Friday, 12 May 2017

Unknown Armies Third Edition arrived, and I'm feeling old.

So I backed the Unknown Armies Third Edition Kickstarter, but to save on shipping I had the books sent to my family in the US; between my parents, my sister-in-law and my wife, travelling relatives brought them home for me.

It all looks very nice: three reasonably slim hardbacks in a slipcase that folds out to be a GM's screen. Pretty cool. Book one is your player's handbook: character creation, magic schools, archetypes, etc. Book two is your GM's book: campaign creation, setting info, antagonist groups, and so on. And book three is just a big dip-into-able book full of weird potential setting elements. I can see opening it to a random page to find something to add to a game.

I initially thought that this would be daunting -- three books, after all, and we're not talking about D&D where a lot of that is library content. But the total page count is still only about 450 pages, which is more than second edition but not that much more. I don't know why I find big games daunting, but at the moment I think that I just couldn't commit to drilling down and really learning a complicated new game system.

Of course, UA 3rd ed. isn't really complicated, and it isn't really new. Still, the mechanics have undergone a lot of change from previous editions. Personally, I approve. Previous editions of UA had a pretty good dice system at heart, but it suffered from being neither one thing nor the other: it was simple enough to produce a lot of vague moments where the GM had to make on-the-fly decisions but still complicated enough that you constantly had to look things up, especially during combat, which had lots of finicky spot rules. It worked not too badly, but there were times when it could be very frustrating.

This version is even more slimmed-down, with stats and skills gone and the bit of the system that was most distinctive, the madness meters, moved front and centre. The base skills that everyone has now derived from how Hardened you are on a meter. So if you are very hardened to Violence, for instance, you're good at Struggle, but correspondingly bad at Connect, the skill that lets you relate to regular folks. This is combined with a catchall skill system, Identity, which is a little bit like a Cover in Sorcerer if you ever played that. Basically, you have a catchall skill like "grizzled private eye" or "wealthy socialite" that covers the skills appropriate to the job or role. You can have more than one, so I could have "fry cook" and "blood magician" and maybe even another. It works, and I think it patches the otherwise odd outcomes the otherwise loose skill system might produce (like, just going off the madness meter system, you can't be both physically fit and good at dodging, which is bizarre, but if it really matters to you you can stick one or the other in your identity). So you get the benefits of simplicity with fewer of the problems of occasional bits of detail. Overall I'm pleased with the changes.

In addition to a revised core system and some helpful campaign-generation advice (which is the biggest challenge of UA, I think), you get the other stuff you'd expect in a new edition of the game.  There are new magic schools and new archetypes, which are cool, although I'm not sure why magic schools are all new but the archetypes are about 50/50. They presumably guessed correctly that next to nobody would buy 3rd edition who didn't already have 2nd, so ... Anyway, not a whole lot has changed in the way these mechanics work, except that they're rolled into the Identity system, so that if you're an adept or an avatar, that's one of your Identities, one that lets you cast spells or use channels but not do a lot else. This goes a long way toward making magic-types not as capable as their non-magical counterparts, something that was sorely needed in previous editions.

And perhaps I could. I gave up my last UA game because I was badly burned out, but that was years ago. Perhaps it's lain fallow in my mind long enough. We'll see. I started reading it expecting to think "well, I loved this game but this huge new edition that cost $125 is not for me," but actually ... maybe.

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