MONKEY HOUSE GAMES was formed by Jeff Dee and Jack Herman, the co-creators of the classic superhero role-playing game “Villains and Vigilantes”, in May of 2010.
The name “Monkey House Games” was inspired by an in-joke that Jeff & Jack shared way back in the 1980’s, referring to one another as “game designers raised by apes”.
JEFF DEE has worked in the gaming industry for over 25 years. His artwork appeared in numerous games and magazines, including TSR’s Deities and Demigods (as well as many AD&D modules and other early TSR products), adventures for the Star Wars RPG from West End Games, and others. He co-designed Villains & Vigilantes, TWERPS (The World’s Easiest Role-Playing System) from Gamescience, and Pocket Universe from UNIgames. Jeff has also worked in the computer games industry on games such as Ultima VI, Master of Orion, Master of Magic, and Wing Commander. He was the art director on Ultima VII, and the lead game designer on The Sims: Castaway Stories. Jeff currently works as a freelance artist and game design consultant and operates a paper game publishing company, Monkey House Games, with V&V co-creator Jack Herman.
JACK HERMAN has written for comics and games for over 25 years. His comics writing has appeared in Elementals, Robotech: The Macross Saga, Robotech: The New Generation, Eagle, Death’s Head, The Terminator, Battleforce, Operative Scorpio, Ratman, Oblivion, Blood Feast, 2000 Maniacs, Psycho Killers, ZombieBomb, and Bela Lugosi’s Tales From The Grave. He has worked on computer games such as Ultima VII, Wing Commander II Special Operations 2, Serpent Isle, Bioforge and Super Hind- Explosive Helicopter Action. He is the co-designer of Villains and Vigilantes, and author of the V&V books Most Wanted Volume One, and the DNAgents Sourcebook. Jack works occasionally as a freelance writer and game design consultant, and operates a paper game publishing company, Monkey House Games, with V&V co-creator Jeff Dee.
THE HISTORY OF VILLAINS AND VIGILANTES
In the 1970s, two Illinois high school students, Jeff Dee and Jack Herman, combined their mutual obsessions with role-playing games and superhero comics. The result was a superhero role-playing game they called Villains and Vigilantes.
It wasn’t precisely the first such game of its type. The first actual superhero role-playing game is widely recognized as Superhero 2044, published in 1978 by Gamescience. Villains and Vigilantes was, instead, probably the first complete superhero role-playing game. Unlike Superhero 2044, V&V had a character generation system with an extensive list of super powers, a combat system based upon how those powers worked and included instructions on running a superhero RPG campaign set in a world meant to mirror the modern day real world as a setting for superhero adventures.
Jeff and Jack went to Gen Con in 1978 with their first hand-printed manuscript and introduced themselves to the publisher of Fantasy Games Unlimited Inc. FGU was a small company that had some success with the medieval fantasy role-playing game Chivalry and Sorcery and was establishing a reputation as an eclectic publisher. As a result of that meeting, Jack and Jeff received a contract from FGU to publish their game, which was released in 1979. Being a gifted artist and an early student of the Kubert School, run by legendary comic book artist Joe Kubert, Jeff did the illustrations himself.
Villains and Vigilantes quickly became a top seller at FGU. Judges Guild, a company that published support material for such games as Dungeons and Dragons and Traveller, produced the first authorized V&V adventure “Break-In at Three Kilometer Island” in 1981.
By that time Jeff and Jack were anxious to revise the original 1979 edition of Villains and Vigilantes, which they considered a “first draft” and no longer representative of their best work as game designers. The result was the second edition of Villains and Vigilantes which was released by FGU in 1982. The new edition featured, among many other adjustments, a more elaborate simulation of classic comic book superhero powers and a streamlined combat system.
To promote the new edition of V&V without disenfranchising any original players, FGU published two adventures which included character statistics for both versions. Together these adventures, “Death Duel with the Destroyers” and “The Island of Dr. Apocalypse” created by writer/artist Bill Willingham, formed a complete two-part epic story and are now widely considered RPG classics.
The second edition of Villains and Vigilantes was an even bigger success, spawning its own complete line of over two dozen adventures. Jack and Jeff added the introductory adventure “Crisis at Crusader Citadel” which featured their own original superhero characters, centered on the eternal feud between the Crusaders and their group of arch-enemies, the Crushers. Herman later contributed a book of super-villain characters entitled “Most Wanted Volume One”. Both had illustrations by Jeff.
As the Villains and Vigilantes product line continued to grow, Jack and Jeff used the attention to break into the comics business, which was then booming due to the establishment of the direct market. Meanwhile, their game continued to attract numerous writers and artists who were, or who would become, established figures in the comics and gaming industries.
Bill Willingham (whose “Elementals” superhero comic series would feature elaborations on characters from his V&V adventures) created the multiple Eisner Award-winning and NY Times Best-Selling “Fables” graphic novel series. Tom Dowd (”FORCE”, “Assassin”) is now an online game designer and a professor of Interactive Arts at Chicago’s Columbia College. Stefan Jones (“Opponents Unlimited”, “Pentacle Plot”, “From the Deeps of Space”) writes for Steve Jackson Games, including an extensive amount of material for GURPS. Steve Crow (“Battle Above the Earth”, “Terror By Night”) wrote numerous books for White Wolf, Alderac Entertainment, and Mayfair Games’ DC Comics RPG. Jeff O’Hare (“To Tackle the TOTEM”, “For the Greater Good”) wrote for Mayfair, I.C.E. and numerous other publishers. Troy Christensen (“Dawn of the Devil”, “Most Wanted, Volume 3”, “The Devil’s Domain”) created the fantasy RPG Phantasm Adventures. Stephen Dedman (“Pre-Emptive Strike”, “The Great Iridium Con”) wrote for GURPS and had several novels published. Ken Cliffe (“Organized Crimes”, “Honor”, “Alone into the Night”, “Super Crooks and Criminals”) and Stewart Weick (“Secret in the Swamp”) became key players in the ascendance of RPG giant White Wolf.
Artists who contributed work to V&V adventures included Matt Wagner (Grendel, Mage), Jill Thompson (Sandman, Scary Godmother, Beasts of Burden), Mark A. Nelson (Aliens), Bill Reinhold (Punisher, Earth X, Magnus- Robot Fighter), original Marvel Bullpen member Don Heck (Iron Man, Avengers), Dan Panosian (Agents of Atlas, All New Exiles, Irredeemable, Prophet), and the artist probably more closely associated with V&V save for Jeff Dee himself, Patrick Zircher (Nightwing, Iron Man).
In 1986 Jack and Jeff created a four issue Villains and Vigilantes comic book mini-series published by Eclipse Comics. The series was an adaptation of their original “Crisis at Crusader Citadel” adventure and introduced two new superheroes, Shatterman and Condor. The V&V comic received more reader letters that Eclipse’s best-selling titles at the time.
With its success, the emergence of competition for Villains and Vigilantes was inevitable. It came in the form of games such as Superworld, GURPS Supers, Heroes Unlimited, Champions and RPGs published with characters licensed from Marvel and DC Comics. The atmosphere was nearly as cooperative as it was competitive. Adventures for Champions, Superworld and Villains and Vigilantes were eventually published with character conversion instructions for each other’s rules systems. In 1984, Chaosium published the Superworld adventure “Trouble for HAVOC” with V&V character stats included.
Jack and Jeff originally planned to license a number of superhero comics from independent publishers, but for various reasons these efforts were mostly unsuccessful. The THUNDER Agents were locked in a rights dispute. Elementals became unavailable after the bankruptcy of its publisher, Comico. The only title released under this plan was the DNAgents Sourcebook (based on Mark Evanier and Will Meugniot’s hit comic book series from Eclipse) written by Jack and published in 1986.
Although V&V continued to have a devoted player base, by 1987, Fantasy Games Unlimited had completely ceased advertising, distribution and new releases for the V&V product line. The company was ultimately dissolved by the state of New York in 1991.
It seemed that the publication rights to Villains and Vigilantes were stalemated by the original contract Dee and Herman had signed. Numerous attempts from various game and comic book publishers to revive the game or secure the publication rights were unsuccessful. The game simply disappeared and was not legitimately available for sale in close to two decades.
In 2005 Jeff Dee released a new superhero role-playing game, Living Legends, which took place in the original Villains and Vigilantes universe and utilized those characters with permission of Jack Herman. Living Legends differed from Villains and Vigilantes in that it featured a point-based character generation system. It had two adventures released to support it: “Intercrime: Hostile Takeover” by Dee, and “Blood Ties” written by John Karnay.
Over the years, new superhero RPGs such as Mutants and Masterminds, Icons and BASH emerged and a number of those creators acknowledged Villains and Vigilantes as an influence. But enthusiasm for V&V never dwindled among its hardcore players. Many old-school gamers preferred V&V because it featured random character generation- which was fast and resulted in unique characters, open-ended rules that made it easy for GMs to modify as needed, and a fast-paced combat system. In the meantime, numerous players dutifully maintained online presences for V&V that were indispensible in keeping interest alive.
In 2010, having determined that the rights to their game had actually returned to them when Fantasy Games Unlimited Inc. ceased to exist in 1991, Herman and Dee established Monkey House Games to bring Villains and Vigilantes rightfully back into print. Their new edition, Villains and Vigilantes 2.1, a slightly modified version of the 1982 edition, hit the number one spot on the Top 100 at rpgnow.com on the first day of its release and over a year later was still in its Top 100. Villains and Vigilantes 2.1 also won First Prize in Lulu’s August 2010 sales contest and was one of their top twenty best-selling games. It also received favorable write-ups on numerous blogs and websites including Emotionally Fourteen and Ain’t It Cool News.
Monkey House Games released three free products: the adventure “Oil Pressure” and the playing aid “Wheels within Wheels” both by Talzhemir, and “Infinity Lounge” by Stefan Jones with art by Tod Allen Smith. Dee and Herman reunited for “In Broad Daylight”, the first new original authorized-for-sale Villains and Vigilantes adventure in 23 years, which was released in December 2010. Monkey House Games also acquired the exclusive publication rights for Bill Willingham’s “Death Duel with the Destroyers” and “Island of Doctor Apocalypse”. “Foe File #01: Omni-Primus” the first in a series of 99 cent supervillains, was released in February 2011.
Monkey House Games established a licensing program for the Villains and Vigilantes 2.1 game system, so any publisher who gets their approval can freely release compatible products. The first officially licensed V&V product “Supervillains! Volume One” from Zenith Comics, was released in February 2011. The characters from the official Villains and Vigilantes universe were licensed by Superhuman Games for the Villains and Vigilantes card game coming in 2011. Monkey House Games also signed a distribution and publication deal with Cubicle Seven that brought Villains and Vigilantes back into to stores. Villains and Vigilantes was also picked up for sale by iTunes.
After an absence of several decades, Dee and Herman once again began making appearances at gaming and comic conventions, to run events and meet players. Jack and Jeff even participated in an epic length “V&V campaign in one weekend” event run by Bill Willingham at the 2011 Gary Con. Meanwhile, Jack has been running events giving participants the chance to playtest upcoming V&V adventures.
With a history of more than thirty years behind it, and a solidly established membership in the “Dead Game Society”, Villains and Vigilantes is not only back from the grave, but currently experiencing a renaissance. Could its best days still be ahead? On Christmas Day 2010, Jeff and Jack announced that the third edition of V&V was currently in development for a possible 2012 release. (Jeff has been running exclusive chances to play the new system during some of his convention appearances…)
So, like any good superhero comic book cliffhanger, you’ll have to wait until next issue to find out…