[Let’s Study: Unknown Armies] Part 3: The Character

And we’re back! I’ve been thrown off the horse of regular blog posting due to some real life stuff (illness and such, nothing horrible) but I’m back to reading Unknown Armies.

Today we’re looking at Character specific rules. We’ve touched on a lot of these elements in the previous entries so I’ll avoid repeating stuff that I’ve discussed before and look into the rules that interact with the character.

The Shock Gauge and Stress Checks

We talked about the Shock Gauge a little bit previously, and went over the various meters, but how are they used in play?

Stress Checks occur when something particularly nasty happens to a character relating to their Stress Meters. These checks are mechanically ranked from 1 to 10, where 1 is something that most people can get over (a Rank 1 Violence check example is “Attacked with a weapon”) while 10 is something that will likely scar them for life (a Rank 10 Violence check example is “Watch as someone you love is tortured to death”)

Stress meters have two types of notches: Hardened Notches denote stress checks that you’ve beaten, and Failed Notches are those that represent stress checks that have beaten you.

Hardened Notches protect against Stress in that if you have enough Hardened Notches of the same type and rank as the Stress Check, you can shrug it off. If you don’t have any Hardened Notches to protect you, you then roll an Identity that might cover for it. In the absence of an Identity to cover, you default to an Ability.

A success means that you get to mark off the lowest available Notch as a Hardened Notch, as you grow more callous to the horrors of the world. Failing the roll on the other hand marks the lowest Failed Notch, and the player chooses if their character goes into a panic, paralysis or frenzy in response to the Stress.


Failing Stress Checks send a character into Panic, Frenzy or Paralysis. While in any of these states, they no longer need to make any Stress Checks as they’re in the grip of a breakdown.

Obtaining five Failed Notches on a single meter is a bad sign, however. On the first time this happens, the character gains a mental disorder. This is left for the GM and player to work out, but shouldn’t be played for laughs. Mental health is a sensitive issue, and should be approached with respect.

Another side effect to having five Failed Notches on the same meter is that every time you run into a Stress Check involving it, you automatically fight, flee or freeze like you failed the roll. If you have enough Hardened Notches to void the roll then you simply ignore it.


Hardened Notches aren’t always good either. While they desensitize you from exposure to some horrible things, having twenty-five Hardened Notches means you’re burned out. At this state, you’re emotionally hardened to a state that makes you isolated from other people.

Mechanically, you lose access to your Passions, and the ability to flip-flop those rolls. Furthermore, if you’re an Avatar, you lose access to your avatar identity until you get treatment. Adepts don’t seem to have that problem, but then again, they’re fine rejecting large chunks of society anyway.


This section basically gives a rundown of the abilities (which we’ve listed in a previous entry) and how to read the results of checks making these abilities. This comes in handy if you want to find out what a failed check looks like when trying a Connect check, for example.


By this time I think you’ve probably caught on that Isolation and a character’s ability to get along with (or rail against) society is important in Unknown Armies. The game further stresses this by adding Relationships.

Characters begin the game with two of their five most important Relationships defined. Relationships are mechanically applied in several ways:

  • Coercion – You can roll your Relationship score to coerce a relationship to take an action even if they’re normally opposed to it. This involves making a threat, and the target has to either perform the action, or face a Stress Check. It’s not a pleasant way of doing things, and erodes your Relationship score for even trying it.
  • Substitution – You can roll your Relationship rather than your Ability when attempting a Connect, Lie, Notice, Status, and Struggle check with the Relationship as a target. So a CEO of a company he built from out of his Garage will be able to use his Relationship score to notice if there’s a financial aberration.
  • The “Of course…” roll – This is a catch-all roll similar to an Identity. If you can justify your Relationship as a means of doing something to the GM, then you can roll. Stuff like “Of course I know where my ex-wife keeps her jewelry.” fall under this category.

Now while this seems awfully harsh on NPCs, Unknown Armies pulls a genius twist, it let’s the GM (within limits) have Relationships roll you. “You can’t go to your kid’s graduation, we’ve got a huge pitch to win. You don’t want to be passed on a promotion, would you?” is a very real thing.


Finally we get to Identities. We’ve talked about them before, but now let’s break them down to how they work.

First off Abilities are a player-defined “Who” stat, that allows itself to be rolled in a number of ways. First off, aside from the “Of course…” benefit, the Identity also substitutes for an Ability of your choice.

Next, you pick 2 Features from a list:

  • Casts Rituals
  • Coerces a [Meter]
  • Evaluates a [Meter]
  • Medical
  • Provides Firearms Attacks
  • Provides Wound Threshold
  • Provides Initiative
  • Resists Shocks to a [Meter]
  • Therapeutic
  • Unique
  • Uses Gutter Magic

Most of the features are essentially enablers, granting special access that most normal people wouldn’t / shouldn’t have. Magical Identities in particular are important, and for those who work in special professions that allow for Therapy, or (largely legal) access to firearms.

Taking this a step further is the list of Supernatural Identities:

  • Vague Information
  • Specific Information
  • Vague Protection
  • Specific Protection
  • Vague Harm
  • Specific Harm
  • Influence
  • Versatility

Of course, coming up with Identities is hard work, so Unknown Armies then provides a huge list of Identities from Dog Trainer to X-Ray Technician, so use those as a launchpad for your own self-defined Identity or just pick a few and run with it.

Overall, I’m very impressed with what I’ve seen so far on Unknown Armies characters. There’s plenty of ways to engage characters in personal ways that make for some very disturbing occult stories of obsession and the costs associated with it.

Moving on, our next entry will be tackling the kinds of (and looking at the rules for) conflicts in Unknown Armies.

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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