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Unknown Armies RPG Overview
There are a lot of really good horror roleplaying games out on the market today but the one that has been making news for being a serious game for serious gamers is Unknown Armies. While most rpg’s of the same genre either follow the Call of Cthulhu theme of investigative doom or the World of Darkness theme of gothic living, Unknown Armies goes in a different direction. The tagline for the game is “transcendental horror and furious action”. It is like an action movie mixed with the occult plus a dash of dark new age theologies and cosmic power.
Unknown Armies was created by John Tynes and Greg Stohls and is published by Atlas Games, one of the longer standing companies in the tabletop gaming industry. It is currently in the third printing of its second edition.
The game takes place in the modern world. All the storylines and adventures happen within the occult underground that is filled with modern practitioners of magic and secretive cabals. In the game world, there are characters that embody certain cosmic archetypes and these characters are trying to ascend to a higher plane or level of power. Once there are so many ascended archetypes, then the reality of the world will be remade and life will start over, this time under the influence of the archetypes. Not everyone, though, is trying to ascend. There are some characters that are intent on stopping this apocolypse from taking place. The campaign world is also filled with separate organizations and individuals who have their own agenda.
Players can create an assortment of characters with a very free-form system. Each character is created using three main factors: Personality, Obsession, and Passion. Personality is based off of the zodiac so it gives you what your character’s basic personality type can be. Obsession details what your character’s main motivation is for doing anything. Passion describes what triggers your character’s emotions such as fear, anger, love, and so on. The best thing about this kind of creation system is that it instantly gives you a motive for how your character acts.
After that, character attributes are broken down into four main categories. There is Body, Speed, Mind, and Soul. Body deals with physical skills, Speed deals with dexterous and nimble skills, Mind deals with mental skills and problem solving, and Soul deals with personality and spiritual skills. A character can choose any skills they want. There are no restrictions. When choosing skills, you also get to pick two skills that relate to your Obsession. When rolling for the success of these two skills, you can flip-flop the dice to come up with a succeeding roll.
And finally, your character has a Sanity level. This judges how well a character copes with certain acts. The different madness meters that help to determine your Sanity are Violence, Unnatural, Helplessness, Isolation, and Self.
The game system for Unknown Armies is based off a percentile dice system. For anyone not familiar with this style, you roll two ten-sided dice to determine things like skill success, combat, and magic. One dice is the “tens” digit and the other dice is the “singles” digit so that you can roll anything from 01 to 00 (which acts as 100). When rolling for a skill, you want to roll a result that is lower than your skill level. What makes Unknown Armies system different from other percentile systems is that the higher you roll, the better your success (as long as you remain below your skill level). However, the game stresses that you should not have to roll every time to use a skill. Your levels are used more as a guideline to determine how long it takes to perform a task and the degree of your success.
The combat system is easy, fast-paced, and does a fair job of being realistic. To Hit is all based on one roll of the percentile dice and the Game Master (or GM) keeps track of everyone’s wounds. Players do not know how many points they are away from death so it is makes combat decisions riskier. A single combat action, which includes a roll to hit and damage calculation, is resolved by only one roll. For example, if a player rolls a 65 to hit, if that is successful then they do 11 points of damage (6 + 5 = 11).
The magic(k) system for Unknown Armies is very different from other games. None of the spells or schools of magic work quite the way they sound. This is a point about other aspects of the game but we’ll get to that in a minute. With magick, there are three laws. There is the Law of Symbolic Tension which states that all magick comes from some form of paradox. There is the Law of Transaction that states you get the same results as the effort that you put in. And there is the Law of Obedience that forbids an adept from studying more than one school of magic.
There are many schools of magick for an adept to choose from. The schools are definitely different from what you would find anywhere else. There are names such as school of Cliomancy, Dispomancy, Entropomancy, Epideromancy, and a few others. There is even a Pornomancy. Yep, it is what it sounds like. All of these schools are interesting and have their own benefits.
Archetypes and Other Weirdness
The organization known as the Invisible Clergy are made up of archetypes that have transcended. As a character, you can try to become an archetype yourself and gain entrance into the Invisible Clergy. A character can become an Avatar. As they progress through the game, he or she gains more power that is related to their specific archetype.
Another aspect of Unknown Armies is the unnatural world that makes up the paranormal culture. Everything from vampires, demons, spirits, and UFO’s is included. Again, even with these parts of the game, Unknown Armies is different from other horror games. None of these paranormal or supernatural aspects are what you think they are. They are quite different from common myth and folklore. For example, UFO’s are just brightly-glowing insects. Werecreatures are possessed of an undead soul along with an animal spirit. So these common myths are all twisted in a creative way.
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