Another game from Atlas Games, I pretty much just stumbled upon Unknown Armies. John Tynes was the first name I had any interest in that was associated with RPGs. On his old website, he included some old design notes from this game. I read them, and was immediately interested to learn more. So when I encountered the second edition of Unknown Armies in a store many months later, I had to buy it.
The premise of the game (co-created with Greg Stolze) is that the world we live in contains an occult underground, inhabited largely by outcasts who just don’t fit into regular society. These individuals each hold an obsession that colors they way they look at everything, and which can lead them to insights into the way the world really works. Of course, they each have their own different obsessions, so they still can’t quite agree on what that means, even with each other. This short description does the game no justice, but we’ll touch on some more details of the setting as we explore the book.
Let’s start again with the book itself. It’s hardcover, with 366 pages (including index). The orange-ish cover… I don’t quite know how to describe it. What appear to be arcane symbols are slipped in, and can almost be overlooked by a casual glance. The center has been stripped away, and shows three individuals standing in the rain in front of a city skyline. The figure on the left has a cigarette and an assault rifle. The woman in the center merely stands with her arms crossed. On the right is a man with a skull earring and no jacket. Spots of blood from what appear to be gunshots are on the front of his shirt, and he’s raising his fist, which is glowing. The bizarre orangey part of the cover is wonderful and evocative. The picture isn’t the greatest in execution, but what it depicts suits the game well.
The interior of the book is grayscale, with a good amount of art scattered throughout. The art ranges from decent, if low quality, to really well done. In some cases (particularly in the section about Avatars), a more stylistic form is used for the illustrations. The effect is profound. The entire book is written in a familiar hand, as if a friend is telling you about all this information. This works on two levels. First, every sentence of the entire book constantly reinforces the dark setting. Second, it makes the book a very easy read, and constantly interesting. Even the crunchy bits are a joy, and seriously, how many books can you say that about?
After the contents, there’s a page breaking down the basic organization of the book, which is broken into four… well, books. There’s one for each of the three levels of play (street, global, cosmic) and one just for the gamemaster. The next page is a handy reference of the rules. Read this one page, and you’ll at least have an idea of how things work (perfect for a player handout). We then get not one, but two short stories to introduce us to the game world. Keeping with the bizarre nature of this game, the page on the left contains your usual, typed-up short story, while the page on the right features a page ripped from a notebook, with scrawled, diary-like entries. This split continues for several pages, until both stories wrap up. The typed story serves well as an introduction, showing how a pretty normal girl gets mixed up in the occult underground. The notebook is more along the lines of someone already deep in the underground. Remember the concept of obsession I mentioned earlier? It’s on display here in all its glory.
“Book One: The Secret Names of Streets” details a street-level campaign, one where the PCs are just discovering the underground. As the PCs really don’t know much more than any player who hasn’t read the full rulebook, there’s very little in the way of fluff here. Instead, the bulk of the game’s mechanics fit in here. The first chapter, however, sets a precedent that’s followed for the global- and cosmic-level books. It starts with a very brief introduction, this one titled “There Is an Occult Underground.” This is followed by three “Witness” accounts – stories told in the first person by people who would fit in this level of play. In this case, that means people who have had a bizarre experience that defies what they recognize as reality, and generally results in a drive to get to the bottom of this. Finally, there are two pages of rumors, which could easily double as adventure-seeds.
Chapter two details the idea of a street campaign, and features one of the few cases of misplaced information in the book. The chapter starts with asking players to come up with a trigger event for their character (a trigger event being that odd experience that is most likely the catalyst for that PC to seek the underground). This seems out of place, since the rest of character generation is in the next chapter. This chapter then goes on to give ideas for the PC group as a whole, with several vague examples of why the PCs might be working together.
Chapter three is all about character generation, simple mechanics of the game, and experience. Summing this chapter up will be hard, since there are so many unique things to the game, and many of them are presented here. Several obsession examples are given. Passions are also discussed. Each PC gets three Passions: one for Rage, one for Fear, and one Noble. Basically, once per Passion per game session, if a character is acting in accordance with one of these, he can flip-flop his die roll (switch the tens and ones on percentile dice – like rolling a 91 and turning it into a 19). Which brings me to the basic system. The idea is pretty simple. Roll percentile dice. You want to roll as high as possible, while still staying under your skill or stat. There are minor, significant, and major skill checks (remember those three divisions), depending on the situation. There are four broad stats: Body, Speed, Mind, and Soul. Once the value of each stat is determined, players come up with a descriptor for each, like “Flabby” or “Stout” for Body. Each stat governs several related skills, but there is no hard skill list. Players are encouraged to come up with their own, based on what their characters would be good at. They are also encouraged to rename skills to represent their own style (such as “Reckless Driving” instead of just “Driving,” or “Constant Awe” for a low Initiative skill). Skills are intentionally kept low. There’s even a short section specifically telling you why.
The obligatory Combat chapter is next. The chapter begins by almost berating you for getting into a fight, then offers “Six Ways to Stop a Fight,” and then tells you that the rest of the chapter “contains rules for simulating the murder of human beings. Have fun.” I won’t go into details here, but I do have to say that the combat rules are amazingly simple, and don’t seem to sacrifice realism. Combat is fast and (when weapons are involved) deadly. One unique aspect of the game is that players don’t keep track of hit points. The GM does, then tells the player how they’re feeling. Also included in this chapter are rules for car chases.
The next chapter details the only real ruleset for insanity and madness that I’ve seen outside of Call of Cthulhu. UA gives each character five meters for different kinds of stimulus: Violence, Unnatural, Self, Isolation, and Helplessness. Each time a character confronts one of these stresses, he checks his meters to see if he’s already Hardened enough to resist it. If he is, then play moves on. If not, he makes a Mind check. If he succeeds, he gets a little more Hardened and play moves on. If not, he ticks off a Failed box for that stress and either frenzies, falls into a kind of paralysis, or panics (fight, freeze, or flee). Sounds like getting Hardened is a good thing, but just as it shields you from these stimuli, it also blocks you from the rest of your emotions, and you lose the ability to use those Passions I mentioned earlier. Besides, being unable to feel doesn’t make for a fun gaming experience.
The final chapter of the first book is more or less a summary of concepts. There’s some more detail on Obsessions and how to play them, how to use your Passions, and some general play advice. We still have no idea what awaits us in the occult underground, but we’re about to find out.
The second book is called “The World of Our Desires,” and discusses necessities for a global-level campaign. We begin with chapter seven, which is an overview in the same fashion as chapter one. There’s an introductory section called “Welcome to the Occult Underground,” three more Witness accounts, and more rumors. What’s new here is some more information, including the theory behind magick, what an adept is and how he does what he does, avatars, short descriptions of many of the cabals active in the underground, and why you want to keep magick a secret from the mainstream population. This is the first real glimpse into the setting.
Chapter eight mirrors chapter two, giving several ideas for groups in a global campaign, in many cases as part of one of the cabals mentioned in the previous chapter.
While adepts and avatars are briefly touched on in the next chapter, the bulk of it is given to the limited kind of magick that anyone can do. Several rituals are given, and they just help emphasize the symbolic nature of magick, and the lengths that you’d have to go to in order to do this stuff. This keeps magick a possibility for non-magick types in the game, but makes them really have to work for it, which is fine. More versatile magick can be performed as “Tilts,” which are kind of like rituals, except that you make them up, adding elements that are symbolically relevant. While versatile, Tilts generate pretty weak results. And again, they require a good amount of work.
Adepts are the next topic. Adepts are those who are so committed to their view of the world, their Obsession, that they can bend objective reality to fit their subjective reality to some degree. There are countless schools of magick (12 are presented here), each with their own unique methods for gaining magical charges, their own spells, taboos, and types of effects, and their own paradox. Paradox? Yes, every school is based on some kind of symbolic tension, like the pursuit of power through surrendering to fate. There are three levels of charges, and thus, three levels of spells: minor, significant, and major. Each adept can cast on the fly, without needing a formula or ritual. They can also learn formula spells, which are more reliable and with a lower charge cost, but are also therefore more limited in scope. As an example of a school, let me give a quick brief on Dipsomancy, the style that I read about on Tynes’ website that sparked my interest in this game. Dipsomancy is based on consuming alcohol. The more you drink, the more power you get, until you pass out and sober up, and thus flush away any unused charges. The central paradox is that it’s a power trip and a death wish all in one. “But while you’re riding that cresting wave of drink, you can do anything.”
Avatars, covered in chapter eleven, are the third kind of magic in the game, though far more subtle than adepts. In short, there are many archetypes of human personalities and roles that are common to every culture. These archetypes are so ingrained in our ideas of reality, that simply by imitating one, you can use some of its power. This is something you need to dedicate yourself to, though. You can only walk the path of a single archetype, and while certain behaviors strengthen your relationship to it, other behaviors weaken it. Follow the Warrior, for example, and you can never negotiate with your enemies. Each avatar has four powers, or channels. You learn them in order as your bond gets stronger. As was mentioned, these are generally subtle abilities, though the higher level ones are quite strong. The first channel for the Fool lets the avatar find any common item that he’s looking for as long as he looks in a place that it might reasonably be.
“The Living Mirror of Heaven” is the title of the third book, which focuses on a cosmic-level game. It starts with an overview chapter yet again, with a brief introduction (“You Are the Occult Underground”), three Witnesses, rumors, and another “What You Know” section, which fills in some significant details, answering questions you probably didn’t know you had. There are some big spoilers here, so I’ll be as vague as I can. We’ve also got another chapter about your PC group, and what kind of cosmic goals they’re after.
Up to chapter fourteen now, and we learn more about archetypes and avatars, and what to expect at the highest levels of avatarhood. Chapter fifteen is about demons, which have been mentioned before, but not really detailed yet. They are spirits of the dead who can be summoned by magick, and who want to take over living bodies for various reasons. The sixteenth chapter is about artifacts, what a fantasy gamer might call “magic items.” Artifacts come at minor, significant, and major power levels. A few minor ones are detailed here.
And already, we’re up to the fourth and final book, the one that’s for GM eyes only. “Now you’ve seen the slow build, step by step, through the initiatory mysteries of this roleplaying game. Now we drop-kick the atmosphere and the three-dollar words and get down to business. This is your tool box. Here are your tools. It’s that simple.” The GM Overview is about 40 pages of details. The Invisible Clergy, the First and Last Man, various cabals, movers and shakers in the underground… it’s all here.
Chapters eighteen and nineteen are made up of about 30 pages of some of the best GM advice I’ve read anywhere. Much of it is tied specifically to UA, but there is so much that could apply to any game.
The last few chapters give us more artifacts, some unnatural creatures, and some unexplained phenomena with completely natural explanations that a GM can throw in to keep players on their toes.
The book closes with two adventures. “Bill in Three Persons” can be used as an introductory adventure, and touches on many elements presented throughout the book. “Pinfeathers” feels like it’s meant for more advanced groups. But what makes that second adventure more interesting is that, with just about every aspect of it, the GM is presented with three options to select from. For example, the GM is given these options for an enforcer GMC: he only kills scum; he’s just a hired professional; he’s a cold-blooded bastard. This is great for GMs who might be inclined to tweak things anyway, and for those who aren’t, they find themselves needing to make some real decisions, which can only be useful experience when coming up with their own adventures.
My overall impressions:
- Visual Design: While mostly pretty standard, there are enough things that really pop out for me in a good way. All of it is evocative of the setting, and therefore helps get into the mood. I’d give it a moderate rating.
- Setting: The text on the back of the book is intriguing, and the more I read, the more interested I got. It’s easy to design a setting for a modern game. It’s hard to make it interesting. I can’t think of any aspect of it that doesn’t get cooler the more you learn about it. Very high rating here.
- System: Like I mentioned, the system is pretty simple but smooth. Streamlined is a word that comes to mind. It’s easy to learn, doesn’t involve lots of math, most tasks are resolved in a single roll. And yet, the rules don’t give a simplified feel. It doesn’t feel like anything was glossed over or dumbed down for the sake of smooth running. System is brilliant.
What it comes down to: Quite simply, this is my favorite game that I’ve never played. And I’m hoping to fix that last part soon. The only thing I don’t like about the game is that the line is dead. No more UA books, at least for the time being. But with eight sourcebooks, and all the fan created material here (of an unusually high quality), there’s no shortage of new goodies! I’m currently prepping a UA game, and I’d be thrilled to play in one if the opportunity arose.