Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Villains and Vigilantes - Into the Sub-Realm

First published by Fantasy Games Unlimited in 1979, Villains & Vigilantes was one of the earliest of superhero role-playing games. It utilized a strange character creation system where values like strength and intelligence were determined by the game master judging how strong or smart the person playing the character was. On top of that, to determine their character’s powers the player chose one of a list of charts (such as general Powers, Psionic/Magic, Devices, Skills, etc.) and rolled dice to see what their power was. Many players ignored this method.

In spite of its sometimes bizarre system, V&V enjoyed a fair amount of popularity during the 80’s. It even spawned a comic book limited series by the same company that initially published the comic based on that other superhero RPG. Which will probably be showing up on Spectrum of Madness itself one of these days.

Around the end of the decade V&V and the other games published by Fantasy Games Unlimited seemed to go into hibernation. For years and years you could buy their older products off their website, but no new products were forthcoming. Until a few months ago, that is, when the company finally released some brand new material for V&V, and finally dragged some others out of mothballs (judging by the artwork and the introduction that talks about the never-released Most Wanted #2 just getting finished, this one was sitting around waiting to be published since 1986).

However before we move on, I’ll be giving away details about the adventure in the course of giving my thoughts about it. So if you think you might be a player in this adventure somewhere down the road rather than running it, do your GM a favor and stop reading now.

First off, I was surprised by how there was nothing from the author to the GM about ideal levels for player-characters. That doesn’t mean as much in V&V as it does in other games, where the characters become slightly better fighters by gaining levels but their powers and stats won’t change much. On the other hand, if their levels are high the players have used them for a while and know their strengths and weaknesses well.

If the PC's were rolled up the random way, that’s something that might make all the difference here, as Into the Sub-Realm has some pretty nasty villains and deadly traps. Unless your players rolled extremely well and are really used to their characters, it’s not hard to see them losing against some of the adventure’s villains (who weren’t generated randomly), or at the very least having fights that drag on long because of the downright excessive defenses some of them have.

Especially later on in the adventure, when the heroes have actually entered the Sub-Realm and the laws of nature actively work against them (but not the villains, of course). One of the enemies the heroes have to face before their final confrontation with the mastermind strikes me as frankly insane in terms of powers, especially when you consider the drawbacks affecting the players that he doesn’t have to worry about at all. Like no jumping or flying, no using wind or earth-related powers, no throwing things, movement rates being reduced to a quarter of their usual, having to make endurance saves because the air’s so thin, etc.

One part in particular deserves special mention, although players are only likely to see if it they do very well in the opening encounters or the GM thinks it would be fun to run and does it anyway. This part involves the adventure’s prime evildoer, tiring of the players’ interference in her plans, sending a giant rock monster to attack Japan. Why Japan instead of the city they live in, I couldn’t tell you, besides the fact that it’s a giant monster and giant monsters always have to destroy Japan before moving on to the rest of the world.

This monster has a whole new power made up just to represent how it can smash a player character with one hit. Invulnerability and a lot of Hit Points don’t count for anything. If a player character fails their endurance and agility saves, that’s it, they’re dead. Even if you're a "brick." Admittedly, things are offset some in this encounter by the players being assisted by a fairly tough local hero whose powers exploit the monster’s weakness. Speaking of, your players may be grateful for his help, but frankly I’m struck numb by the laziness of creating a Japanese water-controller named Tsunami.

Plus, while the villains are kind of cool in spite of what a pain some of them can be, the adventure is pretty much just fight fight fight fight fight. Certainly anyone playing a superhero RPG expects a fair amount of combat, but my favorite adventures for this system are ones that put a little more emphasis on investigation and other facets, like For the Greater Good and Terror by Night. After that my preferences run to adventures with an interesting hook, like The Pentacle Plot and Battle Above the Earth (which come to think of it also involved some investigation). Running around in caves fighting monsters all the time feels more like the province of a dull Dungeons & Dragons session. And I have nothing against D&D. The game, I mean.

The adventure introduces some interesting game mechanics, and some characters with cool power sets. Still, if you want to run a superhero adventure with a bunch of tunnel-dwelling villains, I’d recommend Invaders From Below from Champions.


  1. Great review, starofjustice!

    I posted some comments here awhile back, and we even chatted back and forth via email (I sent you copies of the PCs I recently took through this adventure). Wondering what happened to them?

    You seem to have a fondness for V&V, which many of us think is still the best superhero RPG out there. If you get a chance, you should check out, where a number of fans still chat about the game today. In "The Citadel" portion of the website, you'll find some links to your reviews.

    Hope to see you stop by! :)

  2. Just swinging by to echo Doug's comments, and to toss out a second invite to the V&V forum. Also, are you planning on reviewing any other V&V releases?

  3. Welcome, Dominique. I've also reviewed Terror by Night, Danger in the Depths and Vigilantes International. I'm planning a review for Enemies At Large in the near future, the comic mini-series eventually (which will probably necessitate one of Crisis at Crusader Citadel), and other stuff as I get around to it.

  4. Of the older V&V releases, which books are your favorites?

  5. In no particular order, the Devil books, Alone Into the Night, Battle Above the Earth, The Pentacle Plot, For the Greater Good, Terror by Night, Dawn of DNA, The Great Iridium Con, and whatever it says about me, Opponents Unlimited.