Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Review: Unknown Armies, third edition (Gamma playtest)

Note: You've got about nine days left (as of this writing) in the Unknown Armies Kickstarter, so jump on it to get some weird, neat stuff.

Although I gave my initial thoughts about twenty days ago, I finally got through the whole thing and can actually report on it.  This, by the way, is the Gamma playtest available to all backers of the Kickstarter, so it might change before final publication.

It's good.  As I said before, I don't love it the way I loved second edition when I first discovered it about a decade ago, but it's solid.  (Then again, it's a tough act to follow one's favorite RPG.)  I like most of the story stuff, but I don't love the rules the way I did previously.

So, the rules: They're solid, but don't grab me the way the old ones did.  The old ones seemed fast and innovative (like Call of Cthulhu on speed), while the new ones look like someone remixed Unknown Armies, Fiasco, and Apocalypse World.  It's got the whole indie, new-wave game design all over it, which seems overly intrusive and trendy in some places, and a perfect fit in others.  (Likewise, some of the writing seems like an Unknown Armies pastiche rather than Stolze and Tynes' elegant and punchy prose.  Again, the dangers of coming back to something after a decade, and putting fans at the helm.  They know and love the material, but they're going to take it and run with it.)

No more minor, significant, and major checks — you just roll d100 against your ability, whatever it is.  Don't roll if it's not important.  No more governing stats, either; instead, you just have ten abilities that fluctuate with your Madness Meter (now called the Shock Gauge, which as much as I love the alliteration of the Madness Meter, is probably a more sensitive and accurate name).  The idea is that mentally healthy people have a set of skills they cultivate (like interpersonal interaction and holding down a steady job and noticing things in the environment), whereas traumatized people have a set of skills they cultivate (like fighting and lying and hiding).  If you don't want your skills to jump all over the place, you protect them with identities — the custom skills Unknown Armies is famous for.  So if you don't want your ability to Connect with people to fall as you suffer more mental shocks, come up with an identity like Smooth Talker or something that will always take the place of it.  Identities can level up (they get rid of XP and replace it with skill checks like in Call of Cthulhu and Continuum, which I always prefer to the World of Darkness-style arbitrary XP system), and can do more than just replace abilities; they can let you use firearms, let you cast rituals, protect a specific Shock Meter, whatever.  If you want to do something, you can probably come up with an identity to simulate it.  Obviously, they're broader than the old 2nd edition skill system, which means fewer (but higher) skills.  Good so far, although I still dig the more traditional skill setup of previous editions.  Then again, I wouldn't have changed a thing here, so I'm probably a bad judge.

You've got *World-style relationships now, and like relationships in the various *World games, they alter and enhance your ability to interact with those people.  (They're rated 1-100% just like regular abilities, and they can stand in for your abilities with those relationships.  You might be a broken individual with Connect 20%, but your boyfriend ranked at Favorite 70% always understands you.  Of course, your effective Struggle to hit him or Lying to deceive him is also 70%, too.  People are fucked.)  I like it, but it seems like some indie thing that was thrown in because statistics for relationships are the new hotness.

Objectives are a new thing I rather like, as they keep the PCs focused.  (I think my games could have benefited from it, as they tended to flounder.)  They're ranked from 0-100%, and whenever you complete some goal for your objective, you get ranks in it.  When you hit 100%, you succeed.  Of course, other factions can oppose your objective, robbing points from it, and you can always decide to abandon it in favor of some newer, shinier objective.  Also, you can risk it and try to complete your objective before it hits 100%, but then the dice come out, and uncertainty risks failure.

The last bit is character creation, which is probably the best change.  To overcome the inertia of "What do we do with this system?" the players all come with a portfolio of pictures, phrases, whatever they want.  They then build their characters and build their starting objective.  What do you want to do in the occult underground?  (Or not; one of the example objectives is running a mayoral campaign.)  You set it up deliberately like the String Theory trope: put everything on a big board and map out the relationships among them.  The PCs obviously don't know everything (that's where the GM comes in, of course), but they have a pretty good picture of the local situation and where to insert themselves into the structure.  This is brilliant, and really gets everyone invested in the game.  (At least, I hope so; I haven't playtested it yet.  Soon, I hope.)

So, the fluff: Apart from my complaints about the writing tone and some of the mechanics, I really enjoy pretty much everything else.  (Some of the monsters and stuff — I'm looking directly at you, Slender Man — are a little too pop culture, and the whole Human Eternal/Old Mother Apocalypse thing rankles me because the First and Last Man is supposed to literally be the only constant in the setting.  It's a rad concept, just for some other game.)  Some old avatar archetypes return, and the new ones are pretty cool (some examples include the Captain, the Firebrand, and the Star, as well as the Naked Goddess; I'm not sure how I feel about that last archetype's inclusion, as it removes some of the mystery, but then again, we all secretly wanted it).  The new adept schools are really exciting, though: gun-wizards who use guns as tools rather than weapons, farm-wizards who control the natural order, camera-wizards who use sympathetic magick, clothing-wizards who believe the clothes really do make the man, and suchlike.

The changes to the old factions all make sense (strangely, the Sleepers get the most radical makeover, from occult bogeymen and monopolists to an occult AA), and new factions are all imaginative and creepy and weird like one would expect (like a network of sleeper agents run by an artificial intelligence that sends you invasive quizzes for magickal power, or a bootcamp for avatars comprising kidnapped children).  The rumors are gone, unfortunately, but Book Three is similar to the old rumor portions of the book, so that's partial compensation.

They talk more about Otherspaces in this edition, which is a bonus, and give players rules to make them, which seems an appropriate (if rather difficult) goal.  Still, making your own private Idaho is totally a thing you can do in the new edition.

Overall, it's solid, and I'm excited to read it and to be part of it.  It just feels less like a breath of fresh air and more like any other horror RPG you could find over at IPR or the unstore.  (One of the posters at the Unknown Armies Fan Club suggested the new adept-building system, using the concept of Ω, felt like something from a totally different game.  I feel like that about a lot of the concepts in this edition.)  Still, it's good to be back, and my brain is afire with strange, sad ideas.

Edit (5-9-2016): If you liked this, I wrote a review of Unknown Armies 1st/2nd edition many years ago, and I now have a UA3 actual play report available.

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