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 that were probably 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.

Then...
...now

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. And of course V&V itself has dipped its toe in the anme 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.



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