( Above: “wrong makeup” by Kim Byungwan )
Unknown Armies (aff) is such a strange game in a strange world. Ostensibly, it is precisely my jam – a modern era game of occult strangeness fueled by obsession and instability. In the game world, the magickal reality is focused on the collective subconscious – aligning strongly with the way everyone thinks and believes creates avatars, while running perpendicular to it based on your own weird obsessions gives one the power of an adept.
There are a lot of mixed reviews in the wild, and I don’t really want to rehash that stuff. This isn’t a review. Instead this is about what I liked and what I did to buff out the rough edges of the system.
Things I Dig
- The world as a whole. While UA bills itself as a horror game, I’m not convinced that’s right. The world is about weird people delving deep into their own psyches and reacting to the weird supernatural shit around them. You can do a lot with that.
- Everything is a percentile. Yeah, percentile systems aren’t great, but there’s some added features in here that makes it nice. It’s still ultimately a pass/fail system without shades of grey, but that’s okay. More on handling success and failure in the next section.
- Character capability is based on how much mental trauma they’ve faced. I think this is so wonderful. You take some isolation trauma and come out the other end being a little less secure in your social standing and a little more able to run away. Sometimes, though, you crumble under the pressure of the trauma. The shock meters in this game are great.
- The Adept magic system is perfect. Adepts gain and hold on to charges by acting out their obsession, then they spend those charges to cast spells. Each school has its own way to gain charges and its own spell list.
- Fighting with guns is handled quite well. If you’re not skilled and fire into a conflict, you basically just create suppressive fire and cause people to have to make stress tests to act amidst your shooting. If you’re skilled with a gun, you can use it like a weapon.
- Percentile objectives are really cool. The whole Cabal has a singular objective they’re working towards and can increase it some percentiles at a time. At 100% they succeed, but they can also move to tackle the objective early and actually roll for it.
Things I Do Differently
The following are some of the things that I have shifted in the game to make it more my style. I know that some of these would “break the game” or “open it for abuse” but I just don’t play with players like that, so /shrug.
Light NPCs: I don’t give them stats and don’t roll for their actions – they act as responses to the PCs. When they act towards a PC in a way that causes mental trauma, I determine the rank of the test based on the preset list in the book (i.e. torturing their buddy, pointing a gun at them, etc). In this same vein, coercing a PC always succeeds (forcing them to choose to go along or make the test), but if they’re coercing or causing trauma to an NPC I will determine their rank on the fly or using the example lists in one of the supplemental books.
Fail Forward: When a roll fails, the fiction still moves forward. “You don’t do it” isn’t an option unless not doing it causes some other consequences. To this end, when a roll is failed, I make a choice: bring a known risk to bear; introduce a new twist or obstacle into the fiction that makes it more complicated; or offer them a cost in order to succeed. This skirts the hard pass/fail of a percentile system like this.
Imparting Knowledge: Notice and Knowledge are the type of skills I hate in RPGs because they hide information behind a roll. Instead, the way I use them is to not allow failure at all – they always get information, but if the roll is a failure, it’s either something negative they didn’t expect, or I offer them a cost to learn the details.
Identity Features: General Identities are supposed to have a set of three “features” that tell us when they can be rolled. Not only do I think that’s too much upfront work, but it also cheapens these identities. Instead, in any situation you can make a case for using an identity in place of a another ability, you can do it as long as it makes sense. This also goes for situations the Identity can be used in, like performing first aid or shooting a gun. These identities are packages of skills, and should function like them.
Passions and Obsession: Honestly, I think all of these should function the same way, to help smooth out the percentile system. So here’s how I do it. Fear, Rage, and Noble Passions all impart flip-flops whenever they’re relevant (fleeing your fear, acting on your rage, being noble) in the same way as the Obsession works. Though, if you face or confront your Fear you face a rank 10 trauma to the specified meter. Once per session, you can use any one of these (Obsession too) to gain a reroll of the dice, but afterwards you lose the flip-flop ability for the rest of the session.
Coercion: I don’t understand why this is closely locked to specific skills. Coercion is more about the fiction in my eyes. If lie through my teeth and say I’m able to call the bank at any time and have their house taken away, I’m most certainly attacking their Helplessness gauge. But by the book, I should be rolling Connect to coerce. However, Lie works best here. So what skills you use to coerce is based entirely on the situation.
Combat and Wounds: This hasn’t actually come up at all in my game (no combative types!), so it’s pure speculation. The game correctly doesn’t have a combat subsystem, but has this weird thing where the GM is supposed to track everyone’s wound level. I’m not gonna do that. Other than that, most of the other rules seem fine – sum the dice for wounds dealt by melee attacks (with some additions if using weaponry). When it comes to unskilled gun fire, I want to use the ones digit as the rank of the violence trauma in order to act. I think it adds some fun randomness.
I like what I’ve done with the system and want to see more of it. The game we’re playing now has a slightly limited lifespan, but I might end up running a second game with a different cast and story arc.
My game design takeaways are:
- I love the idea of statted objectives at the group level, but maybe also the personal level. It’s a nice way to mechanize and understand working toward a complex goal and give weight to what is typically a “story arc” in a game. This can be done with clocks in a Forged in the Dark game or stress tracks in a Fate game, but as long as there’s some way to roll against it to try to achieve it, it works like they do in UA.
- Stress gauges that affect your stats based on trauma are great. In a lot of other games, mental trauma (“sanity”, ick) is treated a bit like “hit points” – a scale measuring where you are from good to bad. What UA does though, is change your base ability due to how much trauma you’ve suffered.