PrinceofNothingReviews: Into the Odd (OSR); Brevity is the soul of Wit.

Nothing to clear a bad hangover like a good elf-game review. Case in point, Into the Odd, by Chris McDowall, is an ultra rules-light OSR weird/steampunk game. In 48 pages McDowall manages to set down not just a fully playable game, but manages, by but a few details and hints, to convey a unique sort of setting. In a way, it is very impressive.

I mentioned ultra rules-light, by which I mean that everything that could be stripped out whilst still remaining DnD has been stripped out. We are talking a carframe with an engine, a seat and four wheels here. Yet somehow it does not feel incomplete or overly limited.

Character classes have been stripped out. Each character starts with d6 hp and three stats (Str, Dex, Wis), which I believe to be the absolute minimum for an RPG to still remain an rpg (two stats is where it starts to slide into story-gaming/child-molesting/SJW territory, to be avoided at all costs!). Simple 3d6 for each stat, you may swap one for another at character creation. No time is wasted purchasing equipment, your highest ability score and a roll on a random table determine your starting equipment (typically a maximum of three items, including weapons and possibly armour), as well as any quirks or special abilities you might have (such as, for example, a prosthetic leg or a telepathic link with your dog). Your expedition is automatically equipped with sufficient light, rations, climbing, mapping and camping equipment, because this game is light on the bookkeeping and rules.

Equipment take up about half a page, but is sufficiently varied and novel to merit a mention. The assumed technology seems to be somewhere around the early industrial revolution, with muskets, duelling pistols and elephant rifles existing alongside sabers, axes and bows. Weaponry is divided into hand weapons (1 hand), field weapons (2 hands), noble weapons (hand weapons that deal more damage but are considerably more expensive) and Heavy guns (2 handed weaponry that does the most damage but that you cannot fire and move at the same time. Besides handedness, the only difference between weaponry is damage. The currency is of course based on the guilder and the shilling.

Armour is divided between primitive armour, which requires a shield to be effective and thus takes up a hand, and modern armour, which does not. Each point of armour reduces damage by 1. Beyond weapons and armour, we get a boatload of standard adventuring gear which is only given a name and a price (only by category), some luxury items like spyglasses, thermometers and clockwork devices and a plethora of consumables such as bombs, rockets, flashbangs, vials of acid, burning oils, smoke bombs and poisons. The section ends with costs for room and board (at about 3 different levels of quality), food (same) and, more importanty, the price of certain animals like horses, dogs and falcons (in this game, horses increase your armour by +1). Even very simple hireling costs are included: Lantern boys, mercenaries and Experts. Short but it covers all the basics. Tonight we are going to party like it is 1869!

The rules are pretty straightforward. Saving throws are made by rolling under the relevant ability score on a d20. Initiative is GM’s discretion, with Dex checks if you are uncertain. On your turn you can move and take an action. Most actions require some sort of ability test in order to perform, or a saving throw from the enemy (like, say, grappling). Attacking is very simple, and always deals damage. There is no miss chance. The only way to reduce damage is by having armour. Once you run out of hit points (which represent in this game the ability to avoid damage as much as absorb it), you start losing strength (1 point of damage at 0 hp = 1 point of Str). Hit points can be recovered after a short rest (5 mins), str recovery requires a full week. Every time you take damage below 0 hp you must pass a str check or take Critical damage and require immediate medical attention in order to survive (a short rest gets you back on your feet, but the Str damage remains). If you reach 0 str you fucking die. Penalties and bonuses are covered by a simple rule, attacks can either be impaired, in which case they do only d4 damage, or enhanced, in which case they inflict d12 damage.

Morale? Will check bitch! Reaction tests? Will check bitch! Use an Arcanum (the mysterious artifacts that predominate the setting) in a manner that is not covered in the description, like say, defrost a frozen buddy with your newly discovered heat ray ? Will check bitch! Are you starting to figure out how this game works?

Level-ups? By number of expeditions succesfully completed (GM’s discretion sort of). Reaching a new level means you get an extra d6 hit points and you can roll a d20 for each of your ability scores. If you rolled higher then the original, that is your new score. Bam! Simple and effective. An interesting addition is that for the higher levels you must take an apprentice, which is a lower level character, and get them to survive the next few adventures as well.

A suprising twist is the addition of minimalist rules for making investments, running organizations, handling detachments of troops and even buying things like fortresses or a fucking Ironclad battleship (yours for the low low price of 2 000 Guilders, 16 HP, 3 armour and ignores anything but cannons and carries two detachments of cannons aboard). Even prices for equipping detachments are included (the rules are simple yet make sense). Fighting a detachment with single characters is impossible unless you use rockets and bombs.

The magical items of the setting are known as Arcana, and they are highly sought after by everyone. Walking around with an Arcana in plain view will get you robbed and swindled at best, murdered at worst.
The sample Arcana given are an odd mixture of advanced alien technology, occult biotechnology, traditional magical items and just plain weird shit. It is kind of neat. The closest comparison that comes to mind would be objects from the book of the New Sun, or perhaps the artifacts from Roadside Picnic (if you don’t know any of the books I mentioned I highly recommend you check them out). Arcana are divided into normal, greater Arcana and Legendary Arcana, with different levels of power. Normal Arcana could be a space-folder that allows you to perform a line of sight teleport between flat surfaces, a magnet that attracts or repels a single creature with a skeleton or a censer that emits foul-smelling green smoke that blocks all missile attacks. Greater Arcana might be a black orb that obliterates all non-living matter on touch, a strange beam that turns creatures into crystal by draining dex or an odd box that summons glowing orbs that may be flung at your enemy. As for the Legendary Arcana, which may only be found in the presence of god-like entities or guarded by the most hellish of deathtraps, these cover such treasures as a prism that obliterates anything with less then d12 hp on hit (fucking powerful as shit), an unstoppable iron suit or a coffin that can bring someone back to life. Many of these objects are not neccesarily portable, and may instead be the size of cabinets or even entire structures. These items may be identified with a Wil check, otherwise you trigger

After this we get an example of play, not truly neccesary but still fairly useful in illustrating the general atmosphere the game is going for. Strangeness and technology indistinguishable from magic is rife and recovering Arcana or exploring these decidedly bizarre locations will be much of the focus of the game. GM advice is also provided, as well as explanations of the different ability scores (very short explanations as you can imagine). The advice is quite good, stressing the importance of providing a proper amount of information so your players can assess the risk of their decisions, as well as the importance of making sure that players have to make meaningful choices.
It should come as little suprise that things like movement and turn length are more or less handwaved in this game, something about which I must gripe.

Since it is possible to both move AND attack in this game, some sort of rule should have covered the speed at which one moves (I propose you either compare Dex or more conveniently just label everything as either slow, normal and fast, with humans without armour moving at normal speed an armour meaning you move slowly). The first real sign of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Encumberance rules are not provided but who gives a shit, you can handwave that. An additional gripe may be found in the lack of any sort of rules governing the use of ranged weapons in melee combat, but you could conceivably figure something out.

Next up is a bit more information about adventuring in Into the Odd, starting with a page of sample creatures. They are, again, weird as shit, and you are meant to use them as samples so you can make your own creatures. Hags with a single floating eye that can turn into dust, strange glowing smoke creatures, something clearly based on the predator, living shadows that drain the will and so on. The bestiary is fairly small, but coupled with the creatures that are provided in the sample adventure later on in the game and the random tables, they should give you enough hits to work out what the author is going for, if only aesthetically. There are of course Giant Creatures that count as Detachments and are not easily beaten.

The ruins-laden exploration game would be complete without traps and Into the Odd provides. In an odd twist, Traps are always detected unless the PCs are particularly incautious and disabling or bypassing them requires the players to think of something creative. Whenever there is risk involved, you just roll a Luck Dice (i.e a d6, high means the players are lucky, you get to suck it). There is a similar procedure for opening locks or breaking down doors, with tests only being made if there is a time limit or risk involved. The game mentions nothing about spotting secret doors but this is a logical extension of the above rules so fuck it.

We finally get some setting information and perhaps unsuprisingly, it is rather strange. The centre civilisation in Into the Odd is Bastion, an industrial-revolution inspired hellhole of manufactories and smoke stacks, ruled by the secretive High Council, plagued by revolutionaries, mobs hunting for alien imposters and various star worshipping cults with secretive agenda’s. No elfgame metropolis would be complete without an Underground with rumours of Treasure Vaults so there you go. Beyond Bastion, which appears to be a sort of city state, the world is littered with abandoned ruins (most of the population has moved to the city) a scattering of towns languishing under its yoke, and increasing amounts of weird. On a fareaway continent lie the Golden Lands, unmapped and uncharted, with strange ruins and increasingly strange creatures as you move inward. For people that truly want to die, the Great Polar Ocean is said to contain either death or a gateway to the stars.

As I stated previously, you get the feeling this is an industrial age world civilisation suffering from alien visitations and has been for a long time. These alien visitations are more akin to the visitors from Roadside Picnic then an ET-type of deal. Unfathomable and strange creatures leaving behind incomprehensible devices for reasons unknown. An original take on a fantasy setting, and it certainly offers sufficient reasons for exploration.

We get a sample dungeon, complete with a hexmap and a sample town to help us flush things out somewhat. The dungeon, only 4 pages (including a map), is…strange? Vast, crimson coral has been growing out of the water near the decaying town of Hopesend, dare ye investigate? The Coral proper is weird but interesting, a seemingly alive, nonlinear dungeon crawl into a bizarre location littered with the remnants of prior expeditions, looters and bizarre monstrosities. A pulsing sac, crab-men, a Vast Iron colossus piloted by sentient red goo. The treasure too: Jars of frictionless beads worth 30 sp, two gloves (one can animate dead tissue, the other can absorb energy from corpses), precious orbs that drain you of hope etc. For a starting dungeoncrawl, it is quite good, there is even a sort of method to the madness and you get a feel, a hint rather, why it is there.

The surrounding area is a water-logged hexmap, each hex taking roughly an hour to cross. The combination ruin-dotted of beach and swamp is strangely compelling. Random weather tables are sparse but very useful, with storm and rain meaning your travel speed is inhibited and fog reducing visibility. You can encounter anything here from displaced refugees and looters, signs of the Iron Coral intruding into the world to hideously twisted men or the mind-controlled drones of the Anemone. Many of the encounters are just signs, which are very fucking ominous and atmospheric. The ruins of prior habitation are interspersed with the leavings of otherworldly influences. The Odd in Into the Odd is truly beyond man’s knowledge, vast and powerful, whose mere presence can alter horrifically the substance of man. This is reflected by the monsters you encounter many of which are transfigured human beings and animals. The exact nature of these influences is never defined, adding to its strangeness, and we must presume it is unknowable.

The town of Hopesend is a crumbling harbor town, complete with decaying amusement park rides, a corrupt, peg-legged militia captain who is the only source of weapons and a weakly telepathic circus strongwoman looking for cash to travel to the big city. The mood is set, and you even get a bunch of adventure hooks in case something interesting needs to happen.

The last 14-pages are random tables, usually two seperate elements that may be combined to form something. They offer additional and much needed insight into the nature of the setting, and are sort of useful in generating additional content on the fly. Names (decidedly british), npcs (anything appropriate for late victorian england will do), street features, random entries into the UnderWorld, The Quickest Route across Town (which I find an interesting way to add tension and excitement to a race against the clock), establishment names, insane council decisions and public reactions to it and several dungeon, monster and treasure generation tables, which are by far the most useful. For a fairly sparse work, the use of so many random tables is a questionable choice, but they do manage to convey atmosphere and setting FEEL without spelling everything out, in the manner of ye olden days.

Into the Odd is a weird, steampunk, industrial-age descent into places haunted by terrible strangeness. It is an interesting exercise in minimalist game design, certainly playable, and very much OSR. It’s setting, more hinted at then described, is interesting and atmospheric. McDowall is working on an expanded second edition, which should provide more insight into this gloomy, steampunk-themed descent into a bizarre world of mutation, super-science and alien forces. For now, Into the Odd gets a 7 out of 10. The ultra-light design is well implemented and the setting is compelling and interesting, but the very sparseness of the campaign material requires a considerable investment and a few mental leaps to do it properly. I suspect a steady diet of Mevielle’s Perdido Street Station, Roadside Picnic and the Dishounored and Bioshock video games should be a useful starting point. In short, it is good but limited (that is it’s nature), and it needed MORE of it (I am waiting Chris).

Edit: Anyone interested in Into the Odd should probably check out McDowall’s blog, which contains a tonne of content, information and updates on the second edition of his game.

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6 thoughts on “PrinceofNothingReviews: Into the Odd (OSR); Brevity is the soul of Wit.

  1. I actually like the removal of the ‘intelligence’ stat- better to let the players’ intelligence and skill determine the characters’ intelligence and skill. For D-and/or-D, I’d probably replace it with an ‘arcane acumen’ score.

    Roadside Picnic, eh? Now I’m thinking that William Gibson’s ‘Hinterlands’ is plays homage to that novel.

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    1. [Int] I think the Old school Primer by Finch reflects the best possible take on Int I have seen thus far. A POW statt serves nicely, although the idea that magical ability and intelligence are somehow connected has a sort of face validity that I’d hate to do without.

      [Gibson]

      I’ve only ever read Neuromancer (great book btw) so I can’t comment. Currently reading Roger Levy which is good cyberpunk in the vain of Philip K Dick after listening to nothing but Nine Inch Nails on LSD for a month.
      Roadside fucking rocks though. I believe it to contain literary precursors suspiciously similar to the ones that birthed the humble game-of-games. A band of criminals forage for alien artifacts of mysterious function and unknown origin in a strange, otherworldly zone haunted by incomprehensible peril. Roll hit points and starting GP.

      I’ve got an Appendix N page but it’s too broad, talking about shit like this makes me want to cobble together some OSR-tier sci-fi blasts from the pasts (and present). Diamond Dogs by Alaister Reynolds (great worldbuilder, arguably terrible character-writer), Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss and Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear come to mind, as does a bizarre short-story by Greg Egan that I for the life of me cannot remember the title off.

      I apologize for the infodump but talking about sci fi novels makes me nerd out so super hard I can hardly contain my motherfucking excitement.

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  2. Aldiss really is bizarre, he really digs that ‘humans are part of the food chain’ trope. I was on an Aldiss kick a while ago, reading ‘Non-Stop’, ‘Hothouse’, and ‘The Saliva Tree’ in quick succession. After ‘Hothouse’, I read Doris Piserchia’s ‘Earth in Twilight’, which is kinda like a gonzo-comedy parody of ‘Hothouse’, with giant horrors which have marital problems, and a protagonist who is tasked with rendering Earth habitable for humans once again.

    Neuromancer is great, I’d suggest the short-story collection ‘Burning Chrome’ as well:

    Jones heaved half his armored bulk over the edge of his tank, and I thought the metal would give way. Molly stabbed him overhand with the Syrette, driving the needle between two plates. Propellant hissed. Patterns of light exploded, sparming across the frame and then fading to black.

    We left him drifting, rolling languorously in the dark water. Maybe he was dreaming of his war in the Pacific, of the cyber mines he’d swept, nosing gently into their circuitry with the Squid he’d used to pick Ralfi’s pathetic password from the chip buried in my head.

    ‘I can see them slipping up when he was demobbed, letting him out of the navy with that gear intact, but how does a cybernetic dolphin get wired to smack?’

    ‘The war,’ she said. ‘They all were. Navy did it. How else you get’em working for you?’

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    1. Hothouse is on my to-read list. I’d suggest Of Men and Monsters by William Tenn for a great exploration of the whole ‘mankind is not at the top of the foodchain’ trope. While we are on the fucking subject of shit that roolz: The Deep by John Crowly is a fucking awesome novel and essentially does Game of Thrones in 300 pages flat, with less gratuitous rape.

      That excerpt sounds fucking awesome, Burning Chrome is now on the list (though I do believe I possess Count Zero).

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