After my solo test run of Villains & Vigilantes in 1982, two things happened next. First, I liked my characters so much that I decided to keep them and continue my solo campaign. Those characters exist to this day and form the “core backstory” to the present V&V campaign which I run for my sons.

The second result was that I felt ready to run a game of V&V for the guys at our local game club. This became a real learning experience for me and a true baptism of fire as a RPG gamemaster (GM). I’d run a few RPGs before, but never anything like this…

I don’t quite remember how it happened, but word somehow got around that we were about to run a comic-based RPG; apparently, a couple of the younger members were talking about it to friends at school and it became a “Cool! Can I come to your club?” thing. The next thing you know we had a pile of new (almost exclusively teenaged) club members for a grand total of just over a dozen players. This leads us directly to Rule #1 for running a superhero RPG: Never try to run a game for more than four players at a time.

It’s like a gypsy curse. If you’re running a game for a single player, it’s a sure-fire guarantee that he’ll roll up the fewest/worst/weakest powers imaginable: something like Plant Control coupled with Enhanced Charisma — making him/her the most charming florist in town who’s also able to give you a poison sumac rash or a bad case of hay fever. But if you run a campaign for five or more players, every danged one of them will end up with Flight and Power Blast, plus the ability to control a mega-powerful energy construct, plus have a sidekick/pet, plus a “multi-power” (like V&V’s “Animal powers”, which grants an additional 2-6 powers as a subset of the main power). Each character will be able to kick Superman’s ass and never break a sweat — and with pets/sidekicks thrown in, you’ll wind up with eight of ’em.

We had a group of over a dozen players; what do you think happened? Yep, you guessed it — one guy rolled the ability to make and control a massively powerful energy creature (like the one from Forbidden Planet), a couple of other players got pets or sidekicks, and at least two got “Animal Powers” (one of whom rolled eight powers to begin with, rolled a six for his extra animal powers, and opted not to lose his Weakness, so he wound up with a dozen powers). The end result wasn’t anything like the Justice League, the Avengers, etc.; it was a metahuman army (more like a “mob”, really). Now picture what it was like trying to come up with a challenging scenario for them each session. It was essentially “The Galactus of the Week” Club. That’s why you never try to run a superhero RPG for more than four players — any more than four and the team essentially becomes unbeatable.

After everyone rolled up their characters (which took one entire play session — and we picked up a couple more players the following week by “word of mouth”, who then ate up another half-hour of Week Two to get them set up with characters. After this we had to completely close the club to new members), it was time for everyone to name their characters and devise origins for them. This leads us to two more Rules of Superhero Role Playing Gaming:

Rule #2 — Anybody who says their character was bitten by a radioactive [fill in the blank] needs to be kicked someplace private and painful.

Rule #3 — If you don’t allow players to name themselves after their favorite comic character, they’ll just end-run you anyway.

You’ll recall that this was in late summer 1982. For those unfamiliar with comic history, this was the time when Marvel’s Wolverine was just breaking big. The end result was that we had a room full of heroes who had been bitten by an amazing assortment of radioactive mammals, and they all ended up bearing names of ferocious rodent-like creatures such as “Badger”, “Ferret”, “Mongoose”, “The Deranged Weasel”, “Really Pissed-Off Rabid Chipmunk with Herpes”, and on and on and on.

This excludes one player (one old enough to know better) who insisted that his character be named Phoenix, “I don’t care if the name’s already taken, if you don’t let me have this name I’m gonna be really pissed, blah blah blah,” and then did everything in his power to completely derail this campaign anyway (as well as several othergames I subsequently GM’d) in a fit of pique because the games I ran were becoming more popular than the ones he gamemastered. (It became a pattern with this guy, whose GMing skills didn’t go much farther than creating standard dungeon crawls packed full of very standard groaners such as the dungeon’s music room complete with Orc-estra, or the town whose cleric was an Elven bishop — you know, “nerd humor”. So in my games he’d just sulk anytime there wasn’t a battle going on: “Wake me up when the action starts”, etc.)

Bear in mind that every single player in this game, save two, was a teenager, and we’ve already discussed one “adult” who was acting very like a sulky teen. And every player had pretty much already decided not to play by standard comic book conventions — Wolverine was da man, and by God they were all going to act just like him. This meant that costumed villains would end up dead, dead, dead, and jaywalkers and litterbugs would (at a minimum) wind up in a body cast or permanently disfigured. Looking back, I can see why Alan Moore’s and Frank Miller’s mid-80’s work were essentially inevitable — even though mainstream publishers hadn’t yet moved heavily in the direction of “dark” comics, characters like Wolverine and (later) the Punisher scrawled the handwriting on the wall — in big, blood-soaked letters.

While I’m thinking about it, I’ll pitch you another rule (which tends to apply to RPGing as a whole) out there for your consideration:

Rule #4 — The player with the most powerful character will invariably be the biggest whiner in the group.

It never fails — never. In nearly thirty-five years of gaming, I’ve come to view this as a given. In our V&V game, a nasal-voiced teen named Darrell ended up with that 12-power character I mentioned. He named himself Invinno, ended up with a high enough Agility score that he’d get at least two actions a turn before anyone else could do anything except watch, and on the rare occasions that he got knocked on his butt he invariably complained that it “wasn’t fair”. Did I say “complained”? Whined, screeched, b—-ed, bawled, howled, cried, and generally made a major pain in the patoot of himself. Some months later he was ejected from the club when he became a paladin in an AD&D game, and every time a call went against him he’d hold up play so that he could try to find a loophole in the rulebooks — three long hardcover rulebooks. He (and his equally annoying buddy) got the boot, and the other club members wondered aloud why I’d not done it months earlier.

The V&V campaign’s superhero team had seventeen members (counting NPC energy constructs, sidekicks, pets, etc.) and it would take at least thirty minutes to make one circuit of the table before everyone got a turn. Sometimes the first three players ended up knocking out a five villain squad before the other players even had a chance to do anything. And, since V&V is a level-based game, this leads us to another rule:

Rule #5 — Most teenaged players don’t care two spits and half a fart about “plot”, “characterization”, or even playing the damned game. Their only concern is “leveling up”.

After several weeks of creating games with interwoven plots and subtexts, games in which clue-finding was more important than just bashing heads and throwing buses at villains, games in which one of the adult players actually led the “This is boring — when is there gonna be a fight?” ex-dungeoncrawler whining, I gave up. I started creating trite formulaic plots like bank holdups by weak Level One or Level Two villains, let the team beat them in a couple of turns to split the whopping 125 experience points seventeen ways, and then chuckled to myself when they’d say “That’s it??” after less than an hour of play. I was hoping that the seven or so “idiot players” would quit showing up and the better players would stay. No such luck — they stuck like glue.

With a heavy heart I ultimately stopped running V&V in favor of Call of Cthulhu. There’s a game guaranteed to sail right over the heads of most of these dumb kids; half the membership exited overnight. We still had a few too many players for effective non-dungeoncrawl gaming, but the group did become a bit easier to manage (especially given CoC’s now legendary player character mortality rate).

I learned a heap of lessons from that early V&V campaign, the biggest of which was “Don’t let your players push you around”. If a player can’t act within the tenets of the genre (instead insisting that they can build a 150mm howitzer from sulphur, charcoal, and a really big hollow tree in a D&D game), ditch him. If the whole group acts that way, switch genres or find a better group.

Some of us from that club continued to play V&V as a “skirmish” game; this was well before the days of board/minis games like Heroclix or RPGs like the mid-80’s Marvel and DC games (which were arguably better played as skirmish games anyway instead of as a basis for ongoing campaigns). We’d break out V&V, roll up some heroes and villains, and have a good old-fashioned slugfest.

About three years later my same club had “thinned the herd” down to myself and four other regular members, and started a really cool V&V campaign. Unfortunately, it was short-lived; I was just starting a career as a professional musician and it wasn’t possible for me to make it to a Sunday afternoon game club anymore — I wasn’t waking up until 2 PM on Sundays (and I didn’t finish throwing up until at least 3), so my game club attendance could best be described as “spotty” after mid-1985.

In 1982, playing Villains & Vigilantes with a group of teenagers wasn’t working out very well, due in part to the sheer size of the group as well as the overall dismal maturity level of the players. But my solo campaign went great guns; even though it eventually petered out in the mid-1980’s, it formed an excellent backstory to the campaign I’m running today. More about that later on…

Have fun! — Steve

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