Everyone knows there’s something that’s just wrong in this world…
Sometimes, weird things just happen. You’ll find yourself walking home one night and suddenly, it’s raining frogs. There’s this guy on the corner who yells crazy shit while you’re on your lunch break, but every so often something comes true just the way he said it would. You’ve heard there’s a drug you can take that will let you correct your memories. Or that there’s a demon that waits inside that vacant storefront that will be more than happy to tell you one true thing if you have the right words for it.
But it’s crazy, right? There’s no demons. There’s no magic. Al Gore didn’t win the 2000 election; why would you have ever thought that? There couldn’t possibly be anything like that going on.
If you’re playing Unknown Armies though…. hold onto your hat.
Because crazy just got real.
Everything you know is wrong. Scientists say they have the answers. Historians say they have the true histories on file. Sociologists tell us how people are wired to behaved. Economists tell us the market is ruled by the masses. But it’s not the case. Some scientists are fudging the dice with physics. Secret Historians know how the world really got formed. Sociologists haven’t even got the slightest clue what makes us tick. And economists do have an invisible hand – it just ain’t metaphorical. It’s an actual invisible hand that requires grisly sacrifice by occult mathematicians to keep our immense economy moving.
There are people in the world who’ve peeked behind the curtain to play dice with gods; obsessive types who never seem to know when enough is enough. These people have found magic laying out in plain sight for anyone just crazy enough to pick it up. Some have learned enough about an Invisible Clergy filled with Jungian Archetypes that guides the cosmos; they emulate them to gain their favor and are bestowed power. Adepts have picked up on secrets living deep within their own obsessions that let them rewrite the rules of reality in very specific ways. Rituals can be cast by anyone who’s savvy enough to find a real one and is also willing to go through with their instructions. There are magic pennies waiting to be picked up. And if you’re really desperate, Gutter Magick can make curious things happen with enough symbolic material and a little charge. You’re one of any of those people above in Unknown Armies.
Of course, you’re not alone. There’s all of those other people too. Crazy, like you. People who can also do these things. And those people have enemies. Maybe you’re one. Or maybe they can help you on the road to wherever it is you think you’re going while they’re going to wherever they need to be. Because it helps to have friends – even temporary ones. Or dangerous ones. Because other practitioners aren’t the only ones out there ready to screw you. You have the Clergy. You have astral things that can suck your brain out of your skull without leaving a mark. And then there’s the oldest of the old, the demons. Yes, honest to hell demons. And they all have friends. And agendas. They want so very, very badly to make sure people like you aren’t about to muck things up for them. They’re building their forces, marshalling their occult armies. Some want to ascend to the Invisible Clergy so that when the upper limit of its number is reached – rumored to be 333 seats – they will ascend and take part in the reshaping of reality… right after they blow up this one.
So bone up, Charger. Get your voodoo tools in order. Grab a few friends and a couple of percentile dice. You’re gonna need ’em.
Unknown Armies Third Edition leans heavily toward Metagame principles. Players have a fair array of tools and tricks to tip the system into cooperating with them.
The die system is one that many RPG fans should be familiar with: The Percentile System. Whatever applicable Identity or Skill you’re rolling with is ranked at 1 to 100, with higher being better. To make a successful roll, roll equal to or under the target number based on Skill or Identity. Simple.
Now, I know that sounds pretty simulationist – so many really crunchy, high-stakes games use percentile rolls. This is pretty different and operates on a couple caveats. Critical success and failure are obvious – great success comes from rolling a 01 and catastrophic failure comes from a 00. But you can also get matched success or failures – when you roll doubles you get a standard result, plus or minus a good or bad feature depending on if you succeeded or failed with the roll. Also, if you’re rolling under specific circumstances, you can flip-flop the tens and ones places on a roll if it will make a roll succeed. Likewise, you can make a successful roll even better using flip-flops too. For instance:
Let’s say your character grew up rough, and as a result her passion is to protect children. So, when you see that evil cult leader driving his deathmobile a down a road with the full on intention of running down a little girl in a school crosswalk to get a magical recharge, you spring out onto the road to push her out of harm’s way. Your fitness is 65. You roll a 75, a failure. You really don’t want to see the kid run over, so you flip-flop the numbers since it ties into your passion: that 75 becomes a 57. She’s saved!
On the other hand, let’s say you rolled a 10. It’s still a success, but using your passion, you flip-flop it into an 01. Critical! Not only do you save her, but maybe you get a free action with a +20 chance to put a bullet in that scumbag’s tire.
Stress Checks and Stress Gauges are arguable the core system of the game. Mental wellbeing really plays a role in how your stats grow and change during gameplay. You can opt to start at a varying degree of mental wellbeing to get the basic skills you want along the five Stress Gauges, but once play starts, anything goes – and does. When you make a stress check you determine how it affects you based on one of the five gauges: Self, Unnatural, Violence, Isolation, and Helplessness; each of which has a ten-point sliding value on the character sheet.
Here’s a Stress Check example:
Your character comes across a gibbering thing emerging from a shadowy alley. It has chainsaws for hands and a mouth full of blood. This scores big on the unnatural scale. A check on the gauge on your character sheet shows that you defend your psyche’s Unnatural gauge with Knowledge, so you’d roll your Knowledge to defend.
If you succeed the stress check against Edward Chainsawhands, you get to take a hardened notch at the right end of the Unnatural gauge and move forward. This means that your upper ceiling for noticing things goes down, but you get better at hiding things and remaining unnoticed – because it will be best in the future to avoid this kind of monster. If you fail, you lose it in one of a few ways and gain an insanity notch.
See the subtlety there? No basic skill remains static after enough successful stress checks. With hardened notches comes a rising of the more… negative skill sets and potential Burnout. And with failed checks come Insanity. It’s a lose-lose situation bucking up against your mental limits – the further you dig into the occult underground, the more your ever maddening mind will change your nature over time. This is balanced a little by the fact that once you harden up enough you get harder to rattle, but the stakes are still pretty high.
Beyond the stress check system are Identities which give you a broader set of more specialized skills. If you want to play a doctor who is also a magician – Boom – buy up to whatever level you’re comfortable with in those two identities from a pool of available Identity points.
If you have a medical situation come up – say, a friend of yours took a close swipe from the chainsaw thing in the example above – you just roll your Identity: Doctor score to patch him up after the fight (because of course I can perform field medicine, I’m a doctor!). Let’s say you want a chance to cast a hex on whatever that thing was to keep it away from you in the future using magic. Boom, roll your Identity: Adept score, because of course you’re a spell casting magician.
If you don’t have an identity that applies to a given situation, you can always default to one of the basic skills at an extreme penalty (i.e someone with Identity: Bowler would not apply to patching up wounds, so they’d default to Knowledge and hope for a really low roll). Likewise, if you have an identity that applies better than a basic skill would, you can ask the GM if it applies. If it does, ‘grats, you can use that higher Identity score in place of something else. So, if you have the Thief identity, you can use it in place of Secrecy for picking a lock. Best part: there’s no codex of identities. You make ’em up and the GM approves ’em or denies them. Boom, done.
The magic system though is what makes the game stand out. If your character wants to be in the know and able to do something about chainsaw grafted monsters, they’ll need to be one of two types of magicians.
Avatars are people who have discovered a shadowy group of nigh-unto gods called The Invisible Clergy. Each of these beings, called Archetypes, bless people who emulate them with various powers. The more you walk the walk, the better these abilities become.
Then there are Adepts, people who have decided that the rest of the world is wrong and they are right about their core beliefs – all magick is based on paradox. They twist this inner paradox until they have a repertoire of honest to archetype Spells.
Both of these types of magicians can also gain access to Rituals and Artifacts which convey magical powers. These can do a lot of things both great and small, and allow them to play in the same circles as all sorts of unsavory people, entities, and demons. If they deign to, they can also work Gutter Magick, which lets a sympathetic bond between two targets bruise reality via various buffs and debuffs.
The book gives you some jumping off points for magic. There’s a couple schools of magic (Viaturgy, Agrimancy, Cameramancy, Vestomancy to name a few). Each one has a core tenet and a number of Taboos to adhere to. For instance, Viaturgy is the magic of roads and cars. Spells can help you pimp your ride through magic, open roads that were not available to anyone else, or to force red lights and complications on people pursuing your vehicle. Of course this means you have to drive a certain amount of time every day, not sleep in the same place too often, or refuse an innocent hitchhiker – breaking those Taboos makes you lose your mojo.
And mojo is a very big deal in Unknown Armies. Magic demands dedication, obsession, and sacrifice to get what are called Charges. They come in minor, significant, and major varieties, with each kind demanding more of the practitioner. They power everything from the lowest gutter magic to the most arcane of rituals.
One of the shining features of magick in Unknown Armies is that it gives you instructions on how to roll your own magic systems as well. There’s a detailed explanation on making spells and how to wing gutter magic in the Adept section of the book that is fairly simple to follow.
But Should I Try It?
Personally, I’d recommend this game to groups who don’t want something too rule heavy and want to tell deep, rather messed up stories. I’ve always been drawn to the property in the past, but previous editions had systems that just didn’t quite pass muster to propose it to my players.
I would note two things though:
First: this book won’t give you everything you need to play. That’s a vital thing to know. There’s two other books: Run and Reveal. You won’t need Reveal if you’re really creative and think fast on your feet, but you’ll definitely need Run. That book has some of the crunchier systems and the collaborative building tools to create a setting that is going to work for everyone around the table.
The last thing was that the Avatar section feels underdone. While it operates on a growing power scale (advancement happens in 5 stages), it seems like sometimes the ‘powers’ are just things you’d expect a good ‘mundane’ character to do. It’s missing something, but I’m not sure how to fix it. It can kind of be made up for by the fact they can use Gutter Magick and Rituals, but some Avatar’s Archetype powers just feel too ordinary.
But, overall it’s well written, the system is intriguing, and the mythos of the game world is really inventive. Give it a shot for a halloween game if nothing else, and get crazy with your magic.
Final Verdict: 4/5
MSRP: $14.95 (Digital), $39.95 (Print)
Requires ‘Unknown Armies’ – Run to play