Monday, December 15, 2014

I just ran Into the Odd and it was Fun

I just ran my first session of Chris McDowall's Into the Odd. Know what was cool? Everything. More specifically? A party managed to crawl 21 rooms worth of dungeon in under 3 hours. Now that's efficient.

dat cover tho

Okay let's talk about it.

First of all I like the system. The machine ticks well. There aren't a whole lot of parts but the parts that are there carry a lot of weight. There were a few moments where we were like, "wait, how does that work again?" But the answers were always to be found in Into the Odd's 25-or-so pages of rules, usually somewhere you'd expect them to be, under a heading that made sense.

On with the session report.

One thing I wanted to do here was test out Chris's assertion that Into the Odd was a game you could just grab off the shelf and play, like any other tabletop game. I tried to play in that spirit. So I grabbed an adventure off his blog (this one, to be precise). I'd read it once before and not very attentively, but liked the creepy atmosphere and the encounter table. That was literally all the prep I'd done.

One thing that's really important to note here is the effectiveness and importance of the way Chris presents his adventures. If you plan to run this system, have a look at the link I posted, or read over the introductory module included with the free quickstart rules here. The room descriptions are pretty minimal and uncluttered. You can see a list of the most important features of a given room at a glance. This works and means you don't have to spend five minutes hemming and hawing your way through a room description with every new room, trying to distinguish what you should show from what you shouldn't. This isn't just good, efficient design - it's essential to the ethos of running with minimal prep. It means that the party can enter a room you've never read before, and you can go, "oh, there's, uh, a staircase in here, the one by which you came down, two iron trunks on the floor, a chandelier hanging from the ceiling, and a painting of soldiers hung on the south wall." If someone asks what's in the trunks, you go to the heading that says "iron trunks" and tell the player what's inside.

All that to say that I was far from well-prepared but it worked.

Character creation was fast. Like, really fast. Faster than any game I've played before. We started the session five minutes ahead of schedule and everyone already had characters. One guy had rolled an Arcanum in his starting equipment but didn't know what it was. I told him there was a list of d20 Arcana he could roll on, so he did, and he got a Bone Magnet. That was literally the extent of the time we spent fiddling over chargen. That's a tiny fraction of the time it takes to set up a game of Settlers of Catan. Even if you take the time to read a like 4-page module you'll still be ready to play in half a Catan board.

Chargen also produces fun characters. Gloomtrain's Mat Diaz rolled crap stats - his highest was a 9, and I guess his HP wasn't very high, because he started play with a Heat Ray and a whole bunch of weapons. The guys with better stats get less cool stuff. Character creation balances itself out and just about every character it produces is in some way interesting. This was awesome.

In the spirit of spontaneous play I also skipped any kind of introduction. I got straight to the dungeon. "You're outside a rusty trap door, it's creepy and no one knows what's in there. What do you do?" No lore dumping, minimal character introductions (just their names and equipment), let's go, let's play. Of course you can play D&D this way too. If anything Into the Odd's minimalism sheds light, and actually somewhat refines, the no-nonsense-let's-get-to-the-dungeon playstyle that OD&D was made for.

As for a play by play of the session, frankly, I find these boring to read and boring to write, so I'll stick to what was interesting.

The party managed to fight half of the dungeon's random encounter table in the second room. Many of the monsters on this particular were spooky and atmospheric, rather than outright dangerous. There was one monster which is generally nigh-impossible to kill, unless someone happens to have brought a Heat Ray (it's immune to damage caused by non-living material. I imagine heat isn't a material for these purposes). I think the dungeon is supposed to be a terror crawl where you're regularly fleeing from this bastard but, impressively enough, they managed to kill it. (It managed to knock two of them out first. It was quite tense.)

Here's one interesting rule we didn't quite use right, but damn is it cool. While fighting the nigh-invincible monster, Brian asked if he could "turn the heat ray all the way up." I figured, sure, why not, and told him he could Enhance the attack, but he'd have to succeed on a STR save to avoid being knocked back by the force and taking d6 damage. Just after he managed to kill it someone, I think it was Mat, dug up a thing in the rules that said that you can use an Arcanum in a slightly altered way by making a WIL save.

First of all, cool, there's a rule for bending your magic effects and it's goddamn simple.

Second, cool, it's intuitive enough that I nearly guessed it right.

The Heat Ray turned out to be the big hero of the day actually. Not only did it single-handedly take out the Big Bad, but Mat also realized he could use it to melt the locks off doors. I couldn't think of any reason to it shouldn't work and allowed them to eschew the usual roll to see if something bad notices you while you're picking the lock. Which was interesting, because there were a whole lot of locked doors.

So yeah, Arcana are cool. The asshole DM in me that wants to make everything difficult cringed a little watching them blow through every locked door, but it seemed to be fairest way to run the game. Also, Brian found a ring that lets you see in the dark but deals WIL damage when exposed to light. I remember Chris wrote a post suggesting that all D&D spells be unlimited-use, but dangerous to cast (eg. Sleep affects everyone within a certain radius, meaning the wizard either needs to risk running into a group of monsters alone or put their friends to sleep too. Nice.) That ethos evident in the ring and I would like to have found a way to apply it to the Heat Ray.

Anyway, because virtually all of the dungeon's combat encounters were on the wandering monsters table, and because most of them were unique, there was virtually no fighting after the second room. I felt a bit weird about this because I had to keep up the illusion that the players were in danger to keep the dungeon interesting, but they weren't, really. There was nothing left that could surprise them. Fortunately the dungeon itself was creepy and fucked up enough that they kept their guards up throughout. I'd like to put it out there that this particular module is peppered with a bunch of cool plot hooks. I could imagine turning the questions it raises into a brief campaign.

In closing:

The game stood up to the test of off-the-shelf play very well. I can imagine a group of brand new roleplayers grokking it within, what, 20 minutes. It doesn't ask for the nearly the same amount of buy-in as most systems in being used today, including any edition of D&D.  You don't have to choose equipment. You don't even have to choose a class. More importantly you don't need to worry about character personality or backstory, which can be daunting to new players, and which tends work itself out in play as the need arises anyway. Four dice rolls, pick a name, and you're ready to go. The modules are well-presented, fun, and easy to run,

Things I'd like to see from Into the Odd:
- I'd like to run it with a group of people who have never played an RPG before. I can really see it going over well. It's also fairly easy to hack into whatever setting/aesthetic you prefer, and I could imagine it working really really well with kids. Its simplicity is a treasure.
- I'd be willing to pay for a big book of short modules - dungeons, hexcrawls, what have you - all no more than 6 pages long and written in Chris's format. I could imagine a dearth of ready-to-run materials impeding the possibility of playing off the shelf.
- I'd also pay for a book of Arcana. Although I'd be happiest of all if the book in that last bullet point also happened to have a chapters that's just like, d100 more Arcana at every tier. Tall order I know. But I'd be like a kid in a candy store.

So, what are you waiting for? Go get the damn book. Or if you can't afford it, get the Chris-approved free version, save your quarters, and then buy the damn book because it's like 15 dollars and this game deserves at least that. Did I mention all the rules you need to play fit on one page? Goddamn. And start writing those dungeons and Arcana and stuff so I can steal your ideas. I'll write some too, promise. Then we can all have a big fat folder full of stuff to run whenver someone's like, "hey, let's play that weird dungeon game."

P.S. Having some more thoughts I wanted to put out there.

The Death & Dying rules are clever. Basically unless the thing you're fighting is particularly nasty, being taken out in combat means you're unconscious and will die if no one helps you within an hour. The only reason for your party to let you die is because they're also out of commission. Once the danger has passed you can spend a few minutes resting up and get all your HP back. This means a character is unlikely to be taken out of the game unless they all do. So there's little chance of having to roll up a new dude mid-game. Nice.

P.P.S. ONE LAST THING SORRY. Noah Stevens is running Into the Odd games on G+. If you want to try this system, it looks like he's your man. I can't play because I'm in the wrong timezone, but I will be playing with him in a few weeks as part of his new podcast project. So you can look forward to that.

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