Unknown Armies

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Unknown Armies
Unknown Armies 2nd ed cover small.jpg
Unknown Armies 2nd edition cover
Designer(s)John Scott Tynes, Greg Stolze
Publisher(s)Atlas Games
Publication date1998
Genre(s)Urban fantasy, postmodern magic, horror

Unknown Armies (abbreviated UA), subtitled "A roleplaying game of power and consequences", is an occult-themed roleplaying game by John Scott Tynes and Greg Stolze and published by Atlas Games. The first edition was paperbound and published in 1998 (with the original subtitle of "A roleplaying game of transcendental horror and furious action"); the revised and expanded 2nd edition was published in a hardbound format in 2002 (with a second printing in 2004 and a third printing in 2007).

Greg Stolze announced that writing and arrangements for the revised 3rd edition were underway as of September 2014.[1] After a successful Kickstarter fundraising campaign, the new edition of the game was released in early 2017 as a three-volume "Deluxe Set" including a wrap-around game-master's screen. A .pdf version is also available from Warehouse 23, and two additional volumes have also been announced.[2]

The game is set in a modern-day "occult underground," populated by loose networks of shadowy cabals and practitioners of magic. The style and setting of the game draw on a number of influences, including the fantasy novels of Tim Powers, the crime novels of James Ellroy, the films of David Lynch, the Illuminatus! Trilogy, and comic books such as Grant Morrison's The Invisibles. The game creates an extensive postmodern mythology of everyday weirdness and magic that lurks in the shadows of the mind.

Several supplements and adventure collections were released for the first and second editions of Unknown Armies:

  • One Shots: Five Stand-Alone Scenarios
  • Lawyers, Guns, and Money: The New Inquisition Sourcebook
  • Postmodern Magick: The Unnatural Sourcebook (usually abbreviated PoMoMa)
  • Statosphere: The Invisible Clergy Sourcebook
  • Hush, Hush: The Sleepers Sourcebook
  • Weep: Six Scenarios of Woe and Ruin
  • To Go: The Occult Roadtrip Campaign
  • Break Today: The Mak Attax Sourcebook
  • Thin Black Line: The Order of St. Cecil Sourcebook (free download)
  • The Ascension of the Magdalene

A licensed edition of Unknown Armies in German has been released in September, 2005, by Vortex Verlag under the SighPress Label. The German edition is hardbound, 440 pages, complete as the original, and also includes some additional information about weapon laws in German – to make it easier to use Germany as an alternative setting – as well as new artwork and layout from European artists and designers.


Unknown Armies uses a percentile dice system where checks are made by rolling two 10-sided dice, with one representing the "tens" and the other representing the "singles" digit (d100 for short). Players aim to roll under their appropriate skill in order to pass their skill test. However, it is unlike standard systems in that the higher the roll obtained the better the result (while still keeping under the skill level).

Players can start off as mundanes, Avatars, or Adepts. The benefit of the latter two is that one finds themselves in tune with some mystic force, and are most likely clued in to the Occult Underground. An Avatar is a person that channels an "Archetype", a powerful and universal role in culture. Examples include the mystic hermaphrodite, the hunter, and the demagogue. Adepts have spells related to certain obsessions, and must power themselves with related activities. However, playing mundanes also has its advantages as one can spend their points on aspects other than an Avatar's or Adept's power.

Each character's statistics are split into 4 main categories:

  • Body – deals with main physical skills
  • Speed – deals with dexterity based skills
  • Mind – deals with mental skills
  • Soul – deals with personality and "spiritual" based skills

The system is considered flexible in that players can choose their own skills.

Each player's character also starts off with an obsession (something the character is passionate about) and assigns a relevant skill. (For example, an obsessive stamp collector will most likely have the appraise skill as an obsessive skill.)

The system also introduces the concept of flip-flopping, where players who are using their obsession skill can choose to switch the "tens" and "singles" of their dice rolls (for example, turning 74 into 47.)

There are also 5 madness meters, which help catalogue your character's sanity:

  • Violence – Represents your character's reaction to violent acts
  • Unnatural – Represents your character's reaction to the unnatural
  • Helplessness – Represents your character's reaction in helpless situations
  • Isolation – Represents your character's reaction in periods of isolation/loneliness
  • Self – Represents your character's ability to deal with issues relating to identity

The madness meter is considered one of the best game-mechanics for handling the issue of a PC's sanity[3] in a game of literally mind-destroying horror. They reappear in the NEMESIS RPG, albeit without the Isolation meter.


The reviewer from the online second volume of Pyramid stated that "Picture a world built of the magical illumination of Tim Powers and the gritty, brutal action of James Ellroy. Picture it filmed by an alchemical blend of John Woo and Quentin Tarantino. Add a hard-charging Steve Earle/Nick Cave soundtrack, and watch the movie in the rattiest, creepiest theater you can think of in the baddest part of town. Multiply all that by eleven, and you'll be close to Unknown Armies."[4]

Kenneth Hite states that "Unknown Armies tells us that the only reality is what human beings choose to make of it, and frightens us with the thought that only insane people care enough to really change it. But for all that, it remains a game of alchemical optimism at its heart — from madmen and loners on the margins of society, a better world can come. If they want it enough to fight all the other madmen and loners to the death, and risk losing the rest of themselves, that is."[5]


  1. ^ Stolze, Greg (September 3, 2014). "Greg Stolze's Twitter". 'Twitter.com'. Retrieved October 9, 2014.
  2. ^ http://www.atlas-games.com/unknownarmies/
  3. ^ "Mad as a Hatter" by Eric Brennan, on RPG.net
  4. ^ "Pyramid: Pyramid Pick: Unknown Armies". Sjgames.com. January 29, 1999. Retrieved 2020-05-06.
  5. ^ Hite, Kenneth (2007). "Unknown Armies". In Lowder, James (ed.). Hobby Games: The 100 Best. Green Ronin Publishing. pp. 338–340. ISBN 978-1-932442-96-0.

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