Thursday, August 9, 2018

Playing Games Part 3: Villains and Vigilantes


Jeff Dee, Post-TSR, crushing
it on the game he co-created
with Jack Herman.

There has been, over the years, an incredible debate over which super hero game is the best. It’s a Ford versus Chevy, Coke versus Pepsi kind of thing. I think it boils down to whichever game you were first exposed to is the best one. That is to say, in the end. In the beginning, all you had to do was look at the art for the two major games, Villains and Vigilantes and Champions. Jeff Dee drew giant rings around Mark Williams. V&V looked like a comic book you wanted to read. Champions looked like drawings from the loose-leaf notebook of your really talented artist-friend.

Villains and Vigilantes came into my life thanks to Dragon magazine (the most important magazine in the world, for a while) and the great ad that ran dutifully in every issue for, like, years, with great evocative artwork by Jeff Dee. Now, I recognized both Jeff’s style and his signature as being one of my two favorite artists from TSR. His stuff had a super-heroic-comic-booky style about it anyway, and now here he was, drawing super heroes in a game he co-created. That was all I needed, to be honest. But then I found out Bill Willingham was involved, and that sealed the deal for me. By this time, Willingham had left TSR and was writing and drawing The Elementals for Comico, and it was an indy comics darling. This gave V&V a kind of legitimacy that Champions never had for me and my friends.
Look at that! Magnetor? Who wouldn't want to play him?
It wasn't long after this that I bought the boxed set.
There were a myriad of reasons for what I think V&V is better, but it comes down to primarily one thing: V&V was open-ended and Champions professed to be a balanced ledger. In V&V, if one of my players came to me with a new character and all he had was ridiculous strength, i.e. he took Heightened Strength four times and now his Strength is 85 and he’s got ridiculous carrying capacity and hand-to-hand damage. All I have to do to make a challenging villain for him is to create another strong man with a 90 Strength. Or a 100 Intelligence. Or whatever I want to tweak and pluck until I get a villain that’s worthy of going up against Really Strong-Guy.


Later editions of this game wisely employed
the very talented Denis Loubet, who was on
par with Dee and Willingham. This here
was as good as Mark Williams ever got.
In Champions, if a character wants ridiculous Strength, players have to give up other things in order to get it. Only, the thing is, players don’t want to give up other things, and so they buy down weird stats, play stupid mathlete games, and invent weird disadvantages so that their character still adds up to 300 points, but now has all of these stupid conditions and exceptions and allergies and riders attached to everything they do. And as a GM, if you’re not as up on the minutiae of the rules as your players, they can (and will) walk all over you. The game rewards rules lawyers and loopholes, and I find that creating super heroes in Champions is so tedious that by the time I’m done, I don’t want to play anymore.

Nearly every Champions game I ever played in had at least one asshole player who made a Fuck-You Character who did one weird or disruptive thing that everyone had to deal with, or was a vigilante with multipowers so that he was also a Ninja AND a Sorcerer, and yet, it all seemed to add up correctly on their character sheet, or some other damn thing that was seriously not fun to be around. The only time I never had that problem was in my buddy Well-Done’s Strikeforce Morituri game, based on the comic book of the same name. Well-Done, perhaps recognizing that all Champions players were not created equal, simply asked the players what kind of things they wanted for character abilities and powers, and he built everyone’s character, so that they were all truly equal in strength and ability. He’d give someone who neglected to mention they wanted a defensive power some kind of natural armor, or tweak an energy blaster so that he wasn’t just a one-shot wonder. That was, unsurprisingly, the best Champions game I was ever in.

The legendary Different Worlds Super Hero
issue. Cover by Willingham. Stats for the
Byrne-Claremont X-Men for every super
 hero RPG at the time. Nerd-Heaven.
Now, the best Villains and Vigilantes game I was ever in? Easy. I was playing with a group that included Jack Herman and Jeff Dee. The game master was Bill Willingham. I’ll let those three names sink in for a second. The two creators and their pal, who wrote and drew the first V&V module, were playtesting the storyline that eventually became the Pantheon limited series (published by Lone Star Press). It was epic and weird and my fourteen-year-old inner child was extremely impressed with my twenty-something self.

We played V&V until our brains melted. In another particularly memorable game, one of my players jumped out of an airplane without a parachute. He insisted that I roll correct damage, so we grabbed a calculator and made a few computations, and then I picked up a wad of dice and rolled them, over and over again. Each clatter was added to the last, and the numbers mounted up, but once the characters’ super powers kicked in, and every rule was applied, he survived the fall. We were elated at the results. It became one of those war stories we told other players about the time Scarlet Centurion bailed out of a plane at 10,000 feet without a chute, and lived to tell the tale. That’s what V&V gave us: unlimited power. Just like a good super hero game should.


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