There is much to love about character creation in Unknown Armies. It is both structured and freeform, it can create anything from a suburban housewife to a god, it can create a god that is a suburban housewife, or the god of suburbia, is you so choose. It can create modern-day magic users that are truely powerful, and flexible – the magic can be and do pretty much anything you want, while ensuring that players who choose more mundane characters are not outclassed by their colleagues. In short it’s pretty damn amazing.
The problem with chapter 2 of the the players book though, is it doesn’t really tell you how.
For players coming from more traditional RP games, that can be a challenge. Lots of modern games have collaborative character creation nowadays though. What’s surprising about this book, is the chapter on collaborative character creation is inthe GMs book, Run, so it’s a real challenge for players who (like me I must admit) like to work through character creation as they grok the system. This chapters isn’t really about creating a character as much as understanding your character sheet. But they don’t even show you an example character sheet.
If you did see one, you’d notice that a big difference between UA3 and older systems is that there are no physical stats like strength, constitution or dexterity, nor indeed mental stats like intelligence or wisdom or will. Even the last edition of UA had four such stats: Body; Speed; Mind; and Soul, but this version doesn’t include them. Instead this version of the game about broken people changing the world, describes those people by they state of their mind. And I think it’s better for it. At the heart of the character sheet are the Shock Gauges: Violence; Self; Unnatural; Helplessness; and Isolation. In the last version of the game these were a sort of psychological hit-points called the madness meter. But now, each comes with two Abilities, one upbeat, and a downbeat one. The more hardened you are to Violence, for example, the better you are at the downbeat ability, in this case Struggle. If you are less hardened you are the better you are at the upbeat ability, which for Violence is Connecting with people. Hardened notches can also protect you from stress checks, which is important because failed checks represent serious psychological damage.
As we’re using Violence as our example, a low level stress check could be triggered by something like being attacked with a weapon. To many of us innocents that might give us nightmares, even if we hadn’t been hurt, but to someone with three or more hardened notches in Violence, its nothing they haven’t seen before. Even a hardened veteran though might be affected by witnessing a brutal mass execution, or seeing a loved one tortured to death. Fail four Violence stress checks and you are likely to be diagnosed with PTSD. But hardened notches also affect the way you behave though exactly how is up the the player- lots of hardened notches in Violence may make you “bitter and harsh, feverish and vehement, or icy cold.”
Something that you can use to protect you from stress checks are your Identities. These can be almost anything you want, but the most obvious choices are professions and roles, for example Veteran, or Caring. Character creation starts you off with two, generally, but you can have up to four. Identities work as catch-alls for all sorts of more specific skills, using the mantra “I’m ____, of course I can ____!” So for example, “I’m a veteran, of course I can speak in military jargon, endure discomfort etc. Each identity can also substitute for one of the shock gauge related abilities above. So if your hardened notches in violence make it difficult to Connect with people now, you can roll on your Caring identity instead.
Each Identity also comes with two Features, picked from a pre-defined list that have specific mechanical effects in the game. For example, anybody can shoot a gun, but within the rules of this game, you have to have “Provides Firearm Attacks” as a feature to be any good at it. One of your identities may well be supernatural, a magical adept, or and avatar, and these are handled slightly differently.
Another thing that defines your character are Relationships. You start off with at least two of the five most important relationships in your life defined – your Favourite, your Guru, your Mentor, your Responsibility or your Protege. These can be with people – NPCs or other player characters, or organisations and groups. So your Responsibility might be your child, your Kung Fu class, or your employer. Relationships, like Identities have percentile measures attached to them, and you can use them for Coercion which is the Unknown Armies social combat system, or to substitute for some (but not all) Abilities; and even to say “Of course I can ___”.
You also choose three Passions, your Fear, your Noble passion and your Rage. But these are not covered in Chapter 1, not here, except a mention of them being burned to keep it together when your failed stress checks push you into Madness.
And that’s the frustrating thing about this book, which claims to be for players. Most players I know will want to turn to the character creation pages first, if only to get a handle on what they need to be thinking about as they read the rest. But this chapters doesn’t tell you how you actually put your Shock Gauges, Passions, Relationships and Identities together to make a character. You don’t even get to see a character sheet.
Granted, character creation should be a group activity, done under the auspices of the GM, because it doesn’t only create the characters, it creates the world, and the adventure too. So the process of character creation is covered in the GM’s book. There is a sort of summary in this volume, on page 54 “Creating Characters: The Lonely Singles Club Version” (which tells the player exactly what the author thinks if them), but if I were a player, and my GM had persuaded me to pick up just this book, I might well be confused and pretty cheesed after reading this chapter.
Which is why my next post on the subject will leap forward to Book 2, Run, and the rest of the rules on Character creation.