Here's my honest-but-harsh take on Elthos ODS.
On first glancing at the cover, one would get the impression that this is another of the 'old school' D&D tribute games that have been appearing over the past couple of years. The author credits Arneson and Gygax right on the cover, after all. Below the title is a hand-drawn map of a fanciful island.
The table of contents shows where the most effort went into the rules. The sections on character generation and combat take up 12 of the book's 29 pages.
Introduction: The Elthos One Die System
Page three contains the introduction and this is where the book throws the reader for a loop. It begins touting the game's simplicity and broad applicability to any sort of 'RPG fantasy adventure'. It then gives a brief preview of the ODS core mechanic, touches on the game's setting and how to use the book. It then concludes with the following misleading paragraph :
“Ultimately Elthos is a Story Game. It is about the Players and Gamesmaster as a
group creating Great Story via the game-actions of their Characters within the
context of a fascinating Adventure, and the ODS Rules are designed to enable
story-focused gaming by being ultra-light weight.”
The bottom of page three has a blurb about the cover which reminds me of the first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master's Guide's blurb about the efreet and the Fabled City of Brass.
The Core ODS Rules
An explanation of what players are supposed to do, and what characters are for, would have been appreciated here. While veteran roleplayers should be familiar with the concept of creating a player character, new roleplayers might become lost at this point. At least the text gives a list of things needed to start playing.
A table shows a selection of possible character races. At a glance, the races are completely unbalanced...one wonders why you should pick anything other than an 'elkron' unless the games master forbids it. (Again, this is an assumption on my part, as no explanation is given as to a games master's role, responsibility or authority in the game.) In a game where only common fantasy humanoid races are allowed, hobbits and humans outclass every other playable race due to their high maximum level.
Character creation proceeds with determination of requisites (stats) that can be rolled randomly or assigned by the player with 11 points. (Note how this invalidates the 'average' ratings for the various races.) Then the character's class is chosen, and some character advancement information is mixed in at this point. The character's starting money is randomly rolled and is reflected by a fantasy medieval social caste system.
Character advancement is accomplished by training at the class guild, for a monetary fee, when the character gains new levels. How the character knows he has gained a new level is not explained. Skill Learning Points are awarded based on how many classes the character has, and must be spent to acquire new skill ranks. This system favors thieves while penalizing clerics based on how many experience points they need to gain levels.
Weapons and armor, staple character equipment in D&D, are then selected. Armor is interesting in that wearing it may actually make the character more likely to be hit in combat, although it does absorb some of the damage from weapons and presumably other sources.
The rest of character generation mixes rules explanations with sections for determining the character's remaining traits.
Two brief paragraphs cover naming of characters and placing them in the world by the games master. Presumably this makes it easier for them to interact with the other player characters, although an explanation of why this is desirable or what the characters are supposed to do together would have been nice for those new to fantasy adventure roleplaying.
The combat and skill systems, despite their numerical complexity, are really very straight-forward contests of ablating the opponents' life points (hit points) and succeeding or failing at a given task. The Games master determines the difficulty of all tasks, however, making much of a character's effectiveness dependent on the games master's whims instead of the calculations involved. Both the combat and skill systems could be reduced to simple opposed rolls. The one glaring problem, or oversight, here is the lack of any mention of meta-game social contract issues. Ergo, if you are the games master's best friend, he's having a good day and you buy him a pizza, he is likely to give you lower difficulties than if you come over to his house and make fun of the music playing on his stereo, help yourself to his last beer and then insult his chosen political candidate. GM fiat trumps the character's requisites.
The movement,'positional armor class adjustment' and zones of control rules all favor mobile characters, making some character races like the dwarf nonviable. Diagrams of combats taking place on either hexes or a grid are shown, but there is no explanation of why these are used or when one should be used instead of the other. Either way, combatants want to be as fast and use as long-reaching weapons as possible. Ideally, your side will be 'kiting' (backing up) around hindering terrain while shooting opponents to death with your missile weapons before they can engage you. If one side is outmatched, they can easily run away by making a distract & run, a bash & run or the initiative trick. Many unresolved battles would likely result from these rules unless they too are canceled or ignored by GM fiat.
Characters advance with experience points just like in D&D, and there appears to be no limit on how many may be gained in a given length of time. ODS encourages characters to engage in numerous non-dangerous activities, killing helpless opponents (to further reduce risk) and avoid certain creatures that can drain experience points in combat.
The magic system is a variant add-on of the regular combat system, using up an extra resource (mystic points) and attacking a different defense trait. Magic attacks are categorized into classic Vancian-based spells much like D&D and it's other imitators.
Pages 15 and 16 summarize combat and present the various tables used in the game. While the formatting is poor, this is forgivable in an early draft. The Requisite Bonus Chart is presented without any explanation, and appears to break the 1-6 range of the dice roll. If those bonuses are universal, then characters should only be using their requisite that is rated at 6. While this should encourage teamwork (if that is one of the goals of the character arrangement) it also effectively turns everyone into a one-trick pony as far as combat or most non-combat skill rolls are concerned.
One page is dedicated to optional rules for combat, and one page is dedicated to a list of generic fantasy-inspired magic powers.
The Games Master's mini-guide mentions some interesting play variations with regards to 'story ownership' and the role of the dice on the game's story, but no usable rules are presented for these and the concepts are not elaborated on.
Some more advice is given on this page for extending the ODS into new areas. The advice is sound, but too brief and vague to really be useful, especially to an inexperienced GM.
The Gamesmaster’s Encounters Creation Mini-Guide appears to be a fairly useful encounter planning tool. More tools like this would be useful in summarizing a campaign's local setting and society, even if those aren't as important to the ODS as combat encounters.
The next two pages are printable hex and grid sheets. They don't appear to be necessary to play ODS.
The Combat Tracker is a manual spread sheet for keeping track of combat. I guess if you need this to run combats, the system isn't nearly as simplistic as it claims to be in the introduction.
The character sheet and sample characters appear functional, if very amateur in appearance. If ODS is trying to look like a home-made product, it succeeds here.
The example combat demonstrates how many steps are involved in a one-on-one battle. Larger, multi-sided combats would presumably scale up from there.
One page is dedicated to the abbreviations used for ODS jargon.
The final page is a surprisingly comprehensive index.
Whatever Elthos ODS claims to be, it is not a story game. There are no rules covering the creation or progression of stories within its pages. Furthermore, in my own experience with both traditional roleplaying games and less-traditional story games, the 'lightness' of the rules has little or nothing to do with how well a given system supports the creation of stories in play.
Elthos ODS is a game suffering from extreme design incoherency. It tries to be a universal fantasy adventure game; a fantasy jack-of-all-trades. Unfortunately no part of the system really succeeds at achieving its goals. Elthos ODS is complicated, unadaptable outside a very narrow style of roleplaying game, and depends on the skills of experienced roleplayers to play well. That, perhaps is its biggest weakness, as far superior, free games of this type exist (Swords & Wizardy, Labyrinth Lord, Osric and D&D Rules Cyclopedia to name a few) and have active communities of fans supporting them.
My sincere recommendation to Mark is that he finish tinkering with ODS, publish it in some non-profit form as soon as possible and move on to his next design.