Yesterday, Kobold Press launched their Kickstarter campaign for Tales of the Valiant (formerly “Project Black Flag”), Kobold Press’s update and direct competitor to the existing 5e rules.
We’ve been following Tales of the Valiant since its launch amid the OGL Controversy, through the playtest process, and in the lead up to the Kickstarter launch, and I’m excited to see it finally live. As of this writing, we’re racing toward 6 times the original funding goal.
Alongside the launch of the campaign and some excellent art pieces, Kobold also shared a 63-page rules preview. Some of this has been updated from the previous playtest preview documents for Tales of the Valiant, but we also get some exciting new rules content.
In this article, we’ll dig into the crunch of the system based on the rules preview document. It’s not an entire game yet, but it’s a window into the direction of Tales of the Valiant as it evolves.
If you’re new to RPGBOT, we’re known for character optimization, crunch, and digging into game mechanics, and I’m approaching the ToV rules preview with exactly that perspective.
Ability Score Generation
We welcomed Celeste Conowitch (Senior Designer) and Wolfgang Baur (Kobold in Chief) on the RPGBOT.Podcast recently, and part of that discussion was a fun exchange on different ways to generate ability scores. Among other things, we all learned that everyone in the discussion had different preferences for how it should be done.
Tales of the Valiant has returned to 4d6 drop lowest as the “default”, but also gives you a +2 and a +1 to increase scores up to 16. This makes it reasonably certain that your character will have at least one ability score that starts at or above 16. It also notably replaces the need for the racial ability score increases which 5e has moved away from in recent years.
The point buy method and a standard array are also presented. The standard array’s scores are slightly higher than the 5e version to reflect the lack of racial ability score increases, and point buy allows you to go as high as 18 with your starting ability scores, though the cost to do so is significant.
Regardless of method, you’re clearly expected to start with 16 or more in your class’s primary ability score. This fundamental assumption has been baked into the fundamental math of 5e for years, and while Tales of the Valiant makes it more possible to start at up to 18, it appears that 16 is still the assumption, and it’s interesting that it’s more explicit than in the 5e rules. I’ve seen plenty of new players enter DnD, start with low scores in important stats, and wonder aloud why their characters don’t work as intended.
The rules preview includes just 4 classes: the iconic cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard. While these are also arguably the least complex classes of the 13 5e classes, they’re also the baseline against which other classes are measured, so getting their mechanics just right is an important foundation for the rest of the game.
Tales of the Valiant promises to include 13 classes in the core rules. 5e includes 12 in the core rules, with the Artificer added in later supplements. We couldn’t convince Celeste and Wolfgang to tell us which classes would be included in the ToV core rules, but we’re getting the 12 core 5e classes plus the Mechanist according to the Kickstarter page.
The included classes only go up to 5th level, so unfortunately we don’t have any insight into how things progress beyond that point.
Among other changes, all of the included classes now get their subclass at level 3, which matches the design changes in One D&D.
The new Manifestation of Faith feature allows players to choose between a casting-focus cleric and a front-line martial cleric regardless of subclass. The martial option grants a replacement for Divine Strikes right from level 1, giving low-level clerics a way to compete with the damage output of classes like the fighter. The caster option lets you take a cantrip from any circle spell list, allowing for some very interesting combinations, and also adds +PB to your cleric cantrip damage, making your cantrips an easy source of damage.
The two included subdomains, Life and War, are updated from the 5e rules. The domain spell lists are good and fit their themes well without feeling like someone read our cleric spell list breakdown and just picked blue-rated options. Life domain’s features saw very little change, but War Domain’s features feel considerably more impactful. The two stand alongside each other as good examples of two very different clerics, but neither feels wildly better than the other.
Several of the included features grant uses based on your Proficiency Bonus per rest, which is a trend we first saw in 5e with the release of Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. This led to wide-spread opportunity for multiclassing abuse of low-level class features like Peace Domain’s Emboldening Bond and the Hexblade’s Hexblade’s Curse. I’m nervous about those problems repeating in Tales of the Valiant, but we also haven’t seen the multiclassing rules yet.
The Cleric’s spellcasting remains largely unchanged, with the exception of how rituals work, which we’ll discuss below.
Fighters see some changes in functionality and design that make them a bit more engaging and less “combat class on cruise control”.
Second Wind has been replaced with Last Stand, which draws on your hit dice as a resource in combat and immediately offers interesting tactical decisions. Using Last Stand allows you to spend one or more hit dice, but you only add your CON once each time that you use the feature. Do you spend more dice now? Or do you gamble that you’ll need the extra dice to keep fighting? Or do you save your Reaction and hope to make an Opportunity Attack? These sorts of meaningful tactical decisions have been sorely missing from fighters in 5e, so it’s exciting to see what is a fairly minor feature on the class offer so much choice.
The Fighter also shows us “Martial Actions”, Tales of the Valiant’s replacement for the Combat Style feature. These are activated as a Bonus Action rather than being passive bonuses or Reactions. I’m not sure how I feel about that change yet, but I think with most of the options included it seems to work.
The Quick Strike option feels underwhelming alongside the other options since it does exactly what the base two-weapon fighting rules do in 5e, and two-weapon fighting is almost universally a poor choice in 5e, so locking a bad option behind a class feature feels like a bad idea. But we also haven’t seen possible updates to other rules, so there’s room for me to be wrong here.
The preview document includes two subclasses: the Spell Blade (ToV’s Eldritch Knight equivalent) and the Weapon Master (ToV’s Battle Master equivalent).
The Spell Blade is mostly an upgrade over the Eldritch Knight, updating the largely cosmetic Weapon Bond to also grant a +1 to attack and damage. The Spell Blade also limits you to exactly one spell from outside Abjuration/Evocation, whereas the 5e Eldritch Knight grants you one of each spell level.
The Weapon Master feels very similar to the Battle Master, but with some updates that I’m excited about. First, the Weapon Master adds the ability to pick three favorite weapon types and reroll damage with them once per turn. Rerolling a single damage die adds very little mathematically, but it does feel very satisfying, and it ensures that your subclass still matters when you have spent your pool of Stunts.
Stunts notably no longer rely on a die, so there’s no more “add your Superiority Die roll to X”. We get just 8 Stunt options in the playtest, but the included options are good, and the text explicitly says “You gain access to new stunt options at higher levels”, so we know that there are more coming. One of the longstanding criticisms of the Battle Master was that you get all of the good maneuvers at level 3, and then pick from the remains for the rest of your career. It’s good to see Kobold Press addressing that challenge to what is otherwise a justifiably popular subclass.
Rogues inexplicably gained proficiency with longswords. Considering that you can’t use them with Sneak Attack, I have no idea why this would happen. Beyond that, I didn’t spot any major changes to the Rogue’s core class features.
We received two subclass options for the Rogue: the Enforcer, and the Thief.
The Enforcer is apparently the replacement for 5e’s Assassin, replacing the Assassinate feature with Ambush. Ambush grants Advantage on your first attack in an encounter in addition to the critical hit effect against Surprised creatures. 5e’s Assassinate applies to any number of attacks, but it does require you to beat your enemies on initiative to function at all, and with 5e’s flat probability curves, that’s never a guarantee. I think Ambush will be more reliable but also less prone to multiclass abuse.
The Enforcer also adds the ability to make an additional attack when reducing a target to 0 hp and access to the Martial talent list, allowing you to build a rogue that’s a bit closer to a fighter.
The Thief saw a buff to Second-Story Work, but otherwise didn’t change. One DnD is reworking Fast Hands because the “Use an Object” action is so poorly defined, so I’m hoping to see Use an Object clarified so that Fast Hands can continue to be fun.
I continue to assert that wizards are the best class, and much of that comes down to the Wizard’s ability to solve almost any problem with a spell, either with something prepared or with a ritual that they’ve painstakingly collected. Well, Tales of the Valiant expects players to lean into that fantasy hard because wizards no longer get weapon proficiencies. No more coasting on a light crossbow until your cantrips get better at level 5.
Arcane Recovery has been moved down to 1st level, the new Magic Sense feature has been added at 2nd level, your subclass is delayed to 3rd level alongside every other class. At 5th level, wizards get the new Rote Memorization feature which very slightly expands your list of prepared spells. Ritual spellcasting has also changed, but we’ll discuss that below, as much as I’m tempted to talk about it right now.
The rules preview includes the Battle Mage and the Cantrip Adept subclasses. The Battle Mage falls somewhere between the 5e War Mage and the 5e Evoker, while the Cantrip Adept is updated from Kobold Press’s Tome of Heroes, in part as proof that it’s easy to move 5e content into Tales of the Valiant.
The Battle Mage offers access to the Martial Talent list, which may offer some interesting build options. I don’t see a ton to be gained with the limited pool of Talents in the playtest doc, but that will expand over time. Tactical Ward works like school of evocation’s Sculpt Spells, though it has a PB/day usage limitation, so you can’t rely on fireballing your party as your only tactic.
Spell Ward is the Battle Mage’s signature feature, making your wizard surprisingly durable for up to a minute at a time. You’re required to cast a non-cantrip spell every turn to maintain the effect, so expect to use Arcane Recovery to recover inexpensive low-level spells to keep Spell Ward running in combat.
The Cantrip Adept gets two cantrips from any circle spell list, and can cast a cantrip as a Bonus Action PB/day. Not a ton of nuance here.
I’m surprised that wizards don’t get a cantrip damage boost feature. Clerics can get one at first level, putting their cantrip damage consistently ahead of wizards. Such features come online around level 6 in the 5e rules, so that may be the answer, but it still feels odd that clerics can do so much more damage for the first 5 levels of the game.
Lineages and Heritages
Tales of the Valiant replaces 5e’s race and subrace with Lineage (your biology) and Heritage (your culture). DnD has had a long-standing issue with tightly binding race and culture, and has gradually moved away from that philosophy. Tales of the Valiant has outright dropped it, allowing you to freely mix and match your Lineage and Heritage.
The playtest document includes lineages for beastfolk, dwarves, elves, and humans. I foresee a lot of avian beastfolk characters because flight is so good and alarmingly few elves because the elf traits aren’t especially impactful. The design concepts here are solid, but there is still work to be done to balance the various options.
A few heritages are included which are different enough that you get a sense of what Kobold Press wants to do with them. They offer a diverse set of traits which allow you to build some really interesting and effective characters. Only one of the heritages offers innate spellcasting, and notably doesn’t allow you to recast the leveled spell using spell slots.
5e’s backgrounds have been a low point in the game’s design for a long time, and WotC has tried to address that for years. The background features essentially never matter, and the trait/ideal/bond/flaw system is almost entirely ignored. Kobold Press has set out to change that in a few different ways.
First, the rules for customizing your background which in 5e allow you to take any two skills and any two tools/languages are not included in the rules preview document. They were in the playtest document which first included backgrounds, but it’s not clear what the final version will look like. For now, I’m assuming that players are expected to use backgrounds as they’re written.
Second, backgrounds offer your choice of a Talent (a Feat) from a list of 3 options. This choice lets you ignore the magic/martial/technical list restrictions, and that alone makes your choice of background potentially very impactful to your build.
Finally, rather than the trait/ideal/bond/flaw system, backgrounds offer a table of motivations for adventuring. This does less to define your character’s personality, but offers more information about that backstory, which feels appropriate.
Backgrounds still offer a collection of starting gear, and notably each of the presented options includes 10gp. The variation in starting gear for backgrounds in 5e led ambitious character optimizers to take the starting equipment from the Noble background for a bigger pile of starting gold.
Talents (a better name for “feats” since most people don’t use the term “feat” in day-to-day life) are separated into three lists: Magic, Martial, and Technical. Each class offers access to one of the three lists, and you may be able to cross lists depending on your subclass. For example: the Spell Blade Fighter can select both from the Magic list and from the Martial list.
The presented options include options similar to those in the 5e Player’s Handbook, but several have been updated to address pain points. Some have been buffed, some have been nerfed, but most of the options are roughly equivalent in power. I do see a few options like Artillerist which I think will rarely see use.
Talents are granted from your lineage (humans), from your Background, and when you get an “Improvement” feature from your class. When you get an Improvement, you add +1 to one ability score, effectively making every feat a hybrid feat similar to many of 5e’s feats. In addition, you can choose a Talent which gives you another +1 increase, allowing you to opt out of the complexity of Talents if you so choose.
Spells and Spellcasting
As we saw previously in the playtest documents, Tales of the Valiant has moved away from “spell level”, which has been confusing for as long as DnD has had levels (which is always). Instead, spells use “circles” both to represent their spell list and to represent their power.
Wizards draw their spells from the “Arcane Circle”, which includes options like the 1st-circle spell Magic Missile and the 3rd-circle spell Fireball. A wizard with 3rd-circle spell slots could cast Fireball or another spell.
I think making the spell lists (Arcane, Divine, Primal, Wyrd) use the term “Circle” in addition to using Circle to represent a spell’s level will get confusing, but not as bad as saying “you get 2nd-level spells at 3rd level” to a first-time wizard.
Despite making some effort to address pain points in the spellcasting rules, a few things have still slipped through.
The rules for Somatic Components appear to still have the long-standing pain point that you can’t perform Somatic Components with a focus in hand unless the spell also requires a material component. The Combat Casting includes the text “as normal, you can use the same hand or hands holding this focus to perform somatic spell components”, but that appears to conflict with the actual rules text for Somatic Components.
The rules for cylinder areas of effect still require the cylinder to be placed on the ground for absolutely no apparent reason. I just want to Flame Strike something in mid air, and I don’t understand why that’s not allowed.
Clerics and Wizards are both ritual casters, just as they were in 5e. In 5e, wizards alone could cast ritual spells that they had not prepared that day, casting any ritual from their spellbook. This was one of the Wizard’s signature features, and in Tales of the Valiant they’ve lost that signature capability.
Clerics and Wizards now both learn rituals as a separate pool of spells from their normal spellcasting. You learn just one ritual each time you gain access to a new Circle of spells, meaning that you’ll know just 9 at level 20 (possibly 10 if they’re giving rituals on every other level). You can cast these rituals whenever you have time to do so.
This means that any ritual caster has the Wizard’s versatility with rituals, albeit with a limited number of known rituals rather than potentially any ritual on the cleric/druid/whatever spell list. The rules for the Wizard’s spellbook also don’t address the possibility of adding additional rituals to the spellbook, which I hope will be corrected so that wizards can once again be the master of ritual casting.
Spells and Spell Descriptions
Tales of the Valiant has made a small, but meaningful change to the format of spells: the sentence of flavor text at the beginning of most spells has been separated from the rules text so it’s clear that it does not have rules implications.
The included spell lists for the Cleric and for the Wizard include many of the iconic spells that you’ll recognize from the 5e Basic Rules, as well as some intriguing new options with names like Gear Barrage. Sadly, those spells aren’t included, but we do see a few SRD spells reprinted with the updated formatting and rules terminology.
Many 5e monsters are effectively a bag of hit points with teeth, which means that encounters with many creatures can immediately devolve into shin-kicking attrition fights unless someone adds some complexity to the situation. Kobold Press’s Tome of Beasts books are widely regarded as an improvement on 5e’s monster design, and Tales of the Valiant has continued in that vein, introducing some new mechanics to some iconic monsters like goblins and hell hounds. Not one of the creatures presented here falls into the “a bag of hit points with teeth” category.
While most of the creatures presented are either common fantasy monsters (goblins, harpies, hellhounds) or Kobold Press’s own creations (husk demons), the rules preview document also includes black dragons. The chromatic/gem/metallic dragons have long been staples of DnD canon, and it’s noteworthy that Kobold Press is continuing to use them now that the SRD is published under the creative commons. Paizo is moving away from the chromatic/metallic dragons, and while neither answer is right or wrong in my opinion, it’s interesting to see the two companies going different directions.
The most recent playtest document introduced the “Doom” mechanic. Doom gives certain monsters a resource pool that they can use to activate specific abilities, to attack with Advantage, or to force one creature to make a save with disadvantage. This is intended to give these creatures a bit more threat beyond their other options. In the playtest doc, these creatures gained additional Doom tokens when a player rolled a natural 1 in combat, but that rule appears to have been abandoned. The community immediately noticed that it punished martial characters who typically roll more d20s in a turn than spellcasters.
I’m not sold on the Doom mechanic, personally. Alongside abilities that recharge on a die roll or on a rest, legendary actions, spell slots, etc., the Doom mechanic feels unnecessary. The same features could work once per short rest instead. The option to attack with Advantage or force Disadvantage is neat, but I worry that the Doom-powered abilities will always be more interesting and impactful, so the Advantage/Disadvantage option will be overlooked.
Tales of the Valiant has also made some structural changes to how stat blocks are presented. Creatures no longer list ability scores because those have only ever mattered for players. Condition vulnerabilities/resistances/immunities are listed on the same line as damage vulnerabilities/resistances/immunities, which feels like an obvious improvement. Every creature now has a Perception score, which is effectively the creature’s Passive Perception.
Skill proficiencies have also been removed from creatures, instead defaulting to straight ability checks. I’m less excited about this change than about the stat block structure improvements. Many creatures in 5e simply don’t have skill proficiencies, but removing the possibility means that we can’t have NPCs that are good at specific skills. We can’t have goblins that are extra sneaky on top of having high Dexterity. It’s not a tool that’s needed for every single stat block, but I don’t think it’s a tool we should give up.
One of the early playtest documents introduced Tales of the Valiant’s “fail-forward” luck system. Every PC has a pool of Luck which can be spent to improve a d20 roll or to reroll it, and you gain luck points by failing rolls or in situations where in 5e you might gain Inspiration. Overfilling your pool empties it (you get to keep 1d4 points), so you’re encouraged to spend it rapidly rather than hoarding it like you would with a precious resource like Inspiration.
We did a podcast episode on metacurrencies early in the RPGBOT.Podcast’s lifetime, and I like this one a lot compared to the others I’m familiar with. Hoarding metacurrencies is a constant problem, and I think Kobold Press found an elegant way to address that without outright punishing players.
I think Tales of the Valiant has room to improve, but based on the small amount of content we’ve seen, it’s delivering on what it set out to provide: an evolution on DnD 5e that feels natural and familiar, that’s compatible with existing content without a ton of work, and that doesn’t throw out assumptions about how the game works which have held true since 2014. We’re still quite a way from the April 2024 expected delivery date for the Kickstarter backer copies, and I’m excited to see what the kobolds create in that time.