Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday 21 January 2023

Return to the Odd

Bastion stands as the world’s largest city, an industrial powerhouse whose factories pour out guns, chemicals, manufactured goods, and even newspapers that ships carry from the city’s wharfs. Citizens flock to the city for work—the factories chew up their employees almost as much as they take them on! Expeditions leave the city travelling far and wide, many returning with tales of places weird, wonderful, and worrisome, often too far to even map given the size of the world. Yet there are wonders and secrets to found closer to home. The Underground lies beneath Bastion, at first the sewers, then tunnels, and caves below, full of long-lost secrets and ancient vaults. Cultists plot the return of their strange masters, unions counter plot even as they try to protect workers’ rights, and the mill bosses squeeze more and more out of there employees heedless of the religious fervour that undo their industrial empire. Scattered and across these cities and the darkness below are the Arcana, devices from ages past that grant fantastic powers, from pieces of jewellery to almost unmoveable statuary. There are men and women who search for these Arcana, knowing they can make a name for themselves, make themselves rich, if they can find the rights ones and find a buyer. They are Explorers.

This is the setting for Into the Odd Remastered, an Old School Renaissance rules light microclone originally published in 2014 that has been beautifully redesigned and re-laid out and published by Free League Publishing following a successful Kickstarter campaign. It promises fast character creation, minimalist rules, strange things to encounter and be found, a complete hexcrawl and dungeon, and quite possibly the most fun set of tables available for any roleplaying game. However, it is very light in terms of setting, combining elements of cosmic horror, heavy industrial squalor, weirdness and wonder in the ruins of the past—above and below ground. Into the Odd Remastered is both a precursor to the author’s Electric Bastionland and an expanded version of the original, primarily in terms of supporting content.

An Explorer—or Player Character—in Into the Odd Remastered is lightly defined. He has three Abilities: Strength, Dexterity, and Willpower, which range in value between three and eighteen. He also a six-sided die’s worth of HP, or Hit Protection, rather than Hit Points, a Starter Package, potentially a Companion, and some silver shillings. To create an Explorer, a player rolls three six-sided dice each for the Abilities and one die for the Hit Protection. Then by cross-referencing the value of the Hit Protection with the Explorer’s highest Ability, he receives a Starter Package. An Explorer with either low Hit Protection or a low Ability will receive a more powerful Starter Package, including an Arcanum, whilst an Explorer with a high Ability or Hit Protection, will receive a more mundane Starter Package. Thus, an Explorer with six Hit Protection and a high Ability of twelve would start play with a Maul, a Dagger, and a length of chain, whereas if the Explorer’s highest Ability is nine and he only has two Hit Protection, he begins play with a Musket, a Sword (d6), a Flashbang, and the ability to ‘Sense nearby Arcana’. The process is incredibly simple and incredibly fast—two minutes if that!

Hattie Tuggery
Strength 8 Dexterity 10 Willpower 15
Hit Protection 3
Starter Package: Club (d6), Ether, Crowbar, Flute

Mechanically, if an Explorer wants to undertake an action, his player rolls a twenty-sided die against the appropriate Ability, aiming to equal to or under to pass. Initiative in combat is handled with a Dexterity save if needed. Combat is equally as simple. A player rolls the die for the weapon used to determine how much might damage be inflicted. The target’s armour is subtracted from this and the remainder is subtracted from first his Hit Protection and then his Strength. This necessitates a Strength Save and the possibility that the Explorer will be unable to act. Should a character lose all of his Strength, he dies. It takes only a Short Rest to recover lost Hit Protection, but a Long Rest lasting a week to recover lost Ability points. Saves against Willpower are used for several things, maintaining morale of course, but also in a pinch, maintaining civil discourse with others, and more interestingly, to manipulate the powers of Arcana.

Arcana are the motivating force of Into the Odd Remastered and are categorised into three types. Base Arcana are ‘Powers You Cannot Understand’, Greater Arcana are ‘Powers You Can Barely Control’, and Legendary Arcana are ‘Powers You Shouldn’t Control’, but any Arcanum does one specific thing and does it well. For example, a Soul Chain is a base Arcana which forces a Dexterity Save on a target lest he loses points of Will and gives away a glimpse of his current desire; the Book of Despair is a Greater Arcana that fills a floor area with tentacles that grab and constrain unless a Strength Save is made; and a Space Cube is a Legendary Arcana which transports the user and a companion to a location they have been to before. Some one hundred or so Arcana are detailed in Into the Odd Remastered, but there is scope for the Referee to create yet more and there is advice in the book on how they woke and should be handled.

Other advice for the Referee covers understanding how the game is played, handling obstacles, tricks, and hazards, monsters and encounters, money and treasure—including options for the Explorers to invest in enterprises and war, and how to award Experience Levels based on Expeditions completed. They are thus awarded on a narrative basis. Beyond Novice, there are only five Experience Levels and each gains an Explorer Increased Hit Protection and the possibility of an increased Ability. Notable of these is that hazards and traps can invariably be spotted unless an Explorer is running, locked doors can always be picked, and so on. Saves or rolls are required in these cases where there is a time factor involved or the course of action an Explorer is about to take might trigger the trap. In effect, this places the agency with the player and his Explorer and takes into account that when exploring, the Explorer is by nature being careful. Several sample hazards are provided as well as sample monsters. This is all accompanied by a lengthy example of play to help both player and Referee get the feel of how Into the Odd Remastered plays.

However, Into the Odd Remastered is not necessarily a forgiving system. Combat in particular, is deadly as every attack succeeds and what matters is the amount of damage rolled. So, hirelings or playing with multiple characters might be an option if a group wants to avoid a total party kill. That said, it does favour the players and their Explorers when it comes to the exploration and the discovery of obstacles and traps. Here in Into the Odd Remastered, the Explorers choose to engage with obstacles and traps and risk the consequences of doing so, rather than having such obstacles and traps sprung upon them as is the norm in other roleplaying games. Nevertheless, the unforgiving nature of its mechanics and play means that Into the Odd Remastered may initially have the feel of a Character Funnel as in Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game and Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, with its set-up of multiple Zero Level characters per player.

In terms of setting, Into the Odd Remastered gives its various locations—the city of Bastion, the Underground, Deep Country and other cities, and beyond civilisation to the Golden Lands and Polar Ocean little more description than a paragraph each. In this it does not expand upon what was in the first edition of the roleplaying game, and is in some ways its biggest disappointment. The Referee is definitely left wanting more flavour and detail about Bastion and the wider world. Some of that though, is covered in the ‘Oddpendium’ a set of tables at the rear of the book for name generation, occupations, abilities, manner, connections, and important little life events, all for quick NPC generation. Others generate city locations, routes, locations, weird creatures, cults, borough decisions and the reaction to the mob of this and anything else, whether or not a thing is an arcanum, and more. There are options for different character groups such as Mutants from the Underground and Simple Folk from the Deep Country unused to city ways, and alternative Starter Packages. These table are pointers, elements that the Referee can use to develop the world of Bastion and beyond around the Explorers.

In between the rules and advice for the Referee and the ‘Oddpendium’, Into the Odd Remastered details three locations as play environments. These are the scum-encrusted fishing town of Hopesend Port, the Last Port of the North; a dungeon, The Iron Coral, which lies off the coast off Hopesend Port; and the hexcrawl, The Fallen Marsh, the soggy stretch of coast which lies between them. Now these are presented in the order of The Iron Coral, The Fallen Marsh, and Hopesend Port, which feels counter-intuitive if the trio is run as a campaign, with the Explorers starting out from Hopesend and then travelling through The Fallen Marsh to The Iron Coral. That said, the inclusion of The Iron Coral first essentially means that it is good for getting straight into play as it can be run with very little preparation upon the part of the Referee.

This new edition of Into the Odd expands upon the original dungeon, The Iron Coral, adding depth and detail, but still presented in a succinct series of bullet points. There is plenty of detail packed into this strange, often random complex of rooms. Expanding out from this is The Fallen Marsh and then a point of civilisation, Hopesend Port, providing all together a complete hexcrawl campaign driven by exploration and rumour. As good as this is, it still leaves Bastion itself untapped and unexplored and even with the tools of the ‘Oddpendium’, a great deal of effort upon the part of the Referee will be needed if she is to do something with the greatest city in the world and actually bring it into play.

Physically, Into the Odd Remastered is as lovely a book as you would imagine given that Free League Publishing is releasing it and Johan Nohr—best known as the ‘Artpunk’ designer of Mörk Borg—did the graphic design. The result is a genuine remastering, elegant often subtle, but always hinting at a clash between the baroque and a lost modernity. The writing itself is succinct and always to the point, although that succinctness does not always help the Referee as it should. Primarily this means that as minimalist as Into the Odd Remastered is, it is not really suited to be played or run by anyone without some experience of doing either.

There is an undoubtable elegance to the highly economic combination of Into the Odd Remastered’s minimalism and its new presentation. Both the rules and the setting of Bastion are very light and very much open to interpretation by both players and the Referee, yet arguably, Into the Odd Remastered all but leaves the city itself and much of the setting begging be to be expanded upon and explored. Room perhaps for a city and underground book for the setting of Bastion? In comparison, Electric Bastionland, the sequel to Into the Odd, is far better at its implicit world building. Yet in comparison to other microclones, Into the Odd Remastered does present somewhere to start playing with The Iron Coral and its associated hexcrawl.

Ultimately, Into the Odd Remastered is a lovely re-representation of a world that is accessible and all but instantly playable mechanically, but remains strange and elusive, oddly Dickensian and technologically fantastical, in terms of setting, and that is by design.

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