Best with badness

Jeff Dee, Crisis at Crusader Citadel

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 1987, 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.

Links: Patrick Zircher (Grand Comics Database), Classic Enemies retrospective (My Dice Are Older Than You)

Next: On and on and on (September 10)


About Ron Edwards

Game author, publisher, consultant, teacher

Posted on September 3, 2017, in Supers role-playing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. Ron, like you I bought any super-hero RPG supplements I could find – mostly to mine villain ideas. The more examples and option no I had to adapt the better. I even picked up DC Heroes or Marvel ones to see how characters I loved from books translated into game mechanics.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. V&V seems special; is the only one that’s predicated on “playing yourself” and apparently the one you mined the most for modules. Is there any connection you can think of?

    Also I wonder about what it was like to V&V players. The notion of playing yourself is hard for me to imagine, if it’s for several sessions. I remember a commenter on this blog who talked about fantasizing with his friends about getting into fights with people they didn’t like from school. Why would a game so based on your life be so receptive to modules?


    • I think there are more variables at work, some of them regional and economic. I don’t know what the early financial situations were for any of these games, nor what arrangements or participation was involved for the artists. The latter seems different from today’s freelancer contracts. People like Mark Williams, Jeff Dee, Bill WIllingham, Pat Zircher, Denis Loubet, and later, Scott Heine were part of the initial small communities of play for these games, contributing active play-input, written work, and evidently unstoppable tons of art as well.

      I bring this up because a significant part of the inspiration we’re talking about is visual. Some of these artists, Dee and Zircher especially, delighted in constant visual character creation, and I wouldn’t be surprised if quite a few of these ostensible game-supplement materials were led by “here’s another binder of characters I scribbled” rather than hunting for art to fill in after the work was written. The game of choice or opportunity in one’s immediate community could well have been the beneficiary without needing special properties to explain it.

      There’s no way to know how much actual play of V&V actually followed the “play yourself” instruction. None of my experiences did, although I never found a dedicated play-group for the game either. I was surprised to find that Mark Delsing did that at all, which is one reason I asked him to contribute to the post about V&V. Therefore I’m reluctant to cite that variable as causal for any other observation about the game, at least not until there’s a reliable way to know how widespread it was.


  3. Adventures, modules, supplements – third-party or semi/official – fanzines, official-zines, convention publications – all INCREDIBLY important parts of my 70’s/very early 80’s RPG experience. Dodgy or not (there was plenty of both!), the rules applications (and effect on “how to play” generally) were simultaneously a) potentially more ongoingly influential on your local gaming than the rulebooks themselves, and b) present because the creator(s) just thought those rules were a good idea for the purpose at hand. Anxiety about “official” or not, the “right way” or not … well, for me personally that crept in later. But thinking back, if that “rules appropriate for the purpose at hand” spirit is anarchistic, I’m probably a supporter of anarchy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That topic is the core of my next post: that one learns role-playing games not through the core books or any systematic approach, but through working your way through the adventure/module supplements at the table. Or rather, that’s the textual component of the local, verbal, social learning which treats “this is the way we do it / this is the way it’s done” as synonymous.

      I have a different view about the rules (of the moment, in the module) being “good for the purpose at hand.” My take is that the module rules were typically poorer and often counter-productive. I’m not talking about the wiggly bits concerning whether a given power does this or does that, compared to the core rules. I’m talking about how play is conducted and toward what end, which is often very explicit in those publications and – as we’re agreeing – served as the primary textual side of “how to do it.”

      My concern doesn’t lie with officialness or right-way-ness, but about being any good.

      Liked by 1 person

      • On “good for the purpose at hand” – emphasis on the THOUGHT. In the D&D-focused stuff I dug out of my boxes a while back, I was surprised to find some real good bits. But I suspect you’d say the base texts for superhero play were better than early D&D was – which point I have neither the desire nor experience to refute. And I do agree that being any good is the real point – mentioning concerns about official-ness or the right-way is confessing a (not-uncommon?) failing, not attributing anything to you.

        For D&D, one realization in looking at the different “how play is conducted and towards what end” in the modules/etc. was: I played a lot of different games back-in-the-day. They all said they were D&D, but they were not the same game. All potentially good (or not), but I’m pretty sure the expectation that they SHOULD be the same game (an expectation I eventually came to have, though I’m not sure why) wasn’t a good thing.

        Because early-on, I was pretty comfortable with the idea that “this is the way we do it / this is the way it’s done” would vary from module to module, and play would still be “good” (sometimes not, but not BECAUSE of the variance in particular). I’ll be interested to hear how that worked in supers/comics gaming.

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        • I completely understand about the false same game, which you and I discussed a while ago at the Adept forum about D&D. You brought up the incredible power of the ideal of compatibility, which as you phrased it went far beyond its dictionary meaning.

          One of my life-saddening experiences, as far as pop culture is concerned, was watching the transformation of superhero RPGs from “we designed diverse games, we play them all, we all know each other, this is fun,” into “all our designs are shadows of the Platonic ideal, as shown by our ultra-generic conversions in the back of each book.”

          One might think the conversions – which were nearly universally present in the 1980s modules across three to five game titles – would indicate a positive, mutualistic culture of design, play, and publication. I bet it even felt like it was at the time, and I do not question the sincerity and enjoyment among the creators. Many of whom, as I mentioned, contributed across the companies, just as they did at the comics.

          However, instead of “this does it this way, yielding cool result X” and “this other does it this other way, yielding cool result Y,” it evolved into the reassurance that X results no matter what, which is supposed to be a good thing. Thus all the different games become Coke, Pepsi, and RC … also supposed to be a good thing.

          That’s one of the reasons I’m so cranky about Champions 4th edition. It was precisely the death-knell of the supers RPG explosion which for just under a decade, had looked as if it were maintaining the activity’s energy as fantasy/SF role-playing (and in general) both increased in volume and homogenized into fluff.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Exactly the info/experience I was hoping for about supers gaming, Ron! Thanks – that entirely makes sense to me. The zeal for always-X, and the blandness that most likely results … lots has been said on that, and there’s still probably lots to say. But since I don’t really have supers-specific input – not here/now.

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        • Your comment about homogeneization being a life-saddening experience worries me. It seems to me like a capitalistic, maybe unaivodable, phenomenon. Do you have any advice, as a person who’s lived in this world 25 years longer than me, on how to deal with this? I know we’re not talking about something as big and universal as the death of family members and friends, but it still seems like a bitchy, relevant thing for people invested in creative endeavors. Like with other aspects of capitalism, commercialization and consumerism, I’ve seen people your age and older being bitter about it, with surprising degrees of still putting up a fight versus not. (Meaning I’d have expected the more optimistic ones not to give up, but sometimes the one guy who’s bitterest, who talks the most about how inevitable defeat is and nothing can be changed, is also the one that with his actions is achieving the most for him and others.) What’s one to do, short of starting a communist revolution? (Everyone reading this, including Ron, please remember I’m joking as a Latin American – it was a viable option for us not too long ago ^_^ .) I don’t want to come away from your text with the impression I shouldn’t bother getting invested in an activity ’cause it’s all gonna get commercial and homogeneize – I realize that by my extended metaphor that would be as silly as not making friends in order not to see them pass away – but I do wonder what’s your take on this, which seems like a phenomenon that occurs all over the place and it’s painful for the people involved.

          I’d like to get more on the point with a counterexample that’s off the point, so please bear with me. I remember a French comics guy, around ten years ago, who told us how he was part of a movement that had positioned “Graphic Novel” as a marketing label for “auteur”, long-form comics there, but afterwards the big companies had jumped on the label and diluted its value, publishing trade paperbacks of American superhero comics and calling them “Graphic Novels” when they weren’t. (I apologize if I misremember and maybe it didn’t happen like that at all, but let’s just pretend it did for the sake of the example.) Now, the situation you’re describing is, I think, NOT like that. There’s something else at work – I read it as the people involved being confused, meaning it’s not only that TSR, White Wolf, Steve Jackson or whoever made a big shove in the community/market homogeneizing a single way to play, but that also the creators involved were trying to achieve something, with, as you said, enjoyment and sincerity. That also sounds rather scary and I would like to know more about it if you can share anything.

          To go back to the Latin American politics metaphor, I can (sort of) explain how the Peronist Left of the 70s fought against the CIA-backed dictatorship to allow Perón to come back to Argentina, and how when they finally got their wish his first act as President was to expel them from his movement, because he was a staunch anti-Communist. But I can’t picture how dozens of creators colaborated happily with each other into the results of having the playstyles of most of them erased from official history. (Sorry about the hyperbole.)

          I guess what I mean is, I’m convinced it can happen, it just scares me that I don’t know HOW it happens.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Hey Santiago,

          That’s not a small topic! I appreciate your trust in even bringing it up. I don’t know if I’m able to answer it at all, let alone well, but I’ll think about it and see.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. “…one learns role-playing games not through the core books or any systematic approach, but through working your way through the adventure/module supplements at the table.”

    This is so true, but I never realized it until you said it. I wonder how many rpg groups have started into a module and never really got out of it. I remember The Island of Doctor Destroyer was really the catalyst that caused my Champions group to get addicted to the game. The whole campaign basically sprouted from that module. Up until then it felt like a few disconnected pick-up games, with players pretty much changing characters every time. But after The Island everyone seemed to “get” the game and plots and subplots began to spiral off that. We added Enemies II to the mix and that was pretty much it (I didn’t finally get my hands on a copy of Enemies I until much later).

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  5. On international villains: naturally, the campaigns I played in were set in Australia, so even villains from the US were international villains.

    In practice, I was about the only GM I encountered who was a mad collector of material, and thus had a big pile of inspirational stuff. Most of the others worked straight from the rulebook, the comics, and whatever inspiration they came up with for themselves.

    For me, the latter tended to be sporadic, so I relied more on the material I had. It’s just how my brain works.

    Because Australia mostly lacked the US fanzine and Cons, I relied a lot on magazines. Most importantly, Space Gamer, Different Worlds, White Dwarf and to a lesser extent the Dragon. The latter was good for Marvel character writeups, though.

    In practice, most “US” villains could be used with little or no conversion. There’s not enough cultural difference for most of them to seem weird. These days I might change a few names to make some characters seem more “Australian” but that isn’t actually necessary. I’d probably throw in some of the “international” characters to emphasize that Australia isn’t just a British colony any more.

    Unfortunately, while Australia has a small comics industry of its own, there aren’t a lot of interesting villains to steal or “homage”. I can’t say any of my own characters are worth remembering either. Let’s not think about the major company villains – guys that throw Boomerangs? Pyro? The Kangaroo? Seriously?

    Fortunately, most megavillains present a threat to the whole world, and can thus be found operating anywhere.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Several of us were enriched by our dedication to news-tidbit Champions GMing. I kept a folder of news clippings and often did a fair amount of research about specific periods and areas. K.C. Ryan did the same and went to considerable effort to globe-hop play to various locations and political contexts. You can see some of the same effort in the published works, like the dubious claim that the ancient villain Lung Hung had masterminded every political development in China throughout the 20th century (VOICE of Doom), which nevertheless did a nice job of summarizing the real history.

      Let’s give Captain Boomerang, Ostrander version, a little respect, but aside from that, I see your point. I maintain that the right attitude could easily solve it, but if the comics aren’t doing it, I can see why the gaming tables might not get there.


  6. We played ourselves in V&V … we were high school kids at the time. Playing most in Australia. Lots of the USA stuff was lost on us. Kids in a small country town never going to know (or care) who USA media personalities etc were, or that sort of thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Jeff, how do you scale movement down to a Chessex hex map and mini’s in V&V 2nd edition please? Thnx a lot!!


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