Unknown Armies 2nd Edition
Unknown Armies 2nd Edition Capsule Review by Conan McKegg on 29/12/02
Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
Ever wondered what David Lynch's films were on about? Unknown Armies may hide the answer... An engaging, well written book that manages to be player-friendly for both new and experienced gamers without wasting a single page!
Product: Unknown Armies 2nd 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 Conan McKegg on 29/12/02
Genre tags: Fantasy Modern day Horror Conspiracy Gothic Other
IntroductionIf you are a fan of Donnie Darko, Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive, The Matrix, Dark City, Kult, Lost Highway and Over the Edge then this is the game for you. Unknown Armies is one of those roleplaying games that first entered the industry with a little fanfare and then kind of burbled happily away in the background while the majority of roleplayers continued to believe that Call of Cthulhu, Chill and GURPS Horror were the be-all and end-all of horror gaming.
But Unknown Armies has, over the years, managed to garner a healthy and loyal following. Now, in 2002, Atlas Games have updated this game and the new second edition is possibly set to take the horror roleplaying crown. The reason I say this is because unlike pretty much every other horror roleplaying game on the market, Unknown Armies is about responsibility for one’s own evil.
SettingAt the core of Unknown Armies lies the Occult Underground. This is a blanket term referring to those who are in the “know” about what is really going on in the world. Or at least like to believe they are. While the concept of the Occult Underground is nothing new to horror roleplaying, Unknown Armies’ take on the secret cults is rooted in a gritty realism that others are not, often basing its cults and groups on actual urban legends. Most importantly there is a distinct absence of creatures from beyond for a good part of the setting – most of the biggest threats come from humanity itself and not some giant walking pile of calamari.
There are three layers to Unknown Armies’ universe. The first is Street Level, this is where the PCs are like the protagonists of a Lynch film – slowly discovering that their normal, happy lives are slowly becoming unhinged by some other force. Next comes Global Level where the PCs have unlocked some of the secrets of the Occult Underground. Magick is real, and it has been keeping up with the times. From Dispomancers, Adept mages who cast magic by getting drunk, to Videomancers who gain magical energy by watching re-runs on television. Obsession drives many magick-users to commit bigger and bigger acts of depravity in order to gain power. Then there are the Avatars – people who follow globally accepted archetypes such as The Mother, The Exectutioner and so forth. As they become more like their Archetype, the universe begins to alter itself around them to ensure that they live up to the mythology that is associated with that Avatar.
Finally there is the Cosmic Level which can be seen as Nobilis-lite. I won’t mention what this level entails – because knowledge of this level of campaign can ruin street level gaming, which most first time players will be involved in. Needless to say, at this level the main themes of Power and Consequence really begin to come into play.
Which is exactly what Unknown Armies is about. Power and Consequence. It is about responsibility and choice – this is no world where the universe is ambivalent towards you, as it is in Call of Cthulhu, nor is it actively out to get you, as in Kult. Rather, it is a world where the actions of the powerful have far reaching consequences that can sometimes result in their downfall.
Graphic DesignUnknown Armies Second Edition is clean, simple and appealing in appearance. From the nicely presented cover to the sparse but well placed artwork – this game has plenty of atmosphere. The choice of fonts and white space is effective, making the game easy to read and reference – and there is a nice hidden surprise on page 333 that is nothing amazing, but I found it kept with the whole feel of the game.
This book has a very professional layout. While there is no “how to roleplay” chapter, the whole book is like a how to roleplay guide. It is very player friendly towards those who are new to roleplaying, while consistently acknowledging more experience roleplayers at the same time.
It is split into four key “books” – Street, Global, Cosmic and GM section. Each “book” peels back another layer of the setting.
The GoodFirstly I have to state that Unknown Armies is written in a wonderfully engaging manner. It’s not so much a horror game as an Urban Surreal Fantasy with horror elements. This is a game that can be played straight – no magic or monsters – and still be an enjoyable gritty roleplaying game. The system is nice and unobtrusive being a fairly straightforward percentile based system – although there is the addition of “flipflop rolls.”
Essentially there are certain situations where the player can switch the numbers on their roll around to get the optimal roll. For example, a 93 could be swapped around to become a 39. This is usually related to skills and powers that the character is passionate about – thus meaning that they often make up for lack of skill with raw talent or passion.
The best thing about the system is that, much like Over The Edge’s it does its job and lets you get on with the game rather than slow things down.
There is a healthy dose of self-effacing humour keeps this game from becoming too heavy. In fact, given the material, I felt it was remarkably upbeat at times – which was great given that this tone doesn’t detract from the atmosphere at all, but rather it keeps the game grounded. There is, at all times, the clear understanding that this is just a game… and as such, is meant for enjoyment.
I found GM’s Section to be both concise, and approachable. It helps to gently guide an inexperienced GM through the steps of scenario design and play while not forgetting the more experienced GMs as well. The sample adventures at the back are fantastic as well – both covering very different elements of the game. In fact, they are so well written and executed it left me wishing that more games had scenarios like these in their core books.
But the best thing about Unknown Armies for me was the fact that the greatest evil in the game is that committed by other people. Gone are the big beasties of Cthulhu, the uncaring universe that allows humans to excuse their excesses. Gone are the arcane jailers of Kult, who allowed us to say that it was their fault the world was so corrupt. Unknown Armies takes all those elements away and forces us to accept that most of the bad stuff that happens in the world is because of other humans. While there are supernatural beasties in the game they are never the greatest threat. Most tend to be hidden in the sidelines or shadows, and while they are horrifying and nasty they are by no means the greatest threat to humanity or the PCs.
So why is this so good? Well because it points out that with greater power comes greater responsibility. Absolute power does not necessarily corrupt absolutely – only if we allow it to. Unknown Armies is very much a game about accepting that our actions are our own and that no one really controls our lives. Anyone can become a god in UA – they just have to choose to perform the right (or wrong) actions.
The horror can come from the fact that your character’s own actions may be the cause of a violent riot. That your callous behaviour towards violence can lead to a distancing of oneself from other people’s feelings. Something that really impressed me was the thought that went into the systems detailing mental states. Rather than having a “Sanity” trait, Unknown Armies recognises that continued exposure to a certain horror or fear can lead to a higher mental resistance to that stimulus. Mental states in UA are divided into Violence, The Unnatural, Helplessness, Isolation and Self. Each mental check has a rating of 1-10. Every time your character succeeds at a check, they add a “Hardened Notch.” Every time they fail, they score a “Failed Notch.” If the player’s hardened notches are equal or greater than the check rating – then they don’t need to make the roll, they automatically succeed at the check. Of course there is a cost to this – the more hardened notches your character receives, the more they start to become sociopaths. Too many hardened notches and you are incapable of feeling anything…
The not so GoodThere’s not much really that struck me as being faulty or bad, I loved this game. While it is by no means perfect, there is nothing so bad as to warrant even a mention. If anything the only real problem is that the setting is ONLY the Occult Underground. There is very little coverage of anything else. However, the game openly states that it is meant to be a framework – with a lot of the world left up to the Players and GM to create through play. There is no real metaplot, this is a game that develops while it is played.
SummaryA comprehensive, player friendly book that gives you everything you need to play. Dark, atmospheric, yet also funny and hopeful, Unknown Armies 2e is a class act all the way. A simple, unobtrusive system; a fantastic setting that really helps a GM start running the game with minimal fuss, and two atmospheric beginning scenarios makes for a near irresistible package. This is the way all corebooks should be – complete and accessible for all players. While the supplements naturally build on the concepts provided within the main book, there is everything you need to play included in the one product – you can easily run a massive campaign armed with nothing more than this book, two 10-sideds and a good imagination. (Maybe also about four hours of David Lynch movies for reference material too. ;) )
That’s all I need to say. Why are you still here reading this – go buy it! Unknown Armies 2e is definitely one of the best rulebooks I have read all year. Relevant, thoughtful, playable and fun.
Should I buy this Game?: If gritty urban settings are your thing, or surreal horror, then this is the game for you. No serious horror gamer should be without this game.