Unknown Armies: It’s Better To Burn Out Than It Is To Rust

Shannon over at ST Wild has recently done a series of posts about ending campaigns, which became relevant yesterday as I decided to put my Unknown Armies campaign out to pasture.

Without belabouring you with an in-depth discussion of the action of the campaign (not least because, if you’re doing it right, a summary of a good Unknown Armies game should resemble the ramblings of a deeply disturbed and highly irrational conspiracy theorist), we left the party in a situation where conceivably we coud go back to explore further adventures of theirs, but at the same time if we never go back to that particular campaign the ending ought to be broadly satisfying. As I mentioned in an earlier post this leg of the campaign started with a bit of an info-dump, and the events of the last few sessions seem to represent a tipping point where the PCs have gone from fumbling amateurs feeling their way through the occult underground and become proactive agents therein; in the last session they also inflicted a bruising defeat on their major adversary, something which is easy enough to hand the players in Unknown Armies because more or less any activity could have secret magical meaning. (In this case, the players had essentially been planning to turn their concerts into encoded magical rituals for some time, so it was a simple matter of deciding that this would in fact work). Retrospectively, even though the concert itself didn’t present much in the way of challenges to them, I think it was a nice way to wrap things up because there were interesting parallels to the first few sessions of the campaign (in that the start and end of the campaign both involved assassination attempts at concerts in derelict buildings held with a hidden occult agenda).

That said, I ended the campaign here only partly because it seemed a thematically appropriate place to stop: I also had hit a point where I realised if I kept pushing on the campaign would fall to bits. The campaign wasn’t perfect, and I knew I could only run it in the way I have been for so long before things come crashing down; better to shoot it down in a blaze of glory than wait for the rot to really set in. In particular:

  • I’d been running the campaign in a high-improvisation, low-to-zero prep style for some time, to the point where I didn’t actually have any NPC stats beyond a vague idea of where their competencies lay. This worked fine back when the game was about weird stuff happening to the PCs and weird people emerging from the shadows to try to manipulate them but isn’t going to pass muster now. Whilst I could pull my socks up and go back and produce all that material I was too lazy to nail down earlier, it’d be a lot of work – a much bigger task than if I’d done the sensible thing and filled that stuff in as I went along.
  • Likewise, I realised that I greatly prefer using the various magical powers you can get in UA as the basis for weird shit that happens to PCs as opposed to weapons in an actual fight between the PCs and enemy factions, not least because it’s genuinely unfair to actually use any of these powers in an honest attempt to do harm to the player characters. Plutomancers, for instance, can force you to roll against Mind or shoot yourself in the head by spending a few Minor charges. This is cool if used against an NPC, mildly appalling if turned against a player character – and yes, I could write new powers for all the occult-empowered NPCs, but again, kind of a lot of work.
  • The Monday night group has a rotating GM arrangement where each of us that GMs gets to run their games in 4-session blocks, and I hadn’t done a brilliant job of adapting to that format. It wasn’t too much trouble to give each of my individual 4-session blocks a decent structure so that we stopped each time at an appropriate stopping point and the players generally seemed to feel something important and substantive had happened in each block so far; the problem I really had was that I was reaching the point where it was only possible to do that by ignoring a lot of the strands running through the campaign. Lesson here is that whilst it is possible to run a highly mystery-based campaign in this manner, having multiple parallel mysteries running at once isn’t viable in the 4-session block format: people invariably get details muddled because it’s 8 weeks or more since they last gave their full attention to the situation – or even worse, straight up ignore stuff either because they forgot it exists or they simply don’t prioritise it.

On top of that, change is in the air in the group anyway: one participant is stepping up to the plate with a Houses of the Blooded game, another is stepping down from the rotation for a bit to work up a new Technocracy-based World of Darkness game, a third is switching from a 1920s Call of Cthulhu to a modern-day one, and so on. In short, we all seem to be in the mood for a bit of a shake-up, and since like most GMs I have more campaign ideas than I ever have time to run why not jump in on that?

In particular, we’ve had a period in the group where for a while we’ve all been essentially running modern day occult/horror games. (Well, the Cthulhu game was set in the 1920s, but that’s still in spitting distance of the present day.) It might be good all round to try and be a bit more diverse, if only because it’ll help the unique selling points of each person’s campaign be that more prominent.

Personally, I think something comparatively light-hearted and adventurous would both work well in the 4-session block format. One player has suggested a traditional fantasy game, which I admit to having a hankering for, whilst part of me is tempted to go full-on space opera; whichever I go with, I’m leaning towards adapting Chaosium’s deluxe Basic Roleplaying brick or True20 to it, partly because those are both systems which I can do prep for comparatively quickly. Moreover, both straight-up D&D fantasy and space opera are genres where all the players are going to have a fair idea going in on how the world works and what your capabilities are and what you can expect to run into, which should help the players get proactive from the word go compared to a modern day occult game in which part of the point is the players don’t know what’s out there and how the metaphysic works.

I will, of course, keep you posted on developments, but it probably won’t be until early 2013 at this point.

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8 thoughts on “Unknown Armies: It’s Better To Burn Out Than It Is To Rust

  1. That sounds like a decent finishing point. It does seem to be a risk of improv games – as with elaborate webs of deceit, you can end up with strands that were cool and made sense at the time, but turn out to be really hard to reconcile. I started a CoC improv campaign (which I’m still hoping to revive…) but I spent quite a while between sessions roughing out locations and NPCs so I wouldn’t run into problems. And I still did, of course!

    It sounds like mystery-of-the-week might work better, but then you lose some of the depth a campaign can offer.

    That is a pretty heavy set of games you’ve got going on, so some antidote sounds like a good idea to help keep things fresh. JRPG-style fantasy romp?

    1. I’m definitely leaning towards something traveloguey – maybe space opera in a Star Trek sort of vein, or maybe JRPG/trad fantasy touring the world sort of stuff – because with travelogues whilst you do keep having to come up with new locations, you don’t have to detail them to any great level of depth unless you happen to revisit them later on (likewise with the NPCs who live there).

      1. Space opera seems like fun – I’m enjoying a Traveller podcast at the moment that’s along those lines (and has a creative mechanic for player absences). The other advantage is that you don’t have to worry so much about tracking things if there aren’t a lot of ongoing strands. So NPC names and general NPC continuity so on are less of an issue, and you don’t have to think much about relationships between lots of NPCs or power blocs and how those’ll shift.

        Relatedly, I quite like the idea of a lost-in-reality sort of world-hopping game at some point, tracking through weird places to find portals and aiming to finally end up “home”. Sort of Mighty Max, I suppose, though I’d probably prefer to say Homeward Bounders. No idea what system I’d use, though. Maybe something more RPy than my usual fare.

  2. I think you’re probably right that wrapping up is better than just dragging on until everything just goes meh.

    I think you might be being a bit harsh on UA adept powers though, it’s true that Plutomancers can make you shoot yourself in the head, but in practice it just does damage equivalent to any other Significant Blast – admittedly they can do it more easily but only if you’re actually holding a gun. That said, I do think UA is more fun when it’s being used to throw weird, inexplicable shit at the players than when you’re just pitting well-understood game mechanical abilities against other well-understood game mechanical abilities.

    Fantasy/SF travelogue seems pretty cool, and should fit the format well. Space Opera is a remarkably underdone genre in RPGs.

    1. More generally though, I was in a bind with how to work out an appropriate medium between “these people can do this shit to you in this way”, which is reductive and loses the fun of the setting, and “You have no idea what the fuck these people can do”, which a) makes it near-impossible for the players to effectively think up countermeasures and b) is kind of unfair when any given adept is likely to have a bunch of powers which make total sense given their obsession and occasionally has powers which come totally out of left field and where the logic linking the power to their obsession only makes sense after some thought.

      The campaign as a whole was an experiment in taking people from street level to the next level up but I think in general UA works better at street level, with the PCs starting off clueless and a big honking OOC caveat that “I’m not necessarily following the official metaphysic here”.

      It’s interesting to me that there’s never been a Space Opera RPG which has quite caught fire the way D&D did for fantasy or Cthulhu/World of Darkness did for various flavours of horror. Traveller has always leaned far more towards hard SF, the 40K RPGs are really science fantasy (and not even a Space Opera-y sort of science fantasy), various Star Wars RPGs have come and gone but, again, kind of more science fantasy than Space Opera, and none of the official Trek RPGs seem to have won people over.

      Actually, come to think of it, a Western would also be distinctly different from the other games we have running and also suit the travelogue thing…

      1. I think part of the reason that there hasn’t been a game that has done for space opera what D&D did for fantasy and WW did for horror is that, in a sense, they didn’t.

        I think what made D&D and Vampire big was that they introduced RPGs to a new audience who were not previously interested in them – Wargame nerds for D&D and Theatre/Lit Nerds for White Wolf. The thing about Space Opera is that its target market is *broadly* the same as the target market for D&D – your average high school fantasy geek. I think part of the nature of RPGs is that they’re all competing with each other – so a Space Opera RPG still has to compete with D&D in a way that SF novels do not have to compete with Fantasy novels (part of the issue here, I think, is that RPG campaigns take a huge investment of time and effort – think about the number of books you read in a year, compared to the number of RPG campaigns you run).

        Basically D&D and White Wolf established themselves as the “go to” RPG of a particular type of player/GM. Even if a Space Opera game could establish itself as the go-to space opera game, it would still be competing for headspace and (more importantly) table time with D&D.

        I think.

      2. Very true.

        Traveller was HUGE back in the day – absolutely massive, easily the major competitor to D&D the way White Wolf used to be back when ye and me were coming up and the way Pathfinder is now thanks to the alienation of the 3.X fanbase. It also offered a very different style of play to D&D which appealed to a very particular fanbase, in the same way WoD offered a different style of play which opened up RPGs to a new fanbase on that side.

        So far as I can tell from the Traveller materials I’ve read and what contact I’ve had with Traveller fans, the appeal of Traveller is that it’s basically a tabletop RPG answer to Elite. You can geek out generating star systems and ships to your heart’s content, starship combat is crunchy and may involve vectors, there’s trading subsystems and all that. So it was able to find that distinct audience you were talking about, but it wasn’t really a Space Opera sort of audience (despite the occasional scrap thrown to the Space Opera crowd), it was a hard SF audience of the sort who like to have flamewars about how easy it is to strap an engine to an asteroid in deep space and point it at a planet so some years later a near-lightspeed rock smashes into the planet and kills it and there doesn’t seem to be any effective countermeasures to this in the setting so how the hell does that work.

        If you want to run a Star Trek game you want to have a party of people who go from planet to planet looking for trouble and getting into scrapes. That’s sufficiently like what you do in D&D that I kind of agree that there never was an opportunity for a pure Space Opera RPG to horn its way in because of the audience overlap. It’s notable that Starships & Spacemen, an early stab at a Trek-with-the-serial-numbers-filed-off RPG, had a system which was close to being D&D with the serial numbers filed off – sufficiently so that Goblinoid are going to put out a second edition mutually compatible with Labyrinth Lord (their D&D retro-clone) and Mutant Future (their Gamma World retro-clone). Granted, that was the 1970s and a high proportion of all games produced then had D&D-ripoff systems, but the extent to which they were able to succeed in hammering the system into a Space Opera sort of shape is notable.

        Hm, I should add Mutant Future to the list of possible travelogues – post-apocalyptic games are basically Westerns with bleeding gums and clumps of hair coming out anyway.

  3. Pingback: Space Opera Command Performance « Refereeing and Reflection

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