Friday, June 28, 2019

Into the Odd goes Space Opera (Session Report and notes on homebrewing a sci-fi ItO)

A xenolinguist arranges her own violent kidnapping. A massive firefight breaks out as cultist ex-policemen raid a village for captives and loot. Combat archaeologists make a narrow, last-minute escape from an ancient military vault haunted by a terrifying darkness...all on this episode of Gundobad Games.

Huh? That's a bit off from my usual posts about ancient history and gaming. But some local friends with a 5e D&D group graciously allowed me to hijack their GM's chair for a summer mini-campaign using my preferred minimalist rules, Chris M's Into the Odd. My players chose a sci-fi/space opera theme for our campaign, and we met a few nights ago for an action-packed Session One.

One of the great things about Into the Odd is just how quickly it can move, allowing you to pack an awful lot of stuff into an evening's gaming. In just a hair under three hours, we generated 4 characters and set them up with equipment, explained the core rules, described the setting of a brand new campaign, had three combat encounters (including a pretty big fight against 16 enemies with a heavy truck and belt-fed weapon), investigation, a tense social encounter, and a scary two-level ruin-crawl that culminated in a dramatic rescue with the clock ticking down to doom.

I am by no means the first to push the Into the Odd rules over for a sci-fi setting, but Into the Odd (hereafter just ItO) is the kind of game that really stimulates your own houseruling and tinkering, and my table is no exception. In what follows I'll offer a session report and also highlight some house-rules and creative adaptations (that's nerdspeak for shameless thieving) of other GM's great ItO ideas. So this should be of interest to fans of sci-fi gaming, fans of ItO, or those interested in constraints for running an open-table mini-campaign. Here's the outline:

+ my approach to character generation in ItO
+ brief session report
+ using the clock and the calendar as a constraint/tool
+ automatic weaponry in ItO (suppression and belt-fed heavy weapons)


We're running an open-table sandbox with a current pool of six players in the loop. Four showed up for Session One. We ended up with the following characters, all given color by a background/occupation system:

E. played a Police Psychologist with low STR who also was competent with heavy weapons (we joked that he must have some anti-grav suspensors on the belt-fed weapon). This guy also has an implant that allows him to detect, interface with, and attempt to hack wireless tech around him.

J. played a Criminal Clergyman (yup) with implanted sub-dermal armor. He had spent some time in the slammer, where a vacancy in the prison chaplaincy office led him to the world of ministry.

T1 played a Scholar (Physical Sciences) and Mechanic/Engineer with a metal bionic arm. Apparently he built the arm himself as a science project.

T2 played a Scout Soldier with a sniper rifle and a facial holographic projection unit - his real face has been replaced by a flat white screen which he can reorganize at will after about a minute's preparation.

In vanilla ItO, you roll 3d6 down the line for STR, DEX, and WIL, roll 1d6 for HP, then cross-check your HP and highest stat to find your starting equipment. This works really nicely for pickup play, but I've found that the quirky starting gear can become irrelevant once characters actually get settled into a campaign world and have the freedom to revise their inventories. Here's how I'm currently handling character generation in ItO games:

+ Roll 3d6 down the line for STR, DEX, WIL
+ swap any 2 of those stats, if you want to
+ Choose 2 character backgrounds. For this campaign, all players had to make at least 1 background be Soldier, Police, Scholar, or Criminal, and all players then chose to roll 1d20 to select their remaining background randomly from my list of sci-fi appropriate past vocations.
+ Choose 1 special ability. These were 4 weapon proficiencies (which grant a bonus damage die) and then 2 cleric/Capt. America-style 'rally the troops' type buffs.
+ Now roll 3d6 again.
+ Assign one of those 3 die results as your HP.
+ If you wish, discard a remaining die result in exchange for a third Background or second Special Ability.
+ Finally, if the total on your remaining 1 or 2 dice = 6+, you may roll 1d8 on a handy list of tactical augmentations and implants. For this list, I condensed and slightly modifed Sean Smith's d12 list from his Slick Thames ItO cyberpunk hack. [EDIT: I previously credited Norbert Matausch for Slick Thames, but as Norbert points out, Sean wrote Slick Thames and Norbert wrote the follow-up Seattle Slicks. Thanks, both!] The players really, really liked this part.
+ Finally, choose equipment. I just let players pick whatever they want, but they had to fit this within an equipment inventory management system inspired by Ben M's Knave and various other hacks/ideas out there: anybody fills up to 8 inventory slots without penalty; between 9 and your STR (if it's above 8), you're Encumbered (penalty to all physical Saves), and between STR and 18 you are Exhausted and fail any Save roll.


Eons ago, the aliens we call 'Olmecs' vanished, leaving only creepy ruins behind. Five centuries ago, the First Ecumene, held together by the Lion Star Hoplites, collapsed into a 300-year-long anarchy. Last year, the 250 systems of humanity's rebuilt Second Ecumene fell into civil war. Uh-oh. Since military garrisons have been deployed to the hot zones, local system prefects must now maintain order without proper military support, leaving real power increasingly in the hands of local militias.

Our player characters are the rag-tag crew of the Astral Burn (the AI pilot likes to call itself Abby), and a group of combat archaeologists (naturally, in this setting, raiding ruins for ancient high tech is likely to connect you with vicious dormant killer robots or things that want to eat your face). They jumped into the Scythian System half a year ago - and solar days later, the nav beacon that permits FTL travel across this whole ecumenical sector was destroyed in the war. That means they are stuck in the Scythian System for a long time. The local system governor, Prefect Yost, has become their patron; he'll patch up their ship and fund them very well, if they carry out his covert ops. Covert because he's lost real control over most of his assets to the local militias, including a suspicious cult: the Church of the Glorious Transference (other prominent religions in-system are Mahayana Buddhism and Interstellar Christian Orthodoxy). The Prophet of the Transference has recently proclaimed that the Transference is very near, when we will take on 'their' spiritual nature and they our physical nature, liberating us from the shackles of flesh...because the Prophet of Transference commands a small private army, Prefect Yost would really like to know more about their plans.

So. The Prefect sends Team Alpha investigate an old military vault in the mountains on a moon. Alas, our PCs aren't quite good enough to be Team Alpha; they are the B-Team, on hand to support Alpha if they need help. Meanwhile, the B-Team is sent to investigate the recent violent kidnapping of a xenolinguist whose work was funded by the Transference. Play opens as the PCs arrive at the abduction site, where a shattered truck lay on its side among some hoodoos, surrounded by dead cultists. And, unfortunately, where a pack of hungry carrion lizards were already starting to interfere with the crime scene...

So play really opened with a short, nasty fight with the lizards. The lizards managed to sneak around to the rear for an attack, and the machine-gun-toting psychologist got knocked out and almost dragged away as lunch. Judicious firepower, loyal friends, and a sympathetic morale roll finally drove off the lizards, but this meant that for the rest of the session, the machine-gunner was pretty close to death's door.

Clues at the crime scene included signs that the linguist had been shackled before her 'abduction' - suggesting that the abduction might really have been a rescue (props here to Advanced Adventures #7, The Sarcophagus Legion, for inspiring the initial elements of a story seed here with this idea) a smashed glass flask, some twisted colored wool fibres, and swoop bike tracks heading off into the desert. The bike tracks were soon covered by wind-blown dust, so PCs headed off onto my regional sandbox map to look for more info. En route to the linguist's work site, they found that a local Buddhist stupa had been ransacked, burned, and vandalized with the emblem of the Transference (a local town with police HQ had largely been subverted by the cult). At the linguist's work-site - an ancient 'Olmec' monolith covered in arcane glyphs - the PCs found a hidden research journal that demonstrated that:
+ the linguist had cracked the Olmec language
+ she realized that the Transference was doing something related to the Olmecs, something that put billions of lives at stake on their homeworld
+ she figured nobody would believe her, so she'd need to escape the cult's clutches, get help, and go find more evidence.

The PCs' next stop was a local village, Gordot, noted only for its pub, its shepherds, its distillery, and its carpet factory (hmm; smashed glass flask? colored wool fibres?). Locals were hostile and clearly assumed the players were really hitmen sent by the cult. They were just convincing the locals otherwise when a raiding party sent by the cult drew near, looking for 30 'volunteers' from the village. With about 20 minutes in-game advance notice, the players agreed to defend the village. They set up an ambush plan on a village map, and then things got rolling. We had a rollicking good fight; 4 pcs with 2 npc resisters vs. a cult commisar, 6 pistol-packing thugs, 6 rifle-armed former policemen, 2 cultists on swoop bikes, and a big police truck with a machine-gunner on top. It was an intense firefight and the ItO rules held up well, allowing nice flexibility in combat and mostly getting out of the way. Several Molotov cocktails were thrown, several keen sniper shots were made, a lot of machine gun fire was laid down, and in the end the PCs prevailed.

Finally, the players learned from their new allies that they were, in fact, friends of the linguist's rescuer/kidnappers (a small band of resisters...former policemen who were dismayed to see local police subverted by the Transference, and responded by reporting their weapons stolen, and 'retiring' to a nearby village where they hid the weapons beneath the carpet factory). The linguist and her ex-cope guard friends had gone off to raid an old military vault in the mountains that should have more evidence of whatever was going on with the Olmecs. At the same time, Abby (the AI pilot of the players' ship) called to say that Team Alpha - currently raiding an old military vault in the mountains - had lost contact, and could the PCs please go bail them out...oh, and long-range scans showed that the Transference had just launched a small convoy toward this moon, including some light fighters, and so could you all please move post-haste...

Hard-scene frame to the entrance to the military vault; players went inside, found bodies and broken security droids from an older attempt to raid the vault, and found evidence that this was a First Ecumene outpost manned by the Lion Star Hoplites - who had been guarding something that went 'uncontained.' The inventory system here showed its real chops, as the players found a really sweet ancient melee weapon in a storage locker - and almost left it behind because they wanted to avoid encumbrance.

Oh, and once they were a few rooms into the vault...the PCs started hearing a voice in their head saying things like "Ssssssoooo many words...for fear...", which, uh, didn't make them feel confident.

An elevator shaft at the back of the vault had three rappelling cables anchored...their friends/allies/whoever were downstairs. Descending through the elevator shaft brought them to a dark platform ... slippery with blood ... with the front half of a squad automatic weapon lying in the corner. The platform led to flooded rooms below and a creaky, rusty, metal gantry above, both leading to left and right off into the darkness. One flooded room turned out to have half-submerged, ancient computer banks... and part of a Team Alpha crewmember floating around. Oh, and the creepy voice was back in their heads...("when I've eaten everything you can won't have to feel anything any more..."). It was about this point where players started urgently discussing the real possibility of bailing and aborting the mission (this was music to my ears as GM, not because I wanted them to fail but because it showed I was achieving the effects I had aimed at, I guess...). They went up one of the gantries, crossed into a central room, and found the dehydrated, semi-conscious linguist lying inside a containment field where she'd taken refuge from...something. She saw them...raised half-up...croaked 'you have to take my backpack, and LEAVE!' There was an angry roar from deeper in the complex. One player grabbed the backpack and then heroically headed at the double for the exit. The soldier-scout scooped up the linguist onto his shoulder and started climbing back up the ladder to the exit gantry (the player got a dilemma: roll a STR save, success means you can carry her away in time, failure means you both land on your backs at the base of the ladder...). Around this time, boot-steps were heard from deeper rooms coming their way. As they all reached the elevator shaft, something like a 10'-long sausage made of pure darkness materialized behind them, shifted into the shape of something like a bear with two giant paws, and psychically voiced its desire to devour their fears...Players who had harpoon grapples shot them into the ceiling above while those without started hand-over-handing it up the cables...the horrible dark beast followed them up the elevator shaft and started attacking...the players at the top started spraying fire down the shaft (all rpg sessions should end with somebody firing a machine-gun down a dark elevator shaft, don't you think?) and the players JUUUUUUUST managed to make it out in time to jump into their ship, which Abby had brought around. They escaped the moon just as Transference fighters entered the atmosphere.


The aftermath: so, of Team Alpha, the linguist, and the linguist's guards, only the linguist came back alive. The linguist tells the party that the Olmecs, too, had a civil war...they locked away most of their own nightmare enemies in quantum-sealed prisons. Only a few aren't locked away - the old Lion Star Hoplites had half-released one and were studying it in the undergound vault. But most of the Olmec shadow-worms should languish in half-reality forever...unless something weakens the seals.

Naturally, in true evil cultist fashion, the Transference has been weakening the seals, working actively to return these ancient monsters to reality. The Olmecs did leave several control orbs that can re-seal the vaults, (Oh look, a MacGuffin!) but if this isn't done soon, then about 100,000 shadow-worms like the thing in the vault will burst out across the Transference's homeworld, where 5 billion civilians currently reside...


One thing that really helped add tension was the presence of some real-world time constraints. I've announced that (for different narrative reasons and for eminently practical real-life reasons) each session in our mini-campaign will have a real-world ticking clock that ends with a TPK if the party hasn't left the operational area yet. To be honest, I was a little more flexible this time, since we had needed to use time for character generation, to introduce the system, equipment, etc., so the players didn't have quite as much time as I'd normally want to complete a pretty action-packed session. I'd initially said that 10:15 was the stroke of doom, and we instead changed that to...10:30, so it's not really like we broke the bank. :-) In this case, Transference fighter-craft were coming, and they would probably be too much for Abby to handle, so there was a real need to finish things. The players really got this, and one thing that made the final rescue in the vault so dramatic was that the clock was ticking down in real life even as horrible dark things were coming to eat the players' minds in the story. Very satisfying finish.

I've also announced that the Evil Villains' Doomsday Plan (trademark) will happen, if the suitable MacGuffin fix is not applied, in real-world September (just have to confirm the date looking at a real calendar). In other words, we have an open table in a semi-flexible sandbox setting; I'll provide multiple possible jobs for the party to run each time, and they can choose whatever they want. Oh, and if they don't stop the villains' plans by September, then 5 billion people die and the PCs lose the campaign. No worries, what could go wrong?

I didn't come up with these ideas but was inspired by others who've led open table campaigns. I haven't tried it before and I'm really sold now after seeing the effects in one session.


For machine guns, I borrowed (again, shamelessly thieved) the automatic fire rules from the ItO hack Into the Jungle (a quirky game about D&D-style fantasy monster fighting...during the Vietnam War). These rules have the firer make a series of d20 saves with rapidly increasing difficulty, with each success inflicting damage on a target, and failure meaning you've used up an ammo reload and need to spend a turn reloading (and reducing inventory). At first, I wasn't sure how well this would work in play. Report: it was awesome. I didn't (and wouldn't) use these rules for all automatic fire, but rather just for heavy weapons. It really made them feel special and over-powered, but also unreliable.

Great fun. Thanks for reading.

And don't worry, I haven't forgotten my roots in dusty, musty, blog posts about ancient history and archaeology. Stay tuned. :-)

1 comment:

  1. Turns out that the list of backgrounds I used is of interest, so I'm going to paste that chunk from char-gen here:

    What did you do before you joined this crew? Pick or roll for two backgrounds.

    Because our current campaign features covert ops and ‘combat archaeology,’ each character must have at least one Background in the following: Soldier, Police, Criminal, or Scholar.

    1 Aristocrat
    2 Soldier
    3 Police
    4 Bounty Hunter
    5 Pilot
    6 Techie/Hacker
    7 Mechanic/Engineer
    8 Scout/Hunter/Survivalist
    9 Scholar: Archaeologist/Historian
    10 Scholar: Scientist
    11 Doctor/Physician/Medic
    12 Empath/Counselor/Psychologist
    13 Clergy/Religionist/Monk
    14 Performer/Entertainer
    15 Criminal (tell us what kind!)
    16 Swoop-Bike Delivery Courier
    17 Government Official
    18 Athlete (tell us what kind!)
    19 Gambler
    20 Merchant

    Whenever you try to do something for which your Background provides relevant experience, your Background will affect whether you need to roll a Save, and/or give Advantage on the Save roll (roll 2d20 and take the better score).