Let me begin in a fashion similar to Dickens at the start of A Christmas Carol: I have been a role-playing gamer for very nearly as long as there have been role-playing games. This must be expressly understood, otherwise nothing wondrous can come of the story I’m about to relate.

I’m serious. My first role-playing game (RPG) was the original Dungeons and Dragons, the one which was three little booklets in a fake woodgrain box, the one for which you also needed the Chainmail minis rules to get the combat tables, the one which I still own and which often sells for over $1,000 today. I purchased my copy (with my mother’s blessing against my father’s disapproval) for $10 in February, 1976 from the toy store at the local mall; the game had been in print less than a year and a half at that time. (And it’s why I sometimes laugh at the assertions made by twenty-somethings that they’re “D&D old-timers”; I started playing D&D more than a decade before most of them were born). That price tag was the source of my dad’s gripe; $10 for three booklets in a box was considered highway robbery at the time.

Original D&D wasn’t the game that knocked the collective gaming world on its butt; that would be 1st Edition Advanced D&D (AD&D) which came out a couple of years later. By that time I was a founding member of the local wargaming club, a group which switched its primary focus to RPGs during the original D&D period. We ended up playing all of the “new hotness” RPGs as they were released, including Traveller (by GDW, the first real space-opera inspired sci-fi RPG), as well as RPGs of other genres. (As a side note, we didn’t play Bunnies and Burrows, though I did buy a copy just to read the rules. That’s still a major failing of mine; I sometimes still purchase RPGs which never get played, just so I can read the rules mechanics and see all the extra “chrome”).

I honestly don’t remember how I acquired my copy of Villains & Vigilantes 1st Edition. I have a pretty good memory for where I purchased most of my collection of over 1,000 games, though, so the fact that I can’t remember this one seems to indicate that I probably “sent off” for it. V&V was originally published by Fantasy Games Unlimited, and almost all of my substantial collection of FGU’s pre-1982 releases were purchased via mail order. Villains & Vigilantes was released in 1979, but I don’t remember exactly when I bought my copy. I distinctly remember buying a different comic book RPG (Superhero 2044 which, by the way, is awful) on a Baltimore visit in June 1979 and playing it over the holidays of that same year, so I likely didn’t snag V&V until sometime in 1980.

V&V simply blew me away. Heavily influenced by D&D, Villains & Vigilantes was experience point/level-based great gobs of fun. I immediately fell deeply head-over-heels in love with it and launched my own solo campaign (yes, Virginia, it’s totally possible to play richly detailed , finely textured, and subtly nuanced RPGs solitaire, but that’s a can of worms to be cracked open in this blog at another time). Shortly thereafter I bought a copy of Dungeoneer Magazine which contained additional rules for V&V (including how to “crossover” between V&V and D&D) and that effectively doubled my fun.

But for some oddball reason I couldn’t get my game club interested in V&V. We played it once, everybody just sort of “meh”‘d at the idea of playing a RPG which wasn’t based on heroic fantasy or sci-fi space opera, and I just shrugged and went back to my solo play. I didn’t play V&V solo a lot, you understand — I loved it too much, and I didn’t want to get tired of it. So I’d break it out every now and then, play for a week or so, then shelve it for a while so as to not be sick of it.

In 1982, everything changed. Most of our gaming group went to Origins ’82, an event at which my lovely new bride graciously allowed me to purchase a large stack of brand-new games — Call of Cthulhu (1st Edition) and G.I. Anvil of Victory, among them — but the “new hotness” that year was, you guessed it, superhero RPGs. I came home with a passel of them, but the one I couldn’t wait to try out was the brand new second edition of V&V.

By this time I was unofficially the semi-permanent gamemaster (GM) of our game club. You never ever try to run a new RPG for other players without first trying the rules out solo, so I made a few characters for a trial run.

In order to get your head around V&V, you need to understand something about RPGs. In most role-playing games, you’re playing the role (hence the “R” in “RPG”) of a fictional character in some fictional universe. You’re like an actor playing a part — you’re acting out the role of Blarrrgh, barbarian swordsman of the Kingdom of Gleebe, on the world of Urpth. Or you’re Captain Heck Rigel, piloting a star cruiser and ray-blasting your way through adventures in the third quadrant of the Andromeda galaxy. In most RPGs, you’re somebody else — that’s the whole point. You ditch the problems of everyday life to take on a whole different (and hopefully more action-packed and fun) set of problems. It’s better than a movie or TV show, because you’re not just watching it, you’re doing it.

But V&V doesn’t work quite the same way. By playing a game you’re still more proactively involved than you’d be with movies or TV, but you’re not taking on the role of another person. You’re playing yourself, but with a difference — in V&V, you have superpowers (or metahuman abilities, if you want to get all PC about it). You’re not playing the role of Bill Dawson, mild-mannered plumber who, in times of need, ducks into a water closet to become Pipewrench, defender of justice. You’re you — your same name, your same face, your same house, car, job, family, and problems, only now you’re something more.

In most RPGs you chuck dice to randomly generate your character’s inate traits and abilities, like strength, IQ, dexterity, etc. But in V&V you work with the GM to numerically quantify these abilities so that they mirror your own (another big ol’ can’o’worms, but we’ll skip that now). After you do that, you then use the dice to randomly generate your superpowers.

I can not even begin to express how profoundly cool this is; through this simple tweak, you’re invested in a game of V&V in a way that you never are as a player of more mundane RPGs. You’re not just playing a part — you’re playing you, just with some extra skills that you don’t have in everyday life.

So when I “made a few characters” for my “test run” of V&V, one of them wasn’t just any old character; it was me. Twenty-two years old, a radio announcer/emcee/standup comedian by trade, who undergoes a transformative life-changing experience, and then begins to lead a triple life: Steve Lopez (my real name) who is basically just a regular guy when it’s all said and done, Steve Morgan (my air/professional name) the public performer, and Deep Freeze (my superhero name) the crime fighter. My “double life” (which was already pretty interesting at that time, as you’ve doubtless gathered) got even more interesting when superpowers were layered on.

I’ll come back to that whole “triple life” thing in a later post. For right now I’ll just say that 2nd Edition V&V was without a doubt the coolest game I’d ever played. Although some of my favorite bits of the first edition had been excised, Jeff Dee and Jack Herman more than made up for it with the introduction of real-world physics (knockbacks from big hits and breaking things), more “chrome”, and a far more “comic-y” feel to the overall game.

I’d already been in love with V&V’s first edition when I w first bought it in 1980. The second edition in 1982 cemented the relationship, and it’s lasted to this day. That thirty year love affair will be a major topic of this blog.

More to come…

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2010, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.