Into the Odd takes its taglines of rules-light and flavor-heavy very, very seriously. This Old-School Roleplaying (OSR) tabletop game has the veneer of a simple dungeon-delver, but once you dig into the book itself, the straightforward rules lead you into an incredible wealth of lore that emphasizes the conspiratorially satirical undertones of the game.
The system is easy to learn—there are player characters and a Referee; you have three statistics, representing Ability Stores (Strength, Dexterity, and Willpower); and one more for Hit Protection. When attempting an action or attempting to judge risk, you roll a 20-sided die (D20) and compare it to your Ability Score, hoping to roll under your score in the specified ability. The Referee can also call for Luck Rolls as they deem fit. Attacks deal damage depending on the weapon used. I’m leaving out some details, but if you were to pick up Into the Odd right now, this is all you would really need to know.
Creating a character for Into the Odd takes three minutes. Five, if you’re taking the time to read through some of the more detailed starter packages you get after rolling some dice for your stats. The Into the Odd character I play is named Rochiel of Patua, a lesser cryptfinger, the self-proclaimed Saint of Gravebreakers, and an unrepentant resurrectionist. In addition to being a scumbag of the highest order, Rochiel—who goes by Rock—is in possession of both a pickaxe and the Skull Magnet Arcanum: “You may attract or repel a single target that has a bony skull, unless they pass a Willpower Save.” During character creation, the starting packs and Arcanum are where the brilliance of Into the Odd really begins to shine through.
Starting equipment is determined by consulting a table, and you can be given something incredibly dry (“Staff, tongs, glue”) or delightfully absurd (“Harpoon Gun, Baton, Acid, slightly magnetic”). There are no explanations given for why you might be slightly magnetic, have glowing eyes, or be in possession of a Mutt with telepathy. Arcanum are magical objects, whose origins are likewise unexplained. They have names like “Flesh Tome of Babble,” “Hawk of Prosperity” and “Malice Gong.” The flavor of these items is incredibly suggestive, and with the roll-of-the-dice combination of pickaxe and Skull Magnet, Rock quickly turned into an on-the-lam graverobber—the perfect setup for the game structure of Into the Odd, where everyone’s goal is to collect valuable Arcanum, which is hidden underneath the city of Bastion, and sell it to the highest bidder.
The main setting of Bastion is a city built on ruins, which was also built on ruins, which was also built on even deeper archaeology. It’s a city remade a dozen times over, and there’s no real explanation for where or when it is, just that it exists in this slightly modern, magical, tunnel-and-vault fugue state that demands rogues like Rock and his hapless new friend, Sir Egwin, dive ever deeper into itself in search of riches and valuables. (Egwin, it must be said, is a bit daft. He is best described as an Elder Scrolls NPC with more vanity than sense.)
Like many OSR games, there is very little separation between what you know and what your character knows; the rules’ emphasis isn’t on intense character development or roleplaying, but on being creative in your approach to the ultra-dangerous and mysterious world of the Odd dungeons, and its main city of Bastion. In the rulebook’s words, it’s “the only city that matters.” What happens when you play Into the Odd is that the flavor of the rules and setting itself helps encourage players to make characters that are memorable and fun. They might die at any instant, of course, but there’s a satisfaction in knowing that they earned their deaths. Or maybe not. Bastion is a cruel city, and its surrounds, even more cruel.
There are hints of rebellion against Bastion in the ruleset, but much more space is devoted to the downtime establishment of enterprise. What good is risking yourself over and over again if you only ever make enough money to afford the next expedition? Clearly, there is a need for income, war, and supporting the imperialist structures that have forced you ever deeper into Bastion’s gutters.
Into the Odd is a tight 60 pages of rules explanations, examples, tables, and encounters. The remaining 80 pages are an entire campaign, “The Iron Coral.” One part is comprised of a dungeon crawl and the other a hex crawl, and the combination is not only an incredibly easy pick-up-and-play setting (you can take any dungeon level or hex and play out the scenario in just a few hours, especially considering how lightweight the character creations are), but also a fantastic guide to Into the Odd’s world and design. “The Iron Coral” is a great template for Referees and game designers to use if they want to create their own Odd adventure.
One of the great benefits of simple, direct rules is that they allow the lore to become such an intrinsic part of the game that it would be impossible and completely miss the point of the game if you attempted to separate the ruleset from the setting itself. Author Chris McDowall has really sunk his teeth into creating the kinds of details that make for both an interesting, fun game and a blistering commentary on OSR RPGs in general. To remove one or the other would break apart the self-satirizing concept of Into the Odd.
The book is an earnestly attempted parody of OSR, looting your own land-as-imperialism, and English mores about class. Within its tight, highly playable ruleset is a critique of the human churn that OSR—and highly dangerous manual labor—requires. All of this is accompanied by art from Johan Nohr, whose collages use public domain and overpainting to create designs that are both familiar and haunting. The images from the past are cut up, pasted over, and made new, eerie, and compellingly horrible. The kind of signpost that should read “keep out” and instead invites you in for a closer look at the detail.
Into the Odd is a self-cannibalizing premise, one that insists that you can make it rich if you only have the strength to crawl over the bodies of your siblings to get back to the surface. I remember asking during character creation, what’s a body, anyway? My Referee just shrugged. You can always, he said, make a new character.
Into the Odd is available to pre-order through Free League Publishing. It will be available October 4.
Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel and Star Wars releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.