Monday, April 28, 2014

Reading Unknown Armies

I am slowly making my way though the core rulebook of Unknown Armies. I've just gotten past the initial chunk of rules and have jumped around on the setting pages, so I think it's time I can post about my developing opinion on the system.

I'm really surprised that Unknown Armies has not received the attention and affection it is due. It's a really, really good rule set. It wears its Call of Cthulhu heritage on its sleeve, but manages to innovate in a few key areas. As for the setting, it's fast and loose and has the sense of humor that the World of Darkness wishes it had.

Here are a few things that I specifically love about Unknown Armies:

Free-Form Skills. There are a handful of default skills that all characters possess, representing the common knowledge for modern adventurers. There is no skill list beyond that. Characters can be skilled in "comic book trivia," VCR repair" or "drop dead gorgeous," or anything else the player can dream up. I especially like this because it gives players an excellent handle on what their character can and can't do, which sometimes isn't the case in games with classes or restrictive skill lists.

Fate-Like Aspects Without the Foggy Rules. Each character has something that makes them mad, something that makes them afraid and something that makes them noble. These "passions" work much like aspects in Fate, but with some easy to follow rules that make them easier to comprehend for new players. They are balanced abilities that help fill in the character without expecting the player to come up with a detailed backstory on the spot.

Only Roll When Shit is Hitting the Fan. I've heard GUMSHOE is great in that it doesn't allow for players to miss key information or story points because they missed a roll on what would have been a simple task for their character. Unknown Armies takes the same approach. Any character with a 15% or more in a skill will automatically succeed a task using that skill provided they are not under the gun. And by this I mean literally being shot at. Challenge maintenance has always been tricky for me as a GM, so I welcome this philosophy of keeping the dice still until things are especially difficult.

Four Sanity Tracks. Everyone loves going insane in RPGs. Unknown Armies brings more fun to the table by allowing a character to become crazy (or callused) due to exposure to four different kinds of stress: Violence, the Unnatural, Helplessness, and Self. The Self sanity track is an especially helpful check against players who have their players turn into sociopaths when it is advantageous.

The Setting is Basically the Illuminatus! Trilogy. A million different gonzo conspiracies are operating at once, somehow slowly pushing the world to the brink. McDonald's has been infiltrated by free-wheeling occult hippies. There is a goddess in the form of a porn star. Every conspiracy theory is real. Every myth is true. Robert Anton Wilson would be proud.

Schools of Magic Are Not Political Groups. One of the biggest flaws in the World of Darkness games, especially Mage, is how the various schools of magic seem to be separate political faction. It seemed unlikely that any member of one school of magic would ever work with a member of another school considering how much each school is supposed to inform the worldview of the character. Unknown Armies doesn't have this problem. The magic schools are colorful and varied but there are very few social restrictions imposed upon the characters. This makes mixing and matching magic schools within a group fun and exciting rather than an exercise in rationalizing.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Random Fantasy Deity Generator

Picking a deity has always been a sticking point for my players during character creation. Many of them could not give less of a shit about canonical gods in D&D or whatever game we are playing. But when I tell them to just make something up, their eyes glaze over.

Here is a solution. Grab a d20 and produce a random deity with a fantasy-ish name and title that will at least get some creative juices secreting.

First Syllable
Second Syllable
Third Syllable
God of
the Void
Goddess of
the Sun
Lord of
the Wild
Lady of
the Shadows
Father of
the Moon
Mother of
the Mountains
Son of
the Sea
Daughter of
the Stars
King of
the Underdark
Queen of
the Rain
Hound of
the Past
Serpent of
the Word
Shadow of
the Unknown
Image of
the Humble
Demon of
the Healer
Angel of
the Earth
Sword of
the Sky
Tree of
the Motherless
Elk of
the Lost
Bane of
the Way

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Occultpunk Character Creation, Part 1: Attributes and Elements

 Terence Spencer—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
(A few months ago I set out to write my own RPG system called Occultpunk. That didn't happen as work and being a new dad took prescience. I've been thinking more and more about the system and now I just want to get it out of my head and into words. I'll slowly work through the rules and post them here.)

Main Attributes

In the Occultpunk system, a character's natural physical and mental capabilities are defined by the five main attributes and three derived attributes. The five main attributes are Vitality, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Spirit.

Vitality is the general physical capabilities of the character. It represents the general ability to perform nuanced tasks with the body or the amount of muscular strength a character possesses.

Constitution represents a character's resilience to physical forces such as harsh temperatures, disease, sleep deprivation and toxic substances.

Intelligence is the measure of a character's intellectual capabilities. This attribute affects the character's general knowledge as well as her areas of academic and occult expertise.

Wisdom represents a character's capability for discernment and problem solving. It is the "street smarts" to Intelligence's "book smarts."

Spirit represents a character's innate occult abilities and connection to the universe. This is the attribute that most strongly affects the casting of spells or the use of Arcane Abilities.

Derived Attributes

The three derived attributes receive scores that are the sum of two or more main attributes. These derived attributes are mainly used as defensive scores and represent the physical and spiritual health of the character.

Reflex (Vitality+Intelligence) is the character's ability to react in tense situations. It dictates a character's ability to avoid physical attacks and then she is able to take an action during an encounter.

Body (Vitality+Constitution) is an abstraction of the character's physical health and resistance to attacks. This score can drop during a physical altercation if a character receives damage to their person. The character is rendered unconscious should the score reach 0. If the score drops to -1 or less, the character's body is dead.

Soul (Intelligence+Wisdom+Spirit) is an abstraction of the character's spiritual health, much like Body represents physical health. Like Body, the Soul attribute can be damaged during encounters, usually by means of magic. If a character's Soul score reaches 0, the character will become Undead. If the Soul score then drops to -1 or less, the character's spiritual essence will be destroyed and the physical body will also cease to function.

It should be noted that spiritual death is much more difficult to overcome than physical death.

Attribute Scores

Each main attribute has a score between 0 and 5. A level 0 character has 12 points to distribute between the five attributes as the player wishes. However, keep in mind that a character with a score of 0 in any attribute will have severe disabilities and may be a challenge to role play.

Use the following table to gauge the relative level of ability for each attribute score.

Severe disability.
Below average.
Above average.
The human limit.


Each of the five main attributes is associated with one of the five primal elements. Based on the scores of the main attributes, each character will have a dominate element that affects their connection to the cosmos. A character's dominate attribute is dictated by the main attribute with the highest score. If two or more attributes share the same high score, the player simply decides which of the eligible attributes will dictate the element.


A character's dominate element does not have any pervasive effects on the game mechanics, but can be used by the Game Master for special situations, reflecting the chaotic nature of magic.