I'd been looking forward to Unknown Armies since I heard about it after last year's Gen Con. Someone wrote a review on it back then, based on the ashcan he'd bought at the con, and it sounded like a great idea... especially given the hand of John Tynes had shaped it.
So I waited... and waited... and mostly forgot about it, until Atlas started reporting that they were going to print it instead. This was, in my mind, a second vote in favor of buying the game. Atlas Games is a reliable publishing company... to paraphrase Spider Robinson, even the worst stuff they create is better than 90% of the crap out there.
I was able to get my hot, sweaty mitts on the game last Saturday, and quickly read through it, small gasps of joy coming from my mouth as I read. My fiance asked me to keep it down, in fact.
Here's the deal. *I* like it. I love it. With just reading the rulebook, I haven't had so much fun since GURPS Diskworld.
The background of the game is easiest to explain if you've been reading the various Vertigo comics that DC puts out, although by no stretch of imagination is this any sort of superhero game. DC's Vertigo comics generally involved the sort of street-level, sometimes cosmic, gritty urban fantasy. (I'm particularly thinking of Hellblazer, the Invisibles, and Preacher here.) That's *exactly* what you've got here. (Atlas wouldn't do badly advertising in the above comics, IMHO.)
If you haven't read them, then the easiest way to explain it might be to explain what it's not. It's not freeform magic like Mage has. It doesn't have monsters like most fantasy has... indeed, there are maybe two or three non-human monsters included almost like an afterthought in the back. Some of the human monsters are introduced in the beginning, and are referred to during the course of the book. There are no 'non-human' races. (And there are no references in the book to rules and concepts that will be referenced in future volumes that the user will have to buy, either.)
The background really has three different levels, and it's possible to move between them, or stay at one of them. The street-level is the grim and gritty urban fantasy most people are familiar with. Bands of mages with other people, trying to get by, or to put other people down, for good reasons or bad. Next up is floating with the major groups of the world... the movers and the shakers of mystic society. And beyond that is going for the golden ring... becoming an Avatar of an Archetype... and maybe even more. What would you do to get the power to shape the world.
The system is light... but not too light. There are four statistics, on a percentile system. Skills are also percentile, and linked to a stat, with no skill higher than the linked stat. There is no set list of Skills, and skills can include things that most systems would consider advantages, like 'Stunning Looks'. (For those who are antsy without a firm list, there are suggestions about pulling any other modern game off of the shelf and using that. Personally, I recommend either Call of Cthulhu's list for 1990's role-playing, or else the skill list off of the excellent Delta Green.)
Skill rolls are made on percentile dice, and the goal is to roll as high as possible without exceeding your skill... and is annoying similar to a system *I'm* working on, with doubles being significant successes or failures. (I hate when that happens.) Damage is in the same roll as the attack, with guns doing the number rolled, and other weapons doing the *sum* of the two dice. Also nice is the idea of each character having an obsession, a fear, a noble impulse, and a rage stimulus is both a fine way to round out a character, and used to support them - rolls involving these can be flip-flopped. For once, it isn't cheating to read your dice backwards to make that critical roll!
That said, it's in the sanity and magic rules where the system shines.
The sanity/madness system involves five areas where a person could slowly go crazy or get hardened, or both. It's both simple and intuitive, and I've half a mind to steal it the next time I do a Call of Cthulhu campaign. My one quibble on it is that it's based on the Mind stat, and I find it hard to believe that just because you're smart, you're safer from madness. On the other hand, basing it off of Soul would result in all of the magic users being sane, since the mages base their magic off of the Soul statistic. Perhaps an average of the two? But this is a minor quibble at best.
The magic system is very innovative. Rather than have spells based off of fire, or earth, or love, it's based off of history, or money, or alcohol. Boozehounds who suck down drinks every five minutes can pin you to the wall with a hail of loose debris, but fall over when they try to get off of their bar stool. (And they can't do anything sober.) Cliomancers fight over the best historical sites to gain their power from, and influence the collective memory of mankind. Plutomancers gain power by being given money... and lose it by spending it. And where that would be enough for some games, there's another three or four other systems presented.
So, after all of the praise, is there anything bad with the game?
Well, there's my minor quibble about the statistic used in the madness system. The mechanomancers aren't allowed to include (in their magical robotics) any machinery in common use during the late 1800's or later, but this is next to a picture of a robot made out of car parts, and in a few other places in the book they refer to people apparently breaking this rule.
And some of the art isn't entirely to my taste.
However, given the great goodnesses in the text, my few paltry inconsistencies barely stand. To sum it up: The system is simple and easy to use, the magic and sanity systems are nearly revolutionary, and the book by itself is worth the $25 just to read it. I've got wild ideas as to how to throw together a game for the next big convention happening in Denver, and I can't wait to see how it goes.
Good job, Greg Stolze and John Tynes. Keep it *UP*
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)