Why I keep going back Into the Odd

I recently had the honor of joining Chris McDowall on his Bastionland podcast to talk about Agents of the O.D.D., and other games I’ve written inspired by Into the Odd. Chris asked why I went with these rules for Agents, and I babbled quite a bit about the history of the game’s development, but not as much about why I keep coming back to this rule set again and again and again.

So, let’s rectify that now. Here’s what I love about Into the Odd:

  1. It’s familiar
  2. It’s fast
  3. It makes you think
  4. It makes me want to design

Let’s dig into each of these.

It’s familiar

I don’t just mean it’s familiar to me, but that it’s familiar to anybody who’s seen D&D. Like it or not (and I understand the very good reasons why you might not), D&D is the average person’s first impression of RPGs, and the game most likely for most people to see played. With its traditional division of duties between a referee and players, ability scores like “Strength” and “Dexterity” ranging from 3–18, d20 rolls using those abilities, character safety measured by HP, and damage rolls based on weapon sizes, Into the Odd invites players to build on what they probably already know.

Of course, while familiarity is one reason I love Into the Odd, it’s not enough on its own. If familiarity were enough, I’d just keep going back to D&D, which already boasts years of compatible adventures, creatures, and spells. And sure, there are hacks and variants of D&D I enjoy, like Knave and The Black Hack. If I want to run “a D&D,” it’s usually going to be one of those. They strip out a lot of rules that make D&D feel more complicated than I really need, and I appreciate that.

Even so, I keep going back to Into the Odd because it is just D&Dish enough, but not too D&Dish. It strips out even more than Knave and The Black Hack, and it’s very smart about how it uses what it keeps. Which means….

It’s fast

Into the Odd feels like D&D stripped to a minimalist, low-friction core. And that makes it run really fast at the table.

Sure, I appreciate some more structure and guidance from the rules in a lot of games, especially in genres I haven’t played as much over the years. But D&Dish fantasy feels so well established at this point that I’m happy to run it with very few, very simple rules. As a parent of a small child, and as someone with chronic health issues, I’m usually only able to run a game for a couple hours at a time, so I want to fit as much as I can into that time.

Consider a few examples of how the rules make it possible to accomplish a whole lot in a short amount of time, at least compared to modern D&D. (I’m going to get a bit technical, so jump past these paragraphs starting with bolded terms if you’re uninterested in me nerding out over rules.)

Character creation literally takes a few minutes. Roll up three ability scores and your HP, consult a table to see what equipment you’ve got, and you’re done. Chris’s follow-up game to Into the Odd, Electric Bastionland, takes this a bit further, with a hundred weird backgrounds usable as ready-made PCs or NPCs, but the principle is still the same. And while you can come up with your own motivation or back story, Electric Bastionland particularly welcomes you to just get right to the treasure hunting and exploration by telling you which unsavory characters you’re deeply indebted to, and that you need to strike it rich fast or else you’re screwed.

Rolling dice is always fast because you’re usually only rolling one die at a time — maybe two — and, crucially, you only need to consult the number shown on one die. You don’t add modifiers, or even add the dice together. Just take the highest number.

Attacking in combat cuts out the traditional “to-hit” roll. Rather, you roll for damage, and subtract an armor value (usually 0 or 1). The end result is that if people want to just say “I attack,” it’s over so fast that you don’t tend to feel like you’re sitting around, waiting for your turn.

Damage in combat tends to bring fights to a close after just a round or two. Hit point totals are low, but that doesn’t mean you’re constantly losing characters. Rather, damage exceeding HP strips points off Strength, and threatens to knock out the target immediately, or even scare off a whole group when they see one of their own go down.

“Save” rolls are similarly fast — just a d20 roll compared to one of only three ability scores. You only roll saves when there’s an explicitly defined danger to be avoided, in contrast to frequently rolled “ability checks” in modern D&D. That’s less time hunting for the right die to roll, and less time wasted to wondering aloud, “So … can I just try again?” No roll ever feels wasted. Every roll is clear about what just changed.

Dying doesn’t happen as often as a lot of other OSR games, as the rules encourage fights to end at critical injury or morale rolls, which means you spend less time rolling up characters. But then again, dying doesn’t even slow you down too badly: The rules explicitly say to introduce a new character ASAP, prioritizing player involvement over realism. With generally fast turns thanks to the above rules, once again the game effectively minimizes time spent sitting around and waiting for it to be your turn.

In sum, it took you longer to read me explaining why I like these rules than it would take you to actually read the rules.

By the same token, I want to enjoy games, not just speed through them. I appreciate that the rules very quickly handle things that feel bogged down to me in other systems. But really, I appreciate that…

It makes you think

Using minimal rules encourages — perhaps even demands — creative thought from the players and referee alike. And this isn’t just an incidental side effect of minimalism; it’s written right into the refereeing guidelines, and extremely apparent during play.

You use your brain to solve problems, not your character’s. Characters don’t have ability scores for “Intelligence” or “Wisdom,” or a skill for “Perception.” Rather, the referee is told to “answer questions generously,” and that “Each situation should present the Players with an interesting choice,” as “Assessing the risk against the possible reward is a vital part of the game.”

For instance, this is how Into the Odd suggests the ref handle traps in a traditional dungeon-crawling adventure:

As a general rule the presence of a trap or other hazard is always noticed by characters unless they are running, visually impaired or distracted. After this the characters may be harmed through further inaction or lack of caution.

Into the Odd: Remastered, p. 50

Contrast this with old-school games and antagonistic DMs expecting you to take a 10-foot pole and specify “I check for traps” every step of the way. Perhaps somebody finds that style of play fun, but not me. The fun part of a dungeon delve for me is solving (or being surprised by how players solve) tricky problems without easy answers.

This encouragement to think creatively extends to combat, too. As much as I raved above about fights being over so quickly compared to other OSR and D&D games, I rather like fight scenes that you can approach creatively, as problems to be solved, and Into the Odd encourages this with a very simple rule: If you can describe how you set up an advantage of some kind, you roll a d12 instead of your usual damage die. That is a very big deal, as a single d12 roll is likely to incapacitate most enemies.

I probably make it sound like the players are just playing avatars of themselves, like how you’re not really pretending to be Super Mario, you’re you, controlling a little Italian plumber on the screen. And maybe there’s some truth to that, compared to more character- and narrative-focused games — but I find that players do still get into character in Into the Odd and its various derivations. The settings and characters are so weirdly specific that it draws you in. And that’s why…

It makes me want to design

Into the Odd and Electric Bastionland are deliriously creative games with pleasantly weird settings. There are a lot of games with settings I think sound super fun, but these books, and the way they communicate their setting, makes me not just want to run games, but make games.

I read a lot of books, but I struggle to get through 300-page RPG manuals. I struggle even more to make them useful to me at the table while running a game. I know I read a rule for this exact situation somewhere … but where was it, again? Such games have a lot of ideas, but those ideas often feel both crammed in and explained at greater length than I really want. It feels like those designers are trying to share their vision with me, rather than giving me inspiring tools to realize my own vision.

Then I look at a game like Into the Odd and see so much implied by so little. This is a setting where you won’t find a +1 sword, but you might find a magnet that affects bones instead of iron. You don’t sit down to stat out a “ranger” or a “mage,” but you might randomly start out with a musket and telepathically-linked mutt, or a pickaxe, manacles, and a heat ray, and it’s up to you to make sense of why.

The whole world is made up of tiny, evocative details you can take or leave. You don’t have to memorize everything in there, or really anything in there. But everything you read is a thing you can use, and a thing that tells you something about the kind of world it is.

I don’t know that I could design a coherent, interesting game in the “traditional” 300-page model. But Into the Odd made me want to design games assembled from strange, bite-sized chunks like these, and now I can’t stop.

And yes, I love the rules, obviously. But most of all, that excitement, that sense of discovery and surprise I feel when reading Chris’s games, and the desire to evoke that in others (and in myself, because I eventually forget what I wrote and then get to reread it again later, which is hilarious and delightful)…

That right there is why I keep going back Into the Odd.

3 responses to “Why I keep going back Into the Odd”

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