Getting my head around Unknown Armies


Over a series of posts, I’m going to be exploring the new edition of Unknown Armies. Its a game I’ve wanted to run for a long time, and when the third edition was Kickstarted, I was an eager backer, vacillating between digital and expensive Deluxe printed editions as my financial commitments waxed and waned. In the end I went digital only and later bought the Deluxe set in retail saving a considerable amount in both shipping and exchange rate fluctuations.

The original version came out in 1998, and as a fan of Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, my interest was sparked. But there wasn’t much gaming going on in my life at the time, and what there was was as a player, not GM, so I couldn’t justify buying a game I’d likely never run. But it was always there nagging at the edge of my consciousness. A few years ago, I bought a PDF of the second edition, through Bundle of Holding, but not with any intention to run it at the time, rather to read about the magic system.

I have a problem with magic in RPGs. Magic and rulesets don’t sit well together, given that magic is about breaking the laws of nature. Since my earliest days playing RPGs, I hated the magic in D&D, which felt far too limited and codified to meet my expectations of magic. I remember being eleven, and not being able to think of a possible “realistic” reason why magic users would forget spells after casting them, except to balance the game play so that fighter and other none magic users had something to do. I discovered later of course that the system did at least have a literary precedent, and a name, “Vancian” magic, to describe it. But by that time I had abandoned AD&D for the “better” magical systems of Runequest* (and Traveller, which avoided the whole magic thing in the first place). Only fifth edition has brought me back to the D&D fold, but I still have no desire to play a magic user.

Of course the magic I wanted would “break” the game: if one player character can change the world, would any player want to do anything else? Can you mix magic users and mortals in a game where everybody has fun? It seems game designers wrestled with similar questions, and I eventually found a magical game I enjoyed – Mage: The Ascension. There was Ars Magica too, both of them taking the “easy” route to solving some of the challenges of magic in RPGs, making every player character a magic user.

I liked what I read in Unknown Armies 2. Yes, the magic was codified, but only as an example of how “out there” your magic, as a player character could be. The way was open for creating your own system of magic – something that really attracted me, not just as a player but as a GM, wondering what my players might do. That said, I was still actually sitting at a table to rarely to add it to my “must play” list.

In the last year or two however, I got to play weekly again. Only three hours at a time, but I’d managed to scratch a number of system itches. I’ve enjoyed playing Feng Shui, which I’d only run before. I’ve run Night Black Agents: The Dracula Dossier, and I was ready to add Unknown Armies to the list of things I’d like to run, just in time for the new version to be announced…

So I had to Kick In, didn’t I? And its got to be the new version I run.

But there’s a problem. And its one I recall from Version 2. Greg Stolze writes very … well, yes. I think. Its a very entertaining read. But, damn, its hard to grok the rules from among the thousands of words. Everything seems scattered randomly among the pages. For example, Stoltze wanton refuses, anywhere, to give a simple step by step guide to creating a character. The closest he gets a one page summary which frankly isn’t that helpful, he calls “The Lonely Singles Club version”, which suggests a somewhat condescending attitude to people that might want such a thing. Instead he spread the process across two volumes. Which is OK for me as GM, because I have all three books, and it highlights the importance of doing this thing in the company of other players and the GM. But if I was a player, assured that everything I need to play is in book 1, and I bought that book, I think I might be a little pissed.

It also doesn’t help me understand the rules. So I’m going to use this blog to go through the first two books of this new edition, chapter by chapter, and make sure I understand what I’m getting into.

*Of which, more to be written in a future post.

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