Odyssey Aquatica – Player’s Review

It is a curiosity that the tabletop RPG community gets caught up in systems so much. Folk hang their hats on a favourite system. ‘It can do anything’ they say and get annoyed, and downright angry, if anyone questions the sanctity of that thought. The board game equivalent would be making all games have the core mechanisms of Catan. 

I am not one of those people. Mechanisms create themes, reinforce settings, and should be connected to the story you want your game to tell. You can tell your murder mystery or british bake off game with Dungeons and Dragons but why would you? That said systems can be reused if you understand the sort of stories they best lend themselves to. 

Agon is a game I’ve written about twice. Once from a GM’s perspective and once from a player’s. The designers of the system opened it up to be used by others to create their own games. Calling it the Paragon system, it has seen a bunch of games, or ‘hacks’, use it. 

At the core of the Paragon system is a low-prep, narrative focused game where conflicts are resolved quickly but only when they would impact the narrative and move the story forward. Over the course of a session conflicts string together, leading you to a final battle to determine the outcome of the session.  

Odyssey Aquatica is a recent adaptation of the Paragon system from designer Tim Denee (Old Dog Games). It takes the heroic action of Agon under the sea. Think Jacques Cousteau, Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and Seaquest DSV and you are in the right ballpark. You are no longer Greek heroes being tossed around by the whims of the gods. Now you are bold explorers heading into the unknown areas of the oceans. 

Odyssey Aquatica cover
The graphic design is great!

It has a similar setup to Agon in that each session is a separate issue to deal with. From strange research stations, to nuclear powered bases, and strange atolls with long lost creatures. The variety is great and the characters will find themselves in all sorts of tense situations. The format of each of these scenarios keeps the one from Agon: a series of conflicts culminating in a final battle. 

The main differences are found in how your characters grow and are placed in the world. There are no gods here. Instead of divine favour giving you a little boost, we turn to training and equipment. Science and education become your gods. You get 3 of these per scenario with it refreshing between stories.  It’s a neat way of allowing players to change up their loadout depending on the challenges ahead that fits into the Agon framework.

Removing epithets like ‘stout hearted’ each character has an area of academic study that will be used during conflicts. Like epithets they are a tricky thing to express correctly but when you do they can really shine and provide a nice bit of niche protection for each of the characters. 

The vessel you sail between islands in Agon may be your home away from home, but it never really features in your tales very much. In Odyssey Aquatica it is much more fleshed out. You collectively decide the rooms on your boat, the colours it will fly,and a little bit of its history. This gives a nice moment of collaboration right at the start of the game and brings the players together. These rooms don’t have any mechanical weight, but they have narrative heft. You can retire to the mess, talk to your dolphin in the moonpool, watch your documentaries back in the cinema room. It gives you hooks to hand the narrative on. 

Screenshot of our ship The Fairbanks
The Fairbanks in all its glory

In between sessions Odyssey Aquatica reckons with the passage of time. In Agon you go from island to island with maybe days of time inbetween. Odyssey Aquatica sees years pass. Characters age. Life happens in the gaps between adventures. The GM rolls dice based on your age, and gives you a prompt to riff off. 

Now I don’t own the game so haven’t seen the tables that generate these slices of life. Throughout the campaign I played,  the hooks thrown at us were consistently great. Relationships fell apart and came together. Children were born. Awards were accepted. Rejections commiserated. 

Odyssey Aquatica retains the fellowship part of Agon. This sees characters asking questions of each other in between sessions, allowing for a moment of reflection. It is a chance to flesh out characters and create bonds both narrative and mechanical. I have found this can be hard for some players to come up with, and maybe takes a couple of islands for them to get into the swing of. The Odyssey Aquatica hooks give you just a little more to hang these questions on. It makes the conversations feel more meaningful, even early in the campaign. Characters have lives outside of their adventures. It gives heft and meaning to the play within those stories. 

Another nice little adaptation that Odyssey Aquatica does is in the form of Academic writings/work. In the years in between each adventure, each character will have produced some work. You name it and can use it in conflicts. The GM determines the die type at the time of use. 

This replaces the great deeds from Agon with something with a little more flexibility and grounded in the works of the characters. Sure the work you choose will likely reflect the scenario that has just been and the happenings in the intervening years. It doesn’t have to though, nor does it need to stay within the realms of academia. We had one player make cookbooks, another wrote about anarchy and protesting. The variety can be as deep as the waters you explore. 

Some criticise Agon for not leaving enough room for roleplaying during conflicts. I have not personally found this during my time as a player or GM in Agon. The pauses in between conflicts allow for character growth and bonds to form and break. The Paragon system wants each conflict to be meaningful and interesting. Narratively and mechanically. When a conflict happens it has ramifications that spiral throughout the rest of the story. 

The character sheet for bold scottish explorer Douglas McIntosh
Douglas at the end of his career. Last seen defending Atlantis. Allegedly

Odyssey Aquatica is a game that emphasises these quieter moments in between conflicts. It gives players more tools to flesh out their characters over years. Over the course of a campaign they will go from the folly of youth to middle age, and beyond. They will produce works, have relationships form both on and off screen, and grow in broad strokes. It gives you more hooks to hang your character’s story on and allows the expression of the highs and lows of life.

In emphasising the characters growth and ageing each adventure carries a different weight. At the start maybe they are young and unattached, excited about the prospect of what they will find in the deep, dark places of the oceans. When they come to the end of their years of exploration maybe they have more responsibilities: to each other, to family, to the academic community, and of course to the ocean itself. The timbre of the adventures changes as the characters age and grow off screen.

Taking someone else’s system and adapting it is a tricky business. Do you do it justice? Do you understand the nature of the original piece? Is it the right system to use for the game you want to create? In Odyssey Aquatica Tim Denee shows us that he understands the Paragon system completely in a confident piece of design. 

Tim only makes subtle changes to Agon, but they are each impactful to the feel of the game. He skillfully mixes a pulpy setting on screen with the weight of characters ageing and living off screen. Odyssey Aquatica has just the right mix of action and character development to make it sing without feeling too heavy. I really enjoyed my games of it, which you can see on the Unconventional GMs Youtube channel

Tim has gained my attention as a designer. He treats Agon with respect and makes his own mark on what is becoming a fantastic range of games powered by the Paragon system. I am really looking forward to Deathmatch Island (I’ve backed this) which is the next project from Tim and publisher Evil Hat Productions. I hope I’ve convinced you to give Agon a chance in the past and if you want more then get in your submarine and give Odyssey Aquatica a shot.

This review is based on my impressions of Odyssey Aquatica as a player. You can read about why I do this kind of review here. I do not own the game and have not run it as a GM. 

Iain McAllister

Tabletop games reviewer and podcaster based in Dalkeith, Scotland.

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