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 setting. 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 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 in the same round). 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 3 different levels of quality), food (same) and, more importantly, the prices of animals like horses, dogs and falcons (in this game, horses increase your armour by +1 if you are mounted). 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 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 check in order to perform them successfully, 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 and is therefore only practical between adventures.
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 from various advantages or disadvantages 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 successfully 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 innovation 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. Professor Robinstein and his trusty sidekick Winston are on the case!
Another suprizing twist is the addition of minimalist rules for making investments, running organizations, handling detachments of troops and even buying assets like fortresses or a fucking Ironclad battleship (yours for the low low price of 2 000 Guilders). It has 16 HP, 3 armour and ignores anything but cannons and carries two detachments of cannons aboard. Even prices for equipping detachments of soldiers 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 suit of iron armour or a coffin that can bring someone back to life. Many of these objects are not necessarily 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 them inadvertently while figuring out how they work.
After this we get an example of play, not truly necessary 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 locations invaded or haunted by this strangeness will be the main 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 surprise 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. Encumbrance rules are not provided but who gives a shit, you can handwave that. A last 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 hints 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, Low means 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 whatever, if they search they shall find.
We finally get some setting information and perhaps unsuprisingly, it is rather strange. The centre civilization 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 secret agendas. 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 as you move to the borders of the central continent. On a faraway 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 inconceivable. An original take on a fantasy setting and it certainly offers sufficient incentive 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…Odd? 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 sh, 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 proximity 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 harbour 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 separate 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 (these are great fun) 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.
Final Verdict: Into the Odd is a weird, steampunk, industrial-age descent into places transfigured by a 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.