For Gamers and Collectors
by Colin MacIntyre
Ode RPG is a role-playing game for those tired of tedious calculations and endless charts, but who still crave a cracking campaign—the kind full of gripping stories and unforgettable characters. The system is a breeze to memorize, universal, and as equally suited to online play as it is face to face. We think you'll find Ode deceptively powerful despite its rules-lite package.
Ready for a different kind of roleplaying?
Let’s get started.
Like Risus and The Pool before it, what sets Ode apart is the elegant simplicity and power of the mechanics at its core—the ode and stack.
An ode is a brief, descriptive statement about a character, a sort of shorthand for a story element that asks to be explored during play. It's best not to think of an ode as a class, but as a role, an archetype, or a cluster of tightly related traits.
Here are two Ode-styled characters you might recognize:
Aragorn Son of Arathorn Silent Ranger Known As Strider (3) Friend of Elves Called Elessar (2) Heir to the Throne in Denial (1)
Prince Humperdinck Fancy Warmongering Royal (2) Can Track a Hawk on a Cloudy Day (3) Exploits the Innocent to Further Own Ends (1)
Both Aragorn and Humperdinck feature three odes. Note that they do not have the usual attributes of other RPG's like STR or DEX or CHA. In Ode, a characters’ odes are their stats. By creating a character in this way, Ode neatly avoids getting bogged down in stats and out-of-character distractions. The game empowers your group's imagination and trusts their common sense to know what an ode ought to include, and when it ought to be used. This keeps things moving and redeems space in your campaign for the things that really matter—in-character roleplay and the story itself.
Note that each ode is assigned a number. This signifies the number of d6's on board which may be rolled to attempt a success.
Whereas most traditional RPG's reward high rolls, in Ode, rolling 1 is the goal. “Acing” a roll means you get to decide what happens next. (More in 3.4.2 Dice Decide.)
Odes can imply a lot. With an ode of Born a Viking Warrior (3), one expects that Ragnar would be comfortable with blades and battle, be an accomplished sailor and runner, and have a penchant for all-night wassailing. He no doubt wears a long, coloured tunic over wool or linen trousers tied with a leather belt. As a warrior, he probably owns a good sword, shield and axe—items which could have their own odes if of peculiar ability.
Cordelia, Seer of The Powers That Be (2) would probably have the ability to sense (and be freaked out by) supernatural residue lingering at a crime scene. She probably carries a cellphone, makeup and monster-slaying equipment in her purse.
Lando, Enterprising Space Pirate (3) would be expected to be able to do all kinds of smuggling and entrepreneurial-type things, own a laser pistol, and, at one time, fly a star freighter of questionable lightspeed proficiency. The ship would probably warrant its own ode—some might say its own character!
The stack is a pile of dice possessed by each player that is wagered from in-game. One might think of the stack as a player's influence, for, in Ode, a roll doesn't only decide whether or not your character succeeds—it determines whether or not you are given control over the outcome. This idea is important to understand. Having only a few dice left in your stack doesn’t diminish your character's strength, skill or hit points. The size of your stack is about how likely it is that you will narrate the scene (see 3.3 Risking the Stack).
“All right. The Princess Bride, by S. Morgenstern, Chapter One.” —Grandfather
Let's look at a more complete Ode character:
Ragnar Lothbrok (8) A born leader, Ragnar desired nothing better than to feast and fight, explore new lands and raid them. The blonde, pale-eyed northman vowed to one day star in great sagas, die well and, in Valhalla, do it all over again. But first, England's petty kingdoms were ripe for the taking... Odes: Born a Viking Warrior (3), Neurotic Dreamer with Eyes Like the Sea (2), Notorious Scourge of England and France (1) Dream: Achieve Fame in Valhalla (1) Pain: Betrayed by Blood Brother (1)
To create Ragnar, all we had to do was name him, begin his story, assign odes and record the stack next to his name. At least at campaign start, Ode characters are designed to fit into a space no bigger than an index card.
“Buttercup was raised on a small farm in the country of Florin.”
The first step to creating an Ode character is to begin piecing together a story. It's not difficult—focus on writing down the most important elements of your new character and how they fit into your group's chosen setting. Like Ragnar's tale, 50 words is all you need to start. Introduce your character, tell something of what they're about or what's happened up to this point. Write it in the past tense and leave it open-ended... it's only the prologue to what could be a much larger epic.
“Her favorite pastimes were riding her horse and tormenting the farm boy that worked there.”
The second step is to pick out the most important elements from your character's story. List them—these are their odes. Odes cannot contradict or expand a story; they are embedded in and drawn from it. Each ode represents something important to that character—skills, proficiencies, habits, background, social standing, personality quirks, physical infirmities, employers, enemies, allies, even mounts and special items—whatever you wish to emphasize. In-game, odes provide focus for a character's actions, and their initial direction in the campaign. What makes your PC stand out?
Take care to make your odes specific enough to avoid complaints about being vague. Gandalf is a grey wizard. His spells are of the Istari sort, not death magic nor D&D-style cantrips. Avoid odes that are too general, like magical, fighter, strong, or sneaky. Be specific!
In addition, an Ode character possesses two special odes, designated dream and pain. We'll look at these later in 4.4 An Ode to Dreams and 4.5 An Ode to Pain.
(Make your characters come alive. Get the Odemaster's Guide for easy-to-follow advice on devising a truly compelling story and odes for your PC. Details at page bottom.)
“You were supposed to be this colossus, you were this great legendary thing, and yet he gains!” —Vizzini
At character creation, each player starts with 20 dice. Some of these starting dice will be spent on character creation, while the remainder will go to your stack (see 3.3 Risking the Stack). For convenience, record your leftover stack dice in parentheses next to your character's name.
“Do you want me to send you back to where you were, unemployed, in Greenland?!”
All odes are loaded with one or more dice. The more dice, the more important the ode. Load an ode by spending dice from your stack at a cost of twice itself. For instance, an ode of (1) would cost two dice. An ode of (2) would cost four dice. (3) would cost six, and so on. Don't spend them all—you'll need some dice for your stack once play begins. Saving 6 to 8 is reasonable. You can always load more dice later so long as you've got enough in your stack.
“Does it got any sports in it?”“Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles...”
Since its origins in Dave Arneson's Blackmoor adventures, the essence of roleplaying has been a party of player characters on an adventure led by a Game Master (GM). Ode refines this dynamic by promoting a more collaborative approach to storytelling.
“A book?” “That's right. When I was your age, television was called books.”
The GM’s job is to serve up the adventure—create the setting, adapt rules for it, devise conflicts and turn and twist the plot in response to the PC's decisions. It is not being a poor GM to have both good and bad things happen to your character (particularly if warranted by their actions), and they should not be criticized for doing so.
It should be noted that, in Ode, GM rolls are optional. The game works just as well with a GM diced, or diceless. To achieve a faster “frame rate”, the GM may forego the need for throwing dice and instead entrust every game decision to the outcome of player rolls. Alternatively, the GM may choose to make any or all NPC and environmental rolls, in which case the most number of successes, i.e. 1's, wins.
The players’ job is to create characters that are grounded in the setting, and to roleplay those characters through the challenges the GM devises as well as they can. There's nothing like those epic “where did that come from” moments where the actions of a character feel out of your hands, and different from how you yourself would have acted. Such flashes of immersion are the result of forming a kennen-style knowledge of your character.
Ultimately, a well-formed character is of more value to a campaign than even a great story. In this sense, a game of Ode proceeds from characters in a scene facing a conflict, to how they deal with that conflict, to the consequences of those decisions. Together, this forms the episode plot.
“My brains, your strength, and his steel against sixty men, and you think a little head jiggle is supposed to make me happy? Hmmmm?” —Westley
An episode of Ode is a series of scenes. A scene is the part that plays out a particular conflict or idea.
A conflict is any event in which a PC finds themselves facing success or failure, especially when two or more forces are at odds. It could be a situation with several possible outcomes, some good, some bad. A conflict typically exists to answer questions like, “Do I win the duel?” or “Do I evade my pursuers?” Conflicts may be either literal or metaphorical; anything from sieges to seductions, jousts to psychic battles, gunfights to arguments, wrestling matches to conflicting emotions, aerial dogfights to dueling banjos.
In Ode, not every conflict requires dice. In Dogs in the Vineyard, Vincent Baker notes that sometimes it's better for the GM to just go along with the players. If they ask for information, give it to them. If they wish to go somewhere, they're there. If they want to have it, it's theirs. But, if either GM or player decides that it's important to the story, or if a PC wants to do something that someone doesn't like, or if the outcome simply warrants some degree of random chance, go ahead, throw dice and see what happens. Ode works best when things are moving, so, every in-game moment is either roll dice or say “yes.”
An idea is different. An idea comes into play right out of your head rather than out of a difficulty in-game. Story ideas can be as simple or as elaborate as you wish. If you have an idea, speak up! The GM may let you roll for the chance to officially establish it in the storyline. Ideas are resolved on a first-come-first-serve basis.
As we've seen, scene conflicts and ideas push the episode forward to its conclusion. Before we move on to how a scene is resolved, however, let's look at one of the main resources available to an Ode player.
“Have fun storming the castle!”“Think it'll work?”“It would take a miracle.”
When the campaign starts, each player's stack is made up of the starting dice left over from character creation. Thereafter, stack dice are carried over from episode to episode. Risking dice from your stack is often the ticket to winning the outcome you want. However, attempts to game the system by always risking the maximum 9 dice is unwise. The stack is intended to be used thematically, in character. That is, the number of dice you wager should reflect how invested your character is in the action, or how much effort they can (or are willing to) put in. What's more, a failed roll will deplete your stack, thereby curbing your ability to guide future scenes. Risk bravely, but do it wisely.
“Why are you smiling?”“Because I know something you don't know.”“And what is that?”“I am not left-handed.”
Ode features three steps to resolving a scene:
AResolve a Scene
1. Objective. State intent, including any odes or items you wish to use. 2. Dice Decide. Gather dice, roll to determine the result. 3. Execute. Roleplay what happens, modifying the objective as needed.
“In that case, I challenge you to a battle of wits.” —The Man in Black
In resolving a scene, the first step is to state your character's intent or objective. Simply declare what you want to happen, and what ode and/or item (if any) you’re using as the basis for that action. You may even want to declare what you don’t want to happen!
Your objective should be kept very brief; full narration comes later. Something like, “I don't want the giant to crush me, I want him to drop his boulder and submit,” is enough. If using an ode, “I’m going to try my telepath's Inspires Like Truth Serum (2) to have Ambassador Mollari declare his affection for Garibaldi.” Or, if using both an ode and item, “I’m going to exploit my Iocane Powder (3) and Secret Iocane Immunity (3) to trap the annoying Sicilian.”
“It ends when you decide and we both drink, and find out who is right... and who is dead.”
The next step is to gather and roll dice in order to decide the scene's outcome. In Ode, dice may be drawn from a number of sources:
Ode and Item Dice. If you can justify a connection between your objective and one of your character’s odes and/or items, add their dice to your roll. None are mandatory—if nothing seems to fit, don't use them. Remember, your character's dream and pain are also odes.
Stack Dice. The stack is a primary source, especially when no ode or item is relevant to the scene. You may risk up to 9 dice from your stack on each roll as a reflection of how important the scene is to your character, and how much effort they wish to expend.
GM Dice. 1 to 3 dice may be granted by the GM. This nod from “fate and fortune” could mean the task is not difficult. It could be a reward for particularly creative ode use. It could also simply be the GM's desire to let that player narrate the story.
Player Dice. A fellow player may also risk 1 die from their stack in a show of solidarity (if appropriate in context). This should probably represent something like social faciliation, i.e. the psychological effect of their character being present in the scene.
The result of a roll is read as follows:
“It has worked! You've given everything away! I know where the poison is!” —Vizzini
Once the dice are cast and the outcome determined, it's time to narrate what happened. If your roll was a success or a fail, you’ll be the one describing the scene, based on your objective. If it's neutral, the GM will narrate.
When narrating, keep the following guidelines in mind:
Common courtesy helps everyone enjoy the game. If this is ignored, the GM has the right to revoke narration privileges and possibly retcon (retroactively modify for consistency) the scene in whole or in part.
“Power, too. Promise me that!”“All that I have and more! Please!”
In Ode, rolling three 1's is considered a critical success. Celebrate! Narrate the outcome as usual (perhaps with more than the usual flair), but also permanently advance any single ode or item used for that roll by 1. If no odes or items were used, add 3 dice to your stack instead.
“Fezzik!!! I need you!!! He's getting away from me, Fezzik!!! Please!!!” —Inigo
Two or more characters may choose to team up if they are facing a conflict together. For the duration of that conflict, they may contend as a single unit, combining dice (ode, stack, GM and item) for a greater chance at success. If a 1 is rolled, they may either narrate cooperatively, or pass to the GM and add one die each to their stack. If a 6 is rolled (with no 1's), all stack dice from all contributing team members are lost.
Lady Locke, having a Fondness for Bluffing (3), is providing a formal introduction for her friend, the Duke of Earl. In reality, the Duke is a Pauper in Disguise and Loving It (2) and she’s trying to smuggle him into a high-society affair. The only question is, is this resolved with the lady's bluff? Or the duke's disguise? In Ode, the answer is both—the two combine dice in an attempt to fool the attendees.
Thinking three heads are better than one, Airship Captain (3) asks Goblin Master Mechanic (4) and his Apprentice Fixer (1) for help repairing her steam-powered zeppelin. If the GM agrees, the improvised pit crew would each roll their odes, perhaps with a few stack dice, and share their result.
“Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!” —Vizzini
While an Ode character lacks hit points or wounds per se, they are by no means immortal. If a PC fails a die roll in a situation the GM deems lethal, you may either accept death and narrate your final “swan song” (no dice needed), or make a last-ditch save. A life-saving roll cannot draw from odes, items or GM—all dice must be sacrificed from your stack.
Now, the interesting part—your fellow players may sacrifice up to 9 dice each in a rescue bid. All dice contributed in this way are lost, however, no matter the outcome. If any 1's are rolled, your character survives, at which time you and the GM may collaborate on how the Grim Reaper was foiled. If the roll fails, your character is dead, kaput, and you may narrate your character’s death in harrowing detail. Make it count!
Death also occurs if all of a character's odes—through some bizarre turn of events or dark magic—reach (0) and are summarily removed. If that happens, the player may either accept death, or attempt a lifesaving roll, as above. If the latter succeeds, their last depleted ode is restored to (1).
“Was a great sword-maker, my father. When the six-fingered man appeared and requested a special sword, my father took the job.” —Vizzini
The power of odes lie in their ability to abstract details, and economics is no exception. No oddly price-frozen equipment tables here—in Ode, everything is relative. Rather than simulating the simple exchange of money for goods, an ode can represent the PC's profession, overall material wealth and potential influence as well as their ability to borrow, barter, trade and lend. Ode allows a player to roleplay value being in the eye of the beholder; that supply and demand is no zero-sum game.
Odes like Velvet-tongued Card Sharp, Charming Merchant Prince, or Resourceful Merchant have a good chance to eventually amass significant wealth. Interpreting the process by counting credits is actively working against the mechanic. In Ode, gold pieces are not the economic engine—you are.
Ode flourishes in the hands of storytellers. A failed bargaining roll should introduce a complication; something unexpected. Perhaps the purchased mount starts hacking up a lung, or the seller notices something undesirable about your PC. Maybe he deems your currency counterfeit. Your imagination is literally the limit when it comes to purchases.
Eyeing that Mithril-gilded Tower Shield or Luxury Spaceliner? Roll for it with your best bargaining ode. If your GM is diced, Affable Peddler (1) should make for an easy and pleasant shopping experience. On the other hand, Tight-Fisted Seller (4) might squeeze you for a paper bag.
On their journey, PC’s may discover enchanted, cutting-edge or otherwise uncommon equipment. These special bonus items may add an extra die to a roll or make use of other interesting mechanics.
“We'll never survive.”“Nonsense. You're only saying that because no one ever has.”
One other power of odes is their ability to deftly abstract cities, dungeons, rivers, planets, or any location imaginable. Remember that, like NPC's, rolling for locations is optional in Ode.
New Vegas, Jewel of Mars Astride the River Thoth sits a bustling city that never sleeps. Birthplace of the Martian Queen, New Vegas boasts impressive cultural attractions, luxurious inns, hidden gambling dens and a thriving black market. Tourist and Shopping Mecca (6), Underground Crime (4)
Khazad-dûm, Dwarven City A fabled dwarven city built underground and frozen in time. Rumored to be haunted, but more likely abandoned. A godforsaken complex of crumbling fortifications, crypts, trapdoors and lairs, it is a place both lusted after and feared by scavengers hunting for old gold and secrets. Haunted City (5), Ancient Traps and Secrets (5), Scavengers (3), Hiding Places (1)
Port Royal You find a lucrative port town in the West Indies, once infamous as an abode of pirates and buccaneers but now rigidly controlled by the British. Still, the Empire is half-afraid, half enamored of the daring Sea Dog descendants who call this home. Rich in Trade Goods (6), Ship Traffic (5), Heavily Guarded (5)
In-game, there are two ways odes may be used with locations:
While the party is sneaking around, Port Royal rolls Heavily Guarded (5) against them, scoring 6-2-2-1-5. Forming a team, the PC's roll together, but unfortunately fail to produce a single 1. Beaten by Port Royal, the entire party's about to experience a run-in with the local militia.
In New Vegas, the party tries to pull off a heist. The GM rolls Underground Crime (4). Does the local criminal community object to the PC’s muscling in on their turf?
Still in New Vegas, it's time to fence some stolen goods from the party's recent heist. Can they find any buyers? The party splits up, each rolling versus Underground Crime (4) to make an unsavoury connection.
In Khazad-dûm, the party is making their way down a dark corridor, searching for loot. They contest Ancient Traps and Secrets (5). Success—something valuable is uncovered! Elated, the search continues, but this time the attempt fails. “It's a trap!” Shadowy figures sound the alarm, and each PC scrambles to contest Hiding Places (1) as the roar of Balrog, Demon of the Ancient World (7) echoes through the mines.
“Come, sir, we must get you to your ship.” —Count Rugen
Deciding the fate of your opponent is one of the most enjoyable aspects of Ode. In a physical or magical battle, the loser might be killed, or mercifully spared. In a courtroom, the judge can sentence the loser, or the defendant can win the case. In the case of a temptation, the loser succumbs to its power or fails to seduce. While the GM does have veto power, the spoils of war are largely left up to you as the victor.
“Three years he said that. ‘Good night Westley. Good work. Sleep well. I'll most likely kill you in the morning.’” —Westley
No standard time or distance scale exists in Ode. Everything depends on context. In a melee battle, narrative time might be measured in seconds, while rounds in a negotiation between planetary ambassadors might take hours or days. In this regard, Ode is intended to run fast, loose and imaginatively collaborative.
“Why didn't you list that among our assets in the first place? What I wouldn't give for a holocaust cloak.”“Would this do?”
As we've seen, certain odes can come with their own tools of the trade–whatever makes sense for the character in that campaign setting. However, equipment can be lost or damaged, which can cripple that ode’s power. With his space freighter impounded, Lando loses all ability to haul cargo to distant suns no matter how many dice he has in Enterprising Space Pirate. However, Lando could still use the ode to negotiate for the Falcon's release, or switch odes to Imaginative Gambler (2) and persuade some ship-owning rube to wager one. Having her purse stolen, Cordelia, Seer of The Powers That Be (2), would lose none of her ability to roll 2 ode dice to sense paranormal details in the area. However, Samson, Anointed Hebrew Barbarian (3), forced to labour in a salt mine minus his hair (and eyes), might lose the use of that ode for strength rolls until he’s once again properly “armed”.
If for some reason the GM wishes to raise or lower the odds of rolling successes (and fails), he or she may simply swap out the default d6 for d4 or d8 and modify the roll table accordingly.
“I will never doubt again.”“There will never be a need.”
A dream is a lifelong goal; a “grail quest” that surpasses earthly needs to move directly on a person's soul. Throughout history, heroes and heroines have left behind their past and forsworn the present in order to respond to the siren song of the future. Dreams are why people strive to do great things—but are a source of frustration if unacted upon. Over time, a character's dream will be challenged, and he or she will have to make a choice to either stay true to their dream, or to compromise and squander it.
Shaping your PC's dream into ode form gets you one die in it at character creation. (Get the Odemaster's Guide for advice on creating your own quest-worthy dreams. Details at page bottom.)
“Do you hear? That is the sound of ultimate suffering. My heart made that sound when Rugen slaughtered my father. The man in black makes it now.” —Inigo
A past abandoned has the tendency to ambush one's future. In this sense, a character’s pain has the potential to really spice things up, for it is their unspoken agony—a deep-seated emotional wound from their personal history into which brokenness came. Whereas a dream is something a character wants to achieve in their future, pain is something they wish could be removed from their past. Pain functions as a negative motivator, to avoid or prevent something similar from happening again. Though tragic, this is the foundation for true epic storytelling, for when one's shadow is faced squarely, pain has the potential to become strength, and fear, opportunity.
As with their dream, shaping your PC's pain into ode form gets you one die in it at character creation. (Get the Odemaster's Guide for advice on creating pain that'd make a Cimmerian flinch. Details at page bottom.)
“It won't be easy, sire.”“Try ruling the world sometime.”
“In a room where people maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.” ―Czesław Miłosz
“Well, with all dead there's usually only one thing you can do.”“What's that?”“Search his clothes for loose change.”
“Westley's got his strength back. I'm starting him on the machine tonight.” —Count Rugan
“I saw the prince's stable, and there they were, four white horses. And I thought, there are four of us...” —Fezzik
Once the episode has ended, players enter two additional phases—character reflection and character advancement.
“Why are you wearing a mask? Were you burned by acid or something like that?” —Fezzik
The first phase is to take a moment to reflect. Like a Shakespearean soliloquy, this is when time stops and the GM prompts you to reveal your character's soul to the table—no constraints, no interruptions. It could be an aside to an imagined audience, an impassioned cry to the brass-like sky, or a prayer of gratitude to a deity. It might involve how the PC feels about the past up to that point, their present situation, or their future hopes and dreams.
Afterward, this reflection content may be used to add up to 20 words to your character’s story. These can be new lines for future odes, or additions to previous ones in preparation for loading more ode dice. Once stories have been incremented, players may move on to improving their character's stats.
“Have you ever considered piracy? You'd make a wonderful Dread Pirate Roberts.” —Westley
At this point, the GM may award 1 to 3 stack dice to each player, which the player may use for purposes of character advancement. Existing odes may be loaded with an additional die by spending twice their current value in stack dice plus one—2(value+1). For example, an ode of (2) would cost 6 dice to increase to (3). Alternatively, a new ode of value (1) may be created by spending 2 dice.
Dice may also be transferred from an ode to your stack on a 1 to 1 basis. If for any reason ode dice are decreased to zero, that ode must be removed from your list. Remember that changes in ode dice should reflect key developments in your character's life and story. A change in ode dice also allows you a chance to change the ode text itself if warranted by your character's in-game experiences.
Want the full Odemaster's Guide to Dreams, Pain, Flaws & Fine Odes? Send "Gift Me the Guide!" to firstname.lastname@example.org
Like to try Ode? Request a place in our Friday campaign on the official Ode to Discord server and we'll let you know as soon as there is a vacancy. See you inside.
Fans of Risus agree that it is the RPG system for belletrists, literarians and word-wranglers. In Ode, concepts introduced there, as well as in James V. West's The Pool and The Questing Beast, plus Drew Cochran's The Epic of Dreams have been wedded together to form an ode, not only to my players, but to all those who love their roleplaying flexible and free. I hope you'll find Ode as enjoyable as we do.
In the end, we all face dragons.
The pairing of mechanics and story is legit. Hypnotizing. Insidious. These cards are absolutely wicked. Overthrow the Empress—at all costs.
Every day I bridge cultures via teaching, writing and graphic design. I love seeing people enjoy the things I create. Empress: Fight To The Top is a blend of memorable games from my childhood (President, Stratego) with one I discovered while traveling in the Orient (Beat the Landlord). Questions or comments? Send me a PM.