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Saturday, 14 July 2018

Free RPG Day 2018: Unknown Armies: Maria in Three Parts

Now in its eleventh year, Saturday, June 16th was Free RPG Day and with it came an array of new and interesting little releases. Invariably they are tasters for forthcoming games to be released at GenCon the following August, but others are support for existing RPGs or pieces of gaming ephemera or a quick-start. Atlas Games rarely contributes to Free RPG Day, but for 2018 offered us Unknown Armies: Maria in Three Parts. This is a quick-start for the 1998 roleplaying game of power and consequences in which broken and obsessed people risk everything to change the world. That world is just like ours, but Magick is real and essentially willpower multiplied by understanding equals what you wished for. Designed as an introduction to the Unknown Armies Third Edition Roleplaying Game funded on Kickstarter in 2016, explains the game’s concepts and rules, gives a short scenario to play through, and four pre-generated player characters to use with the scenario.

The Occult Underground can be found anywhere and is populated by all manner of fantastic and fearsome persons. Some of these creepy weirdos are Chargers capable of altering the world in ways no human can and so hold positions of power, whilst others are Checkers, those who seen the weird and the wonderful and are drawn to ‘check’ it out some more… Most player characters are Checkers, capable of performing certain magicks. Notable amongst these are Avatars and Adepts. The former aspire to become Archetypes—such as the Mother, the Naked Goddess, and the Mad Scientist—and the more like an Archetype an Avatar acts or imitates, then the greater his magic and the more he can bend reality. The latter can Do Stuff, but getting to Do Stuff relies upon an Adept’s obsession with something like sex, cars, guns, cleanliness, and so on. For example, of the four pre-generated player characters in the adventure, two are Avatars and two are Adepts. Vince Kirkland is an Avatar of The Guide and can always send someone in the right direction or give good advice, whilst Jada Parker is an Avatar of The Warrior and can pursue a purpose without suffering stress and inspire those around her. Ellen Kaloudis is a Fulminturgy Adept, a gunslinger who knows spells such as Serious Demeanour and .45 Caliber Exorcism, whereas Greg O’Neil is a Cinemancy Adept who can enforce cliches with spells like Stock Wardrobe and What Could Go Wrong? Their spells require Charges which can be generated by wearing a totem, like a gun for lengthy periods for the Fulminturgy Adept, and enacting movie cliches for the Cinemancy Adept. Essentially the differences between Avatars and Adepts are that Avatars have fewer magickal powers, but can use for free, whereas Adepts have more, but need to power them with Charges.

Characters are defined by what they have seen—Shocks; what they can do—Abilities; what drives them—Passions and Obsessions; who they are—Identity; and who they know—Relationships. Shocks represent the mental trauma a character has suffered from the worst effects of Helplessness, Violence, the Unnatural, and so on. Measured on a set of meters, they track how a character reacts to them, the possibility being that they will become hardened to them and callous or burn out from the stress. Abilities are broad talents like Dodge, Knowledge, Notice, Pursuit, Secrecy, and so on. There are just ten of them. A character has three Passions—Fear, Rage, and Noble, as well as an Obsession, the latter typically tied to his Identity. This Identity is what the character does, typically a role like Police Detective or Taxi Driver. Identities can substitute an Ability where appropriate. So in a car chase, a character with the Police Detective Identity might use it to substitute the Pursuit Ability. Similarly, a character’s Relationships—Favourite, Guru, Mentor, Protégé, and Responsibility—can substitute an Ability or identity where appropriate. Abilities, Identities, and Relationships are all measured as percentiles, typically in the range of 20% to 60%.

Mechanically, Unknown Armies uses a percentile system. Rolls of 01 are critical successes, 00 of critical fumbles, whilst matched successes—successes in which doubles are roll—are unusually good, and matched failures—failures in which doubles are roll—are unusually bad. On occasion, such as when acting in accordance with a character’s Passion or rolling as part of his Identity, a player can flip-flop result, either to get a successful result or to get a better success. Beyond this, Unknown Armies: Maria in Three Parts covers the rules for Stress checks, coercion, combat, medicine, and therapy. Of these, Stress checks are a little like Sanity rolls in Call of Cthulhu, but designed to account for more types of shock and to have a more immediate effect upon what a character can do. The explanation for how the mechanics work are not as clear as they could be and Game Master will need to give them a very careful read to understand and be able to impart that to her players. Nevertheless, it is clear from the rules that Unknown Armies is a fairly brutal system and the setting quite harsh.

In comparison, the explanation of the abilities of the two Avatars and the two Adepts are much more clearly written and it is here that Unknown Armies: Maria in Three Parts begins to be more flavoursome. Good explanations of all four are provided as well as backgrounds for each of the Cabal, the quartet who make up the quick-start’s pre-generated characters. Character sheets are provided for each.

The flavour and detail continue in ‘Maria in Three Parts’, the scenario in Unknown Armies: Maria in Three Parts. It opens with all four characters receiving a text from Detective Renee Jefferson, a shared contact, requesting their aid. The local police department has come across the weirdness of the occult underground before and in response, which has led to the establishment of ‘Blue Line’. This is an unofficial network of law enforcement officials set up to help each other when dealing with the occult, which includes Detective Renee Jefferson. Contact has been lost with one of Blue Line’s more reliable consultants, so she wants the player characters to go check on her. The resulting scenario involves a good mix of investigation and manic action, hopefully culminating in confrontation with an entertainingly snazzy antagonist. It should provide a good or two’s worth of gaming, though part of the first session will taken up by a fair amount of explanation.

Although Unknown Armies: Maria in Three Parts is attractively presented, it is not as well organised as it could be. The problem is that the backgrounds for each of the four pre-generated characters are separate to their character sheets, and this is compounded by the fact that the magickal abilities for each of them is again presented separate to them. This means that the Game Master needs to do some physical printing and separating out, and then collating of the sheets. Certainly the layout of the booklet could have been better organised.

Of all the releases for Free RPG 2018, Unknown Armies: Maria in Three Parts is perhaps the most difficult and the most challenging to both run and play. The rules are quite intricate and need a careful read through as the concepts behind both feel underwritten and are far from easy to grasp, let alone pass onto the other players. Yet both rules and concept support a fun quartet of pre-generated characters and an engaging scenario, and this is where Free RPG 2018, Unknown Armies: Maria in Three Parts really shines.