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).
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.