It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's... You!
The first edition came out in the 1970s, and featured a system that was heavy on the charts and dice rolls. The second edition, released in the '80s, was a revised, cleaned-up version of the first, and helped to improve the game's acceptance among role-players. However, it was not as successful as might have been hoped, and the game quickly fell by the wayside in the '90s as higher-profile games pushed their way to the front of the line. Role-playing fans eagerly awaited a third edition for years, and under a new publisher they're finally getting just that. And no, it's not Dungeons & Dragons. It's the forgotten Villains and Vigilantes.
Villains and Vigilantes, developed by Jeff Dee and Jack Herman, was first published in 1979 by Fantasy Games Unlimited, but it was the 1982 Revised Edition which brought the game into wider acclaim. It's this version I'll discuss here, and this version which is arguably the standard against which all other super-hero games have been measured. And yet despite high regard and acclaim, V&V is definitely a forgotten game. And there are a number of reasons why that's the case.
1. Charts, Charts, Charts - As was the case with many first-generation role-playing games (defined by me as anything pre-1985, which was when the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon, among other things, helped drag RPGs into more mainstream acceptance), V&V was chock full of charts and tables; depending on what you call a chart, it could be said that the Revised Edition features more charts than pages. While this isn't necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, the charts had a tendency to bog down gameplay, since one found himself consulting the book to learn the result of every little action. Character creation was an even bigger chore, and could easily take an hour or more because of the (comparatively) complex formulas and charts involved, which brings me to...
2. Math Is Hard - V&V is full of the sort of things you have nightmares about seeing on your high school math exams. Basic hits is determined as follows: "Divide the character's bodily weight by 50lbs., round up and record the result." If you weigh from 121 to 240 pounds, you have no Agility modifier, but if you weight from 491521 to 983040 pounds, you get a -24 adjustment. If your Endurance Rating is 30, your Hit Point Modifier is 3.8 and your Healing Rate is .9. And the best one is carrying Capacity, which is determined as follows: [ (S/10)^3 + (E/10) ] x W/2 = Carrying Capacity. Is this a role-playing game or an algebra test?
3. You Have the Right to Remain Silent - An entire one-eighth of the 48 page rulebook is devoted to a detailed explanation of Government, Law, Criminal Codes and Prisons. This after the rules tell us that "Superheroes don't have to read villains their rights or follow other police procedures -- they are truly outside all restrictions." Nobody wants to get bogged down in legalese or criminal code when they're playing a game. They want to beat up bad guys and shoot laser beams from their eyes. When's the last time you saw Superman in court? Or the X-Men getting arrested for littering? Do we really need to know that Article 8 Section c, Criminal mischief in the first degree, is a class D felony?
4. My Character is a 5th Level Me - The central feature of V&V, one which separated it from other games of the time (and most games since) is that in it, you were role-playing yourself with super powers. All that garbage of people committing suicide because their character died put aside (I try real hard to forget about Tom Hanks in Mazes and Monsters), it's kinda funky when a game asks you to play yourself in situations where you can be killed, imprisoned, tortured and otherwise abused. There's a reason role-playing is as popular as it is: it allows us to escape from normal life and pretend we're someone else for a little while. And for me (and, I suspect, for many), role-playing myself with the ability to fly was never as appealing as taking on the role of a totally unique superhero, whether it was Superman or a being of one's own creation.
All that said, it's important to note that unlike some others, Fantasy Games Unlimited's Villains and Vigilantes was never really forgotten, per se. It was more properly buried under a layer of more high-profile super-hero games (from the likes of DC Comics), which were in turn buried beneath a thick slab of the sci-fi and fantasy RPGs which have always dominated the market. But for those who knew it existed, it was, and continues to be, one of the best super-hero RPGs ever developed, for a whole slew of reasons.
First of all, it broke new ground at a time when other new game systems were happily falling into line and riding the coattails of Dungeons & Dragons. There were no elves or dwarves or clerics in V&V. Not only was the superhero genre something new to the world of role-playing, but the game mechanics and overall tone were remarkably different from anything else on the market at the time. For newer role-players who are only discovering the market in an era when zillions of d20 publishers are all using the same game engine, it's hard to imagine a time when there were actually entirely unique game systems and engines competing for market space. And in an era that was quickly becoming crowded with Tolkien-esque fantasy RPGs, V&V stood out in a crowd.
Secondly, V&V made it clear that a small game publisher could achieve a certain level of success if they put out an interesting, unique product. In an era dominated by the TSR monster, FGU managed to release a game that people noticed, liked and remembered. In that sense, it's hard not to think of V&V as a sort of Atari in an era of Nintendos and Segas; the latter have gone on to greater success, but Atari is still embraced as a classic game system that helped kick off a whole new era of games. V&V deserves at least as much status.
Finally, V&V was a lot of fun. While it did tend to get bogged down in mechanics, creating a character from scratch was a lot of fun, thanks in part to a well-rounded selection of super powers that covered all bases without being cumbersome or overdone. Later superhero RPGs would devote hundreds of pages to lists of powers and skills, but V&V got it all done in just about 12 pages (roughly 1/4 the rulebook). In the very first super power listed, "Absorption," the game even goes so far as to say that "there are no set rules presented here, only guidelines." Of course, AD&D made (and continues to make) the same general assumption that rules are made to be broken, but it was necessary, I think, to know that V&V wasn't attempting to slap handcuffs on the sort of superhero you could make.
At the same time, part of the enjoyment of the game was knowing that everyone in the group was going to get along. Right up front, V&V makes it clear that all characters in the game should be Good, and that GMs should seriously question allowing Evil characters to even participate. Restrictive, perhaps, but it's certainly a lot more enjoyable to be in a group where you know everyone's going to cooperate, instead of in a group where the lawful evil Wizard and the chaotic neutral thief are planning to kill the lawful good paladin so they can then steal treasure from the neutral good cleric. Cooperation was not only encouraged, it was mandatory, and by bringing a group of players together and insisting that they work together, it made the game a lot more fun. At least for me.
I mentioned earlier that V&V is seeing new life nowadays as a third edition of sorts--Jeff Dee and Jack Herman have a new game called Living Legends which is a sort of sequel to V&V, using many of the same rules and concepts but updating it to fit in better in the modern era of RPGs. Details can be found on their website at http://www.io.com/unigames/vandv.html
Next time, TSR's ever-popular Top Secret.