Candles and a spellbook from Unknown Armies

I love to review new entries to the roleplaying genre, but sometimes we must look to the old classics as well. This week, I’m compromising. Unknown Armies has been with us since the late 90s,* but its third edition came out in 2016, so there’s still plenty of fresh material. Despite the game’s venerable status, I’m a relative newcomer to UA. My only previous experience with it was the excellent oneshot Jailbreak. Based on that scenario and what I hear through the grapevine, I know Unknown Armies is a horror game, but that’s it. Let’s see how the game fares under a fresh set of critical lenses.

The Writing Is Condescending and Pretentious

The first problem you run into with Unknown Armies is the writing. It’s not poorly edited like FAITH was, nor is it simply bad. The author clearly has a strong grasp of language and can use words evocatively when they want to. They’re also incredibly annoying.

More specifically, Unknown Armies is a game that’s convinced of its own importance, and it tells you so over and over again. There are numerous snarky asides about other games, the people who play other games, and even the people who might want to play this game in a way not intended. My personal favorite is from the fulminaturgy* section, where there’s a scornful callout about those players who expect to use their guns for shooting:


This popped up loudly in playtesting, where a player wanted to be a badass magickal trigger man and shoot all the bad guys. Or somebody. He was sorely disappointed that this was not encouraged.

Look, if you want to be the awe-inspiring John Woo-ish gunslinger, you don’t need a school of magick. […] magick in Unknown Armies is about people who go against expectations. They see things in a way that is violently different from ordinary folks, and need that opposition to fuel their will.

Here’s a fun game-design tip, free of charge: if something in your game is giving players false expectations, that’s often a sign you need to make changes. Alternatively, you could mock your playtester and then put them on blast in the final publication, I guess. Either way works.

Extremes like that quote aside, the writing has an arrogant pretension that runs through all of the books.* Instead of trying to sell you on what Unknown Armies does, the author often mocks what other games do as gauche and pedestrian. This is not endearing; it builds resentment toward UA. It’s also common for UA to have a long paragraph that makes no sense and then a follow-up where the author deigns to simplify things for us plebs who can’t keep up. Maybe go with the understandable version first?

These effects are magnified by the book’s casual writing style and the author’s use of first person. All these “I” statements make it feel like the lead designer is in the room lecturing you on your unsophisticated game choices.

Of course, this is all flavor, and it doesn’t have to affect the actual game if you don’t want it to. It’s possible to ignore the condescension and plunge ahead, but it still won’t put you in a great place to view the game with an open mind.

The Setting Is More Bizarre Than Horrific

It’s hard to pin down what type of horror Unknown Armies is trying to present, and the books aren’t eager to help you. The author once uses the phrase “humanist mystic horror,” but never explains what that means or uses it again, as far as I can tell. Other than that one section, the book is simply vague.

But the author is dead, so what does the setting material say about UA’s horror subgenre? Mostly that it does not have one. Unknown Armies does not read like a horror game. It is so un-horrific that when when I got to a section where the book asked me, “You know this is a horror game, right?” I was forced to answer, “No.”

Instead, we have a bizarre setting where magic* either comes from godlike beings who manifest the collective unconscious or from individual obsession. The former are called avatars, and they follow a standard belief = power format found in stories like American Gods and The Sandman. The latter are called adepts, and they make things really weird.

Adepts get magic by being obsessed with things. Fulminaturgists get magic from being obsessed with guns. Cryptomancers get magic from being obsessed with secrets. Detritomancers get magic from being obsessed with garbage. Pretty much any obsession can generate magic. And yes, before you ask, there are pornomancers. There’s an entire organization of them! Some of these magic types are gross or off-putting, but none of them feel horrific.

Within each school of magic, adepts must perform various tasks to gain magical charges. These tasks are usually some level of antisocial behavior, from photographing a person during a moment of stress to breaking into the landfill at night. Again, this is unpleasant, but not horrific. Even the more extreme options, like having to murder an officer of the law, feel more icky than horrific. None of them inspire fear, existential or otherwise.

Once you get past all the bizarre magic, UA does have more traditional horror in the form of demons and their terrible antics, but it’s too little too late. A few scary demons just aren’t enough to keep up a horrific atmosphere, especially when the PCs are encouraged to roll up ridiculous spellslingers. On the bright side, I think I’ve finally figured out what type of horror Unknown Armies is: awkwardness horror.

Information Is Poorly Organized

Like a lot of older games, Unknown Armies splits its core rules into two books, Book One: Play and Book Two: Run. While this dichotomy is looking more and more outdated in modern RPG design, we can forgive it in legacy systems. Naturally, Play has all the rules you need to play the game, and Run has the special stuff reserved only for the GM. Or that’s what you would expect, anyway.

In reality, vital rules are scattered across both books. The most glaring example is character creation. Play has the the lists of character abilities and what they do, but only Run tells you how to actually make a character. Run also has the examples of what different ability choices might look like on a character, but only Play says what those abilities do. So you have to flip back and forth between books while you’re still learning the system. That’s exactly as annoying as it sounds.

Character creation isn’t the only place where UA is a little confused about what players need to know and what GMs need to know. Book Two has a lot of what you’d expect a GM’s guide to have, like setting info and rules for generating bad guys, but it also has the objective mechanics. Objectives are what PCs work toward through their roleplaying: long-term goals like “open a portal to Arcadia” or “Find the person who killed my family.” Understanding how they work is very important, and it’s the sort of thing players will probably want to know.

The organization gets even weirder when you get to some of the supplementary books. They all have tables of contents to make you scratch your head, but Book Three: Reveal is easily the worst. It has a bunch of random setting elements arranged in alphabetical order, rather than by category, so it’s almost impossible to find anything. The book even claims to have additional schools of magic, but when you go to those sections, you only find a paragraph or two of description and no mechanics at all. Not only is that not what UA teaches us to expect, but it’s also completely useless.

Character Creation Is Fun, if Disorganized

Unknown Armies gets a lot better once you’re past its weird setting information and into the mechanics. I’ve already mentioned how character creation has the problem of needing to flip between two books, but otherwise it’s quite good.

While collaborative character creation is a good idea in any system, Unknown Armies requires it. Everyone makes their characters in stages, figuring out what kind of supernatural experiences their characters have had, what their abilities are, and how the characters know each other. At the same time, players add story elements to a “cork board,” which can be an actual board but is probably just a piece of paper or drawing program on the GM’s laptop.

These elements can be NPCs, locations, objects of power, or anything else the players think is cool. They help the GM build a setting that everyone is interested in, rather than doing a lot of work in private and hoping the group likes it. At the same time, this act of communal worldbuilding gets players invested in the setting before they’ve rolled a single die, because they helped build it.

The main problem with UA’s character creation is that it sometimes asks players to make big decisions without any context. Step one of character creation has the players decide on their group’s main objective and their characters’ big obsessions, but it’s really hard to make that kind of choice when players know nothing about their characters. Ironically, things work just fine if you move those questions to the end and start with something easier, like how much the characters know about the supernatural.

Another issue is that sometimes the important numbers are buried in so much flavor text that finding them is difficult. GMs can solve this issue by reading the rules carefully and extracting the important sections, but it’s a headache. Even so, UA’s character creation is undoubtedly a positive experience. It gets a stamp of approval.

The Core Dice Mechanic Innovates on a Flawed Classic

Unknown Armies uses the well-worn percentile system you might recognize from Call of Cthulhu and Delta Green.* I’ve written about the percentile system before, and all its normal problems are on display. It still punishes low-ability ranks because most GMs forget to give bonuses for easy tasks, and it still creates a strong dissonance because the success/failure rate of the dice doesn’t match how difficult tasks are described to be in the fiction.

That said, UA does a few interesting things with its percentile system. The first is UA’s liberal use of “flip-flops.” A flip-flop means switching the tens and ones column on a percentile die, so a 41 could become a 14. Players can do this under numerous circumstances, particularly when a task is relevant to one of their character’s emotional traits or when they have some kind of magical advantage. Flip-flops take some of the sting out the percentile system’s punishing failures, which is nice. On the other hand, if a player is clever, they can get so many flip-flops that they almost never fail a role.

UA’s combat system is so basic it almost doesn’t exist, which is fine. This is supposed to be a horror game, so it doesn’t need complex rules for initiative and attacks per round. That said, the game does have an interesting extended conflict-resolution system: the gridiron.

The gridiron is basically a tug-of-war. Both sides take turns rolling, and a success advances the agenda of whoever rolled it. If they’re arguing a court case, they might have just gotten an important piece of evidence admitted or thrown out a biased member of the jury.* Sometimes the gridiron goes until one side achieves total victory, but it’s more fun to end things after a set number of rounds and create a compromise based on the result. In the court-case scenario, if the defense has three successes and the prosecutor has two, then they compromise: The defendant is let off for the murder charge, but has to pay a fine for illegal possession of a firearm.*

Finally, UA uses the percentile system for group objectives. These are set during character creation, and PCs work toward completing them over several sessions. Objectives are rated using a percentile, so it’s easy to see how close they are to completion. An objective at 66% is 66% finished. When the PCs do something to further their objective, they add a few percentage points to their total. These simple rules make it easy to keep the players focused on their goal and make sure everyone is on the same page for how close that goal is to being finished.

The Stress Rules Are Excellent

The core of UA’s horror rules are its stress meters. These replace the Sanity rules from Call of Cthulhu, and they’re much better. Each character has five stress meters: Helplessness, Isolation, Self, Unnatural, and Violence. These represent the broad categories of stress and trauma characters can encounter, and they work well. At first, I worried that the first three would be hard to tell apart, but it’s fairly easy in play: Helplessness is when the character suffers from other people’s actions, Isolation is when the character suffers from being alone, and Self represents personal failings.

Whenever a PC encounters a stressful situation, they test the relevant meter. A failure means the character is seriously messed up by the experience, while a success means they’ve become hardened to it, and similar situations are unlikely to bother them in the future. Of course, having too many hardened notches on a meter comes with its own problems. PCs who are extremely hardened to Violence may not properly appreciate danger, while PCs with too many Isolation notches forget how to interact with other people.

This system feels much more organic and concrete than the more abstract Sanity points from CoC. Players can tell at a glance what kind of experiences their characters have gone through, based on the notches they have in each meter. It’s also just a really badass feeling when the GM calls for a stress roll, but the character doesn’t have to make it because they have so many hardened notches in that meter. “What’s that? Demon faces are emerging from the wall? I’ve seen worse.”

You may have noticed that the stress meters are a lot less ableist than Sanity points. Beyond banishing the term “sanity” as a game mechanic, UA makes several attempts to be more progressive than its predecessors. The long-term conditions characters receive from failed stress tests are clearly the result of trauma, not just the assignment of random mental-health issues. There’s even a callout about why conditions like dissociative identity disorder aren’t included and why GMs shouldn’t use the horror mechanics as a way to make players relive real-world trauma. Of course, the long-term conditions are also called “Ongoing Madness,” so there’s still some work to be done.

Other than that slip up, my only complaint about the stress meters is that failing even a single stress check sends a PC into an extreme fight or flight response, essentially taking control away from the player. While it makes sense for this to happen eventually, losing control after just one failed roll is a bit much. This can lead to silliness like a PC running away in terror after their friend throws a single punch.

Character Abilities Are Weird and Abusable

Character abilities in UA are strange, unlike almost anything I’ve ever seen in RPGs. Characters have ten core abilities, one on each end of the five stress meters. The number of hardened notches on a meter determine how high each ability is. For example, a character with zero hardened notches in Unnatural has 60% in Notice and 20% in Secrecy. If that character gains one hardened notch, they now have 55% Notice and 25% Secrecy. If they go all the way and max out their meter with nine hardened notches, they’ll have 20% Notice and 60% Secrecy.

The core abilities work this way so that a character’s hardened notches will have a mechanical effect, not just a flavor one. That makes sense, but the resulting math is more than a little wonky. The percentile system’s static difficulty strongly incentivizes players to either have no hardened notches or max out their hardened notches, because having just a few notches means the character has two abilities in the 30s or 40s, which means they’ll still fail most of the time, unless they abuse the flip-flop mechanics, which is a different problem.

Tying character ability to hardened notches also means that a character’s abilities can change without the player wanting them to. This is a jarring experience, especially for newer groups, and it can make a PC less fun to play because they no longer do what they were built to do.

Things get even weirder when identities enter the picture. Identities are extremely broad skills like Police Officer or Supermodel. They have their own percentile system, and each one can substitute for a core ability. This incentivizes even more min-maxing, as math-savvy players realize they can get 60% in as many abilities as possible and then use their identities to cover the places where they have 20%. This math isn’t intuitive, and it leaves more casual players at a serious disadvantage.

Finally, identities are abusable in themselves. Beyond substituting for a core ability, identities have enormous, poorly defined utility. The Acrobat identity might seem fairly straightforward, but what situations can something like Brilliant be used in? A player could plausibly argue that being brilliant would help them out of almost any situation. The book recognizes this problem, but its only advice is to not let players abuse their identities, which is about as helpful as a swimming manual when you’re drowning.

The Magic Is Surprisingly Fun

Earlier, I dinged UA’s magic for not conforming to the game’s horror aesthetic, and I stand by that. However, once you get past the flavor, the actual mechanics of magic are quite fun. This is a repeating theme for UA.

The first thing you notice about UA’s magic system is that each school of magic is mechanically unique, even though they operate on the same base mechanics. A vestimancer is distinct from an urbanomancer, and both can easily be separated from an agrimancer. While some of their spells have similar effects, they each have a unique twist. The vestimancer’s attack spell requires the target to put on a cursed garment, while a cameraturge must first take a photo of the target and then ritualistically burn it.

Because each school of magic has distinct mechanics, they don’t blend together over time. Players remember the fictional flavor of their magic because it is enforced by rules. This is in contrast to games like Mage, where the different magical traditions are separated only by flavor.

The spells in UA are also well calibrated for roleplaying. They’re all useful, but they’re also very specific. That encourages players to come up with creative uses for them, rather than applying more general spells as a cure-all for their problems. Plus, some of the spells are just really cool. My personal favorite is the vestimancy spell Dress the Part, which allows an adept to transform into a different person, complete with memories and all, if they have three articles of that person’s clothing. That makes for some fun roleplaying material.

Unknown Armies also has fairly robust rules for making your own schools of magic. This is especially useful for veteran GMs who want something new or GMs who want to escape UA magic’s silly atmosphere and make something more serious.

The only fly in the magic ointment is gutter magic, a kind of sorcery anyone can attempt. It’s supposed to be less powerful than adept magic, but it isn’t. In fact, it has the most efficient damage-dealing spell in the game.* While adept spells cost magical charges that are hard to get, gutter magic is free. This makes magic far less interesting, as players realize they can abandon their unique, costly magic schools in favor of a cheap universal option.

The Game Works if You Make It Your Own

Unknown Armies is not an easy game to like. Its obnoxious, judgmental writing style is more off-putting than any other game I’ve read. And yet, as I ran the review oneshot, I found myself liking the game more and more. It served as an excellent delivery system for my horror scenario, and the players had a lot of fun too.

Granted, I had to bring most of the horror myself. As previously stated, UA does a terrible job creating an atmosphere of horror because it’s too busy sneering at everything. In order to create a fearful mood, I bent and twisted the setting until it was barely recognizable, and yet the mechanics still did what I needed them to do.

It’s also worth noting that a lot of UA’s problems will likely become more pronounced over a longer campaign. In a oneshot, it’s not so bad to play a character whose shock meters make them subpar at everything, but that character would become demoralizing after a few sessions. The spell selections are also fairly limited, so the excitement my group had with them might not last.

Even so, if you want a horror or otherwise gritty game in a modern setting, you could do a lot worse. Unknown Armies will do what you need it to do if you can hold your nose and deal with the author’s bad attitude.

Treat your friends to an evening of ritual murder – in a fictional RPG scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and escape a supernatural menace in our one-shot adventure, The Voyage.

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