You Did It: Unknown Armies 3rd Edition

Those who know me know that I have a special love for Unknown Armies ((In fact, I just acame across this short story a couple of weeks ago. I wrote it for UA way back in the day. I thought it was lost in the void of the ‘net, but nothing online is ever really gone, I guess.)). At GenCon this past summer, Cam Banks offered me the chance to jump in on the UA3 playtest, and I, of course, eagerly agreed ((Without even consulting my players. But they were cool with it. Thanks, Melly, Matt, Tom, and Fera!)). So, now I’m going to talk about it.

Before we get started, a couple of points: this is a playtest. I’m not going to get into the minutia of the rules, and everything is subject to change as the product approaches completion. What I am going to talk about is how UA3 compares to UA2, and what cool new stuff has been added.

First off, as things stand, UA3 is split into three books. Book 1 is focused on the basic rules, player and setting creation, combat, Avatars, and ritual magick. Book 2 is mainly for the GM, but it also includes the rules for Adepts. Book 3 is an alphabetical listing of a whole bunch of stuff that you can use in your game – GMCs, monsters, schools of magick, Archetypes, places, and whatnot. I have to say, I bounced up and down in my seat, clapping my hands, when I started looking through Book 3; one of my all-time favourite RPG supplements is the Spherewalker Sourcebook ((Also by Greg Stolze, as is at least the bulk of UA3.)), which is set up the same way. And, like Spherewalker, the entries in Book 3 have stories hidden in them, giving some history of the UAverse and how it’s changed from the days of UA2 ((There’s some awesome stuff about St. Germaine and the Freak, but I’m not going to spoil it.)).

Of course, things could get changed and shuffled between now and release. But I like the three-book structure.

Anyway, once my players were on board, we set up a session to convert the characters from UA2 to UA3. As I read through the rules, it became obvious that a simple conversion wasn’t going to work – characters are too different between the versions – but that we should be able to rebuild the characters without too much trouble. So, we basically ran through the character creation rules, creating 3rd-edition versions of the characters.

That wasn’t quite as straight-forward as it sounds, though. UA3 blends character creation with setting creation, so that you and the players collaboratively build the game, including locations, important GMCs, goals, magick, etc. Basically, whenever a player makes a decision about his or her character, he or she also adds an element to the game world that’s important to the character. That way, when the characters are complete, there’s also an entire framework of setting around them that they care about, and want to interact with.

We were converting an ongoing campaign to UA3, so we didn’t do the setting creation part. Still, we walked through the steps and phases of the process, omitting the setting elements, and just doing the character elements. And we wound up with characters that everyone was happy with. Indeed, more than one player commented that he or she was happier with the UA3 version of the character than the previous one.

What’s so different? Well, some things are the same. There’s still the requirement for an Obsession, and for Rage, Fear, and Noble Stimuli. But the Madness Meters are now called the Shock Gauge, and this becomes a far more central element of the character. Each Gauge has a pair of skills tied to it, and the value of them changes depending on your hardened notches in the Gauge. For example, the more hardened you are to Violence, the easier it is to beat someone up (high Struggle skill), but the harder it is to form meaningful and useful emotional contact with someone (low Connect skill). This means that the hardened notches in the five Gauges – Violence, Self, Isolation, Unnatural, and Helplessness, just like always – determine your values in ten core skills.

In addition to these, you can pick one or more Identities, which are sort of broad headings that cover most of whatever else you’ll be wanting your character to do. So, taking an Identity of Ex-Special Forces Soldier might let you shoot guns with some accuracy, rig improvised explosives, move around stealthily, stab someone quietly with a K-Bar, and stare down a drunk in a bar fight. Some of these things are skills that you want to be able to count on, so you lock them down by calling them Features. The rest you can still have, but you need to be able to convincingly say to the GM, “I’m an Ex-Special Forces Soldier. Of course I can…” whatever. The GM then rules if you’re right, or if you’ve just overreached yourself.

Identities are how you get magick. If you want your character to be an Adept or an Avatar, you need that as one of your identities. Most Archetypes and schools of magick are build-your-own: there are a couple of fleshed out examples in the books, but not a lot, and none of the ones from UA2 ((Or UA1, for that matter.)) are statted up in this playtest package. That said, most are pretty easy to port over; changing mechanics may cause you to reword some effects, and you may need to revisit the charge cost of some spells, but that’s about it ((Though, there are some schools from previous versions that are really dated. Videomancy, for instance, has been pretty much gutted in the new era of streaming video services.)). There are good, solid guidelines for building schools of magick and Avatar channels, so creating special stuff for the players should be pretty easy ((And honestly, there’s something about the idiosyncratic nature of UA mysticism that really seems to call for one-off weirdness.)).

What about the system? Well, it’s pretty unchanged over all. Percentile rolls, occasional flip-flops, just like always. There’s a lengthy ((And eminently helpful.)) discussion at the start of the rules about when you should be rolling, depending on your skill level and the kind of situation you’re in. As has always been the case, skill levels are mostly pretty low ((The exception to this being skills tied to the Shock Gauge, where it’s likely that you’ll have one or two high ones, depending on the hardened notches you added during character creation.)) – a good skill is around 30-50%, and if you’ve got something up around 70%, you’re very, very good at that.

There are a couple of new tricks in here, like coercion based on applying pressure to your target’s Shock Gauge ((So, you can torture someone by coercing their Violence Gauge, for example. Or by threatening to never speak to them again, coercing their Isolation Gauge.)). This didn’t really come up during our playtest, so I can’t speak to the efficacy or ease of the mechanics, but they look solid, and provide some interesting options, both for good guys and bad guys.

There are also rules for what the game calls gutter magick. Gutter magick is little magick rituals that you can do with a basic understanding of how magick works in the UAverse. It encompasses tilts and proxy rituals from UA2 and turns them into an improvised, build-it-yourself-as-needed way for the magickally aware characters to work a little mojo. Nothing you do with this system is going to outclass what an adept with an appropriate spell can do, but it’s very flexible, and the gathering of ritual symbolic elements and performance of the ritual makes for a fun roleplaying moment for the character.

The last things I want to talk about, the system for goals and the Antagonist Phase, are going to talk a little meandering for it to make sense. Bear with me.

UA has always been a game of very personal stakes and issues. The central question seems to always have been “Is this really worth it to you?” Adepts have to twist their lives and their minds and their souls to get the magick they need and crave. Avatars have to follow strange codes of conduct, playing dress-up with deadly earnest in order to keep channeling the power flowing from the Statosphere. Even the “normal,” non-magickal characters risk their sanity and bodies just knowing that the Occult Underground exists.

Every time a character wants to make some waves, push towards something he or she wants, the question, “Is this really worth it to you?” comes up. Because there’s always a price. And the price is always just high enough to make you hesitate, but not quite so high as to make it completely unthinkable. It’s always a decision for the character ((And the player, of course.)).

So, I mentioned above that the players are instrumental in building the setting. This means that they decide what is important to the game, the things that their characters are interested in, the things that are interested in their characters, the good guys and the bad guys. They put in things that they have decided are big enough to get their characters to take those risks, pay those prices, make those sacrifices.

And the game has a mechanic to push that along. The characters, as a group, set their goal – which must meet certain criteria, such as being measurable so that they know whether or not they achieve it – and then work towards accomplishing it. When they do something in-game that would advance their goal, they get to roll some dice, and add to the goal rating. This rating is the percentile chance that they can accomplish the goal. The more things they do to advance their goal, the higher that rating grows.

To actually accomplish the goal, the characters have to actually take an action that could accomplish the goal, and then they can roll percentile dice to see if they succeed, and narrate the whole thing in tandem with the GM to create the story of how things happen.

What this means is that it’s the players that set the goals, pushing their characters into situations that matter to them, without the GM having to guess. The players choose what’s important, rather than the GM just throwing things at them to see what sticks.

But doesn’t that mean the GM has to improvise the adventures? Well, yes and no. The rules give guidelines for the players to delineate a path to their goal – a series of things they’re going to try to advance the goal. So, the GM knows that. And the rules also have detailed instructions on how to use that information. Part of the game prep for the GM is called the Antagonist Phase, and involves the GM looking at the players’ path, and the constructed setting, and his or her own fiendish imagination, to come up with opposition, obstacles, and distractions that make the characters face those hard choices – that make them ask if it’s really worth it.

This isn’t necessarily anything new for GMs. But it is structured nicely, and has a lot of advice that’s tuned towards making the characters make troublesome decisions. Paired with the goal mechanics, the Antagonist Phase ratchets up the stakes for the characters, and gives them something to overcome. It also gives the GM the pieces to use as needed in improvising the game session – obstacles and opponents to throw in the characters’ way.

These two elements work nicely in concert to promote the personal aspects of the game, both the costs and the pay-off when the goal is successful.

Verdict? Well, I’ve always loved Unknown Armies ((One of my friends, upon reading the first edition of the game, looked at me and said, “It’s like they wrote this game just for you, Rick.” He’s not wrong. It pushes all my buttons.)). The third edition seems to focus more tightly on what the game was trying to do all along, building a game of mystical power and personal consequence. It’s got me really looking forward to the actual release. It pulls in some neat story-game elements ((Broad skills in the form of Identities, the goal mechanic, and some other stuff.)) to make the game do more of what it always wanted to do. Let’s face it, RPG technologies in the form of new mechanical ideas and approaches, has advanced since those long-ago days, and Greg Stolze has been one of the folks pushing the form forward.

If you like UA, you really want to keep your eyes open for it, too. If you don’t know UA, this will be a great place to jump on.

Greg, you did it ((For those who don’t get this, “You did it,” was the tagline of the game in 1st edition.)).

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7 Responses to You Did It: Unknown Armies 3rd Edition

  1. LogicMouse says:

    Wow. This sounds absolutely fascinating! I’m definitely going to have to pick up a copy when it’s available. Have they set a release date yet?

  2. D Bachman says:

    Missed out on my opportunity to join the 3rd edition playtest so am very happy to hear some details. Identities and the skill ties to the Shock Gauges (Madness Meters) strike me as brilliant changes. And the broader changes you indicate. . .I very much look forward to UA3 and will be shoveling money come Kickstarter time.

  3. Rick Neal says:

    @LogicMouse – I haven’t heard a firm release date. I imagine that it’s going to be a Kickstarter some time in the new year. I have been told that Atlas Games are looking to make the books beautiful, full-colour hardbacks, like the Feng Shui 2 core book. Which is lovely.

  4. LogicMouse says:

    That it is. 🙂 Thanks for the info, Rick. Since I backed that KS I imagine they’ll send out a notice to the mailing list when they’re ready for this one. Or you’ll mention it here. Or both. 😀

  5. Evil Scientist says:

    Thanks for this write-up! Looking forward to the new edition, so I’m rather happy that it’s already in the playtesting phase.

  6. Pingback: The Hype Strikes Back: (Possible) 2016 RPG Releases | Roll Plus Hot

  7. Daniel E Tobin says:

    Just going to leave this here: Kickstarter is live with 10 days to go….
    https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/atlasgames/unknown-armies-third-edition-roleplaying-game

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