(Cross-posted to RPG.net, where it won 1st prize for Horror Week, and to Emerald City Gamefest.)
Unknown Armies is superb setting or source of inspiration for modern occult, horror, and gonzo adventure, married to a sometimes innovative though overall tame system.
Although there are 14 reviews of Unknown Armies available on RPG.net, only two are actual play reviews, one for each of the two editions, and the one for second edition is rather short. This surprised me immensely, since UA is considered a classic, is regularly discussed on these boards, and ranks all-time 4th on the RPGnet index (and second among core rules). For all those out there who have been intrigued by UA but never had a chance to play it, this is my take on what it feels like in action.
Presentation. The second edition of Unknown Armies was released in 2002 as a 336-page hardback book. The binding is of good quality and my copy has lasted to date without cracking or spitting pages. The game’s themes of weirdness, madness, darkness and danger are reflected in the art and presentation. The previous edition had been entirely softcover books with red-and-black covers; art-wise, the new edition had a similar look but the colours were ochre and purple. I somewhat preferred the first edition look, but neither is that much of an attention grabber. The art is generally evocative of the atmosphere and setting, but the quality of the art pieces ranges from very good to blah. The cover illustration is OK but not great.
The layout is quite good, clear and legible, and the fonts are very legible even though the main text is small. The title and heading fonts are well chosen to match the feel of the game. Key names, words and concepts are bolded when they first appear, making it easy to find the relevant section of text when thumbing through.
Organization. The material is well organized for easy reference. Some material that used to be found in several sourcebook has been regrouped in the main rules. An appendix provides a handy key to which material in the first edition sourcebooks is repeated or superseded, so that the sourcebooks can continue to be used with the second edition rules. There is a very detailed table of contents as well as an index. A one-page summary of the rules, right at the beginning, provides a useful cheat-sheet and overview.
There are numerous illustrative examples provided throughout the text whenever concepts are introduced, and key concepts are clearly called out.
The material is cleverly organized in the three levels of play available: Street level (PCs are ordinary people just beginning to tangle with the occult), Global level (PCs have mojo of their own, are mystics and adepts with their own agendas), and Cosmic level (PCs are movers and shakers, know the Big Secrets of the universe, and can even ascend to godhood.) In each section is the material players need to play at this level (more on this later).
Tone and Writing Style. One of the distinctive features of UA is the very recognizable authorial voice used by Greg Stolze and John Tynes. Some people (like me) love it, and others detest it. You may think of it as breezy, flippant, provocative, or tongue-in-cheek, but it is certainly not neutral or boring. Whatever UA is, it doesn’t read like a maintenance manual.
The fiction is quite good and evocative of the gonzo occult setting (though I liked it better in the first edition when it was cut to open each individual section). The “What You Hear” sections offer a wealth of one-sentence plot ideas (which gave rise to the long-running RPGnet thread “Unknown Armies plot-in-a-line thread”), effectively conveying the style and tone of the game.
There are some unfamiliar terms and some game-specific jargon, but most of it is relatively painless. One small item that often irritates readers (like me again!) is the use of the term “magick” rather than plain old “magic”; I will just ignore this alternate spelling in my review.
Rating: Although the art and cover are not so hot, the writing and organization are so good that I feel this deserves a 4.5.
As mentioned above, the material is divided between the Street, Global, and Cosmic levels. Part One: The Secret Names of Streets covers the basic mechanics and what you need to know to play (not run) a Street Level campaign: character creation, roll mechanics, combat rules, etc. Most of the setting material for the Global Level campaign, along with special rules for magic and for avatars is contained in Part Two: The World of our Desires. The grand cosmology and Big Mystic Stuff are contained in Part Three: The Living Mirror of Heaven. Sample character descriptions (not stats) are provided at the beginning of each section.
Finally, Part Four contains GM-only material: the detail between various factions, key characters, plot ideas, artefacts, and opponents, plus discussions of play styles, game mechanics for various harm, and a couple of sample adventures.
Setting: Not your grandpa’s occult world. By default, Unknown Armies is set in a version of our modern world that hides a strange, gonzo, twisted Occult Underground. It’s one of its most vaunted charms and one of its detractors’ most vehement criticisms that the occult in UA has little or nothing to do with “classic” occult lore: forget your pentagrams, black candles, and voodoo dolls, and don’t expect to meet vampires or werewolves. Everything you think you know is false. The occult world of UA is much weirder than that.
The material in Parts Two to Four details “dukes” (lone operators of the occult underground) and “cabals” (factions of the occult underground), providing ready-made opponents, contacts, mentors, resources, and plot hooks, as well as reasons for the PCs to hang out together. Factions range from the Sect of the Naked Goddess (a cult built around a minor porn star who ascended to godhood), to the Order of St. Cecil (a “deniable” Catholic order of modern-day inquisitors), to the Sleepers (self-appointed guardians of status quo hoarding magic for themselves), to Mak Attax (zany anarchists out to provide the mundane with a subversive dose of magic).
The key elements to the UA cosmology are magic (or rather “magick”) and the Invisible Clergy. Magic comes in a wide variety of forms but is always subject to three laws. (1) Each school of magic is based on a paradox, which usually requires that the adept be denied the normal benefits of his or her source of power; for example, plutomancers use money to cast rituals but always live like paupers and cannot spend money to make their life comfortable; pornomancers pursue sex relentlessly but can never enjoy sex (or love) for itself, etc.. (2) You get out only what you put into it: all spells and rituals are powered by “charges” previously acquired by the adept. (3) A given person can only ever study and use a single type of magic.
The Invisible Clergy is the linchpin of the UA cosmology. People can embody archetypes, becoming avatars. Examples of archetypes include the Pilgrim, the Fool, the Mother, the True King, etc.. Extremely powerful avatars, those closest to the pure archetype they represent, become godwalkers – they’re this close to ascending to godhood. When an avatar becomes the perfect embodiment of their archetype, they Ascend to the Invisible Clergy.
There are 333 available slots, and when all are filled, reality is reborn and shaped by the Ascended archetypes. As the slots fill up, various avatars may knock one another out for the archetype they represent, or different archetypes may displace one another. The big prize in UA is to get a chance at shaping the world this way.
Finally, there are demons and other malevolent or uncaring external forces one can (but shouldn’t) tamper with.
System: CoC with portable tweaks. OK, I’m not being accurate here since it’s not actually based on Call of Cthulhu at all; I just mean that it’s a percentile-based horror game with a few innovations. A PDF preview is available from Atlas Games.
Here again, matters of taste are very important. Personally, I don’t much like percentile-based systems; I’m unsatisfied with the narrow range of efficiency and the progression rate. However, many percentile-based systems are immensely popular, so it’s clear that many other gamers like them, or at least don’t mind.
UA challenges are resolved by rolling percentile dice (i.e., a couple of ten-sided dice) and comparing that to the character’s chance of success, generally a skill rating between 1% and 99%. You’re generally trying to run under your skill value but as high as possible, so someone who has a skill of, say, 55% has the possibility of succeeding better than someone with a similar skill at 40%. Now, here come the tweaks.
First, skills are “free-form” with a considerable penumbra. Instead of picking from a standard list, you get to create custom skills for your character. For example, Photographic Memory, Urban Survival, Blending in a Crowd, Commanding Presence, Endure Pain, Put a Cap in Your Ass, and Breaking & Entry can all be skills. Lists of examples are provided to help players along. Each skill is based on one of four base attributes: Body, Speed, Mind, and Soul. The number of points for skills and attributes varies based on the campaign level.
Second, each character has a group of general skills at a base rating of 15%: General Athletics, Struggle (a.k.a., fighting), Dodge, Driving, Initiative, General Education, Notice, Conceal, Charm, and Lying. These can be improved or tuned to fit the character concept; for example, “Struggle” could become “Aikido” or “Street-Fighting”, and “Charm” could become “Snake Oil Salesman” or “Old World Elegance”.
Everyone gets an obsession (normal, sane people don’t get involved with the occult underground!) and a related obsession skill; for mages, it’s automatically their Magic skill. Whenever rolling for their obsession skill, players can flip-flop, i.e., switch the dice around; for example, a 72 could be flip-flopped to become a 27.
Matched successes and failures (e.g., rolls of 11, 22, 33, etc.) give particular benefits or penalties. For certain skills like martial arts and magic, matched successes trigger Cherries, cool special effects specific to the skill. Fumbles are rolls of 00 (double zeroes), with the worst possible result, and Criticals are rolls of 01, with perfect success.
There are three levels of skill use: minor, significant, and major actions. Minor actions are routine, unhurried or without special consequences (the equivalent of situations where you can “Take 20” in D20); as long as you have an applicable skill at 15% or more, you succeed automatically. Significant actions are those where there is uncertainty but little actual risk (the equivalent of situations where you can “Take 10” in D20); you succeed strongly if you roll under your relevant skill level, and you succeed weakly if you roll between your skill and the relevant attribute on which it is based.
For example: If your Soul is 55% and your Charm skill is 15%, you would succeed strongly with a roll of 15% or less, you would succeed weakly with a roll of 16 to 55%, and you would fail with a roll of 56% or greater.
Major actions are those where time is important or you are at risk, such as combat; you only succeed if you roll at or under your skill rating.
Everyone has three Passions: a Rage stimulus, a Fear stimulus, and a Noble stimulus. Even the meanest bad guy is noble sometimes (e.g., “Loves animals” or “Roots for the underdog”), even the most ruthless killer is afraid of something (e.g., “Being tied up” or “Heights”), even the gentlest soul can get angry (e.g., “”People who hurt children” or “Being belittled”). When one of these is triggered, the character can flip-flop a failed roll as if using his obsession skill or choose to reroll.
The famous Madness Meter calls for stress checks when a character is exposed to one or more of five categories of mental stresses: Violence, the Unnatural, Helplessness, Isolation, and Self. Failed checks mean your character becomes more vulnerable to this type of stress, while successful checks means s/he becomes more callous and dehumanized.
Magic works by spending a charge and rolling against the character’s Magic skill. There are minor, significant, and major charges, depending on what level of effect is sought. Charges are obtained in advance, generally by accomplishing or sacrificing something in line with the type of magic performed. For example, Cliomancers (history-based magic) gain charges through contact with historically significant items and locations; Entropomancers (risk-based magic) gain charges by risking themselves, others, or something of value; Plutomancers (money-based magic) gain charges by acquiring large sums of money. Every type of magic offers specific effects, rituals, and blasts.
Avatars channel a certain archetype and get related special powers depending on their rating in the Avatar skill.
For example: Avatars of the Fool with a skill of 1% to 50% can find something they need with a successful Avatar: Fool skill check, as long as there is a reasonable chance that the object will be there. With a rating of 51% to 70%, they can make a skill roll to bounce any damage they take onto someone else instead. With a rating of 71% to 90%, they gain the ability to be in the right place at the right time. With 91% , anyone trying to harm them takes an immediate -30% downcheck to the relevant skill (Struggle, Firearms, etc.)
Each Avatar has a taboo that cannot be broken without losing some of their avatar skill. For example, the Fool cannot have a Mind score greater than 50%, or be suspicious without good reason. Avatar skills can be improved with experience like any other skill.
Rating: The system is about a 3.5 for me (improves on the percentile system, but it’s still a percentile system!) and the setting material is generally a 4.5 (rich, clever, enticing, sometimes a bit too different for the sake of being different).
I have been fascinated by Unknown Armies since the first edition was released in 1998. My husband and I own every sourcebook, but though each of us talked about launching a campaign at various times, we never had a chance to play it until this year. Part of it has been to get the right people interested at the right time, and part of it has been a hesitation on my part since I’m not a fan of percentile-based systems. A big question for me was whether the system tweaks would be sufficient to compensate for this.
Finally, my group played a mini-series last spring and summer, with my husband as GM. We had agreed to play three adventures of two or three episodes each, where the player characters were a newly formed TNI team. The New Inquisition, like our play group, is based in Seattle which made it easy to add realistic bits to the backdrop. We had six players, though only four were there for all episodes.
Atmosphere. TNI is a group of corporate-backed occult trouble-shooters, and we were playing at the Global level. All six players (three men, three women) were veteran role-players of the finest quality, if I do say so myself. 🙂 We agreed that we wanted a serious, intense campaign without the goofing-off we often have in our games. In this, we succeeded. Though some of the atmosphere was due to the GM and group, the material was certainly written in the right tone to begin with; we had intense, disturbing horror without ever falling on the movie tropes of the genre.
We used two ready-made adventures and one GM-written adventure; all three were dark, unsettling, and provoked extreme in-character reactions. The theme running through the series, simply because of what various people had put in their characters’ descriptions and passions, became children: each story involved protecting or rescuing innocent children from exploitation, murder, or possession. I guarantee you we took this seriously.
System. Though it’s not as crunchy as, say, Shadowrun or D&D, it is still a somewhat numbers-driven system. This means that some character builds are much more effective than others.
- Norms vs. Weirdoes: In terms of character efficiency, there is really no reason to make a simple normal human character when you can play a ‘Mancer or an Avatar (provided they’re allowed in your campaign.) The only reason to do it is for the interest of the character’s story or concept, but be ready to be outshone regularly by the more powerful characters.
- Winning combos: Some combinations of abilities can take advantage of the system to be much more effective than the average player character. For example, creating an avatar of the Masterless Man who is also an Epideromancer is a well-known combo that is just ridiculously effective: use the Masterless Man skill to give yourself a number of extra wound points equal to your skill rating, then generate a Significant Charge by hurting yourself for 2d10. Then use the charge to (for example) cast Body Like Iron upon yourself, permanently gaining 3 extra wound points; lather, rinse, repeat.
- Some are more equal than others: We observed uneven usefulness and difficulty among the magic schools and their effects. Again, Epideromancy has the edge: our flesh mage had the inevitable piercings with a chain running through them, which he could rip out to hurt himself and generate a charge at any time. Meanwhile, our Bibliomancer was frantically trying to find rare books to generate her charges.
- Whiff factor and when to roll: Despite the three levels of skill use (Minor, Significant and Major actions), rolls are needed often enough that the low probability associated with the typical skill range kicks in, resulting in a lot of failed rolls. Regardless of what level of skill use you think a given action represents, it’s important for the GM to use good sense in deciding whether (and what) to roll.
- Madness meter in play: UA’s answer to the Sanity roll (CoC, etc.) or Fear roll (Deadlands, etc.) is more flexible: a failed Madness roll on one of the five stress meters lets you pick whether your character will react with fight, flight, or fear. That certainly gives more possibilities than most horror games, but it’s still damned annoying to have a good idea, line up a cool sequence for your character, then whiff on the Madness roll and be unable to carry your action through.
- Grit-comfort: It’s a pretty lethal game, which seems only right for the tone and setting. Do not expect to be steadily kicking ass and taking names in this game; more likely, your characters will be struggling to save their own lives.
Beyond the core rulebook: ready-made adventures. It’s hard to review our play experience without slipping a few words about the supplements we used; we played “Fresh” from Lawyers, Guns and Money and “Garden Full of Weeds” from Weep. The ready-made scenarios (not just these two, but in general) contain interesting hooks and twists, but often fail the test of “Does failure make an equally interesting story?” That said, we ended our final episode with a failure, but by common agreement decided to spin that into a tragic but satisfying conclusion that let us buy partial success at the cost of our characters’ ultimate fate.
Who will like this game? Those comfortable with percentile-based games like CoC but looking for a bit more shine and zest; dark horror fans; and those who enjoy a wicked twist in their modern-era gaming. Even if you decide that the system is not you cup of tea, horror fans should take a look at the setting material. Moreover, many of the rules sub-systems (e.g., madness meter, passions, obsession skills, etc.) can be ported over to other systems.
Who will not like this game? Those who hate free-form skills or percentile-base will not like the system; those who want a traditional take on the occult (“My character knows what I know”) will be frustrated by the setting; those who are not comfortable dealing with adult, dark, or disturbing themes should stay away.
If you like a gritty story where even supernatural powers are a meagre defence against the powers of darkness, where everything is crazier than you ever thought, and where you put everything you are and you have on the line, this game is for you.