It makes sense that many of Greg Stolze’s recent projects have had Kickstarters associated with them, seeing how Greg was doing crowdfunding well before Kickstarter became a significant platform for RPG publication. Back when he was self-publishing REIGN, Greg pioneered the use of crowdfunding in RPG publication by his so-called “ransom model” – he’d write a product, set a “ransom” for it, and then release it to the world for free once the ransom had been paid.
The ransom model was a good way for Greg to ensure he wasn’t putting out too much stuff which nobody actually wanted, and to get a reasonably predictable level of recompense for his writing time; if a product struggled to hit the ransom, he’d know that the market was less hot for it than a product which hit ransom quickly. At the same time, the ransom model rewards freeloaders and doesn’t offer anything extra to people who chip in beyond the satisfaction of knowing you contributed to the product being released. If you were confident that a particular thing that Greg had written was popular and would hit its ransom anyway, then there was little reason for you yourself to pay any of the ransom – and that factor, perversely, gets stronger the more apparently-popular the product is.
Kickstarter, by comparison, avoids this issue. Some Kickstarters are a back-this-or-miss-out affair, where if you weren’t in on the crowdfunding campaign, you won’t get the product, but the majority of them still make their fruits available to the general public eventually (should the products in question actually get made at all, that is); this means that if people genuinely can’t afford to throw money in during the funding period they don’t necessarily miss out completely. At the same time, Kickstarter allows project creators to appropriately reward people who do pitch in, ensuring that their contribution is valued and creating a reason to want to get in during the funding period when you could just hold onto your money and wait.
It’s appropriate, then, that when Atlas Games decided that it was the right time to bring out a new edition of Unknown Armies, they used Kickstarter to do it. And where there’s a Kickstarter, there’s scope for a Kickstopper…
Usual Note On Methodology
Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.
The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.
Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.
This wasn’t Atlas Games’ first Kickstarter; their previous one was the Kickstarter for the second edition of Feng Shui. Astonishingly, despite that being their first Kickstarter, they actually nailed the delivery date on that one – they estimated delivery for August 2015, they shipped the books to backers July 2015.
Whilst not wholly unprecedented in the realm of RPG Kickstarters, this is a rarity – even for companies who are supposedly quite well-established. The goodwill generated from that success likely helped drive the success of this one, which took in $266,804 with a modest target of $40,000 – though of course, the excellent reputation of Unknown Armies probably helped more than a little. At the same time, it does raise questions. It’s clear that Atlas are competent professionals with a solid grasp on what they do – so does it make sense for them to even do a Kickstarter when they could just put this stuff out the old-fashioned way?
Well, probably it does. I note that Atlas have primarily used Kickstarter for two purposes: new editions of tabletop RPGs and brand-new boardgames. In the latter case, you’re dealing with a product where, if you produced it through conventional routes, you wouldn’t really get much of an idea of how well it would sell until it actually hit the shelves; using Kickstarter to gauge interest under such circumstances is downright sensible.
In the case of new editions of tabletop RPGs, it’s also sensible to gauge interest; the RPG market is not that big and it’s entirely possible that either tastes have moved on sufficiently that people just aren’t interested in a particular niche game any more, or tastes have ended up sufficiently stagnant that there’s no real appetite for a new edition of your game.
Furthermore, the phrase “new edition” causes a really striking reaction in RPG enthusiasts, particularly those who are keen on a particular game line – the very folk who will likely be the big spenders when it comes to backing your project. Some will be dizzily enthusiastic about the sheer possibilities of the new edition – but will need their expectations carefully managed, because if they get the impression that the new version of the game is offering something which it actually doesn’t deliver on and was never planned to deliver on, they will turn on you hard. Some will be full of trepidation, apathy, or even anger, seeing nothing particularly wrong with their current edition and wondering why you’re trying to fix something which they don’t consider broken: you will want an opportunity to sell them on the idea that the new edition is offering something which the stuff they currently own doesn’t (or, if it really is just a tidied-up reprint with nicer art and layout or something, cop to that). Many will find themselves in both camps. In each of those cases, a Kickstarter campaign offers a great opportunity to set expectations and sell people on the idea of the new edition in a way which feels interactive and responsive.
Also, there’s the simple fact that regardless of what line of work you are in and how professional you are at it, it’s almost always going to be beneficial to get a lump sum of money upfront to cover your initial production costs on a new product – otherwise you have to sink capital into it and hope that the income downstream ends up filling the gap.
What Level I Backed At
STACKED CHARGER WITH STONES
You want the Deluxe Set, the PDFs and EPUBs, all bonus digital content, the books from the previous editions in PDF, and a set of custom ten-sided dice.
▶︎ Book One: Play, Book Two: Run, and Book Three: Reveal in digital format.
▶︎ All digital stretch goals.
▶︎ Deluxe Set, includes Book One: Play, Book Two: Run, and Book Three: Reveal w/slipcase.
▶︎ Crazy Packs 1 & 2
▶︎ UA3 Dice Set
Delivering the Goods
Boom! Smooth and painless, just how we all like it. Once again, Atlas nailed the process: they estimated delivery in April 2017, I got my set on the 21st April 2017 (and considering that I’m an overseas customer, that’s particularly good going). No complaints here.
Reviewing the Swag
The Precedent: Unknown Armies 1st/2nd Edition
There really isn’t much to call between the first two editions of Unknown Armies, since the second edition was largely a reformatting of the first with various super-useful bits from supplements drawn into the core book. Crafted by Greg Stolze and John Tynes, it’s a game of modern-day occult horror with a humanistic cosmology and take on the supernatural.
The premise of the setting is that there is an occult underground of people who are in touch with the primal forces of the universe, and it largely turns out that the primal forces of the universe are us and the lenses through which we view the world. Whilst there’s all sorts of deep weirdness going on and plenty of hints that the bits of the supernatural that get explained to us in the rules are just the tip of the iceberg, there’s two bits of magic explained in the core rulebook which really cut to the heart of the setting. One type is Avatar magic – the way one can embody a particular cultural archetype and gain power as a result of that. The other is Adept magic – the magic of people who become so obsessed with something they can use the object of their obsession as leverage against reality itself.
Both types of magic lend themselves to obsessive, weird behaviour; adepts have to believe in their skewed outlook to a sufficient extent that it shapes their interactions with anyone else, whereas avatars can believe what they like but lose power if they don’t behave in accordance with the archetype they are trying to embody. The result is a setting where getting deep into magic – whether it’s these sorts or old rituals from before the postmodern era that still work or yet stranger stuff – is something which tends to mess you up, at least when it comes to behaving like a rational human being acting in your own self-interest or for socially acceptable goals.
The upshot of this is that player characters in Unknown Armies aren’t your average folks; regardless of what power level they are at, they are driven individuals who get embroiled in this occult mayhem because there’s something they chase after which they won’t let go of even at great personal cost. Each Unknown Armies player character has an Obsession chosen at character gen; it can be anything you dream up, so long as it prompts you to go do stuff, and you get game mechanical bonuses relating to doing stuff in the service of it. They also have a Fear stimulus, Rage stimulus, and Noble stimulus – the things which inspire in them either full-flight terror, red mist anger, or their best and most selfless acts respectively – and bonuses can also arise from reacting appropriately when those stimuli are encountered in the game.
Another way Unknown Armies tracks the psyche of player characters is through what the early editions call “madness meters”. (The third edition switches to the somewhat less problematic and more informative “stress gauges”.) Rather than taking the approach of Call of Cthulhu of having a single pool of sanity points, Unknown Armies tracks trauma along five different gauges – Violence, Self (for violations of your sense of who you are), Helplessness, Isolation and the Unnatural.
When assailed by these things, you roll to see if you are hardened by the experience. The more hardened you get, the more experiences of this type you get to ignore – if you’ve become used to extreme violence, minor acts of violence aren’t going to bother you – but if you become too hardened you run the risk of becoming jaded, which has a range of penalties associated with it. Fail your check, and you start filling in the track corresponding to said failures – as well as reacting badly in the short term, in the long term your trauma is getting more of a hold on you.
The nice thing about this system is that, whilst remaining surprisingly simple in practice, it not only distinguishes between people who have had (for example) lots of experience with violence and none with the paranormal or vice versa, but it also distinguishes how they responded to it. It also applies equally both to things characters experience and to things characters inflict on others – acting violently is psychologically damaging and it may turn out you aren’t nearly as cool with it as you thought you were going to be.
The game’s attitude to combat is refreshingly mature – and by mature I mean “actually considered and thoughtful” rather than “needlessly edgy”. There’s an iconic bit of text at the start of the combat chapter emphasising a) that the people you fight aren’t likely to be drones that exist solely so that you can kill them, but human beings with dreams and loved ones of their own, and b) there are numerous ways a confrontation can go without escalating to a full-on fight. This instantly distinguishes Unknown Armies from RPGs where the default action when facing antagonists is engaging them in a fight to the death. (Other innovations include the referee keeping track of PCs’ wound levels and conveying how badly hurt they are through verbal description rather than giving the numeric figures, which means players can’t say “OK, mathematically I can take two more hits like that so that’s how far I will keep going.)
The game uses percentile skills but is sensible about them, discouraging the referee from using them for every little thing. For instance, minor actions which shouldn’t fail in the hands of someone with basic competence not working in pressured conditions automatically succeed so long as you have 15% in an appropriate skill. The game also emphasises the idea of a “skill penumbra”, where if you have the skill it doesn’t just mean that you have competence at a particular task but also means you are knowledgeable about the subject and competent in surrounding activities. (So, for instance, if you have the Guns skill you aren’t just good at shooting people, but you also can use it for gun maintenance, keeping on top of gun laws, knowing appropriate prices for guns, having a social network of gun enthusiasts, and so on.) Whilst some skills are common to all characters, most skills that truly a distinguish PCs will be freeform in nature – rather than having a set skill list, you just write down the name of the skill you want, which in turn will suggest nuances in the skill penumbra. (“IT security” has different connotations from “l33t haX0r”, for instance.)
What little setting material exists here, aside from that which is conveyed through the rules system (such as Adept and Avatar magic), consists primarily of writeups of various strange conspiracies that exist in the occult underground. I suspect these constitute John Tynes’s main contributions to the system, because whilst he’s good at writing setting, he doesn’t seem to be as much of a system guy as Greg Stolze. (In particular, Greg seems to have an excellent handle on how to make stuff work well in actual play – that’s evident here, and that’s very much the case in 3rd edition – whilst Tynes seems fond of throwing out wildly experimental ideas for stuff you can do in a tabletop RPG that often makes interesting reading but doesn’t translate to much of an interesting play experience unless in the hands of an especially skilled referee.)
One particularly interesting conspiracy in the setting is the Sleepers – the self-appointed peacekeepers of the occult underground whose main schtick is going gunning after those who are making too much noise about real magic, because they know that when wider society fails a stress check on the Unnatural meter, riots and massacres happen. Whereas in White Wolf-inspired modern-day occult games there’s often a tendency to see normal, mundane, everyday people as drab nobodies (Mage: the Ascension was chronic for this), in Unknown Armies everyday people are important; yes, they may be individually weak, but if you wake the “sleeping tiger” of public condemnation terrible things may ensue.
Generally, people are not keen on the idea that people with special powers are performing extreme, sometimes outrageously criminal acts in the pursuit of occult power or incomprehensible agendas that only make sense to them, and will tend to act in such a way that makes that stop happening permanently, even if it means putting some magicians in a shallow grave. (I find that in a street-level game, the player characters often are those normal folks who end up having to put down an Adept or Avatar or group thereof who’s wrecking their lives for some reason or another.) This backs up the theme in the game that getting really deep into these types of magic ends up breaking you one way or another, setting you against the majority of people who just want to get by in a stable world where things basically make sense in a way people can agree on.
It is open to interpretation as to whether you want to read this as magicians being pioneers of progress or menaces to society, but what is nice is that Unknown Armies doesn’t simply assume that magicians are inherently better than normal people; not only are normal people a force to be recognised when roused as a mass, but also because they don’t have the same strange taboos and constraints on their behaviour that magicians have, they’re often freer to act and are a bit more unpredictable as a result. (If you can get a handle on what a magician’s particular flavour of magic requires of them, that’s something you can use as leverage.) They also tend to be much less alienated from day-to-day life than magicians and are much more functional and capable of self-care.
It’s stuff like this that is the strength of Unknown Armies – it’s a game which turns many of the aspects of modern-day occult/horror games as they existed at the time on their heads. Rather than paling into cosmic insignificance, humans and their cultures are central to the cosmos (or at least the portions of the cosmos humans experience), and rather than being totally cool and badass outsiders, dabblers in magic are unglamorously damaged. (It is much less the case with traditional cultural practices, including folkloric magic from earlier times, but when you get into the post-modern shit you almost inevitably go weird.) As explained in third edition, it is a cosmos where both atheism and theism aren’t really the order of the day – whilst the existence of powerful supernatural beings with a lot of sway over the nature of reality is not in question, at the same time none of these are “gods” whose voice carries an objective moral authority – they’re just people like you and me who ended up embodying an archtype sufficiently intensely to ascend to a higher realm of existence, and there is no overwhelming cosmic obligation on you to like them or agree with what they want in life.
Were it merely a trite inversion of Mage: the Ascension tropes, Unknown Armies would be an amusing parody, but with the excellent system by Greg driving it and a powerful aesthetic vision of its own, the previous version of Unknown Armies was an RPG classic, a welcome and necessary voice that thankfully avoided a great chunk of the blunders that White Wolf and other giants of the subgenre were massively guilty of. (In particular, there’s way less clumsy cultural appropriation here than in 1990s-era White Wolf material.) The third edition had an enormously high bar to reach as a result, especially since it was taking the riskier route of giving the system a root-and-branch revision and greatly updating the setting – had Atlas simply reprinted the text of 2nd edition with nicer art and higher production values than the previous rulebook, they’d have had a solid success on their hands.
The Third Edition
Book 1: Play is the player-facing volume in the set, providing explanations of the rules system alongside establishing expectations about the setting. A full character generation system is not provided, because you are strongly encouraged to do that as a group in the first session as part of deciding on the parameters of the campaign, though a quick system to use when generating characters alone is provided for when that’s absolutely necessary (like when you want to make a character to join in an ongoing game, or to replace a character who died or has been retired from play).
The big change in character design is that skills have been thoroughly changed. There are ten basic skills that everyone has, whose percentage totals shift about based on the current state of your sanity gauges, working on the reasonable presumption that some things come easier to people who are hardened towards the various things the gauges measure whilst some things come easier to people who aren’t carrying around the trauma and baggage and scars that come from exposure to such things.
Then, instead of conventional skills, you have Identities. These have various special capabilities, but most of them allow you to say “Of course I can (do some appropriate thing), I’m a (the identity in question)”, and if that makes sense you can roll the identity instead of the appropriate basic ability instead. This is the sort of thing that really speeds up character generation – rather than racking your brains for what set of skills you need to model the sort of character you want to play, you simply declare what sort of character you want to play as an identity. (It also means you can deliberately buy a low score in your character’s day job if you want them to be actively bad at it, for instance.) The other major new mechanic is coercion – a system for using social or psychological pressure on someone to make them do what you want, based around targeting their stress gauges.
The nice thing about these two new mechanics is how they put the stress gauges front and centre – they’re the bit of the system everyone remembers, after all – in ways which seem like a natural evolution of the existing system rather than a gimmicky substitution for it. Between that and the very generous set of Avatar archetypes and Adept schools provided – greatly altered from the selection in the last two editions – this is very much a refinement of what came before rather than a replacement. The iconic text about avoiding combat even remains intact.
Book 2: Run is the GM-facing book, offering details of both all your old favourite factions from Unknown Armies’ prior editions plus some interesting new threats on top of that. It also includes details on how to run the systems for objectives, and how to do the collaborative character generation.
The objective system is actually quite good, mostly because despite providing a handy mechanism it isn’t allowed to overrule the fiction. The way it works is that the players decide what the overriding current goal of the characters is – we’re talking something on the level of long-term projects and aims rather than immediate “What do you do right now?” intentions – and then actions they take towards it provide a varying number of percentage points to its completion. The magnitude of accomplishment you need to get those percentage points largely depends on the scope of the ambition in question, so trying to change something on a profound, cosmological level will be much more difficult than attempting local changes.
If stuff happens on-camera in game which would definitely cause your objective to reach completion, then the job’s done, whether you had pushed the percentage up to 1% or 99%. If you’re able to push the objective score up to 100%, then stuff happens to ensure your objective happens, even if that has to be off-camera. (For instance, if your objective was “Get our asshole boss fired from his job”, then by the time you’ve hit 100% the various scandals you’ve kicked off surrounding his work have hit the point where his superiors can no longer turn a blind eye and order him to clear his desk.)
If you’ve got the objective to a certain percentage and think it’s worth a gamble, then you need to contrive a situation where your goal might come off, and you can roll, succeeding if you pass but blowing your progress if you fail. (To extend the “get our boss fired” example, this could take the form of going to HR and saying “Look, it’s this douche or me, which is it?”, and then rolling to see which way HR jumps.)
Stolze adds a number of interesting wrinkles to this system. For instance, if your next objective is related to a previous, successful objective, then you can roll over half the percentage points you’d amassed in it into the new objective, making it easier to keep barrelling down a particular road to hell than it is to switch directions into a different direction. On top of that, on the basis that it’s easier to disrupt someone’s plans than it is to pull off a plan, if you come across someone trying to do something which you decide it’s worth trashing your own agenda for, you can dump all the progress you’ve made so far in an attempt to screw over their plans – regardless of how localised your progress is – and reduce their objective percentage by a number equal to the level you’d got your objective to.
For instance, supposing you’d created all that blackmail material aimed at getting your boss fired, but then you discover that his rival for the position is part of a cult that’s trying to use corporations around the world, including your workplace, as unwitting pawns in a plot to delete the souls of the working class en mass and create a workforce of philosophical zombies who can be pliant drones. You decide that this is unacceptable, so you seed your blackmail material with clues suggesting that it was fabricated by the rival and tip off your boss to it, allow him to get rid of her and using all the progress you’d made towards removing your boss to disrupt the other side’s plan. If you’d only got your objective to 5%, whilst theirs is at 60%, then that’s just a hiccup in their plans, but if you’d got yours to equal to or greater than theirs, you’ve disrupted their plan at a crucial enough moment to completely derail it – giving them every reason to come after you hard.
Another nice idea is the group character and setting creation process. This feels like it was influenced by the indie RPG Fiasco, a game where I honestly think the character and setting creation process pre-game is far more fun than the actual game itself, so it’s nice to see Stolze borrowing ideas from it here. Essentially, character generation is interwoven with setting creation, with each step of the way creating setting features – people, places, and the relationships between them – as well as establishing facts about the player characters, so what you end up with is a group of player characters who are intricately bound up in the community the game focuses on, whether this is a town, a subculture, a corporation, an international conspiracy, or whatever other concept you’ve decided to run with – and you probably also have ideas about the sort of objectives you might like to go for.
The objectives system and the group setting creation system are both very good for shifting the emphasis of the game to a more sandboxy approach to modern-day occult horror than previous editions of Unknown Armies catered to. Greg takes the time to explain this bit of terminology and why he’s made the changes he’s made in this book, and I might as well give you a quick intro to the concepts involved in case you’ve not encountered them.
In tabletop RPGs, people talk about “sandbox” or “railroaded” games, which are two extremes on a continuum based around how much the player characters’ decisions can change the direction of a game. In an extremely railroaded game, the overall outcome of the game is predetermined – the plot will progress through a series of events and encounters, usually prepared either by the referee or the author of whichever prewritten adventure the referee is using, and the players’ contribution is based more around how their characters respond to those events than what direction they want matters to progress in. More or less the only way the players can avoid the planned end of the campaign is if they mess up and get all their player characters killed before that end is reached – and a sufficiently railroady referee might fudge the numbers to avoid that happening anyway.
Player characters in railroaded games tend to be reactive rather than proactive, mostly because if the major plot of a game is going to go in a particular direction regardless of what you do there isn’t much point being very proactive or having a major agenda of your own, so playing a reactive character who’s out to stop the baddies from accomplishing something rather than accomplishing something themselves or who is out to investigate a mystery rather than being mysterious in their own right is a good way to engage with this style of game.
At the opposite extreme is the sandbox game, in which player decisions about where to go, what to do, and how to do it determine the direction of the game. The plot of the game is not a prewritten arc but the post-game narrative of what happened, and the features of the game world which are important to the action of the game are important because the players have chosen to pay attention to them. Prewritten material for sandbox games relate less to prewritten plots and more towards detailing interesting locations and individuals for player characters to interact with as they choose. Player characters in sandbox campaigns absolutely need to be proactive – if they don’t want to accomplish anything, nothing will get accomplished in the game, and a group which doesn’t have a strong idea of their agenda will tend to spin their wheels and feel a little loss.
To illustrate the distinction with an example from videogames, take open-world games like Skyrim or Saint’s Row – if you’re just wandering around exploring and poking at stuff, you’re playing it in a sandbox style, but if you’re following one of the questlines you’re going along a railroad because there’s only so many ways the quests can resolve themselves.
Attitudes to these styles of play have varied over time. In the early days of tabletop RPGs, things tended to lean towards sandbox-style play – players were challenged to have their characters go find their fortune but it was down to them to decide how they were going to engage with the campaign world to do it. Dungeon environments limit choice by the layout of their tunnels, of course, but even in the earliest D&D materials the intrinsic assumption was that such adventures were training wheels, and that overland adventures seeking out adventure opportunities in the wider world would be what you graduated to.
Over the course of the 1980s, a desire for more plot in games made the pendulum swing towards railroading. The Dragonlance modules for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons are infamously railroady, but they were also huge, huge hits, and the associated tie-in novels which followed their plots closely became unexpected bestsellers, to the point of changing TSR’s publication model forever. The 1990s wave of “Storytelling” RPGs such as Vampire: the Masquerade liked to talk up how different they were to D&D, but ultimately their assumptions of a strong predetermined plot could be seen as riffing on the innovations of Dragonlance.
By the mid-1990s to the 2000s, a backlash was growing; over time, sandbox play was rediscovered, and there was a good while when many (myself included) were very keen to get away from railroading in tabletop RPGs. However, as time has gone on it seems like people have come to a more nuanced understanding. Many would admit these days that any particular group’s home game is going to have its more railroady sections and its more sandboxy components, and railroading isn’t actually a problem so long as the players are happy to go along for the ride. Sometimes you are in the mood to be very proactive, sometimes you are in the mood to play some reactive heroes out to slap down the best laid plans of a villain. As SteveD on the RPG.net forums put it (and the quote is borrowed by Greg here), “Nobody minds the railroad if the view is pretty and the destination is Awesome Town.”
Furthermore, I’ve known of RPG campaigns which have been comprehensively wrecked by a GM being too concerned with avoiding the appearance of railroading without actually committing to offering a sandbox experience, resulting in allowing the players to spin their wheels doing all sorts of things that frustratingly don’t progress the situation at all or are given any importance until the players finally hit on the thing the referee was waiting for them to do so they could progress to the next part of the adventure.
In that sort of situation, had the referee simply given suitable hints as to what the players needed to do next, the players could have progressed the game and felt like they’d accomplished something; had the referee ascribed more significance or importance to the stuff the players had decided to do instead, then the game would have gone in a more sandboxy direction and, again, the players would have felt like the stuff that happened in the session mattered. As it stands, when referees try to square the circle of avoiding the appearance of railroading (by not nudging the players in a particular direction) whilst at the same time not adapting to a more sandboxy style, they end up with the worst of both worlds. You get the aimlessness that sandbox play risks falling into if the players don’t seem to be accomplishing anything, and the lack of freedom of railroading – because the freedom to do unimportant stuff that doesn’t mean anything is a toothless sort of freedom.
In short, what you get is a railroad – but instead of having the comfort and convenience and efficiency of a train taking them from plot point to plot point, you’re making the players walk all the way. It’s pretty obnoxious.
Previous editions of Unknown Armies, as Stolze suggests, tended to be quite good for running a railroad-type game, simply because games of occult mystery tend to default to investigative games, and investigative games tend to default to railroads (since each investigation can usually be reduced to a series of encounters suggested by the evidence acquired so far leading to the revelation of the truth and the resolution of the mystery). The closest thing to a sandbox investigative game I’ve ever participated in was one where our player characters had several investigations on the go at any particular time, abandoning one strand when it went cold and pursuing it again later on when it warmed up again, but you could probably model that as a series of interwoven railroads to be honest, particularly since there was never any real prospect of us flat-out refusing an investigation.
Partly because of the humanist focus of Unknown Armies, partly (I suspect) because the market is well-served for investigative railroad horror RPGs but poorly served for sandbox ones, Stolze made a decision to make this edition of the game much more sandboxy, and the combination of the objectives system and the collective setting generation is an elegant way of accomplishing it. Not only do the players give a strong signal at game start of the sort of territory they want to explore as a result of the places, groups, and people they invent in setting generation, but as they take on and advance objectives they proactively prompt changes in that setting. The referee doesn’t lack for opportunities to be creative in turn, and is encouraged to include plenty of blowback arising from the bridges they burn and the noses they tweak as they accomplish their goals, but the direction of the campaign hinges on what objectives the players decide to go for, and when they decide to abandon them because they collectively decided that something was more important.
Stolze also provides a good model for how to think about the flow of a campaign, to help referees avoid spending too much time on overpreparing stuff (the bane of a sandbox game – the more effort you put into planning something in a tabletop RPG, the harder it is to resist the temptation to deploy it anyway, regardless of what the players decide to do, sabotaging the sandbox by not respecting their decisions). After the collective setting generation process is done, Stolze sees campaigns as alternating between a resolution phase and an antagonism phase.
The resolution phase is what happens in game sessions, where the players are doing stuff and the referee is throwing stuff at them and you try to balance applying the rules fairly but challengingly with being enough of a fan of the player characters to take pride in their victories and be invested in their troubles. The antagonism phase is what you do between sessions, when you mull over all the people whose toes the players have trod on and think about what they’re going to be doing in response to what the players have done – thus coming up with your material for the next session or two.
One thing that this edition of Unknown Armies seems to lack is the classification of campaigns into street-level, global, and cosmic levels. The idea seems to have been folded into the scopes of the objectives, but there’s nothing stopping a group from doing a local objective for a bit and then switching to a cosmic one once they’re done, and the general assumption seems to be that most PC groups will at least know the basics of how adept magic and avatar magic works (all that’s in the player-facing book, after all). There’s glancing references to these concepts in some of the discussion of the baleful House of Renunciation, since that text seems to be recycled material, but otherwise nothing.
That’s fine for the purposes of the more sandboxy approach this edition is going for, of course – players need to be the ones deciding what the groups’ ambitions are, after all, and also need the freedom to shift scales mid-game if that is their intention. Moreover, the usual assumption of a street-level game is that the player characters might start out as passionate, obsessive types who have had a prior brush with the supernatural, but probably don’t know what an adept or an avatar is, which seems to be largely incompatible with the presentation here. Again, that’s not so fatal if what you want is a sandboxy game, since for a sandbox game you generally want to give the player characters sufficient knowledge and agency to be able to meaningfully set their own goals.
On balance, then, I think the rules set as established in books 1 and 2 on the one hand represent a useful refinement of some of the ideas underpinning Unknown Armies – adapting the ideas about the structure of campaigns to a more 1st/2nd edition-style railroaded game would be particularly viable, as would adapting some of the new setting additions. On top of that, I think it’s a very rare example of a new edition of an RPG which is good enough to be worth making, but at the same time does not render the previous core books redundant, because it’s going for something a bit different now than it did back then.
I would definitely want to use this edition of the game for the sort of sandbox horror it presents – not least because there are precious few other games which attempt to do such a thing. But at the same time, I would use my workhorse 2nd edition rulebook to run a game which had a more railroady approach, especially if it were a street-level game, particularly if it were a street-level game using a strikingly different cosmology from standard Unknown Armies. (It’d make quite a good alternate system for Kult, for instance.)
Book 3: Reveal is an encyclopedia of suggested setting material, an A-Z of stuff you can throw out there or leave on the shelf as your group sees fit. Those keen on the setting of the previous editions will spot various updates here and there. The archetype of the Mystic Hermaphrodite from earlier editions, whilst based on an actual esoteric concept, nonetheless feels highly problematic these days – especially since its Godwalker was a creepy individual called The Freak – so Stolze throws in a new plot incident called the 03/03/03 Event that caused a transformation in both that archetype (which got renamed the Sexual Rebis) and the Freak, who went through the House of Renunciation to become the agender, asexual Human Eternal, a custodian of the occult underground taking the place of the Comte St Germain (who himself has gone through the House and emerged as Old Mother Apocalypse).
This plot event resonates through a subset of the entries here and is the closest thing to an overarching plot this edition has, though it’s eminently ignorable if you don’t like it. Much of the rest of the book nicely emphasises the principle that the world is strange and full of odd secrets even to adepts and avatars, whose weird deals are just the tip of the iceberg. With some of the descriptions here of odd rituals and unnatural entities you really get the impression that Unknown Armies is embracing is status as the creepypasta RPG, since its setting does seem to have anticipated the style of much of that stuff.
Miscellaneous Digital Stretch Goals
Crazy Packs 1 and 2 consist of PDF copies of the entire 1st and 2nd edition runs of Unknown Armies; lovely to have, but a bit much for me to review here book by book. Book Four: Grow and Book Five: Mine, despite their names, don’t feel like they’d work that well as physical books and aren’t essential continuations of the three book core set of 3rd edition; instead, they’re just grab-bag collections of cool ideas for the game, Grow being penned by Greg Stolze and Mine being written by a range of guest authors.
The campaign also yielded a brace of Campaign Starter Kits – packages of pregenerated character groups, proposed initial group goals, setting notes and other refereeing aids to let you get started on an Unknown Armies game more or less immediately without going through the initial steps outlined in the rulebook – a useful utility, though I’d actually say that going through those steps as an exercise in getting everyone on the same page is important enough that I wouldn’t use the starter sets myself, unless it were intended for a very short campaign where we didn’t have time to do the usual first session stuff.
Lastly, James Semple composed a triptych of soundtracks with different themes – Moods, Disturbances, and Transcendences – which will doubtless be useful for establishing atmosphere.
Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?
Just Right, without a doubt.
Would Back Again?
Already did – I’m in on their Over the Edge Kickstarter.