Unknown Armies 2:1 The GM’s role

The first chapter of book two, Run, is an introduction to GMing, but a more useful one than in many games.  Actually that’s unfair. My perception is being bamboozled by the three book structure of this game. Lots of games have GM sections that are just as good, but they are towards the back of the core book. It’s a very long time since I picked up the Dungeon Master’s Guide, or anything similar, but that’s what I should be comparing this book with. 

I’m not going to though. As I said I haven’t seen a DMG in years. The first page of this book does allude to that one though:


these entertainments would play differently if the title was “game servant” and always had been

The role of the GM is says is to get the balance of antagonism and challenge right, too much challenge and the players will never achieve anything, too little and their victories will feel hollow. 

But this chapter is mostly about setting the tone of the game. And it starts off with mystery, which it says is not investigation, rather it’s the sense of something unknown. Which is difficult when the mechanics of the world, how magick works etc. is explained in the players book, and indeed the whole world is built during character creation. 

The remedy is to throw away all the stuff that the players have been told, once their characters are made, and populate the rest of the world with things they haven’t heard of. Make new stuff up as you go along, keep notes so that you are consistent (mostly – later Stolze talks about gaslighting), and only think about working out the details when it really matters. 

Always remember that mystery is a mood, not a fact. Make magick strange, let the players feel ignorant and out of their element, and you’re a good way there already.

The section also offers some advice on atmosphere: stark, monochromatic decor; decay; and occasional grotesquerie, played absolutely straight (Ken Hite recently tweeted that the latest Twin Peaks series made him want to pick up UA again) are the spices that favour his game apparently. 

There is a very apposite discussion on sandbox vs railroad. Stolze points out that many mystery games, especially horror games like Call of Cthulhu, and earlier versions of UA tend towards the Railroad.

Railroads can be fun! Someone once observed that gamers rarely complain about a railroad when the scenery is gorgeous and the last stop is Awesome Town.

This third edition tends towards the sandbox, with some direction set by the players deciding an objective before they have even created their characters. This approach gives the players some of the control they lose to railroad adventures, while offerin the GM the luxury of a bit of pre-planning too. 

Then there is a big discussion of “Fairness”

Games, especially ones with a GM and players, have a paradoxical relationship with fairness. On the one hand, fairness is essential. On the other hand, it’s impossible.

Given that truth, how does a GM tread the fine line between challenge and dickishness? Stolze suggests a fair GM can be: random; mean; and confusing, but not: personal; ignorant; boring; or, claw back objectives… caverlierly. 

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