Change Agents of the O.D.D.

I’m running Agents of the O.D.D. tonight for the first time since Metatopia, and looking to playtest some changes. (Please feel free to grab a free “community copy” of the earlier edition if you’re practicing good social distancing or performing essential services during the pandemic, by the way.) We likely won’t even get to all these changes in an online session with six (!!!) players, but still, I want to be able to advise players of what to expect, and make sure I’m clear myself on what I plan to do. Here’s what I have in mind.

Advancement

In the original edition of the game, you get to do a bunch of different things during the downtime between missions, but only one of those things—requisitioning new equipment—actually relates at all to your performance on the mission. Playtesters indicated that they’d appreciate having some more options, including for searching for information, whether that means intel relevant to their next mission or fleshing out their characters’ mysterious back stories. Playtesters also suggested that they wanted the option to go rogue (which is very much what I hope they will do!), but there’s nothing in the game to encourage that; it’s actually pretty discouraged by having advancement tied so specifically to rewards from the sponsoring agency. And finally, several playtesters would’ve appreciated if their mission performance tied more directly to how they advanced.

In trying to think through this, and the advancement system for Alight, I’ve been reading up a lot on downtime in games like Blades in the Dark and The Nightmares Underneath, and catching up on the excellent series of “downtime activities” posts on Mazirian’s Garden. I’m feeling a bit emboldened by how open-ended some of those options can be, so I’m going to try something that puts a lot of freedom into players’ hands, and see how it goes.

While on a mission, keep track of how many objectives you complete. Every mission already has 1–3 explicit objectives from HQ, but now I’m adding a couple standing objectives common to every mission:

  • Keep any “mundanes” you encounter safe from the paranormal, including covering up evidence that anything they witness was especially strange
  • Bring back strange items or information, including recruiting or capturing paranormal beings
  • Take a step toward addressing a personal mission you identify for yourself, like uncovering information related to your past, establishing contact with outside handlers if you’re a double agent, or finding clues for how to avert the apocalypse that the higher-ups don’t yet believe is really an immediate concern

During downtime, choose from the following list once per completed objective. There is no “saving” completed objectives; you “spend” on this list all at once between missions. Explain how completing objectives made it possible for you to do this between missions, such as by cashing in favors from other O.D.D. departments, building a rep among freelance paranormal investigators, getting some time off for a job well done, etc.

  • Training: Name one of your abilities and roll a d20. If the die rolls over, raise that ability by one. Each attribute can only be raised once per downtime in this way.
  • Rest & Recuperation: Restore all lost ability points.
  • Reclassification: Change your profile (e.g., from “Squamous Sailor” to “Squamous Sniper” if you spend a lot more time shooting than sailing), with potential implications for what kinds of bonuses you get in play.
  • Reflection: Re-roll your HP; you must keep the new result, even if it’s lower. You can choose this option multiple times at once, rolling 1 die for each time you choose it, but may only add up to the highest 3 dice rolled. (E.g., if you completed 6 objectives, you might choose to roll 4d6 and add the highest 3 results, then make 2 other choices from the other objectives you completed.)
  • Purchase Order: Gain a random mundane item from a category you specify, like ranged weapons, pharmaceuticals.
  • Arcana Requisition: Gain a random arcanum. You can only request 1 arcanum per downtime, but you can choose this option multiple times to take your pick of multiple rolls.
  • Research: Ask a question that you might be able to learn through research (by yourself or by others on your behalf). The answer might be incomplete, but it won’t be entirely inaccurate. If the information just isn’t available you get some kind of consolation prize, like someone owing you a favor later, or learning some other immediately useful information.

I wonder if this is too complicated, but then again, it’s not really much more complicated than the original approach.

Less-lethal weapons

The original version of the game started all PCs with a service weapon—a pistol capable of a d6 attack. When I wrote the game, it felt appropriate enough, in the mold of other games about monster hunters and secret agents (and also a sad joke about how gun-happy my country is). But it felt weird in play: Players were hesitant to use them (which I appreciated!), and it seemed a little surprising that every untrained recruit got sent into the field with a deadly weapon. I’d like to start PCs with some kind of less-lethal weapon instead, as it feels more plausible than being sent in completely unprotected, but I’m having a hard time imagining what that should look like with the Into the Odd rules.

In the original rules, a tranquilizer gun had a d4 attack, forcing the target to take the worst of 2 critical damage (STR) saves; a stun gun forces the target to save DEX or be stunned for a round. Either of these could potentially work, but the trank gun proved frustrating to use to whittle down HP, and the stun gun feels overpowered when used to gang up on a single target (and ignores that such an item can still be legitimately hazardous to the target’s health). You can eliminate some of the concern about being overpowered by specifying that such weapons need to be reloaded or recharged before being used again, but sooner or later I imagine an edge case would annoy me.

I’m considering making such items work in a uniform way, just by saying that damage in excess of HP is applied to DEX. I could potentially add that lost DEX refreshes pretty fast, or that this requires a special kind of critical damage save to avoid knockout, but I’m wary about those kinds of rules exceptions in an otherwise very simple and consistent system.

Another option I’m considering (suggested by Wizard Lizard) is just to make these work like any other weapon with d6 attack, and handle the results with fiction rather than rules. If you fail a critical damage save from a gunshot, you probably went into shock; if you fail it from a tranquilizer dart, you’re probably asleep. This is the easiest solution, which probably means it’s the right one. I might then boost more obviously lethal weapons up to d8 attack, just because it feels silly for a trank gun to be equivalently deadly to a pistol, but I do prefer the rule to reflect that these aren’t nonlethal weapons. I’ll give this a shot tonight and see how it works.

Adventure changes

I also have some changes to make to the initial adventure (including fixing the fact that I say there’s 8 encounters when there are only 7). My main goals are to make it flow a little better at the table, and to make it easier to use it as a jumping-off point for a campaign.

Stop reading if you want to avoid spoilers for included adventures.

For Metatopia, I already added an additional encounter—a lone survivor of a crashed O.D.D. chopper, trying to limp to safety and go rogue. When the players catch up to her, she doesn’t try to fight them, but she insists she’s not going back. Both of my playtest groups let her go and came up with wonderfully creative solutions to cover for her. If the players end up going rogue in a later session, she’d make a great contact.

I’d also like to add something to link disparate missions, much in the same way that the villains of “Project Ragna Rok” link together Hellboy adventures spanning Greek myths, Christian demonology, Eastern European vampire folklore, and more. To that end, I’m considering adding an additional adventure to the next edition of the book, adapted from a BPRD-themed adventure I wrote for Fate Core years ago. In that adventure, a group rogue Russian scientists founds their own organization to combat occult threats, with a mandate to find and control a Godzilla-scale monster to fight Lovecraftian horrors. I’m wondering if I can “reskin” them for this adventure, planting some clue that they are behind the weird infection that sends a bunch of creatures from lumberjack folklore into a frenzy, and fails to take control of Paul Bunyan. Probably a corpse with a fancy Russian tattoo would do the trick. Possibly it should only be discovered when the O.D.D. does its autopsy on Paul Bunyan.

As for making the adventure flow better at the table, I think I’m just going to describe encounter rolls differently. The first time you roll an encounter, you find signs of the encounter; on the second time, you arrive at the encounter itself. To avoid jumping straight to the deepest parts of the forest (the downed helicopter and the treefall gap), I might say that those are only accessible after completing 2-3 other encounters.

Other stuff

I’m making a bunch of other tweaks, but most of those probably won’t come up tonight: corrections, rewording, more referee advice, etc. I am also replacing a few character profiles with new ones, including “Organ Recipient” (kind of boring and nonsensical, despite the utility of caustic drool), “Squarefoot” (boring, weirdly specific, and that part of the world is overrepresented in the profiles), and “Teammate From Another World” (it breaks some things about assumed setting knowledge and ends up feeling repetitive).

I’m not sure yet what I’m replacing these with, but it does seem like an oversight not to have a parody of a Supernatural-style “Vengeful Monster Hunter” in here, and I feel like I could draw more explicitly on some myths outside Europe and the Americas. To be honest, I have been extremely nervous about committing unwitting cultural appropriation in writing up these profiles, but I think that led me a little too far in the other direction, featuring too much of a focus on “white people folklore,” so to speak. That’s probably the topic of another post, though.

Feel free to hit me with any feedback, and I’ll be back sooner or later to report on how it all goes.

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