Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Villains & Vigilantes - Ancient Evil

***This review of an RPG adventure is for GMs’ eyes only***

With Villains & Vigilantes’s resurgence, seems like a lot of the old talent’s getting back into things. This combination of comic books and Lovecraft comes to us from Stephen Dedman, author of the ‘eh’ Pre-Emptive Strike and its more imaginative semi-sequel The Great Iridium Con (get this! People at a comic convention dressed like superheroes who actually ARE superheroes! Sure, Assassin did that first, but breezed right over it).

Now, having the players take on some absurdly powerful evildoer capable of decimating the entire campaign world if not stopped is a fun thing to do. If handled carefully. The problem I’ve found with a lot of these “monstrous horror from beyond” storylines, however, is that you just look at most of them and think “Lovecraft” right away. And his style really doesn't jibe that well with the superhero genre, where the main characters of beings of awesome power themselves who, rather than doing something small to contain some of the damage wrought by monstrous sanity-blasting evil, do take on and prevail against the most intimidating of menaces.

Sadly, I didn’t think Ancient Evil had a lot in the way of pretty clever ideas in the body of its main plot. Profundis is really nothing special as ancient, all-powerful monstrosities go. Plus, that’s not exactly a name that inspires terror in the hearts of men. From a statistical standpoint he’s scary, sure, but he just looks like a big purple lump with a big lavender eye. Not very scary or memorable for an aesthetics standpoint. And honestly, Lovecraftian terrors work best in games like, well, Call of Cthulhu, where getting into straight-up fights with supernatural enemies is a pretty bad idea, and stopping the ritual or finding the magic spell that banishes the eldritch horror is more in the style of how problems are resolved. In superhero games, the players are loaded up with beyond-human abilities themselves and blasting the hell out of a problem is an option more often than not, even if it's not always the best solution. As a result confronting danger head-on is often the order of the day, and horror elements doesn't work as well and the impulse to find a less direct solution may only work after a harsh beating or two.

I also wasn’t too crazy about the source of the only weapon that can destroy him, the Spear of Daedalus, since Greek mythology’s an even lazier source of inspiration than Lovecraft. If done well, mythological touches can be a lot of fun, but it seems like a lot of authors are quick to turn to the days of Zeus when they need a source of gods, monsters and mayhem (think about it like this: the Ninja Turtles were named after Renaissance painters. What were the Cheetahmen named after?). It’s more significant because should the players fail to recognize the spear’s use and let the villains destroy it, they have to actually go back in time and get Daedalus to make a new one. That part was done fairly well, though, as it mentions that Daedalus’s neighbors are scared of him (after all, the guy did scald the dreaded King Minos to death when he wouldn’t leave Daedalus alone), and that it gives a brief outline on other adventures they could go on while back in time. What heroes and monsters are around during that time, and what major quests have and haven’t happened yet.

I just wish the meat of the adventure was as interesting. A lot of the villains have no backgrounds. They’re just demonic androids in wetsuits created directly by the eldritch horror the heroes have to defeat. One’s a crazed fire-and-brimstone preacher, which might not be so bad, but he reminded me a little too much of Cardinal Rule from For the Greater Good for me to be really impressed with the character concept. I suppose that isn’t an archetype with a lot of wiggle room, though. And maybe I’m being unfair, but it feels like the other villains hired rat-controlling superthug Gutter more because he fits in with the motif of death/decay than anything else.

The adventure doesn’t really go anywhere interesting either, unless your players need to get the spear replaced, since the only other locations in it are an isolated town and the villains’ spaceship. Ancient Evil isn’t a bad adventure. I don’t wish to imply that, but there were only a couple things that made me sit up and take notice, among them the author providing a GIANT scientist (the agency that enlists the PC’s in his other adventures) as a scientific advisor if the players don’t have one. I don’t know, I just like it when I see the authors of these adventures creating a little world, instead of just cranking out a product for the bucks.

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