Into the Odd (Review)
What do you need to know?
is the newest creation of Chris McDowall. This is the new, premium
version which was released on Nov 27th 2014 with a fresh layout, revised
and expanded rules and new artwork. The PDF costs USD $7.99 (~ 6,42 €)
and the Print+PDF bundle USD $14.99 (~ 12,04 €) + shipping.
The free (first) version of the game can be downloaded here. Chris has already written some other sweet games. I am a fan of A Wanderer’s Romance as it has several things that I enjoy: free, rules-lite, full of action and Wuxia. I read the first version of Into the Odd some time ago but dismissed it at that time because I had no interest in old school games at that time. When Chris posted about his progress on the second version of ItO at Google+ I took another look at the game. Furthermore, some people I know from G+ and whose expertise I value (Jürgen Meyer and David Reichgeld) playtested the game. To top it off, Paolo Greco, the man behind Lost Pages and AFG Adventure Fantasy Game, is the publisher of ItO. Please bear in mind that I haven’t played the game. These are my impressions from reading the PDF.
So, what exactly is Into the Odd?
Chris McDowall’s Into the Odd contains everything you need to create a character and explore an industrial world of cosmic meddlers and horrific hazards. This is a fast, simple game, to challenge your wits rather than your understanding of complex rules.
ItO is a rules-lite old school game with its own mechanics and a weird and horror-influenced setting. It is not a retro-clone of one of the D&D-variants but falls into the OSR vein.
The print is not out yet so I’m concentrating on the electronic
The game is 48 pages + cover images. It uses a classic two-column style with black & white illustrations and some tables. The font is charmingly old school. Tables are nicely formatted. The book is easy on the eyes. All in all, a clean and good-looking layout job.
The illustrations are weird and fit the theme. I’m glad that the author decided to order new artwork instead of using freely available Creative Commons stuff.
Character Creation fits on two pages. It is reminiscent of D&D but streamlined. Characters have three Ability Scores: Strength, Dexterity and Willpower. You roll 3d6 for each stat but you may swap any two of your results. A new character has 1d6 Hitpoints You can use companions if the player group is small. A beginner char gets equipment via a randomly rolled Starter Pack. No two characters should have the same Starter Pack. Examples include:
Longaxe (d8), Ferret, Fire Oil
Musket (d8), Mallet, Marbles, Fancy Hat, Arcanum
Arcanum? Well, that’s the magic system of ItO., I’ll come back to it
The equipment table consits of a mix of useful items and funny things. I like the inherent humor. To summarize, character creation is quick and simple and gives off an old school vibe with rolling 3d6 and getting random equipment. I approve.
The game rules fit on six pages and include the general How-to-play-rules, Advancement, Companies and War and rule for the magic system, Arcana.
Basic Game Rules
The basic game rules are really simple and somehow familiar if you know
One of the key components is the old school Saving Throw. It is paired with the Ability Scores: take a d20 and roll equal or under. The Referee Chapter goes into detail on how to use them.
The rules for Attack and Damage are particularly interesting. If you attack you don’t need to roll to see if you hit your target - no, you automatically deal damage. This is pretty elegant and also means that combat is quite deadly.
As your Hitpoints (HP) will dwindle quickly you might ask yourself what happens if you fall down to 0 HP. Remaining damage is substracted from your STR score. There are also rules for avoiding Critical Damage and rules for recovering via Short Rest and Long Rest. If the STR score is down to zero, the character dies. How to use Arcana? The rules for the magic system are also straightforward and fast. If you utilize your power in a normal way you just use it without risk. However, if you want to use it in an unusual manner you will need to pass a WIL Save.
I like how the magic system is implemented. Using Arcana is a matter of just saying so without rolling dice except if you want to use it in a risky way. And who won’t? To put it in a nutshell: The game rules are old school flavored, very easy to learn, fast and elegant. Combat is dangerous and using Arcana is approriately risky if you want to use it creatively. I like the system a lot.
Advancement hinges on surviving expeditions where you return with some
treasure, a good story or a secret. Each time you level up you get 1d6
HP and your stats might increase. The rules for this are the
same/similar as in other old school games: roll a d20 and if your roll
is higher that the Ability Score it increases by 1.
Interestingly, character advancement doesn’t mechanically rely on gaining coins or beating monsters. Primarily, you need to survive the expedition and return with something to show for. This is a fascinating way at looking at the XP requirements of classic role-playing games.
Companies & War
The rules for Companies & War cover rules for groups and organisations
and for warfare. A company can be a group of mercenary soldiers but also
a business enterprise.
The war rules cover how units are handled, mass combat, sieges and ships in broad strokes.
Next is three pages full of magic powers. These are unique, not Vancian and weird. Powers are divided into three categories:
- Powers You Cannot Understand
- Powers You Can Barely Control
- Powers You Shouldn’t Control A lot of the magic of ItO (see what I
did here?) lies in this chapter as the powers convey the strange world
ItO is embedded in.
Characters who have Arcana in their Starter Package roll a d20 to see what they get from the first list, for instance Spider Skin (Spiderman) or Tyrant’s Rod (target must drop unless they pass a WIL save). The range of powers is diverse. Powers allow you to do some kind of shapeshifting, have Power Armor, read the minds of others or boil the blood of your enemies and so forth.
Running the Game
Preceding this chapter is a gameplay example. Nice!
The part of the book for the Referee gives basic advice, help on understanding Ability Scores and Saving Throws etc.
The basic advice is solid but short. The book also covers Encounters and Monsters. There is no bestiary per se but some examples on how to implement the advice on creating monsters. The examples are very evocative. Nonetheless, I think it’s mostly winging it as the guidelines are a bit vague. Treasure is either money in the silver standard or the discovery of Arcana. That’s also standard way to get new spells. Another page is dedicated to the use of Traps and other Hazards. My take on this: There is some good information here. However, being a rules-lite game the chapters are concise and don’t offer a lot of detail. ItO “suffers” from the same fate as other lightweight games in this regard: it gets the GM started but doesn’t offer a lot of material to go further.
The Odd World
This is the setting blurb for Into the Odd. Bastion is a sprawling
moloch of a city and the hub of mankind. It is the starting point for
expeditions into the strange world beyond this metropolis. The
technology level of Bastion is maybe 18th century onwards (?) as the
industrial revolution is in full swing but people still use swords and
similar melee weapons to beat down the mobs in the city.
The book contains a sample expedition,The Iron Coral. Also included is another town, Hopesend Port and a hexmap of the surrounding area.
The Oddpendium is a collection of tables to generate ideas: names for NPCs, the quickest route across town, Bastion’s greatest businesses, weird creature inspiration, what’s beyond the darkness and other stuff. Although the Oddpendium is a nice idea, I’m a bit disappointed by its lack of versatility. Some of it is clearly aimed at Bastion and might be of some use but some tables don’t make much sense to me. For instance, “Insane Council Decisions”: although it clearly adds flavor to the world it doesn’t give me something hands-on to work with but merely some inspiration.
Into the Odd set out to be a complete and fast rules-lite game with an
emphasis on exploration of an eldritch and horrific world. While it
definitely achieves the mechanical part and the exploration part one can
argue about its completeness.
The game is a short read and absolutely sufficient for the player. Yet it isn’t exhaustive concerning game master material, the game world and its denizens. Clearly the author intended the GM to fill out the gaps herself. What I like: The game rules are cleverly designed and unobtrusive so that the expedition into the Weird can get started right away. Combat is deadly and magic (Arcana) is appropriately aberrant.
I especially find the spell lists inspiring and I’m happy to see something different than Vancian magic.
The game is old school flavored but doesn’t shy away from making intelligent changes in comparison to classic games. Overall, the rules are conveyed in a friendly tone and presented in a nice looking package. What I would’ve like to see: Although I can see the appeal of a broad-strokes approach it leaves me hanging as a GM. Personally I like to have options available: a bestiary, more background material, a more versatile Oddpendium. Granted, other people at G+ have a different opinion on this so take this however you want. I am very happy about the buy and I am eagerly awaiting the print version.