Do I want Unknown Armies?

edited October 2013 in Story Games
So the Bundle of Holding currently has Unknown Armies available - pay what you want.

I'd love to hear your opinion on Unknown Armies, and to find out what it is apart from the marketing blurb. What kind of game is it? What's good, what's bad? What kind of person would like it? (i.e. if you like X then you'll like Unknown Armies).

Here's what their blurb says:
Humans are the most powerful beings in the entire cosmos. Maybe not any one individual human, but the aggregate of humanity -- a mass entity capable of restarting time with a thought -- far outshines the stars and outweighs the planets. But that means the world is only as good as we make it. We have to get busy and lead. Order or entropy -- structure or chaos? What will you risk to change the world? Make the choice in Unknown Armies: A Game of Power and Consequences.

Self-mutilating magi, avatars of the Mystic Hermaphrodite, an obsessed millionaire's personal foreign legion -- Unknown Armies reveals an Occult Underground of oddities, of madness and horror, and of hidden symbols that transcend the world. It's "Pulp Fiction meets Hellraiser." For good and for ill, the fate of the cosmos is always within your reach.

All the world's extremely extreme people can become members of the Invisible Clergy, the cardinal archetypes of a higher order of existence. But this membership is limited, competitive, and ever-changing. Anyone can be a demigod, and anyone can dispose of one. You yourself, if you've got what it takes, have a decent shot at joining the clergy -- but can you stay there long enough to reshape the universe?
Tell me more! :)


  • edited October 2013
    Unknown Armies is the one of the best written games out there. It also got one of the best BRP derivatives on the market. If you like TV series like Fringe, The Lost Room and X-files, then this is the game for you.

    I wont play the game myself, but I can recognize great quality when I see it.
  • Hmm. If I'm not terribly enthralled by BRP itself, and I consider setting to just be setting (even if it's well-done setting), what else does the game have going for it? I'm looking at this not from the perspective of a player, but of a potential designer.
  • So the grandparents of contemporary indie roleplaying are folks like Stolze, Tynes, Tweet, Hite, Costikyan, etc. who were doing weird stuff within both relatively traditional and more far-out gaming frameworks, right? Unknown Armies is a major example of that. The premise and setting are pretty far-out and the rules are relatively traditional and familiar but with several interesting bits that make it more than just a fun setting with a stats+skills+powers+roll-some-dice super boring system. From memory, the rules for exposure to stress and horror (and maybe physical harm?) are really super great, perhaps the best in roleplaying. The other killer app is the super strange magic system, where you can be a McDonalds-o-mancer, among other things, or attempt to mold yourself in the likeness of Platonic godlike concepts. If either of those sound interesting, sure, it's worth picking up and checking out. If not, you're not missing out hugely on the mechanical front; it's really the premise, terrific writing, and general 80s-90s-tastic supernatural strangeness that's the selling point.
  • Mechanically, the UA system is descended from BRP but it's a big improvement over it in many ways. The system is simpler, cleaner, more consistent and filled with many interesting little bits. Many of the parts of the game that were cutting edge there have become relatively common and normal in gaming (freeform skills, skills providing a penumbra of abilities related to their central task, defining your character by things they care about or believe in, etc.) The madness system and magick systems are, indeed, still really worth checking out.

    But the setting is probably the big draw, as it is full of interesting, creative stuff and has a unique tone and style not replicated in other RPGs. and it will make you start looking at the world in a different way, thinking about the secret magickal process going on behind the scenes of the everyday, innocuous actions of your day-to-day life.
    (i.e. if you like X then you'll like Unknown Armies).
    In this case, X equals Tim Powers, Hellblazer, The Invisibles, The Lost Room, Suppressed Transmissions, or Silent Hill.
  • I own all the books. I ponied up for the bundle so I can have the stuff electronically. I'm not enamoured of the system, as when I am running it, it's very fiddly -- but when someone who isn't me runs it, I'm fine playing it. It's the setting and weirdness I like.
  • Something I like with the setting is that it's written as elements to be incorporated with the method of writing scenarios. It's pretty much a fish tank, where the important parts are the relations between the elements of the world. Everything from icons in the magic system to rumors about the world can be used.

    That's what I'm usually nagging about these days - to write so everything can be part of an adventure, and to write how to play the game. That's what I would recommend to check out as a roleplaying game designer.
  • A suggestion: the rpg world does not really have a limitless number of high-quality games, so it would make sense to just get every and each one, and to hell with supposed favourite genres or whatever. If you've been doing this hobby for years, and there's no end in sight, chances are that each well-crafted classic of the field, whether it's Paranoia or Ars Magica or Delta Green or Unknown Armies will be worth your while sooner or later. A human being and a scholar does themselves disservice by rationing books, as if they truly couldn't make room for the essentials in their reading itinerary.

    (Playing all these excellent games is a different thing altogether, I admit. I have no illusions about my ability to make time for playing every excellent game ever written.)

    Assuming the above sentiment appeals, the only question is whether Unknown Armies belongs in this nebulous canon of actually worthwhile game texts. I don't find it a controversial claim to say that it does: everybody and their uncle finds it an appealing delight, going by what the Internet has to say, and we can all name many entirely intelligent and discernible people who belong in the ranks of the fans of the game. Maybe you can find individuals who don't personally like Unknown Armies, but I can say that I've never encountered anybody who'd have additionally claimed that it is not a significant game - even those who don't like it personally generally acknowledge it as a higher-grade work.

    I'll close off by noting that I haven't gotten around to checking out Unknown Armies myself, either, but from all accounts it's the sort of literarily ambitious game that I enjoy the most when it comes to trad games. Just as Jonathan says above, the best of the '90s era truly were the games that, while maybe conventional with their tools, attempted to transcend the common crop by sheer literary merit. In fact, now that I convinced myself about this, I'll need to go and finally read UA; I think I got it in some bundle or other a couple of years back...
  • I'm no fan of BRP. This implementation has a couple of twiddles which make it more interesting and more fiddly, and no better on the whole. The treatment of madness has been expanded upon from Sanity to three (IIRR) madness meters with different effects when they fail. Characters have special abilities called cherries which happen when the dice match.

    However, if you want to run any kind of modern day weird/occult/magic game than this is some of the best writing in those genres. In many games, like AD&D, magic seems not to have any impact on the day to day world (although Eberron may have some ideas about this). In this game they have clearly thought about how magic integrates into modern society, and why it appears not to be present, except to the initiated. And the magic system in particular takes the vagueness of the Call of Cthulhu magic and ties the fiction to the mechanics in a very impressive way.

    If you have any interest in such things, then it's definitely worth a read. I go back to it for my GUMSHOE games as it's a mine of ideas for Mutant City Blues, Night's Black Agents, Esoterrorists and even Trail of Cthulhu.
  • edited October 2013
    As many have mentioned, the system is functional but not too exciting. The setting, however, is incredibly well-written and full of a million and one ideas. The core book alone is great, and each and every supplement is chock full of mind-bending stuff that is sure to spark your imagination.

    The treatment of modern-day magick is great: it's powered by belief and symbolism- like, an occult artifact might be The Final Syringe of Sid Vicious. If you shoot drugs using Sid Vicious' syringe, you will be empowered when defying authority figures of all types, like escaping police or sabotaging a corporation. So in order to use "magick," you need to believe with all your heart and soul that these symbolic connections are Real and Powerful and that they really can change the world. And that's the problem: only a crazy person would believe that, right? You'd have to be nuts to think that shooting heroin from a dead junkie's needle would somehow give you magick powers. So everyone who works magick is, by definition, crazy. The occult underground are almost all scummy, backstabbing lunatics who trade away any sense of normality for desperate bids at power.

    And the books are full of great examples of this symbolic magick in action, from the detached Videomancers (don't you wish life was more like the movies?), the obsessed Pornomancers (sex as ritual instead of connection), and the self-destructive Epideromancers (only by hurting yourself can you truly gain control over your body). All the 'schools' of magic include a central paradox, the core irony of the school. Plutomancers, for example, believe that money is power, literally. The more money they have, the more magick they can work. But there's a catch: they're not allowed to spend that money. They can never truly enjoy their wealth, because they've twisted a universal concept into a delusional maxim: Money is Power. Money doesn't exist to make you comfortable, or to have nice things, or even to impress people. Money exists because Money is Power, and that's it.

    It's a really neat concept that plays around with the idea of symbolic magick and what that would really mean. The books are totally worth reading if only to steal the setting and play a FATE campaign with it (which is what I'm doing right now).
  • It's a really neat concept that plays around with the idea of symbolic magick and what that would really mean. The books are totally worth reading if only to steal the setting and play a FATE campaign with it (which is what I'm doing right now).
    Could you expound a little more on playing Unknown Armies in a FATE game? I've been curious about trying FATE again w/ the new rules (I had little luck w/ SotC) and a friend recently gave me his physical core book for UA.
  • Ha haa, I did actually read the Unknown Armies 2nd edition core book - finished it just now.

    It's a better-quality '90s game to be sure, and in a genre that I find personally relevant; I've been collecting urban horror conspiracy material for some as yet vague purpose, and this fits well with Delta Green, JAGS Wonderland and Little Fears (1st edition). Lots of alternative takes on werewolves, magicians, ghosts and so on. Not very scary or existentialist, more of an urban fantasy with poseur aesthetics (people who are edgy because they cut themselves, that sort of thing), but flexible; you could utilize this stuff for an urban fantasy game along WW lines, or do something less superheroic. Not as grim as Delta Green or Wonderland, but not as fantasy-empowerment as say Wyrd is Bond, either. It's sort of like a more street-credible kissing-cousin of Mage: the Ascension, really.

    I find the rules system academically interesting because I've long had the itch to maybe "solve" the BRP system and somehow make it work for me without relinquishing the percentage aesthetics. It's nothing that I would actually run myself, though; e.g. FATE or TSoY would be a superior choice. The setting-related rules mechanics of the Adept magic, on the other hand, are quite strong - magical charges, ritual magic, these elements work naturally in the context of realistic occult fantasy.

    Well worth the time for the ideas, for anybody interested in the genre. Well worth the time for any scholar of trad gaming, too.

  • Could you expound a little more on playing Unknown Armies in a FATE game? I've been curious about trying FATE again w/ the new rules (I had little luck w/ SotC) and a friend recently gave me his physical core book for UA.
    Sure! I'm not super experienced with Fate, but this is what we're doing and it's been a blast. We used campaign Aspects like The Occult Underground is Everywhere, Magick Demands Its Price, and Everyone Has A Secret to foster the sort of insular, paranoid world depicted in the UA books. We're playing mundane characters, no Adepts in the party. We're private eyes for the occult underground so the PCs are all knowledgeable about Adepts and Avatars, but we haven't yet had to write a lot of hard rules for using magic. Here's what we've got so far:

    We focused heavily on the symbolic aspect of Magick, and the rules for The Subtle Art (page 101 in the Fate System Toolkit) have covered everything so far. For flexible, on-the-spot magick use, there's a skill called Belief (you could also split this into Magick and Channel Avatar if you want), which you roll to Create an Advantage against an opponent after describing the symbolic actions you've taken to cast your spell (or behave in accordance with your Avatar and therefore gain a situational bonus). More powerful effects would be treated as Stunts- they'd be the standard listed "spells" from the book. If you're an Adept, you need to have a character Aspect that reflects that: Greedy Plutomancer or Self-Destructive Epideromancer or something; something you invoke to cast spells but can be compelled against you to show how messed up your life is. Y'know how in the game fiction the Adepts are always hit with magickal backlash in the form of strange coincidences and chance encounters? That's totally a compel, right there, right? Compels probably do this better than the core UA system does, which relies on the GM to somehow figure out the destiny/coincidence factor that magick/the Invisible Clergy brings with them.

    If we get PC Adepts and need to start dealing with Charges and whatnot, we'll probably have to come up with a crunchier system to take care of it, but for NPCs its enough to just say "we gotta stop this Urbanomancer from getting his hands on the city planning department's budget or Bad Things will happen." I'm not sure we would care about tracking individual Charges; I think Fate would handle that better by using Aspects called Slightly Charged, Significantly Charged, Dangerously Charged or something. You could invoke them to help your spell go off and if you succeed with style, maybe you wouldn't drop a Charge level.

    Anyway, it's been crazy fun so far and I really like the new Fate Core rules. I think they do a great job with the occult underground setting because they mimic genre whereas the UA rules are very practical simulation most of the time.
  • I like the game quite a bit.

    I like how densely packed the main book is with great campaign ideas and adventure nuggets. I like the making-up-your-own-skills, the combat chapter and the way players don't know how much damage their characters take, the damage is just described to them and eventually keel over. Also, the insanity system is the best of its kind ever devised and it makes a percentile system work.

    I played in a long campaign of it years ago and had a great time. Cool stuff.
  • It's a good read, specifically the magic system and the stress tracks. I found the modules to be a waste and far too traditional for the potential of the system. I ended up running it in FATE, basically.
  • edited October 2013
    Do I want Unknown Armies?
    Sure, if you find it cool to play with characters like this..


    (its a Dipsomancer hehehe )
  • I found the modules to be a waste and far too traditional for the potential of the system.
    I agree with this 100%; most of the modules don't take advantage of the setting. There are some really intense scenarios in the Weep book, though, that really hammer home how dark and scary the game can be. By and large, though, the published scenarios don't give enough credit to the game, they're also pretty railroady. There's a lot of deus ex machina going on.
    I ended up running it in FATE, basically.
    Glad to see I'm not the only one. I think that UA has a functional system but it's very much a product of its time. I never saw any tools to actually make game sessions that match the fiction stories in the rulebooks. FATE provides the right framework to for this sort of high-concept genre matching.
  • edited October 2013
    I really like UA for the combination of weird tales and the humanism. Every weird creature and demonic entity you might encounter is human, or was human once. The modules are underwhelming but worth strip-mining for ideas and characters, they've got some really good ones. And Jail Break is said to be a great one-shot scenario, but I've never played it.

    Also, some of the faction books are pretty great sources. Basically, the scarier and more shit-together a faction looks in UA, the less idea they have of what's really going on. UA really has a beatdown 70's-era paranoid post-hippy sensibility to me, maybe from the Philip K. Dick/Tim Powers influence.

    Scrape, have you written up any of your FATE conversion stuff? I'd really like to see how a UA character looks in FATE. I've wanted to run a Mak Attax game for ages (but with Starbucks instead of McDonald's because I'm scared of clowns), but I've never felt quite ready to run it. How do you handle the Avatar/Adept magic stuff? The taboos and channels would work as Aspects, but I'm not sure how I'd handle spells or charges.
    EDIT: Oops, missed your earlier post where you talk about that stuff. But if you want to post a sample Unknown/Fate character, that would be great.
  • Have to agree that UA's background is really what sells it, not the system.

    Even at the time, I thought the system (while it contained the -excellent- madness meter) added complexity that didn't typically pay its bills. It's fun to play with cherries (special perks you get on 11, 22, etc rolls), and the mechanic where you can reverse the order of digits in a percentile roll is pretty interesting--but all those mechanical bits don't really contribute to play much.

    OTOH, the background is great; the concept that one can only gain supernatural power by either obsessing on a false logical model for the universe which turns you into an obvious weirdo (you can only see the real world when you're drunk; sex should always be scripted, life is risk, so you should risk everything, every time) or by turning yoruself into something fundamentally inhuman is a great one, that immediately lends itself to background and story ideas. And it did use a lot of the same innovations that Over the Edge started, like free-form skills and the like.
  • The bundle of holding for UA just got a new lease on life for another 30 hours. (Shouldn't that be 33.3 hours?)
  • It's one of the best RPGs ever made. You really should own it, read it, and play it.
  • It doesn't say it in the book, but the scenario 'Jailbreak" in One Shots is the best conventional American parlor larp that I've seen published. Despite, you know, not being identified as one.
  • I'm no FATE expert but it's been working really well. The idea that a magick school is an Aspect that can be compelled against you really solidifies the setting for me.
  • It doesn't say it in the book, but the scenario 'Jailbreak" in One Shots is the best conventional American parlor larp that I've seen published. Despite, you know, not being identified as one.
    It really is very good. I ran it once at short notice for a group of mostly-strangers, which was ideal, really.
    Aside from "Jailbreak" and some of To Go, I would have to concur that the published scenarios are no great shakes.

    Having said that, in my experience the game tended to become very player-driven very easily, so this wasn't a huge weakness for UA as a game line.

    Mechanically speaking, I am a fan of the Madness Meters. As for the rest, I'd always run the game with the rules as-is, but they are not so outstanding that I ever think "hey, I should convert this to Unknown Armies rules".
  • That madness metre keeps me awake at night, with its terrible beauty and inelegance.

    Four tracks, one soul.
  • I own the German version. It is not only a translation, but also an expansion and a complete redesign. It is really a pity that the art isn't in the English version. I focus on this part, because everything else has been said already.
  • Yup, Ive seen the covers and GM screens of german and spanish versions, and the art is much better than in the english one.
  • Do you think this would work with Fate Accelerated? I like the general idea of Fate, but in some ways it's a bit too fiddly for me.
  • edited October 2013
    I highly recommend the system in the UA book. It's really good, IMO.
  • I've run the Firefly hack for UA quite happily (systemwise anyway) for a number of years. From one direction it's full of crunch and trad, but if you are playing with a group of pretty trad players anyway it's a nice step towards indie awesome (if that's your bag and all that) you just have to make sure they remember that rolling dice isn't the point.

    And a +1 for the magic, I've got a Con scenario where normal people end up in the middle of a single magic ritual that they have to complete and it's one of the few I've been happy to run multiple times.
  • I was excited to pick up Unknown Armies and play it! I never did, because the game is mostly setting, and it is insular and suffocating as though it was written by fiction writers (It was written by fiction writers). The madness meter is great though and I ported that directly to FUDGE back in the day.
  • Ah, what a shame, Jason! You would have been right at home in the UA series we played. Since you start as an outsider to the weird setting it's not suffocating in practice, IME.
  • There's a lot going on but the core book provides you with a lot of sample entry points/campaign ideas. I've always gone with one of those, and if you start with a street level campaign a little weird goes a long way. It lets you use the setting stuff in the book as a condiment rather than trying to use it all. My method for running a campaign was to just pick three of the setting elements and weave them into a relationship map with the PCs at the center, and that's enough to carry you for months.
  • edited October 2013
    What do you do? Seriously, I was all "I'll have the PCs be scruffy guys who work part time at a video store in West Seattle and..." nothin'.

    Are they supposed to learn magic? Do they all learn the same magic or different magic? If different magic, how does that work? Are they supposed to work together? If so, why, given that the endgame for the occult underground is ruthlessly individual? Are they supposed to fight each other?

    I couldn't answer these questions from the book so I thought I'd try running the built-in adventure, but that was so suffused with metaplot I found it impenetrable. It is about people who are not the PCs.

    Anyway I really wanted to like this game because it is full of things I really like but I couldn't find a way in. I could probably find a way in now but that ship has sailed.
  • I haven't played the game myself. Honestly, I mostly glanced through the mechanics and looked at how to create a campaign. You basically build a fish tank around a McGuffin, where some groups/persons also are after it. When the characters do something, the groups react to it. It's usually a very open way of creating a scenario with no real ending, where it all depends on what the characters do.

    Spirit of the Century list a similar way of creating a scenario.
  • Are they supposed to learn magic? Do they all learn the same magic or different magic? If different magic, how does that work? Are they supposed to work together? If so, why, given that the endgame for the occult underground is ruthlessly individual? Are they supposed to fight each other?
    Yeah, any of those are good. Finding out how they enter into the occult stuff, what they decide to do with it, and how long their lives/relationships/minds hold together is what you do. It's one thing to do, anyway.
  • Yeah, UA is a very very idiosyncratic game, I think it's probably really hard to parse from a game-utility standpoint unless you already know the biases of John Tynes (who comes from a hardcore Call of Cthulhu "the PCs may well never know what's really going on" POV) and Greg Stolze (who loves PCs that are kind of scumbag losers who probably won't amount to much, which makes the objections from the author of Fiasco kind of ironic) going in. And of course it is very much a piece with that late-90s White Wolfy style where setting detail is prioritized above plainspoken advice about how best to USE that material, and the modules definitely don't help either-- some of them are pretty interesting, and I've had good results running them as one-shots, but I don't think they work as installments of an ongoing campaign or as hints to what such a campaign would look like (that said, I never read To Go, which I think is supposed to be that campaign).

    I never had trouble figuring out what to do with UA, but then when that game came out I was basically completely in its target audience; I was reading a lot of millennial conspiracy theories, apocalyptica, Forteana, occultism, and all manner of other stuff Grant Morrison and Ken Hite write about (and in fact I bought UA specifically on Hite's recommendation), so it wasn't a new crazy thing to wrap my head around, but an RPG specifically tailored to my interests.
  • I remember that the 1st Edition blew my mind, but I never got to play it. I bought the bundle because I expect to hack it for Fate and because I know I'll enjoy the fiction.
  • I got introduced to the game through play before I ever read the text, so maybe that is why I am puzzled how folks could have trouble figuring out what to do with the game. Especially with the Street and Cosmic level chapter that are tremendously dense with campaign ideas.
  • It might be an edition thing - the 1st edition didn't give you a whole lot of help.
    The (really rather good) campaign outlines in 2nd edition were a response to widespread "it's nice but what do I do with it" feedback.
  • I bought it the minute it came out, first edition, the ink still wet! Because I knew I'd love it. Perhaps you guys were not such enthusiastic early adopters. That explains a lot, actually! I was feeling like we were ... talking about different books.
  • edited October 2013
    I picked it up before it came out-- my intro was the pre-Atlas ashcan from the company that went under before publishing it! Never picked up second ed until the Bundle of Holding a couple weeks ago.
  • edited October 2013
    I got the second edition book. There it's quite clear in chapter 18: GM Campaign on how to use the setting. A nice model for scenario building.
  • All Second Ed here. I was kind of dead to new gaming through most of the mid to late 90's and UA never really saw much play in the UK Con scene from what I saw (playing in a session of Jailbreak! got me interested in it).
  • Now when I'm reading in the book, I come to think of movies like Max Payne, Constantine, Hellraiser V: Inferno, The Ninth Gate, They Live, and From Dusk to Dawn. Not really top movies but I think the mix is interesting.

    I really like the explanation about Elvis on page 313.
  • I playtested first edition, and I liked it for the background, but I found second edition better organized.
  • The setting is cool to read but there is no game there.
    It was my seventh roleplaying game back then and I had no experience with CoC and murk set in hard. We never transitioned from Street to Global, the metaplot was an albatross and the modules were horrible. Weep, a collection, contained My Favorite Things, the most railroady adventure ever. Everyone should read it as an example of how not to write an adventure.

    I've often wished I'd never tried this "game".
  • It was second edition I had.
  • UA didn't have a metaplot. That was kind of its whole deal.

    It is true, though, that the adventures were of highly variable quality, and a few were really rather poor.
  • I was thinking of the whole To Go thing. The second edition rulebook was written as if the To Go campaign had happened a specific way.
    Also the way they described those who were searching for a specific actress on video to me came across like a plot that I had to follow.

    And recurring NPCs between published adventures (Jesus, the ambulance driver)…
    it was just hard to get what was fiction, and what was game.
Sign In or Register to comment.