Monday, May 9, 2016

Unknown Armies, third edition: Actual Play

(Before we get started, further information is available: interested parties can read my Unknown Armies 1st/2nd edition review, or my review of the UA3 Gamma playtest.)

My playtest group and I haven't had much of an opportunity to play yet (and the rules we did use encompass all the standard make-a-skill-check stuff that you don't really need a playtest to discuss), so this will primarily cover character creation.

For background, the group is a subset of the Bread and Circuses group (just myself and three players, solely on the principle that three are easier to schedule than four or five, particularly when the players are two couples, so you're functionally only scheduling around two groups), and comprises the following:

  • Me, with all the nonsense that entails.
  • M.  He's previously played "Joy and Sorrow" from One Shots, and that's it.
  • S.  She has also just played "Joy and Sorrow."
  • Nicole.  Nicole has previously played several Unknown Armies one shots (five, I think), as well as my Truth Shall Set You Free campaign.  (As a side note, we updated her UA2 character to UA3 in about ten minutes.  It seriously took almost no time at all.)
We've so far played two three-hour sessions about a week apart; character creation took four of those hours, with the understanding that everybody looked over my handouts and their character sheets in the intervening week to understand the concepts a little better.  (Call it four or five hours, maybe.)  On the one hand, that's a long time for character creation — I ran a UA2 one shot where an avatar of the Merchant was holding an occult Swap Meet, and we had time to create characters and play the adventure.  On the other hand, the character creation mini-game is its own thing, and at the end of it, you have a sweet prop like this:

Pins on a corkboard.  Click to enlarge.
So that's probably a feature rather than a bug.  Being older types who cut our teeth on World of Darkness and Call of Cthulhu (and for one of us, AD&D), a lot of the new-wave indie design is different enough that it requires a bit more headspace.  Other than taking a while, though, it worked really well to get everyone into the mindset of Unknown Armies.  (The character sheets, which look like badly scribbled psychiatric charts, also help.)

(One note, though: if you're GMing, bring lots of pictures in case your players don't bring any.  Although I probably went overboard.  Still, it worked out nicely.)

So, from there, we determined that line producer Jasper Fitzroy is giving his production company (1574 Productions) over to his ditzy second wife, Pamela Kruse-Fitzroy, and there's only a week before the deal is finalized.  He's grown more reclusive as his new right-hand man, Iggy Williams, increasingly performs day-to-day business.  Amid this growing situation is the fact that Los Angeles apparently has weird holes in its spacetime, such that an appropriately aware person can use them to hide or teleport.  (And an untrained person can fall into them and end up somewhere else.  Like, say, Long Beach to Malibu.)  Those two things don't appear to be connected, but you never know.

Into this situation, we have:
  • Jones, played by S.  An air traffic controller at LAX.  Jasper's plane should have crashed into another plane a couple of years ago, but he was the only one who witnessed the two planes phase through each other.  No one else noticed.
  • Kevin, played by M.  A bike messenger on a weird trip.  Ever since he surfed from Long Beach to Malibu in a matter of minutes, he's been searching for the hidden doorways that pockmark L.A.  He likes to draw weird maps, trying to discern the Pattern he knows is just on the edge of his perception.
  • Leah, played by Nicole.  Jasper's daughter, she's on her own New Age bent; these days, she's following the example of Valeria Lukyanova and turning herself into a living, occult doll.  She learned that things were weird when she had a bad drug experience a few years back, and the guy who sold it to her described the exact trip she just had.
I'd say the fact that they all picked New Agers and occultists and conspiracy theorists without much prompting by me is a success of the system.

There are a couple of snags in the rules, though.  Some of the players didn't fully get the balance of shock gauges and abilities at first (although that may have been a failure of my explanation rather than anything else; my cheat sheet was apparently helpful).  Objectives, too, were difficult; the player group is supposed to determine their group Objective first, even before characters are made, but we did it last because that seemed more natural.  (And we haven't done milestones at all; that probably seems even stranger to a group used to the traditional plot structure of RPGs before, say, 2010 or so.)

Despite the snags, though, character creation ran relatively smoothly — I'd say the length and the rules questions are problems that could be easily remedied by either character creation summaries/handouts or the character creation tutorial video that was funded as part of the Kickstarter.

As for the rules, we only made a couple of rolls, but as with previous editions, the game system largely runs in the background.  I only consulted the book once in play, and it was to determine how a supernatural ability (the Versatility identity, for those of you keeping score at home) worked.  I'd imagine I may have consulted the book a little more if we broke into Relationships or coercion (combat's the same from the previous edition), but I'm sure that will come with time.  (And will get easier with increased familiarity.)

So, in summary, the system is solid — we basically just need a finished book that's easy to reference in play to smooth out the rough spots.

Edit (6-2-2016): This mini-campaign now has its own Obsidian Portal page.  Read about it if you're into that sort of thing.

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