We Did It: Playing UA 3rd Edition


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.

This is what UA should feel like.

This is what UA should feel like.

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.

This is what UA should feel like.

This is also what UA should feel like.

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.

This is also what UA should feel like.

This is also what UA should feel like.

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.

  1. Very politely. []
  2. Mostly. []
  3. 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. []
  4. Though, being players, there were some complaints that they wanted more points. Gamers, eh? []
  5. Especially me. I love me a simple character sheet. []
  6. Though I seem to be spending a lot of words on explaining that reason. []
  7. Well, there are more than two, but for our purposes here, we’re gonna focus on those two. []
  8. 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. []
  9. And a UA1 scenario, at that. []
  10. 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. []
  11. I almost typed “infant morality.” That would be a different kind of investigation, but might still work in a UA game. []
  12. Also pathetic. But that’s how things go in UA. []
  13. 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. []
  14. The Dead Witches. And there’s something up with them. Go figure. []
  15. 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. []
  16. Videomancer. []
  17. Show ▼


  18. Mostly. See my comment about the taser rules. []
  19. Your Connect skill drops. It makes sense in context. []

You Did It: Unknown Armies 3rd Edition

Those who know me know that I have a special love for Unknown Armies1. At GenCon this past summer, Cam Banks offered me the chance to jump in on the UA3 playtest, and I, of course, eagerly agreed2. 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 Sourcebook3, 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 UA24.

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 it5. There are good, solid guidelines for building schools of magick and Avatar channels, so creating special stuff for the players should be pretty easy6.

What about the system? Well, it’s pretty unchanged over all. Percentile rolls, occasional flip-flops, just like always. There’s a lengthy7 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 low8 – 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 Gauge9. 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 character10.

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 Armies11. 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 elements12 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 it13.

  1. 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. []
  2. Without even consulting my players. But they were cool with it. Thanks, Melly, Matt, Tom, and Fera! []
  3. Also by Greg Stolze, as is at least the bulk of UA3. []
  4. There’s some awesome stuff about St. Germaine and the Freak, but I’m not going to spoil it. []
  5. 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. []
  6. And honestly, there’s something about the idiosyncratic nature of UA mysticism that really seems to call for one-off weirdness. []
  7. And eminently helpful. []
  8. 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. []
  9. 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. []
  10. And the player, of course. []
  11. 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. []
  12. Broad skills in the form of Identities, the goal mechanic, and some other stuff. []
  13. For those who don’t get this, “You did it,” was the tagline of the game in 1st edition. []

TEAM BANSHEE: Stoon Lake, Part 2


I’m using the scenario Stoon Lakefrom the scenario collection Weep. Now, the book’s been out for some time, so it’s gotta be past the statute of limitations, especially with the third edition on its way. Still, don’t read any farther if you want to make sure you avoid knowing too much about the adventure.

In UA, knowing too much will save your life but damn your soul.


It’s been some time since the last session1, so this may be a bit lacking in detail, but the next session of our UA game is tomorrow night, so I better get something up, right, folks?

The centerpiece of this past session was having a guest player, stopping in for a few days before he had to return to the wilds of academia. I had talked to him a bit about what kind of character he wanted to play, and it basically came out as “Nathan Explosion in a suit, with a brain, and some heavy-metal magick.”2 Now, I had just listened to a Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff podcast where they were riffing on the idea of bone music, and suggested using that as our guest-star’s magick. I asked him to pick four heavy metal tunes that he had etched on X-rays of his own body, and then came up with a magickal effect for each of them.

I didn’t map it out like a whole school of magick; just assigned some simple mechanics to an idea suggested by each song. So, he wound up with a big blast power, a concealment power, a persuasion power, and a lesser blast power. No charges or anything; he just needed to have the X-ray with that tune with him to use the power3.

The character was essentially a pro from Dover, sent in to assess the team’s performance and loyalty4. I set it up to build some tension and mistrust, but not too much, because I wanted everyone to have fun. It went pretty well, as TEAM BANSHEE tried to answer as few questions from him as possible5 while figuring out what was going on with this whole Bigfoot thing. There ensued several strange interviews, multiple break-ins, the robbery of a Bigfoot Museum, and a high-publicity video made with the mayor.

Things finally broke for our heroes when Leggy used a bit of videomancer magick to make the guy who reported being attacked by Bigfoot to confess the truth. He told them that the broken leg was caused by the dog6 knocking him off the ladder as he cleaned the gutters at his mother’s house. He told the Bigfoot story to try and mess up plans by the mayor to capitalize on Bigfoot sightings for tourism7.8

I was just relaxing into the wrap-up of the session, when one of the players remembered a loose end9 – a weird recluse who owned land said to be a Bigfoot burial ground. He was unwilling to let them in past his high-tech security perimeter fence, so they conned their way in posing as the Sheriff. Once on the grounds, they found the house was pretty much a fortress, and their target sealed it up and hid in the panic room. He also called for help, which came in the form of a couple helicopters full of black-ops NSA teams.

So, because they had given away too much about themselves, they killed the fellow10, and tried to get out as the helicopters came in over the trees. It wasn’t looking good, until Mr. Explosion lived up to his name: he used the big blast thing I had developed to target one of the helicopters and tried to buy the rest of characters a chance to escape.

Escape they did, as their assessor fought a hopeless battle to keep off pursuit. A big explosion as the team slammed their SUV through the closed security gate and out onto the highway, and fade to black.

Next session, I’m not using a canned adventure. I’m bringing the team to the site of my old UA campaign to recruit11 a potential TNI asset. They probably won’t run into any of the characters from the old game. At least, not if they’re careful and quiet.

What are the odds, huh?

  1. I canceled a session since then, because of work load at the day job. Very unfair, I know, but gotta pay the bills. []
  2. I’m paraphrasing. That was the upshot of a longer conversation. []
  3. No, this is NOT balanced, nor did I do ANY prior playtesting. I used to run a lot of UA back in the day, and I’m pretty good at eyeballing things in the system, so I relied on that. Plus, the fact that he would be appearing in only one session. []
  4. Also, to pick up the Earhart Compass the group had nabbed. []
  5. He cornered Cruz, the team leader, and used his persuasion powers to get some truth from him, but not overly prejudicial stuff []
  6. The gang was suspicious of the dog right from the start, to be fair. There was a strangely lengthy discussion early in the session about stealing it, and the phrase “carry the dog” became a euphemism for pretty much anything for the rest of the session. []
  7. Yeah, there was a whole weird childhood rivalry between the guy and the mayor. []
  8. The way this spell works, the target confesses as if he or she were on Jerry Springer or similar – lots of shouting, lots of bleeped-out words. I put a little too much into it, and almost lost my voice. []
  9. Really, it was a red herring that they’d never followed up, so I had kind of written it off. []
  10. A high-level NSA decryption coder, with a number of emotional issues, including agoraphobia. []
  11. Or eliminate. []

TEAM BANSHEE: Stoon Lake, Part 1


I’m using the scenario Stoon Lakefrom the scenario collection Weep. Now, the book’s been out for some time, so it’s gotta be past the statute of limitations, especially with the third edition on its way. Still, don’t read any farther if you want to make sure you avoid knowing too much about the adventure.

In UA, knowing too much will save your life but damn your soul.


This session was really about half-and-half Pinfeathers and Stoon Lake. The team had a few loose ends they wanted to wrap up in Boston, so I let them do that before giving them their next assignment.

One thing I forgot in my last post was the cliffhanger I ended the session on1 – the team showed up at the Circle’s Edge bookshop to meet with the Flock2 and found that everyone in the room was dead.

Fade to black.

We picked it up right there this session3, and the squad did a quick investigation of the scene, finding that everyone had been herded together and shot. There were no casings around, and no reports of noises, so the gang thought that weapons like their hush-puppy pistols.

They fled the scene just ahead of the police sirens, and sat in the car for a little while eavesdropping on the police using their police scanner. They didn’t learn a whole lot more, as the cops became very careful in what they broadcast once the scope of the crime became apparent. Luckily, Leggy had used her videomancy to create a video record of the scene, and they decided to find a safe place to hole up overnight and see what else they could uncover.

First, though, they headed over to Sid’s place, because his body was not at the bookshop. There, they found Sid dead, shot execution style, at his open floor safe. A business card in the trash led them to the hotel where the mysterious Angela4 was staying. Still ignoring EPONYMOUS’s orders to stay away from the whole situation, they figured they could make one more try at salvaging something from their mission5.

The video they had didn’t reveal much more information, but they managed to scam the room number of Angela’s room in hotel from the night clerk at the front desk. When they broke into her room, they found her dead, as well, spiked to the ceiling with the words “Hush Hush” carved into her belly. More Sleeper work.

They spent the night cleaning up the mess and disposing of the body, then hit the road. About that time, EPONYMOUS called them, asking where they were. Cruz told him that they were just about to head back to base, and was told to head to a nearby Kinko’s to pick up their next assignment.

That assignment sent them to the small town of Stoon Lake, Minnesota, to investigate a report of a Bigfoot attack. Their initial investigations haven’t yielded much, yet, though they met the mother of the man who was attacked, plus her very large dog, and the reporter who wrote the story.

The meeting with the reporter didn’t go well. They had hoped, what with her history with strange stories, that she might be a valuable contact with useful information about the occult underground. But the reporter had been burned pretty badly6 by her contact with the weird stuff, having lost her job in the city and being stuck out in a little weekly regional paper, so she was less than welcoming. She was downright paranoid, and somewhat abusive, and she really pissed off Skye, who had been hoping to use their common interest in journalism to leverage some co-operation7.

That was when we called the game for the evening. It wasn’t a very conclusive session, but it moved them from the last assignment into the new one.

I ran Stoon Lake for my previous UA group many years ago, and it turned out to be the deadliest scenario in that entire campaign. Not necessarily because of the enemy; we lost one character and almost lost another to friendly fire incidents8. Only the epideromancer rolling his bones with a deliberate car crash saved them – he got enough juice to rewrite the previous half-hour or so.

I don’t think this time through will be quite so bad. But you never know.

Next session is tomorrow night, and we’ve got a guest player for the evening. He’s going to be a TNI honcho come to check on the PCs, because they seem to be keeping secrets and playing pretty loose with TNI rules.

Should be fun.

  1. To be honest, I forgot to include it in the post because I forgot that I had done that. I don’t really know how I forgot; I was inordinately pleased with myself when I pulled it off. []
  2. Against the specific instructions of EPONYMOUS. []
  3. After the group reminded me of where things stood, and I pretended that I had known all along. []
  4. The Flying Woman avatar who kicked their asses the previous session. []
  5. Besides, of course, Amelia Earhart’s compass, which they had already stolen from Sid’s floor safe. And the text file of Sid’s ritual plans. []
  6. Figuratively. []
  7. Sorry, Fera. []
  8. That’s what you get with heavily armed, but decidedly urban, bad-asses wandering around the bush at night hunting for Bigfoot. []

TEAM BANSHEE: Pinfeathers, Part 2


I’m using the scenario Pinfeathers from the UA 2nd Edition rulebook for the first adventure in our UA campaign. Now, the book’s been out for twelve years, and Pinfeathers was originally released as a free adventure for the first edition, so it’s gotta be past the statute of limitations, especially with the third edition on its way. Still, don’t read any farther if you want to make sure you avoid knowing too much about the adventure.

In UA, knowing too much will save your life but damn your soul.


This was an interesting second session of our UA campaign. The characters spent most of the time trying to clean up the mess they made in the previous session. They had chased a woman into traffic, where she was hit and killed, and then grabbed her purse and driven away in their TNI-issued SUV1. So, their first order of business was to swap the plates on their vehicle.

This led to a caper comedy of our less-than-inconspicuous heroes2 prowled residential streets, stole license plates, fast-talked patrolling police officers, and calling on contacts to get a replacement vehicle. After that, they thought they’d go check out the hotel room their3 victim had been staying in, to see if they could learn a little more about what was actually going on.

They split the party at that point, for some reason that seemed entirely reasonable but, upon reflection, may have been not-so-good. In the hotel room, two of them were taken at gunpoint by an unseen man who bound them and left them facedown on the floor before vanishing just ahead of the other two PCs arriving. The only traces they had of him were the zip ties on the wrists of the4 hostages, and the word “HUSH” written on the bathroom mirror.

This got Cruz all fired up, because he had, at one point, been a low-level operative of the Sleepers before TNI snatched him. So, he knew that was a Sleeper warning sign, and that the Sleepers are major-league bad-asses in the Occult Underground. With that information, TEAM BANSHEE called in for directions, and were told by Eponymous in no uncertain terms to break off the operation and not to engage further with the Flock, Sid, or the crazy ritual that was going to happen in a few days.

That rankled a bit, so the team decided that, if nothing else, they could burgle Sid’s place and steal the compass they found there – the one that they think belonged to Amelia Earhart. That’s where they ran into the mysterious Angela that their previous victim had been worried about – she showed up and started to pick the lock of the apartment while they were already inside, so they yanked her inside and tried to knock her unconscious to take and interview her later.

Two things really interfered with that: first, it’s very hard to actually just knock someone out without doing enough damage to possibly kill them5. Second, Angela is a fairly powerful avatar of the Flying Woman, which means it is very, very hard to capture, confine, or restrict her.

A third factor was the fact that I had introduced the idea of Madness checks this session6. In the midst of trying to capture Angela, there were a couple failed Violence and Unnatural checks. I was tempted to throw in a Helplessness test or two as she kept slipping out of their grasp, but I thought that would just be cruel.

So, the team’s first real combat in the game turned into a confused, desperate, panicked, and chaotic mess, just the way it should be. It ended with Angela literally flying away out a mysteriously open window, and our heroes took their stolen compass and skedaddled.

We’re playing again tonight, and I’m not sure if the group is going to cut and leave things in Boston alone, or if they’re going to defy their orders and see if they can observe the Flock’s ritual and see what happens when Sid tries to channel the power of the Flying Woman through his male body.

I’ve got their next assignment ready, just in case. It happens to be another adventure I ran years ago in my first UA campaign, and had a surprisingly high body count for what it was. It may have been – to my complete and utter shock – the deadliest scenario that group ever got mixed up in.

We’ll see how TEAM BANSHEE handles the mystery of… STOON LAKE!

  1. That’s enough initialisms for one paragraph, yeah? []
  2. “Heroes” may be the wrong word for UA PCs. It’s certainly highly debatable for this group of characters. But it is traditional. []
  3. Kind of. []
  4. Very embarrassed. []
  5. This is reflected in the combat mechanics of UA – if you get really, really lucky, you might be able manage it, but mostly you have to beat your victim into dreamland in an ugly, violent manner, and hope that he or she doesn’t just die from it. []
  6. None of the players had played UA before this campaign, so I’m building the complexity of the rules at a slower pace. []

TEAM BANSHEE: Pinfeathers, Part 1


I’m using the scenario Pinfeathers from the UA 2nd Edition rulebook for the first adventure in our UA campaign. Now, the book’s been out for twelve years, and Pinfeathers was originally released as a free adventure for the first edition, so it’s gotta be past the statute of limitations, especially with the third edition on its way. Still, don’t read any farther if you want to make sure you avoid knowing too much about the adventure.

In UA, knowing too much will save your life but damn your soul.


It’s been a while since I ran Unknown Armies, so I decided to go with a canned scenario for the first stage of the campaign. Looking through the books, I waffled between a few, but finally settled on Pinfeathers from the rulebook. The reasons:

  • It’s a cool scenario.
  • I’ve run it before1.
  • It’s a very flexible scenario that lets me respond to player actions.
  • It holds off on the weirdness, letting the PCs find their way into it slowly2.
  • It offers a variety of motivations for the different NPCs, so you can tweak the adventure to suit your group.

I did up a mission briefing for the group3, and handed it out at the start of the game. It gave a bit of background, along with the transcript of a vision one of the TNI seers had which started the whole thing off.

We spent a little time with the group reading over the briefing, me answering some basic questions about working with for TNI and the system, and letting everyone meet the new member of the team4. Then we got down to the actual adventure.

They went off to Boston and to the Circle’s Edge bookstore, where they met the owner, Sid. Skye did most of the talking, being familiar with the kind of New Age philosophy Sid and the Flock espoused5. She got a good pitch on the Flock, and an invitation to one of their meetings in the cafe above the bookstore.

After the store closed, Leggy6 and Skye followed the woman who worked in the cafe, while Cruz and Neon followed Sid. They found where each lived.

This is where things really started to fall into the UA style of play. I had been a little worried about getting the style and feel that make UA such a fun and distinct game. None of the players were familiar with the game, and initial discussions made me worried that they were looking at it like a Charles deLint story7, but I needn’t have worried.

So, Leggy and Skye decided to break in to the woman’s apartment and searching it while she was in the shower. That ended with them sneaking away from the cops with the help of Neon’s magick, and no useful information gained8.

They also had a little run-in with a mysterious woman, tried to follow her, and wound up confronted by her. Again, no really useful information, but some fun roleplaying.

Next day, they did a little more B&E, this time at Sid’s place while he was at work. They managed to find an old aviator’s compass that resonated with power, as well as a copy of the big ritual that the Flock was planning for the next week or so. They left everything where it was, hoping to use their knowledge as leverage if they needed it.

When they went back to check out the bookstore again, they saw the same mysterious woman from the night before in a coffee shop across the street. Again, Skye went to confront her. They had a conversation almost entirely at cross purposes, with neither understanding the hints and references the other was making, and then there was a gun, and people started running, and the mysterious woman was run down by a car in the street.

TEAM BANSHEE then employed the sophisticated TNI-approved strategy – “Cheese it! It’s the cops!” They regrouped at their hotel to try and figure out what was going on and what they should do next.

Which is where we left it.

I’m going to be setting up the next game for early in the new year. So far, we’re having a lot of fun.

You did it.

  1. Though it ended in a very strange confrontation and the death of a major canon NPC. []
  2. Unlike, say, Bill in Three Persons, the other intro scenario in the book. []
  3. They’re playing a TNI wild card squad. []
  4. One player was unable to make it to the character creation session, so we finished up her character – Skye, a woman with the Sight, on the run from the folks who wiped out her little cult – just before this session. []
  5. On a personal note, I was both surprised and a little disturbed how easily and fluently I could spin that line of blather. Vestiges of reading a lot of crap researching different kinds of magic for games. []
  6. Formerly Cooper – after seeing the video for Bad Romance, the player decided to rename her character Leggy Dada. Watch your overcoat! []
  7. Nothing against those; I love Charles deLint stories. I’ve read pretty much all of them. But they ain’t UA. []
  8. Well, they found a little shrine to the Divine Feminine in her closet, but what else do you expect in a devout neo-pagan’s closet? []

TEAM BANSHEE: Recruitment

Around last September, I was asked to run a game for a friend whose husband was going off to the wilds of Queens University to finish his doctorate. I sent her a list of games that I could run for her, along with a brief description of each, and asked her to pick one out, and to let me know who else she wanted to invite to the game. She narrowed the list down to six choices, and the four people1 who signed up for the game voted on which one sounded best to them.

The winner was a game very dear to my heart: Unknown Armies.

That made me very happy, but UA has significantly more upfront work than something like, say, Apocalypse World or D&D. The first thing we had to come up with was the campaign frame.

I pitched them a couple, and we discussed it online, and the group was split. They were interested in playing a team of agents for TNI or the Sleepers, or playing a group on the run from one of those groups. I thought about it for a bit, and then gave them this pitch:

Chain Gang
You thought you were smart. You had the world figured out. Maybe you had the inside track on weird stuff in your neighbourhood, or were a consummate bad-ass, or maybe you even had a little mojo yourself. Whatever it was, you thought you were large and in charge.

But something went wrong. Something bad.

And, just like magic, someone showed up and made the problem disappear. Unfortunately, you had to disappear along with the problem. Now, you’ve got a new name and a new job. Your name is an alias, and your job is doing whatever The New Inquisition tells you to do. Yeah, they saved you, but they have no intention of letting you go. You owe them. You’re useful. And now, they own you.

When you own someone as completely as TNI owns you, you give them all the shit jobs.

Some of the things you’ve done for TNI don’t sit well with you. And they’re getting worse. They know they have you over a barrel, and they’re taking advantage of that. You’ve committed crimes for them, committed blasphemies for them. You’ve sinned against the law and the church and humanity and reality itself. You need to get out before you lose what’s left of your self.

Yeah, they own you. But not every part of you. And not forever.

You’ll show them.

Because the UA universe has a particular flavour, and the players weren’t really familiar with it, I pointed out some important considerations for this campaign frame:

  • I’ve tried to mix the feel of the TNI/Sleeper team with the feel of the fugitives/outlaw frames.
  • The fact that you have all been rather forcefully recruited means that it’s cool to have disparate backgrounds, and even ties to other cabals. So, if you want to be, e.g., a Grail Knight still focused on your quest, but now roped into doing TNI’s dirty work, or a member of a mystical outlaw biker gang working for TNI to avoid going to prison forever, that’s totally cool.
  • In a frame like this, you’ll have to come up with one extra piece of background for your character: what went so horribly wrong that the only out you had was disappearing into TNI.
  • The idea in a set-up like this is that the first couple of adventures will be doing nasty stuff for TNI. At some point – not too soon, but not too late, either – you’ll make your break from TNI, and then the game turns into a fugitives frame.
  • Because the idea in this framework is for you to really chafe at working for TNI, I will not be gentle with your characters while you work for them. I will do my best to hurt them – not necessarily physically, but I will certainly gut-punch their souls and consciences.

They decided they liked that pitch, and so we moved forward.

We got together about three weeks ago for character creation. I planned to use the session to create characters, instill some of the UA feeling in the players to shape their expectations, and build some more detail into the campaign using Backstory Cards. There was a bit of a glitch, as one of the players had to cancel, but we decided to go ahead anyway, and work something out with our missing player after the fact.

Character creation was fun. We got all three characters worked out, which takes a while for first-time UA players. The passions and drives take some fiddling to get right, and the skill system has some nuances to it that can take some time to explain and grasp. But, in the end, we had our characters:

  • Cooper, a videomancer obsessed with Twin Peaks, that TNI hunted down and forcefully recruited once she started messing with network executives to get the show back on the air.
  • Cruz Gibson, an ex-special forces, ex-Sleeper agent who managed to burn ALL his bridges behind him, and took TNI’s offer of “employment” rather than get snatched by a Sleeper hit squad.
  • Neon Shadow, a kleptomancer hacker and thief, who ran afoul of the Five Families in magick-free NYC by using his mojo to try and steal the Kimberly Diamond, and thus was amenable to a new job offer.

Then we trotted out the Backstory Cards. I backed these on Kickstarter, and had the print-and-play basic set. The horror or noir expansions would have been nice, but the basic set worked just fine for us. In short order, we had enough background worked out to see the dynamic of the team: the bromance between Neon and Cruz, Cooper’s unrequited love2 for Cruz, and Neon’s general manipulation of everyone and everything, and Cooper and Neon’s rivalry. Also, it brought Eponymous into things, as the one who prevented Cooper from attending Comic Con where the Twin Peaks miniseries was announced, and the big stick that keeps Cruz and Neon in line.

And they came up with their own unit name, in keeping with TNI practice: TEAM BANSHEE.

I’ve compiled a setting bible for the team and sent it out for their review. It’s incomplete, mainly because it doesn’t include anything about our fourth player’s character, because that character is just a concept right now.

I’ve given the player some options for her character: she can be the newest member of the team, with minimal connection to them3; she can be a standard member of the team4; or the team’s first assignment can be to recruit her character for TNI. I told her to think about that stuff, but not make any decisions until she had seen the setting bible.

I’ve sent it out, now, Fera. I’m going to start pestering you for decisions, and trying to set up a time to create your character.

So, that’s it. We’re almost set to start playing. I’m looking forward to it.

And, for the record, Backstory Cards absolutely rock.

  1. Plus me. []
  2. Or maybe lust. []
  3. So, no connecting Backstory Cards. []
  4. So, we’ll do her Backstory Cards at the first session. []

Character Building

I’ve been a little lax about posting this past week or so because I’ve been caught up in preparation for a few games. One of the games is a playtest of the new Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay*, another is the next installment of the Hunter – Shadow Wars episodic campaign, and then there’s the bookkeeping for the Storm Point campaign, and the pregame development of Scio Occultus Res.

But the work I’m doing on the games has got me thinking about building characters in games, and the different systems the games offer and why, and the different goals and ideals that players have when building characters. See, I’ve been building some pregens for the WHFRP playtest, some NPCs for the Shadow Wars game, and watching my players build their characters for SOR. I’ve also been reading some other games, like Starblazer Adventures, Mutant City Blues, Two-Fisted Tales, Dogs in the Vineyard, The Burning Wheel, and Mongoose’s latest iteration of the classic Traveller.

What I’ve noticed is that character building systems in game sit on a continuum of customizability, ranging from games where you pick an archetypical character and play it to games where you build each individual aspect of the character. There really isn’t anything at either extreme of the continuum; even a system that focuses on archetypes like Feng Shui or Shadowrun lets you customize a few aspects of the character, and even a game where you build almost everything from scratch like Unknown Armies or Spirit of the Century has a few predefined elements that you need to use to create your character.

In the middle of the road, though, you find the race/class systems, like Dungeons & Dragons, and the skill-based systems, like Call of Cthulhu. Each still has components of the other in it – you get to pick skills and feats to customize your character in D&D, and your choice of profession shapes your skill picks in CoC.

This says to me that , as gamers, we tend to like the ability to build the kind of character we want to play in a game with few restrictions, but we also want a bit of a structure to help realize the ideals we have in relation to the rules. It also seems that the more detailed and low-trust* the rules system is, the more the structure is needed to make the mechanics of character interact properly with the mechanics of task resolution and other systems.

Character building also sets the tone for the game. Consider that, in D&D, most players look at the concept of roles for picking their classes. Now, roles really only impact the game in combat, which leads to the tacit assumption that combat is going to be the most important part of the game. The majority of rules in the game deal with combat in one way or another, from the powers of the characters to entire books of monsters to fight. Now look at a game like Mage: The Awakening. In that game, first you build a normal human, then transform him or her into a wizard. That leads to the tacit assumption that the themes of transformation, alienation from mundane life, and the price of power are going to be present in the game, leading to a more introspective, internal focus for play.

Some systems even have mechanics for building in backstory for your character. The Burning Wheel is a primary example, along with Traveller and Spirit of the Century. Some things you get to pick, but some you don’t, and your choices may restrict or open certain other choices for you. Classic Traveller even had the chance your character would die during character generation, forcing you to start from scratch with a new character*. This can be very useful for games where you really want a bit of depth to the characters, and it leads to assumptions that character history and motivations are going to feature in the game.

Traditionally, once you have your characters created, you throw them together into a group, have them meet in a tavern, and they all decide to risk their lives together. Kind of cheesy, but it works. Now, however, many games are going out of their way to build in reasons why the characters work together, helping the GM give the disparate characters a history together. The brilliant novel idea from SotC and other FATE games is one example, where everyone winds up with connections to at least two other people in the group. WHFRP now has a party sheet, which gives the group a reason to work together, along with benefits and perils specific to that type of group. Traveller mixes and matches this, giving characters a chance to link themselves to other characters during character creation, and then pick a group skill package to represent why they’re together and what they get out of it.

As a GM, I like these sorts of ideas. It takes some of the pressure off when the players are the ones who decide why they’re together and what they want from each other.

And, of course, some character generation systems appeal more to different players than other do.

Me, I like random in character creation. I like rolling the dice and having them dictate aspects of my character, trying to fit the disparate pieces together into something that I want to play. Others I know hate the random method, because they have a much more developed idea of what they want their character to be, and don’t want to let the dice ruin it. And some just don’t like the inequity of randomness, where some characters may start out just plain better than others. I can understand that.

And then there are those players to whom the system trappings of the character are just so much decoration –  the real heart of the character is his or her inner life. See, I like a character that can do something mechanically different from the others in the party; it gives me the chance to stand out in areas where I excel, and it prevents me from stepping on other players when their characters have the chance to shine. But I know some players who are more than content playing the “other fighter” because the attitude, behaviour, motivations, drives, and reactions are all different.

These things come up in character development, too. Some plan out each little advancement, whether in a level-based system or a skill-based system, doing their best to tweak their character to fit the ideal in their head. Others take advancement as it comes, and make their choices based on what seems to fit best at the time. This has some connection with the optimization ideas I discussed back here, but it’s not always about min-maxing.

I think this is part of what keeps most character generation systems near the mid-point of that continuum I mentioned earlier. Developers are trying to make a system that works for the largest number of players. Which is good, because you want more player buying your stuff, but leads to a bit of conservatism in the big games out there. In RPGs, the big guns are definitely Wizards of the Coast, with D&D, and White Wolf, with their World of Darkness games. Both of these have stuck very strongly to their core race/class, abilities, and skills through multiple iterations.

It’s the independent games that are pushing the envelope, coming up with cool new ways to build characters. The FATE games, The Burning Wheel, and Dogs in the Vineyard all have innovative new twists to their character creation that can be looted for other games – the novel idea from FATE, the idea of drives from The Burning Wheel, and the crux moment from Dogs in the Vineyard are all things that can usefully be lifted into pretty much any game.

And then there’s creating NPCs. This is, of necessity, different than creating PCs. As a GM, when you create an NPC, you generally have a specific purpose for him or her, a story role or goal that the character fills. Maybe he’s the villain, or the mentor, or the annoying dependent. Maybe she’s a love interest or a rival or an obstacle. This purpose shapes the type of character you create, but I also find that I shape the character based on what I know about how my group reacts to different things. In the Storm Point game, for example, I know that if I send a halfling NPC anywhere near the party, I’m just asking for him to be distrusted (and possibly stomped), so I only use a halfling if that’s the sort of reaction I want to provoke, or if I’m trying to prove to them that all halflings aren’t deceitful, manipulative crooks.

Of course, you don’t need nearly as much mechanical background for NPCs as you do for PCs. All you need is enough information for the NPC to serve his or her purpose. For longer-running NPCs, you may eventually need to come up with an almost-complete set of stats, but if the only reason the PCs are going to talk to the bartender is to find out that the guy they’re looking for isn’t in the bar, you barely even need a name.

Having said that, one thing that I did in the Dresden Files playtest is create a number of characters along side the players, and then use my characters as NPCs during play. This worked especially well using the DFRPG rules, because of the novel stage, where my NPCs wound up with nice connections to several of the PCs. This meant that the PCs had NPC contacts they could call on in play, contacts that they had a history with. I really liked it.

I think the point I’m trying to make in this post is that there are a myriad of systems for creating characters, and a myriad of ways that players – and GMs – look at making characters. Whatever method you use has got to suit both the game and the players, and that you shouldn’t be afraid of mixing and matching elements from other games to make the types of characters your group likes. Remember that the game isn’t what’s written in the rulebooks; it’s what happens at the table, when you and your friends sit down and start playing.

Do what you need to do in order to give yourself the characters that you need. Characters that you will remember and talk about. Look around, try out new things, read other games, experiment. If something doesn’t work, stop doing it. If something does work, keep doing it.

And remember. Games are supposed to be fun. Have fun.

*About which I will post a full report when the playtest is done. Back

*Low-trust is not necessarily a bad thing. It means that both the players and the GM can have a solid, shared understanding of just what is and is not possible for the character. High-trust is not a bad thing, either. It means that both the players and GM have more of a chance of surprising each other with something cool. Back

*Mongoose’s new Traveller has a more interesting (IMO) mishap table, where something bad happens and you have to leave your current career, but it retains the death option in what it refers to as Iron Man Character Creation. Back

System and Setting

I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes up a game the past few weeks, thanks to my intended change in gaming habits. It’s got me examining that age-old balance in RPGs – system and setting. As I examine games that I might like to run, I look at both aspects, and I’ve been exploring the relationship between the two.

So, for the purpose of clarity in the following article, let me lay out my definitions:

System is the combination of mechanics that allow the modeling of the game world in play.

Setting is the fictional world of the game, including the campaign world and all the assumptions that go into it.

Essentially, I’m saying that the system is the set of tools that allow you to participate in the setting. Forgotten Realms is a setting, and D&D 4E is the system you use to play there.

We good? Good.

As I look at games to play, I’m struck by the observation that games tend to fall into two camps with regards to system and setting. One camp ties the system and the setting tightly together, so that the system reinforces the feel of the setting, and the setting pulls the necessary system elements into the game. Here, I’m thinking of games like Unknown Armies, Don’t Rest Your Head, and Polaris.

The other camp tends to divorce system from setting, so that the system can handle pretty much any aspect of any setting, and the setting uses only those aspects of the system that it needs to. Games in this category are things like GURPS, Basic Roleplaying, and d20 Modern. Now, I’ve chosen those three games specifically because they are at the extreme of this camp – they are essentially generic systems.

There seem to be real advantages to both ways of doing things. In the first group, you have games that are very rich in flavour, mood, and theme by default. You can feel the postmodern horror in Unknown Armies everytime you have to make a terrible sacrifice to power your magic. You feel the desperation and lurking insanity everytime you count up the dice colours in Don’t Rest Your Head. You feel the doomed fate of your characters with everything you do in Polaris. This is stuff that’s really lacking in the other camp without building a lot of specialist mechanics in, which, of course, moves you more into this category.

On the other side of the street, you tend to get systems that fade out of the spotlight and let you concentrate on the roleplaying. You can adapt the systems quickly and easily to pretty much anything you want to do, and your players won’t have to learn a new set of rules. This gives a fair bit of flexibility, and can emphasize the storytelling aspects of what you’re doing. But it can also limit the ability to mechanically implement creative ideas, both as a GM and as a player, that may require separate mechanics to produce.

Let’s look at an example I’ve currently been working on. I’m starting an episodic Hunter: The Vigil game, but I involved the players in the worldbuilding part of setting the game up. The result of that was a world where a lot of the specialized H:TV systems didn’t fit anymore. So, I developed a new framework for granting minor supernatural powers and/or special abilities to the characters, one that I planned to be fairly loose and rules-light. I wound up having to create different mechanics for about twenty different things that the players wanted to be able to do. This game of H:TV isn’t going to much resemble the default play style put forward in the book.

Now, that’s not bad, and that’s not necessarily good, but it involved a fair bit of effort on my part and negotiation with the players. It also illustrates both categories of game I cited above: World of Darkness is fairly setting-light, building a more generic system at the sacrifice of specificity of setting. the Hunter: The Vigil book provides specialized mechanics to integrate more closely with the setting. I wound up stripping several of those specific examples away and building new ones based on the generic stuff.

What’s my point?

My point is that I’m in a bit of a quandary. I want to run a number of one-shots over the next several months. Some are specific tightly-bound system-and-setting games, while some are just ideas that I need to put a system to. My buddy Clint put together a great three-shot game using OpenQuest, but he had to build some specific mechanics in to make the game do what he wanted. I’m not sure that the system is robust enough, or models things in the right ways, for some of the setting ideas I have. Another great generic system I like, FATE, could handle some ideas better, but I find it to walk a very fine balance between rules-heavy and rules-light – combat, specifically, doesn’t always have the tactical feel that many of my players like, and many settings would benefit from. And for the games where I’ve already got a system, there’s the problem of getting the group to learn the new rules.

So, anyone out there got any suggestions or comments? If you were going to run a game based on the movie The Prophecy, for example, what would you use?