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Tuesday, 30 September 2014

1984: Squadron UK

2014 is the thirtieth anniversary of one of the few home-grown RPGs to be published by Games Workshop. Originally self-published in 1982, Golden Heroes was a British take on the superhero genre and the superhero roleplaying game. Although very much of its time, the 1984 edition from Games Workshop brought innovations and concepts to the genre that emulated the comic books it drew from, particularly in its combat system and in its campaign ratings which were used to track a hero’s place in society and how he engaged with it. The RPG would receive two good scenarios—Legacy of Eagles and Queen Victoria & The Holy Grail. It was also supported with a number of scenarios and articles in Games Workshop’s house magazine, White Dwarf. Unfortunately, the game would go out of print in 1986 and receive no further support, but it has always been remembered with a certain fondness.

Squadron UK: The British Superhero Role-Playing Game is by the same designer and is essentially the sequel to Golden Heroes, but is once again self-published. It also remains unashamedly old-fashioned in its design. The core of every character is rolled up rather than designed using points as in almost every other superhero RPG—this includes rolling for powers, backgrounds, and skills; its uses lots of different types of dice; and damage is divided between dice rolled to inflict killing damage and dice rolled to inflict stunning damage. Despite remaining unashamedly old-fashioned in its design, it also retains three interesting innovations. The first is that its method of character creation, one that combined random elements with the dedicated design input from the player. The second is that time is handled in panels, as in comic book panels. Plot panels handle scenes and montage panels handle training scenes, whilst combat panels handle the knockabout action seen in Four Colour comics. The third are its derived characteristics—Esteem, Sleuthing, and Fate—that reflect how a player and his hero plays Squadron UK, and thus his place in the campaign that the GM is running.

Perhaps the most radical of the three innovations in Squadron UK is that first. Character creation involves the rolling of random elements—a superhero’s powers, background, and so on—before his player explains where the hero got his powers from and how they work—essentially designing his origins and his abilities. This forces a player to give his character no little thought in coming up with a rationale for him. At the start of the process, a player receives eight points—at least in the Basic Game, it may vary according to a GM’s campaign; these are spent on rolls on the Superpower Table and to upgrade powers already rolled for, plus a Background, such as Magical, Rich—Inherited, or Psionic. The system eschews the usual lists of disadvantages, but allows a character a small bonus to a power if his player decides to have his powers come from a device or unnatural means rather than be innate or be as a result of the superhero being a mutant. Four core attributes—Strength, Endurance, Dexterity, and Agility—are rolled on four six-sided dice, the lowest being dropped. Note that there is no Intelligence attribute. A hero’s IQ or brilliance can be measured by backgrounds such as Brilliant Scientist, but is otherwise down to the player to portray.

The powers themselves are broad in nature rather than being specific, a player being expected to define the exact details of his super abilities. A player cannot have more than three levels in a power at game’s start, but there is room for a character to develop. Every power comes with a list of suggested gimmicks—a player can select one for each level his hero has in the power. For example, with the Marksmanship power, a hero receives a bonus to hit and to the damage roll if he spends time aiming. This increases each level. Gimmicks for Marksmanship include reducing a targeted opponent’s Dodge roll and bouncing missiles off other surfaces. It is also possible for a character to take a power at a ‘Half Level’, meaning that he does not get its full effect, but it does have plenty of potential for development. For example, the ‘Half Level’ for Marksmanship simply adds a small damage bonus. All of the powers in Squadron UK are described in an appendix at the back of the book; this makes them easy to find.

Every character receives five Common skills and several Trained skills. The number and levels of the latter depends on how good his attributes, as does another derived attribute, Psyche. The lower the levels of a hero’s attributes, the more points he has to assign to Trained skills and the better his Psyche, that is, his mental fortitude. Essentially, the level of a hero’s Trained skills and Psyche both serves as a balancing mechanism and an emulation of the genre. That is, physically weaker or less capable heroes tend to be better skilled and possess a greater mental fortitude.

Lastly, a player really needs to define his hero’s origins and how his powers work. This is an exercise in player creativity and rationalisation, and whilst it may run counter to the design of other superhero RPGs in which points are spent to design the character that the player wants and wants exactly, it has always been a core feature of Golden Heroes and this sequel. The aim is to include all of the hero’s powers in the origin story, otherwise the hero loses unused powers.

-oOo-

Tonbogiri
Tonbogiri is the living embodiment of an ancient Japanese spear and the dragonfly that landed upon its blade and was cut in two.  He is a fearless warrior and an honourable opponent, charged to live up to all of the ideals of the Japanese Samurai. Not only is he agile, but he can also fly while gripping the spear. In battle he can throw the spear or engage in melee with an opponent, as well as use it to parry attacks. Currently, his ordinary identity is that of Michael Kurita, a student studying English.

Strength 10 (+5) Endurance 15 (+7)
Dexterity 07 (+3) Agility 13 (+6)
Psyche 12 (+6)
Kill Points 56 Stun Points 61
Knockback 25
Move 5

Esteem: 10; Legality 2, Memorability 2, Heroism 3, Relationships 2, Success 1
Sleuthing: 5; Powers 1, Detection 1, Contacts 0, Exposure 2, Accessibility 1
Fate: 9; Scruples 2, Victories 1, Public Reaction 2, Extrovert 2, Home Life 2

Background: Immortal—Legendary
Acrobatics (+3 to Dodge rolls, +5 to Agility rolls)
Energy Blast (Thrown spear)
Flight/2 (Movement 10 per panel; no visible means, can strike a blow in passing)
Protection (All damage divided by 2; -3 to Agility rolls; automatic change)
Weapon/2 (Tonbogiri, +4 to Dexterity rolls, +2D10 damage; missile/melee weapon, indestructible)

Common Skills:
Etiquette 10, Language—Japanese 11, Literacy 11, Negotiation 10, Swimming 11
Trained Skills:
History—Japanese 12, Language—English 12, Mythology 12, Occult Knowledge 12, Weaponsmith 12, Weapon Skill—Spear 11

Gear
Light Costume (+1 to Dodge rolls), Tonbogiri (spear)

-oOo-

Mechanically, Squadron UK starts out simple, but in places does get a little complex. It starts with the basic mechanic, which involves rolling a twenty-sided die to get higher than 18 for a complete success, or 15 to 17 for a partial or minor success after adding suitable modifiers. When applied to damage, a hero or a villain rolls ten-sided dice if the roll was a success and six-sided dice if it was a partial success. Before damage—and with most attacks, this includes killing and stunning damage in the same attack—is rolled, a target has a chance to dodge or parry the attack, but if he fails, he takes the damage, but the damage can be subject to dividers that reduce it. Which means that the game play can be a little fiddly in parts.

One genre fitting aspect of combat in Squadron UK is its use of ‘Panels’ as a means of handling time in combat or action scenes. How many Panels the characters have each round depends on their Initiative rolls, but their use is quite flexible in that a character can use future Panels in order to make Dodge attempts or in some cases, attempts to Parry. Overall, combat is otherwise is very knockabout, back and forth, nicely handling the feel of combat seen in comic books.

To support what has so far been the core rules, Squadron UK includes a short adventure, ‘Consequences’ as well as some fairly broad advice. The adventure itself serves as a decent introduction to superhero roleplaying and playing Squadron UK, although it needs a careful read through as it is written in an almost stream of consciousness style, the story developing as it goes along. The adventure is nominally set in the English city of Birmingham and whilst it can be set in almost in any twenty-first century modern city, residents of Birmingham may spot a satirical dig at the city here and there. That said, very little of the city is present in the adventure.

The advanced rules in Squadron UK opens up a whole host options. These include dedicated superpower tables so that players can create particular archetypes such as the Blaster or the Brick and suggestions for achieving balance in character creation, plus suggestions as to how the game system can adjusted. The advice is more detailed; covering as it does campaign set-up and play, adventure design, and the game after the campaign has ended. This is supported by a mini-campaign entitled ‘Squadron: Birmingham’, which takes place in the same city as the earlier ‘Consequences’. It showcases an example of a campaign with its settings adjusted, in particular characters begin play with six powers rather than the usual eight; it is a campaign of fixed length; and is intended to take novice heroes and push them towards becoming members of the local superhero team—Squadron: Birmingham. The campaign consists of a mixture of adventures and sections where the GM is expected to develop adventures of his own. There is a certain pleasure in this campaign in that makes fuller use of the city of Birmingham—on a personal note, two of the notable scenes in the campaign can be seen from my bedroom window!—and while a series of photographs are used to illustrate the campaign, the city is relatively easy to research and find both further illustrations and inspiration. One downside for the GM is that like ‘Consequences’, ‘Squadron: Birmingham’ does suffer from being written in a stream of consciousness fashion, so it does need a careful read through. Here is a sample character for a Squadron: Birmingham campaign.

-oOo-

‘Girl Power’
Henrietta ‘Harry’ Fawcett is a driven woman, attempting to live up to her father’s high standards. He expected little of his daughter, but much of his sons, and so ‘Harry’ Fawcett has striven to outdo her brothers at every turn, becoming not only a better athlete and sportsperson than them, but also better academically. She enjoys sports of all kinds, has obtained her pilot’s license and enjoys skydiving and judo. She is also a noted biochemist, currently having developed a formula that gives the subject great strength and endurance which she hopes will find a use medically. Currently she is on her way to the University of Birmingham to begin studying a Master’s Degree. She carries several doses of the formula and it takes roughly a minute for it to have an effect once injected. So far, she is the only subject of the formula.

Strength 16/37, (+8/+18) Endurance 16/36, (+8/+18)
Dexterity 09/(+4) Agility 16 (+8)
Psyche 09 (+4)
Damage Bonus +4/+25
Kill Points 69/138 Stun Points 64/132
Knockback 32/83
Move 6

Esteem: 10; Legality 2, Memorability 2, Heroism 3, Relationships 2, Success 1
Sleuthing: 5; Powers 1, Detection 1, Contacts 0, Exposure 2, Accessibility 1
Fate: 9; Scruples 2, Victories 1, Public Reaction 2, Extrovert 2, Home Life 2

Background—Brilliant Chemist (+15)
Endurance/2 (+5 to Knockback, 50% less sleep)
Martial Arts (+1 damage on natural attacks, +2 to hit, Judo Throw)
Strength/2 (+5 to Knockback, does not appear strong)

Common Skills:
Computer Use 9, Literacy 9, Negotiation 10, Swimming 13, Weightlifting 13
Trained Skills:
Computer Programming 8, Driving 8, Electronics 7, Pilot 8, Sky Diving 16

Gear
Protective Costume (Kill Divider/2)

-oOo-

One of the more notable features of the original Golden Heroes was its Campaign Ratings. In Squadron UK, these are replaced with three derived characteristics—Esteem (charisma), Sleuthing (crime detection), and Fate (luck). They are each made up of several other factors which are not set during character creation, but after the end of the first scenario as they reflect a hero’s performance and his deeds, rather than straight numbers. Initially this is slightly problematic as there are some skill values derived from them, but once a scenario or two has been played this is not an issue. One new feature is the use of montage panels that enable a player to describe how his hero is improving himself and so increasing his skills and—ever so slowly—his powers also.

Physically, Squadron UK is available in various formats—black & white or colour, softback or hardback. In black & white at least, its images are poorly reproduced and typically too dark. The writing also lacks polish and the layout is scrappy in places. Certainly a second edition would require a good edit.

There is an undeniable sense of nostalgia in returning to a game like Squadron UK. It is an undeniable improvement upon its forebear; streamlining many of the rules whilst retaining the best features—character generation that combines random elements with the need for a player to create a rationale, the use of the derived characteristics, and the knockabout combat system. Its improvements include a simple experience system with the use of montage panels, solid advice in terms of campaigns, and a decent mini-campaign. Squadron UK: The British Superhero Role-Playing Game might not be as slick as more modern superhero roleplaying games, but it makes up for that in terms of its charm and character.