Vee and Vee
Posted by Ron Edwards
V&V was one of the first published, its first version in 1979. As I learned later, Jeff Dee is about my age, a year or two older – he and Jack Herman first wrote, illustrated, and published their game in their teens. The publisher was Fantasy Games Unlimited, and that has resulted in much hassle, for which you can do the right thing here. I’ll also mention Jeff’s game Pocket Universe which I consider to be the most mechanically sound member of the Champions/GURPS family of game design, to be discussed in later blog posts, and which has been the backbone of multiple publications, most recently Béthorm.
.I saw the game in its second edition, in the spring of 1982 I believe, during the time I was pretty burned out on both superheroes and role-playing. Part of my later re-entry into those activities involved simply finding Champions 3rd edition on a store shelf, so it’s fair to say V&V never got a fair shot from me. I own it but have never played. I also own about a zillion of its supplements and adventure modules, and have used tons of them as I’ll describe later in the post. … But I can’t speak knowledgeably of the core game as an experience.
Which brings us to the estimable Mark Delsing and his testimony!
Villains & Vigilantes 2nd edition was my go-to RPG for supers from about 1982 to 1986 — my junior high and early high school years. I loved Champions, but Jeff Dee’s striking art had drawn me in. V&V simply looked more like the comics I was reading at the time (mostly Uncanny X-Men around the time of the Brood and Madeline Pryor) than the more “amateur ‘zine” look of Champions. Plus, the comparative ease of character creation made V&V a better pick-up-and-play game for me and my friends; the more D&D-ness of the rules probably also made it easier for us.
V&V made for quick work in getting a game started: you played yourself, rolled randomly for powers, figured out a reasonable explanation for why you-as-hero can both control magnetic fields and talk telepathically to cats, and then did some math. Whoever was GM would grab a copy of Crisis at Crusader Citadel or Death Duel with the Destroyers — adventures we’d probably played more than once — and the group was off to the races.
(And, no, we’d never play a character more than once. Sitting around making PCs together at the start of the weekend was too much fun. At the end of a session, your PC went into the back of the V&V box, saved purely for posterity.)
He’s not kidding about the art. I was often flat-out inspired by the character illustrations and would even rely on it – flip through a V&V supplement, glom onto some character and work him or her up as a central feature of our game’s backstory or current crisis, either with the listed name or one I’d make up. Dee is instantly recognizable, always eye-catching, and supplied with a seemingly inexhaustible fund of mask-cape-boots combinations. It’s very much itself but reminds me of Gil Kane and a little of Steve Ditko, and goes well with Jeff’s contemporary and also a V&V creative contributor, Bill Willingham.
Like many games of its era — especially fellow titles in FGU’s catalog — character creation in V&V required a decent amount of math to generate various derived attributes. For example, the formula for carrying capacity was [(Str/10)^3 + (End/10)] x Weight/2. Unfortunately, the equation as presented in the rules was incorrect, so we’d get different results depending on whether we used the printed formula or the rule text explaining it. (It wasn’t until the coming of the Web decades later that I managed to get in touch with Dee and find out there were errata.) So, lots of passing the calculator around and scribbling results on character sheets.
Also occasionally problematic was the “playing yourself” angle. Per the rules, your base stats were the GM’s estimation of your real-life abilities, which led to a lot of back-and-forth about who was more charismatic than whom (“Come on, dude; you’re not that popular”), or was in better shape (“My Endurance is better than that; I’m on the football team”). The starting stat range was the familiar 3-18 of D&D; when GM’ing I’d typically keep everyone within the 10-12 range for all stats to minimize arguments, with just a nudge here or there to accomodate our boyhood egos.
As one would expect with tweens/teens, rolling for powers wasn’t always all that random, either. There was always the guy who’d magically roll multiple stat- and speed-boosting powers every time — sometimes multiples of the same power, thus boosting the associated stat even more. Heightened Speed was commonly abused in this way; it allowed a PC to act more often in combat, which typically meant instant defeat for the villains. And I think Power Blast and Death Touch came up far more often than the tables were designed to allow.
Finally, let me mention that the random powers aspect of V&V also made for lots of lonely fun sitting around and rolling up characters. (Plus, there was no one looking over your shoulder telling you to lower your Charisma!) Unlike Champions, coming up with a concept first and them just choosing powers to suit is quite boring in V&V; it’s just too easy. A Power Blast is a Power Blast, so there is no Champions-style joy in figuring out how to construct an ability “just right.” The fun is in seeing what you get and trying to make sense of it all.
I remember thinking of “playing you” as a character, with random powers, as silly at the time, but I haven’t held that view for many years. I’m pleased to learn that people actually did it, and the more accounts of play I can read about that, the better. It’s a fascinating issue, bigger than I can address in one post. Role-playing design struggles with the question of whether your character “is” you in the game or not, and to what extent you hold agency as a character in the fiction, and to what extent that agency is judged or accountable at the real level. I think predicating play on “hey! be a super-hero!” is not a superficial detail at all.
We played as fast-and-loose as we did with other RPGs back then (no maps, no minis; who could afford them?), and just focused on using our powers to do cool things, defeat the bad-guys, and impress the fictional ladies.
The best sessions were where the GM would simply grab a copy of Opponents Unlimited and wing it. With supers, a whole night’s entertainment can be had by just having a super-villain threaten the status quo. Since we played ourselves, scenarios would inevitably start with us at school, doing normal school things. Then our shop teacher would mysteriously go missing, say, and be replaced with Ronky. Or we’d be on a field trip to a museum and The Amazing Floop Brothers would attack. Naturally, in the process of defeating these foes we’d impress all the girls we liked — typically rescuing them from capture — and the guys we hated would get injured by collateral damage in various humiliating ways.
(I get the impression that the NPCs in Opponents Unlimited were generated just as randomly as PCs normally would be. Other supers games so often featured villains that were well-known Marvel or DC characters with the serial numbers filed off; in comparison, OU was delightfully zany.)
One of the best impromptu scenarios involved an Imperial star destroyer attacking the school and capturing our heroes. Commanded by “Darth Ardor” — the arch nemesis of my character, “Jedi” — the interior of the star destroyer was essentially Arcade’s Murderworld, and we’d each be stuck in our own customized deathtraps.
Hey, we were thirteen.
You do not want to know what kind of character came to my mind upon reading the words “Darth Ardor.”
I really used the hell out of those modules for my Champions games, some of which I described in Time travel trippin’ up. My technique was to choose three which struck my fancy, from any publisher for whatever game, and mash’em up into a general back-story and dynamic crisis situation for the next designated multi-session “chapter” of play. The degree of content from any one of them varied all over the place. V&V modules were especially fun for their striking characters, which tended to be more useful for me as I had a strong idea of what sorts of back-stories worked in our games, and I was learning that ‘porting that sort of developed, other-people’s-games material into ours was less effective.
Here too I give credit to There’s a Crisis at Crusader Citadel, one of the most thoroughly-mined published adventures on my shelf. I always tweaked it so the bad guys were actually the good guys transformed into bad ones, in various ways.
In the Shield game, I had a charismatic hero called the Crusader begin a high-profile glitzy supergroup, and the Citadel was under construction; the group was to be called “the Crusaders” of course. He made friends and influenced people among our heroes when he informed the black characters that the new group “could use some representation.” Not quite as horrid as Captain Amazing, but in retrospect, that’s pretty much the way that character was going.
In the Force Five game, the villain Raptor attacked the Citadel (and the group was also called the Citadel), and purportedly killed all the team, but as it turned out, he’d resurrected/transformed them into horrible villain versions of themselves, with a little bit of a nod in my mind to Lord Saker and his minions in Willingham’s Elementals.
I used a simpler version as well in playtesting a game called Pace [I’ll hunt the link to the report and edit it in here], in which the superheroes decided that they simply wanted to be villains, period, and staged their own assassination so they could start with totally secret identities and a bad-ass rep. You’re seeing the trend, I trust …
I’m finishing on a bitter note. I reflect on V&V and on early Champions, and I long for the days of superhero RPGs that are specialized into their own, distinctive brilliant design spaces. I wish the latter had remained within its own to be refined, instead converging into generic form.
Next: Jackpot, Tiger
About Ron EdwardsGame author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor
Posted on October 22, 2015, in Guest posts, Supers role-playing and tagged Bill Willingham, Champions RPG, Crisis at Crusader Citadel, Fantasy Games Unlimited, Jack Herman, Jeff Dee, Mark Delsing, Pace, Villains & Vigilantes. Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.