Publisher: Different Worlds Publications
Series: Valus: d20
Review Dated: 3rd, July 2005
Reviewer’s Rating: 9/10 [ Something special ]
Total Score: 10
Average Score: 5.00
Every now and then an original d20 fantasy roleplaying game shows its head. It’s true, even today this is possible. If you are chuckling sceptically then I’ll cite Valus as an example.
Valus can be brutal. This is a world born without love. I tend to make notes as I flick through RPGs and supplements these days (a tell of someone who’s written too many reviews) and as I began to soak up the differences in this world setting from the countless others on my shelves I scribbled down “without love”. For all my efforts “A World Born Without Love” is the big strapline at the top of the blurb so I shouldn’t claim any success in divining the author’s (Ryan Smalley aka Destan) between-the-lines theme, I just didn’t read the blurb until after I read the book. Valus delivers, in just a few pages, what it promises it would. This feat certainly should not be taken for granted these days. Too many supplements seem to have blurbs alien to their contents. Sure, Valus is not a complete and populated world within just a few pages, it achieves that status some 170 pages later, but from the beginning it clear that this settling is intriguingly different.
I wonder how many roleplayers have the anthropology gene? Do you know any anthropologists who aren’t roleplayers? There’s a thrill of discovery in Valus. Just why does the Risen God Mordûk oppose Galar? How will the Druids and those of the Old Faith start to act when time moves the years through 100 UA, to 25 UA, to 5 UA and then to 1 UA where there is less than a year before the Mother-Father awakens? What would happen if more and more people turned to the Old Faith? … Whereas some gamers enjoy the tactical thrill of combat and dice mechanics there are other gamers who lap up world settings, cultures and creatures. These are the world-builders and gamers who probably pounced on the hugely respected Book of the Righteous or noticed how cleverly different Arcana Unearthed was. Like those two examples, Valus takes the D&D staple that we’re so very familiar with and carefully changes bit, cutting here, adding spice there and (I think) improves on the recipe. These changes are not achieved by adding new monsters or creating a new set of powers for heroes and villains to tap into but are achieved by carefully intertwining a darkly thrilling new mythos with the vicious world created by it. Unlike the these two examples, Valus doesn’t ease you in carefully, you’re dropped in the deep end and part of the thrill (for me) was reading on to collect the pieces and put them together.
It’s of course impossible to pigeon hole gamers into tidy groups like “world-builders” or “tacticians” as we shamelessly overlap and spill out of such niches. Another strength and success for Valus is that this setting and supplement does the very same. There’s not a single new monsters in Valus and yet this is an especially dangerous setting. Expect fatalities here. This is achieved simply by upping the Challenge Rating for encounters. In a World Without Love you no longer have the luxury of finding just as many troglodytes as you can safely handle when you go exploring the cavern complex or being attacked by a gang of bandits who, feeling braver than normal, decided to move against you even when they lacked overwhelming force. In Valus you had better hope there are enough characters among the party who know how to fight, when to flee, how to ambush and how to calm a situation or the would-be brave heroes won’t live to study the bloody history of the land.
Saficea, the Mother-Father, slew her children. The bodies of these two dead gods form the land of Valus just as the Mother-Father’s tears form the great oceans and lakes. With their death, Saficea slew her Love so it could rest with them. This is the religion which the dangerous Druids and those of the Old Faith follow. They believe that in less than five centauries Saficea will wake from her slumber.
The first to grow from the bodies of the dead child gods, the new world from which Love and been killed, where the Drimm. These incredibly powerful beings waged a terrible war against one another, without Love but with passions such as Greed and Fear the bliss of battle was the same to them as the bliss of paradise. Each death among the Drimm created a star in the sky. When nearly all the Drimm had succumbed to the terrible wars Saficea woke, and although she could not love her grand-children she did pity them. The Mother-Father would have no more carnage on the bodies of her Child-Gods. Those Drimm who wished to continue their war and who were fast enough to accept her offer where taken to the moon. It’s their ongoing wars which, at that time, kept the moon always bright and full. Some of the Drimm failed to respond in time and were trapped on the land and prohibited from warring. These Drimm soon discovered that they could create monsters to wage wars for them and so the lands were torn asunder between two terrible armies. These Drimm had discovered what could be achieved by working together and had formed two groups. A small set of Drimm, however, were excluded. A pitiful third group of twelve Drimm could not master the art of creation and therefore could not war.
It came about that one group of Drimm was facing the impossible – defeat. After lifetimes of bloody and terrible war it seemed possible that one of the god-like factions would loose. Rather than surrender to this fate they disobeyed the dictate of the sleeping Saficea and directly slew one of their Drimm enemies. Saficea woke and wrought her revenge. The Drimm who had disobeyed her where banished to the moon where they would die but be reborn forever – and this is why the moon darkens, the death and rebirth of the dark Drimm at the hands of their fellows. The horrific armies created by the Drimm where banished to the darkest regions of existence – the Abyss and the Hells. What of those pathetic twelve Drimm who did not take part in the war because they had failed to master the art of creation? Saficea granted the Twelve immortality – making them gods – so that they would never die. She granted them the power of creation but also locked them away from the bodies of the Child-Gods.
For a short time these twelve worked together. They created the angels to watch over the dark places and ensure that demons and devils created by their brothers and sisters would not return. They feared that another war would re-awaken Saficea. By the time new races started appearing on the world these newly risen gods were in conflict again, but locked in a circle and unable directly effect one another or return to the world there was little they could do in comparison to the bloodbaths of before.
Then, among the youngest of the young races, Man came to be. Unlike those who had come before them, Man learnt to pray to the twelve. There were times Man, weak alone but stronger together, sought assistance from the great powers they knew existed in the Sun. To begin with the Twelve ignored Man as Man had nothing to offer. In time, however, the Risen Twelve noticed that their powers grew as Man prayed and so was born the new faith.
Clerical magic in Valus is exceptional. Here is a system that adds layers of politics, drama, tactics and interest to both game mechanics and game setting. The Twelve are arranged in an opposing circle. For one month in the year each God is more powerful than usual – and so are their clerics! For one month in the year, while their rival is powerful, each God is weaker than normal – and so are their clerics! This necessitates careful time keeping by the gaming group but the ebb and flow of power is thrilling.
In addition to extra or fewer spells at certain times of the year and month, clerics also suffer and benefit from boons and banes. For example, the Risen Gods strongly oppose those who would risk Saficea’s wrath again by summoning beings from the planes to Valus (and Divine Retribution for such a calling is detailed in the book…) but the vile Cula Vak is known to turn a blind eye to such actions when his clerics are careful about doing so at certain times. However, when Puriel rules the sky Cula Vak’s clerics still in towns and cities are surrounded with a purplish glow as she marks the servants of her enemy, picking them out so her own followers can deal with them…
As each God takes their yearly ascendancy the Sun shines with a halo of their colour. Everyone, cleric or mundane, can see which God is currently most powerful and it’s little wonder that the common people worship the entire pantheon, praying to individuals as needed.
Druids and Paladins are dangerous heretics. Paladins are especially loathed by the Churches and the common people. Paladins follow neither the Old Faith nor pay homage to the Risen Twelve and instead walk the path of the Angels. Paladins that Angels, created in a moment of purity and harmony, have bettered their apathetic and divided parents.
Every class is different in Valus, some more so than others. Everyone enjoys an additional bonus feat at first level. The reason for this is fantastically simple. Valus has more emphasis on the personal skills and abilities of its heroes, villains and survivors than on the magic items they gather. Superb!
Valus has its “fantasy” gauge carefully balanced and finds a harmony between the typical D&D high fantasy and the more intricate roleplaying settings of low fantasy worlds. Valus doesn’t introduce any more monsters but it does not take any monsters out either. These creatures are simply rarer in Valus and encounters with them are likely to be more deadly.
Valus does introduce new player races; half-trolls, for example and divides up the mass of humanity into interesting ethic groups. A good sign, I think, that the game has not been dumbed down is that there’s no single, convenient and inexplicable single language on Valus. Literacy isn’t common on Valus either and player characters don’t have that skill set for free either.
There’s one prestige class in Valus. This is a whole new d20 setting and there’s only one prestige class! Do you know what… this is a prestigious class! The Covenguard defend Valus from otherword beings who should not here. Becoming a Covenguard feels like a significant event, it’s noteworthy, it could even be campaign worthy and this is such an improvement on prestige classes as taken-for-granted career/stat enhancing moves. There’s even a discussion on alignment conflicts between good Covernguards and good outsiders.
The bulk of the book is about Valus. This is a world book and fits firmly into the “Gazetteer” niche that the d20 industry ascribes to such compendiums. There is this new (and entirely intoxicating) religion of twelve conflicting, love-less, gods and the rival Old Faith, there are new feats, new player races and twists on character classes but the most of the 176 pages describe the geography, history and people of the world. There’s no filler here (but perhaps so many locales that you’ll never fit them all) and rather nicely Adventure Hooks are ceded directly into the gazetteer’s entries. Valus is as interesting as it is deadly. All it takes is a look at a map, for example, to notice that Traitors’ Plains is known as Heros’ Plains to some people.
I’m not a fan of pre-written adventures but I do believe there is room for short adventures in the back of a new setting. Why? The adventure helps set the scene and show explicitly the style of game the world author had in mind for their creation. This “permission” for an adventure is upgraded to “need” when the world setting differs so uniquely from what’s come before and where GMs (or DMs as Valus persists in maintaining) may genuinely be in need of some directional guidance. Valus concludes with a sample adventure and ideas. One such adventure possibility looks at what might happen if the Mad Druid manages to convert the Tundreth Clans to the Old Faith. Will the players be able to stop them allying with their traditional enemies – the roven – who also follow the Old Faith or will the Antlered King now have a powerful army which he can throw against civilisation? I know. The suggestion alone is enough to make me want to pick up the book and turn to the Tundreth Clans sections again.
Valus does have a chapter there to advise GMs and discuss issues like ad hoc experience points, NPCs, social classes and monsters. I think, though, the first advice to any d20 GM should be to go out and buy the book.
This one is a winner.