Excalibur Hobbies in Malden Center was my game store of choice from the last days of the Eighties up through the middle of the Nineties. It was at the midpoint of the walk between the Orange Line station and the New England Comics store where I bought my funnybooks, it had a fairly deep inventory of RPG-related stuff, and the family that ran it tended to be fairly laid back and didn’t try to draw me into long conversations.
It was also one of the few gaming stores that offered a clearance aisle, in the form of a table near the front of the shop piled high with deeply discounted product. The contents were a mix of remaindered flotsam from out-of-print oddities and oversized white elephants that had been taking up too much shelf space without generating a sale. I made a point of sifting through it when I had the time and money to spare, and came across several interesting finds over the years. (I did not, however, pick up the Adeptus Titanicus and Dark Future box sets when they ended up there with an asking price of twenty bucks a pop. I’m still kicking myself over that decision a quarter-century later.)
My favorite of these finds was Queen Victoria and The Holy Grail, a 1985 adventure supplement for Games Workshop’s forgotten Golden Heroes superhero RPG. I knew about the game from some scenarios published in older issues of White Dwarf. One involved a massive supervillain battle that managed to fit the relevant stats for the dozen or so characters involved on a single page — a promising sign for someone who was looking for a streamlined alternative to the complexities of Champions.
A copy of the actual Golden Heroes ruleset was impossible to find, though I was happy enough with finding one of the game’s modules (with a one dollar price tag) in the bargain bin. Even better, it turned out to be one of the best written superhero RPG scenarios I’ve ever come across. It managed to maintain the correct balance between player interaction and faithfulness to the genre which eluded so many similar efforts.
Here’s the short version of the plot and premise:
The Holy Grail is real has been entrusted to the British monarchy for safekeeping since Arthurian times. Someone swipes it at the dawn of the 20th Century, so Queen Victoria tries to make up for failing her duty by having herself cryogenically preserved until the artifact can be recovered. When a promising lead on its location surfaces in the mid-Eighties, a group of trustworthy superheroes (i.e. the player characters) are recruited by Her Flash-Frozen Majesty and a stock issue superspy organization to hunt it down.
Meanwhile, the immortal sorceress Morgan le Fay is also seeking the Grail to use in a Satanic ritual. She and the heroes tangle a couple of times before engaging in a high-stakes climax at the top of London’s BT Tower.
The whole thing is fraught with goofy high-concept nonsense wrapped around a compelling threat and almost perfectly structured like a genuine multi-issue story from a superhero funnybook at the time. Its British roots and slant on the source material (though it did include a visit to Manhattan) only increased my fascination.
The entire scenario is peppered with little callouts in the margins aimed at anticipating certain actions by the players or providing opportunities for certain skills/powers to have a moment to shine. It was a neat and extremely helpful touch, and one that I wish other games would’ve incorporated. The illustrations are…well…about what you’d expect for that era of RPGs, but there are plenty of unintended laughs to be had from the obviously referenced NPC portraits.
For all my enthusiasm about the module and effort adapting it for the Champions rules, Queen Victoria and The Holy Grail ended up being The One That Got Away. I either couldn’t recruit enough players to make it work or the run would end before hitting the point where the adventure would fit the flow of the campaign. The dream didn’t die easy, though, as the module figured into the planning notes of every abortive attempt I’ve made at a superhero RPG campaign since 1989.
During the dawn of the eBay era, I did finally manage to score a copy of a Golden Heroes rulebook. It wasn’t until it arrived that I realized the book I purchased was the one for the gamemaster’s use and pointless without a players’ guide.
Such is life.