Unknown Armies: power & consequences

Today we interrupt our already irregular flow of Warmachine goodness, in order to bring you something I feel every geek should know about. Unknown Armies: A roleplaying game of power and consequences. This is a system I first encountered about ten years ago, but about a year ago we got a group together and actually began playing.

Now this is NOT a game for rookie role-players who simply enjoy hacking apart DM creations, because in this game almost everyone suffers from an acute intolerance to lead and pointy objects. This includes you, but most non player characters also run or surrender if you pull out the guns (just make sure you really want that disagreement to escalate, because other people have guns as well, and some of them are better shots).

This is a game in which three high powered player characters, got robbed by a hobo with a rusty revolver, because giving up the cash was way easier than doing anything about it, and we didn’t even bother to go looking for him afterwards (even though my character had to live on spaghettis the rest of the month). I’ve also accidentally killed an unknown, but substantial, amount of Mexico, due to a poorly worded request.

Spoilers / Information

Now if this game catches your interest, the most important thing to do is to avoid any more information, like the plague, because a major part of Unknown Armies is that nobody knows everything. This means that when you encounter something in the game you don’t understand, there’s a very good chance that the non player characters are equally baffled.

This is something I found to be an amazing solution to the problem with NPC contracts, because in many systems it makes no sense that the established system won’t simply tell you what the problem is, but in Unknown Armies the major players often have to ask the player characters to go find out, because they honestly have no idea.

If you think Unknown Armies is something you would like to try, find the most likely candidate to run the game, and let him decide what information should be available to players. In our game we didn’t know any of the rules when we began, and simply had to sit down with a rough idea about the type of person we would like to play.

The game (without too many spoilers)

The first thing you’ll notice is, that this game is not very heavy on the rules, and you can in fact design you own skills. This makes every character truly unique, and the skills can be as broad or narrow as you like, since every skill is subject to DM approval anyway. I personally loved the skill ‘Daddy‘, which represented a spoiled teenage girls ability to extract favors from her father, and ‘It was like that when I got here‘ which is sort of self explanatory, but it’s your character so you design most of the skills. Here’s a few from our group:

  • Professional Russian (allows the character to act and be recognized as a Russian, even though he’s not)
  • I’ve got one of those faces (allows the character to avoid detection in line-ups or by casual acquaintances they don’t feel like talking to)
  • Houdini (allows the character to pull off Harry Houdini routines, escape handcuffs, and pick locks)

The combat system is deadly, and one skilled gunman can take you down in a single combat round if he’s a little lucky. This means that everyone does their best to avoid combat, and most of the people you do end up fighting are normal people and not trained soldiers. Now you could make a mercenary company, outfit them in bullet proof vests, and carry around assault rifles if that’s your thing, but the police would probably have a thing or two to say about that (and they also carry guns and vests).

The characters

Every group is different of course, but to give you an idea about the sort of characters you could expect to work with in an Unknown Armies campaign, here’s the crew from our group. They all began the game as fairly normal people, but it all went downhill fast from there.

  • Higgins Junior (Higgs): A Social Worker who has become more and more radical when dealing with child abuse, to the point where the other two members of the group are beginning to question his methods and sanity (which is sort of funny because they’re both clinically insane). Higgs is now one the most feared member of the group, because he’s a god damn psycho and utterly unreliable in negotiations, since you never know what will send him down the path of uncontrollable rage and destruction.
  • Bryan O’Malley: A luxury car salesman, with a fake toothpaste smile, who lives in constant fear that people will discover exactly how little personality and character he actually has. Faced with the realities of what goes on in Unknown Armies he slowly broke down, and to deal with it he decided that everyone else simply had to wrong about everything. Bryan is something of a hindrance in getting things done, because he always has to be right, and because he breaks down if you prove him wrong. He’s also by far the most powerful member of the group, with a vindictive personality and the juice to back it up.
  • Jakov Rosienkov: A skinny man with nervous ticks, who arrived as a foreigner in a bad neighborhood, and the only thing he could think of to avoid the gangs was to pretend to be Russian, because everyone knows that Russians are the scariest white people in the world. This in turn made the local Russian mobsters take notice, and now Jakov is stuck playing a Russian mobster because he knows to much. This has led Jakov to some dark places, and somewhere along the way his mind broke, and he now suffers from a severe personality disorder.

This is our group, and it’s hilarious in the way a car crash involving two psychotic clowns would probably be. It’s dysfunctional and several members are clinically insane, but we’re not that different from the rest of the occult underground, and we still meet things that make us look normal in comparison.


I love Unknown Armies, and I heartily recommend it to everyone who has advanced beyond D&D and is looking for something ‘more’. I also really recommend not knowing much about it when you’re a player, and as a Dungeon Master the premade adventures are really bloody good (I’ve only been through them as a player, and I know my DM tweaked them a bit, but still… wow). Unknown Armies is by far the best roleplaying system I’ve ever had the pleasure to play, because everything can and will happen.

12 Responses »

  1. I would love suggestions for other interesting systems, as our DM doesn’t have much time to create a setting, and we will be switching systems once we’re through the premade adventures.

  2. I’ve been reading this blog for a while, but this is the first time I’ve felt qualified to comment (unlike WM/H, speaking to RPG’s only requires experience, not skill =) ). If you’re enjoying Unknown Armies, I’d strongly recommend FATE or one of its derivatives as a general system. My group has been playing variations of it for years on and off.

    By itself, the FATE system is setting-neutral, you can really do anything your group wants to see, but that flexibility tends to mean most games built on top of it range from the merely unusual to the very, very bizarre. This is the core system that was used by Spirit of the Century and, more recently, the Dresden Files RPG.

    They recently published an add-on called Fate Worlds that had rules and setting info for about 10 different campaigns: Fate Worlds
    Some of my favorites were:
    Wild Blue (what we’re currently playing) which is a sort of Wild West meets Airship Pirates with a dash of superpowers;
    Court/Ship, which casts the players as aristocrats in the court of Louis XIV, buries them in a web of political intrigue, and then drops aliens on them.

    • Oh dear god! I loved just reading about it…

      “The player characters frequently receive mission instructions from the Computer that are incomprehensible, self-contradictory, or obviously fatal if adhered to, and side-missions which conflict the main mission. They are issued equipment that is uniformly dangerous, faulty or “experimental” (i.e. almost certainly dangerous and faulty).”

      • I WHOLLY AGREE WITH PARANOIA! Easily one of my favorite RPG sessions that I’ve ever played in my life. Play the “Zap” variant, by the way.

        Some favorite moments from our game:
        -One party member trying to dirty his clothes with his own blood (which was readily available at the time) because they’d been bleached white, and white is WAY above his security clearance.

        – Me turning one of the other party members into a pterodactyl because I injected him with some random goop that I found

        -Half the party getting trampled to death by taxis that had fallen ravenously in love with a machine empath in the party

        And these aren’t just your standard DM messing around type occasions, that’s legit stuff that happens in the system. It’s a game where you encourage your players to be creative and in general just have a wonderful time.

        • My favorite incidents from this game:

          A player getting an extremely strong experimental grenade, but neglecting to ask how long of a delay the timer had. Got a few of us killed.

          Everyone but the morale officer finding Red Level lasers that were pretty nice. Several sessions and many complaints later, he’s rewarded with a dual barrelled laser! Twice the awesomeness, right? Not when one of the barrels points backwards.

          After getting a mundane group mission, the Computer issues everyone independent missions as well, some of which explicitly involve betraying other party members. We get on the elevator to leave the area, and the DM says, “The elevator suddenly stops, and the lights go out. It’s pitch black. Roll initiative.” Turned into a fucking bloodbath.

  3. Kult is a very special kind of creepy, and all you really need is the one book.

    Wraith – the least known and least played of all white wolf games – is actually a fantastic stand alone game that isnt tainted by the rest of The World of Darkness and the “omg a non-supernatural human – he must be Bruce Leroy to have survived this long”. It also falls in to the category dystopic and creepy like Kult.

  4. A setting with predefined adventures would be preferable, as our DM has a full time job and two small kids, but that does look interesting as well :D

  5. In a similar vein to paranoia (in terms of how seriously you should take the game/rp) I suggest looking into Tales of the Floating Vagabond.


  6. Oh wow, I had totally forgotten about Paranoia as well. That’s a great game, but it’s worth mentioning the disclaimer that you should make sure everyone in your group has a sense of humor… It’s a blast to play, but the continuous backstabbing will rub some people the wrong way.

    I wanted to bring up one other that’s I love, though I haven’t played it in many years – Sorceror, especially with the Dictionary of Mu supplement. Probably a little hard to find these days, but that game absolutely buries the needle on the Creepy-Weirdness Meter. It’s pretty dark though; A typical Dictionary session leaves you feeling like death is the least bad of a list of very, very many bad things that might happen to your character.

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