Forbidden Lands – Talents

This post was delayed, not because the chapter is long, but because I am a busy man. Work and study and, yesterday, gaming took me away from the keyboard.

We learned in chapter two that it costs fewer XP to buy or upgrade Talents than it does to buy or upgrade skills. I am down this that, because I find the Talents list very inspiring. The combination of talents that you acquire as you develop your characters will make them truly unique.

So, what makes Talents so special in this game? For a start, these Talents have three levels, which is an idea we gave the guys at Fria Ligan back in … episode three, I think it was, of the Coriolis Effect. What it means in practice is that rank one talents might seem a little underpowered compared to their Coriolis equivalent.

For example, take the Executioner talent, which allows a character to swap the dice on a d66 Critical Injury roll, so the tens becomes units a vice versa. Thus a 16 becomes a 61 if you want. At rank one in Forbidden Lands, you only get a re-roll, so you might only replace your 16 with say, 12 if you are unlucky. You can choose which result to accept though. At rank two however, you get the re-roll and the ability to swaps the tens and ones around. So rank one may seem weaker than a Coriolis Talent, but rank two is definitely better than a Coriolis talent. And rank three?

RANK 3: When you inflict a critical injury on your enemy, you may choose freely from the relevant list.

Boom. Head shot. 66. Every time.

And if you want someone dead, it’s best to do it with a crit. Because it looks from the Coldblooded talent that it’s actually quite hard to kill people. Not because people are tough, you can break people, or be broken frightenly easily. But even though they are down, they might not be dead. If you want to finish them off, in cold blood, you normally have to make a roll to see if you can stomach it, and you have to spend a willpower point or take empathy damage. (I forgot to mention Willpower, you earn willpower for every one you roll when pushing.) Of course it’s all a lot easier if you have the Coldblooded talent.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The first talent you get you don’t chose. Or rather you get with your kin choice. Like in Star Trek Adventures, Humankind are “Adaptive”. Which kind of makes sense, if you think that all the other races, for all their back-stories, are all really a subset of what it means to be human, with some traits pushed to the fore. I don’t blame Fria Ligan for this, it’s the same for all games, which are (so far at least) all written by humans.

The first choice you get is picking one of three Profession talents. And each of these add a distinct “flavour” to your starting character. So, pick Rider for example, and you are a horseman. But there is difference between, for example, the Knights of Westeros and the Dothraki in Game of Thrones, and two of the Rider talents let you flavour your PC to feel more like one of those. The third, the Path of the Companion twists you more towards the Western trope of a lone horseman and his loyal steed, his one true friend.

But it’s the general talents that let you make your character your own. For example, there are three professional talents for fighters, but everyone fights in the Forbidden Lands so the fighting style Talents are open to all. Are you a Brawler, do you carry at Axe, or (again with the Game of Thrones examples – at least I am not still going on about the First Law books) like Grey Worm, are you a Spear Fighter? Using talents thus allows the game to keep the skill list to a neat sixteen, while allowing detail and diversification. So you don’t need to have sailing on the skill list for most characters or campaign even, but when you need it, it’s there as a talent. And level three of that talent, as well as the weapon specialisations, let’s you roll a d8 Artefact die, massively increasing your chance of success. Similarly, you might have the crafting skill, which makes it possible to have a go at making anything, but with talents, you can specialise, as a Smith, Tanner or Tailor.

To close, there are just a few talents I want to mention. The Berserker talent kind of does what I was trying to do with the The Nhamadan Talent or Neural Sheathing in Coriolis, but given that at rank three is only offers the equivalent of three hit points, maybe it does make my attempt somewhat overpowered. Players who don’t like the thought of being manipulated by other PCs or GMCs might want to consider the Incorruptible talent, which offer some defence or at level three means you simply can’t be manipulated. Fearless give you defence against fear attacks. And finally, Pain Resistant rang an alarm bell when I read that “if you take a single point of damage from a close combat attack, you don’t lose your attack in the same step”. I thought for a moment that meant that when I get to the combat rules, I would discover that people without this talent would not be able to counter attack when hit. “Wow” I thought, “this system IS deadly.” But then I noticed that it also says “This talent can only be used if you use the advanced close combat rules.” Phew!

Combat is the next chapter, and it looks like a long one, so again the post might not be out tomorrow.

Forbidden Lands – Skills

The skills chapter also offers the meat of the rules, if only because characters using their skills is the meat of a game like this. Another adaptation of the Year Zero Engine, this returns to its roots, and in doing so reinforces the idea that it’s a post-fantasy-apocalyptic survival game. The push mechanic, like the original Mutant: Year Zero, risks damage, to your character or to your equipment. Because of this, unlike Coriolis or Tales from the Loop (where you pay for pushes differently), you need six sided dice of three different colours – one colour for attributes, at second for skill ranks and another for your weapon or gear bonus. Sixes on any die are successes, ones on Base (Attribute) or Gear dice represent potential damage. Ones have no effect if you don’t push your roll, but if you do choose to re-roll, you can’t use Base or Gear dice showing ones (you can use Skill dice showing ones, as they don’t represent potential damage). Make you re-roll with the dice you have available, and any ones showing on Base dice mean a temporary loss of attribute points for the attribute you used. (There are sixteen skills, four related to each of the four attributes, for example Melee uses the strength attribute). Further more, any ones showing on the gear dice reduce that item’s gear bonus.

Some players might argue that the chance of failure, and the cost of pushing is too high. I have heard a lot of players of Coriolis (none of mine) express their distaste for throwing a handful of dice and getting no successes. I have little sympathy for them, but players of this game are in for a tough time. It’s feels gritty, hard, deadly even. Perhaps that is why the writers have said:

It’s hard to succeed in the Forbidden Lands. If you lack the right gear or friends that can help you, there is a great risk of spectacular failure. With that in mind, you should never roll dice unless it is absolutely necessary. Save the dice for dramatic situations or tough challenges. In any other situation, the GM should simply allow you to perform whatever action you wish.

You can improve your chances of success by getting up to three other characters to help. Each one lets you add a skill dice – the least risky – to your pool. Which raises an interesting question about something that is said under the stealth skill – if more than one PC are sneaking past a guard, only the PC with the lowest skill level rolls. But, can that PC be helped by the others? I like to think yes.

Another way to improve your chances is to use master-crafted or magical gear, which brings a brand new mechanic to the d6 centric Year Zero Engine. These weapons and artefacts can add an extra d8, d10 or d12 to your roll. Any result above five is a success. Eight and nine are worth two success, ten or eleven means three successes and a roll of twelve is equal to four successes, which means of course that a d12 has 50/50 chance of success on its own.

Even without a magical weapon, once per game you can add a d12 to any role related to your pride, after you have rolled and even pushed. But if you still fail you lose your pride, and can’t choose a new one to the session after next.

Most of the skills themselves are pretty self explanatory, but there are a couple that deserve a more detailed look at. Performance for example includes the ability to heal wits or empathy damage. Animal handling confers the ability not just to ride but to command tame animals, and even to tame wild animals. Crafting is a Strength based skill that every soldier should take a rank in. It includes the ability to repair your weapons after pushing them. And like so many things I have read so far, it makes me think of the First Law books and especially The Heroes – the day by day account of a single battle, wherein everyone who is any good at soldiering spends time maintaining their weapons. It’s not just about repair though, with the right raw materials and time, you can make things from scratch.

And with the right talent, these can very impressive things too.

Forbidden Lands – Your Characters

The first thing that strikes me on reading the chapter on character generation is a similarity with Symbaroum – humans are portrayed as the invaders. When I started playing these games, the fantasy trope was of humankind threatened by the “other” be it dark Lords, orcish hordes or whatever. There may be something clever to say here, about the American concept of Manifest Destiny, and post-colonial European guilt, but it’s too early in the morning to get my head around that.

Let’s stick to the simple things. The races or “Kin” players can chose for their character are human, elf, half-elf, dwarf, halfling, wolfkin, orc, and goblin. Most of these are par for the fantasy RPG course. Traveller’s Vargyr make an appearance as the Wolfkin (ie wolf-men rather than werewolves), relatively rare in other fantasy rulesets. Orcs or half-orcs are common PC’s in F20 games, but there are no half-orcs here. The goblins are an interesting addition, though I am sure you can play goblins in D&D, it’s not one the basic options in the players handbook. This games take on goblins is an interesting one too – goblins are the “dark” brothers of the halflings. Not that there isn’t a pretty dark side behind the halfling smiles, which comes out in their description.

Indeed each description is very much from the point of view of that Kin, and to read most of them it’s hard to believe anyone would co-operate with another Kin enough to form a functioning party. But you have to remember, these PCs are rogues and outcasts from their own societies, and will have to get along with each other to survive. You also get an idea that each kin’s story is their own foundation myth – elves dwarves and orcs all blame each other for failing to keep the invading humans in their place. Somewhere between all their legends might lie the truth.

Then you get to chose a profession. Your profession doesn’t limit your character development as much as a D&D except in one way – you can never learn another profession’s unique talents. But there is nothing stopping you learning their skills, as long as you spend the XP. Your choice of profession then allows you to start with some skills that you are good at – every profession has a list of thee skills that you can start at up to rank three. All the rest you choose can only start at rank one. How many points do you get o allocate? Well, that depends … Every PC except elves get to choose whether they are young, adult or old. Elves (not half-elves) are ageless, and so are all adult. Your age determines how many points you get to spend on attributes and skills. Young PCs get the most attributes points and fewest skill points. The older you are, the more talents you get too.

This a quick and easy character generation system, but they mention an optional method of randomly generating a character in the separate pamphlet named Legends & Adventurers, “if you want to spend more time”. I am not convinced it would take more time. I find most of the time spent in modern point-buy systems like this is in reading all the options. Rolling the dice takes that time away, you can read about what you have created later.

Anyhow, however you have chosen your kin and profession, and allocated your points it’s time to choose a pride and a dark secret. Your pride has a mechanical effect, once per session if you fail a roll related to your pride, you can roll an extra d12, with an extra 50/50 chance of success. Your dark secret is a hook for the GM to narratively mess with you, but if it comes up in the story you get an extra XP.

You need define to your relationships with the rest of the party. This sometimes feels a bit clunky to me, and in Coriolis, I have suggested to my latest party that they don’t need to do so until after a couple of sessions. I guess in Coriolis you can change the nature of the relationships, but in this game it’s made explicit:

After the end of a game session, you are free to redefine your relationships to the other PCs as you see fit.

You can similarly change your dark secret if you so desire.

Your profession itemises some gear that you have, and a number of things you can pick from the equipment list. You also get a small amount of money, and can spend that if you desire. And some consumables like food and water. But beware, the game has a simple but potentially punishing encumbrance mechanic. Encumbrance is a thing I have hand-waved in pretty much every game that’s had it. But not this one, which at its heart is a wilderness survival game. This system is maths free and easy to check. So it WILL be used, and woe betide the character that ventures into the desert over encumbered. With the wilderness survival theme in mind, the game uses resource usage dice, which I first saw in Cortex+ Firefly, but many credit to the Black Hack for consumables. The intention is to make resource tracking easy and pleasurable, and to add risk to expeditions without adding accountancy.

Finally players are prompted to describe their character and choose a name. There’s a nice little feature earlier in the chapter to help with this – each Kin has male and female name suggestions, and every profession has nickname suggestions. So together your Wolfkin Druid might be Kekoa Windwalker. Or if he is a fighter, Kekoa Grimjaw. A lot of what I have been reading makes me think of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series of novels, but nothing more so than the Rogue nickname Half-finger. (“Still alive…”)

Then we move on to Experience and Reputation. The XP cost of advancement is a lot more demanding than in Coriolis. In that game, each skill level costs just five points. In this version of the system, it’s five times the level you are aiming for, so mov8mg from level two to three costs fifteen points! Talents are generally cheaper, with a multiple of only three times the rank. Except magic – if you can’t find a teacher, the cost is tripled again!

There are narrative costs for other talents and skill too. For example:

Learning a new skill (at skill level 1) costs 5 XP. Also, you must either have used the skill and succeeded (without skill level) during the session, or be instructed by a teacher (at skill level 1 or more) during a Quarter Day.

The reputation mechanic looks better than the sledgehammer-nutcracker version in Coriolis. Young characters have zero reputation, old characters two. Those are the dice you roll to see if anyone recognises you (which makes me think that perhaps young characters don’t get a nickname until they have earned it, like the Northmen in the First Law books). Deeds you do, good or bad may earn you another point. Your Reputation may well impact Manipulate rolls just like they do in Coriolis, but in this game, the bonus will be well deserved.

Forbidden Lands – Introduction

I am going to try another “Where I read…”, to force myself to go through the two new PDFs I just got from Fria Ligan. As a Kickstarter backer I got earlier alpha PDFs, which I thought I’d read enough to try a game. That I was floundering during the session proves it’s different enough from Coriolis to deserve a more thorough reading.

So, I am going to go though this chapter by chapter. I have plenty of time before I start a game – our first scheduled session is in November, and I am not even running that one. But if I don’t discipline my self now, time will run away with me, and I’ll be leafing though it the night before we play.

The PDFs I am reading here are from the files that went to print. Meaning when the books come out, this is the content they will contain. The books will come as a boxed set, in the traditional Swedish RPG size, so they will look a bit different from US sailed hardbacks.

I am going to post chapter by chapter, every day if I can, but we’ll see how successful that ambition is. Let’s start with the introduction to the players book.

I always sigh when I read the introduction chapter of most RPGs. Indeed I often skip it, too much trite fiction and “what is an RPG?” style explanations get me down. I am pretty sure I sighed as I began the fictional piece that start the introductory paragraph. This is a game that features men, elves, dwarves etc, and I gave I reading that sort of fiction, oh, over 30 years ago.

But this manages to be different. It’s short, for a start. Yes there are the usual made-up names, and affectations of great histories, but it gets to the point:

Adventurers. Treasure hunters. Scoundrels. Not heroes, far from it, but men and women who dare travel the land as they choose and make their own mark on it, unbound by any fate or story set for them. They hunt for ancient treasures, they fight whomsoever gets in their way, they build a new world for themselves on the ruins of the old.

They are the raiders of the Forbidden Lands.

This quoted section is about a third of the fiction, which I hope highlights how short it is, and readable. But it also very firmly puts the game in context. This is what YOU will be playing.

A section called “What do you do?” explains that your party will explore this land, discover adventure sites, seek eleven gems (a cross promotion of the optional campaign) and, if you survive long enough, maybe build a stronghold. That’s reinforced by the rest of that chapter, which explains you won’t be sent on missions by some great Lord, rather to are relying on yourself, and your companions, to survive and prosper in a land once deadly and still very dangerous. In describing the Ravenland setting, the chapter makes clear, without actually saying it, that this is a post-apocalyptic landscape. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t our world made into a fantasy world by an apocalypse, it’s a fantasy world that had its own apocalypse, from which it is only just starting to recover.

Though if that doesn’t float you boat, it says the rules will work with any setting.

I am also impressed by how to play section which, even though it goes over the basics like character sheets and dice, manages to inspire rather than bore this veteran gamer. I particularly like the box out which succinctly describes the phases of a game session. This shares space on the page with another highlight, the obligatory “we’re not going to be sexist section”, which drives that particular point home in a manner totally in keeping with the story:

Forbidden Lands takes place in a faraway fantasy world, not our own world’s past. Therefore, we are not bound by the norms and hierarchies of our history. The monsters of the Forbidden Lands do not differentiate between men and women, and neither does the Blood Mist.

I really think they have done a bang-up job of explaining how this game differs from other fantasy RPGs for experienced players, introducing us all to the world itself, while introducing the whole concept of RPGs to neophytes. In this year when D&D has sold more copies than ever before, when there are more new players than ever, Forbidden Lands in a game I would actively recommend to newbies and old-hands alike.

And that is before the chapter even gets to the section called “What is a role-playing game?” which unusually is the very last thing in the chapter! I’d almost argue that it doesn’t need such an explanation, but it’s mercifully short, and contains some vital reassurance:

The advantage of roleplaying games is also their challenge – the freedom to create the story yourselves can be overwhelming. But Forbidden Lands contains plenty of exciting events, places and people you can populate your story with, and very specific tools for the GM to use.

Colour me impressed so far. Of course all this was originally written in Swedish and translated. And they are some obvious artefacts of that translation – “during ten generations” for example, rather than “for ten generations”, but that charms rather than annoys.

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.