Starting in early adolescence and continuing through college, I mostly played Villains & Vigilantes and Champions (shhh… yes, I’m old), and someday soon I’m sure to have a lot to say about these two beauties. They are two of my all-time favorite games in any genre.
Amidst epic, mask-clad campaigns with friends, my broader exploration of superhero tabletop role-playing games took root. Of the “other” (meaning, not V&V or Champions) superhero games from my teens and twenties, my favorite is a little-known British game called Golden Heroes.
A Quick Golden Heroes History Lesson
The year is 1984. The original Apple Macintosh computer runs its first television commercial. Los Angeles hosts the Summer Olympics. Cyndi Lauper and Wham! are dominating the radio. And a skinny Jay Salazar, just starting middle school, convinces his grandmother during a regular visit to their local gaming store to buy him a new superhero game just hitting the shelves.
It’s amazing that Golden Heroes and I found each other that 1984 day, back at Wargames West in Albuquerque. The game didn’t stay in print long, particularly in the United States. I’m the only person I know across my many gaming groups who ever owned it. Heck, I probably bought one of the few copies in the state of New Mexico.
Why was its tenure so short? Years earlier and across the pond, authors Simon Burley and Peter Haines were university students and friends in England, inspired by Chris Claremont and John Byrne at the height of their powers. They self-published copies of their game and sent it to major publishers hoping for a deal. Check out how the original looked!
It was Games Workshop, a London-based publisher now famous for the Warhammer miniatures game, that showed interest. Although few people associate the two, Golden Heroes became GH’s first-ever homegrown game.
Unfortunately, Games Workshop lost access to the Marvel Comics license they had intended to use for Golden Heroes, a license that would instead get used for TSR’s famous FASERIP-system Marvel Superheroes game. Marvel Superheroes beat Golden Heroes’ release by weeks and soaked up consumers’ attention, even though many people – me included – thought Golden Heroes was the superior game. A year later, having published two adventures (Legacy of Eagles and Queen Victoria and The Holy Grail), a Supervisor’s (GM) kit, and some embarrassingly bad miniatures, Games Workshop quietly closed the doors on Golden Heroes.
For a lovely look into Simon Burley’s stories of the game’s founding and rules, check out the Grognard RPG Files podcast (Part 1 and Part 2). There are a ton of fun stories there, including Simon and Peter going to conventions with their new game, stirring interest by simulating famous battles from the comic books like the X-Men vs. Shi’ar Imperial Guard fight in Claremont/Byrne’s Dark Phoenix saga.
Despite its lack of commercial success, I love this game. My good fortune to discover Golden Heroes led to countless hours of joy for me during those painfully awkward middle school years. I’ve carried the books with me for forty years and counting even though I have yet to play it for more than a single session with friends.
What’s Great About Golden Heroes
Before I get into the game, I want to say something about the art. Art matters in any TTRPG, but for me it matters even more in a genre meant to simulate a visual medium like comic books. Golden Heroes showcases art from several different artists, and the quality varies. But the good far outweighs the bad, and I am nostalgically giddy about the stuff from Alan Davis, Mike Collins, Brett Ewins, and Jon Glentoran.
As I’ve spent the last week reading reviews of Golden Heroes (for two stand-outs, check out here and here), I’m relieved to see that what everyone loves most about the game is character creation. Those reviews make me feel significantly less self-conscious about the memories of me and my friend Ted rolling up character after character after character, then drawing them into our sketchbooks and going back for more. I sort-of-almost-remember actually playing the game, but not in any way that stands out. What I vividly remember is the joy of making characters… all told, probably more than a hundred of them over the years.
Character creation is fully random in Golden Heroes, which on the surface sounds like a nightmare. You roll on four Attributes: Ego, Strength, Dexterity, and Vigour (yay for British spelling!). You roll on how much damage your character can take and dish out. You of course roll up your superpowers. Finally, you roll on the character’s Background, or life before becoming a hero.
That series of random rolls can potentially lead to a mess, but there’s a safeguard built into the system. Golden Heroes gets around the goofiness of rolling up someone with incredible Strength, low Vigour, a Chameleon Ability, Replication, Teleport, and a Vehicle by making a player rationalize how these particular powers hang together. From the Players Book:
“This is where you must use your skill and imagination as a comic-book writer. You must concoct, possibly with the help of the [GM}, a plausible background for your character which explains how they got their Superpowers. You should attempt to explain as many of your character’s powers as possible, for which the [GM] deems are inconsistent are forfeited.”p.9
You can trade off power rolls as you go for upgrades to already-rolled powers or for an Advantageous Background (like being a Bruce Wayne / Tony Stark billionaire). So while character creation is indeed random, it gives the player a ton of latitude to sculpt those initial rolls into something that’s fun to play.
Simply put, character creation in Golden Heroes is quick and easy, full of flavor and guided by narrative. At the end of this post I’ll roll one up to demonstrate.
Golden Heroes’ “let’s remember that we’re all comic-book writers” vibe permeates the rules of play as well. There’s a heavy focus on combat and set pieces, dividing combat actions into Frames. Different activities cost different amounts of Frames per round (very similar to the modern Pathfinder Second Edition, actually), giving the action a delightfully comic book feel.
Combat can get overly crunchy, unfortunately. For example, there are different rules to resolve a Parry versus a Dodge, and they use different dice (and to be honest, Parry rules are just bonkers). Tables rule everything, as was common in the 1980s. My guess is that, if I ever got into a regular campaign, I’d eventually simplify some of the mechanics to keep everything moving and as fluid as character creation. Even amidst the crunch, though, there are some cool ideas. In addition to Frames-as-actions, you have two hit-point pools: Hit-to-Coma (HTC) and Hit-to-Kill (HTK), and this distinction helps simulate the fact that comic books can toggle between characters beating each other to a pulp but never dying and life-or-death stakes.
Between combats, characters get a certain amount of downtime phases, which is also easy to picture making their way into comics books. And in a truly narrative RPG innovation, every campaign in Golden Heroes has a set of Campaign Ratings that are built collaboratively between players and Supervisor (the GM) that fluctuate based on the adventures the characters undertake and their role-playing. Campaign Ratings also get awfully crunchy, but it’s clear that despite the complexity the goal here is to have a dynamic world and story built off individual character backstories. Supervisors reward players for being heroes instead of murder hobos or powermongers, and these rewards help them achieve more success in the campaign world. It’s a cool rewards system that veers away from individual level-progression and, again, mimics what superheroes experience within comic books.
If you’re intrigued by the game but either don’t want to track down expensive, hard-to-find books or play outdated crunchy tables of the ‘80s, Simon Burley has gone on to update the system as Squadron UK. It’s easy enough to pick up on DriveThruRPG. Because I can’t help myself, I’ve ordered a copy and may dive into it in a future blog post.
Let’s Roll Some Dice!
As I’ve said, the glory of Golden Heroes is the character creation. In fact, there is an absolutely wonderful section in the Players Book that dedicates three full pages to showing the “now you interpret your powers” system in action – using one set of powers rolls to flesh out eight (!) in-depth character ideas. Let’s walk through the steps and see what happens.
For the four core attributes, it’s old school D&D style: Roll 3d6 and that’s your score. Alright [rattles dice in hand]. Here we go.
Ego is a measure of my character’s willpower. I roll 5,4,3: 12.
Strength is, um… how strong my character is. I roll, 3,5,1: 9.
Dexterity measures manual dexterity rather than physical agility. I roll 5,4,3 again: 12.
Vigour (ha!) is a measure of how fit and healthy my character is. I roll 6,2,2: 10.
Wow. My character is pretty much the definition of average.
Hits to Coma (HTC) is the amount of damage my character can take before passing out. I roll 1d6 for each point of Vigour, or 10d6. Fun! I roll 1,1,2,3,4,1,5,2,6,5: 30. Blech. My character will be Staggered at 1/5 of my HTC, or 6, and will be Stunned at 1/10, or 3.
Hits to Kill (HTK) is the amount of damage my character can take before dying. 10d6 again yields 6,6,4,1,3,2,3,6,3,1: 34. My character will be Hospitalized at 3 HTK.
Movement is how far my character can move in a Frame, measured in metres (ha!). The calculation here is (Strength + Dexterity + Vigour) / 6. My character’s movement is 5.
Now comes the fun part.
I get a number of power rolls equal to 2d6 halved + 4 (why not 1d6+4? I don’t know, man. I suppose the idea is that rounding up gives you slightly more rolls on average). Since I’m rolling mediocre today, of course I roll 7, rounded up is EIGHT power roles. Wheeee!
Each Power Roll can be used to either:
- Determine an Advantageous Background
- Roll on the Superpower Generation table
- Upgrade a Superpower already rolled
- Enhance Superpowers and skills (used for campaigns)
Roll 1-2: 55 = Psi Powers, which the table tells me immediately costs an additional power roll. Psi Powers are COOL and makes a ton of sense for someone with decidedly average stats.
Roll 3: 56 = Psi Powers! This automatically bumps me from Grade 1 Psi Powers to Grade 2, something I would have probably done anyway. Neat.
There’s a subsystem in Psi Powers to determine my powers. I get 15 + 1d10 Psi Points and I roll a 9. 24 Psi Points, which is a resource pool for using my psychic powers. What psychic powers? Let’s roll four d10s and find out:
- Psi roll 1: 6. Telekinesis. This is my Specialty Power (meaning it costs less Psi Points to use than the others).
- Psi roll 2: 4. Precognition
- Psi roll 3: 5. Psi Blast
- Psi roll 4: 8. Telepathy
Roll 4: 02 = Agility, which as I said is different from Dexterity. This means my character can leap 4 metres in a Frame, swing at 2-4 times my Movement, gain a bonus to dodge, and can do extra damage by swinging or leaping into combat.
Roll 5: 33 = Health. Another table here, which I roll 5 on a d6: Toxin Immunity. My character will be immune to poison.
Roll 6: 20 = Energy Attack. Another table, which I roll 6 on a d10: Vibration. My character can emit destructive vibrations.
Roll 7: 24 = Flight, which is what it says it is and doesn’t require another roll.
Roll 8 is my Advantageous Background roll (which the rules allow me to pick, but I’m embracing full randomness): Previous Training, which allows me to add 2 to any Attribute or 1 to two Attributes and should represent some sort of elite training.
My character’s Superpower rolls:
- Psi Powers (Grade 2 – Telekinesis, Precognition, Psi Blast, Telepathy)
- Health (Toxin Immunity)
- Energy Attack (Vibration)
- Background: Previous Training
Now comes the time to rationalize and make sense of these rolls. As the Players Guide says, I need to come up with an origin story and narrative that ties everything I’ve rolled together, forfeiting what doesn’t make sense.
Can I get eight distinct concepts out of this list? Gauntlet thrown!
Concept 1: Hand of Gaia
Maasa Abebe is a young, talented archeologist (Previous Training, +2 Ego). At a dig she discovers the literal heart of the world, an artifact linked to the primordial goddess Gaia. Thereafter she is a living avatar of the goddess, able to tap into the ancient soul of the Earth itself to move objects, read others’ thoughts, and even unleash localized earthquakes. Her connection to her goddess makes her immune to natural toxins and preternaturally light on her feet.
I can’t really make Flight makes sense here but kept all others.
Concept 2: Psion
Cassidy O’Toole is in the prime of her life and a doctoral student of cognitive psychology (Previous Training, +2 Ego) when she discovers her terminal illness. Her wealthy parents sign her up for an experimental set of treatments to find a cure. The bad news is that the treatment facility is destroyed during a super-powered battle, with Cassidy the only survivor. The good news is that the chemicals and supervillain powers combine to cure Cassidy and leave her with superior health and psychic powers. She is adopted by the superhero group responsible, becoming an invaluable member.
I don’t really see a room for Energy Attack here (Flight, I’m saying, is a result of Telekinesis on herself).
Concept 3: Quake
Adam Johnson is a dedicated, albeit mediocre gymnast (Previous Training, +1 Strength, +1 Vigour, also accounts for Agility) and geology student at UC Berkeley. During a particularly humiliating competition, Adam’s mutant powers manifest and his rage causes an earthquake to level the gymnasium. Horrified, he retreats from school and vows to understand these new abilities before returning to society. He is quickly found by a group of mutants who train him in his vibration-themed powers (including flight and a metabolism so high it’s resistant to toxins) and give him purpose.
In this version, I’m dropping the highly valuable Psi Powers and would likely request that the Supervisor allow me to upgrade Energy Attack to at least Grade 2 to compensate.
Concept 4: Nomad
No’madd is the sole survivor of an alien spacecraft that has crashed on Earth. In a desperate gambit to save their species from a dying planet, No’madd’s people rigorously trained countless explorers (Previous Training, +2 Ego) and sent them to the far reaches of the galaxy. Now stranded here and utterly alone, No’madd has vowed to ingratiate themself to the local populace and improve life on Earth as much as possible, always hoping more of their people will find their way here.
Aliens always feel a little like cheating in Golden Heroes because I can basically keep everything and say it’s innate. I’d probably ask the Supervisor to switch from Vibration on my Energy Attack to Cosmic.
Concept 5: Prana
Sunita Singh was born and raised in a monastic order (Previous Training, +2 Ego) where she quickly became a prodigy of the mindfulness and inward-centered teachings. At fifteen years old, she had surpassed all masters of the order. At twenty, she went into a meditation so deep that she did not eat or sleep for years. At twenty-five, finally, she awakens with a glowing third eye on her forehead and manifests a broad array of psychic abilities. She has perfect control of her body, full of grace and immune to toxins. Sunita, without a word, flies up and away from the monastery, full of intent to change the world.
I’m keeping everything here except the Energy Attack.
Concept 6: Noir
Christopher Knight was a hardboiled detective (Previous Training, +2 Ego) in Chicago in the 1920s, killed during a case investigating a crime boss. Now he has reappeared, spectral but solid enough to interact with the world. Why now? What is he here to do? Chris doesn’t know, but he picks up the trail of that cold case, intent on finding out.
The Psi Powers, Flight, and Health are all easy enough to fold into “dead guy powers,” and the Agility is decently noir-style pulp detective. I’d work with the Supervisor to say that his Energy Attack is his spectral pistol, using Vibration as an energy type but saying it’s basically ghost bullets.
Concept 7: ATHENA-5.5
Nine years after Dr. Dara Melamed’s death, the ATHENA prototype artificial intelligence she created finishes building itself a physical shell (stretching here, but I’m saying self-educating itself for years has led to Previous Training, +2 Ego). The smooth, silver globe rises from Dr. Melamed’s secret laboratory and drifts out into the city. (It’s the story of Ultron from Marvel Comics, but a creation that strives for making the world better through collaboration with its fellow populace.)
I don’t think it makes sense to keep Agility, since a floating globe won’t really be leaping or swinging anywhere. Everything else makes sense, though I would talk to the Supervisor about making the Energy Attack Sonic or Laser instead of Vibration, which is more what I picture.
Concept 8: Medusa
Deep-sea diver (Previous Training, +2 Vigour) Sophie Kim discovers a new, bizarre species of jellyfish, an amazing and groundbreaking find. Unfortunately, it stings her and sends her into a coma for nearly two years, and the jellyfish is never seen again. When she awakes in a government science facility, Sophie’s body has turned translucent like a jellyfish, her hair a mass of tentacles and her brain pulses with electricity within her iridescent skull. She has amazing psychic powers, immunity to toxins, and she can swim at astounding speeds. Government officials give her the codename Medusae (which the media mistakenly changes to “Medusa,” a name that sticks) and send her out on aquatic missions.
No Energy Attack here, and I’d say the Agility and Flight are water-based. She can’t technically breathe underwater, so I’d either ask for a device to allow her to do so or to provide a Grade 2 on Health from the Supervisor to compensate for the self-imposed limitations on my powers.
There we go! Eight distinct thumbnail concepts from the same random rolls, all of which I can see being a fun foundation for a series of adventures. So yes, fully random rolls can be a mess. But there’s enough freedom in character creation that somehow solid characters still emerge. It’s fair to say that very few of these ideas would manifest in quite the same ways if I was using a point-buy system and starting with my own concept. That’s the joy of Golden Heroes character creation, and why it’s so addictive.
Holy cow this post became a beast. I’ll set my eyes on another game from my master list of games and see where the next post takes me.
In the meantime, may your Vigour be high and your Movement take you many metres!