Golden Heroes

by David Meadows 11. September 2016 22:51

Number 4 in an intermittent series on how this thing came to be. (See the sidebar for the others.)

Role-playing games (RPGs) became a thing around the mid-70s. Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) was the first one published, rapidly followed by a horde of imitators. I first encountered them around 1980, and D&D was the first one I played.

As I explained in a previous post, an RPG has a "games master" (GM) who devises the world and the plotlines, and "players" who take the part of characters in that world and move through the plots the GM creates for them. I started as a "player", which is probably how everybody should start. But although I loved being a player, I knew that all the real creativity came from the GM, and that's what I wanted to be. But there was no point in me being the GM for D&D, when our group already had one who was very good at it, so I needed something different. Almost randomly, I bought a second-hand game called Traveller. Unlike D&D, which was about heroes going on quests to slay fantasy monsters (the clue is pretty much there in the name), Traveller was a science fiction game. Which was good, because science fiction was what I really loved.

In a lot of ways, the Traveller rules were ridiculously primitive: both overly-simplistic and overly-complex at the same time. And a lot of things in them didn't really make any sense. But as I've already discussed, the rules are the least part of an RPG; the world is everything. The trouble was, In the first game session I ran I hadn't really figured that out. So I had a simple plot that didn't make much sense, set on a planet that didn't have any thought behind it. And the players created "cardboard" characters with no thought behind them; no personality, no goals or motivations, just playing pieces to solve the GM's puzzle. It didn't really work, and I almost stopped being a GM right then. But I went away, and thought about it, and realised what an RPG really was. It was a story. And I was good at making up stories (I thought). So I needed to stop thinking about a game, and start thinking about how to tell a story that my players could be part of.

I went to them and said, "I want to run Traveller again. What kind of stuff do you want to do?"

"We want to hijack a starship and explore space in it. Like Blake's 7."


Well, ok. That's my premise. Now write a story that satisfies that. I'll need a universe for them to explore... well, ok, a corner of the universe... a few planets... a political background... conflicts and potential conflicts... interesting things to discover in different corners of different planets... ok... I can do this...

Several hours of work and pages of background notes later, I got the players back together and we tried again.

We played that game weekly (in summer holidays, almost daily) for a couple of years. We pretty much stopped playing D&D. The players just kept asking for Traveller. And I kept making up new plots, and growing the universe more and more...

And something weird happened. Instead of mechanically plodding though my plot like it was a game of chess, the players had told me what they wanted to do within the game's world, and suddenly the world was as important to them as it was to me. They wanted to understand it. They wanted to work within it. And they did unexpected things that made me go away, re-evaluate my ideas, and come back with a better idea of what my world was like and how the players fitted into it. I had designed a world that would be there and make sense and keep working even if the players were not in it. But once they were in it, they affected the world. It reacted to them; it had to because they kept pushing at it. And they reacted to it in turn, as it pushed back at them, and their characters became more developed, well-rounded personalites, who felt like real people even as I tried to give them a real-feeling world to inhabit. It was still my world, but it was more than that. It was collaborative.

That's what all RPGs should be like, of course, and I know I'm not the only person to discover it. But from that point on I stopped creating "games" and started creating "worlds". Start with the world, and the plots for the games should become obvious, because you just have to look at what's happening in your world and ask, "How can the players interact with this?" I don't think I could run a game any other way now. I know some people play "one-off" games, short scenarios that don't need a detailed background, they stand alone, the players solve the puzzle, then they're over, finished. (Games designed to be run at conventions work like this, for example; they are never intended to continue for a second session, so why do you need a world beyond what the players will see in that one session?) And there's nothing wrong with that style of game, it's just that I don't think I could do that. With me, I need a world.

Over the next few years I ran several different games with various sets of rules. And always starting by creating a world.

And then some time in 1987, I saw this in a Games Workshop sale. The game that changed my life:

It was the first super-hero RPG I had seen, though I had known such things existed. And I loved super-heroes. I wasn't sure if I could convince my playing group to try such a game,  but Games Workshop were only asking £1.99 for it. I couldn't not buy it.

I bought it, and it was the most elegant set of RPG rules I had ever read. Even today, with rules generally more detailed and "sophisticated" than they were in the early days of the hobby, and even though I've bought and read dozens of sets of rules in all genres, I've never found anything with core mechanics that simulated the action of comic-book heroes as well as Golden Heroes does. I had to convince my players to try this.

But first, I had to create a world for my players to explore.

And that's another story...

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Comments (4) -

Tim H United Kingdom
9/11/2016 11:47:28 PM #

Excelent stuff.  

Was that the really old version of Traveller when your character could die during character creation?


David Meadows United Kingdom
9/12/2016 12:04:05 AM #

Yes, first (I think) edition, three slim A5 books in a box, and yes your character could die before he even started playing the game. Or by making a bad roll during a cryogenic voyage. (Honestly, in what kind of universe would people pay for passage where there was a 1-in-36 chance of not surviving it?) And where the best weapon in the game was a cutlass, because the designer was an ex-marine drill instructor and thought everybody in the military should have a sword (or possibly had read too much Dune). Ahh, those were the days...

They expanded it massively with dozens of world bulding supplements (which I duly pillaged for ideas) but the basic rules had no kind of built-in background, which I credit as being the reason  why I became a world-builder myself. If I had started with modern, here's-the-world-for-you games, I think I would have turned out differently.


Tim H United Kingdom
9/12/2016 12:19:39 AM #

That sounds like the original "Classic Traveller" rules from the early 80s (Or possibly the late 70s)


Tim H United Kingdom
9/12/2016 12:22:27 AM #

and thought everybody in the military should have a sword

I'd love to see an RPG designed by Mad Jack Churchill....


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About this blog

The Heroes Universe is an ongoing work of fiction, conceived and chiefly plotted by David Meadows, with help from a group of friends, over a 30-year period.

I am slowly documenting the Universe on this web site.

This blog is a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of that history.

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