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Local developer pioneers TTRPG for anime fans

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Image courtesy of Valorous Games
Image courtesy of Valorous Games

For Liana MacKenzie, Valor is more than a passion project but not yet a full-time job. As a longtime fan of both tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs) and anime, the local indie TTRPG developer has navigated both fandoms' landscapes, and a winding path has brought her to the present: at the helm of Valorous Games, creating an anime-inspired tabletop role-playing system.

The story of Valor goes back to MacKenzie's years in middle school, when she was first introduced to the world of Dragonlance, a fictional setting made for use in the popular Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) system.

"I read the Dragonlance Chronicles books, and I immediately fell in love," MacKenzie said. "I'd always liked fantasy. I couldn't really get through Lord of the Rings, because it was so dense."

Luckily for her, there were over a hundred Dragonlance novels and anthologies already. With her parents' encouragement and the help of her local library's delivery system, she was able to order one of each of the books and jump right in.

Parallel to her Dragonlance obsession was her love for digital role-playing games, like the Final Fantasy series by Japan-based company Square Enix, and the D&D-based computer game Baldur's Gate. But she didn't get into TTRPGs themselves until early high school.

"I would make my own tabletop games," MacKenzie said. "And I don't know if this was me kind of figuring out what D&D was trying to accomplish just by reading the [novels], but I was making games to sort of simulate Final Fantasy and the books that I was reading."

MacKenzie soon discovered D&D 3.5 and was thrilled that there was already an official, fully fledged game built for her purposes. Even then, it wouldn't be until college that she would actually get to play it, so she kept experimenting, making "at least 30 role-playing-style games" until the moment finally arrived.

"I was finally able to play in D&D games, and it never quite suited my style," she said. "And that finally came to a head when I was at [Western Washington University], where I sat down and used the current Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 engine."

MacKenzie soon realized that D&D 3.5 wasn't really equipped to tell the dramatic stories of anime, or even those of the Dragonlance novels. Undeterred, she decided to adapt D&D's "d20 system" (referring to its central use of the 20-sided die) to one of her favorite animes at the time, Bleach.

"And I did it," MacKenzie said. In fact, she spearheaded the beginnings of the Bleach d20 project, which was successful enough that it still has an active online community today.

Unfortunately, it was also "a nightmare" to pull off.

The woes of the icosahedron
D&D's marketing and its spinoff media depict it as one of the best ways to tell epic fantasy stories with groups of friends, and in the right group, it certainly can be. In the internet age, that messaging has been taken a step further by geek-oriented websites that churn out articles on how fans of other popular franchises can use the D&D system to tell stories within any given setting and genre.

Beginners to the TTRPG hobby can't be blamed, then, for thinking that "D&D can do anything," but the game's roots lie in miniature wargames, whose rules were made for military simulations. The question a wargame answers isn't typically, "What would make for a good story?" Instead, it's often, "What would actually happen?"

So the d20 system is good for tactical combat, but it's not a reliable way to tell a traditional epic fantasy or anime story.

For an idea of how the d20 system can go, imagine if Legolas from Lord of the Rings had a streak of bad luck and missed five bow shots in a row, or if Frodo slipped on a wet rock, hit his head, and died before even leaving the Shire.

As MacKenzie put it, the d20 represents "such a high range that the dice will always matter more than the stats and the character," at least without certain guardrails in place.

From that, one might conclude that dropping the d20 itself would solve the problem, but D&D is also plagued by the biases of its creators, and those of its Western-fantasy source material.

"We as a community and in [the Asians Represent! podcast network] have tremendous issues with how races in D&D work," MacKenzie said, referring to the way dwarves, elves, orcs, and the like have been made monolithic. "Not just in terms of using and popularizing the term race... but because it's so biologically deterministic."

Building new foundations
MacKenzie said she was happy that Bleach d20 got as popular as it did, but she stepped away from the project early on, because its foundation couldn't support what she envisioned for a functional anime TTRPG. That way she was free to start building some foundations of her own.

Image courtesy of Valorous Games  

Valor began in earnest as more of a proof of concept for a potential employer than a full-blown product in its own right. Living in Washington meant that MacKenzie wasn't far from Wizards of Coast, D&D's current stewards, or from Paizo, the creators of Pathfinder, so she was in a good position to sell.

But as Valor progressed, MacKenzie realized something: "I don't want to try and sell this to someone or just use this as a portfolio piece. I love this system, and I want to see this book exist."

The Valor system uses a ten-sided die (d10) for resolutions, and it gives each player limited but consistent ways to influence the narrative by spending points of "valor," which can be awarded when a player shouts attack names, acts out a dramatic monologue, or generally role-plays their character in an anime fashion.

As MacKenzie explained, "It gives us that nice dramatic edge, where the storyline and the personal investment can overpower the fate of the dice, in addition to having a dice system that is much more equalized."

Valor is also setting agnostic, and it grants players the freedom to create their characters' abilities themselves, rather than limiting them to a set of rigidly defined archetypes.

As for next steps, MacKenzie said she is looking for licensing deals with anime franchises like Fire Emblem. Given that, she says she could supplement the Valor TTRPG with fiction, perhaps in a way similar to the Dragonlance books.

She's also open to third-party creators making content of their own for the system, so long as they give credit, and she currently has two separate Valor campaigns streaming on Twitch. In early May, her Twitch show "Windriders" had the prolific and Nonbinary voice actor Corina Boettger on as a guest.

You can learn more about Valor at https://www.valorousgames.com/. To see the system in action, follow https://www.twitch.tv/valorousgames/