Publisher: Mystic Eye Games
Review Dated: 6th, December 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 7/10 [ Good ]
Total Score: 7
Average Score: 7.00
Disclaimer: This is a review based on a preview copy I have of the game. It’s a PDF copy entitled 0.8 and so I’ve been advised that the actual game could change a little. It’s also worth noting that hero games often fall into two groups – the glossy/expensive category and the frugal/inexpensive category. I expect this game to fall into the latter. This will please about 50% of the super hero RPG market.
This copy of Vigilance might carry the label 0.8 but Vigilance as a game has been around long enough to already have had several revisions. Vigilance previously has been published by, guess who, Vigilance Press in PDF form. It’s in the electronic media that the game had time to grow and mature. Mystic Eye Games sidled up to Vigilance Press in the way they’re likely to do to electronic companies of the right size that show real promise and offered to help the game into the traditional paper format. It’s this paperback copy of Vigilance that this review is on. Or, to be confusing, it’s a review of the PDF preview of the paperback copy of the revised but original PDF game. Still with me?
You might find that introducing confusing but you won’t find Vigilance confusing. It’s a d20 game. It’s not d20 Modern and it’s not fantasy either. Right off the mark the book begins by pointing out what’s changed. The changes make sense. Heroes have reputations and contacts (where would Batman be without Police Commissioner Gordon, Superman without Lois Lane or the Maxx without Sara?) and these are expressed neatly and cleanly with a burst of stats. There are Hero Points to – a small collection of points that players can spend when they want that little extra oomph behind their hero’s actions. Hero Points can be awarded and recouped by performing heroic deeds! I like this. I’m a great fan of game mechanics that encourage the style of play appropriate for the game. There are rule quirks for armour – it doesn’t make you harder to hit, and there are special rules for damage to help you simulate the “bam” and “snikt” of hero games.
I don’t think Vigilance is a “bam” and “snikt” type of hero game though. It has leanings towards the three-colour golden age of comic strips; the original Superman, X-Men and Fantastic Four but the theme is somewhat darker. It’s a silver age styled game. The Nazis are the bad guys. Heroes assassinate political trouble-makers – and it’s presented as a good thing. You’ll get a strong taste of the game world and suggested theme from the long historical time line. This is something that the paper version of the game has over the previous electronic editions. The history of superheroes starts back in 1095 with the possible appearance of the first mutant. So Vigilance casts itself in the “mutant light” of hero genre – but it’s not a bad thing, it fits particularly well with picking the Nazis for the bad guys. The use of Nazis as the villains doesn’t rate extremely high on the originality scale, ask Captain America, Wonder Woman, Hellboy or countless others, but they do fit the bill rather well. The time chart is several pages long. You’re taken all the way from 1095 through a close but alternative history of earth up until 2000. You’ll either not notice it’s American focus or you’ll be used to it by now. I think. If you’re Australian or Canadian (and I pick those two countries simply because they both spring to mind as having a strong online RPG community) then you might wonder exactly what you did in World War I and II in this summary of the world history. After all, if you’re picking big names and turning them into heroes then surely the Anzacs are perfect. That said this quick history of the modern world is fairly intelligent. It shouldn’t have you wincing too often. It’s not one of those histories that try and claim that World War II started at Pearl Harbour or that the American army was just having a large but friendly picnic on the Korean/China border when the Chinese decided to move in the troops without reason. This multi-page summary of the alternative world isn’t just an alternative history lesson though; it introduces named heroes, villains and organisations. I just can’t quite help but shake the feel that Charles Rice, the author, is as much a Watchmen fan as he is a Batman man.
Oh yes. There are super powers. There are super powers and feats. If you’re used to picking feats for your d20 character than adding an extra level and selecting a few more powers will not confuse you. In fact the usually over-powered and low-fantasy wrecking feats become a rather nice “toned down” collection of back-up powers and shticks for the heroes. You could almost play Vigilance with the feats alone and without any extra powers – what was I just saying about the Watchmen influence? The issue of “character race” is trickier. There’s no new race as such – although clearly aliens are not the same race as us friendly humans. Vigilance makes use of an Origins system to ground the character and suggest an initial approach. Origins are not a breathtakingly new game rule for super hero games but it is an especially good and common sense set. I’m pleased to see origins and their use in Vigilance.
As with most d20 games Vigilance makes use of character classes. The character classes overlap a little with the Origins and this seems to be more by accident than design. At least, it’s not by Vigilance design but by the inherited structure of the d20 system. The character classes make sense; they pick a common hero theme and classify it. You want to play a Detective? You got it. You want to play someone who’s hard as nails – look at the Brick class and you’ve got it. The character classes work out fairly well here. It’s the prestige classes that are trickier. I don’t think prestige classes lend themselves so well to the hero genre. Is Batman an example of a hero with a prestige class? He’s just some well-trained bloke. Is the Green Lantern? He’s just some chap with a ring. Then again there are those heroes and villains that are a class above the rest. The Silver Surfer would make mincemeat out of the Green Goblin and Bizzaro would slaughter Night Owl. The Vigilance prestige classes are not on the uber-power level. You can’t turn your hero into a Silver Surfer-like champion of the galaxy by simply applying a prestige class template. I think the prestige classes are a bit of a fifth-wheel – but you never know, sometimes having an extra wheel might be useful.
There are powers aplenty. If you tend to design your hero around their powers then you shouldn’t be short of ideas here. Since Vigilance uses the d20 system then you should be well practised in writing your own powers even before you’ve read the game! Besides, you could throw in magic, psionics or even epic levels without too much trouble. You might even get with plundering some of the powerful monsters from the Monster Manuals – just don’t expected the Challenge Rating system to hold up. Vigilance does well from it’s use of the d20 system; it takes what it can, it doesn’t try to push too far away but has enough sense to stand up and point out when a particular rule doesn’t do very well in the setting. Any game that points out that killing people and looting the corpse isn’t really the character building exercise some people pretend it is in a fantasy campaign is likely to get my vote. Oh. Okay. So my own bias crept ever so slightly into that last sentence but the truth is heroes in Vigilance pick up XP by saving people rather than by knocking heads together.
There’s a large section at the back of the book filled with sample hero stats. These tend to be the heroes and villains introduced in the lengthy history at the start of the book. It’s not an altogether bad thing; the super hero genre is particularly prone to this level of stat-show casing. Vigilance doesn’t have a special handshake deal with popular comic book heroes or even unpopular comic book series. All the characters introduced by the game are homebrew. I think this is one of the largest obstacles the game has to overcome in finding its appeal to the wider audience. It doesn’t bother me. I rarely want to go the route of introducing heroes from actual comics in my games.
What you might find missing from Vigilance (at least in my nearly but not quite finished preview) is a list of modern toys such as, oh, guns and bombs and stuff! If you’re going to play the game in the modern setting and don’t have d20 Modern to hand then you might well notice this shortcoming. This copy of Vigilance doesn’t have absolutely everything available for the game that there is available in PDF format either (after all, it’s more expensive to print on paper than on the e-aether) and so you won’t find any bionics here.
Vigilance is a good game. This appears to be a good evolution of the game, it doesn’t put a foot wrong but still suffers from the same lingering doubts I have about prestige heroes and lack of a truly distinct identity. The paper copy of Vigilance does provide more in the way of a sample game setting through; the history information and the use of Jinx towns and Syn City are a step forward and a reason to buy the paperback copy of the game even if the electronic version has a home in your computer.