Unknown Armies hack: Second try

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Unknown Armies hack: Second try
« on: April 14, 2012, 02:45:52 AM »
I was working on an Unknown Armies hack a few months ago (previous threads are here: General notes, magick, & GM principles). Then I started my UA campaign before I'd gotten far enough along to use UA hack, so we're currently just playing UA straight (with some of the AW principles applied as GM techniques). It's a fun campaign, but it's also reminded me of why I wanted to do a hack in the first place: Basically, while the UA games I've played or run have been fun, they've been very different than the UA fiction. What I mean is that when read through the fiction in the UA core book and supplements, it just oozes with awesome flavor, then when I play UA, that flavor is mostly missing. Part of that, I'm sure, is how I'm GMing, but I think a lot of it is that while the system allows the kind of play that the fiction implies, it doesn't always support it well. Does that make sense? I'm not criticizing the system--like I said, it's been fun, but it hasn't been the UA game I wanted to play that first time I was reading through the UA core book and thinking how awesome it all sounded.

Okay, long rambling intro over... The reason I'm starting this up again is that I'm started over on a UA hack for AW.

What is the game about

I don't have more actual *W play under my belt then I did before (I've still only run single short Dungeon World Basic campaign and haven't played), but I've read a lot more. I've been following the DW Beta versions closely and I pre-ordered Monster of the Week and have devoured the beta versions. I've also been following Monsterhearts with interest and plan on buying it as soon as I can convince the wife (I've overspent my RPG budget considerably lately--damn Kickstarter...). Looking at those four games, as well as some of the hacks on this forum, like Saga of the Icelanders, I've gotten a lot better idea of how *W core system can be changed and hacked and distorted to get different effects.

So when I sat down again to try another UA hack, my first question was to ask what I wanted the game to be about. There are a lot of different games you can play within UA. So I went back and reread the fiction in UA 2nd ed. and the source books.

I think that I've settled on the idea that a character's obsession is what defines them. It's the foundation of their moves and of the advancements and of their choices.

In tandem with that, mystery and consequences define the stories that get told around those obsessions.


"You need to know more. The world you know isn't enough for you... Anything would be preferable to the ignorance of daily life."

You'll notice that "powers" wasn't one of of my core focuses. That's because at its best and most interesting, magick in UA is inextricably drawn from and tied to obsession. Obsession is the heart of power, and consequences come from power.

Two things have jumped out at me as I've started working on this again. The first is that Playbooks (and therefore character archetypes as well as moves) will be based on how they approach their obsession, how they're trying to get it. The second is that the "arc" of a character is about the nearly impossible search and struggle for their obsession.


Playbooks will be based on an approach to hunting their obsession. That they have an obsession, that it drives them into the Occult Underground, that it screws up their life, is all assumed (the same way that it is in UA). If you weren't obsessed, you wouldn't be a UA character.

Playbooks aren't based on powers or types (adept schools, avatars, etc.). Yeah, there will be a certain amount of overlap (I mean, someone who finds power and truth at the bottom of a bottle is approaching their obsession in a fundamentally different way than a True King).

Building on that, magick isn't based on schools or archetypes, per se. A character's magick (and they all have at least some magick, even if hardly any and tied to a -1 stat) comes out of their obsession. That said, playbooks moves that veer into the magickal will likely be heavily inspired by the coolest stuff from the UA adept schools and avatar paths.

I'll talk more about magick and other moves in later posts.


"Something big is going down. You don't know what. But you can feel it all around you. It's in the air, in the headlines of the newspapers, in the blurry images on television. It is a secret you have yet to grasp, although the first syllable has been spoken in a dream you cannot quite recall."

When I read the fiction in UA, the sense of mystery and and looking at the world through distorted, madness-tinted glasses is huge. Then the character types are laid out clearly. Like I said above, I know that UA can run games with that sense of mystery and unraveling, but it doesn't necessarily support it. Maybe it's just me or my GMing style, but I'm ultimately making this for myself anyway. I want the system to drive and support that feeling. I want it to be an emergent property of the moves and mechanics.

I'm tempted to say that game will be at the "street level" to use the UA term, but I don't know that it necessarily is. What I do know is that the world will always be weird and unknown. To some extent, the cosmology and "metaphysics" will be a lot less set -- like Monster of the Week, the cosmology is built up during play for that campaign by asking questions, by moves, by creating fronts, etc. The "canon" of UA will be stripped down to Principles, Moves, Threat Types, "rumors", etc. It will be a lot less defined.

And further, the moves (character and GM), plus the Principles, Fronts, etc., will have a lot of tie-ins to cosmology and mystery creation.

One of the specific things I'm thinking is that the game will be about mysteries. They'll be how the game is structured (in the way that AW has Fronts and Home, DW has dungeons/adventures, and MotW has Monsters/Mysteries). I'm not exactly sure what that looks like yet, though I have a number of half-formed ideas that I'll post as they become more worked out.

Basically, I'm picturing that mysteries can take various forms (depending on the Threat Types, campaign, and player characters). Whatever you're doing (looking for something or someone, trying to figure out who's screwing with you and why, trying to ascend or keep someone else from ascending, etc.) and whatever the reason you're doing it (you're in debt to TNI, it holds the key to your obsessions, you need something for you collection, you're a dead man or woman if you don't, etc.) -- it's structured as a mystery to be unraveled (and survived).


"People vanish, die horribly, become madmen, for the sake of whatever the secret is that lies at the heart of the unseen world."

It wouldn't be UA if it wasn't full of tough choices and consequences with bite. One thing that always does seem to work well when I play UA is that my players go further and cross lines they wouldn't in other games. I love that.

Part of it is hard-baked into the moves and already handled well by AW. Hard choices and consequences are included in the results of many player moves as well as GM moves. That's part of what I love about AW for a UA hack.

I'm also planning on keeping the spirit of the adept charging and avatar taboos (though not their details, in general) in the sense that magick ain't ever free. Hell, nothing's free, especially if it relates to your obsession.

Advancement and Harm

Drawing different pieces from various *W games that I've mentioned above, I'm planning on having basically long-term and short-term harm and advancement. There are the basic advances and the "uncertain future" advances after the first five advances (with the advanced advances having more character arc-related options). Then there is harm and madness (like failed notches in UA) for short-term harm, and Hardened notches (and psychoses and physical impairments) for lasting harm.


Advances will work similar to AW (though I haven't really thought much yet about how xp is earned). And like AW, there will be advances that you can take once you've taken a certain number of other advances. These "uncertain future" advances will have options for wrapping up the obsession and/or character arc (though, like AW, those aren't the only choices). I'm still playing with ideas, but I like the way that the "Wronged" playbook in MotW can spend an advance after their first five to make the next mystery be about the type of creature that killed their loved ones and that it will tie directly to their own personal tragic back-story. Using these advanced advances is a way to reach your obsession (or at least get a shot at it). This is how you have a shot at Ascending, etc.

Madness: Hardened

I love the UA madness meters, but I'm not going to try to port them directly. Instead, I'm going to separate out Hardened and Failed notches into separate systems. Failed notches (Madness--see below) are basically psychological Harm. Hardened notches, on the other hand (becoming increasingly hardened and inhuman until you're a sociopath) is a longer-term system. Basically I'm planning on porting the "Luck" mechanics from MotW, but changing the flavor a bit. For those of you who aren't familiar with MotW luck, basically you have a set number of points you can spend to change a roll to a 10+ or lower any Harm taken to 0. But once you use them, they're gone--meaning you have a set number (7 in MotW and I'll probably keep the same) for the entire campaign. There are a couple very limited ways to get a point or two back for some characters, but that's it. And when you run out, bad things happen. In MotW, the GM can make hard moves against you anytime--it's always a golden opportunity because you're out of luck--I don't know exactly what I'll do, but I'm leaning towards it marking the end of your character arc, meaning you have a session or two to wrap things up in a tragic way or perhaps you can change your playbook to "Broken" and start over or something. Also, like MotW Luck, many (but not all) playbooks have things that are tied to or triggered by Hardened getting spent and/or running out. I'm still working out details.

Basically, it will work mechanically like Luck, but in the fiction it's your character becoming hardened and inhuman and damaged -- it's the slow, character arc-level psychological damage.

Madness: Failed

In contrast, you can take psychological Harm as Madness. There are two Harm clocks or tracks: physical and madness.

I'm thinking that when madness builds (to 9:00 perhaps?) you have to take a Madness move (there are several to choose from). The madness move will have rules for when it's triggered, just like all moves. Part of the trigger will be "when your Harm is 6:00 or later (or some other level). If you clear your madness below that, the Madness move doesn't go away, but it's dormant (except under certain circumstances).

I'm not planning on having the 5 different meters an I'll have a single madness clock instead (though I'll use all five meters to draw examples of sources of Madness harm and amounts). I might conceivably use tags for the types, but only if I could think of some interesting thing to do with it that would make it more fun without increasing complication too much.


I'm uncertain how I want to handle harm. I want combat to be scary, like UA, though I don't necessarily need it to be deadly. I also want it to feel like wounds instead of numbers. I don't know that I want to just say that the GM keeps track of Harm (and perhaps Madness, too?) just because UA does. I'm thinking of doing something like wounds in the earlier beta versions of MotW, where each wound is a separate thing and the ratings correspond to the consequences, but there isn't a clock or track (i.e. 6 points of harm doesn't mean dead, necessarily). I also like some of the stuff Saga of the Icelanders does with harm and wounds and may combine it with the earlier MotW wounds system.


That's all I have time for tonight. This is already a very rambling post. Watch for more to come (though it will probably be erratic for the next while).

-John B.