I’m going to be talking about the UA scenario Garden Full of Weeds, by James Palmer. It’s an awesome scenario, and is available with five others in the book Weep. It’s also a decade-and-a-half old, so I think the statute of limitations is expired. Still, you’ve been warned.
So, last post I talked about the playtest my group did for Unknown Armies 3rd Edition. After I posted it, Cam Banks pointed out to me1 that I hadn’t really talked about what it was like to run and/or play the game. All I’d talked about was the rules, which is something anyone could have got from reading the playtest document. Faced with this very correct observation, I resolved to do another post, talking about how the rules worked in our campaign.
If actual play reports with GM commentary aren’t your thing, here’s the gist: so far, the playtest rules do a great job of capturing, supporting, and reinforcing the overall mood and themes of Unknown Armies. They are also2 easy to learn and use to run the game.
If actual play reports with GM commentary are your thing, read on.
As mentioned in the last post, we converted an ongoing UA2 campaign to UA3. We did it in the middle of a scenario, as well – I was running Garden Full of Weeds, on of the darkest and most disturbing UA scenarios ever written. There are dead babies, racial violence, the hopelessness of poverty, a paranormal MIB, and a man so twisted with bitterness and hate that he’s killing his neighbourhood.
Converting the characters over to UA3 took the better part of an evening. That was mainly due to the fact I was paging back and forth through the playtest document to guide the process and answer questions, and because the concepts embodied in the new Shock Gauge mechanic and the paired abilities took some explaining.
Because of the difference between how skills work in UA2 and the way abilities and identities work in UA3, we couldn’t do a straight conversion, where the players just adjust some numbers or skill names. We essentially had to rebuild the characters using the new guidelines and rules. This is not a bad thing; the new character mechanics are both very flavourful and pretty easy to get your head around3.
The resulting characters were pretty simple on paper: Name, Obsession, the three Stimuli, the Shock Gauge, and 1-3 Identities with their features. The hardened notches in the Shock Gauge set the levels for the ten abilities, so the only math and point-spending the players had to do was for the Identities. I gave them a fairly generous batch of points for this4, to reflect the fact that they were experienced characters.
Everyone liked the fact that the character sheets were simple5 and you didn’t have to hunt through it to find whether or not you had a specific skill.
Okay. The love for the character sheet faded a bit for one or two of the players during the playtest, and there’s a very simple reason6 why. In games today, there are two7 types of character sheets. One defines what a character can do, and one defines who a character is. Obviously, every character sheet contains elements of both, but individual games tend to focus more on one approach than the other. D&D, RuneQuest, Apocalypse World, Feng Shui, all of these focus strongly on what a character can do. On the other end of the continuum, you have games like Fate and Over the Edge focus on who the character is.
This fosters two different approaches to using the sheet. One approach is to look through the list of stuff on your sheet to find something interesting to do, and the other is to think of something you want to do and then look at your sheet to find something that will let you do it. The “what you do” type of game encourages the first approach, and the “who you are” type of game encourages the second. Neither is empirically better than the other, but some folks prefer one approach to the other.
Thus, for one or two of my players, the sparse character sheet became a bit of a disappointment, as they looked for prompts and didn’t find the help they wanted. I think this will ebb over time8, as they get more familiar with the abilities tied to the Shock Gauge and the way Identities work.
Anyway, that was the characters done.
As GM, I was faced with the challenge of converting a scenario9 to UA3 format. This was starting to look like a real challenge – UA3 has a very player-driven structure of Goal and Antagonist Phase, whereas older UA scenarios are collections of scenes that the characters encounter and maneuver through. I was struggling with how to handle the disconnect between the two styles until I had a bit of an epiphany: all I had to do was reframe things a bit.
So, I did a quick and dirty conversion of the main GMCs into UA3 by copying over their hardened notches from the Madness Meter to the Shock Gauge, and noted what level of the two abilities that indicated. And I added a couple of Identities based on the character write-up and noted a trick or two that the GMC could pull out to be exciting and interesting. Each character wound up fitting on one side of an index card.
I then did up a quick mind-map showing what scenes connected to which thread of the scenario, so I could pull something interesting in when they interacted with that thread. This is basically just converting the scene structure of the scenario into Antagonist Phase notes, and it took me under an hour when I finally figured out what to do.
As for the Goal, I got the characters to choose the Goal based on what they had been doing the previous session. The campaign structure was pretty simple: our heroes are a troubleshooter team10 for TNI, sent to investigate weird stuff and fix it. Given that TNI had assigned them to investigate the super-high infant mortality rate11 and had uncovered more nasty and weird stuff going on, they chose a fairly high-level goal: Stop the horrible things happening in this neighbourhood. To reflect the work and investigation from the previous session, I got them to enumerate the things that they had done to advance the Goal, and gave them a die roll for each of those to add to the Goal rating.
The actual play of the session was interesting to me. The players generally had no trouble deciding what to do, and I had very little trouble deciding if they should roll, what they should roll, and what happened. So, they watched some children playing hopscotch and writing sigils on the sidewalk in blood, tracked the baby-soul-stealing witch to the park, drove through her hovel with a car (incidentally killing her), shot the weird mirror-shade wearing MIB shadow until it died, and managed to direct an angry mob to tear apart the evil12 old man who was twisting the psychic landscape of the neighbourhood.
How did the Goal work into this? Well, they were sitting around 90% when they found where the witch was holed up. They already had a good idea about the old man behind things, so they decided to pull the trigger, and successfully rolled under the Goal percentage when they decided to go take out the witch, find the mirror-shade man and then sort out the old guy. So, their advance knowledge let them catch the witch at home and vulnerable, track down the mirror-shade man, and make the key decisions of what happened to the old man.
That’s not to say the Goal roll was the only roll that mattered. They had to make rolls to deal with the witch, to kill the mirror-shade man, to get the mob together, etc. Basically, the roll was to see the overall shape of the final scenes, and then the players got to shape it further through character actions and skills.
Oh, and letting the old guy die caused some major psychic fallout, loosing dark, twisted power to reshape reality to such an extent that one of the Cruel Ones13 came in and set things right.
This allowed me to move the campaign into the next phase of play. See, the idea that the players had come up with at the start of play was that their characters were reluctant TNI operatives, and would at some point go rogue. I told them that the discontinuity caused by the Cruel One was a good bit of cover to use to slip away. They took the option.
That put things more comfortably in the hands of the players to set the Goals. They decided the next Goal was to set up a safe-house for them so that they were out of TNI’s reach. I worked up some things in the Antagonist Phase to challenge them on that – they decided they wanted to set up in Salem, MA, so I fleshed out a bit of the Occult Underground of Salem, and I dug out a TNI hit squad to be after them, and stuff like that.
So, of course, the first thing they decided to do when we sat down to play was try and find someone to make them new IDs. A perfectly reasonable step, but I was unprepared for it. But they were driving from Baltimore to Salem, and a previous scenario had the King of New York City telling them to never come back, so I gave them a fake-ID contact in Harlem. This is a textbook example of an obstacle from the UA3 rules – giving them what they want, but making it risky. It also shows how blowback from previous escapades feeds into the Antagonist Phase, and helps deepen and enrich the story.
That led to a session full of creeping around Manhattan, dealing with criminals, trying to avoid Max, the King’s right hand, bargaining with their blood, and a tense stand-off in a veterinary office. For a completely improvised session, it worked fairly well. The structure of the UA3 mechanics made it fairly easy to improvise characters and challenges, so I didn’t need to stop in order to stat up an entropomancer or a bunch of gun-toting thugs, for example.
So, they made it out of NYC and into Salem by the end of the session. We picked up in Salem the next session, with our heroes trying to scope out the paranormal aspects of the town. They visited a couple of witch shops, found that they were pretty much just for tourists, and got frustrated. The flailing around they did for a bit wound up with them having an introduction to a historical guide and a bit of a warning by a local gang14. Also, one of them knowingly drank a roofied drink and almost wound up abducted from a club. I ran into a bit of trouble here because I couldn’t recall how the taser rules worked, and didn’t want to slow things down while I looked them up, so I did most of this encounter narratively15, and that worked. That all ended with police and ambulances and the roofied character rushing back to the hotel so as not to miss her TV program16 while the rest of the group went off to meet the historic guide after her last ghost tour.
And that’s how I separated the group so I could end the evening with the videomancer getting a phone call saying, “If you ever want to see your friends alive…” The other players were cool with me doing that to them for dramatic effect, though I promised them that there was a reason and I’d explain17.
In summary, the new Goal/Antagonist Phase focus of the new edition required some changes from previous editions, but nothing overwhelming, and I really like the way it puts the power of choice and direction into the players’ hands. It led to some surprises for me as a GM during play, which I’m always a fan of. The mechanics were simple enough that I could18 easily wing it without extensive prep of stats and such.
The central focus of the Shock Gauge for the characters also produced some interesting changes and decisions during play. The way it can cause your abilities to shift and change in the midst of play gives the Shock Checks some real weight – succeed in this Violence check, and you become less able to interact with normal folks19, while if you fail, you get better at punching people, which is good, because you might have to be doing that right now.
Identities are a good way to define not just what your character can do, but who your character is. It’s also really useful for the GM in statting up quick GMCs.
And throughout the whole thing, the game keeps driving towards hard choices and personal horror.
It’s a wonderful version of the game I love, and I know it’ll just get better as it nears completion.
- Very politely. [↩]
- Mostly. [↩]
- I also took this opportunity to encourage the players to tweak their characters, changing things that weren’t working for them. I think this is a good practice in most games – let the players tweak their characters to optimize their fun and minimize their pain. [↩]
- Though, being players, there were some complaints that they wanted more points. Gamers, eh? [↩]
- Especially me. I love me a simple character sheet. [↩]
- Though I seem to be spending a lot of words on explaining that reason. [↩]
- Well, there are more than two, but for our purposes here, we’re gonna focus on those two. [↩]
- In some ways, our four-session playtest was an interesting amount of time – it was enough time for some issues to crop up, but not long enough to work our solutions. [↩]
- And a UA1 scenario, at that. [↩]
- But not a volunteer one. TNI is making them work for it – if they balk or fail, they’ll be turned over to the various groups that want them dead. [↩]
- I almost typed “infant morality.” That would be a different kind of investigation, but might still work in a UA game. [↩]
- Also pathetic. But that’s how things go in UA. [↩]
- They’re essentially angels. They care only about the survival of reality, and are horribly brutal in their tactics. No one wants them to ever show up. [↩]
- The Dead Witches. And there’s something up with them. Go figure. [↩]
- Though I think one character learned a valuable lesson – if you’re gonna get the most out of Struggle, do it before two huge bouncers have your arms pinned. [↩]
- Videomancer. [↩]
- Show ▼
- Mostly. See my comment about the taser rules. [↩]
- Your Connect skill drops. It makes sense in context. [↩]