Unknown Armies Second Edition
Unknown Armies Second Edition Capsule Review by Robert Calder on 28/07/02
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
Simply put, I cannot recommend this game highly enough. Even if you just buy it for a good read, my humble opinion is that you will have received your money’s worth.
Product: Unknown Armies Second Edition
Author: Greg Stolze and John Tynes
Company/Publisher: Atlas Games
Line: Unknown Armies
Page count: 336
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Robert Calder on 28/07/02
Genre tags: Fantasy Modern day Horror Conspiracy Other
UNKNOWN ARMIES: TRANSCENDENTAL HORROR AND FURIOUS ACTION RECEIVES A SECOND EDITION
Almost five years ago, something new tiptoed onto the stage of commercial role-playing games. The setting was a unique blend of modern urban horror and odd, yet somehow true magical paradigms based on the powerful idea of sympathetic magic. It sported a fast and elegant system that included what has been heralded by some as the best mechanics for simulating madness and the relevance of character motivations in a role-playing game. Unknown Armies became, quite literally, a “cult favorite” in the industry.
The game has received quite a bit of attention over the years. However, it has often been relegated to a status that many “artsy” movies receive – critics love it, but is it really of interest or use to the general role-playing population?
One of the goals the creators had for the second edition was to address such concerns. One of the new book’s many strengths is an almost complete reorganization of the material. The second edition attempts to present information on the setting and the system in such a way that it’s very clear what knowledge is relevant to players with respect to the kind of campaign they are playing in. The first edition always struck me as a sort of brilliant Frankenstein; it was a stunning, perhaps even revolutionary work that was patched together in such a way that most people would find it horrifying to understand and deal with. This new edition seems to have largely succeeded in overcoming such concerns.
WHAT WILL YOU RISK TO CHANGE THE WORLD?
Boldly asked on the back cover of the game, this is the central question the game poses. Characters have the potential to permanently change the world. Beyond just its appearance, they can alter the way people think, the way they perceive things, the fundamentals of both “true” and “perceived” reality.
But such power comes at a price. Unknown Armies asks what the power is worth. Is it worth your sanity? Your identity? The lives of your friends and loved ones? Where do you draw the line?
Before the book goes into meaty detail about the setting or the rules, it offers a brief primer on the way the setting works. Basically, what we’ve got is a percentile-based system. Your goal is to roll under some target number. In most situations, you will succeed automatically if you have a skill value of 15% or higher. In more stressful situations – where there is some uncertainty and risk – you succeed if you roll under your stat level, but you succeed strongly if you roll under your skill level. Unskilled checked in such situations are made at your stat level – 30%. Finally, in serious, climactic, drama-filled situations, you only succeed if you roll under your skill. Unskilled checks in this case are only possible if you roll a “matched success” under your stat (e.g., an 11, 22, or 33 if your stat is 39) or a “crit” (a 01). A crit roll is always the “best possible” outcome. I do feel that the usage of the 01 for a critical success is somewhat counter-intuitive, since the rest of the game hinges on the idea that you virtually always want to roll as high as possible without going over the appropriate target. However, it may be more straightforward than the alternative – setting the crit target at the character’s skill level – since it avoids using a different number in situations where you can still succeed if you roll higher than your skill but lower than your attribute, or when characters are attempting an action unskilled.
There are also “fumbles” (00). Additionally, a “matched roll” (see matched success, above) always has some sort of dramatic result. A matched success is somewhere between a normal success and a crit roll, while a matched failure lies between the idea of a normal failure and a fumble. Finally, the rules mention that there will be certain situations in which the player can chose to “flip-flop” a roll. This allows a swapping of dice – an 85 could become a 58, for example.
The Secret Names of Streets
Unknown Armies is divided into four “books”. The first – The Secret Names of Streets – details basic character generation, and offers all the information a player would need to participate in what the designers call a “street level” campaign.
Everyone Has Character
In the street level campaign, the characters are all fairly normal people, with a couple of exceptions.
First, each character has a “trigger event”. Something happened to this person. Something weird, wonderful, and disturbing. Whatever it was, it made the character aware that there is something deeper going on; just beyond fingertips, just outside peripheral vision, there is a secret world – the Occult Underground. The trigger event can serve as a springboard to catapult the character into the action of a story. There are several examples of trigger events – three one-page pieces of in-character fiction, and several paragraph-long ideas. There’s enough information for an experienced gamer, or a very creative new gamer, to come up with a thematically appropriate event that has pushed them into the search for the Occult Underground.
The second difference between an Unknown Armies protagonist and your average Joe Character is that these characters always have an obsession. It has the side effect of making it more likely that you create an interesting character. The best way I can describe it is this: a “normal” person has “hobbies” or “interests”. The player characters are obsessed with something, in the literal, unhealthy, I’m-A-Stalker-Where-Do-You-Live sort of way.
Players choose three passions for their character. These yield a point of reference from which the character can interact with the world. There are three passions – Fear, Rage, and Noble. Since each passion can range from the general to the specific, and the players have a lot of leeway in choosing their character’s passions, the GM will likely need to work closely with the players so that the player doesn’t create a character the ends up being too contradictory to be playable, or too silly to be thematic. The passions also allow a player, once per session per passion, to flip-flop a roll or re-roll a failure made under a passion’s influence. Such benefits can’t be stored – they must be acted upon in the moment.
The Fear passion represents the thing the character is most afraid of in the world. Whenever the character encounters his Fear, he is forced to make a check to see if face his fear. The fear is tied into one of several “madness meters”, and this mechanic works the same as other mental stress tests (we’ll see more on this concept later). The player can use his flip-flop or re-roll when the character is attempting to get away from whatever he fears. One of the examples provided is Fire, linked to the Helplessness mental stress. The character had some bad experience(s) with fire in the past, and now is overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness when faced with fire. (Maybe he watched his house burn down, helpless to do anything to stop it.)
Next, there is the Rage passion. This is what really pisses the character off. The player can use their flip-flop or re-roll to attempt to destroy, surpass, or overcome whatever makes the character mad. A given example is Backchat. The character gets very irate when people behave rudely. Maybe he lays a verbal smack down upon perpetrators, or perhaps he feeds them some knuckles – it depends upon the situation and the character.
The last of the passions is the Noble passion. This is whatever triggers the characters “good side” and encourages him to be the best person he possibly can be. The player can take his flip-flop or re-roll when the character is attempting a selfless action that furthers his noble goal. An example of a Noble passion is called, “One for All”. The character is fanatical about his friends, and his loyalty to them is unquestioned.
After choosing the character’s passions, the player is asked to pick some sort of stereotype or idea to help shape the vision of the character. Three suggestions are provided – personality role models (the weary observer, the femme fatale), zodiac signs, and pop culture personalities (Kane in Kung Fu, Joe Pesci in Goodfellas).
One thing that I’ve seen some people complain about is difficulties in tying Unknown Armies characters together in a coherent manner. Though I concede it’s not as easy as, “Ok, you’re in a tavern, and…” the book provides ample advice on linking the characters together in a manner consistent with the setting. For each level of campaign, the players are encouraged to create their characters as a group with some common goals, assets, and liabilities. For the street level campaign, examples of such groups include a circle of friends, occult investigators, or vigilantes.
After this, the players are given a pool of points to allocate to four stats – Body, Mind, Soul, and Speed. Body is physical health and strength. Mind is intelligence and creativity, including the ability of a strong mind to try and assimilate mental stresses without snapping. Soul is representative of the character’s force of personality, and is also the governing stat for Magick. Speed is how fast you are. Besides any skills you choose to take that relate to it, Speed also serves as the governing attribute for Initiative, which defaults to half of a character’s Speed stat.
The players allocate skill points to a largely free-form list of skills (similar to way skills are handled by Over the Edge). Every skill the player picks from the short list provided or “invents” is linked to a stat. The values obtained for the stats in the previous step provide points for the player to allocate to his skills; for example, if you have a Mind of 40, you have 40 points to allocate amongst Mind-related skills (Mathematics, Solving Puzzles, Crafting Logical Arguments, etc). A player must also choose an obsession skill for his character. This skill must be linked to the obsession detailed above. For example, if someone is obsessed with Music, they might select Soul of Dizzy, Mad Violinist, or Jimi Has Got Nothing On Me as their obsession skill to represent their passion for music.
Six Ways to Stop a Fight
Though not one of the four “books” in its own right, I feel that combat is important enough to the majority of the role-playing population that it warrants its own section.
Combat in Unknown Armies is not for the faint of heart. The phrase “Six Ways to Stop a Fight” is taken from the first section in the combat chapter, and is intended to underscore the fact that there’s a high likelihood of serious injury whenever characters engage in violence. Virtually every weapon has some chance to kill a target outright with a very good hit.
That’s not to say violence is glossed over or handled in an overly simplistic manner. After all, this is a game where all of the protagonists would be considered at least mildly mentally unstable by your average shrink. Put a few obsessed, paranoid, and possibly power-hungry people in the same room together, and they’re as likely to start beating each other with the chairs as they are to discuss the finer points of reality manipulation. There’s plenty of detail here for the enjoyment of those who prefer to change the world with a baseball bat.
There are most of the standard options people have grown to expect in combat – rules for called shots, critical hits (crits and matched successes both have special results), multiple actions, suppressive fire, etc. Additionally, Unknown Armies has a mechanic called “cherries” that applies to both melee and unarmed combat (as well as Magick, which will be covered later). Cherries occur when a character with an armed or unarmed skill as their obsession skill scores a matched success in melee combat. At this point, the player can pick either pick an effect from the provided cherry list or invent a new one. Examples include “Blind” (your opponent has a skill penalty for the next few rounds due to impaired sight), “Gimme” (you cause normal damage, but also force your opponent to cough up his weapon) and “Monkey Dodge” (you damage your target, but can also redirect the next attack declared against you to any other nearby combatant).
Combat starts with an initiative roll (unless you pull off an ambush – tactical thinking is rewarded). Characters may either roll vs. their Speed for initiative, or default to their Initiative skill. All rolls that “succeed” (are under the individual’s Speed stat) go before rolls that “fail”. Defaulting to the Initiative skill is considered a successful roll. Out of each of the successful and failed groups, the highest numbers go first. So, the highest successful down to the lowest successful characters will act, and then the highest to lowest failed rolls. Fumbles and matched rolls don’t matter in initiative, so the worst possible initiative roll you can make is your Speed stat plus one.
After initiative, players declare and roll their actions in the order mandated by the dice. Characters can attack, declare they are dodging, or perform other oddball actions. If you are attacked before your turn, you can’t dodge – you’re too slow, Jack. Once you have declared a dodge, though, you can carry it over to subsequent rounds, so you will be able to defend against attackers in later rounds even if they are going before you.
If you score a hit, the basic damage mechanic defines the damage as the value of the roll for a firearm (capped by the firearm’s maximum damage value) – for example, if you roll a 32, and it’s a hit, you do 32 damage. If it’s a melee weapon, you add the dice, as well as any damage bonus mandated for the weapon you are flailing at your opponent with. For example, if you roll a 16 with a knife, you do seven points of damage, plus three for the damage value of the knife, for a total of ten points of damage. More lethal melee weapons will score firearms damage on a matched success. The damage is subtracted from a pool of wound points defined by the Body stat. As a character accumulates damage, they also accumulate wound penalties, so the first big wound received in combat can often mark the beginning of a character’s headlong fall into a dirt nap.
After everyone has resolved an action (or actions – multiple attacks are possible, requiring you to divvy up your attack skill amongst each shot or swing) a new round commences. The original initiative ranks are preserved, though you can choose to re-roll or use your Initiative skill if you want to try and get in your next action before everyone else acts
Combat is brutal. The game offers the good advice that you put some serious thought into whether or not hanging around to get wailed on is worth it in any given situation.
Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff in Mental Stability
One of the more engrossing attributes of Unknown Armies is the system it uses to model mental health.
Any event that causes stress to the human mind is lumped into one of five categories. These types of mental stress are:
Each stress has a corresponding “hardened” meter with ten notches, and a “failed” meter with five notches. Hardened notches in a stress indicate occasions when a character has been faced with this particular stress and was able to stay functional and relatively rational. Failed notches represent occasions when the character was unable to deal with a stress.
Whenever a character is exposed to a particular stress, the GM announces the type of stress, and the level of the stress. For example, if a character was briefly tortured, the GM would inform the player that he would need to make a Rank-3 Violence Stress Test to deal with the situation without “loosing it”. If a character discovered that the reason she and her husband of ten years have never had any children is because he isn’t human, the GM would inform the player that a Rank-10 Unnatural Stress Test was required.
If a character has a number of hardened notches in the stress equal to the rank of the test, his player need not make a roll. The stress does not affect the character. Otherwise, the player must make a roll against the character’s Mind attribute. If the roll is successful, the character receives another hardened notch in this stress. If the roll fails…the character receives a failed notch, and the player gets the way-fun privilege of deciding if the character goes into frenzy (fight!), panic (flight!), or paralysis (I’m a deer in your headlights!)
Once a character receives ten hardened notches in a stress, he is unaffected by it in the future. When the character has received many hardened notches in multiple stresses, he becomes a sociopath. The character is cut off from his emotions, and is now unable to use his special flip-flops or re-rolls for his passions until the situation is remedied. Additionally, if the character is an avatar (see below), he cannot use any of his archetype-granted abilities until he gets a good shrink to fix him up.
If a character manages to collect five failed notches in a stress, the player doesn’t have to make stress checks anymore. This is great if you like to minimize rolling. Unfortunately, the reason you don’t have to roll is the character automatically fails the test, and reacts (fight, flight, or act small and inconspicuous) as when a check is failed normally. Also, when the character does get that fifth failed notch, the player gets to have a sit-down with the GM in order to decide on what sort of mental malfunction the character is going to experience in the longer term. These include phobias, flashbacks, and addictive behaviors.
The good news is characters aren’t stuck in such situations. With the proper assistance, characters can “get some sanity back” through a set of mechanics that simulate mental help.
The World of Our Desires
The second “book” is called The World of Our Desires. This is the meatiest part of the second edition. It details information relevant to characters in a “global” campaign (though the information in The Secret Names of Streets is still required).
It begins with thee more short pieces of in-character fiction. They convey the “flavor” of characters and adventures the group can experience at the global level fairly well.
After this, the book moves on to discuss more detailed information about the setting, including how magick works, why the “enlightened” seek out their peers in the Occult Underground, and why they form groups and cooperate. I’d like to reiterate a point from the beginning of The Secret Names of Streets. The second edition does a fine job of helping the reader understand why students of the occult – who, at this point, are even more obsessed, mental unstable, and freaked out than they were previously – are able to meet up and get along at all.
Players are once more encouraged to create their characters in a group. Several example groups – now called Cabals – are presented to jump-start the players’ imaginations.
The rest of The World of Our Desires is concerned with the magick of Unknown Armies.
Magick in Theory and Practice
The bulk of The World of Our Desires is concerned with endowing your characters with magical abilities, and then putting said abilities to use.
One of my favorite things about the way magic works in Unknown Armies is that it feels right. The authors have cleverly taken the concept that is most widely associated with how magic works in the real world and utilized it as the foundation of magic in the game. The concept I’m speaking of is sympathetic magic.
Allow me to take a momentary detour and quote from Frazer’s The Golden Bough:
“…sympathetic magic…plays a large part in most systems of superstition. One of the principles of sympathetic magic is that any effect may be produced by imitating it.” For example, “If it is wished to kill a person an image of him is made and destroyed; and it is believed that through a certain physical sympathy between the person and his image, the man feels the injuries done to the image as if they were done to his own body…Again, in Morocco a fowl or a pigeon may sometimes be seen with a little red bundle tied to its food. The bundle contains a charm, and it is believed that as the charm is kept in constant motion by the bird a corresponding restlessness is kept up in the mind of him or her against whom the charm is directed…”
All of the magic in Unknown Armies takes advantage of this principle.
There are four varieties of magic. They are introduced in this section, with greater powers and secrets expounded upon later on in the book.
Stop Making Sense
Adepts can wield great power over reality – within the domain of their magical (or “magickal”…postmodern magicians apparently like to spell magic with a “k”, a convention I’ll continue with until the end of the review) worldview. This vision isn’t, as we’re told in the book, “a pose, or a style, or a trend.” Rather, it is “an all-encompassing, obsessive, and idiosyncratic worldview”.
Adepts must always choose Magick as their obsession, and their obsession skill is always the skill they use for their particular school (or paradigm) of magick.
With the advantage of perceiving the world in their special way, combined with obsession and will, the adept is able to interact with reality. But why and how does it work? It is based on three “laws”:
The most important law for the “why” of things is the first law. Each school has paradox at the heart of it, but each uses it in different ways. There are several examples of how adepts exploit paradox to alter reality. I don’t want to spool it for you, since they’re pretty damn slick, but here’s one example:
“Some say the universe is poorly constructed and falling apart. Paradoxes are the holes in the fabric, holes where you can poke your finger and pull on the hidden strings. Being a gawker at the car wrecks of standard logic shows you reality’s smeared-out brains.”
The second law deals with how adepts power their magick – through “charges”. Any effect requires a certain number of different powers of these charges. There are three levels of charge: minor, significant, and major. Adepts build up charges by engaging in activity relevant to their worldview.
The final law prevents adepts from learning other schools of magick. Each school of magick is a paradigm to which the adept must devote himself in order to gain power. They’re not like clothes – you can’t wear a different suit for every occasion.
Additionally, each school has certain “taboos”. These help simulate that the dedication of the adept to a magickal paradigm must be complete, or else his magick does not function very efficiently.
One of the many example schools of magick provided is called “Dipsomancy”. Boozehounds, as they are sometimes called, gain power over reality at the bottom of a bottle. They draw energy from the paradox that alcohol can make you feel powerful, invulnerable, and wise, yet at the same time, it is making you less powerful, less wise, and, possibly, more dead. Dipsomancers generate magickal charges by – you guessed it – being drunk. A minor charge is easy to obtain; simply downing a few shots of whiskey will do it, as long as you drink enough to suffer impairment to your rolls from being somewhat drunk. Significant charges are slightly harder. For example, you could get such a charge from drinking out of a historically significant container – one of the hypothetical items listed is the coffee cup JFK drank from during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Finally, major charges are much more difficult to come by. An example given is guzzling the remaining juice in Elvis’s last bottle of beer. The taboo for Dipsomancers is getting sober. If this occurs, any charges the adept is currently “holding” are lost.
But what kinds of things can an adept do? One example Dipsomancy minor effect is called “Thimblebelly”. When this spell is cast, the adept’s impairment from being drunk is applied to the target’s next action roll. An example significant effect, “Just a Harmless Drunk”, lets the boozehound go unseen for fifteen minutes – people just overlook you. Major effects mentioned include exchanging bodies with an unwilling victim and moving a group of twenty people anywhere in the world.
However, an adept is not limited to a list of spell formulas. Adepts can perform “random magick”. “Random” isn’t quite the right word, since the adept describes the effect he’s trying for. There are guidelines on how to decide how many charges an effect should take. Effects must still be explained within the worldview of the adept. Initially, such improvised magickal effects cost more charges than they might otherwise, but as the adept becomes accustomed to performing the effect, the cost drops, until it’s in line with the effectiveness of the “formula” spells.
You seem familiar – have we met?
Unknown Armies builds on the idea that there are certain stereotypical personalities and roles that are common to every culture. The names might differ, but the symbolic value is the same.
These stereotypes are known as archetypes. Avatars are people who walk the paths of these archetypes. The closer they resemble one of the archetypes generated in the collective subconscious – in other words, the more in sympathy they are with that archetype - the more power they wield.
Not all avatars are aware of what they are doing. They may be using the minor mystical effects granted through their archetype without even realizing it. However, since they aren’t aware of their chance sympathy with this universal figure, they tend to stray from the archetype in the course of everyday life, so they never see the more potent abilities that are granted to those who carefully follow the path of an archetype.
Sometimes, an avatar is aware that they are following a path that grants them mystical power, but they don’t see it as trying to fit a multi-cultural stereotype. Instead, they are following a “mask” of an archetype, an identity specific to their culture that is (in magickal terms) equivalent to the more universal archetype. In one example, a devout follower of Kali in India walks the path of the archetype known as the Executioner. This is a very elegant idea; it gives an interesting explanation for world religions within the setting and plays to the idea of the power of human belief.
One example archetype is “The Messenger”. Whenever someone provides you with important information that you didn’t know, they are weakly echoing the archetype of the Messenger. Examples of cultural masks of the Messenger are given as John the Baptist and St. Paul (Christian), Hermes (Greek), Eleggua (Santeria), and Loko (Voudun). A possible example of a historical avatar of the Messenger might be Paul Revere.
The Messenger cannot deny the truth when he is confronted; this is the taboo of this archetype. Every archetype has its own taboos – these represent the antithesis of what the archetype is “about”. Powers granted to avatars of the Messenger include the ability to tell the truth in such a way that listeners cannot deny it and the ability to mystical overcome physical barriers and hardships in order to deliver information important to the intended recipient.
Old Ways are Good Ways
Rituals have larger scope of possible effects than other kinds of magick, but the results are less powerful. Ritual magick was once much more potent, but now the rituals are mostly independent of the paradigms they originated in. They still work in modern times due to the power imbued in them through hundreds of years of belief, but since the originating belief systems are now defunct, many rituals that were quite potent in the past now do nothing at all.
As with adept magick, ritual magick comes in minor, significant, and major varieties. The advantage of minor rituals is that they can be used by anyone – even adepts. They are already powered by belief and will from times long gone; modern occultists need only carry out the steps of the ritual correctly – no belief is required.
Significant magick is more difficult to pull off. These require magickal charges (minor rituals can be performed with a charge, though it incurs a penalty to the caster’s roll) which can be generated through a rare minor ritual (though an adept must use a significant charge of his own – adepts in general don’t believe non-adepts can generate that kind of mojo, and it shakes up their worldview to be proven wrong).
There are two other, very interesting, kinds of rituals. Proxy rituals take advantage of similarities between you and another person in order to try and re-direct magick targeted at you to the other person. Tilt rituals allow you to alter the odds to be slightly in your favor in certain situations by performing a symbolic act in sympathy with your desired outcome.
The Living Mirror of Heaven
The third “book” is called The Living Mirror of Heaven. It provides information on the “cosmic” level campaign.
We are once again given three short in-character offerings provided to set the atmosphere of the highest scope of campaign supported by these core rules. These pieces did not seem to be as strong as the ones earlier in the book. Part of the problem is that things get strange (oh, yeah, like they were really normal before!) in this part of the book. It’s much more challenging to get a grasp on the setting as the foundation for a campaign at this level of the game.
The Living Mirror of Heaven offers the “secrets” of the setting though a tour of the high-level cosmology. We learn that avatars, which don’t really need to be competitive with each other on earlier parts of their path along an archetype, must eventually face rivals on the same path. This does not become relevant until their avatar skill approaches 99%. The reason this becomes important is that avatars at this “high end” of sympathy are called “godwalkers”. At any time, there can be only one godwalker for each archetype. Godwalkers receive special powers, as well as having the dubious distinction of being targets of any other high-end avatars of the same archetype that want the godwalker’s job.
However, there is one more step beyond this. Avatars who manage to perfectly embody an archetype can ascend to the Invisible Clergy. The Clergy has 333 members, and resides in a mystical place known as the Stratosphere. From there, Clergy are able to affect reality more directly, manipulating probabilities in the realm of events tied to their archetype.
One interesting note is that a Clergy member might never have been a godwalker for their archetype. Sometimes, there are archetypes that reappear as very common motifs in culture, but are not well represented by avatars at higher levels of sympathy with the archetype. If such an archetype also has no Clergy member to represent it, things may reach a critical mass, and the person on the planet who best represents the archetype – consciously or not – ascends to the Stratosphere. It is not common, but it’s possible.
Another uncommon, but interesting, event is mentioned. Sometimes, an avatar grows to represent an interpretation of an archetype that better fits modern humanity’s view of the archetype. When such a situation arises, the “old” Clergy member is booted from the Stratosphere, and the avatar with the more relevant version of the archetype ascends to the Clergy. This is very unpleasant for the expelled Clergy, who re-appears on Earth as a (possibly very anachronistic) mortal.
You Are the Occult Underground
In a cosmic campaign, the focus of the story generally relates to ascension (getting someone into the Clergy, or preventing someone from getting into the Clergy) or assumption (getting someone to godwalker status, removing someone from godwalker status, etc). The players are once more encouraged to generate a group concept together, and form a cabal of coherent and consistent characters.
Towards the end of the details for the cosmic campaign, we are provided with details on artifacts – items imbued with magick. Artifacts can be imbued with power by the cosmos, or created by humans. Rules for creating artifacts are given, as well as several examples. Constructed artifacts can only be charged with magickal affects that the creator can perform. Additionally, the object being charged must symbolically represent the effect you’re imbuing it with.
For The Gamemaster
The final large of the four “books” within this tome is unambiguously entitled “For The Gamemaster”. I will not delve too far into this section, as it is contains setting information that is more specific than most of the information in the player sections is, as well as a lot of advice on running Unknown Armies.
There is some solid advice on using the primary setting elements in a game; usage of theme and plot elements is discussed in detail. There’s also a brief, but useful, section on the use of relationship maps to help plan out campaigns. The authors also offer some fine advice on tailoring the difficulty of the skill checks you want your players to make to the level of dramatic tension you are aiming to create in a particular scene.
There is a chapter that details some unnatural phenomenon, as well as several unnatural beings. I have occasionally heard complaints that Unknown Armies does not support “strange creature” type campaigns. This simply isn’t true. It is true that investigating and foiling bizarre and inhuman creatures is not the focus of Unknown Armies – that would be more in the ballpark of Call of Cthulhu. You could run Unknown Armies in a similar manner, but I’m not entirely certain what the point would be. (And I’m not talking about adapting the system of UA – particularly the madness mechanics – into a game like Call of Cthulhu; that’s an entirely different, and probably very rewarding, endeavor.)
Towards the very end of the book, the GM is provided with two strong scenarios that can be used to introduce a fledgling group of obsessive protagonists to the world of Unknown Armies. The first scenario is a repeat of the scenario from the first edition. The second, “Pinfeathers”, is, I believe, a brand new scenario for the game.
The Good Book
And now, dear reader, I would presume to offer some brief comments upon the presentation, quality, and style of the book. It’s hardbound, and 336 pages, and required me to cough up cabbage totaling $39.95.
The cover design is eye-catching, though the actual cover art appears a bit cartoonish on closer inspection. The art throughout the book is somewhat mediocre, though I felt the thematic artwork for each of the Avatars presented was strong.
I cannot praise the writing highly enough. There is a brief “in character” section of fiction from the points of view of two different characters near the beginning. These are strong, giving some idea of the “feel” of the setting. However, the writing really begins to shine as you segue into the meat of the book.
Never dry, always dripping with mood, Unknown Armies is a joy to read. I found myself having to re-read a few sections in order to ensure I understand the underlying meaning of what was being conveyed, but this wasn’t due to any failings of writing or editing – it was because the concepts being introduced are often very different than the normal stuff you’d encounter in a role-playing game book. It occasionally put me in mind of some of the lighter philosophy I encountered in my college days…even if the metaphysics here are fictional.
Ye Olde Unknown Armies
Do “old hand” Unknown Armies players need to upgrade to UA2.0? My opinion would be that you don’t need to, but you will probably want to. Some brief opinions on the relative merits of the two editions follow.
One thing I find very ironic is that, despite the authors’ claims that the second edition is “reorganized and rewritten to better serve new players…” the fairly good overview section that included two very strong answers to the question “What is a Roleplaying Game” was removed from the book. Nothing similar remains. It’s certainly the case that this has become a bit of a cliché in most modern role-playing games (Dungeons and Dragons Third Edition being a notable exception) but I felt that, while most books ramble a bit in trying to explain what you’ve gotten your hands on, the original Unknown Armies got it right.
On the other hand, the chances of someone completely new to role-playing even browsing a copy of Unknown Armies, let alone buying it, are pretty slim. The simple fact is that, for now at least, the only kinds locations this game is going to be found are specialty shops with a clientele that is already somewhat gaming-savvy. From this point of view, removing the introduction to role-playing games from the front of the book seems fairly logical. Besides, it gave us more page count for other stuff! I just wish they’d left the design goals section in. I’d really like to see more designers offering up the sort of information Stolze and Tynes did in the first edition, on websites if not in rulebooks.
Overall, I’d have to say that the second edition is a much more professional product than the first edition was. The layout is better, the information is more intuitively organized, and the game is more playable. If you’ve been playing the game for some time, I can’t really say that you need the second edition. There are some rules changes (the improvements to initiative being the foremost in my mind) but the spirit at the core of the game remains the same. However, even if you have all of the published material to date, I believe that the utility value of this book is quite high. It can serve as a great reference for the game.
The second edition does incorporate quite a bit of content from several of the sourcebooks. Thankfully, the authors were kind enough to provide a list of what information from the various sourcebooks is “superceded” by the new edition. In this case, superceded” often means that the information was ported into the new book whole cloth; there wasn’t a lot of re-writing of the old material from the sourcebooks. However, collectors of the line don’t need to worry; even the book most affected by the superceded material, Postmodern Magick, is still quite valuable as a source on the deeper details of magick.
Simply put, I cannot recommend this game highly enough. Even if you just buy it for a good read, my humble opinion is that you will have received your money’s worth.