Into the Odd (OSR)
This roleplaying game/sourcebook clocks in at 50 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 46 pages of content, laid out in 6’’ by 9’’ (A5), so let’s take a look!
This review was requested by one of my patreons, to be undertaken at my convenience.
All right, I’ve already referenced this little RPG in quite a few of my reviews of rules lite systems, so it’s high time I covered this one!
Now, the game’s chassis is remarkably simple in its presentation, though the game does indeed work best for roleplaying game veterans. The extremely condensed presentation makes explanation and grasping the basics simple, but total novices may need some guidance. While the game is counted among the OSR-game systems, it significantly deviates from the traditional rules chassis.
Into the Odd knows three attributes: Strength, Dexterity and Willpower. You roll 3d6 for each. Then you roll d6. These final d6 are your starting Hit Points.
The other rules are similarly basic: In order to succeed a save, you roll with a d20 equal to or under your attribute. 1 always succeeds, 20 is always a failure. Combat is divided into Turns. The head of the group makes a Dex save to determine who goes first. This is one of the few instances where the rules are aggravating in their brevity. More precision on how initiative works would have been nice. On the PC’s turn, they can move and perform one action – attacks are an action, and here the game really differentiates itself from other games. You see, when you attack, you ALWAYS HIT. Same goes for enemies. This makes combat fast, but also really, really deadly. Damage depends on the weapon you wield, and two factors: Cover or other problems reduce damage to d4, while epic, dangerous stunts, attacks from behind, etc. increase damage to d12 – these damage de/increases are known as “impaired” and “enhanced”, respectively. Armor reduces damage incurred, but not by much. The system is very offense-heavy.
If a character takes damage, they lose that many Hit Points; once they have no Hit Points left, they instead reduce their Strength by the excess amount. Once you take damage to Strength, you also need to make a Strength save or take critical damage. If you take critical damage, you have 1 hour, during which an ally needs to tend to you – barring that, you die. Additionally, you can’t take anymore actions until you’ve completed a short rest, which is defined as a “a few minutes” – no precise amount is given, and a short rest recovers all hit Points lost. Full Rests take a whole week and also restores damage incurred to all ability scores.
Okay, but what if you rolled really badly on the ability scores and hit points? Well, that’s one of the cooler ideas of the game: The background package. You consult a table and look at your highest Ability Score and your Hit Points: If your highest ability score’s a whopping 18 and you managed to roll 6 Hit Points…you’ll start the game with a mace, a pigeon…and disfigured. If your highest ability score is 3-9 and you only have 1 Hit Point, you get a sword, a pistol, modern armor and the ability to sense nearby unearthly beings. What does that mean? What’s “nearby”?
Well, this is at the very latest where you’ll fall on one side of the spectrum or another. This game very much focuses on one aspect of the ideology associated with the OSR, and that would be “rulings, not rules.” While the book later tells you that the referees task is to maintain consistency throughout campaigns, the matter of fact remains that quite a few of these components could have used some more detailed commentaries, at least some rudimentary guideline. In the example above, stating that the character goes first when encountering such targets sans rolling would not have taken up much real estate. Now, this is my personal opinion, but I have seen more than oen really rules-lite game that is CRISP and PRECISE in its rules, and this book, for the most part, fits into this category. This makes such instances even more glaring, at least for me as a person. But I’ll swallow this for now and revert to my reviewer stance.
Characters advance after completed expeditions – the game, as a default, knows basically 5 levels. On a survived expedition, you gain d6 hit points and roll d20 for each ability score. If you roll higher than the score, you increase it by 1. Kudos: There are quick and dirty rules for running businesses, organizations and the like; these fit on a single page.
The background packages also ties in with equipment: Coinage is pennies (p), shillings (s) and guilder (g); 100 pennies make a shilling, 100 shillings make a guilder. The equipment comes with sample prices, with aforementioned super-powers one exception of unpriced components. Similarly, the “penalties” for good rolls are not really priced. You may end up as mute, for example. This isn’t that bad (unless it annoys you while roleplaying), as there is no spellcasting in the traditional sense. Instead, PCs that rolled badly can get a so-called “Arcanum.”
Arcana are the main source of magic here – they basically are magic/super-science items that everyone covets, and chances are, you’ll have a few of them in your starting group. Arcana are grouped in three categories: 20 regular arcana are provided and allow you to seal doors, windows, etc. fold space between flat surfaces, speak with other beings, blind targets, etc. The ideas here are great, and same holds true for greater and legendary arcana, though these can only be gotten by adventuring. A page is devoted to sample ideas for them as well, and the GM-section does provide a few more ideas for arcana. It is a bit puzzling to me that the GM-section arcana differentiates between one-use/consumables and weapons, but does not employ the same clarification for the arcana presented. I adore the concepts here, though I don’t fully grasp why particularly unlucky characters can’t have more potent arcana. The background table, as cool as it is, does not always feel even it its reward-ratios.
If you want an example on how opaque an Arcanum can be, let me quote the Pressure Needle’s, a greater arcanum’s, entire text: “If the target takes critical damage today, they explode in a bloody mess.” Okay, so is this a weapon? Does it require that you see the target? Just know it? How often can it be used? If you don’t care about ANY of these questions, then you’ll absolutely adore the rules presented here. If you do, however, then this will prove to e somewhat frustrating for you. Needlessly so, I might add – establishing one set of brief global rules for arcana use could have preempted a lot of the confusion these may cause. And it’s not like the book doesn’t have the space. And, even if you prefer the purely narrative ruling component – the book does already have that! By using Willpower, you can coax arcana to do things that are not their usual function! (As an aside: I really love this wide-open means of using arcana in creative ways, and we even get an example; I’m not against the like – but it’d be better and cooler if the base functions, you know, where precise…)
The referee section is similarly quick, painless and to the point: We get some general advice on how to describe the game; that, if luck’s called for, you roll a d6, with a high result favoring players. We get simple, global rules for monsters, a couple of actually pretty cool sample creatures and a page of hazards. Creatures and hazards tie in what, to me, makes the main selling point of this game, namely the setting constantly implied through the rules and Arcanum-based operations: That would be the “Odd World”, where Bastion, the Bas-Lag-ish hub of mankind serves as the massive heart of civilization in a dangerous world.
14 pages of this book are devoted to the Oddpendium, basically a massive array of generators found in the back, which partially is intended to help you make Bastion come alive. It allows for quick name generation. Beyond that, the generators provide occupations and capabilities, manners exhibited and connections, things that may have befallen the NPCs, and more. Generators to establish the feeling of streets, whether there are means to access the honeycomb-like underground and sample businesses can be found. Oh, and there is a table that features “Insane Council Decisions”, including a public response chart. I really smiled when reading that “War with all other cities” is deemed just as insane as “outlawing same-sex marriage.” The Oddpendium also features two pages of tables for creature inspirations and two that let you determine what’s in the darkness beyond. This is btw. a good place to note that “darkvision”, while mentioned, isn’t codified at all in the book, so yeah – you’re probably getting a good picture of whether this is for you or not. From a layout point of view, the Oddpendium, while really helpful, does feel like page-bloat: Its tables only cover about 2/3rds of the page, leaving a lot of white space in an already slim booklet. Space that could have been filled with more entries per table. I strongly suggest implementing the citycrawl-tricks from Vornheim when running Bastion – the tables alone will not suffice to make it come alive, as information is a bit sparse. While I did enjoy the 3 pages of playing examples, I honestly would have preferred the space used otherwise.
The final 9 pages of this booklet I need to talk about would present basically an introductory adventure. These pages are actually placed before the Oddpendium in the booklet (makes sense, since you’ll be using the generators more often) and include a brief settlement write-up, as well as a mini-hexcrawl and a dungeon – oddly, the dungeon is depicted before the mini hexcrawl that leads to it. There are no player-friendly versions of the maps includes for VTT-play or the like. However, random encounter tables very much are included in the module, and the wilderness section even gets a weather table. Nice!
The following paragraphs will contain SPOILERS, as I’ll discuss briefly the adventure included in the book. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.
All right, only referees around? Great! So yeah, this adventure is an exercise in extremely concise writing, as you can see in the wilderness of the Fallen Marsh:
“House (sinking into marsh, cleared out, broken crockery, furniture smashed and burned); Woodshed (sinking into marsh, tools, dead horse).” This is minimalist, yes, but it manages to actually evoke atmosphere, with critters barely taking up more room than that and coming with unique tricks. Balck coral’s cold and extinguishes flame; anemones attempt to create drones, bunkers hide critters that can instantly kill you with critical damage in a manner befitting of horror games… This is inspired. Same goes for the dungeon, which is an exploration of an Iron Coral that has recently grown. It includes new arcana, cool critters and hazards and makes, combined with the wilderness, for one of the best introductory modules I’ve read in quite a while. Big kudos, for this really left me craving for more in this weird world!
Editing and formatting are either nigh perfect or barely good, depending on how you look at it; on a formal level, there is nothing to complain about, but whether or not you’ll enjoy the rules depends wholly on whether you can tolerate the unnecessary amount of rulings you’ll need to make. Layout adheres to a no-frills two-column b/w-standard. The artworks in b/w throughout deserve special mention – they are weird, inspiring and neat indeed; the pdf has a full-color illustration on the inside of the front cover, which, alas, is just b/w in the PoD booklet. Big downside for the pdf: The electronic version has NO BOOKMARKS. In this day and age, this is a HUGE bummer and comfort detriment, particularly for a core book. I strongly suggest getting print here; for the electronic version, detract a whole star from my final verdict.
Reading the above and really analyzing this book made me more critical of Chris McDowall’s “Into the Odd” than I was going into this review. You see, the game succeeds at many of its tasks in admirable ways; it presents a fast-paced, deadly and fun game that is PERFECT for convention games, long train rides and similar occasions. It’s easy to grasp, fast to learn and precise in its presentation regarding its core functionality. Ultimately, the book, though, tries to have its cake and eat it, too. On the one hand, it’s really rules-lite and easy to grasp, but on the other hand, it offers a lot of exceptions and small tidbits that require some GM-experience and a continuously building amount of rulings that need to be kept consistent, when a single paragraph of super-basic global rules, when a single explanatory line, would have sufficed to exterminate this vagueness and made things more comfortable for the referee. This is NOT a question of rules lite vs. rules heavy, mind you – it’s just a matter of precision in the details, and this is where the system struggles. The precision only extends to the big picture, when it’s obvious that this pretty thin booklet could have easily fitted the required rules inside. Cut down on the blank space, on the needlessly extensive playing example…just to name two options. I am harping on this to the extent I am, because Into the Odd is so damn close to being a 5 star + seal of approval masterpiece, only to struggle in these unnecessary instances.
That being said, I still very much found myself liking this book, mainly due to the amazing and compelling implied setting that made me really wish there had been more space devoted to it, that there’d have been more detail for Bastion etc. This is truly atmospheric and the setting and rules generate this weird union that keeps this book compelling and a good reading experience.
So, how to rate this? Well, I won’t lie, there are few systems that have made me grit my teeth to this extent; Into the Odd is frankly genius in its simplicity when it does things right; and this extends to the rules, their presentation and the setting. However, it suddenly becomes inconsistent in its details, and this is, in a book of this quality, just frustrating to witness. Without adding much in the way of complexity, with but a few paragraphs, this could have been something truly special and my favorite rules lite game out there. As presented, it is a game that you’ll love if you don’t mind the inconsistencies in the details and requirements for quite a lot of rulings; for those who want precision, I can only tentatively recommend this, though the implicit setting and the module do make this worth checking out. My final verdict, much to my chagrin, can thus not exceed 4 stars. I sincerely hope that there’ll be a second version some day – the engine and setting deserve as much, deserve this added notch that will make them phenomenal.
You can get this nice, rules-lite game and its inspiring setting here on OBS!
Unfortunately not included in the book or as of yet published in a compiled manner, but you you can find a TON of Into the Odd-stuff here on the author’s homepage!