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I thought that since I'm an enormous tabletop RPG nerd I might write some stuff up about systems that I really like which might not get the attention that they deserve - after all D&D is basically devouring everything at the moment.

 

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Elevator Pitch

 

Unknown Armies is a Horror/Conspiracy game set in the modern day. The players take the role of a group of damaged obsessives, who are all about getting what they want. The game emphasises magical realism, it's backdrop being the occult underground of [city here] and places a great deal of stock in character relationships. Combat is deadly - if you shoot somebody, they'll probably die right there in front of you.

 

The Actual Game

 

If I'm completely honest with you, the books aren't amazing laid out and the actual concepts behind the game are more strange and bizarre than they are 'horror', but as a GM I've discovered over the decades that it's impossible to actually scare people at a table unless you go after stuff that you know they're triggered by, and this is a deeply shitty thing to do. So the game really does suit me as it emphasises the strangeness of the supernatural world, rather than trying to be scary.

 

I mean, there's still a monster in there that wants you to drive you to kill yourself by inflicting ever greater inescapable pain on you (it starts by scratching your arm while you sleep), but I'm far, far more drawn to the one that poses more and more danger to you depending on how abstract your character's self image is. If you "a plumber", then the worst it'll be able to do is maybe break some of your stuff. If you're "a poet who exemplifies the colour blue" you might be significantly more fucked.

 

The Cosmology

 

Where would a game about the supernatural and the occult be without a cosmology? The core of the idea resides in the idea of 'belief = power' as represented in something like American Gods, but the gods of this game aren't really intelligent, thinking things; they're more abstract concepts that their followers seek to exemplify - these are known as Godwalkers. 

 

The Godwalkers (or Avatars) choose one of the 333 aspects of humanity and (predictably) walk that path, and the closer they adhere to it, the greater the power they wield. To take an example of a simple one, you have The Warrior. The Warrior can be easily seen throughout history (both good and evil) and always has an enemy, and against your enemy there can be no compromise - only the unending struggle against that group. At low levels of power you're tireless in pursuit of your foe - once you start to close on the pinnacle of your journey you literally cannot be harmed by your enemy.

 

So if you are a DEA Agent and an Avatar of the Warrior embroiled in the war on drugs, no drug dealer can ever do a single point of damage directly to you under any circumstances. Of course, the drugs world likely has Warriors of it's own, so the conflict can never truly be resolved.

 

Back to cosmology, once there are 333 Godwalkers at the apex of the journey, one for each aspect of humanity the world will instantly end, those 333 will ascend and replace the old gods, and dictate the rules for the next universe. Obviously a great position if you can get it, and there are people who believe that this isn't something that ought to be allowed to happen. Or don't want it to happen unless they're the ones in the driver seat, so Godwalkers are often pushed or tempted into breaking taboo. For the Warrior, the taboo is compromise - making a deal with a drug lord is a no-no and will set you back, cause you to lose power. But so is considering that the distribution of drugs and why it's a thing might be due to socio-economic inequality, or other, darker reasons which mean that your foe isn't inherently evil.

 

It is, after all, hard to be a god.

 

What sorts of characters are there?

 

Unknown Armies characters fall broadly into three categories: -

 

  • Avatars - Explored above
  • Adepts - Modern day magic users
  • Something else - perhaps you're just clued in on the occult scene? Perhaps you're a supernatural of some kind.

 

... and character creation is all about masks. You do have basic stats but these are largely outside of your control once the game begins and they each of the 12 factors that make up your character exist on a continuum. So if you get better at Violence, you will get worse at Empathy. The core part of what you control are your characters Masks and masks define what you are independent of your actual stats. It's all about justifying them. So lets say that you pick a mask of Homocide Detective.

 

During the roleplay, you can use your score in Homocide Detective for anything relevant. "I'm a Homocide Detective, of course I can read blood splatter analyis". "I'm a Homocide Detective, of course I crack this perp in an interview". "I'm a homocide detective, of course I can talk sensitively to the family of a victim".

 

That sort of thing. There's no XP so your Mask improves when you fail a dice roll because we all learn from failure. This makes it extra amusing when somebody sets one of their masks as Greatest Fighter in the World with a 5% score initially. They, themselves believe that they're the greatest fighter in the world, but they're going to get their ass handed to them time and time again - but every time that happens they improve.

 

You can of course wear multiple masks and use them as and when you see fit. These aren't physical masks, you understand.

 

Character creation because of this is incredibly open and flexible.

 

Can I be a wizard?

 

You can, but Magic is rough. Like everything else, you'll be obsessed with it and the only reason that magic works is because it's impossible that it could exist. All your power is based on the friction caused by the paradoxical nature of what you do. The book gives you a list of spells for each wizard type (and you're free to design your own wizard type), but for the most part you're required to think in character and can just invent shit on the fly with the GMs approval.

 

But everything must centre around that Paradox. An Example.

 

You are a Fulminaturgist, a Gun Mage basically. All of your power revolves around firearms, and your paradox is that you can never use one to directly injure somebody. To do so would drain you of all the power you've got built up. So, what's the point? What CAN you do as a Gun Wizard who can't use a gun to kill people?

 

Well, you're probably really good at trick shots and have taken down people by bouncing bullets off two surfaces to be able to hit that the chain holding the chandelier up. Authority and Mind Control - hold that gun in somebodies face (or just show it off tucked into your belt) and you'll be able to get them to DO things. See somebody else holding a gun? There's SO much you'll be able to tell about them, their thoughts, their attitudes and the like because of their choice of weapon and how they hold it.

 

So once again, being a wizard is difficult and you can never achieve directly what your power suggests you ought to be able to.

 

What sorts of stories does the game tell

 

Strange ones. From sentient buildings that drain the life out of people and then throw them out (think nightclubs and worn out, used up party goers finally getting thrown out the back door), to tales of the unknown and unravelling exactly where all of the motel owners in America go on holiday - and finding out it's always to the same motel. It works well for stories and concepts such as the SCP archives, or perhaps the recent Control video game, although it does tend to be a little less cosmic than that.

 

The stories tend to be focused around the protagonists more than them just walking through the world, which is why the game places so much emphasis on developing your character and their attachments to the world, because after all, you are an obsessive and the game is about getting what you want, rather than doing jobs for other people each week.

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Well, Unknown Armies sounds fascinating! As you say, horror as actual horror in a TTRPG rarely works in a positive way, so I find those that lean into the weird to be generally more appealing, so this is very appealing, conceptually at least. And I do enjoy a good 'improve through failure' mechanic. Definitely one to put on the list.

 

I can see that your series is going to cost me a lot of money on RPG's I'll almost certainly never play; looking forward to having Unknown Armies sit there looking ridiculously oversized next to Blades in the Dark and Romance of the Perilous Land on my 'lockdown dreams' shelf.

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6 hours ago, Wiper said:

Well, Unknown Armies sounds fascinating! As you say, horror as actual horror in a TTRPG rarely works in a positive way, so I find those that lean into the weird to be generally more appealing, so this is very appealing, conceptually at least. And I do enjoy a good 'improve through failure' mechanic. Definitely one to put on the list.

 

 

I find the Avatar concept particularly appealing. Because the "gods" are abstract concepts, they don't particularly care what you think, only about what you do - so it's entirely possible to be a powerful Avatar of something while completely disagreeing with it. Like, I strongly suspect that @the_debaser is a very high Avatar of the concept of Contrarianism or something.

 

Sorry to tag you there, Debaser, but I don't want to invoke you without you knowing.

 

1 hour ago, Arn Ironjaw said:

That sounds and looks awesome.

 

I've been looking at it online and the art reminds me of a smilier TCG i had years ago. 

 

People are reviewing it as The Invisibles as a RPG game. 

 

Yep, it's very Invisibles, with the whole idea that all Conspiracy Theories are completely true - including the contradictory ones is very present. Part of character creation requires players to bring examples of what they know to be true to the table and somehow it has to be meshed together no matter how much a contradictory mess it is.

 

If the game has a weakness, it's that you need the "right" sort of group. The players occupy a coven but all of them are quite obsessed with what their thing is, so it can be quite hard to get them working towards a single goal, but if you have a good GM, stuff can be mashed together provided that the players can handle the contradiction of in-character obsession and out-of-character understanding they can't always have the spotlight all the time.

 

---

 

I think my favourite character in a game was a friend who played an Adept "Cinemancer" who's magic was entirely based around enforcing movie tropes in the real world. My favourite spell he came up with (off the cuff) was granting the party immunity to an explosion, but it hinged on them turning their backs on it and walking away. Slowly.

 

Also, I really liked these two Mask suggestions.

 

Spoiler

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