Saturday, October 1, 2011

Review: Unknown Armies

You did it.

Unknown Armies is my favorite game.  I may have mentioned this before?

I've heard it described as Quentin Tarantino's Call of Cthulhu.  The revised edition has the subtitle, "A roleplaying game of power and consequences."  The original edition has the subtitle, "A roleplaying game of transcendental horror and furious action."

That's fairly accurate.

Unknown Armies takes the basic premise of Call of Cthulhu and inverts it: rather than the horror arising from the fact that humanity is basically impotent and powerless in a cruel and uncaring universe, the horror arises from the fact that humanity has ultimate power (and ultimate responsibility).  You did it.

This isn't obvious at first, of course.  A typical starting character has had an odd experience or two, and now seeks the secrets of the occult underground.  The more one explores the occult underground, the more one learns about the secrets of the world, and the more your ultimate responsibility makes sense.

Before you hit the high-concept premise, though, you find the weirdness of the setting.  Postmodern magic is the rule; there's a ritual that requires you to wrap yourself in VHS magnetic tape as a ritual component.  A thousand little conspiracies vie for power — the more attention-grabbing ones are a cult of pornographers and a group hidden within the corporation of an iconic American brand.  Having access to magic gives you power, but also tends to limit you in ways that make being mundane a perfectly viable option (as the game says, using a gun is easier than using magic, and scrying isn't nearly as useful as satellites and cell phones).

I'm not inclined to say much — like many occult/conspiracy games, the game benefits heavily from secrecy — but I highly recommend it for the setting alone.  It starts out modern and familiar, but quickly gets weirder the deeper you go.

As for the system, it is fast and elegant.  Like Call of Cthulhu, it's a d100 system, but it skews lower than most.  The average stat (Body, Speed, Mind, or Soul) runs at 50%, but the average skill is considered professional around 30%.  However, that 30% assumes you are in a life-threatening situation — a General Education of 30% only makes you roll a 30 or less on a d100 if you are, say, completing a math test with a gun to your head.  So, rather than taking penalties when the going gets rough, you tend to get bonuses when things are less tense.  As one would suspect, this helps speed the game along.

Skills are also freeform.  Rather than choosing from a skill list (though they do have examples), you can invent your own skills.  The GM applies common sense as to whether a skill applies, so even a narrow skill should still be useful (for example, 17th Century French Art might also cover your General Education skill, so that you know the basic things everyone should know, but you just happen to be most knowledgeable about your particular specialty).  I've heard complaints about that system, but I actually like it because I tend to worry less about where to put my points — my character is still appropriately well-rounded if I have too few, and I can always think of more descriptive qualities if I have too many points.

There are a few other peculiarities of the system.  Combat is fast (that one d100 roll tells whether or not you hit, and how much damage you do) and frequently deadly (for example, a critical hit instantly kills or incapacitates the opponent); I've run a couple of one shots, and combat usually lasted two rounds, ending with an unconsciousness or a death.  For that matter, the combat chapter opens with six ways to avoid a fight (which I thought was a brilliant touch).  People who are not combat veterans take sanity checks just for being attacked, so it's entirely possible to end a combat by shooting at someone (in a one shot, a brainwashed terrorist who had never actually been in a violent situation surrendered when a character fired at him, missed, and killed someone else; he was so shaken that he ran and hid).  Also, though this can be done in any system, Unknown Armies rules state that the GM should track all hit points, only describing character conditions in terms of actual injuries and impressions (you have a bullet wound in your right shoulder and you think your left leg is broken; you feel a little light-headed and the edges of your vision pulse red).  This uncertainty helps keep characters from being totally cavalier about combat, as they never know how close they are to dying.

As for the sanity system, the downward slide of Call of Cthulhu is, instead, a delicate balancing act in Unknown Armies.  If you're in the middle, you're vulnerable to shocks, but you're otherwise okay.  If you're at one end, you're a pile of quirks and mental illnesses.  If you're at the other end, you're highly-resistant to further mental shocks, but you're a sociopath, incapable of basic human empathy.

As for magic, that's one of the secrets of the setting, but as previously noted, magic comes with its own drawbacks, typically constricting the magician's behavior.  As such, normal mortals have an edge in the setting because they can still relate to their fellow humans without risking their magic (and as noted, modern technology is frequently more reliable than magic effects, anyway).

If you like modern occult conspiracy settings, I highly recommend this one.  If I ever have the time to run on Constantcon, I was contemplating Unknown Armies because it's so fast.  Though I should really just awaken early one morning for the Caves of Myrddin, because they sound awesome.  I mean, the caves descend into the upper levels of Hell, how could they not be awesome?

Edit (5-9-2016): If you liked this review, check out my review of Unknown Armies, third edition, or my actual play report for UA3.


  1. That sounds like my kind of thing, for the setting and approach to combat most of all. Good stuff, and thanks for the review. You're covering a lot of ground here.

  2. Thanks!

    A lot of the older supplements are out of print, but the revised core rulebook is still readily available. (There's even a copy at my Friendly Local Gaming Store.) Highly recommended if it sounds as though it would interest you.

  3. Atlas Games had copies of every supplement at Gen Con. You should be able to get any supplement you want by contacting them.

  4. Also, I obtained the out-of-print supplements pretty handily from eBay and Noble Knight. But if you can get them direct from the company, I'd say that you should go for it (they would probably be cheaper, anyway).


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