Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Fiddly Old School Games

One thing I HAVE heard about FGU games is that their particular fiddlyness out-fiddles all other Old School games of the fiddly variety. Aftermath in particular has this reputation, but I will say here and now that I am NOT a-feared of the fiddly.

And it’s a good thing as Villains & Vigilantes is EXTREMELY fiddly.

In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game as specifically, mechanically crunchy and yet so friggin’ Old School Open-Ended as V&V. Truly a “what the hell” effort to read the rules.

First off: who says you need 64 pages to write an RPG? Did I say 64 was some kind of magic number? The Star Frontiers advanced rules contains only 60 pages, though it does have 4 additional insert pages of tables and such.

Villains & Vigilantes? It has 48 pages.

'Wow, that’s not a whole lot,' one might say. And 'damn straight' would be my reply. The game gives you just about the most basic chassis for superhero role-playing I’ve ever seen…while at the same time, it strives for a type of hyper-crunchy realism that is so different from the abstract color ranks of Marvel as to be the opposite end of the spectrum. It reminds me of DC Heroes except less elegant (which is REALLY saying something!). I have never seen a game that makes use of so many fractional numbers, pure and simple. Rounding? Yeah, there’s rounding…AFTER you worry about the tenths of a point from all the various stats [one-tenth your Strength CUBED + one-tenth your Endurance divided by one-half the character’s weight (in pounds) equals the character’s carrying capacity which in turn determines hand-to-hand combat damage and throwing ability…*whew!*].

And yet, UNLIKE the extremely specific and limited scope of powers in other Superhero games, V&V is about as Old School off-the-cuff and House Rule A-Rama as you can get. It’s f’ing schizophrenic is what it is. Powers are rolled randomly, then you read the power description and make shit up! Here are some examples:

Special Weapon: The character possesses some sort of unique weapon and may work with the GM to create its specific abilities. There are no limitations on what the weapon might do except those set by the GM. Range, attack type, damage, and/or other effects, number of uses per recharge, etc. must all be delineated. The weapon needn't necessarily look like a weapon, nor is it limited to entirely offensive capabilities.

Bionics: These are mechanical replacement or supplemental body parts. A character with this power may choose one to six (roll 1d6) parts to add or replace, and works with the GM to assign abilities to each of these...
[I love the ADD or replace clause!]

Magical Spells: The power to work magic, and to create new and unique magical forces. THe character starts with one beginning spell of his own design (the GM should work with the character to create a useful and reasonable power). From then on he may create new spells according to the Inventing procedure (see section 6.3). The effects, power costs, etc. of the each new spell must be outlined by the character, and the GM may modify its parameters or refuse to allow it if the character is asking too much. Each spell should be nearly as powerful as a regular super power.
[two interesting things: that the GM works with the CHARACTER rather than the player, and that these invented spells are "nearly as powerful as a regular super power" when the invention process normally creates effects "one-third to one-quarter as powerful"]

Mutant Power: The character possesses some sort of new, unique ability. The GM and character must work together to create this new ability, setting its range, duration, PR, action/movement cost, etc. This can be anything (within the limits set by the individual GM), so use your imagination
. [that's just plain ballsy to have on a random roll table]

Friggin' nutty. It puts a lot of power (and responsibility) in the Game Master’s hands, that’s for sure. In true OS fashion there’s nothing that balances powers against each other EXCEPT what balance is given by the GM, as extolled in the rules themselves:

From section 7.3 GAME BALANCE

...Whether you play the rules 'as-is' or not, it is important to maintain play balance. Take care that the game does not become either too hostile or too friendly to the players. The GM is responsible for the enjoyment of the players. Anything which makes the game less enjoyable should be avoided. A game where players breeze through events with no chance of failure can be as boring as one where they face odds against which they never triumph. Game Balance is the science of keeping things somewhere between these two extremes, for each individual as well as for the group in general. Player enjoyment is far more important that any individual rule in this book...

[!!! That's a LOT to put on the poor GM!]

Let’s talk about game balance for a moment. It’s a funny thing of course, but of especial importance to superhero RPGs. Why? Because you’re seeking to emulate a comic book genre...and comics, despite being visual in nature, are a literary art form. They tell stories through their pages. And sometimes, those stories necessitate some unrealistic match-ups.

Could Batman really go toe-to-toe with Superman? Should they be fighting the same power level of villains? Could Squirrel Girl REALLY defeat Doctor Doom?

In a comic book? Sure. It’s just a matter of the artist drawing the happy chance circumstances that lead to the under-dog heroically triumphing.

Some superhero RPGs model this in their game system. Marvel does (with enough good Karma points and a little ingenuity Hawkeye can take down most villains that should totally clean his clock…likewise Daredevil or any other “street level" superhero). Narrative games like Capes and With Great Power do as well.

Other games, like Heroes Unlimited do NOT (and woe betide the Stage Magician that is facing down a mega-powerful Immortal like Thor). Aberrant (and probably Champions) balances characters against each other in terms of overall points (somewhat), but nothing prevents some players from optimizing characters and others from making…well, rather worthless Joe Shmoes. Superhero stories told with these RPGs are more likely to look like the Marvel Ultimates imprint than a Silver Age story (complete with heroes getting shot down in a hail of bullets or villains having their arms pulled off).

Villains & Vigilantes has the “realistic crunch” of these latter games but talks the superhero talk of the abstract comic book games. It is also very much in the Silver (possibly Bronze) Age as far as comics are concerned. Heroes can come from a variety of backgrounds…magical, alien, technological, highly trained, or a combo…and are expected to capture opponents without killing them and have them hauled off to jail.

Yes, prison. In a game world that assumes super-powered characters are running the streets, it likewise assumes that prisons have been designed to contain super-powered criminals. Of course, it’s extremely difficult to hold a super-crook indefinitely; the very nature of being super means their escape is fairly inevitable, as is explained in the Super Prisons section (nearly pages...more than 10%!...of the book is devoted to crime, punishment, trials, and jail).

V&V characters have levels and gain experience points, but XP is only gained for defeating opponents and putting ‘em in the pokey. Killing a villain nets you exactly ZERO experience. Kinda’ makes you wonder why anyone would want to play a character with claws, huh?

Character creation deserves its own, separate post (along with an EXAMPLE!), so we’ll move onto the other rules. The game is definitely of the “descended from wargames” Old School variety, complete with movement and ranges in inches, lines of sight, and the assumption folks will be using miniatures or “chits” to a scale out their battles. That’s a sign of the times as far as I’m concerned. Combat (all important in a Supers RPG) is a matter of choosing an attack versus an opponent’s chosen defense and rolling under a certain number as determined on an attack matrix. For example, a villain decides to blast me with her flame power, and I use magnetism to defend (how magnetism actually acts as a defense the rules don’t really say…maybe this is narrative driven, like “I drag a metal trashcan from the street corner and intercept the incoming fireball with it!”). My opponent needs to roll a 13 or less on a D20 (with some modifiers based on ability scores, character level, range, and training power ups). Most of these bonuses or penalties are static and the only "search & handling" is cross-referencing the offense-defense matrix and looking at your character sheet…but it’s not what I’d call “intuitive” by any stretch of the imagination.

Against non-defending opponents, there is a straight number for each attack (interestingly, all animals and inanimate objects are considered 4th level for defense purposes…for some reason, this seems perfectly reasonable to me). Some attacks also provide the defender with a “saving throw” (which completely blows…I have to make an attack to use my Mind Control power and then the guy might STILL resist? That sucks!). Otherwise, attacks generally do damage.

Characters have two separate resource pools for absorbing damage: Hit Points (duh) and Power Points. Hit points is the actual amount of damage you can take before dying, while Power is kind of fatigue/stamina/energy. It can be used to reduce damage (rolling with punches) or expended to use most powers on either offense or defense (the fire/magnetism roll). Interestingly, the more power you have, the harder you are to hit in combat if you take evasive action (you get a bonus of one-tenth your remaining Power…I guess it’s also your “hustle” ability). If both Hit Points and Power are 0 you’re dead…which can be kind of problematic due to the character creation rules (see next post).

After combat we have the section on Reaction (personality mechanics being exceptionally important…at least judging by the fact that it is the only other “system” in the game besides combat). Then we get rules for creating campaigns, including making “pedestrians” (any non-super character) and organizations. And the crime and punishment section.

The appendix has some rules regarding leaping tall buildings and throwing cars, a handy table of stats for animals (from the domestic house cat to the brontosaurus, it's all there on a half-page table, baby!), and an "equipment section" (a couple paragraphs telling you that superheroes don't need extra gear/equipment, and that your GM will have to make stuff up if you want to use it). Page 48 isn't actually much more than a big picture (unlike the cover leaf, which is blank).


For 48 (or less) pages, Villains & Vigilantes is a complete game. Well, complete as long as your GM is good at making stuff up! Actually, it IS a lot closer to my ideal Supers game...I don't think an RPG needs hundreds of pages to be fantastic and "complete" even if one wants a good selection of super powers from which to choose (or roll!). The book could probably stand to have a bit more decent lay-out...but who cares? For being published in 1982, the book is still solid enough to use, and short enough that I can find most any rules I need fairly quickly after only a couple read-throughs.

And I have got to say, I love the name. "Vigilante" may carry a bit of negative connotation in our present-day society (and vigilantism probably should) but isn't the root of vigilante "one who is vigilant?" And isn't that what superheroes should be...vigilant against the terrible crimes of the super-villain? And the game IS called "VILLAINS & Vigilantes," implying that the villains came first, forcing the heroes to don the cape and cowl and fight the good fight.

I don't's a weird little system, really. But I wouldn't mind giving it a go.

: )


  1. I really like it being 48 pages. I generally feel that RPGs with huge page counts are of more benefit to publishers than hobbyists.

    I'm not sure about the specifics you describe though... it sounds like "the game of crazy math and making stuff up". :)

  2. V & V is a crazy system, but we sure had a lot of fun playing it back in the day! We used the suggested play method and used fictional versions of ourselves who'd been gifted with (randomly generated) super-powers, which led to some never-see-a-comic sort of characters.

    The boxset also came with a tiny d6 for some reason, which I thought was cool.

  3. I ran it once as part of a nostalgia game where we ran a bunch of older systems, but I messed up the movement rates somehow. I was working with 5' squares, and people had these huge movement rates. It was a lot of fun, though, and we later commemorated the characters with homemade cordials, with names like "Flame Knight's Burnin' Berry Blast" and "The Caped Revivicator's Java Jolt".

    For those of you who find V&V too bloated at 48 pages, there's always Superhero 2044. It's 36 pages, and the first 10 are setting background, like you'd find in a Whitewolf product or something. :)

  4. I haven't looked through V&V too much but if its even fiddlier than Aftermath! it must truly be the most fiddly system ever fiddled

  5. No, it's not fiddlier than Aftermath; such is impossible.

    V&V was the 1st supers game I every played and a lot of the appeal at the time with Jeff Dee's art. I always loved the way that book credits the various heroes who are depicted inside, such as "Action Man".

    But mechanically? Yeah, a bit weird. Those "make up your own powers" were a bit difficult to manage. You didn't mention my favourite one: Body Power. The brick-villain in the book (Mammoth?) has "Body Power: 4xweight" which was so weird to me (lifting capacity was heavily influenced by your weight). In the included scenario (did that come in the box you bought), "There's A Crisis at Crusader Citadel", one of the villains has "Body Power: Acidic Blood".

    But, man, Dee's art was so right that it made the game feel better than it probably was. Manta Man was so awesome looking.

  6. V&V was and is THE BALLS! No other superhero game was close. Yes it was mathematically clunky as hell, but I loved the ads in Dragon Magazine where they showed a character sheet as part of the ad. THAT is what hooked me reading the powers and stats plus they had tons of modules and some cool source books. 48 pages of add kicking 4 color goodness. Still the best, and yet to be beaten.

  7. There are some great freebies for V&V at the FGU site. Two sets of printable color counters and five mini adventures/locations. Check it out:

  8. @ Jim: Thanks, man! I got a little side-tracked, but I'm sure I have at least a couple more posts up my sleeve about V&V.
    : )