Thursday, August 6, 2009

Life Isn't Fair: Lessons from V&V and White Wolf

And Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury, and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. So He said, "Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had" (Luke 21:1-4; Mark 12:41-44).

One of the problems with scientific objectivism is that when applied to statements like "all men are created equal" it has a very difficult time justifying them. Objectively a quadraplegic is not equal to an NFL football player. Life isn't fair. We do not all begin life with the same hand of cards; however, in context of Christ, it is not the hand we are dealt, but rather the way we play the hand that matters. In the eyes of God, the poor widow played brilliantly with a very bad hand; whereas the rich played very poorly with fabulous hands. In other words, being a great human being is not dependent upon having having a bunch of gifts handed to us on a silver platter. Doing the best we can with what gifts we have — playing the hand of cards as best as we can — is what makes us great. In my own experience, this has been reflected in my gaming, none more so than with Villains and Vigilantes and Mage: the Ascension.

Like many gamers, I played a lot of White Wolf in the 90s. I played several campaigns and though I enjoyed them and the company of those I played with, none of them ever really inspired me until my GM pulled a fast one on us during a Mage campaign. He wanted us to have an appreciation for the motivations and situations of our enemies. Thus, during the second session of our campaign, he handed us the character sheets of the party of Technologists who were trying to deal with the same situation our original characters were. We spent the whole session playing our own adversaries.

We all screamed and complained and threw a fit — it just wasn't fair. We'd spent all that time creating our characters and now we weren't allowed to play them. Here's the rub: we all had more fun playing the Technologists than we did playing our own characters. We more easily got into character, we were more creative with our powers, and things just seemed to click. When we had to go back to playing those characters we thought we wanted to play, and so laboriously poured over using a point-based system, everything fell flat. We stopped gelling, our creativity tanked, and our characters no longer felt right. We actually began to look forward to playing the characters imposed upon us by our GM. The characters we made for ourselves were like the rich giving to the temple — we had everything we wanted in our characters. When confronted with characters we didn't want, we had nothing to lose, and everything to gain. By pushing ourselves beyond the character, to try and find fun despite the character, we gained much more than having the characters we thought we wanted.

Over the years, I've played a lot of Champions, probably more so than any other RPG other than D&D; however, it isn't my favorite superhero RPG. That distinction goes to Villains and Vigilantes. I just can't begin to explain how much I love all those random tables I get to use during character creation. I can never get the character I want using those tables, but I can tell you that the best super hero characters I ever played were a result of those tables (I even used them for my Champions games). Being dealt an odd hand always forced me to be a better player, to be creative with the hand I was dealt, and it always seemed to create a better gaming experience than I ever got with a point build.

This is why I am very comfortable (and even prefer) rolling for stats, and rolling for them in order. If a game doesn't have some kind of random character generation system, I'm not really all that interested. Give me the randomly generated gonzo mutant weirdo over the well constructed point built character any day. The gonzo mutant weirdo will push me as a player, push my creativity, and push the game into directions hitherto untold and unexplored. The end result is a better game, because that game will be a lot more fun.


DMWieg said...

I'm always interested in trying new supers games... maybe I'll have to look up V&V.

This was a good post. I'm glad I read it.

FrDave said...

Thanks for the kind words. A bit of warning: V&V is a great deal of fun, but its mechanics are a bit clunky. In the end, this is why my group ended up using the best part of V&V — its character creation — with the cleaner mechanics of Champions. However, if you can get past those mechanics, it is an excellent game. My fondest memories of superhero campaigns all come from playing V&V.

Aaron W. Thorne said...

This is an interesting though. We recently finished up a fairly short Mutants & Masterminds campaign, and in the final session one of the players, Ben, found that he had lost his character sheet. In a bit of a mean-spirited moment, I suggested that he play one of the template characters from the rulebook, and everyone decided that this teenage boy really needed to play Gimmick, the gadget girl, who pulls toys out of her utility purse. It turned out that he actually role-played that character better than the character he developed on his own at the start of the campaign. His alien clone solider was kind of sucky, but his version of Gimmick was actually pretty cool.

So, you are probably on to something here.

FrDave said...


In my experience, the "Gimmick Effect" is a norm — I am not at all surprised by the fact that Ben was a better Gimmick than he was at his alien spider clone.

For example, in a Labyrinth Lord campaign I am running for some 3.5 players, the second session saw the first character death. I made the player roll his new stats in order, to the horror of everyone at the table. His highest stat was Con, so he decided to be a dwarf. When I suggested that the dwarves in my world could be very much like those in James' Dwimmermount campaign, he totally embraced the character. Instead of concentrating on the mechanics of his character (which he had done with his now dead elf) he was concentrating on doing things the way a dwarf would do them. It is always fun to see, and even more fun to do.

JB said...

Villains & Vigilantes was a game that always interested me, but which I never had the opportunity to purchase. Have you had the chance to play the latest version (Living Legends)? And if so, do you have any specific comments on the update?

I am becoming much more a fan of "random" character creation and limiting player choice as I get older and wiser. The reasons for this are many....
: )