Sunday, August 27, 2017

Villains & Vigilantes: Search for the Sensei / Revenge of the Yakuza (Real Review)

I first learned about Villains & Vigilantes when I was on a backpacking trip one summer. Our group stopped at this little town somewhere in North Carolina so everybody could shower and gas up the van, and the place we stopped to do that had this little mom and pop shop that had, strangely enough, a display case of modules for various Fantasy Games Unlimited systems. No idea what that was doing there, and the only other one I remember is the Daredevils one that had the dinosaurs. Since I needed some reading material for the long drive out to our next stop I laid down two bucks for the one that had a superhero fighting a samurai on the cover, and that’s how I picked the suit colors for Kamen Rider Tarock.

Search for the Sensei was one of the last things released for Villains & Vigilantes before its multi-decade hiatus, and one of the things that endeared it to me back in the day was just how much of a relic of the 80’s it ended up being, when we first heard about ninja warriors and thought they were the coolest thing ever even though all we had to go off of were stupid low-budget action movies.

Part of it is the author’s praised for his obvious love and knowledge of Japanese culture on the inside cover. These days it’s a lot easier to look at names like Sin-Ting Kenokogi, Lotus Sawara and Chai-Li Shigetta and chuckle at the idea that they’re supposed to sound like the names of actual Japanese people. Or Tetsuya Kori. Yes, that is a real Japanese name. But it’s a man’s name.

Yeah, even with my shitty scanner...

There’s even a pronunciation guide in the back, with accents made in ink by hand. That’s dedication right there.

I should probably talk about the actual adventure at some point, shouldn’t I? Things open on one of the PC’s happening upon some thugs about to mug a teenage girl, “and who knows what else”. Luckily our hero is hopefully more than a match for a couple of two-bit gangbangers and can learn that the victim is Sin-Ting Kenokogi , who lost her ability to speak by the psychological shock of seeing her mother murdered. A gimmick that even the adventure basically admits will get really annoying if none of the PC’s is a telepath.

Besides just being accosted, she’s distraught because her father, diplomat Shiro Kenokogi, has disappeared without a trace. And unbeknownst to them he’s not only been kidnapped by super-powered yakuza, but was also formerly the masked crusader known as the Sensei, but put away his costume when his wife was killed. Hence the title.

The encounters and maps are designed pretty decently. For some reason the thing I still remember best is that Sin-Ting is apparently a big fan of Scott Baio. Also an encounter with a hero called the Rising Sun (the dude on the cover) where it’s setup for the PC’s to think he’s a villain and get in a bit of good old poorly-motivated hero vs. hero stuff. Once that’s resolved he can help them out as an NPC, although he probably makes a better meat shield than an actual helper in a fight.

Because of his big Invulnerability score, I mean.

Looking back, I think the villains were a little underwhelming after sampling more of what the game was like, though, with other modules typically having a great mix of really unique villains (if often kind of goofy ones). One is just Odd Job from Goldfinger, killer hat and all. A couple of the earlier ones are mainly just ladies who fight with gimmicked staffs, little different from the legions of ninja warriors who reinforce them.

They all have their own names even with recycled portraits. That's adorable.

And what kind of name is “Dowager” for a cloning villainess with a gimmicked staff?

If the heroes should triumph over the yakuza through the various encounters, piece together the clues and manage to save Shiro Kenokogi from the high-tech samurai, it promises that the main bosses, who make these guys look like Girl Scouts, will be out for revenge.

But then V&V went on hiatus for over 20 years, the publishers lost touch with a lot of their contributors, and the manuscript for the sequel got lost in the mail when Fantasy Games Unlimited moved their offices to a different state. Fortunately they eventually got in touch again and it turned out the author still had a copy in a drawer somewhere, and here we have the final chapter in the “Sensei” duology.

The sequel does open with some small disappointments. First is just a matter of personal taste, but it brings up a superhero team called the Alliance who were the ones who saved the day in Search for the Sensei if the GM decides to run the second module without the first. I was kinda hoping for character sheets for them, filling out their ranks from the heroes seen on the back covers of both modules. To have someone to crash in and come to the rescue if the players get in trouble, if you need a gameplay justification, maybe.

I just like having premade NPC heroes and especially hero teams sometimes that I can drop into my campaign to add some color, or maybe to have other heroes around the players can show up by saving the day and feeling more like they’ve accomplished great things at the end of a session. Or have to try harder because they themselves were outdone by some NPC’s in the end. Pre-Emptive Strike threw in a team like that for no real reason, I wouldn’t mind seeing it done more often.

Another thing is the kickoff for the adventure, where the yakuza send a trio of assassins to get rid of the heroes/avenge the organization’s previous defeat. Counters for them actually appeared in Search for the Sensei.

In the new artwork they just look like generic ninja, which is a bit of a letdown.

In fact, most of the new villains are basically ninja. The three assassins are ninja. A villain in each of the three other encounters is a ninja. Shiro Kenokogi will resume his heroic identity as the Sensei to help out the players as an NPC, yet another ninja. And of course there’s all the ones as faceless underlings.

So many damn ninja...
Where’s the imagination? Ninja are cool, of course, but you can have too much of a good thing. You can over rely on something even as cool as them to carry your work.

Also, no disrespect to the author, but I much preferred the almost woodcut-like look of the older artwork than the cartoony newer stuff. And I can’t help wondering if that’s tied into changing the assassins from supervillains to dime a dozen ninja.


There are some interesting encounters in the sequel, and the big baddie is fairly interesting even if he feels like a scaled-back Mandarin (his main firepower comes from six magic rings, each with a different power). There are some cute little Asian additions to the V&V bestiary that the PC’s might need to contend with on their way to the boss’s fortress too (although frankly if they could handle the muggers at the beginning of the first module it’s damn hard to imagine these being a threat).

The big time lapse wasn’t especially kind to it, though. “Search for the Sensei” came out when we were just getting our first taste of Japanese culture here in the states, when it was so cool and mysterious and those of us who were interested in such things ate up anything we could get our hands on.

But now it’s 2017. Japanese cultural imports almost as easy to get as if you actually lived there. We know what actual Japanese people’s names are like now. More potential readers will probably think that the use of “sama” as a title like “lord” or “master” is not exactly accurate (the big bad guy leader's villain name is "Ichiban Sama (Number One Master)"). And of course V&V itself has dipped its toe in the anime market in the years since its reawakening with stuff like the Great Bridge-twofer.

Stripped of cheesy nostalgia, Revenge of the Yakuza is a decent V&V module on its own merit. I particularly like the final villain, I liked the two villains who’ll try to lure an opponent into a weather-simulating chamber to give themselves the advantage. The enemy who might become an ally in the final chapter if the truth about the big villain comes out.

But seriously, you can have too many ninja.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Villains & Vigilantes: Project Lawbreaker

I remember a time when they were still making V&V peripherals besides roster books. Ah well, at least that sequel to “Search for the Sensei” is turning out to be a real thing after all. Maybe you don’t care, but I do…

Before getting to the book itself I suppose there’s the momentous announcement in the foreword that Fantasy Games Unlimited is working with a little outfit called Tenacious Comics to put out a new Villains & Vigilantes comic book. No word on which heroes and villains they’re planning to focus on yet, and I have to admit I can’t help feeling leery of a company whose rather slim library actually includes a series called “Worst Day Ever!” I don’t care if it’s supposed to be a parody, that name makes it sound like a lazy parody. And there's nothing less funny than a lazy parody.

I should talk about the villains, but sadly the selection doesn’t have quite the verve of previous villain books for this game. I read through the entire thing, and while I remembered some names and looks, I could think of almost none that I’d like to actually use in a campaign.

Probably the most unique of the villains featured in this book is Vardagax, an alien vampire of sorts who is completely immortal, even able to eventually revive from complete disintegration. I can easily see a mini-campaign being built around the players repeatedly running into this unkillable menace and trying to find some way to stop him for good. Probably after the GM gives him a new name that’s actually scary, though…I suppose my next favorite after that is Metallion, short for “Metal Batallion,” a giant crazed military robot because for some reason the scientists on the project let a former Nazi program the brain. Nothing particularly sophisticated about the build, but a big marauding monster it takes the whole group to beat is something every superhero campaign needs once in a while and it’s always nice to have another one ready to go.

After that the next most interesting inclusion is probably the single premade team in the book, but that’s really not too much of a recommendation. Aside from their somewhat generic strongman and sorceress members, there’s sort of an elements of nature theme to the Masters of Menace. The leader, the uninspired Blue Mist, is played kind of like the modern tragic Mr. Freeze, but his belief in the group as a surrogate family’s blunted a little by how straight-up villainous most of them are. I do kind of like some of their powers; one of their energy projectors can blow himself up and reform later, and it notes that since he recovers energy while in the process of reforming, he can theoretically just keep blowing himself up and reforming over and over. I’m sure I could come up with some amusing uses for a power like that. These could be a decent villain team, although I see them in need of some tinkering to their backgrounds and motivations.

But I can only review the published product.

There’s Ghost Dancer, who has a garment empowered by Native American magic that she uses as a super-powered thief, but what interested me is it’s implied that this was used by heroes in the past, and it’s subtly encouraging her to abandon her selfish lifestyle the more she uses it. Lamia was kind of interesting for her build as a killer snake lady, if not necessarily her background.

Unfortunately I have little good to say about the rest of the selection. Rhinosaurus was an okay attempt at a tragic monster of a villain, but I’d only ever use him with a new name. Hellmark certainly has a formidable power with what’s basically inescapable mind control against anyone who he touches, but it seems like someone who’s the head of a massive occult cabal like he’s supposed to be should have a bigger arsenal than pretty much just that. Red Flag’s an okay speedster character but has a weird name for her type. Soldat is a decent super-assassin of the kind we all need once in a while, but on the other hand it’s 2017. Aren’t we past using ex-KGB hitman in our supervillain roster books already??

I think the one I’m least impressed by is Warhawk, basically a low-rent Hawkman knockoff (like we didn’t just have one of those in the last villain book…oh wait, we did) with the added power of being able to make people angry. This wouldn’t be so bad but his motivation is to take over the world eventually. By himself, with those abilities? His background as an alien convict opens more doors for storytelling than he does himself.

It includes the additions to the character sheets of how much XP the villains are worth, even showing thwarted vs. actually captured, so that appears to be a regular thing now. And for what it’s worth this is not part two of the little trilogy they were trying to string together starting with the mini-adventure packed in with the last villain book the company released. I’m pretty sure I’d be even more disappointed with that anthology adventure if this was the next product slapped onto it.

There’s also an add-on for a new rule regarding weapons tied to a hero’s particular theme, allowing for a small pool of weapons or devices sacrificing pure power in the interests of a little extra breadth. I think it’s an interesting idea and could help keep a player’s list of powers fresh for a longer time, since after a while a set of rules with no real growth system for powers makes them seem kind of stale. The two characters used as examples even show up in the counter sheets, although no sheets for them are to be seen. It might be fun to write them up…

I guess the thing I’m most curious about from this book are how sometimes it name-drops various superheroes the villains included have run into before. With a hero roster book being one of FGU’s upcoming releases, can we look forward to seeing them? And hopefully finding something more memorable to use there?

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

RIP Joe Dever

This actually happened about two months ago, but I'm still kind of trying to deal with the news. Joe Dever, creator of the Lone Wolf fantasy RPG series, has left us. It's always hard to lose someone whose work you admire, but Joe Dever wasn't just a favorite author, he's always been one of my heroes.

The series is one of the more well-known examples of the interactive book craze of the 1980's, as well as one of the more involved with it basically being a solitaire role-playing game where you managed the hero's inventory, statistics and rolled dice to fight enemies and escape danger.

It wasn't the first series to include that kind of thing; Fighting Fantasy had been out for a little while already when the first book came out, and the Sorcery! mini-series also had Lone Wolf's gimmick of being able to import your character from book to book a little earlier too. The difference was that Lone Wolf had that as a central idea from the beginning: you played a single character across the entire series. As you created your character you selected from a list of special skills to give him, and every time you completed an adventure you got to level up by picking a new one, in addition to being able to carry over your magic weapons and stash of healing potions into the next book.

And with the series developing a well-earned reputation for ball-busting difficulty sometimes, you'd be glad you had them.

But more than just giving you a great feeling of progression, this meant that unlike series such as Fighting Fantasy there was a single cohesive setting and mythology from day one that only got more vivid and immersive the deeper you read into it (remember all those "If you've been to <X Location> in a previous Lone Wolf adventure" moments?). Eventually there were spinoffs too, where you controlled the wizard Grey Star in his quest to save a distant land from evil, and a series of non-interactive novels that covered a lot of the same material as the main series but shifted the perspective from time to time to give other important characters time in the spotlight and let you see things that only got oblique mentions in the interactive books. RPG's, a world book that even taught you the language of some of the was truly an empire.

Speaking personally, this massive singular setting was one of the things that really helped me to get interested in reading, and ultimately in writing adventure stories of my own (including an insipid little one-shot). To me the Sommerswerd is still the most badass magical blade of all time, and the Helghast still haunt my dreams.

And it would be heartbreaking enough to lose such an influential creator, but  the Lone Wolf brand had actually started making a comeback in the last few years too. A video game came out that Joe not only wrote but even narrated. A new RPG boxed set too. And saddest of all we finally got The Storms of Chai, book 29 of the main series and the first new book in almost twenty years, but also the first in a planned four-book arc to give the series a proper conclusion. The ideas behind it promised to be pretty epic, with the forces of evil suddenly on the attack everywhere at once, and the best and brightest of Lone Wolf's pupils sent to the far corners of the world to find out why and how to stop them.

What happens next is still unknown. In the meantime, though, I suggest visiting Project Aon, a web archive where all of the major material for the book series and the Grey Star spinoff can be read for free with the original creators' blessing. They've even got the world book and the comic book one-shot. It was a huge part of my development, maybe it can be part of someone else's because of this little article too.

Thank you, Joe. You left a mark on me that will never fade. Truly you will be missed.

For Sommerlund and the Kai!