial class should have abilities similar to the battlemaster fighter and things they can do. That should just be standard. I hate playing a class where I never get to use my bonus action because I don’t have any. Barbarian is a great example of this. After I rage I never use a bonus action again. Give me some cool stuff I can do to make my turn more fun!
    Anyway… Looking forward to seeing where TOV takes me.

  5. I’ve been looking forward to ToV since it was announced and truth be told, I kind of regret reading this article. It might just be my perception, but the first two points seemed to me to be more about virtue signaling than game design. And, also in my opinion, have already been addressed in 5e. I was hoping to get to read about actual game mechanics. Perhaps even my pet peeve that all the character classes, at their core, are exactly the same. I want to be optimistic, I backed both of the Kickstarters, yet after reading this article I have the vaguely uneasy feeling that I may have made a mistake. I guess time will tell.

    1. I too worry about sacrificing good game mechanics in lieu of socio-political driven agendas. It seems all the rage these days, to the detriment of a good product. I think a good product should always be the primary focus no matter what the business is. If people want to have a normal good faction of drow in their game, well they can. It’s up to them. But don’t design core mechanics and lore around the fringe. Just give optional rule mechanics to let those who want to play on the fringe do so. The more work I have to do to ‘adjust or tweak’ a game just to bring it to a baseline normal, the less I want to use that as my default rpg system.

  6. Only 3-4 fantasy series to draw on? That hasn’t been true since literally before there was a DnD. It’s like Kathleen Kennedy saying Star Wars didn’t have years of books and comics to use like the MCU when they made the sequels.
    I LIKE the idea of separating physiology from culture. I allowed players to just float the bonuses to wherever they want because they are players.
    Elves are GENERALLY more agile and charismatic than humans, but as a PLAYER, this is your unique story. Other elves are putting +2/+1 there, but you could hit the gym and put it in strength and con if you want.
    Also on that note, I kicked the concept of humans as just a baseline. They were focused on strength and intelligence, compared to other races (but players get to choose).

    As long as you are breaking molds, move elves off wizardry and to sorcery. Hiding in a library reading musty tomes written in languages you didn’t like when they were fashionable in order to lear to cast a spell is silly. Elves simply are magical. Sorcery is a better fit.

    1. This is actually a good general point. I’m not sure ANY race has a natural aptitude for wizardry, anything implying that should really be sorcery. On the other hand, several races (subraces) probably should have cultural affinity for wizardry and NONE should have cultural amenity for sorcery. Sorcery is, after all, a bloodline issue, obviously a racial characteristic. Wizardry is a learned skill, obviously something a culture can promote. Really good point.

  7. “Here’s the thing. It is ridiculous to say that every human in the real world is exactly as strong, fast, or charismatic as every other human. It doesn’t take a game designer to tell you that. Sure, some folks are born with an aptitude for certain skills or talents, but ultimately, the choices we make in our lifetime determine our overall “statistics.””

    Respectfully, this anecdote falls apart under any scrutiny. It conflates racial bonuses with final scores, which is an extremely troubling error to make. And this error persists throughout the section.

    Racial ability scores determine the upper and lower limit for that score, but do not dictate the precise score (which is what this example discusses – your actual Strength, Dexterity, and Charisma scores). If an orc starts with a +2 in Strength, that means that the range changes from 8-15 to instead 10-17. There is still a wide degree of variance between what your character’s final Strength score can be. When we say that orcs start with a +2 to Strength, we are not saying that all orcs are of equal Strength (which is what this example suggests). We are saying that orcs are naturally stronger. They have more physical bulk, a better baseline. Your orc wizard might still be physically weak compared to an orc paladin, but that wizard (who dumped Strength) is naturally on par with a commoner.

    The orc wizard didn’t work for it. There was no effort to achieve it. That 10 came naturally. Your orc is not a weightlifter, they simply didn’t have to work for what is deemed ‘average’ for a human. Because your orc isn’t a human.

    Racial ability scores are not telling you that you cannot play a character that is inferior in that attribute. The score is telling you that even at your character’s worst, that character is naturally on par with the “average” score for a race that doesn’t receive the bonus. You are still weak for an orc.

    Stop conflating bonuses and final scores. Nobody raises an eyebrow when we say that a race is resistant to a damage type (which insinuates a natural resilience), but when we talk about that resilience (ie Constitution), or physical Strength, or other scores as a bonus to that stat, suddenly its a problem? No. That makes no sense. Stop it.

    Now if we step past this issue and talk about the broader direction here – separating culture from biology is a very good decision. That needs to happen. But don’t downplay the actual biology of the races as you do this. And in my opinion, you should skip the change to lineage. Race is fine, leave it alone. Do not overcorrect.

    I’m very enthusiastic for Tales of the Valiant. But it is very disappointing to see Kobold Press follow WotC’s incorrect philosophy on this topic.

  8. Ability Scores tied to race is one of the most sensible parts of the D&D ecosystem. They represent the fact that some races are simply more…more strong, or dexterous or healthy of smart, on average than the baseline human. Nothing has ever prevented a player from dumping the “improved” stat and raising something else, making for an usual member of his race. The real problem is that people (i.e. designers) are buying into the frankly stupid idea that an elf or an orc is just a a human with a different skin tone, and want to virtue signal about racism. Unlike in the real word though, D&D races are distinct species, not 1 species with variations in melanin. When a typical elf comes into a scene, he is more graceful and knowledgeable than the average human. When a dwarf gets into the drinking contest, the humans would do well to step back. There shouldn’t be an instinct of “I have no idea what this elf will be like” in a game where elves are common and known. Does this make it harder for some races to truly excel at certain classes, yes. Does it make it impossible, NO. Does it open up a lot of role-playing opportunities, ABSOLUTELY. Playing against type which includes requiring more effort/focus to get the highest results is a core part of the game. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature. If I want to be an elven barbarian, I am probably dumping my racial advantages and then putting my best scores into Str and Con, and I will probably need to take a miss or 2 on feats for ASI instead, but that’s WHY I am such a unique elf. The only real complaint here is an underlying assumption that all games must be filled with min-maxers who will never role-play a weakness into a character. Sad really.

    That said, separating culture from race IS a good idea. Aragorn comes quickly to mind for that. He was a Numenorian by race but an elf by culture, he had (improved) human physical characteristics, but his training and outlook were distinctly elven, something most games do not do too well. Even within a species there are cultural differences that games should reflect. A high elf raised by wood elves would have the physical characteristics of high elves, but would be more of a wood elf by training (not getting additional spellcraft but better woodlore for instance). That I am behind. But stats ARE physical characteristics and should be part of the base race.

  9. I was excited to see if you guys talked about any of the actual fixes people talk about for 5e (Such as Bounded Accuracy being not that great) and maybe even tinker with the numbers for the exp needed to level up (A character needs only a month of adventuring using the adventuring day rules in the GM to become level 20)
    I was sorely disappointed this article seems like such a nothingburger.

  10. I’m warming up to ToV the longer I look into it, but I must agree with everyone else that I favor ability scores. Mainly because it deepens character diversity, both in terms of builds and in terms of differences between identities. They don’t represent the totality of the person but just the biases of their upbringing and natural inclinations, which they can develop or fight against. I’ll just be adding it back on in my case. Most interesting for me are the DM supplements and monsters.

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