Thursday, October 13, 2016

Villains & Vigilantes - World War II Super Soldiers (Real Review)

World War II seems like an awfully ripe topic for adaptation with Villains & Vigilantes lately. This, the second in a series of such material from Darren Tenor after the “Homefront” collection of mini-adventures, promises four more in the foreword alone, with the author noting it’s something of a personal mission to make a cohesive wartime setting for the game. Hell, Monkey House might not be aiming for the same number of releases, but they promise to match volume with one of the rewards of their recent Kickstarter campaign being a WWII sourcebook running three hundred or more pages (I’ll let you know when and if I get it).

Anyway, while I admit “Homefront” didn’t do a lot to fire my imagination, “World War II Super Soldiers” is a different can of worms.

First thing’s first, which is that the cover artist and the author apparently didn’t coordinate, so the supers depicted on the cover were just a bunch of generic WWII-style heroes complete with names and a basic idea of their powers. Meaning none of them are actually in the book at all. That did bug me, and that’s not the only place this happens. Some characters from included characters’ write-ups don’t show up either, like included character Blut Engel’s buddy Donnerhammer isn’t in the book. Personally I would’ve tried to keep these mentions to the second book as much as possible so all the characters I’m talking about are already out there, but…eh.

There’s a fair bit of mentioning guys who aren’t actually written up, unfortunately, as the characters who are included are, not too surprisingly, divided up according to what country they’re loyal to. In describing what each’s general attitude toward superhumans in its military was (Canada's was to brand a lot of theirs into those scantily-clad ladies painted on bombers) and how invested each country was in creating its own, it lists off some of the most prominent ones, and a lot of them don’t actually follow with their character sheets. Presumably these going to appear in the next WWII roster book this one already announces. Between this and the serialized adventure packed in with “Villains Unleashed,” seems like they’re really trying to incentivize their wares lately.

But are the characters themselves good, that’s what you really want to know. In general I’d say yes, though it doesn’t have any I think I’d use as ongoing campaign features even if I ever did run a WWII setting.

I think my favorites out of all the characters in the book were probably Gypsy Queen and Professor Grimm, both spellcasters, and while they certainly had some interesting assortments available to them I found myself most appreciating the outlooks and the possibilities to play them off the PC’s. Gypsy Queen for instance is a good person working for Italy during wartime, but is loyal to her country without necessarily being loyal to its government. Grimm is a century-old sorcerer and mystical mastermind, but the type to manipulate others to carry out his grand designs and probably gate out if a bunch of PC’s tried to corner him into a fight.
The level of detail on the spells used by those characters really shows the care put into them (I liked how Gypsy can magically paint her weapons to make them more damaging), as well as skills on the ninja-type character, Yami. That such detail has to be created to represent skills honestly makes me wonder, though, if it might not be time to overhaul the rules FGU hasn’t really touched in over 30 years.

Other particularly interesting characters from the line-up include the Outsider, a high-tech soldier from a dystopian future sent to alter a disaster but doesn’t realize he’s not on his own Earth anymore. Lightning Rod is likewise displaced from his true time, but was the big winner on a superhero reality show and longs to get back, even if his actual powers aren’t that unique. R, the robot who’s the only survivor of a survey ship and who’s now a double agent for Soviet subversives against their own country. Robyn and the Hoods, the female bandit who robs from the rich and gives to the poor, but in a society where the authorities aren’t all a bunch of corrupt brigands and it’s not as clean-cut as she’d like to think.

Sadly the book does fall prey to some of the worn out stereotypes of the era and the various countries. If you were wondering if one of Germany’s supers would be a Valkyrie, give yourself a cookie. If you thought there’d be members of the Communist party who used a hammer and sickle as weapons and one who controlled ice (especially connected to Siberia), a Japanese samurai warrior and a German powerhouse called Ubermensch, well…at least there’s nobody based on origami or geishas. Yet.

Although I did get the feeling that the reason there’s no water-controlled named Tsunami is the fact that the setting already has two… (“Enter the Dragon’s Claw: Honor” and “Into the Sub-Realm”)

Another thing I wish the book might’ve done better was being more consistent when it referred to stuff in other modules. Sometimes it mentions where you can find somebody specific like Master Zero from “Most Wanted #3” in referring to a phenomenon where certain characters got their powers, or how exactly a character from the Zodiac got their enchanted gauntlets. Other times it makes mention of characters and settings but you really need to be familiar with the other products to catch them.

For instance, the listing of prominent American superhumans includes Captain Crisis, Lady Liberty and Mr. America, who are already written up in published material. It does not throw in a parenthetical comment telling you to look in “Vigilantes International” for their sheets, though. Likewise there’s nothing about how German villain The Stuka is presumably the one written up in “Super-Crooks and Criminals” (which came out in frigging 1986). In Professor Grimm’s background it mentions worlds with magical inhabitants like Vine and Razer. Vine I’m pretty sure is referring to the alternate world from “The Pentacle Plot,” but I’d have to go reading through my other sourcebooks looking specifically for the name to know what the hell Razer is. Supposing it ain’t from something Mr. Tennor’s planning to release but hasn’t yet.

Probably the most entertaining part of all is the detailed support organizations included for a lot of the characters. Like wife of Golden Eagle and surrogate mother of Kid Kestrel (and real soon-to-be mother to Golden Eagle’s kid, not that she’s told him so he won’t think about leaving the front lines). All the details on the dystopian future Outsider comes from and the line of robots he employs as personal bodyguards were great, and a ripe setting for a campaign all by itself.

Carmine’s Concubine’s and the Hoods were pretty cool, basically being like the listing of minions like say, Od’s Avant Guards from “Most Wanted #1” but going a step beyond to give their names and a basic idea of their place in each operation and a brief idea of how they played off each other. I enjoy the classic stuff, but going that extra mile here was definitely a good inclusion.

One of the included supers being a Valkyrie means there’s also a rundown of Valhalla works, since that’s the place where Valkyrie take fallen soldiers to fight for eternity. While it explains exactly how the compulsion to battle there works in game terms, it says nothing in particular about the Norse gods or why exactly Valkyrie collect dead soldiers and bring them to this place that mystically enables them to fight forever (Valkyrie actually select the greatest warriors from battles and bring them to Valhalla so the gods will have an army of the greatest warriors who ever lived when a war that spreads across all creation comes, and they fight constantly to keep their skills sharp). Then again I suppose most people who know what Valhalla is already know what Ragnarok is too.

All this, along with a big collection of counters of various soldiers, adds up to a pretty pleasing package. Really my biggest complaint is how the references to other material were kind of spotty, but all in all, this is one worth having.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Villains and Vigilantes - Villains Unleashed

Sometimes it’s hard to find something to say about a roster book for an RPG other “worth it” or “not worth it”. This time I can safely start with “they were really trying something different with this one”.

Main thing setting it apart is instead of just a block of bare third-person narration giving you each character’s background, it’s presented as the findings of a reporter writing a book about our nation’s supervillains. Mainly it’s to leave some villains who are particularly mysterious so you’ll have a complete character sheet ready for you, but the details of where the villain comes from and how they act are for you to decide as best suits your campaign.  Plus with this approach there’d be an actual reason if the profile were to find it necessary to say, mention that a curvaceous female badass was in her underwear.

Besides the collection of loose villains the book also has a pair of “themed” villain teams. The first is based on colors, and while I think that’s an interesting idea, the members don’t actually stick to any particular scheme too hard, either having power effects of the relevant color, or for a couple just wearing a costume that’s the right color. Like Big Blue, whose power is being a super-strong colossus but that’s it, and Viridian who’s a mage but who it doesn’t even say anything about her magic have green special effects. It’s mostly typical stuff like astral projection, telepathy and precognition, too.

Which isn’t to say Spectrum isn’t a fun villain group and one I wouldn’t mind using on a semi-regular basis if I ever played the game again. My favorite’s the leader, Red Tide, whose power is red tide. You’d expect the red guy to be an angry powerhouse, and that was pretty original. I also like Indiglow, who even if he has kind of a dumb name is an evil second-story-man version of Green Lantern which is pretty cool. Respect also for having the first lesbian couple I’m aware of in an indie superhero RPG. Overall Spectrum is a fun group I recommend.

The other team is the Malevolents, and while they’re a decent villain group, “themed?” There’s Greyhawk who’s basically an evil Hawkman down to the mask, superhuman eyesight and archaic weapon of choice, Cerberus the wolf-guy who can sprout another two heads and breathe fire, typical giant strong guy Slab, vibration-emitting Pulsator and luck-manipulator Miss Fortune. They’ve got an interesting mixture of powers and I could definitely see using them a time or two in a campaign. But the only theme I see is them all meeting in jail and deciding to team up when they got out.

From there the collection of “loose” villains run the scale from good to lame as, they often do, but I think in this case it’s more of the good than the bad, partly because of the book’s idea of a framing device allowing the GM to just pick up a villain with some interesting powers and make them their own. I really liked Killshot’s build as a mysterious assassin, and Freeze-R-Burn with his mixture of powers if not exactly his name. Glamazon was cool if only because there really need to be more tough women in superhero stuff than She-Hulk and Wonder Woman. Quarry’s an okay super-tough rockbeast, but I think I’ll always prefer Terra-Rizer from “Super-Crooks and Criminals” as my rage-filled rock monster of choice, with his power to sorta-kinda turn invisible among other rocks and how different power attacks do different things to his durability.

Zeitgeist, the ghost burglar, was another especially nice idea. I also liked the Power Pirate, who as his name implies can temporarily steal the PC’s powers, though as-written I’m worried that outside of a string of critical hits the effects would be too short-lived to have much of a point besides beating the players down with their own attacks. Surely we can do better than that. Loonatics Unleashed did better than that.

I don’t really care how much of a badass he is, though (and he is that), I don’t think I’d ever be able to have my players fight a villain named Evil Jim with a straight face. It's nice the authors included how much EXP each villain's worth on their character sheet, though. Saves time for sure.

And there’s a couple new powers packed in the book too, although they seemed mostly to be a way of making invulnerability and force fields less impregnable.

Of course, “Villains Unleashed” tries to be more than just a source of ready-made villains by also having the first in a three-part adventure, to try to entice you to buy the next product with the next mini-adventure in it. But frankly, based on the first part whether I buy it or not’s probably going to depend a lot more on the book it’s packed in with.

This one evidently centers around a new Shadowy Evil Organization named Triskelion. Guess I’ll put that up on the shelf with Intercrime, TOTEM, The Dragon’s Claw, TIC-TAC-TOE, VILE, and Shadow of the recently released “Clockworks”. With all due respect to the author, their most distinctive feature is being made up of three main branches, three leaders. Not terribly distinctive.

The encounters are certainly solid enough on their own and if you buy this book, by all means you should run them. But they’re generic robberies, and deliberately so, with the authors saying to the GM, “We want your fingerprints all over it” and for you to be the one who comes up with the payoff for the theme running between what’s stolen in the pregen encounters. Yeah, the GM should definitely be prepared to do that, but they also split this adventure up over three books trying to make it more likely I’d buy all three books. I’m not saying I won’t, not at all, I’m saying it could’ve been incentivized better. If I decide to run a premade adventure I should definitely be prepared to personalize it some. But I should probably also not need to and be able to just run it right out of the box, at least if it's something I'm paying money for, and especially if it's supposed to make it more likely for me to buy the next two books in a series. The author can't possibly account for everything in every stranger's game, but why the villains are stealing what they're stealing is something I do expect them to tell me.

And it’s very serious about playing the adventure out as an ongoing campaign, reminding the GM to dole out experience after every encounter by mentioning it again after the description for every encounter. Even the encounter where the entire thing is the players literally magically being gifted with all known information about Triskelion. I’m sorry authors, I really am, but no. A wizard hands them a written history, practically a textbook deus ex machina; that’s not worth experience points, no matter how well the players turn in their roles, and could set a really bad precedent. If you guys think fighting NPC good guys shouldn’t be worth EXP, neither should that.

If you enjoy V&V, buy this book. But buy it for the premade villains.