Thursday, 23 June 2011

Unknown Armies: Another Awesome Game (Which I Will Probably Never Run)

So, another semi-review here, while I get some more Planescape stuff up and running - this time it's Unknown Armies, John Tynes' and Greg Stolze's awesome post-modern Urban Fantasy/Horror.

In a nutshell, the world has always had magic - since humans have been around, they have been subconsciously subjecting reality to their expectations, and making it conform to such. Now though, people have faith in science, and civilisation, and magic has started to die off. But it's not gone completely - it's just Underground. Not literally - it's just outside of the normal frame of reference, only accessible to those who lack a normal human viewpoint. Like the insane.

Adepts are people who, through chance or design, have had their minds broken - and have reformed them around an idea, or concept, that hold so strongly they can... do things. Like the alcoholic who can drink your soul. The self-harmer who finds a way to make herself stronger through self-destruction. The man who is so obsessed with risking his life, he can warp the odds. Or the people who want to be someone else so much, they can take anothers form.

Each of these Adept Schools (each with a funky faux-Latin name, like Dipsomancy, Epideromancy, Personamancy) holds a contradiction at their heart - to make yourself stronger, you must destroy yourself; To gain power over probability, you must become a slave to chaos, etc. These link in to a Taboo and Charging scheme- follow it, you gain a Charge (either Minor, Significant, or Major),break it, you lose your mojo (in game terms, any charges you might have built up). So, Epideromancers must harm themselves to gain charges (a deep cut gets you a Minor, a big wound like a broken bone nets you a Significant, and something like amputating a limb gets you a Major) - but they cannot allow someone else to modify their body (after all, they are doing the damage to rebuild themselves into something better).

Charges are used to power spells - Minors can be things like remote viewing, magical disguises, etc. - useful, but mostly nothing you couldn't do with modern technology. Significants are things like changing your gender completely, totally becoming someone else for a period of time (including memories, DNA, everything)punching people so hard that their limbs fall off. Pretty powerful, but with some drawbacks. Major charges are powerful. There are no "spells" for them, so much as a list of ideas of what you could do with that power - make the world completely forget someone exists, make massive permanent changes to yourself or others - nearly anything you can think of, so long as it seems appropriate to your chosen School.

But they're not the only ones who can get in on the magic act. Some people follow the path of the Avatar - by following certain powerful Archetypes, present in the great human subconscious, they can gain great, almost cosmic power. These archetypes run the gamut from The Mother, to the Masterless Man (not taking no shit from nobody), to The Warrior and The Flying Woman (a newer Archetype, representing female empowerment). By following the example of the Archetype (by promoting your agenda, performing actions that help strengthen the Archetype in the human subconscious), you get access to Channels - sort of like free spells, if a little less powerful. Of course, while less powerful at first, by following your Archetype through to the end of the Path, you can become The Godwalker of your Archetype - a walking representation, and Earthbound Agent, if you like.
Also, you don't need to be crazy to be an Avatar - in fact, being sociopathic weakens your connection to humanity, and thus your Archetype.

And yes, the game provides mechanics on being a sociopath, through the brilliant Madness Meters. Each represents a different type of stress (Unnatural, Violence, Self, Isolation, and Helplessness) - you make a roll when faced with something appropriate (someone shooting at you is a small Violence check, watching your wife be tortured would be big Violence and Helplessness ones, watching someone walk through a wall would be an Unnatural). You can gain Failed notches (making successive stress checks harder, and causing a minor freakout) or Hardened ones (making checks easier and easier... until you can watch someone get blown apart, or spend three months on your own in a small room, and laugh it off). Fill a meter with Failed notches, you go nuts. Fill it with Hardened, you're now so jaded in that area, you are probably a bit nuts too.

System is simple - it almost entirely uses 2d10 and percentages. Your stats (Body, Speed, Mind, and Soul)are rated out of 100 - to check against them, roll under your stat. Higher the better, but always under the stat. Skills are the same - but the cool bit is you get to make them up yourself. So, you could have General Athletics, Knife Throwing, Stage Magic, Biology and Physiology, or 90's Comic Book Trivia - whatever you want. You can also take an Obsession skill - you are so driven by this skill, you can find success where other's just can't (it lets you switch the 10's and 1's dice on any roll of that skill - so, a 71 becomes 17, for example. Adepts must take their magic School as their obsession - it's their reality-bending obsession that makes it work, after all). Even damage is 2d10 - for fistfights, add the two numbers for total damage. For gunfights, some magic, car crashes etc. the roll is the damage. As you might guess, this makes UA a very nasty system to get in a fight in - in fact, the book has "6 Ways To Avoid a Fight" as the start of the combat chapter. Fights are quick, dirty, and frequently lethal, but it fits the genre and horror tone perfectly.

All in all, it's one of my favourite books (not just gamebooks, or core rules: books), due in part to the way the setting is desccribed, the scene-setting fiction, the cool system and elegant subsystems (like the Riots and Mass Combat section, for the time when you "accidentally" perform magic in front of a football stadium full of people. It's simple, fun, and just as deadly as you would imagine a real riot to be). The magic is bizarre, and wonderful (where else can booze, porno, self-harm and TV give you access to cosmic power?) and is a refreshing change from the tried-and-tested "Spell W does X+Y, and sometimes Z" kinda thing that D&D does, and isn't as free-form and loose as Mage or other "modern" games.

About the only quibbles I have are the massive America-centrism in the book, but then again - it's about culture and people, and America has enough of both (and is much better at pressing it on other countries than most) to really be the current focus of the Occult, so it fits. Also, written as it was in the late 90's/early 2000's, it's very much of its time - when your Cult worships a sacred porno tape, how does net streaming and the mainstreaming of porn affect it?

So, the final words - beg, steal of borrow this game. Even just to read it, once - it's worth it.


  1. Since I love Unknown Armies with a passion (and will probably never run or play either) I guess this post is as good as any to just say I am really enjoying this blog of yours and plan on following it regularly....on that note, do you have a RSS feed? I can't seem to find it.

  2. Uuuh nope, no RSS feed, but who knows what the world of tomorrow will bring...

    In other UA news, keep an eye out for my next little project - converting Rogue Trader to the UA system!