Unknown Armies Asks "What Price Will You Pay to Change the World?"
  • Unknown Armies Asks "What Price Will You Pay to Change the World?"



    Back in the days of yore known as the late-90s, a role-playing game called Unknown Armies, written by John Scott Tynes and Greg Stolze, fired gamers’ imaginations with its heady blend of post-modern occultism and transcendental horror. Now Unknown Armies is back in a brand-new third edition. Stolze is this time joined by a raft of talented developers—Cam Banks, Shoshana Kessock, Ryan Macklin, Chad Underkoffler, Monica Valentinelli, and Filamena Young—who have updated and streamlined the game’s percentile-based mechanics, and also brought the cosmology into the 21st century.

    What is most immediately noticeable about the new edition of Unknown Armies is that it comes in three volumes (titled Play, Run, and Reveal) inside a slipcase. But wait! That’s no slipcase! It’s actually the GM screen, held together by magic (or magnets…whatever). But please don’t confuse the "magic" of the GM screen/slipcase with the "magick" in the game—as the text says, "Magick-with-a-k is willpower times understanding equals get your wish."

    (The book drips with clever writing like that. Another favorite line: "Failed notches are entirely bad. The only thing they help your character do is suck and die.")

    Magick in the game is the knowledge that reality is completely malleable, and the will to use that knowledge. Naturally, messing around with the laws of the universe can get one hurt, both mentally and physically, and this is where Shock Meters come in. There are five meters (Helplessness, Isolation, Violence, Unnatural, and Self). Characters exposed to traumas gain “Hardened Notches” that help them deal with further traumas at the expense of cutting themselves off from their humanity.

    This trade-off of innocence for experience, of comfort for power, lies at the heart of Unknown Armies. Player-characters are individuals with the obsession and drive to dive into the Occult Underground and somehow come out the other side still alive, albeit undoubtedly changed forever. Characters in Unknown Armies have the capacity to modify reality as we know it, even to ascend to a sort of godhood, but only if they’re willing to pay the prices required to do so.

    The above-mentioned cosmology, with its Archetypes, Avatars, Godwalkers, Invisible Clergy, Chargers, and Checkers, is presented clearly and reinforced throughout the text. Book Three: Run is mostly an alphabetical list of high weirdness (with entries like “B is for Bobbit, John and Lorena” and “S is for Seder-Masochism”). Books One and Two present the actual game rules, with many nifty mechanical tricks (acting in accordance with a Passion or Obsession allows you to “flip-flop” a percentile dice roll, for example) and one of the most brutal combat systems ever put to paper.

    Unknown Armies makes no bones about its status as a horror game, but it is a horror game quite unlike any other on the market right now. For fans of this particular type of gaming, it is a must-have RPG.
    Comments 8 Comments
    1. Charles Dunwoody -
      I was curious about this game. Is the game more sandbox or set story?
    1. Brodie's Avatar
      Brodie -
      Quote Originally Posted by Charles Dunwoody View Post
      I was curious about this game. Is the game more sandbox or set story?
      Sounds like it could be a bit of both. Like playing through the story in a Grand Theft Auto game.

      Horror games don't interest me much, but the personality this game seems to have piques me curiosity.
    1. Blue's Avatar
      Blue -
      I've been told that if I ever want to run a Tim Powers book, Unknown Armies is the the system to do it in.

      I like Tim Powers.
    1. TrippyHippy's Avatar
      TrippyHippy -
      Quote Originally Posted by Charles Dunwoody View Post
      I was curious about this game. Is the game more sandbox or set story?
      It's more sandbox really. Book 3 is an A-Z catalogue of fairly random weirdness that you can drop into your campaign, use as characters inspiration or make the basis of a scenario.

      With regards to the new edition, which I have as a backer on the kickstarter, it is visually and artistically impressive. The rules, while not especially complex in a mechanical sense (percentiles), are still a bit different to most other games. Your core stats are two-tailed psychological personality traits, which then double as your core skills. For example, you have a scale for your exposure to Violence and the more you have makes you better at engaging in a violent Struggle against others (as a skill). However, the higher your Violence rating gets, your Empathy rating gets conversely lower making it difficult to connect to others. There are five gages to track, which gives each character 10 core skills each.

      Characters can also be defined by passions and obsessions (also expressed as percentiles skills), which can build into some magick (sic) systems used. Indeed, the weird stuff characters have to do to generate the magical charges necessary to do their magick can drive the narrative in some ways. Character can either be Adepts (pulling reality apart via ironic paradoxes) or Avatars (embodying a particular archetype that holds reality together) and pretty much fits into a Moorecockian world view as the backstory of the game.

      The detail presented in the character profiles means that the stories are largely character driven rather than plot driven. Most characters are basically screw-ups. That said, the back catalogue has some terrific scenarios in it. I actually consider the 'One Shots' supplement to be a mini classic of sorts, because of the imagination and sheer playability of the scenarios presented.
    1. Dire Bare's Avatar
      Dire Bare -
      Heh, I thought the article was going to be about how expensive that set of books and magic slipcase are going to be.
    1. TrippyHippy's Avatar
      TrippyHippy -
      Quote Originally Posted by Dire Bare View Post
      Heh, I thought the article was going to be about how expensive that set of books and magic slipcase are going to be.
      You only need Book 1 to play. Book 2 and 3 are basically for the GM and/or a setting guide - so pretty important if you want to play within the cannon of the game. The rules of the game, however, are pretty much all in the first book.
    1. ceiling90 -
      Quote Originally Posted by Dire Bare View Post
      Heh, I thought the article was going to be about how expensive that set of books and magic slipcase are going to be.
      My not so local, but local enough gaming store had the deluxe edition for an easy $90. Still a bit pricey, but I love Greg Stolze and I wanted this game in my collection.
    1. Charles Dunwoody -
      Quote Originally Posted by TrippyHippy View Post
      It's more sandbox really. Book 3 is an A-Z catalogue of fairly random weirdness that you can drop into your campaign, use as characters inspiration or make the basis of a scenario.

      With regards to the new edition, which I have as a backer on the kickstarter, it is visually and artistically impressive. The rules, while not especially complex in a mechanical sense (percentiles), are still a bit different to most other games. Your core stats are two-tailed psychological personality traits, which then double as your core skills. For example, you have a scale for your exposure to Violence and the more you have makes you better at engaging in a violent Struggle against others (as a skill). However, the higher your Violence rating gets, your Empathy rating gets conversely lower making it difficult to connect to others. There are five gages to track, which gives each character 10 core skills each.

      Characters can also be defined by passions and obsessions (also expressed as percentiles skills), which can build into some magick (sic) systems used. Indeed, the weird stuff characters have to do to generate the magical charges necessary to do their magick can drive the narrative in some ways. Character can either be Adepts (pulling reality apart via ironic paradoxes) or Avatars (embodying a particular archetype that holds reality together) and pretty much fits into a Moorecockian world view as the backstory of the game.

      The detail presented in the character profiles means that the stories are largely character driven rather than plot driven. Most characters are basically screw-ups. That said, the back catalogue has some terrific scenarios in it. I actually consider the 'One Shots' supplement to be a mini classic of sorts, because of the imagination and sheer playability of the scenarios presented.
      Thanks, that info and others posting was really helpful.
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