Unknown Armies, Second Edition
Unknown Armies, Second Edition Capsule Review by Funksaw on 22/07/02
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
It’s a little Ars Magica, a little Cthulhu, a little Illuminati, and a whole lot of those fevered dreams that keep you up at night when you’re running 103.5 Faherenheit and you just finished off two cans of Beefaroni and a bowl of Lucky Charms right before you went to bed.
Product: Unknown Armies, Second Edition
Author: Greg Stolze & John Tynes
Company/Publisher: Atlas Games
Line: Unknown Armies
Page count: 336
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Funksaw on 22/07/02
Genre tags: Modern day Horror Conspiracy Gothic
Unknown Armies 2nd edition
“There is a theory that if anyone figures out exactly what the universe is for and why we are here, it will be immediately replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is a similar theory that this has already happened.” – Douglas Adams.
Unknown Armies is a modern day occult game that reaches out to a number of inter-related genres, including Urban fantasy, conspiracy, horror, existentialism, and a little bit of delicious ironic satire. It’s a little Ars Magica, a little Cthulhu, a little Illuminati, and a whole lot of those fevered dreams that keep you up at night when you’re running 103.5 Faherenheit and you just finished off two cans of Beefaroni and a bowl of Lucky Charms right before you went to bed.
The general theme of Unknown Armies is the acquisition of power and it’s price, and the use of power and it’s consequences. The premise is that there’s an occult underground that actually do those freaky things you hear about in urban legends and playground mythos. Those in the Underground do real, honest to god magick, either by becoming obsessed with a particular worldview or living out one of a few mystic roles – called archetypes – that supposedly will make the core of the next world out of the ashes of this one.
The game is divided into three levels of play, “Street,” “Global,” and “Cosmic.” Each level gets a different section of the book. Though hardly innovative (I believe the first edition of Paranoia was laid out in a similar way,) it is effective at letting players find out just enough about the game to function at the level of the campaign. Street level characters tend to know only that something is going on and typically learn about the setting in-game (along with the players.) Global level characters know enough about the way the world worlds to manipulate it – here, you’ll find lesser avatars and adepts who can actually do some magic, but aren’t close to realizing the real truth. Cosmic level characters know enough about the truth of the setting to compete for real power – but at each level, more is asked from the characters, until the central irony becomes clear – in order to gain power, something else must be sacrificed. Normalcy usually gets chucked out the window first – someone with occult power has the ability to do lots of stuff – and the inability to do many things that normal people take for granted.
Like, for example, bathe. Miss a TV show once in a while. Touch earth. Have intercourse for pleasure, reproduction, or love. See a doctor. That sort of stuff.
Each mystical revelation, it seems, is based upon an ironic paradox. Dipsomancy (Magic through drink) is a quick route to intoxicating power and freedom to control the cosmos, but leaves you a slave to the bottle. Cliomancy (Magic through History) allows you to use the lie everyone believes is real in order to alter the real into a lie. You can channel the power of the mystic archetypes – but it means altering your entire life so that you become someone you’re not. Power always has a price.
This, the central theme of Unknown Armies, makes playing the game on every level a unique game – “street” level characters know little about the occult, but then again, they are neither beholden to it, while “cosmic” characters have much of their free will taken away by the choices that they’ve made to channel or obtain the power they possess.
The ambiance is gritty, dark, spooky, and with a moral twist at the end – what you would get if you mixed "Twilight Zone" with "Blade Runner." There is more struggle within the character than without, and there’s always room for yet another layer of the conspiracy to peel away. If this sort of thing is your bag, you’ll be hard pressed to find a game quite as engrossing as Unknown Armies.
The game system is percentile based, using two d10s. On certain rolls, (like your character’s particular obsession) you may flip flop the rolls so that a 91 becomes a 19 or vice versa. There’s four statistics, Body, Mind, Speed, and Soul, which skills can fall under. Depending on the situation, you need to roll under a skill to make a skill check – the scores are low, but the skill level represents your chance to do that skill under pressure such as combat or horror – outside of those situations, if a roll is required, one that is over a roll but under it’s related statistic succeeds marginally.
Combat is typically quick since there’s only one roll made to determine success and damage. Fistfights can take multiple turns, weapons make the damage deadlier, and a lucky gunshot can stop almost anyone. It’s quick and it’s brutal, it’s simple, and it’s designed for finality. Unlike many games, combat in Unknown Armies is designed to be so deadly as to be avoided.
It’s also horrible. Repeated exposure to Violence either drives you nuts or turns you into a sociopath. Violence, The Unnatural, Helplessness, Isolation, and betrayal of Self all force “checks” against a person’s ego – basically a Cthulhu-esque sanity check, with a couple major differences – first, the division of stimuli results in a specialization of the way the sanity affects you. A person repeatedly tortured is not likely to be afraid of silence, but someone locked in a sensory deprivation chamber is more likely to be, for example. The other major difference is that a successful check results in a “hardened” notch – you’ve become hardened to the stimulus to the point wher e it no longer affects you. The good news is that you no longer need to make checks under the level of your hardness in a particular facet of your ego – the bad news is if you get hardened enough to a particular stimulus, you become a sociopath. What does not kill you, makes you stronger – but at a cost.
Power and Price:
The game has three different types of supernatural phenomenon – the first is ritual magick, anyone can do it, but be prepared to use esoteric ingredients like toads toes, the suit a man was buried in, and 5 cheetos dipped in the blood of a yak in order to get a minor benefit.
As an alternative, you can study in one of the magical schools – granted, you’ll need to be broken down, psychically, and rebuilt from the ground up with a new worldview and a new obsession – your magical school. Since magick changes with the ages, the current magical schools reflect post-modern concerns. Videomancers gain magical power from watching TV, Narco-Alchemists combine street drugs with astrology to produce stuff like “Saturn’s Horse,” “Mars Dust,” and “Jupiter X,” Plutomancers attest to the might of the All Mighty Dollar, and Urbanomancers cast magic to the rhythms of the city. There are other magical schools as well, (and more than likely more to come in additional supplements.) Oddly enough, unlike most modern day occult books that divide mystics into groups, members of the same school of magick are less likely to play well with members of their own groups than with members of other groups due to lack of shared resources – two videomancers might fight all day over the clicker, but a Cliomancer might be able to trade JFK’s coffee cup to a Dipsomancer in exchange for the location of the secret parking garage where Deep Throat met Woodward, for example.
The last path to mystic power, the Avatar path, is more abstract. There are a number of “Archetypes” – concepts of human personalities – parts in the drama of human struggle, that are so central to the human story that they start to define humanity. These concepts, like “The Fool,” “The Girl Everyone Can Get But You,” “The Masterless Man,” “The Architect,” et al., can be channeled by those who act out the parts of the archetype. Twelve sample archetypes are provided in the book, but there are an unlimited number of archetypes a GM or player could devise.
These archetypes are central to reality. When a man or woman becomes the perfect example of that archetype, they become the Godhead – and then, with a final show of their commitment to the Archetype, they join the Invisible Clergy in the Statosphere. As soon as 333 archetypes ascend, the world is reborn in the image of the combined 333 archetypes. This means a couple things – the God concert is festival seating and space is limited, and it’s possible for a person to replace the ascended archetype if they come up with a more modern version of the archetype. (It’s hinted in the book, for example, that Che Guevara ascended as “The People’s Hero” – booting Robin of Locksley out of the coveted spot.) The end result is a free for all for who wants to get in and rebuild the world in his or her image. Ironically, however, most avatars ascend without even realizing that there is such a thing as an invisible clergy – they merely ascend because they fit the archetype that well.
There’s more, including an immortal Frenchman, a secret conspiracy within the world’s biggest fast food restaurant chain (ever wonder why they call it “secret sauce?”) a cult of incompetent Satanists, Y2K survivalists looking around and going “now what?” and copies of the Torah translated directly from Hebrew to Klingon, so there’s plenty this review won’t ruin for you.
The GM’s section – besides the obligatory explanation of how to GM well, actually provides several good tools for GMs of not just Unknown Armies, but also other games as well, including quick and ready “riot” rules – just about handy for any game when high weirdness hits in front of a bunch of people, a list of spell and ritual components from a very warped and twisted imagination that reads like the list of ransom demands from the Brendan Fraser/Adam Sandler vehicle “Airheads,” a list of motifs, and rules for car chases, it’s possibly one of the most detailed and useful GM sections I’ve seen.
Unknown Armies 2nd Edition comes in a hardcover 8&1/2 by 11book, with a color exterior and black and white good quality paper inside. The hardcover-only option may deter some who prefer softcover books at it’s sticker price of $40, but it’s full of text, the art is evocative of the feel, the game is somewhat modular and at 336 pages, it weighs in at a little less than 12 cents per page. The game also includes two short scenarios and a guide to first edition supplements (including what relevant information was supplanted or replaced by the 2nd edition)
Unknown Armies is a good game in it’s own right, and if you like conspiratorial horror such as Call of Cthulhu, games of power and consequence, such as Mage the Ascension, or conspiracy gaming, such as Conspiracy X or Illuminati, the game will have many familiar elements. The system is well designed and somewhat modular – so converting it for other games (such as the aforementioned Cthulhu) would be possible, but is limited a bit in genre to horror due to the low skill totals (without major modifications, of course.) The setting merges well with other Urban Fantasy games, such as In Nomine, or World of Darkness Similarly, the setting is simple enough that the game could be converted to any number of generic systems without much effort.
Caveats and Failures:
First a quick caveat: This is the book Tom Hanks warned you about. It’s not for children, including some rather graphic depictions, and adult themes. Maybe they should have put something on the front cover, because that “recommended for mature readers” line on the back cover – dark purple on black text – isn’t that visible. The game has a magical school called “Pornomancy” if that’s any indication. Not for kids.
Another Caveat: This game is not for beginners, either. The game doesn’t assume that a player is familiar with other RPGs, but it’s very unlikely that a player would be able to try something this far away from the mainstream without a few sessions of Cthulhu, Vampire, D&D, or something more mainstream and simpler (character-wise) under their belt. And the complex emphasis on role-playing to solving problems is unlikely to attract players who have trouble playing in that particular style.
And a nitpicky failure: Often the book refers to paradoxes when referring to situations which are merely ironic. I.E., when a powerful dipsomancer with the ability to control everything from demons to loose objects loses control of his own bladder, that’s not paradoxical, that’s ironic. What would be paradoxical is if the powerful dispomancer tried to drink simultaneously from both the inside and the outside of a Klein bottle… or something… I normally wouldn’t bring this up, it’s just that if we’re going to rag on Alanis Morrissette for not knowing what Irony is when writing a song about it… eh, it’s a nitpick, that isn’t necessarily that big a deal in the big picture.
Unknown Armies 2nd Edition is a well thought out, well written horror RPG that has a great amount of versatility. Though not everyone, those who play it will find themselves pleasantly surprised at the easy, yet robust system, the intriguing setting, and GMs who peruse the title will find use for it. In short, this is a worthwhile buy.