Guest Post: A Love Letter to the Unknown Armies 3rd Edition Character Sheet
Kate is an Unknown Armies fan, a soon-to-be GM, and writer. A few days ago, we ran across her detailed analysis of the Unknown Armies character sheet and realized it could be useful for other players and GMs. Here is that short essay, republished with her permission.
I love Unknown Armies third edition. I like the world, I like the kinds of stories it tells, and I love, love, love the characters it makes. Many games' character sheets function as extensions of their personalities, with abilities, skills, and magic powers layered on top of social and emotional dynamics. Certain skills or powers like intimidation, charm, or fitness exist that split your character into different kinds of stats—there's the stuff about my character that has to do with their brain, mental stuff, my thinky bits—there's the stuff about my social acuity, my charisma, my manipulation, my street smarts—and there's physical stuff, like my ability to throw punches, jump a fence, or run a marathon. Some designers have already lodged their complaints about these issues in character sheets, the idea that someone is only "smart" if they have a lot of points in their brain stats and skills, or the idea that making punches makes you less good at talking to people. And then, in most character sheets, after you figure out that stuff, you start deciding things about what the character likes or hates or what motivates them. In Unknown Armies, it's hard to untangle that stuff, and being "smart" doesn't mean anything because it means a lot of things, and just because you can intimidate someone with your fists doesn't mean you can make them feel alone. Let me break down the sheet, roughly. I'm not going to explain the rules in too much detail because if you want to know the rules to Unknown Armies, you're better off reading the corebook (or, for a quick intro, you can pick up the module Maria in 3 Parts.) It's a percentile based system where you roll 2d10—one d10 is the tens, one is the ones, and you roll under your ability.
The sheet, roughly, can be broken into three parts. The characters motivations and relationships, the shock gauges, and identities. The shock gauges are the core mechanic so we'll do them first. You can find the whole sheet here.
Wow! That's a lot! What's going on here? We have five types of shock—things that emotionally hurt our character—Helplessness, Isolation, Self, Unnatural, and Violence. And attached to those gauges are our raw abilities, split into two categories; Upbeat (Fitness, Status, Knowledge, Notice, Connect) and Downbeat (Dodge, Pursuit, Lie, Secrecy, Struggle.) at character creation, we can put those dots wherever we want—but the better we get at one side of each gauge, the worse we get at the other. As I get better at throwing punches, I'm more hardened to seeing people get hurt, and that makes me worse at connecting with people. If I have a good sense of self, I have a lot of Knowledge, but if I'm hardened to deceiving and cheating and doing things out of whack with my self-image—I'm pretty good at lying! Some people will look at this and say "Well, just because you have a weaker sense of self doesn't necessarily mean you have less knowledge." The game has ways of covering for that, but I think it's important to look at the kind of story that the shock gauges force us to tell about what kind of people we become when we're hardened to certain kinds of conflict, outside of "realism." If I mark off four notches in "Self" that doesn't just give me a 45 in "knowledge" and a 35 in "Lie"—it tells the audience and the player what kind of person I am. I'm a person who has been forced to do things that don't jive with the kind of person I think I am to survive. Meanwhile, the failed notches show times you've been unable to grapple with the shock that's happening to you. They say "My character realized he killed a man and he just couldn't deal with becoming the kind of man who kills." That's a failed notch.
Finally, we have the Defend/Attack notes. When taking a roll to your shock gauges you defend with a totally different gauge, which means a character who is not hardened enough to "Self" to get out of rolling a shock to their gauge actually protects themselves emotionally by seeing the world for how it really is, by understanding what's real and what's not (Notice). You can defend yourself from trauma by being less beaten down in other ways. But more interestingly is the intimidation rules in Unknown Armies—the gauge you use to attack. In most games, we have one skill: Intimidation. Unknown Armies lets you "Coerce" across every single shock meter. You can "attack" someone's Helplessness gauge with Connect by threatening that they'll become isolated. You can attack someone's Isolation shock meter by threatening them with your Status—be a shame if I, the priest of the church, told everyone you were a sinner. That'd make you real lonely. "Intimidate" doesn't just cover the threat of physical violence because we aren't always intimidated by physical violence. Sometimes the heftiest threat is the threat of being alone.
The top row tells us stuff about our character's history and background:
There's the usual name and appearance stuff, but we also have our Current Objective, which in UA3 is something we've decided collectively with our cabal (the party). Characters also have a personal obsession tied to one identity—I usually put these below the current objective, but it's a shame that your personal obsession doesn't get its own slot up here. That's really my one complaint with this character sheet. Then you have your three passions—Rage, Noble, and Fear. Your Noble passion is what you aspire to; your fear, what you're afraid of; and your rage is what really ticks you off. Each of these passions lets you redo rolls to help you succeed, so they have real, tangible in-game importance. In a percentile game, every ability to alter a roll counts! Underneath that we have our relationships, the characters or organizations (like churches) our character cares about. They have a percentile, tied to our shock gauge rating, that determines our closeness, and being kind can up that percentage—coercing them or being cruel can lower it. We can roll them when we're asking for things from them and get more things; and a relationship percentile can be rolled to convince or coerce our relationship instead of a shock gauge's stat, because we understand them. The cabal always gets a slot, as does one other player character.
Finally we have identities.
Identities function sort of like skills. You write down your identity, not from a list, but off your head—they can be anything. So it could be "Construction worker", "Stubborn Bad-Ass" or "Town Mayor." First you have your "of course I can", which is a rough list of everything your character can do just by virtue of being that thing. I don't need to take a "construction" skill if I'm a construction worker; I'm a construction worker, of course I can build a house. Anything flies under your "Of Course I can" if the GM lets it or it seems credible with your identity.
Finally, you have "Subs for ability" and two features. Subs for ability lets you swap out an identity for one of the abilities on the shock gauge, either upbeat or downbeat. Want a martial artist who also knows how to reach these kids? You can make your identity sub for "Struggle" and keep the violence shock gauge low. You can also use "feature" to sub for more abilities (So it could make you good at connect, too!) or you can take various other guaranteed 100% of the time without justifying it under "of course I can" features, like "protects shock gauge: isolation" (You roll that instead of "Connect"), Coerces: Violence (You roll your martial art ability instead of "struggle" to intimidate with violence.) But the story the shock gauge tells still holds true—if I'm a 70% martial artist and I only have two hardened notches in "Violence", even though I'm a veritable badass in struggle and I know how to threaten someone using my fists, at heart, I'm actually kind of a softy when it comes to seeing someone get hurt.
When you take the three quadrants of the character sheet together, they're impressive for not only telling you the kinds of things that a "standard" sheet tells you—what you're good and bad at—and not only the kinds of things that some character sheets tell you about what motivates you—but all of those things are merged together in a cohesive picture about who your character is. They all impact each other, not just in a role-playing sense, but they impact what your character is good and bad at by virtue of the kind of person you are. Where a lot of games see your skills and your humanity as two different blocks on the sheet, Unknown Armies says, "everything is related. The kind of choices you make about what you're good and bad at are related to the kind of things that happened to you as a human being." Maybe you became a punk to give yourself a strong sense of self (protects shock gauge: Self) or maybe you became a game hunter so you'd be able to threaten back the bullies that tried to beat you down (coerces a meter: Helplessness.) But you know, being a punk also means you can pick out a good hair dye ("Of course I can") and being a hunter means you can shoot a gun ("Provides: Firearm attacks.")
Thanks, Kate, for your analysis of (and ode to) the Unknown Armies character sheet! Be sure to follow Katie on Twitter for updates on her forthcoming one-shot Unknown Armies anthology for the Statosphere community content program. Then, check out her audio comedy, True Tales of the Illuminati.