Best with badness
Posted by Ron Edwards
Not too surprising that I’m taking a whole post to discuss mid-80s role-playing super-villainy, is it?
The material component of this topic is easy: reams and reams of enemies-list and adventure-module supplements. These weren’t much like the perfect-bound, rather heavy supplements that became standard less than a decade later. They were pretty little: 24-28 pages, which is about the same as an actual comic book, staple-bound with cardstock covers. However, when you consider the itsy-bitsy eye-agony typesetting, and the complete lack of fancy-graphics page formatting, they should get more credit. In terms of content, each weighs in at just about the typical 96-page RPG supplement from the past twenty years or so.
Their content was also different from later standards, as you can’t think of them as in-house edited, carefully strategized official content. For one thing, as with D&D a few years earlier, the content was generated by anyone-and-everyone, often for conventions, or from a few people who were playing the games and knew the publisher. It was zapped into publication with only a little bit of review, with the result, collectively, being more like zines or other fan-driven content. Being anarchist me, I see this as primarily a virtue, but it also meant a whole lot of dodgy rules applications in print.
Keep this related point in mind: none of these were setting-based. Each of them was presented individually, literally, as, “Hey, we, our one group, did this, check it out, use it your way for your group in your game-city.” Remember what I wrote about superhero settings in The game you never heard of? That’s how all of us were playing back then, and how these game materials were written.
For another thing, the core book editions were arriving steadily (V&V‘s and Champions’ 2nd in 1982, Champions 3rd in 1985, GURPS through initial publication and an Update in 1986 and 2nd edition in MMMM, Champions 4th and GURPS: Supers in 1989). That means played material was always using rules prior to the most recent core publication, with a non-trvial lag. For example, for Champions, module/adventure materials published up to and just after 3rd edition were mostly played using 1st/2nd , and plenty of nominally 4th edition material was retooled from 3rd edition play. The lag applies especially to Strike Force which was published well into the commitment to the more general Hero System and the upcoming 4th edition, but had been played since or even before the game’s initial appearance. Knowledgeable reading uncovers tons of textual artifacts.
Everyone knows about the two games’ famous support from the early days: Death Duel with the Destroyers, (There’s a) Crisis at the Crusader’s Citadel, The Island of Doctor Apocalypse, The Island of Dr. Destroyer, Stronghold, and Enemies I and II. However, since I came in exactly when 3rd edition was published in 1985, I didn’t use those much, except for Citadel. But the ensuing avalanche of material from Fantasy Games Unlimited and Hero Games, much of it from criss-crossing contributors, man, did I mine the hell out of it.
It wasn’t for the scripted adventures, which I’ll discuss in detail in my next post. It was for the profusion of wonderful villains.
The rich stew
The Champions authors absolutely knew the importance of villainy: you can see some indications of it in the core books, and also Aaron Allston’s generally sympathetic opponents, all wrapped up in family ties with the heroes, in Strike Force. I especially appreciate Scott Bennie’s editorial points in Villainy Unbound in its introduction and afterword. You can see the same attention to motivation, real-person emotions, and potential for dramatic decisions across most of the Hero Games work: just off the top of my head, The Coriolis Effect, Mind Games. VOICE of Doom, Clown, DEMON, Target: Hero, Wrath of the Seven Horseman (which includes a brief but notable editorial comment by Steve Perrin about fear and other emotional commitments during play).
I grant you that only some of the villains were outstanding, but more often than not, they were solid: someone went to real trouble to match up powers, disadvantages, and psychological limitations. I call attention especially to Mind Games, which is basically an evil X-Men based on psychic powers, for the careful tuning of each powers-construction to each member’s complex and often vulnerable commitment to the PSI organization. They’re all good: Mother Medusa, Soulfire, Omen, Counselor Darke, Mindslayer, Revelation, Torment … and if you’re not sniffling openly when you get to the poor little kid recruits and their heartbreaking powers-in-development, then I don’t want to talk to you.
But the standout is V&V: just wow. There’s something about those V&V modules I find hard to describe. Let’s see … as I comb through my old copies of Alone Into the Night, Assassin, Organized Crime, Search for the Sensei, Honor, The Pentacle Plot, Pre-Emptive Strike, geez, there’s more of them in the box, it’s never-ending. Here’s something from Organized Crime (1985, writer: Ken Cliffe, artist: Patrick Zircher):
The main villain in the module is the Organizer, but he’s boring. Of his merc villains, though, the hunk is Apollo, who’s just a brain in a very studly robot body; and the two ladies, the Stormstress with the interesting lightning bolt and the Black Empress, who are his lovers and rivals to one another. The whole module, if you step back from its go-here go-there instructions, is the story of how this works out for them, especially since they are carefully tagged as not being all that wicked. It’s Apollo’s respect for the heroes which generates the Organizer’s downfall, and it’s the Black Empress’ love for Apollo that wins out – and their potential to be turned away from Evil, barely if ever stated, is the module’s one real virtue.
That’s just the tiniest taste! The V&V ones weren’t so hot in the social or political terms that showed up so strongly in Champions and later GURPS: Supers (for which see below), but they were outstanding in highly focused motivations and raw, spatter-the-wall super-powered meme creation. Name, appearance, powers, and position/goal – very few of the hundreds of villains failed on all counts, only a few succeed on all, but many, many of them hit hard on two or three, and were therefore easily adjusted or mined for my characters.
I mean, c’mon: the Night Raven, the Blonde Berserker, Maiden Japan, Pyre, Vendetta, the Rookies, Mocker, Moonflash, Evergreen, Komodo Dragon, the Noose … and to my eyes, all available for mix-and-matching between the textual versions and any notions that simply popped into mind upon seeing a given power or name or appearance. That’s my thesis: this was a stew of creative input bubbling up with this or that idea that made it into print. The consistently almost-good, sometimes-excellent material was perfect when viewed across multiple independent efforts. and viewed more as the result of a community of peers rather than as grateful fans receiving carefully-canonized setting/saga material from the font of creators. Collectively the V&V modules weren’t scripts or a sourcebook for me, but more like an ongoing, extremely fertile creative-consulting session.
I’ll take this opportunity to proclaim my love for Pat Zircher, who graced the pages of both games, and who if anyone served as my mental guide for imagining what we played.
Always the politics with this guy
The politics stand out to me dramatically, both in memory of the time, and even more so when I review these texts for the first time in twenty-five years. They’re there in an odd, provocative, but often just-shy of fully explicit. The Divine Wind is a nun from Thailand who was injured when “the enemy” attacked; Kabbalah is an American immigrant to Israel who’s been caught up in a politically-extremist Orthodox group – the text doesn’t tell us extremist about what nor the word “Kahanist,” but to the knowledgeable reader they’re underscoring every line. Rhodesia this and Rhodesia that, up to and including a black guy who dresses and acts like a big-game hunter and calls himself Bwana. GURPS: Supers, coming late to the my period of intensive supers role-playing, arrived with a bang in this regard. I call special attention to its many black characters from a wide variety of backgrounds in both the U.S. and other parts of the world, featuring a wide variety of viewpoints and goals.
Fascinating: ongoing 80s love-hate with Soviets, such that although Flower (Villainy Unbound) is a naïve and dangerous, she’s no outright stop-her villainess, and I call attention to her stunningly fun powers; Domino (Super Scum) is genuinely bizarre as befits the bizarre symbiosis between West and East Germany during those just-before-final days; and Cold Warrior (The International Files) is inarguably a straightforward hero who just happens to oppose the baseline patriotism all American superheroes, and any Soviet superheroes, positing same, represent. Click on the pics for the full writeups to see what I mean.
What you’re seeing there isn’t a fixed ideology or enforced position. It’s the result of being confused and stressed over the prevailing ideology of the times, including buying into it to a significant extent – but determined, perhaps obsessed, with symbols and characters who continually confront it. This is what comics do at their best. It’s what we played these games to do.
Some of it’s head-desking – look at the bit in Organized Crime about how the “woman judge” is dumb enough to let the Black Empress escape – and some of it, however intentioned, is ham-handed. Why or how the “most feared agent of the PLO” (GURPS: Supers) is a white neo-nazi is beyond me. There’s an obvious strong tendency toward stereotype: the Mexican guy has to be a lizard, anyone Japanese has to be ninja or samurai, anyone Haitian has to be about voodoo, and I wouldn’t think the Irish villain would have to look like, call himself, and actually be the Leprechaun, but there he is. What none of it is, though, is carefully-tuned neutral nothing. If there’s something that’s poorly done, it’s still something available for discussion.
Here’s a huge influence on me: the map from The International File, matching each character to geographical location.
I saw it in 1988. My jaw dropped. That is what I’d been looking for, in fact, wanted badly to do. Get out of fucking Manhattan already, or in our case, downtown Chicago. Think global, not because the heroes would go on Hollywood set junkets, but because important things happened all over, and heroism + villainy could be there. I instantly scribbled an equivalent for my current game, noting huge blank spots begging for me to educate myself and whip up villains and heroes for, and for my last and best game (1990-1992), the version of it was my starting point.
This post is a proud member of my series comparing early Champions (1981-1985) and GURPS: Supers (1989) with reference to several contemporary games, preceded by Exhumed, still lovely my dear, Very special effects, Being, having, and nothingness, Dynamic mechanics, Where are you going, where have you been, Kill, kill, kill, and Balancing what exactly. Shoot, I didn’t even get to talk about my villains in play.
I’ve extended the series based on topics people have asked me to address, and I’m still available for that. Speak up in the comments if there’s something about this period of superhero role-playing that you want to ask about or see discussed.
Next: On and on and on (September 10)
About Ron EdwardsGame author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor
Posted on September 3, 2017, in Supers role-playing and tagged Champions RPG, Enemies, Jeff Dee, Mind Games, Organized Crime, Patrick Zircher, Scott Bennie, Steve Perrin, Super Scum, The Coriolis Effect, The International File, Villains & Vigilantes, Villainy Unbound. Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.