Unknown Armies by Test Pattern
IntroductionOriginal SA post Unknown Armies
The title page calls it "A roleplaying game of power and consequences by Greg Stolze and John Tynes" (the former of whom has his own thread, he's so cool). That's one way to sum it up. Another is "The Tim Powers RPG", which is how I describe it to anybody who's read Powers (which the game itself recommends, by the way). Broadly stated, it's an occult/horror RPG with a modern American setting and a focus on personal choice on responsibility -- with a focus on the idea (big in Powers) that magic(k) ruins your fucking life .
I'm going to be working out of the 2nd Ed. Hardcover, which is a beautifully illustrated and well-put-together volume. I have one quibble about the layout, though: while I like the idea of breaking the book into the campaign "levels", it means that the mechanics and fluff are interspersed a bit oddly. Luckily, it has a great ToC.
After the usual fronts-matter, we get "About the Book", broadly describing the three campaign types and the structure of the book.
A "Street" campaign is about mysteries and secrets, featuring PC's who have learned that there is an occult side to the world and are starting to explore it and a focus on horror. A street campaign can be all about the local rumor about there being a guy who's
pulling people's faces off
, and meeting that guy is a pants-shitting experience where your best friend gets his
fucking face pulled right off his fucking skull holy shit holy shit I can see his skull holy shit what is this fucking guy
A "Global" campaign is about personal power and what it costs and does, featuring PC's who usually know something or know some magick and a focus on personal horror and desires. A Global campaign can be about almost anything, but is very frequently McGuffin-oriented. A guy who pulls people's faces off could be some fucking asshole duke that the PC's have to deal with, or hell, even a PC.
- A "Cosmic" campaign is about culture and meaning and what we ALL want, featuring PC's who know some of the secrets behind magick, with a focus on philosophy, symbolism, and literally changing the entire world. At the cosmic level, a dude running around some podunk town pulling faces off people is part of a long-term play to increase fear of the dark and strangers. Or maybe just some random crazy adept. Or both. Or neither.
Next is "About The Rules", a concise one-page summary of the resolution system: It's a percentile roll-under system with stats and skills (more about which later), and a couple of nice fillips:
Minor/Significant/Major skill checks. If you have the skill, you just succeed at the former, can succeed at the second by rolling under your stat (though it's less of a success than if you get under your skill), and the latter (used for all combat and magic) requires rolling under your skill. You can also sort of get along without a relevant skill by rolling under a penalized stat for the first two, or rolling against your stat and hoping for a matched roll or crit for Major checks.
Shifts and Minimums, the former for penalties or bonuses to an action, the latter for things that are just hard to do.
01 is a crit, 00 is a fumble, always (in a carryover from the 1st ed in some parts of the text, the latter is called a "BOHICA").
Matches. Matched rolls (55, say) are moreso. A matched success is a big success, matched failure is a big failure. These replaces crits in most games, with the crits and fumbles above being really, really spectacular.
Flip-Flops. One of the signatures of the system. Under certain circumstances (usually, using your character's obsession skill), you can ignore which die would normally be the 10's and which would normally be the 1's. Rolled a 91? Now it's a 19!.
- Hunches. A roll made ahead of time, but it's your next roll. Have a good feeling? Take that risk. Have a bad feeling? Hedge your bets.
After that it's a nice piece of short fiction.
Next time: Book One: The Secret Names of Streets
Book One: The Secret Names of StreetsOriginal SA post UNKNOWN ARMIES
Book One: The Secret Names of Streets
This is the Street Level Campaign portion of the book. It contains all the character creation rules excepts magick and some street-level fluff.
The UA setting is our world with the addition of the "Occult Underground". Basically, there's magic, but it's hidden and the people who know about it are secretive about it. The street-level setting is mostly about investigating this underground and delving shallowly into it. We get a bit of mood-setting text; three one-page fiction pieces in the first person, describing the narrators' first encounters with the supernatural, in the parlance of UA, their "Trigger Events"; and two pages of rumors ("What You Hear"), each one a couple of lines giving something you might hear ("Bigfoot has a Social Security Number" is my favorite), and unlike the late sections, a bunch of these are ones you could easily hear in our world, driving home that street-level is about people much you us looking behind the curtain of normal.
Then we get the character creation rules. It's suggested you start with a trigger event and we get some examples, from the brief and possibly not-actually-supernatural (your grandfather ate your dog because he thought it had your grandmother's eyes) to life-defining and fantastic (a strange man first appearance of the Comte in the book pulls you out of the fire that killed the rest of your family and tells you what to do with your life). Next is a whole list of suggestions for why the PCs are working together (my favorites are Cabana Boys, a group of kept boys trying to uncover the hidden secrets of their ultra-rich community, and Curb Service, crime-fighting car valets. I wish more games would start character creation with that -- too often a group that's going to need to work together is a hodge-podge of individually interesting concepts that make no sense together.
Chapter 3, Conception, has the first actual crunchy character creation rules, starting with the character's Obsession: their core driving desire or idea. Because people don't just lightly skip into the weird side of things, almost every UA character will have an obsession. Adepts (more on them later) are required to have an obsession that works with their magical school (vice versa, really, but again, later), but anyone else can be obsessed with damn near anything. A character's obsession lets you pick one skill that thematically matches it to be their "obsession skill", which lets you flip-flop rolls made against it, and sometimes some other stuff, more on which later.
After obsessions, we get Passions, the things the character really cares about. They must be coherent with the obsession, and there are three: Fear, Rage, and Noble. When faced with something that hits one of the triggers, you can, once per session per passion, flip-flop a roll or re-roll a failed roll to do certain things.
The Fear passion is what your character is deeply frightened of, and the flip-flop or re-roll is usable to flee from it. It's also tied to one of the five Madness Meters, against which you will make a stress check when the character is threatened by the fear stimulus. More on Madness Meters later.
The Rage passion is what completely pisses your character off, and the flip-flop or re-roll can be used to lash out against it.
- The Noble passion is what inspires your character, and you can use it to do almost anything in selfless pursuit of living up to it.
Unknown Armies suggests you come up with a quick description of how your character presents themselves (the above already determined "who they really are"). It also suggests, wisely, using something quickly recognizable, a broad character type, a zodiac sign, or a pop-culture character, to sum up that personality quickly.
Next Time: The real crunchy bits of chargen, stats and skills.
Stats and SkillsOriginal SA post
Well, it's not QUITE a month later...
Unknown Armies: Stats and Skills
Here's how your character does what they do. Every character has four Stats: Body, Speed, Mind, and Soul. Each stat has a value up to a hundred (normally), 50 being the human average. Starting characters get 220 points to divide however they want, more in Global and Cosmic campaigns.
Body is health, strength, and general fitness, and you have max wound points (HP, basically) equal to your Body score.
Speed is exactly what it says it is, basically Dex in other systems.
Mind is also exactly what it says it is. Int to use D&D descended terminology. It's what you roll against when faced with a mental stressor: Madness Checks.
Soul is, appropriately, a bit more nebulous. It governs non-analytic mind stuff, gut stuff, and most importantly (or least), Magick stuff (it's also frequently a factor in when someone's trying to do something TO you with magick). Essentially all paranormal stuff, and absolutely all Adept/Avatar skills, are Soul skills.
Skills are the real meat of the game -- you rarely roll your stat directly for anything interesting (other than madness checks). UA has freeform skills, with some default skills that everyone gets at 15%, the minimum to succeed at an unchallenged, un-dangerous use (and one that everyone gets at half their Speed, Initiative). That means that anything you want your character to be good at, they can have a skill for. Skills can never exceed their governing Stat, and there are suggested maxima for starting skills in each campaign type (55% for Street, higher for Global and Cosmic). You get points for skills in each stat equal to your score in that stat, and then some bonus points, again based on campaign type (15/70/ 125 S/G/C -- cosmic characters are experienced).
A last thing on Skills, before we actually get into them, is that they have penumbrae, basically knowledge and contacts that go with the skill. Got a super-high Ice Dancing skill? You can probably get in touch with Nancy Kerrigan. Is Gunplay your obsession and buffed beyond all reason? You can identify most handguns at a glance.
Body: Physical skills. You get General Athletics (jump! climb! play ball for the soul of your just-born son!) and Struggle (hand-to-hand fighting, freely renameable to a bad-ass martial art or whatever) for free at 15%, and can buy those up or buy appearance, extra endurance, whatever you do with just being healthy and strong.
Speed: Coordination and dexterous skills. You get Dodge and Driving free at 15%, and Initiative free at Speed/2 (how it works is something we'll cover in combat). Again, you can buy these up or get a Gun-something skill, reflexes, sports (here or under body, depending on the sport and your GM), or whatever you do by being in good control of your body.
Mind: Mental skills. You get Conceal (hide yourself or stuff, physically or otherwise), Notice (notice clues, have sharp senses, beat Conceal...), and General Education free at 15% (which in General Education's case is HS, maybe some college, and the book includes a rubric for what level of educational attainment higher scores suggest, with the suggestion that you rename "General Education" to your specialty if you have one). You can buy those up, or get skills like Chess, Memory, Medicine, Languages (buying 15% is enough to speak/read/write fluently). Also under Mind is a special skill type called Paradigm Skills, which have to do with Madness Meters and I'll cover them when I get to those.
Soul: Emotional, empathetic, and supernatural skills. You get Charm and Lying for free at 15%. Notable Soul skills are social skills (including skills that basically represent your ability to call in favors), all Magick, all Avatar abilities, and of course any weird and ooky stuff that might be yours, all yours.
After that, pick one Skill to be your Obsession Skill (has to fit your Obsession, if you're an Adept, it must be your Adept school), and we're done with Skills.
Advancement: A matched success or failure (22, 66) on a major skill check instantly improves that skill by 1 point, up to once per session per skill; Skills cost 1 XP per point, Stats cost 2, can't spend more than 2 per Stat or 3 per Skill at a time. New skills cost 10 points and start at 10%, and can require training. XP is suggested to be doled out about 1-8 per session.
The last bit of the chapter is some game-design talk about how the skills work (and how good the ability to flip-flop is, around a 50% bonus to your chance of success (less for very high and very low skills)) and how to build a character who's fun rather than uber-powerful.
Next Time: Combat! Notable for being the only chapter on combat in an RPG that devotes the first page to how stupid and terrible combat is.
Six Ways to Stop a FightOriginal SA post
Continuing where Test Pattern left off, let's talk about combat in Unknown Armies ! The chapter starts off with what I consider one of the best openings in RPG history. I'll just quote the whole thing here, since it needs to be read in its entirety to be fully appreciated.
Ladies and gentlemen, Six Ways to Stop a Fight .
Unknown Armies, page 47. posted:
Somewhere out there is someone who had loving parents, watched clouds on a summer's day, fell in love, lost a friend, is kind to small animals, and knows how to say "please" and "thank you," and yet somehow the two of you are going to end up in a dirty little room with one knife between you and you are going to have to kill that human being.
It's a terrible thing. Not just because he's come to the same realization and wants to survive just as much as you do, meaning he's going to try and puncture your internal organs to set off a cascading trauma effect that ends with you voiding your bowels, dying alone and removed from everything you've ever loved. No, it's a terrible thing because somewhere along the way you could have made a different choice. You could have avoided that knife, that room, and maybe even found some kind of common ground between the two of you. Or at least, you might have divvied up some turf and left each other alone. That would've been a lot smarter, wouldn't it? Even dogs are smart enough to do that. Now you're staring into the eyes of a fellow human and in a couple minutes one of you is going to be vomiting to the rhythm of a fading heartbeat. The survivor is going to remember this night for the rest of his or her life.
So before you make a grab for that knife, you should maybe think about a few things. This moment is frozen in time. You can still make better choices.
Surrender . Is your pride really worth a human life? Drop your weapon, put up your hands, and tell them you're ready to cut a deal. You walk, and in exchange you give them something they need. Sidestep the current agenda. Offer them something unrelated to your dispute, and negociate to find a solution.
Disarm . Knife on the table? Throw it out the window. Opponent with a gun? Dodge until he's out of bullets. Deescalate the situation to fists, if possible. You can settle your differences with some brawling and still walk away, plus neither one of you has to face a murder charge or a criminal investigation.
Rechannel . So you have a conflict. Settle it in a smarter way. Arm wrestle, play cards, have a scavenger hunt, a drinking contest, anything that lets you establish a winner and a loser. Smart gamblers bet nothing they aren't willing to lose. Why put your life on the line?
Pass the Buck . Is there somebody more powerful then either one of you who is going to be angry that you two are coming to blows? Pretend you're all in the mafia and you can't just kill each other without kicking your dispute upstairs first. Let that symbolic superior make a decision. You both gain clout for not spilling blood.
Call the Cops . If you've got a grievance against somebody, let the police do your dirty work. File charges. Get a restraining order. Sue him in civil court for wrongful harm. You can beat him down without throwing a punch.
Run Away . The hell with it. Who needs this kind of heat? Blow town, get a job some place else, build a new power base. Is the world really too small for the both of you? It's a big planet out there.
Still determined? Backed into a corner with no way out? Have to fight for the greater good? Up against someone too stupid to know this is a bad idea? Or maybe just itching for some action? So be it. The rest of this chapter contains rules for simulating the murder of human beings. Have fun.
Pretty heavy stuff, huh? As you could guess, combat is handled differently in UA than in other RPGs., mainly in how brutal and unforgiving it is. Right now I'm going to go over initiative and attacking, and will go over damage and post-combat dealings tonight when I can scan in the damage tables for weapons.
Combat progresses in rounds, of about 3 seconds length, during which a character can do ONE action. Shooting a gun, casting a spell, punching or dodging all fit the "one-round" rule. In order to determine who goes when in the combat order, all the characters roll for initiative, which is done by either rolling against your Speed stat, or by defaulting to your Initiative skill, which is half of your default Speed.
The one exception to this rule are ambushes, which allow the ambushers to act on their full Speed stat. As you can see, it's in your favor to catch your enemies off-guard, but be careful, since they can do the same thing to you!`
When initiative has been rolled, any ties are settled with a contested roll. Whoever rolls lowest in the contest has their original roll dropped by a single point, so the winner goes ahead of them. So two original rolls of 44 change to 44 and 43 after the contest.
Failing the initiative roll(rolling higher than your Speed) means you go after all the successes, but before anyone who failed harder than you did.
Now that our combat order is set up, it's time to let the bullets and blasts fly using Attacks !
The basic rule is pretty simple: pick a skill and a target, tell the GM, and roll your d%. Rolled under your skill? Way to go, champ! A human being is now injured or dead by your actions! Rolled over? You missed, unless you were using a knife in close range. Those always do at least 1 point of damage no matter what, since its pretty much impossible to avoid being at least nicked by the sharp thing being swung at you.
However, combat isn't always so cut and dried. That's where shifts come into play. Shifts are applied to combat skills due to various combat factors, unless it affects everyone involved in the fighting, since that levels the playing field. They usually range from -30% to +30%, applied in multiples of ten. Fighting while handcuffed? -10% to the relevant skill. Your opponent just slapped your mother? +10%. Before you go all willy-nilly assigning shifts, remember that they are meant to accentuate drama and modify gameplay, not create entirely new hassles.
Also, if you really want to hurt someone, you can call for a focus shift. For a single turn, you ignore the rest of the fight, and really focus on your target. You get a bonus to any combat skill used against them, in exchange for everybody else getting that same bonus against you. Use this sparingly. Also, if mutual foci are declared, the total bonus against each other has a max bonus of +30% no matter what.
Don't want to get hit? Try Dodging !
Dodging takes up a full round action, since all the character's focus is on not getting hurt. Any successful attacks made after your turn have to go up against a contested roll(Attacks made before you go through, since they're just plain faster). First, make a Dodge skill check, with the minimum target equal to your opponent's attack roll. Made it? Good job, no damage done to you! Failed, but your Dodge skill is still higher than the attack roll? Take half damage. Now dodging during consecutive turns means you can even dodge higher initiative actions than yours, at least until you decide to attack...
edit: Also, you can't dodge magickal Blasts, unless they specifically affect a physical object ala telekinesis. Otherwise, it's all just mystical juju aimed directly at you. No way of avoiding that.
Next time: Damage and Wounds! Also known as "That shotgun did how much damage!?!?"