Actual Play – In a Handbasket (5/28/2016)

Unknown Armies 3rd EditionGM: Todd Furler
Players: Alexis George, George Duryea, Sean Nittner, Theresa Giannetti, Chris Ory, Badger McInnes, and another gentleman I didn’t catch the name of.
System: Unknown Armies, 3rd edition.

The Blurb

Kublacon has their event listing page down right now, so I took this from the Gen Con listing, which I assume is the same pitch:

For years, Police District 12 was largely peaceful. But recently, something has been turning the people against the cops. They’re up to something. They’re out to get you. You can feel it.

You’re damn right something has changed! There’s no respect any more! No god damned respect! – Daniel Leahy

The Play is the Thing

As usual I don’t want to give away spoilers for Todd’s games. If you read this and you’re excited about them, he’s running both this game and Vanguard at Gen Con and at Big Bad Con this year (shil shil shil). 

Some things I can say about the game though:

  • Leahy is just as much of a chauvinist jerk as Todd sells him as (he was my PC in the game).
  • The character backgrounds should be read carefully and quietly. I had something of a giggle when Theresa started reading some of her character’s background outloud and I think I saw a blood vessel burst in Todd’s brain. Great stuff, but let it come out in play. At least some (if not all) of the character have something you’re rewarded for revealing in game!
  • The pairings between three cops, a woman in lockup, and two bibliomancers is just great. Personally I got to terrorize my partner, antagonize the hell out of a detective, and generally be blissfully unaware of the bibliomancers who were up to all sorts of shenanigans.
  • Asking “what’s the worst that could happen?” is a delightfully terrible idea.

Some thoughts on 3rd Edtion

3rd edition does two things that were very notable to me. I’m sure there is more, but this is what stood out.

Identities instead of Skills

UA has always has a freeform skill design so that you can make a skill like “tractor racing” or “xenomorphic rhetoric” and be all set. It does put some onus on the person creating the skill to define how it works but that free form design is much of what makes each game or setting unique. Todd has been famous for using this model to really give you a feel for your character. For instance, in the Vanguard game (which he ran with an earlier edition) my character had a skill called “Pop you one”, and another that all the of the Astronauts had called “The Right Stuff”.

Identities take this a bit further and give the character two (possibly more) defining characteristics that covered a penumbra of effects. For instance, my character had and these identities

  • Because I am a beat cop, of course I can – fix your parking ticket, reasonably request entry into most places, find my way around town.
  • Because I am an alpha male, of course I can – take control of a situation, break up a bar fight,  chat up a girl.

Each identity also had abilities you could use it to substitute for and features, or special uses of it. For instance the alpha male ability could terrify someone enough that it would induce a stress check against violence.

This isn’t novel but I do think the format works very well for Unknown Armies. You’ve got a statement that looks a lot like a stunt from Fate Accelerated and then you’ve got a range of effects that explain the general by way of the specific. Feels like a mash up of Fate and Dogs in the Vineyard with just enough crunch to satisfy the gamist and just enough leeway to make a narativist happy too.

2016-05-28 15.14.34

When an identity didn’t apply, you could roll one of the 10 base abilities (heath, dodge, status, etc) but that gets into…

The way stress checks work

This feels like it needs some work still. I’m not sure if it will get it, but wow, was there a lot of confusion in the game, and I can imagine a lot of confusion happening at a lot of tables.

Okay, here’s the short primer.

See all those dots (most of them not filled out) with the row headers of Helplessness, Isolation, etc? Each of those rows governs how well you do at using two abilities as well as resisting a certain flavor of stress. So let’s break that down by way of example by looking at the last line on my sheet Violence (vs. isolation). Here are four things you can gleen from that row:

  1. When rolling the “up” ability (Connect in this case), you find the rightmost filled in dot (in my case the 3rd dot) and go look at the percent values along the top of the matrix. In this case that is a 50. Which means if Daniel tries to connect with someone one and has to roll, he’s trying to beat a 50%.
  2. When rolling the “down” ability (Struggle in this case), you find the rightmost filled in dot (which will be the same as the “up” ability, so 3rd again here) and look at the percent values along the bottom of the matrix. In this case, Daniel has a 30% in his struggle ability.
  3. When faced with a stressful situation (i.e. one that requires a stress check) you look at the “vs.” value. So, if Daniel needed to make a stress check vs. Isolation, this is is the row I would look at. Like the “up” skill, you follow to the rightmost filled in dot, and use the value at the top of the matrix. In this case Daniel has a 50% chance to succeed at a stress check vs. Isolation. And here’s where it’s easy to get mixed up. You don’t roll violence to resist against a Violence stress check (that’s Helplessness above). This has several very intentional effects. It means, in this case, as Daniel becomes more hardened against violence, he becomes worse at resisting stress caused by isolation, but not worse at resisting stress caused by violence. He also becomes better at the “down” ability, which in this case is struggle, and worse at the “up” ability connect. It’s an elegant concept but the user experience trying to navigate all of that is a challenging one.
  4. Already explained some but when you succeed at a stress check, you mark the leftmost unfilled circle in the category that you were resisting, which is isn’t the one you were rolling. So for instance. If Daniel makes a stress check against isolation (currently rolling at a 50 or lower) and succeeds, he would be rolling based on Violence, but he’d fill in the hardened dot for Isolation (the 2nd row). Extrapolating a bit, you can see that Daniel has a few hardened dots filled in on the Violence row, which means he succeeded on a few stress checks using Helplessness (the first row). Similarly if you fail, you also check the failure boxes on the column that you failed test in. You can see Daniel already has one box checked in Helplessness, which means he failed a roll in on the Isolation (vs. helpessness) row.

Here’s my thoughts on all this:

It’s confusing. Even as I write this up, I find I have to keep referencing the sheet to make sure I’m using the right terms and not mixing up row for the row that you roll versus. What’s even tricker is that the roll you row isn’t the row you mark hardened dots or failure boxes in either. I found it easiest to think of it as a game or Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock. Each ability has another ability that it trumps (or in this case rolls vs.). I still think this could have been made more clear though if the layout was circular in design rather than rows like War of Ashes or even more directly like they did in Big Bang Theory.

Opposing Abilities

Also when I map it out like this I noticed that we don’t have fiver interlocking rows. We have two sets of interlocking rows. Unnatural and Self are totally cut off from Helplessness, Isolation, and Violence. So, we don’t even have the opportunity to create a grid like this without changing one of those. Blerg.

The other issue I have is that I feel like failed checks just got left out of the new design. They are still there, just like they were in previous editions, but both graphically and mechanically they look like vestigial remains of a bygone edition. The don’t do anything to the characters (except act as an abstract sanity hit point system) and they don’t fit in the design.  I’m not sure how they should be integrated, but right now it just feels like they were left over and nobody knew what to do with them, even going so far as to unfortunately mark the section “stupid weak failure” on the sheet.

What Rocked

Okay, back to the actual game at hand!

Theresa came from a dungeon crawling background (maybe even one that involved giant flying reptiles) and had never played a game like unknown armies before. It was like Christmas for me watching her read her character sheet and then play in this very different game. I do not denigrate the crawl, but I do love it when folks try out something new!

Our bibliomancers were just awesome. Reading case files right out of Ursula K. Le Guin novels, turning cheap halloween costumes into completely authentic disguises, and otherwise doing magic that was perfectly flavored to both the setting and our game in particular. I thought it was even cooler when things didn’t go well for them and the kid gloves came off!

As mentioned above, I had a lot of fun being the worst cop ever for most of the game. I also got to feel a personal sense of redemption that by the end of the game I not only went out on my own terms, but I never shot anyone (which is more than I can say for my fellow officers!). Most of this however was due to the wonderful roleplaying chops of my two foils Tom (played by George) and Jim (played by Chris).

Some of the twists in the game were just heart wrenching. Like, yeah all sorts of badness of course, but there were some moments of personal pain that, augh… so good.

What could have improved

I think there is a fear of short circuiting the game, ending it too soon, or not playing “right” that can prevent people from diving into something 100%, and worse that causes one character to try and stop another from doing something foolish. It’s totally natural, in life we do it all the time. Of course you don’t leave your hand on the hot plate, you pull it away. But in games, you have a chance to find out what happens if you don’t. All I’m saying is follow Winston’s advice, if someone asks if you are a god, you say, “yes!”

This was a good for me, bad for others scenario. The game was scheduled online for 3PM, but in most of the printed materials at 6PM (both of which were in the same time slot, so it could legitimately have been either). It was also moved to another location, and the White Wolf game that was running in the new location had also moved to another room. All of this without any total confirmation about what was supposed to be when and where (different sources saying different things). The end result was we had a lot of people showing up for a different game, we had a lot of people showing up for this game, but three hours after it started, and the game we actually played was more full of crashers (myself included) than it was folks who were signed up to play in it (most of them arriving just before 6pm). That didn’t affect the game experience much, but it did make for some disappointed folks. A hiccup in the system.

As mentioned pretty exhaustively above, I do like a lot of what was done in 3rd edition, but the advancement in elegance game at the cost of clarity. I doubt much can be done about that now, but if it there is a chance to change the character sheets before the book is printed, I’d encourage it.


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