|Villains & Vigilantes (Revised Edition)|
|Superhero Role Play
Fantasy Games Unlimited, 1982
Supporting items in the collection
Materials donated by Brian Rogers.
The first successful superhero RPG was Villains & Vigilantes, published in 1979. We have the 2nd, or revised edition, described as streamlined and expanded from initial version. Even this revised edition was a game from the early days of the hobby, but it had some interesting ideas, and was much better suited to exploring the world of the comic books than its predecessor, Superhero 2044.
Character creation in V&V was typical, with five traits on a 3 - 18 point scale. But there were two unusual twists for a superhero game. First, the characters were based on the players themselves, modified with superpowers. Second, superpowers were determined randomly.
To begin the process, the Gamemaster evaluated the players on the familiar 3 - 18 scale, assigning traits as she saw fit. (The rules provided little guidance, other than a score of ten being average.) The five traits were Strength, Endurance, Agility, Intelligence, and Charisma. Where circumstances did not permit using the player as the base for a character (such as for NPCs or for a setting where the players would not logically exist) these traits could be generated randomly with 3d6.
Characters generated 1d6 + 2 superpowers, selected randomly off five different tables: Powers, Devices, Magic/Psionic Items, Skills, and Magic/Psionics. Once all powers were determined, the player gave their character a weakness by rolling on another table. Players then discarded one of their rolled powers.
Once the basics were set, a few additional characteristics were calculated. Hit points were based on the character's weight (weight in pounds divided by fifty). Hit points were further modified by the character's Strength, Endurance, Intelligence, and Agility, remembering that these may have been modified from their initial value by superpowers. Other derived abilities were healing rate (calculated from Endurance), chance to detect hidden objects or detect danger (calculated from Intelligence), carrying capacity (calculated from Strength, Endurance, and weight), movement rate (based on Strength, Endurance, and Agility), and Power (the sum of Strength, Endurance, Intelligence, and Agility).
Character generation gave players few choices. But from this point on, the designers urged GMs to be flexible, including making extensive modifications to character powers to support the player's vision of the character. Dee and Herman reminded GMs that a character with few powers might need some boosting to make them playable next to another character who started with many powers.
The power list was diverse enough, with nearly seventy powers listed (not counting subtypes), and their descriptions took up nearly twenty percent of the rulebook. This combined with the recommendations that GMs be flexible gave the game plenty of room for the characters to find their own niches.
V&V used a simple level system. Experience was earned by defeating villains, by donating money to charity, or as a reward for especially clever play. When they went up a level, characters would boost a characteristic or ability score, such as trading off a point of Strength or Endurance to gain a point of weight or vice versa, or gain a bonus of plus one to hit or damage. Characters also adjusted their to hit roll in combat based on their experience level and that of their foe.
A parallel experience system was used for the character's reputation, measured by their Charisma score. Referees could award Charisma points for especially heroic deeds. Each Charisma point gave an opportunity to raise Charisma by one, but the player had to roll higher than their current Charisma score for the point to take effect; otherwise, it was discarded. Referees could also punish with negative Charisma points, which required a roll less than the character's Charisma to take effect.
The Game System
V&V used a d20 system, where players tried to roll a target number or less. A roll of one was a guaranteed success, while a twenty was an automatic failure. Use of superpowers generally cost points, which were expended from the character's Power score.
The combat system was fairly basic, with several interesting twists. Initiative was determined by the roll of a d10 plus the character's Agility, with each character acting on the phase of their initiative score, counting down from the highest score to the lowest. Characters could act again every fifteen phases after their last action, until the phase number reached one, at which point the turn was over and initiative would be determined again. The first action each turn was free; subsequent actions in the same turn cost two Power points.
For an attack, the referee cross-indexed the attack type against the defense type on a table to obtain a target number, which the attacker would need to roll less than on a d20. This base target number was modified by cross-indexing the attacker's level against the defender's on another table. The target number might be further modified by attacking from a distance, or by attacking the target from the side or rear. A missed attack might strike a random nearby target. (We assume this referred to ranged attacks rather than punches.)
The damage done by a successful attack was based on the character's carrying capacity score (found on a table). Missile weapons did damage based on the weapon type alone, while melee weapons added to the damage from the punch.
For each point of damage taken, the defender would be knocked back a scale inch (five feet), reduced by the character's starting hit point value (itself based on the character's weight), so that more massive characters would be resistant to knock back.
Players could attack multiple targets in the same phase (assuming the targets were visible and relatively immobile), using a separate attack roll and spending two Power points for each. However, if any of those attacks missed, they all missed. Referees were cautioned to limit these attacks for powerful characters. Players might also use a special attack, such as targeting a specific part of the body. This required two successful attack rolls for one attack. Some powers required "carrier attacks," where a superpower (such as a poisonous touch) required two hit rolls in the same phase. The first attack did normal punching damage, while the second had to succeed to deliver the extra effect.
Damage was taken from hit points and power points. Hit points represented physical damage, so when a character was down to zero, the figure was "beaten to a pulp" and incapacitated. Power points represented fatigue, so when these were down to zero, the character was fatigued and suffered various effects, such as reduced saving throws, reduced movement, and administering less damage in their own attacks. Defenders might choose to "roll with the punch" to take some damage to their Power points instead of their hit points: they had to be aware of the attack, and no more than ten percent of their current Power point total could be taken this way; the rest of the damage went to hit points. It was generally a good idea to roll with the punch, as the hit point pool was usually much smaller than the power point pool, hit points took longer to recover, and each point of hit point damage meant a cumulative one percent chance of being knocked unconscious.
Should both hit points and Power be depleted to zero, the character was all but dead, and any further damage was taken from figure's physical structure and mass, which was only one point for a normal flesh and blood person. (Robots and the like might have more.) When this was reduced to zero, the character was "damaged beyond repair," and dead beyond recovery...at least as much as happens in the comics.
Unconscious characters may try to wake up by rolling under their Endurance score on percentile dice once per round. Hit points were recovered on a nightly basis after sleeping, the amount recovered being based on the character's Endurance, while Power recovered at a rate of a point per minute.
Death was explicitly a matter of referee fiat. The rules stated flat-out that well-played characters should be protected from dying as a result of bad luck, and that a character in a sure death situation (such as being thrown into deep space without protective gear) was dead, regardless of the game mechanics. Further, as a superhero game, death might not be permanent: with proper handwaving, anybody might come back.
The Rest of the Operation
The book provided enough information to start a campaign without too much work. There's basic advice on creating one's campaign, which need not be in the modern day, some advice on creating good and evil organizations for the heroes to interact with, and two very roughly sketched organizations as examples: CHESS for the good guys and Intercrime for the baddies. There were tables for generating non-player characters, including national origin and backgrounds. There was a table for creating random crises, and some rudimentary rules for creating superscience inventions. These revolved around a pool of Inventing Points, one's Intelligence divided by ten. These points represented brilliant ideas, and the pool was non-replenishing. Characters generally spent one point per invention, subject to referee fiat. This gave a reasonable structure for limiting how many superscience inventions players might create.
There were several pages on the law, a surprising detail. Dee and Herman understood that the government represented a potent influence on the setting, and paid attention to how a government might feel about costumed vigilantes apprehending superpowered villains. There were pages on the various crimes a villain might be charged with (according to the Legal Code of the State of New York, where publisher FGU was based), and some simple rules on trials, legal punishments, and super prisons. (Since this information had already been presented in a sister product from FGU, Gangster, V&V could easily take advantage of pre-existing research, something other superhero games probably didn't want to bother with.) Note that V&V was very stern about obeying the law: heroes were not allowed to keep the supervillians' equipment as trophies or for personal use, as this would be stealing!
The rules closed with an appendix section which included surprisingly detailed rules on falling, the structural strength of various substances, and a very short bestiary and vehicle list.
V&V covered all the necessary bases to play a game of superheroes. The rules supported a clear sense of good heroes and evil villains, and while it was possible to play somebody who was in the twilight in between, it was obvious where the designers' sympathies lay. The designers truly wanted players to feel superheroic: they devoted a page to the odd notion that you should actually live your character: a player's day to day choices in reality were incorporated into their superheroic self and vice versa. But above all, the authors told players to have fun, reminding players to avoid being straight-jacketed by the rules and to remember that the game was designed to simulate the comics, not reality. They also repeatedly suggested the players read more comics for inspiration.
The game was well-supported and attracted a devoted fan base. The simple mechanics and short rule book made it an easy entry game. But by the 1980s, Champions overtook it as the default system for superheroics. Champions and V&V occupied slightly different niches: where Champions was strongly focused on combat, with powers carefully balanced against each other, V&V was about living the superheroic life.
V&V still stands alone in our experience in encouraging players to consider themselves as superheroes. A sequel game has been developed, using the same setting and characters, but a different rules set, called Living Legends. (The homepage is http://www.io.com/unigames/ll.html.) But V&V is not dead: a new version will be released in 2011 (see http://monkeyhousegames.com/), and there's an active web presence—the Official Villains & Vigilantes website can be found at http://www.io.com/unigames/vandv.html. For those who want an inexpensive superheroes game with plenty of published adventures, a long line of developed characters, and simple, but functional rules, V&V is still a viable option.
A Note from the Curator
I have always been aware of this game from the old advertisements in Dragon Magazine, and although I am a fan of superheroics, I've never been enough of a fan to pull my fellow players into this side of the hobby. My single experience with V&V was too short to learn anything about the game. Reading the rules today, I enjoy seeing the contrast between this game and the others in the superhero wing of the museum. V&V's design choices make sense, and it's fascinating to get a look at this venerable side of the hobby.