[Let’s Study: Unknown Armies] Part 1: Introduction

Unknown Armies is a game with a very big reputation in my mind. Even in my early years running Mage: the Ascension’s Revised Edition in 1998 I had always heard about Unknown Armies and just how utterly, delightfully dark and weird it was.

Strangely, that’s probably the reason it took a new edition and so many years before I decided to tackle it for real in the Let’s Study format: Unknown Armies intimidates the everliving heck out of me.

But life is short and I was able to purchase the new edition on DriveThruRPG, so I figured I might as well finally get started.

Of course, let’s start with Book One: Play

Book One?

This new edition of Unknown Armies is spread out across three books:

  • Book One: Play – Is the book that talks about the setting and the nature of the games and stories run in Unknown Armies. Intended to be open to GMs and Players, it also has the rules for play and conflicts, as well as magic.
  • Book Two: Run – Has the GM specific rules for the game, and also has the character creation rules for Unknown Armies
  • Book Three: Reveal – Is a compendium of the weirdness that Unknown Armies is famous for.

There are other releases after this, but these three could be considered the “Core” products of the line.


Before anything else, let me say this about Unknown Armies, I love the tone of voice used in the book. It’s like running into a stranger that grabs your shoulder, whispers your ugliest secrets back to you, and tells you not to worry because they’ve got your back: You can’t help but pay attention.

Just to give you a taste, here’s the opening two paragraphs for the first chapter of the game:

Unknown Armies is an occult game about broken people conspiring to fix the world.

It’s a game about people who want things very, very badly. Social justice, a fair shake, redemption for their myriad sins, or just a bigger slice of the pie, they want it. But no one is just going to hand it to them. No one else, frankly, gives a shit. Shits only begin to be given when their pursuit of their agenda inconveniences somebody — the folks benefitting from injustice and unfair shakes, or the people who were on the receiving end of those myriad sins, or the pie-eaters who placidly argue that sharing is for bitches and poor people. “

Clearly, identity is NOT one of Unknown Armies’ concerns. It knows exactly what kind of game it is, and promises to deliver in spades.

Characters all want something, and they want it real bad.

Ultimately, Unknown Armies is a game about the Characters. More than the setting, the entire campaign setup relies on the players and the GM coming together and collaboratively coming up with characters who, in the words of the book itself, “give a shit.”

The players then define an objective for their characters.This has to be something that changes the setting. Whether it’s forcing a corrupt corporation polluting a town to shut down, or reverting the moral compass of humanity to the naive state of 80’s TV sitcoms, the objective is a change in the world that the players want to see.

Shock Gauge

A key component of a character in Unknown Armies are shocks. These are essentially a mechanic for measuring the kind of trauma that you’d expect to encounter in Unknown Armies. Shocks are measured in individual shock meters for the following:

  • Helplessness – Being unable to take action when you should have
  • Isolation – Being cut off from society or loved ones
  • Violence – Being subject of, a witness to, or a participant of pain, injury or death
  • Unnatural – Being exposed to experiences that destroy your perception of reality
  • Self – Personal failures and violations of your deepest beliefs

Remember the part about broken people? Yeah, this is the part that tells you just how broken you are. The way the gauges work is that they’re an indicator of how much of these negative experiences you’ve overcome, or have harmed you.

The meters each have eight open notches, which is an indicator of just how pure and innocent and unsullied you are in this aspect. Characters begin with one hardened notch in each, however, so nobody starts off THAT naive. Hardened notches are indicators that you’ve encountered an experience and have managed to overcome it, at the cost of your innocence.


Unknown Armies spends a great deal of time working out exactly how many emotional / mental scars your Character has because the meters are the basis for the character’s Abilities. Five of these abilities rely on your rating in Hardened Notches, while Five others rely on your Open Notches.:

Open Notches are used in the following:

  • Connect (Violence) – Used when making an emotional connection with someone
  • Fitness (Helplessness) – General fitness and athleticism as well as resistance to disease and poison
  • Knowledge (Self) – More than actual know-how, it’s also the measure of your openness towards truth
  • Notice (Unnatural) – Paying attention to the world around you
  • Status (Isolation) – How well regarded and trusted you are

Hardened Notches, on the other hand inform these abilities

  • Dodge (Helplessness) – Your ability to avoid harm
  • Lie (Self) – Just how dysfunctional your relationship is with the truth
  • Pursuit (Isolation) – Good for both running towards and away from people
  • Secrecy (Unnatural) – How good you are at hiding yourself (or things) from the notice of others
  • Struggle (Violence) – How well you can handle yourself in a fight

Passions and Obsessions

In addition to the Abilities, Characters also possess Passions and Obsessions. These are indicators of the emotional motivators that the Characters have. There are three passions:

  • Rage – These are the things that anger you so much that it drives you to thwart, wreck or harm them.
  • Fear – These are your greatest fears. The kind that will make you abandon a friend in need or humiliate yourself.
  • Noble – Your shining virtue. That one cause that you will sacrifice yourself over, and overcome fear and anger to protect or champion.

Obsessions are central to who you are. It’s a subject that you cannot possibly ignore because it is a part of your identity.


The last bit is the answer to who the character is, and can be pretty much anything from “A Veterinarian” to “A Limousine Driver” and are used to fill in for rolling for tasks and knowledge relevant to that identity.

An added feature is that an Identity can often cover for a given Ability, so that a character who possesses the Identity of a “Police Officer” could actually substitute that in place of their actual Struggle rating, without having to give up their ability to Connect.

Well, what started off as a quick discussion on characters went really dark, really fast, didn’t it?

So far, Unknown Armies is living up to it’s reputation. I’ve always felt that the character rules in a game determine the games priorities and so far nothing in this chapter has shaken off the opinion that characters in Unknown Armies are perpetually tested in their drive to achieve their goals. There’s little to no doubt that they’ll be broken, hollow shells of their original selves when they get there, but they’re utterly convinced that the the goal is worth it… right?

This isn’t all of the content on the first chapter. There’s the setting, and the rules, but we’ll get to those in the next entry in this series.

If you’re interested in picking up Unknown Armies, you can grab their stuff over at the Atlas Games Website

You can also purchase PDF copies over at DriveThruRPG!

One thought on “[Let’s Study: Unknown Armies] Part 1: Introduction

  1. Yes, UA has always been strong in tone. First Edition was “A roleplaying game of transcendental horror and furious action” and the Second “a game of power and consequences” with the beautiful tagline of “Hungry for power? Grab a fork!”

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