Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Retrospective: Villains and Vigilantes

II've never been a huge fan of superheroes. As a kid, I liked them well enough, but my interest in them paled in comparison to fantasy or (especially) science fiction. This was true even of the few comics I read in my youth (like Marvel's The Micronauts – don't judge me). Consequently, once I got into roleplaying games, I was in no hurry to seek out superhero RPGs and, in fact, didn't play one until 1982. Even then, my interest was fleeting and limited, which is why I don't think I was all that aware of the existence of any games in this genre beyond Champions

That's not entirely true. I was aware of the existence of Villains and Vigilantes, thanks to a series of interesting advertisements in the pages of Dragon. If I remember correctly, the ads features full character write-ups, complete with game stats and a portrait by Jeff Dee, whose art I knew well from D&D. Intriguing though they were, I never sought out V&V nor did I ever meet anyone else who played it. I don't believe I ever laid eyes on the game until sometime in the 1990s/

That's a shame, because Villains and Vigilantes is not only the second superhero RPG ever published (the first being Superhero 2044) but also includes a number of unique features that set it apart from other games in the same genre. Written by Jeff Dee and Jack Herman and first published by Fantasy Games Unlimited in 1979, V&V clearly owes a lot to Dungeons & Dragons. For example, V&V uses the full set of polyhedral dice, has levels, alignment (Good and Evil), and basic characteristics rated between 3 and 18. In addition, like Gamma World's mutations, super powers are determined by means of a series of random rolls rather than player choice. 

Most significantly, the basic assumption of V&V is that the characters are "duplicates of the players themselves with the addition of superpowers." The game goes on to say, "It has been our experience that playing oneself in V & V is definitely more enjoyable than creating an entirely random character." That's right: in Villains and Vigilantes, you play yourself as a superhero. How's that for a premise? Of course, reading that right after I'd noted that super powers are determined randomly no doubt makes one wonder what is meant by "an entirely random character." This is another way in which V&V differs from other superhero RPGs. Remember that basic characteristics are rated between 3 and 18? Those ratings are not randomly rolled. Instead, each player gives himself a rating based his own estimation of his abilities. Furthermore, the rules counsel the GM to "allow players the benefit of the doubt" when it comes to making these judgments, though it also notes that very high and very low scores are "extremely rare."

Though there are levels, there are no character classes. Instead, each level represents an experience point threshold – starting at 2000 and increasing roughly geometrically thereafter – that grants the player a choice of ways for his character to improve, generally in the form of bonuses to characteristics and combat skills. All characters also gain points in Charisma with level, representing growing fame and recognition. V&V doesn't include any clear means of gaining new powers or improving those one already possesses, which is generally fine by me, as it's pretty uncommon for superheroes to change significantly in that respect over time. Combat is, at base, fairly straightforward, consisting of a roll against a target number to succeed. However, that target number of determined by recourse to a chart that cross-references attack and defense powers and then modified in many ways. Ultimately, it's no harder than D&D combat, but it's got many more modifiers to consider.

Villains and Vigilantes is very much an old school RPG in that it doesn't include extensive rules for most situations, instead offering only advice and trusting the GM to demonstrate good judgment. I personally have no problem with this, but I am sure it won't be satisfying to me many people, especially those more accustomed to games like Champions. Indeed, I'd say that the biggest way that V&V differs from most other superhero RPGs is that it's not "effects based" in terms of powers, which is to say, powers are not easily customizable to taste. I think this, more than any of its other peculiarities, probably hampered the popularity of the game, especially after the release of Champions. Ironically, I see this as a plus rather than a drawback, but then I generally prefer much simpler systems for any genre.


  1. "like Marvel's The Micronauts – don't judge me"

    Who's judging? Micronauts was solid (if not tremendously original) scifi for at least the first three or four story arcs, featured Michael Golden's stunning artwork, and was really never more than "supers-adjacent" even when silliness cropped up like the Fantastic Four and Captain Universe (spawned in Micronauts and still in canon today, no less). The book's well-regarded even today, and not just by comic fans.

    That would be remarkable for a "toy commercial" comic, but Marvel's other attempts at those have seen some similar gems. Rom: Spaceknight is more typically superheroic but still credible scifi with surprising horror bits here and there, and GI Joe and Transformers both had some talented creative teams who were given free reign to do what they wanted. There were some dogs too - Shogun Warriors springs to mind - but Marvel's "toy" books were far better than they needed to be.

    1. I was going to chip in about golden's art, which was superb. No one should mock you for Micronauts when ROM is getting a reboot.

    2. Micronauts are cool. Retrospective memories post please.

    3. ROM was (mostly) good stuff, I subscribed for years. The comic outlived the extremely unsuccessful toy by a big margin, and probably earned more by several orders of magnitude.

      The Micronaut toys did a lot better that the Sapceknight, even if they did start as a US repackaging of several Japanese toys.

  2. Re: customizing powers, there are enough very broadly defined ones (eg Magic, Psionics) that the opportunity to do something unique and personalized exists - especially if you do what many GMs did and allow players to pick a single power in place of one or more random ones. Lot of folks also ignored the "play yourself" thing and rolled random stats IME, which tended to reduce arguments and personal insults. :)

    Re: Gaining powers with experience, you didn't really do that outside of "GM fiat" stuff (like, say, the old classic weird radiation exposure shuffling your abilities around) but one of the things you could do with time, practice and XP was to learn stunts for your powers. You could also invent new gadgets that acted like powers, either as quite potent one-off tricks to deal with specific situations or weaker more generalist tools along the lines of the stuff Q kept handing 007. All of it was pretty much up to the GM rather than tightly codified, but there was real growth potential beyond just gaining general combat effectiveness by levelling up.

    Really quite a decent game although it seemed to have lost the war with Champions back in the day. Certainly still has fans today regardless, and FGU still sells it (and brand new modules) in pdf and on DTRPG. There was also a drama-filled split between some of the original creators and FGU that led to Monkey House Games forming and putting out Mighty Protectors, which is essentially Jack Herman and Jeff Dee's take on V&V 3.0 - also available on DTRPG. The latter is quite a bit more polished and reasonably backwards compatible with some tweaking, while the former has more nostalgia appeal and more of that comfortable old-school vibe.

    1. I have the pictured 1982 version and didn’t even remember that you were encouraged to play yourself. No one I knew did that.

      On the other hand there was a time-travel RPG from the late eighties (whose name I don’t recall) where this was expected and which contained (ad hoc) methods for estimating players’ abilities. The most amusing was a bonus for agility/dexterity that was gained if the player could spin at one revolution a second for half a minute, stop suddenly and keep their feet planted in one place without falling over. Now picture people who signed up for a game at a convention, in the middle of the hall, whirling like dervishes; it was quite a sight for the other tables.

    2. Correction: Every edition of the Villains & Vigilantes rules are now published by Monkey House Games.

  3. We played the hell out of this back in the day. It was among those second-wave games we played after we "outgrew" D&D (like Traveler, Runequest, Stormbringer, Call of Cthulhu, etc.)

    The edition of V&V that you're showing did allow for player choice of superpowers, without any fiddly point system.

    It also had rules for inventions, which was the way to get new superpowers; which does happen in the comics, albeit infrequently: Batman's ever-extending arsenal of gear and vehicles, the Invisible Girl suddenly gaining Force Field powers after a while, etc.

    Open-ended powers like Mutant Power or Body Power allowed for player customization/creation of superpowers.

    And of course it's filled with amazing art by Jeff Dee. Later, Bill Willingham wrote and illustrated two terrific adventure modules.

    Finally, it was open-ended enough that you could use it to run any sub-genre of comic heroes (pulp heroes like The Shadow, golden and silver age superheroes, Kaiju vs giant robots, post-modern stuff like The Watchmen and Miller's Dark Knight) in any time or place (outer space, other dimensions, WWII, etc).

    It was a great, rules-light game that really captured the spirit, fun and potential of the genre.

  4. Hell, I still run an occasional session of V&V from a campaign that stretches back some 30 years or so. I enjoy it because it's light-hearted and easy to run as a GM. (A nice flavor change from my usual Oriental Adventures D&D campaign, which is a bit more fussy with the details.) I will say that combat, by far, is the most regulated facet of the V&V system and takes quite a while to play out. We've had combats that last two or three sessions, believe it or not. Overall, though, I find I don't mind that aspect in regards to a superhero game—it's the meat & potatoes of the genre after all.

  5. The BEST things about V&V were

    The artwork, which far eclipsed the other Supers games up until at least MSH from TSR came out. And I still think Jeff Dee did far better Supers work. Superworld (the standalone) was also good.


    The Adventures.

    As a rule-set I never could get on the same page. IIRC I had the revised version as pictured. IDK how I would feel about it now. Maybe I'll pick it up at some point for S&Gs.

  6. This is a lovely homage to game near and dear to my heart, especially given the fact that it wasn't one you played. That isn't a joke or a criticism. I really mean it.

    For me, Superheroes were the reason I tried Dungeons and Dragons. I was told it was a game where you made a hero and fought evil, like in a comic book. I was sold.

    I'd been reading comics and creating my own Superheroes before I'd ever heard of RPGs. Even after I got into the gaming hobby there were maybe a dozen people I knew who played. EVERYONE I knew read comics.

    Since I was never into the type of Fantasy D&D and other such games depicted, it wasn't long after I tried Villains and Vigilantes - as well as FASAs Star Trek, FGUs Space Opera, Mayfair's DC Heroes and TSRs Star Frontiers - that I left D&D and it's kin behind.

    My love of Supers continues to this day though my preference is for Champions.

  7. I've played a ton of different supers systems...V&V was NOT one of my favorites. Mutants & Masterminds 2E is still probably the best one in my mind: you can make basically any comic book hero as long as you have enough points. detailed without being too fiddly, cinematic without being structureless.

  8. Micronauts rule - esp. Michael Golden's art.

    V&V ruled - esp. with Jeff Dee's art.

    One advantage of the random generation is that we could generate a whole team of supervillains in an hour.

    What the Wise GM would do is give them a few levels and then fix/adjust the scores to fill in weak spots. They could even have Invented some helpful item.

    I did several house rules fixes that sped-up gameplay.

    We used that rulebook for 30 years, with a handful of tweaks.

    Loved it.