Vee and Vee

vandvGive that Villains & Vigilantes cover the credit as the superhero RPG that really knew who needed to be the central visual character on there. Purple and green bad guys forever!

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.

Hi Mark!

Hi Mark!

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.)

blizzardbullHe’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.

Crisis CrusaderHere 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.

Links: Stargazer’s World interview with Jeff Dee, V&V Facebook page, The history of Villains & Vigilantes (Monkey House games site)

Next: Jackpot, Tiger

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on October 22, 2015, in Guest posts, Supers role-playing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. Another long-time V&V player here. I’ve probably played more V&V than any single other RPG. Played it with several different groups of friends. Almost always used “play yourself + powers.” Rolled random powers maybe 80% of the time; picking them is legit fun too IMHO and is specifically sanctioned by the rules.

    I owned the first edition of V&V too but I was extremely young and I don’t think I ever played; by Dee’s own admission (in an article in Different Worlds) it was completely mechanically broken. (E.g.: the best defensive power in the world could only result in a -20% chance to hit). The second edition rules were one of the most elegant systems I’ve ever seen. Character creation involved a little math, because you had to come up with your Carrying Capacity, which was something like “what do these 3-18+ numbers mean, translated into real world terms? How much badder ass IS a 25 strength than a 14?” That showed up in your Carrying Capacity, which translated to damage dice. The (strength/10)^3 thing was the mathiest thing and that was your Carrying Capacity.

    We didn’t get quite so teenage-wish-fulfillment as Mark, at least not in the “humiliate your real world rivals and get the girl” sense. We stuck to kicking ass. But we definitely imagined our way out of our real-world limitations. One of my favorite characters (versions of myself with powers) was PHANTOM FIGHTER, a martial artist who could phase out like Kitty Pryde (so imagine Kitty Pryde’s powers combined with Iron Fist, with a badass extensible fighting stick which could be a quarterstaff, short bo-stick, or separate into nunchuks OH MY GOD HOW DID SO MUCH BADASS FIT INTO A SINGLE CHARACTER.

    Anyway the point here is this version of myself wasn’t fat and out of shape because, heightened attributes.

    Or instead of countering weaknesses it was fun to have characters that took strengths to a peak, like, being super-geniuses instead of just smart…

    Anyway. After a certain point we picked up a self-consciously retro/campy vibe, at least I did while GMing, which is when I came up with a master supervillain named DOCTOR CRIME.

    That system… there was so much elegance to that system. There were so many ways that human-scale stuff became a natural special case of superhero stuff.

    Actions per turn? Well, your initiative roll was d10 + your dexterity, so average 15 for normals. You got to act on your initiative value and also your initiative value – 15, your initiative value – 30, your initiative value – 45, etc. So normal humans had either 1 or 2 actions per turn. Super dudes with high Dexterity or a speed bonus went multiple times per turn, perhaps to the point of ridiculousness. You could save up actions so you could wait till your slower opponent made a move then BWAM whap him with multiple saved up moves.

    But ordinary folk getting 1 or maybe 2 actions per turn was just a natural base case of the system.

    Hit points? Well, an “average” person is 100-300 pounds, and you get 1 base hit point per 50 pounds of weight. So maybe 2-6 HP for average folks. You get a multiplicative bonus/penalty for all your attributes except Charisma, higher for some (Endurance) than others (Intelligence), so your HP balloon out quickly if you have heightened attributes…. but they grow organically out of the 2-6 you start with. Ordinary people are ordinary, heroes are extraordinary, and the scale works out nice.

    Oh, and the Hit Points vs Power Points thing. You have HIt Points (discussed above, very low for ordinary folks) and Power Points (sum of your non-Charisma attributes, so 40 for the average bloke). Hit Points are physical damage, Power Points are “bio-energy.” Kind of fatigue or endurance points, but they also are spent to power your powers.

    Damage you take comes off Hit Points till they go to 0, at which point you’re incapacitated, then it comes off your Power Points till you’re dead.

    So you see the great thing here: it’s easy to incapacitate an ordinary person with a powered attack, but it’s VERY difficult to accidentally kill anybody.

    So neither heroes nor villains have to hold back their powers for fear turning the game from a slugfest into a bloodbath.

    Very good for the sort of light-hearted, over-the-top style of the game. And again, this is a way that ordinary people shade quickly but cleanly and elegantly into the world of extraordinary people.

    Damn, everything about that game was awesome. It is mechanically one of the cleverest, best things I’ve ever played.

    Ron, you know I’m allergic to mechanically complex systems, but V&V I knew in and out and loved every part of it.

    The art. Oh, the art. Jeff Dee is still one of the best superhero artists I’ve ever seen, and his style from back then is my favorite superhero style. Better than “real” comics artists, most of the time. I hate to say this but this is one of those cases where you fall in love with an artist’s style at a certain point in their lives and you’re disappointed when they get “better” (by their own standards) later on. I like 1980s Jeff Dee art considerably more than I like Jeff’s art today. This is something that happens to a lot of artists, they move on because they’re a different person with a better skill set and are perhaps doing the things they always wanted to but some of their fans get stuck on where they happened to be at an earlier point and are sad that they moved on. That’s me and old V&V art. There was just something amazing about it.

    The very few illustrations where you get to see a few sequential panels of art instead of just a scene or character portrait? Those were great too. So inspiring.

    Anyway, great to see a shout out to the BEST THING EVER and one of the most influential games of my youth.

    Liked by 3 people

    • MOAR DOCTOR CRIME PLZ

      Liked by 2 people

      • I… I’m afraid I don’t remember that much about Doctor Crime’s actual powers and exploits, just his amazing name; I’ll see if I’ve still got the character sheet anywhere though, I still have a lot of that old stuff!

        Liked by 1 person

        • I will simply say that once upon a time there was a 1950’s Batman villain called the Crime Doctor, who basically operated on criminals so that they could get medical treatment without going to the hospital and facing awkward questions.

          I liked that idea, and so on my campaign world there’s “Suture Alley,” where disgraced mad MD-PhD’s will fix you up at a low cost or maybe for free if they’re allowed to experiment on you. My players haven’t come across it yet, but it’s there.

          Liked by 1 person

        • I believe Doctor Crime was more of a Ph.D. than an M.D. He had a Ph.D…. IN CRIME!

          Also mad science. Definitely mad science.

          Like

    • Dang, Ed, you were way more savvy with the rules than I was. I don’t think we ever bothered with Power Points. Honestly, I’m not sure any PCs were every too close to 0HP, either. Again: thirteen.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks! I can’t imagine not using power points, they were, like, mana points you use to power your powers! Plus also bonus backup hit points in case of incapacitation. But I guess at age 13 you might have said “screw that, use your powers all you want…”? Like forgetting about encumbrance rules in dungeon games?

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  2. i have a lot i wanna say about “YOU can be a super hero.” i wish somewhere in indie rpg world that concept was actually picked up, carried into the end zone, and spiked HARD. Pendragon does a little bit in this direction IME, and Sorcerer’s Humanity system has a little bit of it too. but there needs to be a game that uses operant conditioning to develop the players’ ability to think critically about ethics (ahem dogs in vineyard) AND ALSO strengthens their moral courage as actual human beings out in the world

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes, moral courage, but what about transforming martial arts weapons, because oh god I just remembered I think maybe Phantom Fighter’s staff could “unfurl” into a WHIP and extend into a KUSARI-GAMA-LIKE CHAIN WEAPON TOO

    Liked by 1 person

    • YOU HAD A VILLAIN NAMED DOCTOR CRIME
      HIS EXPLOITS MUST BE CHRONICLED

      THIS IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN WHAT YOU WERE PLANNING TO DO THIS MORNING (PROBABLY)

      sorry for shouting but DOCTOR CRIME does that to a man.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. BTW, is Mocker’s schtick with his face (from the Crisis At Crusader Citadel art) hilarious or what?

    Like

  5. Dude, that one pick of Mocker where some small hero (Marionette?) is pulling off his hood and you can see his real face… so classic, so V&V.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Let me also say that Willingham’s Death Duel with the Destroyers, as I remember it, was one of the best published supers adventures maybe ever.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh, another thing that was great about 2nd edition V&V: it was very explicit about the idea that you could and SHOULD be adding on to the rules in order to make the game your own. Some of the powers you could roll up were essentially fill-in-the-blank powers. Like “special weapon” or “body power.” You had to work with the GM and come up with your own power which fit into that general category, using other powers on the list as guidelines as to what was reasonable. Also it was said in so many words that if you rolled a low number of powers, you should jazz up those few powers so they had greater significance, maybe add some extra effects onto them, so that a hero with a few powers is still comparable to the other heroes with more powers. Phantom Fighter’s staff was an example of a Special Weapon which I got to make up that way.

    This open attitude, where the rules have blanks to fill in, was very striking at the time, when a lot of rules sets were trying to be everything to everybody. It reminds me now of the oldest version of D&D which mentioned offhand that if you wanted to play a Balrog the GM could work with you and let you do so, though you should probably play a “young Balrog” to start with and gain in power and experience gradually.

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  8. Can someone who’s familiar with both, contrast V&V with Marvel Super Heroes (FASERIP)? That’s the 80’s supers system I know best, and I think it does a lot of things quite well, but I’m impressed by the love being shown here. What’s V&V do well that Marvel doesn’t do so well? What’s Marvel got going for it that V&V doesn’t?

    Liked by 2 people

    • I don’t know MSH very well; I read the rules but didn’t play a whole lot. My impression is that it’s much more of a “the system does everyting; the system is its own world; the world is subsumed into the system” kind of thing. How else could it be, in a unified system that is supposed to cover everything from Aunt May to Galactus? It’s all this abstract, sliding-scale, exponential-y stuff. Very sophisticated and abstract. V&V, the system is much more connected to the real (pseudo-) world. It matters how many pounds you weight and how many pounds you can lift. It is harder to punch through steel than through concrete and that is quantified in the rules (amazingly, the rules do this without it being either overly complicated or overly hand-wavy). I guess you could say V&V is more “down to earth” but it’s funny to say that considering that V&V does involve people with ridankulous abilities. It’s just that those ridankulous abilities are discussed in terms of how they affect a “real world” rather than in terms of a system that mostly is about itself.

      I’m probably being unfair to MSH here, but this is the impression given by the rules sets.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’ll have to hold off on this topic until the MSH post goes up. Ideally until I get to play V&V some time, as I think I’ll start thinking about.

      Like

  9. V&V is the absolute best. I’m not sure I can ever unpack all of my experiences with this game (2nd edition as well) but now I want to try. It basically covers the first 10 years or so of my involvement with RPGs.

    Just a few points of nostalgia:
    -Love the images of Big Bill “Bull” Buckford and Blizzard above, nice Ron!
    -We had a years-long campaign where we took over when the Crusaders disbanded after the Crisis. The Bear, The Shrout, Black Dragon (Green Dragon after his death) and Chillblade. Later, we recruited Zairobos and boy did THAT turn out to be a mistake.
    -I learned to type by, literally,typing the V&V rules over into a word processor on our Apple IIe emulater and saving them to disk.

    Gods, this game…

    Liked by 3 people

  10. I played both of these a lot.

    FASERIP is more comic feel – slams and stuns and invulnerable people falling off buildings, etc., And a more elegant design. Simple and easy use of maps that is fun, as opposed to facing penalties for cardboard counters.

    V&V is more D&D I think…but the oddball mechanics for V&V do give it flavour (but how much does Sonic Defense inhibit you attacking someone with your laser gun) etc. Allows for defending in a way FASERIP doesn’t. V&V also wastes some rulebook space on legal system stuff that 13 year old Australians, for example, wouldn’t give a flying skrull kneecap about.

    V&V will tell you that your telekinesis lets you move 652 pounds at 15kph or whatever and FASERIP ballparks everything, at least in the Advanced version. A better genre representation for the latter.

    V&V’s random powers are more interesting unless you are talking Ultimate Powers Book of course.

    That sort of thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Santiago Verón

    I fondly remember your Actual Play report on Pace. It may or may not have been the way I found The Forge, actually; I was 18 and wanting to search online about RPGs again, looked around to find out what had been going on with Fudge in the intervening years since the last time I had been interested on RPGs, and found Fate. On the same site I found Pace and thus an acknowledgement to The Forge community. But I think it was months after that (months of lurking, which would become years of just reading The Forge) when I finally came upon your Actual Play. I had zero clue about superhero gaming or how could you accomplish that with Pace, and I remained kind of in awe of the story presented (I still recall a Spider-Man like character that was a mix with a Zen vibe, perhaps Dr Strange-y?) and the easiness with which you developed it. I never knew why, but once every few years I came back and re-read it. Now I get that it was a glimpse of something you had been honing out for decades. I guess now we can see it in full display in this blog 🙂

    If you’re still interested, here’s the link! http://indie-rpgs.com/archive/index.php?topic=6476.0

    I’m starting to re-read it now, and I love that finally I know what it means to talk about Champions, Marvel Super Heroes, etcetera while you make the introduction.

    Liked by 1 person

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