I Have No Game, and I Must Blog

Unknown Armies

S. Ben Melhuish • Saturday, November 14, 2009

Unknown Armies is a modern conspiracy/occult/horror game, published in 1998. I’ve only played one or two sessions (part of the “potluck tapas” series we did a few years back), but the game still occasionally wakes up and grabs me.

UA distinguishes itself from other modern occult RPGs in several ways. Its magic is “postmodern”, which I take here to mean that it takes traditional subjects and symbols and mashes them up without particular concern over whether they were intended to work together (as opposed to modern (no traditions at all) or pre-modern (all is traditional)). Its horror is personal; there are no uncaring cyclopean horrors from beyond the stars, there is just what humans do to get a leg up. And its “underground” is small-scale, at least in terms of most human endeavors; there are no vast conspiracies involving thousands, and rarely even hundreds.

The game system is a straightforward “roll under a target number on d%”, with wrinkles. Certain difficult tasks or situations can either adjust the target number, or set a “floor” above which the player must roll. Characters have obsessions and triggers, and when they apply, they can choose to swap the two dice (so an 82, probably a failure, can become a 28, a likely success, or if the target number is 45, a 24 could become a better 42). And sanity is tracked, but unlike Call of Cthulhu, there are five “madness meters” reflecting the character’s exposure to violence, helplessness, isolation, “self” (realizing that you aren’t who you thought you were), and of course magic.

In play, the system runs smoothly and gets out of the way.