One Hit Wonders: Unknown Armies

After a bit of a delay, we finally had another edition of One Hit Wonders, this time with Unknown Armies. I’ve wanted to play UA for a long, long time and I was glad I finally had the chance. Sorry it took so long to get this up. ACNW, combined with a busy work schedule and NaNoWriMo, meant my life has been a zoo.


thadeusxmachina had offered to run this after we did Fading Suns a couple months ago. We had a bitch of a time getting this session secheduled around other people. Even then, we had two people cancel at the last minute. The GM sent out a simplified explanation of the rules and character creation in advance and the players were meant to make character in advance. Rather than try and absorb the setting, thadeusxmachina whipped up a really basic setting that overlapped heavily with options from the book. The setting he presented was very evocative of The Invisibles and Mage: The Ascension. It still felt like it maintained some of the feel of what I read Unknown Armies to be like.

He gave us the option to pick the city we were based out of, and on a lark we chose Hong Kong. Which worked out well because the plot he ran revolved around 2008 being the Year of the Rat and involved a conspiracy perpetrated by a certain large rodent-themed entertainment company.

Character Creation

I found this went pretty smoothly. In some ways it reminded me of Amber in it’s simplicity. Four stats broadly defined. These in turn helped define your pool of points you could distribute among skills. You were also expected to define your obsession, fear and “nobility,” the latter representing that brings out the best in you. Really fast and quickly gives you a sense of motivation and personality.

The only challenge I saw was the double edged sword of calling your skills whatever you want. It might have been easier if we’d gotten a look at the free skills we got, it might not have been that bad, but we instead just sort of shot in the dark. With a game where the skills are pre-defined (and maybe even in an easy list) it gives you a better sense of what may come into play.

In Play

The system went pretty smoothly. It’s a basic one-roll percentile system, which had a number of elements to soften the challenge of percentile systems. There were situations where you just didn’t need to roll. There were situations where you rolled but had a margin of error up to your stat rating instead of your skill rating. And, of course, there were the flat “win/lose” rolls where you had to roll under your skill. There were also circumstances where you could switch your tens and ones on the percentile. They weren’t often, but they were pretty helpful.

Combat went pretty fast and smooth, though there were a few hitches. It used one roll for attacks and damage. If you were successful in doing a close combat attack, you added the numbers on the dice together plus a modifier for your weapon for damage. If you were shooting a gun, you just used the number you rolled for damage. If martial arts were connected to your obsession, then you could treat close combat damage like you would firearm damage.

You had a number of “hit points” equal to your Body score. But the GM was supposed to track your hit points for you and describe your injuries narratively, so that in theory you were never quite sure how close to death you were.

There were a few hiccups we ran into with this system. I didn’t read the rules in advance, so I’m not sure how much was a result of us just not being overly familiar with the rules, but some things seemed a little silly. I had entered into the game with the assumption that combat was meant to be very lethal, and hence the very simple character creation. But that wasn’t our experience.

Average Body was considered to be about 50, which meant an average character would have 50 hit points. 30 was considered the low end of human capacity. Below that you were handicapped in some fashion.

There was a damage cap on guns. A standard pistol had a cap of 32, if I’m remembering correctly. So as best we could tell, it was impossible for a marksman to kill a normal person in one shot with a pistol. Which I understand has a strategic value in a game that has heavy combat, allowing players to retreat as needed and survive in the long term. But it certainly wasn’t what I expected. On the other hand, we discovered that firing full auto had the potential to be entirely lethal as it removed the damage cap from attacks. Yeehaw.

While the secret hit points and narrative injuries seemed like a neat idea, it suffered the same difficulty that you have in a game like Amber Diceless, which doesn’t even have hit points. It’s hard to really convey to players how injured their character is in a narrative fashion and have them respect that their character has limitations.

“You’ve lost your hand.” “I punch him with the stump!”

In the last big battle of the night, I had been blown up, shot, stabbed and punched. I kept going. There wasn’t really any avenue for escape and it was a one-shot, so I had no reason not to just keep trying. I’m not sure how much the GM fudge the die rolls for me to keep me a live or what, but it felt like I took an absurd amount of damage and just kept going.

The other player played a mage of sorts. There are two types of magic in Unknown Armies: Adept magic, which is like spellcasting, and Avatar magic, which revolves around emulating an archetype and gaining special abilities. In this case the other player was an adept and his brand of magic revolved around luck and taking chances. Adept magic uses charges classified as minor, significant and major. Minor charges were relatively easy to obtain, but the other two levels of charges were not so easy to get. And while you can convert larger charges into smaller charges, you couldn’t convert smaller charges into bigger ones.

So, for example: Our luck mage got minor charges for risks that could injure him. He got significant charges for doing stuff that could potentially kill him. Like play Russian roulette. Other types of adepts had to go through long, time consuming events to get a significant charge. Major charges were still even harder to obtain.

The downside was that the spells you could accomplish with this seemed… uninspiring. The spells for the minor charges didn’t seem worth the effort of the minor charge. Spells that required a significant charge seemed to be helpful, but not worth the cost of getting the significant charge. The major charge spells looked cool, but it was nearly impossible to get such a charge. The avatar magic seemed like was far more interesting and useful, but that may be a grass-is-greener attitude.

I’m not sure how I feel about the sanity track system that it uses. It is much more robust and interesting than sanity points, but we also seemed to snap pretty quickly and pretty regularly. With more hardened and experienced characters, that may not be as much of an issue. But failing a roll on this seemed more of a distraction than a simulation of insanity. I’d have to see it’s effects over the long term to make a better judgement.

Compared to the Leading Brand

The obvious comparisons to Unknown Armies are mostly the same as for Dark*Matter/Alternity: Call of Cthulhu and d20 Modern. And, well, Dark*Matter of course.

Occasional weirdness with the mechanics aside, I prefer the simplicity of the system to the games listed above. It’s quirky, but I’m very much a “roll the dice and see if they look pretty” sort of GM so I’m not overly concered with a lot of crunch. In principle, I liked the sanity tracks for Unknown Armies more than sanity points. But after some of the frustration of just arbitrarily going nuts, I’m less certain about it. This may ultimately mean that I’m past the point in my life where I no longer enjoy the random insanity clause in horror games. I got more satisfaction out of simply roleplaying my character being disturbed by, for example, the abuse a couple children suffered in the game than having to deal with the “surprise butt sex” of failed sanity checks.

Parallels to the World of Darkness, both old and new, also came to mind playing it. From the mundane level I was reminded of both the old mortal hunter settings from the World of Darkness (Project Twilight and The Inquisition, as opposed to Hunter: The Reckoning) as well as the new World of Darkness (including Hunter: The Vigil). From an “occult underground/feuding cabals” point of view, I was most strongly reminded of both incarnations of Mage, especially the newer one.

From the point of view of mechanics, I definitely prefer Unknown Armies over the old Storyteller System. Having gotten a fresh taste of that through the Werewolf: Wild West game I’m definitely not a huge fan. Compared to the newer Storytelling System, I’m a bit more conflicted. I’m a big fan of fast and loose systems, so as a quick and easy system, Unknown Armies has its appeal. But the newer Storytelling System provides just enough grit to the mechanics to make me feel a bit more solid.

In terms of setting, even though Unknown Armies more faithfully captures the weird, post-modern occult sensibilities of The Invisibles, I think I lean more towards the World of Darkness. I mean, sure, UA‘s pornomancy as represented by this weird cult of personality surrounding a porn star that ascended to godhood is kind of a neat idea, I think I prefer a setting where there can just be plain old sex magic. Really.

Final Verdict

I would definitely play it again. It was a fun system and a fun idea. But if I wanted to broadly run a modern occult game instead of, specifically Unknown Armies, I would probably just poach liberally from the game book and then leave its carcass behind. Probably just using the straight World of Darkness, Hunter: The Vigil or Mage: The Awakening depending on tone. Or maybe even do semi-freeform. There is nothing in Unknown Armies, not even the Sanity Tracks, that really seems to require that you use their system. Unlike, say, Shadowrun, I don’t feel like taking the setting away from the rules really causes you to lose much in translation.

It occurs to me that this makes three of the four games we’ve done have had me pining for the new World of Darkness. I’m not sure if it is a statement for how well the new Storytelling System is, or if I’m just White Wolf’s bitch.

In a few weeks, I’ll be back on the hotseat running a one-shot of Army of Darkness, put out by Eden Studios and using the simplified version of their Unisystem. This is the same mechanic used in their Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer games. The recurring term that players seem to be using for this is “groovy.”

And now I have a long overdue post-ACNW recap to write.

5 thoughts on “One Hit Wonders: Unknown Armies

  1. dr_silverrose

    I’ll agree with you on most parts. I like UA’s sanity system, and feel it works better than the usual nWOD morality systems (I mostly ST White Wolf, too. ^_^).

    That being said, though, got to point out one bit:

    “You’ve lost your hand.” “I punch him with the stump!”

    If you’ve got players who act like *that* when grievously wounded, perhaps UA isn’t the right system for them. O_O

  2. admin Post author

    I guess my response is: How should they act?

    If the game has reached the point where the player’s character is utterly screwed (which I would rate “having your hand chopped off in UA” as being “utterly screwed”), why shouldn’t they go all in? At that point, what other viable options do they have?

    By the time you’ve gotten to major injuries (severed hand, shattered leg, disembowled), running becomes less of an option. Especially if the GM is the sort who would have you bleed to death or have the antagonist keep chasing after you. A player has nothing to lose at that point from trying for a Hail Mary. The sanity system might put your character into shock from the injury, but otherwise there’s no reason not to keep trying aside from a strong commitment to what you might consider “good roleplay.”

  3. dr_silverrose

    Well, you’d hope that players *always* have another option– no situation should be entirely grim unless, well, a player’s own stupidity got them into such a fix.

    Still, I see your point, but from the description of combat in UA, I get the feeling that they want you to avoid it, entirely, whenever you can.

  4. admin Post author

    Sorry for the delay in replying. This got lost in the shuffle.

    In a perfect world, yes there’s always another option. But the reality is that we aren’t the sort of badasses our characters are purported to be. (Well, I’m not. You might be.) We don’t always know the right answer, and players/GMs might not agree on what is a stupid choice. I can think of a few GMs off the top of my head that I often disagreed with (and still do) regarding how characters would “realistically” respond to a situation or how stupid a choice was.

    UA does seem to discourage combat in the system, but in this situation the GM put us in a combat-oriented scenario. As a GM, it’s kind of an easy out. Especially for a one shot where we’re trying to get a feel for the system.

  5. dr_silverrose

    I suppose that’s true (and, sadly, no…I’m not a real life badass, either). Still, I found that we had some very combat light experiences when I ran it at conventions a couple of times.

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