Thursday, February 17, 2011

REVIEW: Hideouts & Hoodlums

I get a lot of requests for reviews, often of products I've never heard of or likely wouldn't have purchased even if I had heard of them. That's by no means an indictment of any -- well, most -- of these products. I mention it only because there is a happy side effect: I can be surprised. Such was the case with Scott Casper's Hideouts & Hoodlums, an old school superhero RPG based on Swords & Wizardry. I had some dim recollection of the game, based on having read a post on the OD&D Discussion forum (I believe) about it, but I hadn't given it much thought until I received copies of the three PDFs that make up the game.

In the interests of honesty, I'll admit that I initially wasn't very enthusiastic about reading, let alone reviewing, H&H. I'm not a huge superheroes gamer, I don't use Swords & Wizardry, and the PDFs are decidedly hobbyist products, being just a step above word processor outputs with some simple sketches and grainy comic panels inserted to break up the text. But, as I read the text itself, I found my initial, superficial reaction quickly melting away. It's true that Hideouts & Hoodlums could never pass muster as a "professional" product. Of course, neither could the LBBs and those amateurish staple-bound booklets remain among the most imaginative products of this hobby of ours. Hideouts & Hoodlums likely won't set the world on fire the way the LBBs did, but they contain enough of interest to old school gamers at a very low price -- $6 for all three PDFs -- that they shouldn't be dismissed simply based on their appearance.

Like OD&D, Hideouts & Hoodlums consists of three volumes, the first of which, entitled Men and Supermen, is 60 pages long. The first volume presents character generation, whose broad outlines should be familiar to anyone who's played any old school version of D&D. While the six randomly generated ability scores are identical to those of D&D, the class and race options are different. There are three classes: fighters, magic-users, and superheroes. Fighters are more or less as in OD&D and are intended to represent soldiers, police officers, and similar physically-oriented but otherwise normal characters. Magic-users, again, are similar to their OD&D counterparts, though the spells available are different and that affects the flavor of the class, which has more in common with stage magicians and "occult investigators" than with Merlin or Mazirian. Superheroes are a new class entirely, though they're clearly based on OD&D clerics, acquiring powers from a list as they advance in level (and starting with 0 powers at 1st level). Race options include humans, aliens (think Superman), androids (think the original Human Torch), and Mermen (think the Sub-Mariner).

Combat is much as you'd expect in an OD&D-derived game, with a few alterations here and there to accommodate modern weaponry. More interesting are the additions of simple morale and fatigue systems, along with a very clever saving throw system. Rather than using the traditional categories, Hideouts & Hoodlums uses five of its own: save vs. poison, save vs. missiles, save vs. science, save vs. spells, and save vs. plot, the latter of which is used whenever a player wishes his character to break a genre convention, such as giving away his secret identity or attempting to engage the villain before first attacking his henchmen. I'll admit to mixed feelings about genre emulation mechanics, but, at the same time, the plot saving throw is so elegantly done that I'm more willing to forgo my usual concerns. I should note, though, that H&H uses the single saving throw number from standard Swords & Wizardry and the categories I mentioned are merely conceptual ones rather than separate target numbers. Even more clever is the system for "wrecking things," which is available only to superheroes. The system consists of a table -- derived on the cleric's turning table -- that divides objects into categories of increasing difficulty, with doors at one end and dams at the other. To successfully wreck an object, a 1D20 roll is made and the table consulted. It's an elegant way to handle a common element of superhero comics.

Rounding out the first book are descriptions of a superhero's powers and a magic-user's spells. Many of these are based on OD&D spells, but many are original (like the 2nd-level power raise elephant, which allows the character to lift an object up to 8 tons above his head and has as a side effect convincing any drunks who witness the feat to swear off booze forever). Both powers and abilities are fairly low-key, or at least lower-key than one might expect if one comes to Hideouts & Hoodlums expecting a game of modern superheroics. H&H clearly aims to emulate the Golden Age of comics, with its masked mystery men and a Superman who could only "leap tall buildings in a single bound" rather than fly over them. In that context, I think the powers and spells succeed admirably and many contain lots of nice little bits of flavor, such as the one I mentioned earlier. My only real complaint is that superheroes must select powers beforehand like spells and, once used, cannot use that power again until the next day. I fully understand why this was done and can even see some justification for it within the source material, but it still feels off to me on some level, but perhaps this is just an area where I've too fully internalized modern interpretations of superheroes.

The second volume, Mobsters and Trophies is 70 pages long and describes a wide variety of opponents for use against the PCs, many of them familiar D&D monsters reworked comic book-style and others wholly derived from the source material, such as Fu Manchus, Half-Pints, and Ultra-Mad Scientists. "Trophies" are treasures of various sorts, from ordinary, if impressive, pieces of equipment to super-tech to outright magic items. I found trophies to be more of a mixed bag overall than the opponents, perhaps because I tend not to think of "loot" as important in a superhero game. On the other hand, a "trophy" is more than that, encompassing lots of objects and devices that do show up in superhero games. Regardless, the second volume really demonstrates the author's command of the source material, not to mention his ability to translate it into interesting game mechanics. It was, by far, my favorite of H&H's three volumes.

Volume three is Underworld and Metropolis Adventures and is, in my opinion, the weakest of the three. A good portion of the PDF's 42 pages is devoted to the creation and stocking of "underworlds" where criminals congregate and hoard their trophies. As you can see, underworlds are built on an analogy with D&D's dungeons -- an analogy that, for me anyway, just doesn't work. Certainly one can imagine a handful of such hidden lairs, where the PCs must fight their way through its mazes and traps to reach the villain, but how often can such a setup be used? Granted, a lot of people probably feel the same way about dungeons, but the point remains that the locales of superhero tales, even those of the Golden Age, don't really fit the model of a D&D-style dungeon, but perhaps I'm simply being too literalist. Fortunately, the volume also includes rules for creating and stocking a "metropolis," including a terrific list of "non-heroes" and locales to use for inspiration.

Taken as a whole, I found myself completely won over by Hideouts & Hoodlums, my initial apprehension about reading, let alone reviewing it, having evaporated. As I noted above, it's a very much a hobbyist game -- amateurish and rough around the edges in terms of its presentation and organization. No one is going to be wowed by its appearance, but its content is another thing entirely. What H&H does is show that the basic structure of OD&D can quite easily be used to emulate more than swords-and-sorcery dungeon adventuring. Indeed, what most impressed me was how little OD&D's rules really needed to be altered, let alone replaced, in order to present an excellent emulation of Golden Age superheroics. True, as with the underworlds, there was in my opinion to slavish a devotion to OD&D's conventions, but, even so, I don't think that devotion does the overall game much harm. If anything, it only serves to highlight how wonderfully flexible OD&D's superstructure is if you're willing to use a little imagination, which Hideouts & Hoodlums possesses in abundance.

Presentation: 4 out of 10
Creativity: 7 out of 10
Utility: 7 out of 10

Buy This If: You're looking for a cleverly-presented and simple ruleset for Golden Age superheroes.
Don't Buy This If: You have no interest in either Golden Age superheroes or a superhero RPG that uses OD&D as its model.

9 comments:

  1. H&H is a really neat game, although I have a heck of a time getting past the production value. It's the same reason I can't get into Encounter Critical. I'm too modern.

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  2. I am currently playing in two play-by-post H&H games, and am having a blast. I find that H&H works very well for 1930's pulp action style characters, not just "superheroes".

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  3. Very excited to see your review! As soon as I spotted the word "elegant" on a first skim I knew this was a good review. "Elegance" is a big thing for me and I had posted to the Swords & Wizardry board before about the importance of "elegance" (as opposed to material that just doesn't seem to fit, as you sadly felt about Book III) in retro-cloning.

    Your grades are fair. Yes, my slavish devotion to the poor presentation of the LBBs probably makes me deserve a 4 out of 10. A 7 out of 10 for creativity is generous for a retroclone, even one with a different genre focus, and I would argue that a 7 out of 10 for utility may actually be too high, unless you're willing to game in the '30s or '40s (or maybe even the '50s, though I haven't done any playtesting there yet).

    Kipper raises a good point. Most of H&H's small but spirited fanbase are actually bigger pulp hero fans than comic book superhero fans. I'm not even sure why myself, but they just are.

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  4. I would argue that a 7 out of 10 for utility may actually be too high

    I graded it so highly because I thought you did a very good job of demonstrating how easily OD&D's rules can be reworked to cover other types of actions/situations. It's a lesson I think a lot of people would do well to learn. myself included.

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  5. Well done Scott! I for one like the super hero RPG genre and I'm even more pleased to see someone I've known a long time put such creative effort into a work like this.

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  6. I am particularly amused by Supplements I and II, which are named for (but have little real connection to) Golden Age comics companies, just as the parallel supplements for OD&D were named for early campaigns without really featuring those campaigns or their settings.

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  7. My comic game is Champions, but although this looks like a fun read we don't play enough to buy it. Now if it was free, I would download asap.

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  8. Draft versions of Books I and II (incomplete, unedited, and lacking art) are available for free. Also, the Reference Sheets document includes every single table from all three core rulebooks, sans explanations. http://sites.google.com/site/hideoutsandhoodlums/

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  9. Best damn OSR RPG right now, period. It's the first RPG I've been actually *excited* about since Space:1889 back in the 1980's.

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