Randomness in Villains and Vigilantes (and Others)

IMG_0019I recently got excited about Villains & Vigilantes after listening to Dead Games Society’s interview with V&V’s publisher and co-creator Jeff Dee. I think what excites me most about the game is its description of character creation. Well, I should back up a bit and say that it is its character creation as described in its original release that interests me. It contains a bit of randomness that also has more or less been a component in every iteration of the Original Game and perhaps many others besides V&V.

With the Original Game I’m of course talking about the Attribute rolls at character creation. Originally a mere 3d6 were rolled for each value, the resulting values assigned in order to the Attributes list, and the player was left to see what kind of character would be most strategic to build with what resulted. An attractive aspect of this is its randomness, an emulation of the “real world” wherein none of us “construct” our own bodies and psyches. If we could, we would determine before conception our parents, our genetic predispositions and, perhaps, the likely environmental influences on our character formations. Instead, in reality, we just “come to be.” My own ONOSR engine uses the Attribute rolls described in Swords & Wizardry Complete with the exception that three additional values are rolled that have to replace three other values. These last three rolls represent the Norns, Past (Urthr), Present (Verthandi) and Future (Skuld). The device allows players some degree of choice at character creation without threatening too much of a possibility of players “gaming” the system towards a preconceived outcome. In fact, it could happen that the player is left with no “good” choices resulting from those last three rolls. That’s fickle Fate for you!

These random formations seem deeply enmeshed in the OSR. In my view, they reinforce just how much the hobby has arisen out of tactical gaming, with strategy games’ sense of randomness and the onus of participants to “play to win.” Early in rpg history, systems arising out of the Original Game and those developing more or less independently alongside it began putting more power into the hands of the players at character creation. Increasingly, players were allowed to develop the kinds of characters they wanted to play rather than characters they randomly rolled. In other words, characters were being created to fit a preconceived notion rather than the other way around, a concept in which characters arose out of random generation and resulting gameplay.

If I’m to make generalizations based on the desires and attitudes of how I played in my youth, I would hazard that a lot of these changes were first innovated in home games. A lot of us got into the hobby as a fantasy escape from the real world. We wanted to play heroes, characters who were greater than ourselves (or at least our idealized selves within worlds unaffected by the mediocrity of “modernity”), not because we wanted yet another number crunching game of tactics and probabilities. So I imagine that it was first in living rooms and in basements that additional dice were rolled for Attributes, that placements were rearranged, that point buys were developed, that class prerequisites were ignored, and I think this was done mostly by young people who wanted to play particular characters. They began with concepts. Then they applied those visions to the rules.

I would say that this idea of a starting concept is most important to the superhero genre. It’s no secret that many established superheroes are just plain silly–listen to those folks at House to Astonish pull out a character chestnut or two at the end of each show! And for my young friends and I who in the early 90s were certain we were going to break into writing and drawing comics, nothing was more important than how our characters and their costumes looked. And these looks, of course, had to have appropriate themes. And themes, of course, are constructed, not random at all.

For this reason we were attracted to Champions, whose character creation process follows exactly the process of concept to power level to point buys for abilities. Now in my later years, however, I’m more attracted to randomness. I care less about immersing myself in a particular fantasy archetype than I am in exploring the artistic eureka–systemizing and making sense of –randomly generated, disparate elements. V&V character generation sounds like fantastic fun. In that game, players usually play an analogue of themselves, but they roll on tables to see what powers they randomly acquire. I don’t know anyone, right now, who would have interest in playing a supers game with me (and I have plenty to do with ONOSR anyway), but I’m tempted to purchase this game anyway, just to generate characters for myself. I think I’ll set aside some funds for 3rd edition’s release.


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