So you want to play Unknown Armies…
A while back, we reviewed the first of three books for running Unknown Armies, a roleplaying game from Atlas Games. It’s focus is on a bizarre, modern-day take on magic. Given how interesting the first book was, I couldn’t help but tear through the next one. One of the big reasons for this is because the first book isn’t enough to play the game in total – you need your Game Master to read this book if you want to take on godwalkers, pornomancers, or other unsavory things from the astral realms.
So, what’s inside? Well, let’s take a look…
You might expect book dedicated to the Game Master to have a very low amount of fluff. By traditional standards that should be the case. Dungeons and Dragons set the tone for decades with their tomes of charts and codices that you’ll need to generate adventures, to award appropriate treasure, and how to manage campaigns within a relatively rigid approach.
Unknown Armies diverges from this quite a bit.
I’d say about two-thirds of the book is surprisingly fluffy, eschewing much of its mechanical aspect. Instead they start out Chapter One with some practical advice for how to run a game that won’t fall flat or turn into an uninspired rail shooter campaign. Chapters Two, and Three really deal with getting someone running the game from zero to sixty, focusing on setting objectives and linking up characters respectively. For an old hand at gaming, a lot of this is just casual reminder stuff for about forty pages (how to run a mystery as a theme not just a puzzle, how to set objectives, tips on how effective storytelling works), but for an aspiring (and likely intimidated) new game master, it holds a lot of good information as well as a small amount of crunch (we’ll get back to this in a second).
The really cool fluff though is in Chapters Five through Seven, which showcases many elements unique to the setting, particularly the the other team(s), inhumanity, and weird locations.
Chapter Five is where the real action is. There’s a little over fifty pages of background information on multiple secret societies, featuring groups that are relatively benign (such as Mak Attax – a fast food centered group serving ‘special orders’ with a dream of spreading magic to the masses) to the outright monstrous (such as the Ordo Corpulentis – a gang of oligarchic cannibals who use magic to fuel their dream of making America great again).
Chapter Six is a somewhat anemic catalog of monsters in comparison to what they introduce in the third book (review pending). They detail a couple of creatures such as Demons and Fiends, then break these unnatural entities down into their subcategories. It looks like they chose to really focus these specific creatures as they have a large amount of sway in an Unknown Armies game. They can be used as stock bad guys or as a quick path to power for the sociopathically insane.
In Chapter Seven, they deal with bizarre locations. Otherspaces are essentially bubble or pocket dimensions in which magic is usually amplified – and pretty dangerous to boot if an adept can’t quite hack its rules. Sometimes characters can stumble upon them (harder than it sounds), or other times they can try to invent their own little pockets of weird to their own advantage. The book also gives you some insight on one of the big bads of the Unknown Armies setting: the haunting and transformative House of Renunciation. It’s rumored that those with extreme will and accurate information can enter this bizarre location to change their own lives, histories, and even destinies, on a cosmic scale. No matter what happens at the House, once you go in, you don’t come out the same.
As noted earlier, I expected a lot more crunch for a game master guide. Chapter One offers nothing by way of rigid systems as noted earlier (personally, I take this as a boon). Chapter Two however starts to lay out some basics in the form of how to not only set a mechanical process for birthing party objectives, but also how to advance those objectives through a percentile advancement structure. Basically, whenever you accomplish a benchmark toward a stated party or personal goal, you can get a certain amount of advancement depending on whether or not you did something local, weighty, or cosmic in either scale. For instance:
Your cabal has a goal to ‘Get an accurate lay of the land of Wilmington, Delaware’s occult underground.’ Depending on what your aspiring weirdos do, they could advance quickly or slowly. If they go on the hunt for weird phenomenon, this is likely a local goal accomplished by visiting the ghost of the Darth Vader statue in Bellvue, or locating a bar for practitioners, or hitting up a Starbucks known for it’s ‘special’ lattes. With small stuff like that, they’ll advance slowly. However, if they find the local VHS scryer and defeat her in a game of incomprehensible riddles, the secrets might come out faster. In the case of looking for general weirdness in the first examples, it’s likely they only get one to five percentile points. But taking down the riddle master could get anywhere from eleven to thirty points and a more sudden flash of insight.
Of course, if your Unknown Armies group isn’t a bunch of ponies (the game’s slang for muggles or weaksauce magicians) and they’re deep into the magical scene, they might not be able to do much by hunting down minor noisy spirits and places where it rains upside down. They want the really weird stuff, like access to that building on Orange Street that the New Inquisition uses to manipulate the financial system by making human sacrifices to a literal invisible hand.
Once the goal is at one hundred percent, things tip and you get what you wanted – just be careful what you’ve asked for. A lot of goals can have blowback effects. This is usually kept track of by the Game Master, who also tracks antagonist goals as well and can have an effect on thwarting your goals as well.
However, the crunch that matters to the party as a whole starts to gel in Chapters Three and Four, in which they define how to interlink player characters so everyone has a stake in one another’s fates. They recommend the tried and tested format of conspiracy theorists everywhere. They direct the group to get a bunch of weird pictures, representations of their alter egos, fortune cookies, receipts, strange news articles, and any other odd shit lying about, then to pin them up on a cork board and start linking them with red thread. Barring that, magnets and a whiteboard will do in a pinch, but lacks that good old tinfoil hat sensation that conspiracies feel like they should have (they do not recommend tinfoil hats – those just make you look stupid and do nothing to prevent a demon from knowing your innermost secrets). From this, you’ll get relations to not just each other’s characters, but to a setting and gallery of game master controlled characters that everyone collaborates on together to create.
Chapter Four is where you hit the old school style crunch as it goes through distinct phases of play. The weird thing is that it just feels like a recap of the first three chapters, which was a tad off putting. It repeats a few things, but layers a little more onto it so there are more defined guidelines for applying it. Again, it’s not a series of charts or rules, just suggestions for how things should hang in the framework of the larger campaign.
Of course, the remaining chapters covering antagonists and eerie locales have a lot of stats, special abilities, identities, and full characters for the GM to throw into the game. They range from the relatively benign to things that will rip your face off in a dark alley.
But Should I Buy It?
Well, this depends. If you’re the game master fro your group, you’re kind of in a bind. You’ll need this to go about doing some of the things that ‘Unknown Armies – Book One: Play’ only hints at (objectives, the role of demons in the setting, etc). Also, if you’re an old hand at making campaigns, about half of this book is… stuff you likely already knew. It’s surprisingly great for fluff, but if you want to make your own strange conspiracy groups and fringe magicians it’s not as needed for that either, per se.
Overall I felt this book was a bit of a mixed bag. It seems to be missing something I can’t put my finger on. ‘Book One: Play’ fleshes out most of the mechanics… so I’m not sure why they didn’t put what little, specific crunch remained into the first volume. It would have made for a great two-book setup with a single Player/Game Master guide and the ‘Reveal’ book (which we’ll talk about soon!).
Final Verdict: 3.5
MSRP: $14.95 (Digital), $34.95 (Print)
Requires ‘Unknown Armies’ – Play to play