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.)).

Other People I’ve Been

I noticed the other day that all my game posts are about games that I run. I have been remiss in not mentioning the games I play in, and have played in. So, here’s a greatest hits of my player career:

  • Barabas – Barabas was a half-elven fighter/thief from Waterdeep in a home-brew AD&D game run by my friend, Michael. He was the first character I played for any length of time – up to that point, I’d mainly been running games. Barabas was surly, with a quick temper and a dislike of elves. I had conceived him primarily as an urban character, and the first session had the city of Waterdeep occupied by an orcish army and my character on the run throughout the Realms. He got into trouble a lot because he hated people telling him what to do, and tended to do the opposite. He wound up losing his home, his best friend, his eye, and his mortality, as he threw himself into a battle bigger than he could imagine, and wound up tapped to be a god because of it.
  • Jeyg Costin – A human from a Skyrealms of Jorune game, again run by Michael. It only lasted one (extended adventure), but I loved that game. Jeyg was a sneaky, tricky private eye type, who knew everyone and how to make contacts even in strange cities. He was also a deadly knife-fighter. In best noire traditions, he wound up addicted to a powerful narcotic after bearding the main villain in his den.
  • V’dreyn Heartshadow – An elven cleric in the continuation of the game that Barabas started in. He worshipped a god of self-sufficiency, and tended to a calm, measured, horrificly stubborn character. Once he got his heels dug in, not even death could shift him. I spent a lot of time as Heartshadow working through the theology and philosophy of such a deity, an exercise that I found surprisingly rewarding. He wound up sacrificing himself to prevent a TPK when our group of 11th-level character ran into a pit fiend by surprise*.
  • Anthony Vespucci – My Vampire: The Masquerade character; your basic Ventrue mobster. Again, one of Michael’s games. Anthony wasn’t all that bright, but he was good at following orders, convincing other people to follow his orders, and just not dying. One of his greatest moments was a face-off with the angry sire of one of the other players and his squad of gun-toting henchmen. The sire forbade Anthony to kill a priest (who was right there in the alley with them), so Anthony unloaded his Uzi into the priest’s chest, threw down his gun, and let the six vampires above him fill him full of lead. And then he stood up, brushed off his ruined suit, and asked them if they were finished screwing around. He wound up blowing his own head off with a white phosphorous grenade to prevent him being used by his enemies. He came back after a brief hiatus as a draug bent on vengeance.
  • Tom Kozlowski – Anthony’s replacement in the Vampire game after his suicide. Word of advice – it is very, very, very hard to believably bring in a new PC in a game centred around suspicion and paranoia. Tom didn’t fit well, and didn’t last long.
  • Julian the Apostate – My friend Clint ran a great Vampire: Dark Ages game, where I got to play the ex-Byzantine Emperor. Clint actually suggested the character, and it seemed like such a cool idea (especially after a little research) that I jumped at it. Julian was an okay warrior and a decent leader, but he really shone when working ritual magic through a system that Clint and I developed for him. He was also renowned for always having a plan and a back-up plan, which he would often neglect to tell his companions. Julian saying, “I have an idea,” became one of the most frightening moments in the game**.
  • Gaha’el – An angel of healing in a shortlived game of Everlasting that Clint ran. He was fun to play, from a very alien point of view: I tried to make him very different from mortals, not really understanding their interactions. He was great at dishing out healing, but had no compassion. And he was just as quick to draw his sword. I played him as God’s misericord – he would end suffering, one way or another. And his history was pretty cool***. Unfortunately, the system was convoluted and work-intensive for the GM, so the game folded after only a couple of sessions.
  • Asariel, Dee’s Angel – Asariel and Gaha’el were separated by years, but I eventually came back to the angel idea for a steampunk Victorian superhero game Clint ran, using Mutants & Masterminds. Asariel had been summoned during the reign of Elizabeth I by John Dee, and both Asariel and Dee were surprised to find that the other didn’t know how to get Asariel back home. He was a much more human character than Gaha’el, as you need in a superhero game, but still very cool to play. One memorable conversation had another of the heroes asking me about her dead husband, and if he was happy in heaven. Player scheduling killed that game.
  • Synry – Clint ran a small D&D 3E game for his wife and me, and my character was a human fighter/wizard. He started as a kind of socially maladjusted ex-soldier with some wizard training, but over the course of the game he wound up being quite the diplomat, spy, spellcaster, planar traveler, and power broker. He also inspired the greatest volume of game fiction I have written for a character.
  • Michael “MoJo” Johnson – My friend Erik ran an Unknown Armies game, and I was determined to play someone who was clued in to the supernatural but had no actual supernatural abilities. I made him the webmaster of, your one-stop Internet weirdness outlet. He was a manic, paranoid conspiracy theorist who knew more about what was going on than the mages and avatars around him, and so flipped completely out at the stupid things they would do. Of course, he believed most of the stuff on his site without any sort of critical thought, so he was wrong about a lot of things.
  • Ladimir Csabor – Michael invited me to play in an Iron Kingdoms game. I’m not a huge fan of Iron Kingdoms, partially because I’m tired of steampunk and partially because I think the world undercuts a number of fantasy gaming tropes that I like. But I like Michael’s games, so I came up with an Umbrean fighter – very plain vanilla. But a melee warrior in a party of ranged fighters and spellcasters really stands out, and he has become a man of action! He joyfully throws himself into the craziest stunts and fiercest battles, sometimes just because he’s tired of all the talking that’s going on. In a world I don’t really like, I’ve managed to create a character that I love.
  • Dunael a’Wemistarrin – An elven warlock in Clint’s current 3E game. He treats the oaths and pacts with the powers that give him his abilities in a very shamanic way, viewing them all as small gods that he has little rituals to appease and entreat. He tends to get fixated on one thing at a time, which sometimes makes him seem very cold, and other times just the opposite.

So, there’s a list. It’s almost complete – barring a couple of characters that weren’t all that memorable.

Listing them like this is interesting to me; I’m seeing patterns and commonalities that I hadn’t before. I mean, we all know that we like to play certain types of characters, and that the characters we build tend to share certain qualities, but until you see it all laid out in front of you, you may not see them as clearly.

My characters? Usually a couple of dominant traits:

  • Pride. Pride bordering on arrogance in some situations. In other situations, living so deep within arrogance, they can’t see the border any more.
  • Stubborn. When they care about something, there is no shifting them.
  • Action provoking. My characters all tend to like to make stuff happen.
  • In the know. They all like to be in on the secrets of the world.

Now, having listed all these characters, I leave the comments open for those who have known them to comment, and for others to spend a little time telling me about their favourite characters.



*Well, surprise for us. The pit fiend knew right where we were.

**Followed closely by, “The Domina has some questions for you,” and, “Let’s go into the forest.”

***I wish I could find the write-up I did, where he prevented Moses from entering the Promised Land and was both St. George and Dracula.

Read ‘Em And Weep

I’ve just re-read Last Call by Tim Powers. I love this book.

I’m a big fan of all of Tim Powers’s books, but this one is my absolute favourite. It’s been about five years since I last read it, and I love it as much now as I did the first time I read it. Maybe more, because I know a little more about the real-world things he’s talking about. Not that I believe in the occult aspects of the book, but I know now about the traditions he draws from, and I’m better able to appreciate the rich, deep background he’s created with it.

I read a fair amount of modern fantasy, because I like the juxtaposition of the non-rational with the structured, technological milieu that is modern society. Until Last Call, though, most of the stuff I read was drawn from the well of celtic myth and paganism, things like Emma Bull’s The War for the Oaks and Charles de Lint’s Moonheart*.

Last Call was the first modern fantasy book that I read that used other themes – in this case, a mix of ceremonial magic in the Western esoteric tradition, Jungian archetypes, and Arthurian myth. It did a fantastic job of making you believe in a real underground network of people who are clued in on some level, in the know about the mystic underbelly that most folks refuse to acknowledge. And it showed the level of obsession that was necessary to take part in it**.

So, what’s the book about? It’s about a man, already behind the eight-ball because of who his father is and what his father wants to do to him, who manages to dig himself in deeper by playing in an ill-advised poker game. Twenty-one years later, the debts are coming due, and it’s not just him who has to pay the price, but his friends and family, as well. Not having anything left to lose, he travels back to the source of the evil reaching out to claim his life – Las Vegas – to try and find a kind of redemption.

Mixed up in there are the powers of the archetypes represented in the Tarot cards, the evil man lurking behind Mandelbrot equations, T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, quantum probability, ancient Greek and Egyptian gods, body-swapping, evil Elvis impersonators, the ghost of Bugsy Siegel, and the friendliest hit man you could ever hope to meet.

It’s filled with desperate action, wild speculation, and a twist on history that does a lot to illuminate the reason things are the way they are. It charts a man’s heroic (and not-so-heroic, sometimes) attempts at redemption, seeking the love of a father who once tried to kill him.

It’s also got a couple of explosions and a spear gun battle under the waters of Lake Mead, lest you think it’s all about soul-searching and healing the child within.

One of the things I love most about Tim Powers’s books is the way he weaves historical facts and personalities into them. I read an interview with him about the rules he used when writing the book Declare, all about Kim Philby and Noah’s Ark. I’m paraphrasing, here, but his rule was that he could not contradict an established fact – if there was a report that Philby was in Cairo on a certain day, then Philby would have to be in Cairo on that day in the novel. All the weirdness, conpsiracy, and mysticism had to be woven in and around the gaps, changing not the facts, but the meaning of the facts***.

This is showcased less in Last Call, as the only real historical figure to take a role is Bugsy Siegel, but it shows up a lot more in The Stress of Her Regard, featuring the Romantic poets, and Expiration Date, the sort-of sequel to Last Call that features such notable personages (or at least their ghosts) as Tom Edison and Harry Houdini.

Tim Powers’s novels have a sheer inventive genius about them that really appeals to me. The ideas are creative, solidly built into the background and structure of the novel, and hang together very believably. Beyond that, he has a clear, clean prose style that really appeals to me, avoiding overblown descriptions or purple prose. And his characters are deep, individual, and fascinating.

Having finished Last Call, I’m starting on Expiration Date. This will be followed by Earthquake Weather, which transforms the three books into a trilogy by tying together the first two books. The three books were published some time apart, and I’ve never read them back-to-back like this, having bought each when it was released.

That’s the down side to being a Tim Powers fan: the man does good work, but you never seem to get enough of it****.

Anyway, I see I need one more new book cited to round out the Amazon sidebar, so let’s end with The Drawing of the Dark, a Tim Powers novel about the siege of Vienna, the reborn King Arthur, a bunch of wandering vikings, and beer.

How can you top that for cool?


*Both very excellent books. You should read them. Now.

** This idea of obsession being necessary to transcend the mundane and take part in the mystical is one of the core tenets of the Unknown Armies RPG, which I had the tremendous good fortune to do some writing for. UA owes a considerable and acknowledge debt to the works of Tim Powers. It’s one of the reasons I love the game the way I do.

*** This is related, in a way, to what I said about reading with filters in this post here.

**** Not to sound ungrateful. I’m happy for what I can get. I’m just greedy for more.