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.