"I don't know what to believe anymore. So I believe I'll have a drink." - Dirk Allen
The cover of Unknown armies is a dark picture of a dead body. surrounded by a gory red frame, and with the the title "Unknown Armies - a roleplaying game of transcendental horror and furious action". The back of the book also warns "recommended for mature readers". So really, you know what you get into from the get go.
Chapter one - overview - quickly tells you what it's about. Unknown armies is a game of human horror, with the three levels of realities. Level one - hapless stooges who play with the occult, and sometimes achieve result. Level two, people who realize magic is real, and use it to their own goals. Level three, the Invisible College, a group of ascended humans who when they reach a number of 333 will remake the world into a new incarnation - for better, or worse, depending on who ascended.
The authors also clearly state their intents from the get go, which helps figuring out what you get into. Occultism, paranormal, horror and transcendence - with some good old action for good measure.
Chapter 2 - the Occult Underground - quickly describes the movers and shakers of the setting, at the three different levels. It's quite short for a setting chapter, and in a way is more of a collection of examples than a real list. But it introduces you to the game's taste for oddities, including a cult who venerates a porn actress who ascended, or a secret society which uses burger fast food to spread magic to the people.
Chapter 3 - game mechanics - is short and simple. Percentile based, a couple of funny options, but nothing which would scare any gamer, old or new. Clearly the idea here is not to get bogged down in numbers.
Chapter 4 - character creation - confirms that impression. Some will be shocked to find no skill list (you make your own) and only four attributes. The game is really free form, but a lot of attention is paid to the character's motivation and personality. Two examples are included, one of a physical character, the other of a more magicky type.
Chapter 5 - combat - is quick and easy. Once again, the idea here is to get things moving fast and fun. I like the original idea of letting the GM handle wound points - you only get an in contest impression of how wounded your character is, so it leads to more carefulness.
Chapter 6 - madness - is more interesting. There are 5 stimuli for madness (Violence, the Unnatural, Self, Helplessness and Isolation) which can become "hardened" or "failed". Go too far one way and your characters grows callous, go too far the other way and you end up developing insanity. It's nuanced, simple and keeps things interesting. I also appreciated the choice from the authors to leave schizophrenia and split personalities out of the picture - too often parodied and ill understood as they are.
Chapter 7 - magick - is where it becomes serious. Basically, if there is a human activity people obsess enough about, and it contains some inbuilt paradox, it might be enough to cast spells. From pornomancy (you read well) to chaos magic, seven schools are offered. It's interesting to see how gathering the energy to cast spells - "charges" - is more difficult than just casting them. The option of improvising spells might get players and GM to argue over the details, but other than that the system works really well and fleshes out the setting a bit more. There are also rituals, which everybody can cast but includes the weirdest of ingredients and practices.
Chapter 8 - playing the game - is a collection of general advice on how to play your character. Nothing ground breaking here, apart from a warning on the dangers of non-magickal population.
Chapter 9 - Campaign creation and chapter 10 - running the game are solid, and could be used for a number of other games. Of particular note is the idea of linking your campaign's theme (violence, revelation etc)to visual cues (dogs, mists...) which I might use in other games as well.
Chapter 11 - the Unnatural - offers a gallery of creatures and entities, a lot of which are classic monsters through a different lens. A lot of the horror takes a human face here.
Chapter 12 - the Unexplained - reviews a couple of urban legends and paranormal phenomenon. I was surprised to find almost all of them explained by really mundane causes - slightly jarring in a game where there are occult forces, but I suppose they can be red herrings.
Chapter 13 - Archetypes and Avatars - explains a bit more about the Invisible Clergy. Humans can ascend by embodying an archetype of mankind, like the Mother, the Savage or the Serial Killer. And if your character emulates one of these already existing archetypes, he gains a few abilities through resonance. Only a few examples are given, and the rules for godhands - with a 100% resonance - are left out, but it's enough to fire the imagination.
Chapter 14 - artifacts - gives a few examples of magical items, from the minor to the more significant. Once again, the list is short but original.
Appenix A - characters - gives stats and information on a gallery of NPCs, and also includes 4 sample PCs, which are all regular people with an interest in the occult. The write-ups here are good and complemented by a few generic characters like cops, thugs and the like.
Appendix B, finally, is a short story which I was pleased to discover shows the game potential. Without spoiling too much, I can say the characters are allowed to fix a breach in the world's logic, and could make it worse if it goes wrong.
Overall, while I wish I had got more details, Unknown Armies did a very good job of conveying the feeling: a world of oddities, of human madness and horror, and of hidden symbolic and worlds. if you're searching for a serious, original take on modern magic gaming (without the necessity of tentacles monsters - hint hint), you might really enjoy it.