The third edition of Unknown Armies is currently on Kickstarter. This was one of the more significant roleplaying games in my past, so I was positively required to back this one. This got me access to the Gamma edition of the rules, so I’ve been reading.
The second edition of Unknown Armies came out in 2002, which means that it’s been 14 years since it was published. In the interim, there’s been both a lot of history and a lot of development in RPG game mechanics. Both of these have been rolled into this new edition.
Last time I was rhapsodizing about Unknown Armies on this blog, I talked a lot about the Madness Meters. Now they are called Shock Gauges, and Greg Stolze has doubled down on their inclusion. Without going into too many details, the Shock Gauges are now the mechanical core of your character. Not only do they define your psychological profile, they set your core skills, which are the basis for the relationships and identities (e.g. player-defined skill sets). Everything radiates from your core psychological state.
Add to this rules to manage a sandbox approach to play (the Objective system), collaborative character creation, and GM advice which seems like the MC advice from Apocalypse World filtered through UA glasses (a really good thing, from my perspective), and you are left with a modernized version of a classic. Folks, I want to play this so hard.
But that’s not what I want to talk about. Instead, I want to talk about how Unknown Armies loves people.
That’s kind of a weird assertion to make. After all, Unknown Armies is known for horrible things happening to–and being done by–its characters. How could a game like this be accused of actually being warm towards humanity?
Unknown Armies has always been humanocentric horror. It’s almost the exact opposite of Lovecraftian horror, in fact. Lovecraftian horror is all about the cold, uncaring cosmos and the lack of human meaning. In the Unknown Armies universe, everything is humanity’s fault: the good and the bad alike. The world is a cosmic democracy; we make it what it is. Thus the “you did it” slogan from bygone days.
This edition of Unknown Armies does the best job of all the editions of capturing this humanocentric approach within its mechanics. You’re not creating a power fantasy with which you will be awesome. Rather, the rules guide you into making an emotionally real character who is still obsessed enough to chase something and pay the price. And you will pay the price. Both the rules text and the game mechanics enforce this. First, obviously, there are the Shock Gauges that will track the mental and emotional impact of what you have done and what has been done to you. Also, violence is brutal. In Unknown Armies, the characters’ “hit points” are tracked by the GM. The player isn’t allowed to track them or know what they are. Instead, they have to rely on the narrative description of their injuries provided by the GM. Gimmicky? Not really. Instead, by introducing uncertainty, the players respond towards the violence in more reasonable ways. They don’t know how hard they can push without suddenly dying. Combat in Unknown Armies tends to involve a lot of taking cover and scurrying from one location to another. Even magickal adepts can go down to a gunshot to the head.
The rules text amps this up, too. Here’s the quote from the beginning of the combat chapter in both the second and third editions:
Somewhere out there is someone who had loving parents, watched clouds on a summer’s day, fell in love, lost a friend, is kind to small animals, and knows how to say “please” and “thank you,” and yet somehow the two of you are going to end up in a dirty little room with one knife between you and you are going to have to kill that human being.
It’s a terrible thing. Not just because he’s come to the same realization and wants to survive just as much as you do, meaning he’s going to try and puncture your internal organs to set off a cascading trauma effect that ends with you voiding your bowels dying alone and removed from everything you’ve ever loved. No, it’s a terrible thing because somewhere along the way you could have made a different choice. You could have avoided that knife, that room, and maybe even found some kind of common ground between the two of you. Or at least, you might have divvied up some turf and left each other alone. That would have been a lot smarter, wouldn’t it? Even dogs are smart enough to do that. Now you’re staring into the eyes of a fellow human and in a couple minutes one of you is going to be vomiting blood to the rhythm of a fading heartbeat. The survivor is going to remember this night for the rest of his or her life.
Then the text proceeds to discuss ways to avoid a fight. The game treats violence as horrible because humans–real humans with loves and fears and dreams–are destroyed by it.
And, maybe even these things are justified. After all, the brutality of the combat doesn’t stop it from being a tool. So apparently, at least this time, what you wanted was worth inflicting that kind of harm on someone…or receiving that harm yourself.
This approach makes the horror of Unknown Armies work. It’s not about cosmically horrific monsters, as much as I love that sort of thing. No, in Unknown Armies, the horror is that the worst things being done in the world are being done by people. Real people, with real loves and desires and history. People who are understandable. Maybe even you.
That’s what I love about Unknown Armies: the intersection of real people, real desires, and real price. The magick and everything is just the setting.
Sound interesting to you? Consider backing the Kickstarter campaign!