Unknown Armies 2:3 Characters, Cabals and the Stage

As I mentioned in my last post on the subject, the process of character creation in Unknown Armies is a group activity, led by the GM. So obviously (if somewhat annoyingly), that process is detailed in the GM’s book, Run, rather than the book sold as everything players need to know (harrumph). Therefore I’ve jumped forward to cover the relevant chapter now.

The PC group is referred to as the Cabal. But the process of character generation does just create that group, its creates the word they adventure in. That world is our world of course but with the addition (or if you like, the revelation) of magick. What the players do as they create their cabal is set the stage; “the important locations, themes and relationships.”

This isn’t something you do at the beginning of your first session, it deserves the whole of your first session. And it you have one, a cork-board, pins and bits a string – like a proper conspiracy theorist, If not, some big sheets of paper and markers. Oh, and everyone should bring some images that inspire them…

Then we are ready to begin with the cabal defining their objective. What is this story going to be about? It can be about pretty much anything you can imagine. The examples they give are things like removing a politician with mind-bending powers from office (this was written before last year’s US elections); escaping from a terrible situation; changing the world through magic rock and roll; tracking down and destroying every copy of a reality warping book; or, bringing dragons back into the world. Everyone round the table takes a turn at proposing an objective, and then the group (hopefully) agrees on one, which I guess could be an amalgam of more than one suggestion. Then they sketch out a rough idea of the milestones along the path to meeting that objective.

For best results, work within the framework of desperation, obsession and occult weirdness.

Then, they start defining their character by “notching their Unnatural meter” (ooh-err missus). They describe the event that convinced their character that the unnatural is real, and add up to five hardened notches in the Unnatural meter. Its entirely up to them but you might suggest that being pretty convinced you saw a ghost might be worth one hardened notch, while being brought up since childhood to be a sacrifice in a weird cult’s ritual might warrant the full five.

Back in the world, each player adds either a character or location and connects it to their character or any of the other elements that have already been put down.

Switching back to their characters, each players names their character’s obsession. Magick-using adepts have to make their form of magick their obsession. Then they define their first Identity, and give it anywhere between 15 and 90 percentage points.

The image of the game is blurry at this point. You have disparate elements, half-formed character who are little more than bundles of urges, funneled together in pursuit of a shared objective.

So stage two involves each player connecting their character in a relationship another PC: responsibility; guru; favourite; mentor; or, protege. Next, they give themselves a second identity, with a percentage value as before.

Then they turn back the the world, and each takes a turn at connecting to elements that were not connected before. If they want to connect one of the elements to another players character, they have to ask that player’s permission first. And, with four possible relationship types left, each player takes a turn to use one of them to describe their character’s relationship with the group as a whole.

Moving on to step three, each players distributes up to ten hardened notches across two of their shock meters. They don’t have to use all ten, they don’t have to distribute any points, if they want to play a less hardened character. Then they define their passions: “what pisses him off, scares him, and inspires him?” They can add more identities if they want, and if they have any percentage points left out of the original 120 that they started with. And its at this point they decide which identity best supports their obsession.

The final stage involves adding up to ten hardened notches on their last two meters. Then each player adds another element – GMC or place to the world, and another connection (which doesn’t have to be with the element you just added). They should make sure that each identity has its two features, and that the total number of points allocated to identities adds up to 120.

Then its time to pay the piper. Each player counts up the number of hardened notches on their meters. The total divided by five (rounded up) is the number of failed checks they must allocate. The player can allocate these however they wish across the five meters.

And we’re done.

Unknown Armies 1:2 Character

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.



Unknown Armies 1:1 Go

As I said, I’m going to take these books slow, chapter by chapter, writing a post for each. The first chapter is called Go. As the introductory chapter, it of course kicks off with a what is roleplaying section. Like many games it uses a percentile dice system, and suggest where newbies might find them. It does point out some differences to other RPGs very early though. In the fourth paragraph it puts the onus on players to set the objective – normally something in the GM’s remit. Later on it indicates what sort of objective that might be:

Instead of stopping the cultists or killing the beast or protecting the status quo, you are the cultist, the beast, the threat to tradition.

The game really pushes hard that its about characters in Unknown Armies are different. In many games characters are define primarily by what they can do – abilities and skills. In UA, they are defined by their objectives, by their history and how its affected their psyche, by their obsession and by their passion. They do get abilities, but these come first of all from their “shock gauges” and their identities. This last might sound like character Class, or Archetype, but unlike a lot of games, its not their first thing you do in character creation.

Then we dip into the world, and its our world, this one, now. Except your characters know better, because they believe in magic. They know that the “normal” world the rest of us see is just a thin veneer over what is really going on. They know that the world is defined by the Invisible Clergy, who used to be human but they ascended to embody something that the whole world recognizes as a social role: the Mother; the Fool; the Firebrand; and, the Star to name just a few. Your characters don’t know what they are all called, or even how many there are.

They know this though: they know there aren’t (yet) 333 of them. Because when there are, the world ends.

Beneath the Invisible Clergy, in power terms, are Avatars, Adepts and Gutter magicians. These are all things that player characters can be, but they don’t have to be any of them.

After the brief introduction to the world, there’s an pretty full description of the mechanics. Success is determined by percentile dice – preferably two d10 of different colours. If you have a a rating of 45% in Lie, you need to roll that or under to succeed. If you roll 00, that counts as 100 and a fumble, even if your rating was 100%. Ff you roll a matched success or failure, 44 or 55 for example, something unusual happens. Unusually good if its less than your rating, unusually bad, if you failed. If you roll 01, that’s a critical success. In certain circumstances you can flip-flop the dice, turning a 54 into a 45 for example. There are also circumstances where you you get a hunch roll. You roll the dice and have to use the result for your next action. So if you roll high, you want to do something where the consequences of failure are minimal.

The chapter finishes with a discussion of triggers and a piece of fiction.

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.