[Let’s Study: Unknown Armies] Part 2: The Setting and the Rules

Welcome back and thanks for sticking with me as I try to explain in less elegant terms how the new edition of Unknown Armies works in terms of setting and rules.

The World

Fans of the World of Darkness are familiar with the basic assumption of Occult Urban Fantasy: Our World, but darker. Unknown Armies makes the same assumption, but in addition to dark, it’s also a heck of a lot *stranger.*

The key difference, for the player characters, and the mysterious movers and shakers of the world, is that Magick (yes with a “k”,) exists. And if you know about it, and how to use it, you can make some really strange stuff happen. It’s dangerous, it’s creepy, and the price to use it is high, but now that you know that Magick is real, it’s an option.

Of course, you’re not the only people to know this. Unknown Armies has a hierarchy among those who know of Magick, and while I don’t think it’s a universal lexicon, it’s handy to remember. Chargers are the people on top, who have consistent, repeatable ways to make Reality bend to their will. Checkers are the investigators who have stumbled into the occult and the strange and sometimes have the power to help them figure stuff out. PC’s fall under this category. Pony is a term of contempt for the weak, the powerless and the scapegoats.

The Invisible Clergy

In addition to all of this, there’s a universal council that watches over reality as we know it. Known as the Invisible Clergy, it is comprised of 333 Archetypes, former humans who have embodied a universal type so perfectly that they become a Platonic Form of that archetype. Divested of their humanity, they take their place in the Clergy.

The purpose of this is unclear, but once 333 seats are filled, then the Archetypes merge into a creator/destroyer and eject everything in the previous world and give birth to a new reality. Depending on the nature of the Invisible Clergy that births it, this new reality can be a nicer place… or a much more ugly one.

Avatars

Since you’ve got the Archetypes, then it follows that you also have groupies. That’s what the Avatars like. By emulating the Archetypes, the Avatars draw upon a bit of their power to fuel their Magick. The more they are like the Archetype in question, then the more powerful the powers they command become… at the cost of their own individuality.

Adepts

On the other side of the coin are the Adepts. Rather than worshiping and emulating the Archetypes, Adepts are hell bent in enforcing their own beliefs. The nature of these are pretty crazy, and represent a personal “paradigm” of how reality works. To the casual observer, Adepts are insane reality conspiracy theorists. For the most part, they’re right. The difference is that the Adepts believe in their own individuality enough to make reality obey.

Gutter Magick

Between these two extremes (and lord knows they ARE extreme) lies Gutter Magick. A form of magickal working that requires boatloads of effort and time, but the results are subtle enough to pass casual scrutiny. It’s the coincidence that just happens to help the character succeed, that nudge of fate and destiny that helps them without being a miracle… at least to the causal observer.


The Rules

Everything in Unknown Armies runs off a percentile (d100) roll. While this seems simple enough, UA also relies on looking out for a few permutations:

  • Fumble – Rolling a 00. Your character fails and bad, bad things happen short of death.
  • Matched Failure – Rolling a doubles value (11, 55, etc.) that is over the target number. The character fails pretty badly
  • Simple Failure – Rolling above your target number. The character fails.
  • Simple Success – Rolling below your target number. The character succeeds.
  • Matched Success – Rolling a doubles value (11, 55, etc.) that is below the target number. Your character succeeds with additional perks.
  • Crit – Rolling a 01. Your character succeeds and the outcome is way better than expected.

Flip Flops

A neat rule in Unknown Armies is that in special circumstances, a player is allowed to flip the tens and ones digit of a roll to force a success. Normally this is a one roll per session, per passion deal, and only if the passion is relevant to success.

The only exception is if you’re rolling an identity related to your Obsession. You can flip flop every one of those. Fancy that.


I always admire games that have a strong dedication to their thesis, and as far as portraying “Broken people conspiring to fix the world,” Unknown Armies’ setting delivers.

The Invisible Clergy is a great element, and the idea of a cycle of death and rebirth based on the priorities of humanity’s collective unconscious has mythic echoes that works as a basis for magic. Adepts and Avatars as opposite approaches for Magick is also neat given that the only true requirement is the willingness to sacrifice something vital and essential to a normal human existence whether it’s the self (with Avatars) or societal acceptance (Adepts).

Next up, we’ll be looking at the next chapter: Character

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!

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