Everything you always wanted to know about “Into The Odd” but were afraid to ask

chrisInto the Odd is definitely one of the coolest games I’ve played in a while and it’s the one game I exclusively played over Google+ Hangout. It has been designed by Chris McDowall who also wrote the awesome RPG “A Wanderer’s Romance” which I released under my Stargazer Games imprint a couple of months ago. Recently I asked him if he was willing to answer a few questions for the blog and luckily he agreed.

Stargazer: Chris, could you please introduce yourself to the readers of Stargazer’s World?

Chris: My name is Chris McDowall and I’m the game designer and occasional blogger at SoogaGames. I’m a UK-based hobby gamer and have been designing games since I inherited an old Heroquest box that was missing the instructions. I’ve written over a dozen free RPGs, most notably “A Wanderer’s Romance”, “Teen Island” and my current project “Into the Odd”.

Stargazer: So HeroQuest was basically your first RPG-like game you imageplayed?

Chris: I first got into hobby gaming through Warhammer Fantasy Battles when I was ten years old, entirely because of the miniatures at first. After enjoying that it was a gradual scaling down. I played Necromunda and Blood Bowl, which I loved for their focus on the individual models, and then finally got a copy of Warhammer Quest for my birthday, Heroquest and Dungeon! joining the collection soon afterwards. Ever since then the dungeon has been my home. Running alongside this I had a friend with a huge Fighting Fantasy book collection, which I’d frequently raid. In fact, I still have his copy of Out of the Pit!, which is one of my favourite monster books to date.

My first real RPG was Warhammer Fantasy RPG, First Edition, which I bought at a Games Day without even knowing what an RPG was. It was bizarre to see this rulebook that didn’t come with a box of tiles and miniatures. I didn’t quite manage to get a grip on how to run that game until much later on, but I loved reading through the book and rolling up characters.

Stargazer: Let’s now talk a bit about the games you designed. Can you give us short descriptions of what your games are about? Is there something all your designs have in common?

Chris: Generally I try to keep my designs simple and focused, but they cover quite a diverse range of genres. Into the Odd is D&D with the focus tightened onto Survival Horror and Exploration, A Wanderer’s Romance is a wuxia game where tea-ceremonies and card games are contests on par with a duel, Xenofringe is a Sci Fi game about trying to scrape together enough credits to survive, Thousand Spears is an epic-scale RPG with super-powered characters in an original classical-era setting and Big Action Heroes is my attempt at the cinematic action genre with a hint of Saturday-morning cartoons.

As well as my RPGs I’ve designed a few games that play like board-less board games. Teen Island sees a dozen high-schoolers trying to survive on a death-filled island while also dealing with the teen drama you’d expect, Five Star Chef is a dice game inspired by Iron Chef and Booty for Booty has the players trying to control a crew of pirates on their adventures to try and plunder enough booty to retire to a mansion. I should definitely think of a name for this style of game!

Stargazer: Have you ever thought about making game design at least a part-time job or do you prefer to keep it a hobby?

Chris: So far all of my games have been free and I’ve managed to avoid having to pay for any art or layout work. However, with the success of websites like IndieGogo and Kickstarter the prospect of making a little extra income from game design is looking more plausible. Into the Odd seems to have attracted more attention than my previous projects, so perhaps something related to that will be my first dip into paid work! Watch this space.

Stargazer: So the readers of Stargazer’s World will be the first to know if you decide to commercially release on of your games?

Chris: Sure!

Stargazer: Good man! Winking smile

Stargazer: In my introduction I promised a deeper look into “Into The Odd”. You described it as D&D with a focus on survival horror and exploration. But at least in the current playtest version it feels quite different from D&D. What makes it D&D-like for you? And would you consider Into The Odd part of the OSR?

Chris: When I first started writing the game I wanted to write something that would be compatible with classic D&D and its retroclones. The game started out as being entirely compatible but as I made more changes and chopped away at what I felt wasn’t needed I was left with something that has clear mechanical differences from D&D but something I still feel shares the best parts of D&D and is quite easy to convert D&D material to.

To me D&D is at its best when the party walks into a room with some weird feature like a pool, altar or trap and they try to work out what to do with it. Maybe one player takes a risk and his head is turned into a toad-head. This is a type of fun you don’t get in other types of game and it hardly needs rules at all. I think the more focus you put on combat mechanics, character builds and huge lists of skills, feats and equipment the less focus you put on these great moments that happen outside the rules.

As for being a part of the OSR or not, “Old School” is a difficult term to pin down. I certainly relate more to the older editions of D&D but I think the most interesting new games that are coming out are those that are trying to capture the best bits of those games while also trying new things. I think the likes of Lamentations of the Flame Princess RPG, Dungeon Crawl Classics and Old School Hack are great representatives for what can be done with D&D outside of the straight retroclone.

Stargazer: How did you actually come up with the idea for Into The Odd and especially the weird locales like the Iron Coral or Darwin Peak?

Chris: In terms of the setting of Into the Odd, I wanted to look at a broader idea of what the Fantasy genre could include. Until the last few decades there was much less distinction between Science Fiction and Fantasy. The classic example in gaming is Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, but even that has a clear juxtaposition between the medieval fantasy world and the crashed spaceship full of robots and laser guns. I started with the core assumption that aliens from at least one advanced culture had visited the world and left their mark on it. This grew into blurring advanced technology and magic together in how all spells are bound to items and influenced monster design, which draws less on mythical creatures and more on whatever alien things I can imagine.

For the Iron Coral, the sample dungeon in the game, I wanted to blend a natural environment I hadn’t seen used in a dungeon before with unusual architecture and interesting rooms to explore.

The third genre I wanted to draw from was horror, which is already a huge part of D&D at low level. These characters are in an environment where traps can kill them in a heartbeat and unnatural creatures far beyond their power lurk in the shadows. Running away from a monster far beyond your ability is something that I want to be a part of a game and is something that is all too often missing from D&D.

Stargazer: As you well know I have been participating in quite a few Into The Odd games over Google+ Hangout and enjoyed it very much. Have you designed Into The Odd with online gaming in mind, or did you just use Google+ Hangout to run the game for a more diverse audience?

Chris: I hadn’t designed the game especially for online play, but it is my primary method of gaming. I don’t have a regular gaming group at the moment, so Google+ has been a real blessing. Before Hangouts I played through forums and IRC but they felt like pale imitations of a real game. For me, Hangouts is just as good as the real thing. Getting feedback and enthusiasm from the other gamers on Google+ has spurred me on in trying to make the best game I can.

Stargazer: So you basically agree with the claim I made on my blog a while ago that playing on Google+ Hangout is “almost as good as the real deal”. What are the advantages and drawbacks of online games in your opinion?

Chris: I completely agree! The biggest advantages are the increased pool of players and the convenience of being able to join in a game from my own home. As for disadvantages, you lose the ability to sketch something and put it in the middle of the table, but the shared sketchpad on Hangouts isn’t far off that.

From a player’s perspective it’s great to be able to play with some of my favourite bloggers. I’ve been an avid reader of Jeff Rients’ blog for years and would have never thought I’d get the chance to actually play in one of his games. Hangouts made this possible and it was a great moment for me!

Stargazer: Have you tried the app Tabletop Forge yet?

Chris: I’ve only looked at it briefly and not tried it in play. I can see the appeal but I like to run games without too many visual aids or focusing on precise positioning of characters. For me I don’t really need anything more than being able to see and hear the players and a shared document to keep their character information.

Stargazer: Same here. But I think the dice rolling feature could come in handy. By the way, do you already know when Into The Odd will leave the playtest phase?

Chris: A die roller would be tempting but I’m quite fond of trusting players to roll their own dice and give their results. It creates an atmosphere of trust that I think is needed between player and GM and maintains the tactile feeling of rolling dice.

Stargazer: Good point.

Chris: I’m very happy with the core of Into the Odd at the moment and I feel like I’m very close to being able to call that section complete. My next project is to clean up the example dungeon, wilderness and settlement. I want all three of these sections to be clear and useful for the Referee straight away as well as setting the tone for the type of game the rules are designed to support. At the moment they’re very rough, little more than my own preparation notes.

Stargazer: Have you already thought about your next project after Into The Odd?

Chris: I have a few projects on the back-burner that I would like to return to after Into the Odd. Xenofringe is a Sci-Fi RPG that I want to get back to playtesting. Even after the game itself is done I don’t see myself putting down Into the Odd just yet. I’d love to expand on the implied setting with a larger adventure site. Perhaps a more polished version of Darwin’s Peak, where my current games are taking place.

Stargazer: Thanks again for answering a few questions and we’ll definitely meet again in Darwin’s Peak!

Chris: My pleasure! I look forward to seeing how your next delve goes.

This concludes our interview, but if you have any more questions about Into the Odd, feel free to post them in the comments below.