Unknown Armies reminds me a lot of Babylon 5. Allow me to explain.
When I first started graduate school several years ago, I moved to a new city. There I had a good friend who had this funny T-shirt that read "B5: Accept No Substitutes." I thought, "What the heck does that mean?" He explained that, if all went well, there would be a new SF series coming to television soon, called Babylon 5. He learned of its existence from the Usenet (a weird and wondrous thing in those bygone days). B5's creator had been boosting his show and how it would revolutionize television SF. Once B5 was on the air, nothing would ever be the same. I'm sure you all know the kind of hyperbole I'm talking about. In any event, it was quite a while from the time I first saw the T-shirt to when I first saw Babylon 5. In the interim, I too had come to look forward to its appearance on the airwaves.
Needless to say, I was disappointed. It wasn't that B5 was bad; it just wasn't good enough. The hype had been so great prior to its launch that, I suspect, nothing could have lived up to it. It didn't help that, in my opinion, B5 pulled too many punches and didn't follow through on its own internal logic. As a result, I didn't find much that was truly revolutionary or ground-breaking in B5. It was a good SF TV series, but then there have been such things in the past. I suspect that there will be such things in the future. My feelings about Unknown Armies are quite similar.
The Game System
Character creation is built upon the idea that everyone has a central obsession that colors the way that they look at the world. It is this obsession that drives your character and activates rules mechanics like the aforementioned flip-flopping. Players must also designate Fear, Rage and Nobility stimuli. These things also determine the basic drives that motivate your character and also serve as the basis for game mechanics like flip-flopping. In general, I am pleased with Unknown Armies' emphasis on characters and their motivations. This is something lacking in many games. While the system in Unknown Armies is hardly revolutionary, it is at front-and-center, which makes it hard for players or referees to ignore it.
Given the game's subject matter, it's only natural that it include a system for dealing with insanity and madness. The system highlights five areas that can lead to either insanity or "hardening." That is, to a callousness that inures a person to further effects of that particular area, like violence or supernatural events. The system is simple enough and would probably serve its purpose. However, insanity and hardening has only one appreciable game effect, namely the inability to flip-flop dice. After that, there is no real penalty for being insane or hardened. While this is in some respects an advance over Call of Cthulhu's sanity rules, in others it is not. In CoC, it is at least possible to go insane multiple times. Unknown Armies does not allow for this and, once a character has reached a certain point, he is immune to further effects from madness or hardening.
The authors' intent is to show that there are consequences to the usual psychopathic gamer-from-hell type actions that abound in most games. I admire that. I just think that the system used in Unknown Armies is flawed. More to the point, it seems oddly inappropriate for a game that stresses seat-of-the-pants improvisation and doesn't even have a genuine skills list to smack people over the head with a "killing is bad; it hardens you to violence" mechanic. Call me crazy, but this seems very heavy-handed to me. Then again, I suspect that the mechanic'll probably seem like a revelation to many players. If so, Tynes and Stolze will have succeeded in their goal.
The magic system (or should I say "magick [sic] system?" *shudder*) is similarly flawed in my view. I understand the desire to avoid a jejune presentation of magic that simply rehashes the usual stuff. How many ways can you describe fireballs or summonings or divination? So, Unknown Armies opts for some funky magical schools like dipsomancy, based around getting drunk. There's also cliomancy (history magic), plutomancy (money magic), and pornomancy (sex magic), among others. These schools of magic are nifty enough, but a little too clever by half. Most of them have little basis in any kind of occult tradition with which I am familiar. They're just things that Tynes and Stolze made up. I'd have preferred some schools that have some connection to real occult traditions. For that matter, where's magic based on hallucinogenics? That would have seemed appropriate for a game about the dirty underside of the occult world. Maybe drugs are just too bad to be included in even a game that comes with a "mature readers" warning. Oh well.
Undoubtedly, this fact will please GMs looking for new ways to pull one over on their jaded PCs. If so, Unknown Armies is your game. I am sure that it'll provide plenty of entertainment for those who want an occult game that doesn't pay homage to almost any predecessor. I am not one of those. As such, I prefer a game like Nephilim. While Nephilim has many flaws, it doesn't fall prey to the "everyone's been wrong until now" syndrome that I mentioned above. Nephilim derives its power and its story from a deft utilization of the occult traditions that have grown up over the past few thousand years. Sure, it takes liberties. What game wouldn't? Furthermore, we are dealing with imaginary things here. Unless I'm really wrong, there aren't vampires or ghosts or Invisible Clergy. Yet, this isn't the same as saying that people don't have ideas of what vampires or ghosts or . . . (sorry, no one's ever heard of the Invisible Clergy, remember?) are like. I just wish that Unknown Armies hadn't decided to go the easy route and reject almost all of these ideas outright. The game and its setting would have been much better had Stolze and Tynes decided to treat the traditions that exist with more respect. Instead, we get a lot of very clever ideas and, oddly enough, that's a real shame.
Style: 3 (Average)