I ran a game of Unknown Armies at Go Play Leeds today. It’s the first time I’ve played the new version, let alone run it. Indeed, it’s the first time I’ve run a game for strangers in a very long while. I’ll do that again this year.
The scenario was a conversion of Bill in Three Persons, a staple intro piece included in the first and second editions and that I’m adapting for the third edition rules.
The system stood up well, and delivered on enabling character-driven play and a modern personal horror story. There’s enough simple flexibility in the system to help me improvise and keep flow as a GM when the players do something unexpected.
There are good things and not-so-good things from the session, and many lessons learned for the next outing.
To Do Better
Collaborative character creation in Unknown Armies 3 continues to be a little confusing. I’ve more to say on that another time. On the plus side, once we had gone through some form of it, the players had gotten into the passions and obsessions that defined the motives and drove the actions of their characters during play.
When you start off with a Proudly Civic Scout Leader and Disgraced Child Support Worker, anything to help get quickly into the psyche of their broken characters is certainly helpful.
But wait, on-the-fly character creation for a one-shot?
Yes, I know – I made a rookie GM blunder that I know and had hoped to avoid. (I ran out of time to finish my pre-gens because I got distracted by the UK election farce.)
The process wasted far too much time, even if it did help to get this particular group of players into the system and setting.
Unfortunately, one of the players also had to leave early and that slashed our play time by another 90 minutes. From a 4-5 hour slot, we ended up with about 2.5 hours of play. That was simply not enough to finish the scenario.
On the plus side, from this playtest outing I know some of the areas I want to improve for running both the system and this particular scenario again.
The characters we used were based on ones I had begun to stat up, so it wasn’t an entirely static start. Even though they were half-baked, the Disgraced Childhood Worker and Scout Leader (an unwitting Solid Citizen avatar) are fundamentally interesting and broken (in a good way) protagonists that are definitely worth finishing off. And they will return, more fully fleshed out.
I’m very pleased with the tone of the game, and how the players responded to it. The scenario can certainly be used to ramp up the personal horror in the world, and I think we captured that effectively, without making it gonzo or trivial.
We used fairly mundane characters, with low exposure to the arcane, supernatural or ‘other-worldly’. Even at the point in the scenario we got to, there were plenty of good Unnatural trigger stories to kick off a proper campaign. The scenario makes for a good zero-level adventure that could push an otherwise unaffiliated cabal together.
It did feel like there were a lot of stress checks. I need to work out whether (or how to) moderate that so I don’t trigger a load more hardened or failed notches too quickly. Ramping up too hard and fast leaves little room to step things up. This may be less of a concern in a one-shot (or where there are more than two PCs), but I am tempted to use the scenario as a campaign kicker.
More significant in the one-shot is that becoming stressed can be quite arresting in a game. This is especially so if someone opts for paralysis (rather than panic or frenzy) as their reaction to failing a stress check.
Related to that, I don’t know that I dealt with exiting the panic-paralysis-frenzy state very well. The jarring scene structure of the scenario helps break those up, but outside of that unusual setup, I think I need to revisit the guidelines for naturally passing back to baseline.
So much of the game mechanics and methods feel like Unknown Armies 3 is heavily geared to campaign play, so never really got a look in here. Character creation done as-written, for example, is much more involved and entwined with world building. The same goes with PC-determined group objectives, that have a very specific place in focusing game play and advancing the story.
On a practical level, I have updated the Unknown Armies character sheet, basing it on a version adapted from the gamma rule set shared with Kickstarter campaign backers. With some corrections to the shock gauge defence and coercion abilities, as well as introducing markers for mechanical states like failed identity checks, fear gauges and flip-flops, the sheet worked well. There’s still an improvement to be made on how avatar taboo/channels are captured in a way that makes the sheet practically useful. Same for adept magick (and identity details), but I don’t think that will be solved well on a one-pager.
Overall, I’m pleased with how my first GM experience for folks I don’t usually game with went. I’m more confident about offering something at one of my local cons and to an online group. And I like the way that Unknown Armies can work for the types of game I’d like to run. So, expect more, including the Saturday night slot at the Furnace RPG convention later this year.