You start with a blank sheet of graph paper, a pencil, and a few ideas.

Anyone who’s run a roleplaying game (at least those who did so before the days of computers and pre-printed cardstock “terrain tiles”) has been here. You begin by staring at the blank sheet for a few moments, then you start to fill in walls, rooms, and passages. It doesn’t matter whether you’re creating a subterranean dungeon for a sword-and-sorcery game, a secret missile complex for an espionage campaign, or a science-fiction space station, the basic process remains essentially the same. You’re playing at being an architect, taking a stab at designing a believable physical structure. That’s the easy part.

The tough part is deciding what goes in it.

That’s a proverbial double-whammy for me right now, as I’m in the midst of creating a subterranean lair for what I hope will be my first published module for the Hideouts & Hoodlums roleplaying game. You may recall numerous prior blog posts in which I’ve described H&H. It’s arguably part of the “Old School Renaissance” in RPGs. I say “arguably” because most games which fit that category are attempting to re-create the fun of games which were published in the first ten years or so of the hobby (which began in 1974 with the publication of the first version of Dungeons & Dragons), games which are now difficult or impossible to obtain because of their rarity and expense.

But Hideouts & Hoodlums is something very different. It’s not a re-creation of an existing game, but a reimagining of the origin of the whole damn hobby. The core idea behind H&H can be described in this way: what if that very first roleplaying game had been designed by guys who were fans of 1940’s superhero comic books instead of sword-and-sorcery fantasy novels? What if you could adventure in a world full of perils like power-mad tyrants, giant robots, crackpot scientists, femme fatales, and racketeers instead of evil wizards and fearsome demons? What if your character could be a costumed superhero or a stage magician with mystic powers instead of a mail-clad fighter or robed conjurer?

That whole core concept hit me right where I live on a variety of levels. Back in the mid-1970’s (starting in early 1976, to be exact) I was one of those eager teenagers who was an avid player of the original D&D game, back when it was three little booklets in a faux woodgrain box. I spent many an hour creating massive multi-level underground complexes using nothing but graph paper and a whole lot of imagination. I’m also a huge fan of comic books from the late 1930’s and the 1940’s. I don’t find them to be the least bit dull or archaic – quite the opposite in fact. It’s really exciting to read comics of that era because the superhero genre was then entirely uncharted country; those artists and writers were literally making it up as they went. It’s thrilling to see an entire art form take shape and define itself, panel by panel, right before your eyes.

Early roleplaying gamers were just like early comic books writers (although we didn’t know it at the time). In both cases, the rules were sketchy things, easily open to multiple interpretations. Don’t know how to do something? Make it up, spur of the moment.

That’s what makes Hideouts & Hoodlums such a brilliant thing; it’s a highly entertaining mashup of two virgin fledgling genres: RPGs and comic books when both were in their infancy, and it’s a dream come true for a guy like me. I can let my imagination run wild…

And that’s the problem, more or less.

Comic books of the 1930’s and 1940’s were oftentimes very wildly imaginative. A mystery man (as they called superheroes in those days) or costumed adventurer might battle racketeers in one issue and face off against a modern-day Merlin in the next. A police radio call would mention a “large creature” rampaging in the downtown shopping district; when the hero arrived, the menace could potentially be a dinosaur, a giant robot, or even a fire-breathing medieval dragon. And don’t even get me started on Captain Marvel’s adventures – literally anything could happen in those crazy books!

All “fantastic” fiction, whether it’s a comic book, a fantasy novel, a science-fiction TV show, a horror movie, requires the suspension of disbelief. You have to forget that dragons don’t exist, blow off the reality that a man can’t fly, and tell Einstein to shove off when he says, “186,000 miles a second – not just a good idea, it’s the law!” You have to put mundane reality aside for a couple of hours, otherwise it just won’t work. If you’re not willing (or even able, as is the case with a couple of people of my close acquaintance) to do that, you’re in for a loooooong couple of hours when you sit down to watch a Hellboy movie or Forbidden Planet.

Believe it or not, Golden Age comic books required a lot from their readers. When you sit down to read Air Fighters Comics, you have to throw away everything you know about aeronautics. Airboy’s plane has wings that flap like a hummingbird’s, allowing it to hover and even stop on a dime.

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Skywolf and his comrades fly “semi-planes” which look something like a P-38 but can actually break into two separate planes, each with a full wing on one side and a stubby little half-wing on the other. Never mind that a plane designed that way would corkscrew straight into the ground in the real world – it’s a comic book and it’s cool, dammit! Just sit back and go with it.

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The costumed mystery man books required a great deal of suspension of disbelief from the reader as well. Good ol’ Charlie Biro wrote a Daredevil tale in which a gangster had his brain removed and implanted in the body of a wolf (a tale I recounted in its full demented glory in two separate posts, which you can read here and here), a story which was so twisted on so many levels that I felt multiple fuses go “pop” in my brain the first time I read it.

But sometimes the comics asked for too much. Witness Frank Thomas’ The Owl (which got its start in Crackajack Funnies in 1940).

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There’s nothing terribly original about The Owl, but the present day reader nevertheless has to not only suspend his disbelief when reading The Owl’s adventures, he must completely remove it, ball it up, and throw it into the street to be run over by a passing local delivery truck.

The Owl began his career as “Terry, a commonplace detective” (an issue later, we learn that his full name is “Nick Terry”). Terry is a kind of laughing stock on the force, described as “the despair of his fellow police officers”, a guy who gets little respect because he misses a lot of work because he’s home asleep all day. Yet he not only gets to keep his police job, he lives in a penthouse apartment.

That loud crunch you just heard was the UPS truck going by, flattening my disbelief on top of a manhole cover.

Why is Terry asleep all day? Because he spends his nights fighting crime as The Owl:

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Believe me, Terry’s nocturnal exploits are handled in a far more believable manner than his “normal” life out of costume. Despite the fact that to the rest of the world he’s just some guy who can’t manage to get off his lazy ass and show up at work, he manages to have a real hot dish of a girlfriend, reporter Belle Wayne. In his second appearance, we also learn that The Owl can somehow afford his own plane:

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That loud “foosh” you just heard was my disbelief which, after having been pancaked on the manhole cover out front, was lofted skyward by the wind where it just now burst into flames while sailing over my neighbor’s chimney.

As The Owl picked up popularity with the readers, the “improbability level” was dialed back a bit. By his third appearance Nick Terry was no longer described as a “police detective” but simply as “detective” (and, in later books, a “private detective”). But in that same issue, we learn that he doesn’t only have a luxury penthouse but also a hangar up on that roof:

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The “boom” you just heard was caused by the charred remnants of my disbelief being completely vaporized by a sudden lightning strike.

So I won’t even bother to mention that they never explain how he can take off or land the damned thing on a skyscraper roof, or that we later learn that his penthouse is a fancy two-story job, or that Belle figures out that Nick is actually The Owl and, all on her own, creates her own Owl costume and becomes his sidekick. Oh, but that she also didn’t bother telling him about it and that he discovered he had Belle as a sidekick completely accidentally when they both met by coincidence, in costume, while independently exploring the same sewer tunnel.

Yeah. It’s like that.

So what’s the big difference here? Why am I willing to completely suspend my disbelief for Air Fighters Comics, with its hummingbird planes and wingless wonders, but not for poor Nick Terry’s penthouse hangar and lavish lifestyle on a detective’s pay? It’s for the same reason that I’m willing – no, eager – to suspend my disbelief for a Bruce Timm Justice League episode, but sit back and trade one-liners with the kids about how bad the show is when we watch Defenders of the Earth (LOVE the characters, hate the writing and “animation”).  Airboy is well-written and really, really cool. The Owl? Not so much.

The better the story, the more willing you are to suspend your disbelief and “go with it”. It’s why we laugh our heads off when Hellboy fries a creature using an electrified third subway rail, then lights up a cigar and archly says, “I’m fireproof – you’re not”, but we groan when some dude says something which is supposed to be clever but is actually totally forgettable after he saves Tiffany or Debbie Gibson from a really badly CGI’d monster in the usual made for TV dreck run by SyFy in their 9 PM Saturday night time slot. (And I’m not kidding about Tiffany and Debbie Gibson. The Internet Movie Database – it can be your new best friend if you’ll let it.)

So what the heck does any of this have to do with writing a Hideouts & Hoodlums RPG module?

Scott Casper, the guy who created H&H, has tried to encompass the whole 1930’s/40’s comic book experience in a single roleplaying game. He gives us all kinds of superheroes, costumed “normals”, and mystics as character types in its rules. As foes, we get dang near everything that guys like Charlie Biro used to throw at us in the four color funny books: hoodlums, Axis soldiers, arch criminals (of the Fu Manchu variety), robots, jungle animals, dinosaurs, and a fair heaping helping of D&D-style mythological creatures. While I love this “embarrassment of riches” (when it comes to RPGs, I’d rather have a ton of stuff I’ll never use than a sparse outline daring to call itself “a rulebook”), it makes it tough to design a subterranean hideout. What choices do you make when populating the hideout? How much is “too much”? Where’s the line? How do you know when you’re crossed it? What’s the exact difference between including something fantastically cool or something which flattens the players’ suspension of disbelief like a bug on a windshield?

On the other hand, I may be overthinking this. The core concept of old school RPGs is rooted in a profoundly stupid premise. A big subterranean complex of passages and rooms, built God knows how by God knows who, filled with perils and treasures just sitting around waiting to be killed and pillaged? (A concept which the irrepressible Greg Costikyan brilliantly lampooned in his RPG Violence, in which modern day “adventurers” raid an apartment building, killing everyone therein and taking their stuff. Discover a single mother of two toddlers with a flat-screen TV living in 4G? BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! “Hey, help me carry this thing, willya Eddie? The elevator’s bust.”)

In Sons of the Feathered Serpent (the name of my module), if the players are willing to accept the idea that an underground 1920’s bootlegger hideout has been converted over to a new, more sinister purpose and is being raided (probably repeatedly) by guys in bodybuilder tights and domino masks, will it really matter if I include a giant boa constrictor created by some cracked scientist who couldn’t think of a thing to do with his monster except stick it in a side room where it exists peacefully, never attacking the criminals who throng the hideout, but which somehow knows that a colorfully caped guy makes for some damned tasty eating? Will it matter that the whole huge complex is full of 1930’s thugs and hardcases but contains just a couple of small bunkrooms and no kitchen?

Upon further reflection…nah, I didn’t think so.

The key to solving my dilemma was in the description to one of Scott’s treasure items – a pair of glasses which makes any superhero’s secret identity completely impenetrable to anyone, even people who see him in both identities on a regular, daily basis. As Nick Fury once said to Thor, “Hey, glasses work for that other guy.” If you can roll with that, you can roll with large vampire bats or the fact that a knife and a machine gun can both kill you but deal the same amount of damage. The story’s the thing, the whole “Hot damn, this is cool!” factor, not the details which can make the whole thing fall apart if you’re in the boring habit of looking too closely at mundane “facts”: that there were no masked caballeros in 1840’s California or that no South Pacific island really has dinosaurs or sixty-foot gorillas.

So while I’m not going to throw everything but the kitchen sink at Sons of the Feathered Serpent, I am going to toss in a whole lot of good old-fashioned weird science. Hopefully the end result will be viewed as being more Charles Biro than Frank Thomas.

But I did include bathrooms. I don’t care how evil you are…when ya gotta go, ya gotta go. But since the hoodlums are evil, hand washing afterwards is strictly optional.

Happy holidays! – Steve

Copyright 2011, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.