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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Unknown Armies: Nothing Refreshes Like an Info-Dump

So, last night I ran some Unknown Armies for my Monday night group. We have a revolving-GM setup where we rotate between three different campaigns, with each GM running about four or five sessions in a row before the next GM gets a chance to run their campaign.

As it happens, one of the participants in the group volunteered for the Olympics this year, so because of that and various other factors there was a chunk of about a month or two where we didn’t meet at all. This means that there’s been a wider gulf of time than usual between Unknown Armies instalments, leaving everyone (including myself) a little hazy on what was actually going down last time we met.

This plus the fact that a chunk of the session was likely to be spent dealing with people’s downtime actions meant that the session was likely to involve a lot of time with me recapping old information and the players discussing that. This being the case, I decided now was a good time to inject a big fat info-dump to the campaign by having a bunch of the players’ investigations suddenly bear fruit in downtime.

This turned out pretty well. To be honest, one of the flaws of the campaign so far has been that there’s been slightly too much going on to properly address in the narrow four-session windows I have to run the game, so cutting some investigations short helped rationalise things appropriately. On top of that, by having the results of those investigations all have some relevance to the central mysteries of the campaign I think it’s helped the players refocus on their main aims here. Lastly, I think it’s helped prod the players over the tipping point where they feel they have enough background information to go out and do something proactive – meaning that they came out of this session with a firm plan of action, which of course helps me ponder what they are going to find next session. (This might also help enthuse one player who I think has found the campaign a bit over-talky so far.)

The nice thing about Unknown Armies, of course, is that it unfolds in a universe at home with the idea of synchronicity, so if having a bunch of stuff coming to fruition all at once starts to look a bit of a stretch you can rationalise it as the occult forces of the cosmos coming together in a way which happens to be beneficial to the PCs for once. Either way, the players seemed to enjoy the session for the most part and appeared more enthused for the campaign by the end than when they were at the session’s start – I certainly was – so job done.