Let’s start with what’s greatest about this product: it focuses on the villains, and it focuses on their stories. A few days ago, my 11-year-old son was asking for advice on creating scenarios for ICONS. One of the things I told him was, “You have to think about the villains and their motivations. What do they want, and how do they try to get it, and how does this cause problems for the heroes?” The Super Villain Handbook provides a really nice resource for thinking about those questions. Jason “Dr. Comics” Tondro has structured the book around the dramatic roles that different kinds of villains play in comics stories rather than around their power sets. The “Stories” section of each archetype explores typical goals, recurring themes, and support cast rather than a bullet list of “adventure hooks” or specific capers (as in Fainting Goat’s Miscreants, Malefactors, and Megalomaniacs or the World’s Most Wanted series). Those “Stories” subsections are very good and, in my mind, they are the chief selling point for this book.
Now for elements that are of good quality, but not sufficient reason to purchase the book. The artwork is very enjoyable (though I’d like to see the Deluxe Edition include specific credits for the artwork, since I don’t know each artist’s signature). I also really appreciate how Jason has included an appendix that sort of “converts” archetypes from the Field Guide to Superheroes into villainous archetypes.
It’s not all wine and roses, though. This book is actually a subset of a larger project (not yet released at the time of this writing), a kind of “down payment” for those who backed the Handbook on Kickstarter. The unfinished quality of the work shows through in five particular respects. I’ll list them here from least annoying to most egregious. (1) The Basic Edition is only about half the length of the Deluxe Edition (in number of archetypes). This isn’t really a weakness of the Basic Edition, but it’s important information for people to have when deciding whether to purchase. (2) The book introduces and uses rules for cosmic-level characters that will be changed in the Deluxe Edition to line up with the official ICONS supplement “C is for Cosmic” in the ICONS A-Z series. I appreciate both Jason’s shout-out to the old Marvel FASERIP system in the rules included in the Basic SVH and his (and FGG’s) flexibility in changing the cosmic-level rules to match “C is for Cosmic.” Again, this is not so much a weakness of the Basic SVH as it is a caveat emptor so that potential buyers will understand the differences between the Basic and Deluxe editions. (3) Not all of the archetypes feature artwork. I don’t consider this a really big deal, but it’s really noticeable. (4) This is a 99-page PDF with no bookmarks. Well, I take that back. The cover, table of contents, and back cover are bookmarked—the three pages you least need to have bookmarked. A full set of bookmarks needs to appear in the Deluxe Edition. (5) The book’s big weakness is that the stat blocks at the end of each archetype lack context, and in at least one case they’re not really consistent with the archetype writeup. Essentially, Jason gives us stats for a character embodying each archetype. But although these characters clearly have specific individual flavors and personalities — they are instantiations of the archetype, not stats for a bland generic version of the archetype (and that’s a good thing) — they don’t have names or even brief backstories. This is a gaping hole that needs to be patched in the Deluxe Edition. The most jarring example of this is the Conqueror. The writeup is for the Brain, from the Pinky and the Brain cartoon. But the Brain is a laboratory mouse, so he doesn’t at all fit the advice given in the “Abilities” section of the Conqueror writeup. An unwary reader who didn’t perceive that the stat block reflected the epigram could easily become confused. And while I love Pinky and the Brain, I don’t think the Brain is really a good example of the Conqueror archetype for RPG purposes.
Jason Tondro is a good writer, so awkward phrasings and grammatical errors are much rarer here than is typical for FGG (sorry, Mike). The layout is bland but not objectionable; the page frame is easier on the eyes than the one for Stark City. The typography is boring to the point of stale (Arial? Trebuchet? Really?) Oh, and “supervillain” should either be one word or hyphenated, not two separate words. The phrase “supervillain handbook” denotes a handbook for supervillains; the phrase “super villain handbook” denotes a super handbook for villains. There’s a difference.
The bottom line is that I’d advise potential buyers to wait for and purchase the Deluxe Edition. The Basic Edition shows that the Deluxe Edition will be a great resource. But this is really more of a Preliminary Edition than a Basic Edition. I feel pretty sure the Deluxe Edition will be a 4-star or 5-star product, but at the time of this writing the Deluxe Edition isn’t out yet.
Full disclosure: I received the Super Villain Handbook, Basic Edition as a free review copy. I did not back the Kickstarter — not because I didn’t want to, but because I was so distracted with other things at the time that I didn’t get my pledge in during the campaign.