08 October 2022
Weird, wild, and worth a read
When it was first released in 2014, Into the Odd blew fresh air into the world of rules-lite, danger-heavy roleplaying. It transplanted the feel of old-school dungeon-crawling into a world that riffed on Victoriana more than Vikings and rules that presented themselves with a little more wit than grit.
Now, wildly successful Scandinavian publishers Free League have worked with author Chris McDowall to re-vamp, re-visit, and re-issue the game for a new generation of gamers. The changes aren’t particularly sweeping – some new art, a few expanded rules, a fleshed-out starter dungeon – but they do just enough to warrant the new edition. The result is a beautiful little slice of gaming that plays almost as well as it looks.
And as trite as it may seem to a world that often focuses on rules and writing above all else, the aesthetics of the new edition really do matter. The game’s identity is fostered around a light-touch ruleset and the ability to get gaming in a matter of minutes, after all. This leaves the tone and feel of the rulebook to do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to establishing Into the Odd’s overall vibe.
Stand the rulebook, with its mint green background and sunset pink artwork, alongside the blood-spattered hazard-tape design of MÖRK BORG – the genre’s current darling – and the differences between the two games are clear. Into the Odd is a dangerous and violent game where death is only a handful of dodgy rolls away, but it’s also packed with charm and wonder. It’s a game about exploring the weird and mysterious places of the world and pursuing a drive, and less about dragging your character through another miserable attempt to avoid starvation.
The world in question is, as the name implies, an odd one. Its archaic streets and dungeons are sketched out in broad strokes rather than precise details. Adventures are typically centred around the mighty city of Bastion, which feels like a low-magic take on Victorian London – or possibly a black-skied Birmingham. The text hints at factories, guilds, mobs, madness, and a dozen other elements mashed together.
If you’re after a world that makes sense – one where there are enough farms to support the cities and a neat map of factions buried in the supplementary literature – you’re likely to be disappointed with Into the Odd. The world feels deliberately vague and dream-like, with details only rendering when the players look close enough for them to matter. An adventure into the Underground tunnels or the Polar Ocean ports could end up in a dirty tavern or a celestial palace and still feel within the bounds of the setting.
These adventures are delivered through an intentionally sparse ruleset that, as with many of its contemporaries, is founded on the same principles as early Dungeons & Dragons. However, while Into the Odd still uses ability scores, hit points, and other hallmarks of the genre, it adds several small twists that help make its gameplay feel distinct. For example, there’s no such thing as an attack roll in the rules. Instead, every swing of a sword or blast of a musket inexorably chips away at an enemy’s HP value, with real damage only landing after they hit zero and start wearing blows on their ability scores instead.
The game also dispenses with the idea of classes. Instead, characters are distinguished mainly by the gear they wear – characters with weaker stats are compensated with free shiny stuff – and the motivation that drives them.
This results in a system that actually delivers on the common promise that you can roll up a fresh, interesting character in a matter of minutes. Importantly, the range of gear and reasonably fleshed-out combat rules make these explorers feel mechanically distinct from one another, avoiding one of the common complaints levelled at rules-lite systems.
While it may lack some of the wackier, more whimsical elements of its pseudo-sequel, Electric Bastionland, this reissued version of Into the Odd is definitely worth a look. It delivers a sublime balance between style and playability, as well as between simplicity and satisfaction. The ruleset is light but not vestigial, and the tone is dangerous without being depressing.
Good? Also yes.
PLAY IT? YES
A fantastic re-issue of one of the most influential rules-lite RPGs of the modern age
TRY THIS IF YOU LIKED MÖRK BORG
If you loved MÖRK BORG’s style and simplicity, but want something a bit less bleak and bit more rules-ey, Into the Odd is ideal
Designer: Chris McDowall
Publisher: Free League
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This review came from Tabletop Gaming Magazine, which is home to all of the latest and greatest tabletop goodness. Whether you're a board gamer, card gamer, wargamer, RPG player or all of the above, find your copy here.Get your magazine here
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