Collecting magic items with a day job

I love roleplaying games with tons of weird little magic items and strange oddities. They’re the secret sauce in games like Into the Odd, Numenera, and (since I realized what those games were doing that I liked so much) my own in-progress game Odd Luck Charms. I think those sorts of things work even better in minimalist games, with extremely simple character design, because it pushes players to think up creative uses for the very few tools at their disposal. When all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail—but when all you’ve got is a briefcase that always opens to reveal a fresh plate of pasta, you will bend over backwards to find hilarious and clever uses for it.

In games like those mentioned above, the characters’ main occupation leads them to discover yet more bizarre items, whether it be through fantasy adventuring to pay off a debt, exploring super-science ruins, or indulging a personal obsession. But what do you do when you want to run a game of “oddities” that doesn’t afford much opportunity to hunt for treasures? That’s the dilemma facing me as I work on a revised edition of Agents of the O.D.D., and I’m not willing to accept “make some other game” as an answer.

The titular agents of the O.D.D. are not treasure hunters. The agency itself is far from squeaky-clean—many characters are likely unwilling conscripts—but it’s ostensibly dedicated to protecting humanity. It’s not sending out agents to loot crime scenes, archaeological dig sites, or citizens’ haunted houses. Rather, these characters are going out to investigate odd happenings, recruit or eliminate paranormal threats, and pursue other fairly clear-cut objectives. Sometimes that objective will include recovering arcane oddities, but what about when it doesn’t? Those discoveries are even more essential to character growth than the actual advancement systems in Into the Odd and its follow-up, Electric Bastionland, and I wanted to similarly offer multi-session players a bit more than the occasional boost to ability scores and hit points.

My original approach (still visible in the “Cryptid Jam Edition” available for download as of this writing) was having “requisitions” as just one of several things you could get during “downtime.” After each mission, you can randomly improve ability scores and hit points, reword your character concept to affect the bonuses it offers, trade in items you find for other items that might be more useful, and petition the agency for new equipment, even including magic items (called “arcana,” in Into the Odd parlance). Mission performance might yield additional requisition privileges, and the more specific an item you wanted, the more requisitions it required. My hope was that this would encourage players to roll randomly, and end up with even stranger collections of items to make sense of using.

In practice, this approach proved a mixed bag. Having no prices listed did cut down on the tedium of going shopping, but I was still effectively “pricing” things by requiring some items demand more requisitions than others, and I wasn’t communicating that very clearly. And while it’s fun when players accept whatever random stuff they end up with, that breaks down when the random stuff turns out to be useless. (It stinks to have a demon-binding item in a session with no demons to bind.) Some playtesters also wanted the exact number of objectives they complete to be more significant, to recognize the difference between capturing four live cryptids when they could’ve quit at one for the same reward. And, as a couple playtesters pointed out, it’s practically inevitable that some groups will want to go rogue from the morally-gray O.D.D.: What does the advancement system look like for rogue agents when they have no O.D.D. to requisition gear from?

One thing has been abundantly clear in every playtest, though, confirming my initial suspicions: For this game be be as weirdly entertaining as I want it to be, I either have to explicitly seed adventure scenarios with magic items to find, or I have to give players the means to get magic items between sessions. The former feels a bit contrived at times (well, more contrived than a bunch of mythical creatures going on covert ops for a conspiratorial agency, anyway), so I’m inclined to keep trying to make the “requisitions” feel satisfying.

I’m now playtesting some adjustments that I’m hoping will make it easier to remember what to do, offer some more flexibility, and (sometimes) cut down on steps between sessions. Rather than having a specific, multi-item checklist of things to look at every downtime….

  • Abilities have a chance to go up when they heal from damage between missions
  • Hit point maximum has a chance to go up (or down!), and profile (i.e., character concept) can be reworded, whenever you are “permanently changed”—which could mean anything from discovering something about your origins to losing a limb
  • You can call in a favor every 10 objectives you complete, including securing the intel the agency doesn’t want to share on the next mission, requisitioning a specific piece of equipment, getting entrusted to field test a random arcanum (or getting your hands on one through a black market contact, if you’re rogue), or whatever else you and the GM agree on

It’s a lot more open to interpretation, but this might be the kind of game where that makes more sense than getting overly detailed. We’ll see how it goes in the next playtest.

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