domingo, 14 de octubre de 2018

Odd Soot: Science-Fiction Mystery in the 1920s

12 comentarios
How would it all be like if space travel had been discovered in the late 19th century? An original mix of science-fiction, investigative play, vintage aliens and even magic, Odd Soot is a role-playing game by Frostbyte Books. It runs on the Mythras set of rules formerly known as RuneQuest 6th edition, but it is a stand-alone game. The author is Clarence Redd who has already published a sci-fi supplement for Mythras titled M-Space. He was kind enough to send me a pre-release review copy of the book. So below you can read my review. First I deal with the innovative look of the book, then I talk about the innovative setting, and after that I focus on the innovative rules. :-)

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A distinctive look

Odd Soot is a 270-page book with a distinctive look. First, it is presented in an squarish format like M-Space. As in that first publication by this one-man publishing company, this format allows the text to be laid out in chunky individual columns, while leaving lots of space on the margins to fill with annotations, clarifications, extra details and even small illustrations. Although some of the pages are in colour, most of the book has a white background with black text and art in tones of grey. Even when there is colour, the tones are very subdued, and sepia predominates.

In the same vein, the art in Odd Soot is also subdued, and you can see the author wanted the book to look like an old book or an old brief encyclopaedia, with faded colours. Roman Gensky, someone nicknamed pheidel and Clarence Redd himself are the credited artists. Some of the art consists of small portraits on pencil, grey water-colours based on old photos, or perhaps old pictures retouched to look like water-colours. There are also small pieces taken from old books. However, the most striking pieces are the full-page images of the alien species. These were done by the author by mixing pieces of old biology and zoology books. One of these pictures graces the cover, also made to look like an old book on a dark brown background. It pictures one of the alien species described in the book: the gigantic Aygaan that look like a weird mix of two octopuses. I prefer covers that show a bit more of the setting, and not just a repetition of one piece of inside art, but it is certainly an intriguing cover that may very well draw the attention of potential buyers. All in all, the art has a serious, vintage and cohesive look that, while not particularly outstanding, sets the tone for the overall setting quite well.

A vintage sci-fi setting

The author of Odd Soot introduces a sci-fi setting that is innovative by being set on an alternate Earth during the 1920s. In this old-futuristic world, mankind discovered space travel in 1882 and explored the surrounding planets of a region of space called Comae Space, encountering several sentient alien civilizations and establishing colonies on some planets. The fact that the main aspects of the background are explained in just two pages in the introductions allows GMs to copy them and hand them to the players. However, many more details are explained in other chapters, most notably the ones titled Major Forces, Worlds, Denizens and Life forms.

Several details set Comae Space further apart from the most usual sci-fi settings out there. First, computers don't exist in this setting, and are replaced instead by differential engines, which look very much like the first computers of our history (think the Enigma machine and even earlier versions) and help keeping the overall vintage tone of the book. Secondly, there is no space combat, since spaceships are the space-travel version of the early 20th c. ocean liners, freighters and zeppelins. Finally, although it can be used for adventurous action and exploration, the setting encourages investigative play, mystery and personal drama.

I wish space maps could be made in full 3D shape instead of looking like a sea full of islands.

All these three are fostered through the main element of the setting, so central to the game that it is even in the title: the Odd Soot. It's a strange disease of unknown origin that slowly turns its victims to madness and manifests as growing dark mouldy spots on the skin. And it is spreading all over space. However, no one knows how to stop it and what's worse: no one is alarmed by it yet. Only the player characters see the big threat it represents. So adventures typically revolve around the player characters gathering information about it, researching ways to cure it and fighting those already strongly affected by it. And a big part of the drama is: they are also carrying the disease! Can you think of a better motivation to turn adventurous? The illness is represented in game terms by an infection percentage and some weaknesses that the malady causes on the PCs ranging from memory loss to addictions and obsessions, and that may hinder them in scenarios.

One of the best parts of the setting imagined by Clarence Redd is that the Soot mainly infects people or increases its severity on the already infected when they kill a sentient being. I haven't played or run it yet, but I'm pretty sure this fact alone has a deep impact in the game, since players will think twice before killing even the most awful villain, not to speak about rabble and underlings. Therefore, players will think of other non-lethal ways to stop them, and so it is a welcome change from basically most other roleplaying games. Part of this concept is also present the section about alien species.

Out of the four dominant alien species described in Odd Soot, three are non-violent: the nervous and fragile Nuveri, the gigantic psychic Aygaan, and the subservient but strategic Sumsum. The Eldirerrr, on the other hand, are feared cruel scientists who are indifferent to others' pain and so think nothing of undertaking medical experiments on sentient beings. However, they are tolerated into the Comae Space community of civilized beings. There is a fifth species, the Crisg'tu, foreign to Comae Space and very belligerent raiders, though very little is known about them. Economy, food, technology, habitat, beliefs, taboos, etc. are described in about three pages for each of these species together with their game stats. Only their location table is missing for some reason.

The Eldirerrr - Be careful with their electric guns!

Actually, once out of Earth (called Eorthe in the game), the alien species pretty much define the sci-fi part of the setting, so a lot of care has been put into them. They look appropriately weird or even disgusting. For example, some of them resemble insects in a way, and some have asymmetric bodies. On top of that, their traditions and behaviour are also original. Therefore, the first interactions between these aliens and the player characters, who are mostly assumed to be all human, is sure going to produce great roleplaying moments. Finally, the aliens are also a big part of the mystery of the game. For example, is the extra-advanced alien species known as the Luminarians ever going to return to Comae Space? How did they look like? The Sumsum: do they have any secret agenda? What if you played a campaign with only Eldirerrr characters? All these questions and many more are left unanswered, and it's up to the GM and the players to find out more. These aspects can help spark ideas for entire campaigns.

Another cool aspect of the setting is that Earth can be a background as exciting as outer space in Odd Soot, and that's mainly due to the «Major Forces» operating on or originating from its surface. The Colloquium, the Priests of Wittenberg, the Solipsists, the Skreeder Shamans and even the League of Nations have their own goals and methods, and are there to help or hinder the player characters. They also give a lot of colour to this alternate Earth, and bring to the game their own set of mysteries. For example: Why is the Philosophy Engine so faulty in its predictions lately? What are the Skreeder shamans up to?

The chapter about Earth also includes the description of an island-country called Doggerland, between Denmark and Britain, conceived as a base for player characters. It even includes ways of creating interesting villages. Having played in the 1920s with Call of Cthulhu, it will be refreshing to use Europe as a starting base, although you could place your adventures anywhere on the planet, of course. Aside from Earth, two other planets are described, Sisymbrium and Vera, each with its own set of inhabitants, secrets, weird landscapes and a total of 16 stated non-sentient life forms.

Doggerland and Sapmi are two countries on the alternate Earth of Odd Soot.

And if that's not enough, Odd Soot also includes magic. Most humans deny its existence, some even want to erase any trace of it, but it exists nonetheless. The Skreeder shamans from Sapmi can summon spirits to help them, the Aygaan have mental powers and anyone can learn some magic if they can find the means. Magic is yet another source of mystery in this game.

All in all, this setting is something especial. Combining mystery with the 1920s immediately brings to mind the role-playing game Call of Cthulhu, but this is a very different beast, especially since it is mixed it with the sci-fi genre. There are no Mythos or horror here, but you can play with all the tropes of the 1920s and then strange planets, weird aliens, and an incurable alien disease on top of that. Of course, this is only half of the book, the other half is devoted to...

A set of flexible rules

Odd Soot is a complete role-playing game that runs on the same rules as the Mythras RPG by The Design Mechanism. This is made possible thanks to the Mythras Gateway, a license the publishers of Mythras can grant to third parties if they ask nicely and their product looks good. But why Mythras? Well, it's an intuitive D100 system with skills, critical successes, hit points and fumbles, but strategic combat special effects and passions. It started out being titled RuneQuest 6th edition and being focused on the sword & sorcery genre, but then they changed its name to Mythras and added firearms to make it adaptable to any genre. If you want to have a look at it, you can download Mythras Imperative for free, which is a summary of the basic rules. Although the basics are very easy to grasp, the finer points of the combat system require some time to master.

However, Odd Soot includes much more than just a copy of these rules. First, it adapts them to make them more suitable for investigative play, and secondly, it offers new rules that add a lot of flexibility to the original game, such as extended conflicts and circles.

However, the first thing Odd Soot changes are the character creation rules. The skill list includes sci-fi aspects like Astrogation, Vacc. Suit and Zero G. and alternate 1920s aspects like Difference Engines, Research or Language (Menaryan). The skill points you can allocate to skills are categorised between Culture, Career and Bonus Points. In Mythras there are only four cultures to choose from, but these have been expanded to ten in Odd Soot to better represent the kind of basically civilized upbringing your character had. For example, your character may have been raised in a Nomadic culture, and then she will be able to allocate points to skills such as Survival and Endurance at this stage, but if your PC belongs to a more civilized Academic culture, she can allocate points to Culture and Language. As for Careers, they represent the professional training of the character, like Detective, Lawyer or Scientist. They could actually be used for any other civilized modern setting, and most of them are copied from Mythras Imperative. Finally, Passions are the characters' motivations and strong feelings and they are great, because they give every character a distinctive "soul". They follow the rules established in Mythras Imperative for allocating points to them, and there are suggestions adapted to the setting, like Fear (Eldirerrr) or Loyalty (The Colloquium), but more universal ones like Love (Family) will also be popular options. Interestingly, the Soot can manifest in a character by corrupting his or her Passions (!).

A sample Odd Soot character: a physician born in a family of bureaucrats, whose passions include stopping the Soot.

If you prefer a quicker character generation process, Odd Soot includes one. You just need to make some random rolls and distribute 70 points in some skills. The rest of skills come in prepackaged sets. This is cool for people who want to start playing right now, and it could be imported to other Mythras settings with little work.

Up to this point, everything is more or less as it stands in the Mythras book or Mythras Imperative with minor changes, but then you get to a fully new rule: Circles. These are groups of people characters belong to or have belonged to in the past and every character starts with two. Clarence Redd included the mechanics of circles already in M-Space, but here the approach is different. Whereas circles in M-Space have many stats to define them, in Odd Soot you only have a percentage, like skills and passions, that defines how closely tied is the character to that group. You start with one positive circle and one negative. The positive ones can help you and the negative ones can hinder you. For example, your character may have "+Extended family 52%" as a positive circle, which means she had a happy childhood and still can count on her close relatives for support. However, she can also have a negative circle like "-University 52%" because she was bullied when she studied Astrobiology and her professor still hates her for some reason. So circles both help define your character's background and produce allies and enemies. And that's not all.

Institutions, businesses, schools, hospitals, villages or religious groups can be positive or negative circles in Odd Soot..

If you want, you can flesh out some of the individuals that belong to that group, which are defined in broad categories like "the leader", "the counsellor", "the oldie" or "the newbie" and are applicable to every circle, be it a village or a hospital. And then you can establish relationships to these members by making some random rolls. A good way to have the player characters work as a team is have them share a circle. If you do that, the book includes a simple system to create a relationship map where players and GM take turns to establish different kinds of relationships between the player characters and the rest of the members of the circle. This exercise in collaborative creation alone can help create many interesting scenarios and non-player characters your players care about. And that's quite cool. I think it is inspired by games such as Hillfolk by Robin Laws. What's more, if you combine the rules for circles in M-Space with the ones in Odd Soot, you will end up with very detailed circles to use in your campaigns.

Apart from circles, the other big innovation Odd Soot brings to the Mythras ruleset are extended conflicts. Again, these were already included in M-Space. Extended conflicts are a way to increase the drama and tension of a skill roll. They work as a series of opposed rolls, where every success subtracts some points from the opposition's pool. The pools are made of one characteristic or the average of two characteristics. For example, in order to see who wins an argument, the two participants have a conflict pool equal to their own Charisma. In each turn, the participants pit their Influence skill in an opposed test, and the winner deals 1d6 "damage" to the loser's Charisma. Whoever runs out of points first is the loser. This simple system allows for a lot of flexibility to stage very different obstacles for the players to overcome and solve them in a more exciting way than just one skill roll. Several examples are described in detail, most of them copied word for word from M-Space, like a vehicle chase or a poker game, but a couple new ones are included, like "Decipher a Manuscript" and "Use an Unfamiliar Device". As you can glean from these examples, the opposition of an extended conflict need not be a living entity, but impersonal forces can also oppose the players in game terms, as in the conflict "Long Journey on Foot".

Every role-playing game should have rules for chases and in this case you can find them in the Extended conflcits section.

The basis for these rules is making any obstacle as exciting as combat. In Mythras, resolving a combat involves lots of dice rolls and the depletion of hit points, and in this extended way of determining the outcome of an often life or death situation, a lot of excitement is created. So why not devise a similar system for any other kind of obstacle? This is precisely what these rules accomplish. The idea behind this system was inspired by the HeroQuest rules, and then the game Revolution d100 included this mechanic as well. Clarence Redd took it from that game and included it in a simplified way in M-Space and now also in Odd Soot. The author of Revolution d100 is perfectly OK with that, as he admitted in this interview (his D100 system is OGL, after all!). A detail that Odd Soot incorporates over M-Space are three optional special effects to use in any extended conflict, which can add some variation to this game mechanic.

I've tried extended conflicts twice already, with good results in each case. Once running Revolution d100 at a con and another time in the samurai campaign I'm running with Mythras. In this latter case, I decided to use an extended conflict to solve a scene where the PCs were chasing a villain. Then I noticed that the example chase in the book does not cover multiple participants on either side, and in that case it was important to determine what PC got first to the fleeing villain. In this regard, I wish the rules specified this aspect in further detail, although I also understand that no rulebook is going to be complete enough so as to cover every possible situation that comes up in play. We just house ruled a satisfactory solution, and everyone enjoyed the scene.

As in M-Space, Odd Soot also includes optional simplified rules for combat. These do away with hit locations and offer a shorter list of combat effects to speed up play. If you want even simpler and quicker combat rules, the book offers rules to treat combat as an extended conflict.

To finish off, I'd like to mention another small optional rule present in Odd Soot: Negative luck points. Luck points are a means by which Mythras characters can save their own skin, as they are used to reroll bad rolls or saving them from death. Negative luck points allow you to spend extra luck points when you have run out of them. Then the GM can later use this negative luck point to turn a PC's successful roll into a failure. The example on page 68, however, seems to suggest the GM can use these negative luck points to swap the numbers on a PC roll, so they can potentially turn a success into a fumble (!). Anyway, a nice rule that adds even more flexibility to an already flexible system.

There is a section about technology, with cars, space liners, weapons, artifacts and the usual equipment list.

Wrapping up

A distinctive look and an interesting, fresh new setting, paired with adaptable, flexible rules. What is there not to love? OK, I would have loved to find at least one piece art showing a scene that could happen in a game of Odd Soot. But this is a very minor aesthetic quibble. Odd Soot has all the elements for being a successful RPG product, especially for anyone interested in the cool mixture of genres it presents.

Above all, I like how original the setting is. Moreover, the background is presented in a way that sparks multiple ideas for campaigns, while at the same time leaving a plethora of unsolved mysteries for the GM and the players to explore.

Visit Sisymbrium and the Sinking City, where the Dream Library stands.

The adaptable rules for combat are another great element. In the same way that the combat rules in Call of Cthulhu distilled and simplified the combat rules in RuneQuest, Odd Soot allows you to simplify the combat rules in Mythras to better suit games mainly focused on investigative play, where combat is something to be avoided most of the time.

In this regard, the mechanics of extended conflicts are very useful to create tension in an Odd Soot game without resorting to combat. They also helps diminish one of the main criticisms directed against a canonic investigative game such as Call of Cthulhu, as you can solve important scenes in exciting ways without relying solely on just one skill roll. The Game Mastering chapter that I hadn't mentioned yet offers a few more tips to solve that. It includes some guidance on scenario design based on nodes, which reminds me of the useful Three Clue Rule I've read on The Alexandrian blog. By the way, this chapter also offers a list of Odd Soot mysteries to include in scenarios and some tips for creating campaigns and memorable non-player characters.

On top of that, I also like all those small rules' details that approach the current trends on game design. That is, a bit of collaborative setting creation (circles), a bit of abstract resolution mechanics (extended conflicts), and a bit of players deciding what happens in spite of dice rolls (with Luck points and negative Luck points).

Finally, I love role-playing games that include a sample scenario. They are a cool aid to start playing right away and serve as an introduction to the world and a peek into how the author thinks the game is supposed to be played. And once you've run it, it continues to be useful because you can recycle the NPC stats for other scenarios. The one in Odd Soot is titled The Wayward Patient and is 27 pages long, with some more pages devoted to maps and NPC stats. In it the characters are tasked with finding a man infected with the Soot. It's a scenario with almost no science-fiction, but with a great deal of weird events, lots of clues to follow and lots of people to interact with in order to get to the end of the mystery.

Starting with this scenario, I'd love to run a campaign with Odd Soot. Unravelling mysteries, interacting with alien species, travelling to exotic planets and experiencing up close the strange effects that the Soot has on its victims' behaviour would make it worth. Summing up:

Some of the reasons why you may like Odd Soot are:

  • You like science-fiction games, with all you need in one book
  • You enjoy investigative play over action-focused play
  • You already like the Mythras rules
  • You would like to play Mythras with simpler rules
  • You are interested in incorporating alternative rules into your preferred D100 system
  • You like M-Space and want a full sci-fi setting to use with it
  • You want to steal ideas for your own sci-fi setting

You're probably not going to like this game if...

  • You prefer flashier sci-fi settings
  • You don't like D100 games
  • Its original vintage look doesn't appeal to you at all

Odd Soot: Science-Fiction Mystery in the 20s can be purchased in colour print (32$) and PDF (12,70$) at DrivethruRPG. You can have a look at the freely downloadable Odd Soot 28-page preview here. I hope you enjoyed this review. Please feel free to leave a comment below to let me know your opinion. ;-)

12 comentarios:

  1. Wonderful review! I went straight to DriveThru and got a copy. Thank you!

    1. Wow, thank you, David! :-D
      I really hope you enjoy the game!

  2. Good review. Not my cup of tea setting wise but I like some of the rules modifications you mentioned and may buy the book for those alone as i enjoy the Mythras ruleset for FRPG's.

    1. Thanks, Jim.
      I also think the book is useful if only to import those rules you like to your own D100 game.
      If you want even more to tinker with, I recommend you to have a look at Revolution d100 from Alephtar Games.

  3. Runeblogger asked me if I could address a couple of questions in the review. Here goes:

    Alien Hit Locations: I always use the simplified combat rules, especially in an investigative game like Odd Soot, and that’s why I’ve left out Hit Locations for the alien species.

    But I realise some people prefer the detailed rules. I’m working on a PDF that includes Hit Locations for the major alien species. I hope to have it ready within a couple of weeks.

    Negative Luck Points: I would leave the exact usage of ’bad luck’ to the GM. The easiest solution is to turn a success into a failure. But I’ve found it more effectful to use Twist Fate (page 67). The most important is that the GM uses the same method each time. The rules could have been clearer on this though.

    Thanks for a well-balanced review!

  4. Alex Greene posted in the Odd Soot's MeWe group a new post with a suplement.

    MeWe doesn't let share, so I just copied the text.


    From Clarence Redd, author of Odd Soot:

    'Sometimes, a random confluence of genes comes together to produce a child who is simultaneously gifted and cursed. Gifted, because their minds or bodies are capable of surpassing normal human capabilities; and cursed, in that their very oddness sets them apart from the run of normal humanity.'

    I have worked with Alex Greene, writer for Mongoose Traveller, among other things, to create a new character path for Odd Soot. It’s called Oddities and Alex has crafted a unique concept to generate truly odd individuals, fitting right into Odd Soot. They possess fantastic abilities - but also weird looks that other people might shy away from.

    The character path can be used for PCs and NPCs alike. Patrons, villains and heroes work equally well for these quirky individuals.

    Oddities are based on the book Odd John by British sci-fi writer Olaf Stapledon. His work is often mentioned as direct inspiration for many modern authors, like Arthur C Clarke, Stanislaw Lem and Vernor Vinge.

    Oddities is a 15 page PDF and consists of generators for superlative traits, disproportions, alienating passions and several inventions.

    We’re offering it as a free download:

    1. Wow, thanks a lot for sharing this here! I hadn't expected Odd Soot to get a fantastic supplement so soon! :)

  5. Odd soot is one of my all-time favorites. It reads like lyrical prose. The layout and fontography are superb. White space usage is subtly engaging and the art is very apropos. And gameplay is smooth, easy, and familiar with Mythras - for a guy who played RuneQuest since 1980. It is a game of subtlety, mystery and wonder .... but that doesn't preclude action, it just informs and transforms it.

    1. What enthusiasm! Have you started running an Odd Soot campaign?

    2. I am working on that ... so far just some quick one-offs.


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