Unknown Armies 2:5 The Other Team

This chapter of the GM’s book looks at the character the GM controls, pressing home the idea that this is a game about people and relationships, , not about things. That idea is apparent even in the later section on organisations. None of them a faceless behemoths with anonymous black-clad agents (actually, I guess they might have some anonymous black clad agents), rather they are all organisations of people. They have founders and leaders, and everyone involved in them has their own motivations and obsessions.

This is one of the most extensive GMC advice chapters I have ever seen in a Role Playing Game. Said advice even includes a long column on how to keep GMC records, for example advising notecards over computer files. (My own advice on such matters is use the system that works best for you – I know that I, for example, would scatter notecards around my study, forget to bring them to the session or leave them somewhere. Stuff I put in OneNote is replicated everywhere.) Find a photo for each GMC, Stolze says, to help players tell them apart, and write down a “personality” anchor for yourself so you have an idea how they would react – such anchors can be real people or characters, in a few few sentences we mentions your Uncle Bob, Buffy and Clint Eastwood.

Minor characters, he says, only need that anchor, a name and a purpose.

Something like: “Brian Deen, chicken drive-thru employee, Simpsons fast food kid”

If necessary you can add a shock gauge to that description with, he suggest no more than four hard notches in any meter. If the PC’s hot them, they have a wound threshold of 50.

More significant characters include all those that have a relationship with the PCs. Their shock gauge might include some failed notches too. They might have a main identity around 60%, and perhaps a second one around 50% for colour.

Ben the Lousy Mook becomes on kind of person with Lifestyle Alchoholic 50%, but someone very different with Birdwatcher 50% instead.

Stolze argues that your campaign might not need any major GMCs, but sometimes a character does need to be as complete to the GM as PCs are to their players. As a guideline, he suggests anyone with connections to two PCs should be a major character. Such characters need detailed histories, because your players will ask about them. He points out that GMCs don’t need to be created following the same rules as PCs, and wisely points out that if let the players fight a major GMC “they will find a way to kill it.” There is a section on why adepts make such good GMCs, which boils down to: they are mysterious, powerful weirdos.

Then there is a large section on groups, which says Stolze work as: Big Bads with ticking time-bombs; mysteries to solve; unreliable allies; or, sandbags. There are a number of example groups, but also guidance on making them from scratch, with a useful classification of purpose and methods – each can be either mundane or occult. So an organisation of magick cops for example, might have a mundane purpose (keep the peace) but use occult methodologies. A street gang might be entirely mundane – their purpose is to sell drugs, and their methods involve contacts, exchange, hidden stashes and occasional violence. Stolze argues that most churches have an occult purpose (connect with the divine) but for all their ritual their misunderstanding of how magick works means their methods are mundane (coffee mornings, bring and buy sales). Groups with an occult purpose and occult methods are “the deep crazy, magick means, magick goals, magick philosphies, all stacked together like pancakes slathered in synchronicity and buttered with paranoia until you can’t hardly tell where one ends and the other begins.”

I won’t share too much about the example groups, for fear of spoilers. I’ll only list each one with a short summary of its ostensible reason for existence (which may not actually be true – these groups have histories and their goals may change). Each one has a little bit on the history of the organisation, which is written in such a way that I think it might refer to things that were covered in previous editions of Unknown Armies or supplements, and explains what happened in the intervening years. Much of each history names movers and shakers in that history, but not everyone is given stats (though three from the Sect of the Naked Goddess get full write-ups). There’s normally a bit on how the organisation operates currently, and the resources it might have. Occasionally the organisation is a school of magick, and there are details of charging and spells. The last section of each write-up is “The future(s) of…” which is a few suggestions for how the organisation might fit into your campaign.

Flex Echo is a department of the NSA using occult methods to process data.

Ordo Corpulentis is society dedicated to spreading both US culture and the blessings of Jesus Christ (yeah, sure).

The Sect of the Naked Godess are followers of the archetype The Naked Goddess, whose ascension to the the Invisible Clergy was recorded on tape.

The Sleepers are a magickal police force determines to keep the occult secret for lest the mundane world rise up against adepts.

The New Inquisition is an attempt to monopolise the control of magick.

Mak Attax try to make the world a better place though sharing magick with non-adepts, almost the antithesis of The New Inquistion.

The Milk turn children into Avatars in the hope to replacing the Invisible Clergy.

The Immortal Secretaries plan to take over the world but being the power behind every throne.

Finally at the end of the chapter, there’s one of those bits which you feel doesn’t quite fit in, but Atlas games couldn’t work out a better place to put it. One imagines that Stolze it the sort of writer that churns stuff out, and its hard fro any editor to keep up. This particular section is about riots, which I guess is a loose (VERY loose) organisation of people.


Unknown Armies 2:4 Anatomy of a Game Session

It’s been a while since I last posted on this Where I Read …, partly because I’ve been busy doing other stuff, but also because my GMing priorities changed. We ran the character creation session for this game a few months ago, with the intention of getting into a campaign and completing it before Christmas. But then, one of the players, who serves in the Army was told he was being reassigned elsewhere in January, and he had a half-finished D&D 5th Ed e gocampaign that we wanted to complete before he left. So we’ve been playing that (very satisfyingly) and well revisit UA3 after he goes, towards the end of the month. We’ll probably need to look again at the characters, we may have a different mix of players, but it won’t be long before the game starts in ernest.

So its just as well I’m up to chapter four of book two, which it slightly miss-named. It talks about the anatomy of the game session, but actually it is really about the anatomy of a campaign. Indeed its first section is called “The Lifecycle of a Campaign.” Also the following section is some stuff that feels as though it should have been included in chapter three, usful advice about helping the players choose an objective you can work with.

But those niggles aside, I really like this chapter. As Stolze says in his intro, we’ve all improvised our way “along the path of a plot like a rushing river, between the sandbars of digression and the rapids of bad rolls” but when faced this the question “Oh crap, what do I do next?!? […] seeing your answer as a component in a taxonomy that relates it to other possibilities could help you deploy your choices with more efficiency and confidence.”

Campaign: a series of connected game sessions that share characters, starts at point A and ends up somewhere over the horizon after cool people have made interesting choices.

So what is “the lifecycle of a campaign”? Its pretty simple. The first session (no “session zero” for Stolze) is the character phase. Then the campaign alternates between the Antagonist Phase (between sessions) and the Mediation Phase (during sessions).

The antagonist phase is when the GM gets to be oppositional, thinking of ways in which the world wants to upset the players’ plans. (And since my players have decided to end the world  – a modest objective for the first go with the game – by restarting the Mayan Apocalypse Clock (yeah, apparently its an actual thing), I think that, yeah, the whole world does want top upset their plans.) Stolze advises “Think of the worst things, or the most most challenging things, or the most tempting things that your PC might face. What more than anything else is going to make a PC stop and say ‘Woah, maybe I don’t want to persue our objective, not if that is the price!’? Get those ready, but don’t carry that attitude of total antagonism into the actual session.” Instead he advises that in the mediation fan you switch from being the enemy to being a fan of the characters and of the game. You concentrate on making the game run smoothly.

The section on The Antagonist Phase is really useful. As you read it (if you have any experience as a GM) you’ll say “yeah, I kinda knew that” but you never saw it put into words like this. Its so good I just want to copy words out of the book and into this blog. But, while that may be very rock and roll, punk even, its not legal, and I want you to go out there and buy the book and reward Stoltze for all his hard work. So, I’ll paraphrase. The antagonist phase is what many GMs call “Prep”, but its a better name, because you don’t want to be thinking about solutions. You just want to end up with loads “of ideas for events, individuals, and suppurating entities that could make trouble for your PCs.” But he classes them as either distractions or obstacles.

Distractions are targets at one PC, to split them off from the rest of the cabal, and to put them into conflict, either directly or not, with the group’s objectives. This advice is somewhat against the traditional motto “don’t split the party.” Obstacles are simply people or events that get in the way of the group’s next milestone. Obstacles can be physical; psychological (Stozle advises care with these but points out how useful they are in the early stages of the game, when players are testing the limits of their character); logistical; or, mystical of course.  If you need help creating obstacles and distractions, the internet (especially Facebook’s UA fan club and Unnatural Phenomena) is there to help, and eventually, you should have to creat fewer and fewer obstacles and distractions on your own and the PCs will have created a whole bunch through their actions, what Stolze calls “blowback”. Blowback comes with a caveat though: “there’s a fine line to walk between ideas that actions have consequences, and the thought that you will never get ahead, everything turns to rubbish when you touch it, there’s no point in opening the door because the knob will just come off in your hand. You have to validate their triumphs.” Blowback also provides continuity between sessions; reveals clues; reinforces cost; and importantly, feels fair. Perhaps more fair than an obstacle that you have invented. Finally, he covers “opportunities” a reward or shortcuts that the PCs can pursue – things they didn’t even know they needed, but that get them somewhere. Do it when the chips are down (but not too often) and the players will thanks you, but do it when things are going well that the players will wonder whats going on. And in UA, paranoia is good…

In the section on the Mediation Phase, the first thing addressed is pacing. Talking about analysis paralysis, he says that sometimes you just have to step in and say  “so is that the plan?” – don’t do that though when you ca see its a shit plan. I think that sometimes what is perceived as analysis paralysis is actually roleplaying. If everyone is enjoying it, remind them to keep it in character but see how it plays out. It may fill a session satisfactorily, and create some blowback on the way…. There is also advice for when the objective seems too hard, or too close for urgency, or when a PC is feeling left out.

In the final advice on running the campaign, Stolze warns against negating the PC’s ideas – except when you realize that its making another player feel icky, or is entirely outside the scope of the game. Otherwise acceptance is the rule, the more accept, the more blowback the characters will create. Accept it when: the players don’t think an idea you have had seems interesting; and when they chicken out of of an objective of milestone; and they they do lousy things; and whand they change direction unexpectedly. Last of all, there is advice on knowing when to stop. Have they achieved their objectives? Or done something spectacular and hard to top? Or maybe they’ve failed… as he says “there’s no guaranteed happy ending in horror games.”

Unknown Armies 2:2 Objectives

Again, I’m somewhat puzzled over the allocation of chapters between books one and two. The content of this chapter, for example, seems mostly aimed at players rather than the GM, and yet it finds itself in the GM’s volume. A player might ask, “why do I even need a mechanic for objectives?” Indeed, in many games, it’s the GM who sets the objective – destroy the evil artefact, find the murderer, or whatever, while the players may have, supplementary objectives such as get as rich as possible, or have loads of fights in bars. Sometimes, the GM-set and the players’ objectives mesh, sometimes they clash. Greg Stolze’s stated aim with this third edition is to combine sandbox and horror – if a true sandbox allows player characters to run away from horror, then its useful for the GM know what they want to run towards, so that s/he can put horror in their way. 

So, this chapter helps players create objectives in a GM friendly way, giving them a sense of scale – is it local, weighty or cosmic; and an enabling mechanic that allows GM and players to measure the impact of their actions on achieving the objective. The scale stuff is really useful for the GM, offering examples of just how crazy the PCs need to get to achieve what they want. The success measure thing feels like it might be an unnecessary addition to the narrative but I’ll play it through and see what it adds to the game. I can see that it could make a story about, for example, putting together a magickal ritual more free-form and give the players a modicum for control, while retaining a sense of beginning, middle and end. 

Let me try and give an example: An objective requires (on average) five intense milestones to complete. Which might mean roughly five sessions of gaming. What exactly “intense” means depends on the scale of the objective.  An intense milestone for a Local objective might mean bugging or hacking into some target’s home, but a intense milestone for a Cosmic objective would mean assassinating the most important politician in Europe. (Some would argue that working out who the most important politician in Europe actually is is a challenge of cosmic proportion in itself.) But that doesn’t mean that the GM should think up five adventures – they might have ideas to share, but it’s up to the players, really to explain what they plan to do, and then the GM can work out if it’s a pretty or intense milestone and reward the the players with a appropriate amount of progress towards completing their objective. Play might reveal new unplanned opportunities, but it doesn’t matter – just work out if it’s petty or intense then play though it. It will always be worth something towards the objective. 

If they want to go for the objecting without having completed the milestones they can, and the progress they’ve made so far becomes the chance of success. Players might even decide that there’s a better objective to go for. No problem, depending on the scale of the new objective, and a die roll, some or all of their progress can count towards the new objective. 

I’m not entirely convinced the mechanics are worth the admittedly minimal hassle, but I’ll give them a go.

Unknown Armies 1:6 Adepts

This may be the meatiest chapter in the book. And I guess, in an RPG about magick, the chaper on magick deserves to be. It distinguishes between gutter magick, ritual magick, and the postmodern schools of magick that are part of the raison d’etre of the game.

There eight of these schools explored, with the promise that we’ll find more in book 3, and a system for inventing your own (though I wouldn’t recommend that until you’ve played a few of the existing ones). At its core, each school works by behaving in a certain way – which to a “normal” person might look a lot like OCD, to collect charges, minor, significant and major, which fuel spells. The behaviours that create charges break the rules of reality, and society – an Adept’s life will be odd, obsessed with something, but not using it in the way that others do. 

For example Fulminaturgs are obsessed by guns, but their magick only works if they never actually shoot anybody. That said the way they collect charges – openly carrying guns in public – might make it too difficult to play a Fulminaturg in a UK set game.

My favourite of the schools presented in this chapter is Cinemancy. The cinemancer is obsessed with cliché. When they get somebody else to describe a cinematic cliché, or quote a clicéd line, they get a minor charge. Acting as a cinematic cliché, for example, The Hooker with a Heart of Gold, for five hours will earn the Cinemancer a significant charge. A major charge can be earned by getting people to act out a clichéd scene without realising what they are doing. They lose all their charges if they fail to follow through on a clichéd behaviour – if they are driving in a chase and they see a fruit cart, for example, they must ram it.

The spells available to cinemancers are clichés too; Charge a banana skin as you drop it on the ground and name someone, and they will slip on it an pratfall; Charge any cloth and hold it over somebody’s mouth, and they will be knocked out; Cast “What could go wrong?” when somebody says something won’t happen, and it definitely will. You can make the bad guys terrible shots, and finish complex tasks in the the takes to play a song too, with the Cinemancer’s power of cliché.

The book goes into some detail about inventing your own school. If you have an idea about a theme for your school, your GM will ask you to think about a paradox that turns something quite normal into something magickal. That leads to to start thinking about the behaviours that earn the adept charges, and the taboo, the behaviour that looses your charges. The example they offer is Refumancy, where a player had suggested they want to base a school of magician upon freeganism, and so suggests that the taboo would be “meaningfully partake in consumer culture. The GM asks for or even suggests some specific examples, like taking any job where tax is withheld (so cash in hand jobs, or favours would be OK) or buying any new mass produced product. Minor charges would be acquired by protesting against corporations (real street level protests count, not simply liking and angry post on Facebook), and significant ones by causing a stock market crash or burning a factory. Or killing a cop. 

The GM gives the taboo and charges an “omega value” based on how difficult they are to do in normal society, to balence out the school against the others. In the example above, the taboo is average, omega zero, but the charge collection is hard enough to be worth -1, the higher the omega value, the more charges will be needed to cast spells. 

Calculating Ω is a little bit subjective, so you and your GM should argue bitterly about it before you grudgingly give in.

Spells are costed according to duration, range and effect. The book lists some broad catagories of minor and significant effects to help you cost out the player’s ideas. To get the cost down the player can suggest extra restrictions, such as, in the previous Refusemancy example some of the spells only work against tools of “The Man”, policemen, security guards etc. (Healing spells are VERY difficult.)

There are also rules for making magical items, and finding and performing forgotten rituals. Rituals can, do have effects beyond the caster’s school. In fact you don’t have to be an adept to perform ritual magick. Some “normal” people have the casts rituals feature, as does the Avatar identity. Minor rituals don’t even need charges to cast, but significant ones do. A box-out also offers the “Authentic Thaumaturge” identity as if you fancy being a Crowley type secret society member. 

This chapter lists a number of rituals, which I find a bit strange as this is the players’ book, and rituals have to be acquired by most PCs they are not already “known” like an Adept’s spells (though Authentic Thaumaturgs do get a couple). Also, some rituals have unintended consequences – ritual to make a man irresitanle to women, for example, actually gets him possessed by a random demon. I guess this may actually be a satirical warning to players: “don’t even try this sort of shit, even in a game of let’s pretend.”

Indeed just reading these rituals opens up an aspect of the game not bad explicit before: there is apparently a hell, get on the wrong train in a ritual involving the Subway(underground) and you’ll find yourself there. And obviously there are Demons too. 

So far, all the magick we’ve seen has been codified. Not quiet Vancian, but restricted to lists of known spells. Yes, we’ve been show how a player can make a whole school of magick up, but so far there’s been nothing about characters being able to create magick on the fly. Gutter magick, or “reality bruising”, is something everyone can try. Or at least everyone with at least one hardened notch in their Unatural meter.

To do magick this way you need to collect a number of symbolic elements, things that respresent you, your target, and the collective unconscious. Then you make up a ritual involving these elements. 

You might conjure up a vodou doll made with a GI Joe and bathed in the photons of your target’s social media page.

There are six broad catagories of effect: Blessing an endeavour makes it more likely to succeed; forming a Bond between you and another; giving yourself or someone else a Boon; or conversely, givening them a Whammie;  Curseing them; or creating a Proxy for yourself so that “bad juju that comes your way from afar may be redirected at them”. 

Of course the actual effect may not be the reason why you do a ritual. The chapter concludes with three ways one might exploit rituals: to freak the squares; to validate your magickal credentials; or, to convince people to do strange (stupid) things. 

And that’s it. The end of the chapter, and book one. 

Unknown Armies 1:5 Avatars and Archetypes

So, we know how to create characters, and indeed how the rules work … for normal people. But you don’t want to be “normal” do you? Well actually, this game might well be one where you do – as the players set the campaign tone and objectives, it’s a flexible enough system to help normal characters have a lot of scary fun. But of course, lots of players play RPGs to escape from reality, so Unknown Armies offers two sorts of “superhero” to play.

Interestingly, you can argue that the first type, the Avatar, is normal. In fact it’s ultra-normal, it’s so normal it goes right through normal and comes out the other side. Remember how we said that society creates the Invisible Clergy? Well the Invisible Clergy are (up to) 332 Archetypes, embodiments of societal norms – The Mother, The Fool, The Firebrand, The Hacker, The Solid Citizen etc. They come to define society just has society has defined them, altering the collective unconscious and bending humanity to their will.

Together, they are God, or shards of God, or a pantheon of gods, or contructs of our species, or patterns given will, or all of these and more.

When there are 333 of them, the world is destroyed and remade and society starts defining new norms, new archetypes.

But let’s not worry about that, let’s live in the now. Players characters can choose to follow in the path of any Archetype, to live their life so exactly in the footsteps of their chosen archetype that they get to borrow some of its power. You are a walking, talking cliché. Players can pick an Avatar identity at creation, assigning a percentage rating like any other identity. The get mystical powers depending upon the level of their identity. For example, from 1% an Avatar of the Warrior does not need to make stress checks while perusing their purpose. From 51% anyone fighting along side them for their cause, gets +10% to a relevant ability or identity. From 71% they can substitute their Warrior identity for a chosen useful ability. And from 91% can not be harmed by individuals who represent the opposition.

Players can choose to become an avatar surfing play, starting at 0% and simply choosing to live the life of the archetype.

If the Driver is more your speed, better get yourself a car and a pair of leather gloves.

Improving your identity doesn’t work like other identities. With most, when you fail a roll you get a chance to improve, because you are learning. As an avatar, you only get that chance to improve when you succeed, because you are becoming ever more like that archetype. You can also improve your rating but setting it as an objective. Succeed at you get +1-10%. But your rating can also drop, if you break the taboos of your archetype. In the example of the Warrior your taboo is compromise with your enemies. You can be a warrior against anything you choose: people from France; Big Pharma; Nazis; student debt; whatever, but cut any sport of deal with the enemy, even give up a fight from them and you risk dropping 1-5%.

Get up to 98% in your avatar identity, and you have a shot at becoming the top dog, the Godwalker of your archetype. To actually do that though, you have to kill the current Godwalker, or force them into breaking your shared taboo enough to knock him off the top spot.

It is possible to become an archetype, through Ascension (creating a new archetype, bringing us one closer to the 333 that trigger the end of the world, or Assumption, the latter being a plot to displace the current archetype with a more relevant new variant. Either way, you don’t get to play as an Archetype  – your character’s arc is ended.

The book then lists 16 archetypes to get you started, from The Captain to The Warrior, and including: The Hacker; The Mother; The Solid Citizen; The Survivor and The True King among them. Each comes with the sort of things you must do to follow its path; the Taboos, the things you MUST NOT do; Symbols, that you should wear/use to better follow the path; suspected Avatars from history; Masks, fictional or mythological versions of the Archetype; and the Channels, the powers you get for being an Avatar.

Finally the chapter offer characters advice for exploiting Avatars and Archetypes, including flattery, manipulation and alliances.

Unknown Armies 1:4 The Weirdness of the World

I’m not sure quite what the purpose of this chapter is, apart from to introduce the next couple of chapters to players. It starts with a rehearsal of what we read in Chapter 1: that behind the “normalcy” of our crowdsourced reality is another weirder one, but it firmly makes us, society, humanity, whatever, responsible for the creation of that weirder world as well as the vanilla one most of us experience.

We created the Invisible Clergy, you see?

When enough people believe in an idea, a person who stands in for that idea, or archetype, ceases to exist in the matter-world and ascends instead to a realm of pure idea.

It then explains why Atheists are wrong, the Invisible Clergy may not technically be “gods” but they certainly are higher powers that impact upon the world of men and women. That’s said Religious people have it wrong too, by oversimplifying things, and more importantly, by expecting the gods to be benevolent. If you accept the universe was designed by committee, you can exploit the inefficiencies and contradictions, and that’s what magick is.

All of that introduced a section on Unnatural Phenomena which seems mostly written for the GM’s benefit, and slightly out of place in this book for players. It is a pretty useful introduction to the flavour of weirdness that Greg Stolze is aiming for, with some great examples. I particularly like the minor phenomenon, The Wrong Vomit, wherein somebody spits up something impossible, from razor blades to a fresh egg with a yolk made of gold-dust, apparently with no harmful effects. The section concludes with a piece that is written for players, which explains how they might make use of Unnatural Phenomena, as a source of insight, resources, or just something to show to people to freak the norms out.

Even more useful though are Artefacts. This section explains that some artefacts are natural and some constructed (but we’ll discover how to construct them in a later chapter). It describes a few, like the Magic Bullet which always hits (but not round corners for through walls or anything like that, its only a minor artefact), or the Nightingale Watch, which protects you from death, though not from being mangled, maimed, blinded etc. There’s a slightly strange diversion into the mystical properties of the penny or cent at the end of the chapter, but it works quite well as inspiration fro how you can turn proverbs and idioms into gutter magick and ritual.

As usual before the next chapter there’s a piece of fiction. The story being told here is beginning to get compelling.