Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Five or So Questions with Greg Stolze on Unknown Armies Third Edition

I have been lucky enough today to have an interview with Greg Stolze! Greg, by Cam Banks' own words, is "the lead designer and writer of UA3 and co-creator of Unknown Armies since the dawn of gaming history. He's also the charming gent in the KS video." (I liked this description, so I stole it.) Greg answered some of my questions about the third edition of the well-known occult tabletop game, Unknown Armies. A little background from me about Unknown Armies: I have heard of the game hundreds of times, but never once looked it up. The Kickstarter popped up, and I clicked on it - and I actually watched the video!* - and I'm totally hooked. Hopefully I get the chance to play someday! In the meantime, let's see what Greg had to say!

Tell me a little about Unknown Armies Third Edition. What excites you about it?

I think that the setting represents the feel of 2016 a lot better than UA2 did, and I hope that the revised rules incorporate more of what gaming, collectively, has moved towards in that time. Specifically, I think we’ve finally nailed down the issue of “It’s a neat setting, but what do you DO with it?” In UA2, we said “Whatever you want! Make up a plot framework that works for you and go from there.”

That worked for some groups, but with UA3 we backstop that a lot harder for everyone else. Instead of a pure sandbox (which is good for improvising GMs, less good for pre-planning GMs), we give you a sandbox in which the players themselves lay the rails. That way the GM knows where things are heading and can build ahead with some confidence that the PCs aren’t going to lose interest or get distracted. At the same time, we help GMs pace their duties—when do I want to be the PCs worst enemy (‘cause it’s a horror game) and when do I want to be the players’ biggest fan (‘cause it’s a collaborative story activity)? This can be confusing, and we’ve attempted to make it more clear.

I’m also excited that we were able to get some new voices into the setting. I always said I didn’t want to write something new for UA just to keep the pot stirred, but it took me a while to realized that getting help from other writers would be the easiest and best way to find new perspectives on it.

Could you share an example or two of rules that you are revising from UA2 to UA3 and what thought process went into those changes?

I think two obvious things are (1) eradicating the stats that were in the first versions — Body, Speed, Mind and Soul — and (2) including rules for building your own adeptery school.

Taking out the stats was part of a streamlining effort. When people told me about their UA characters, the things that they always talked about were their Do-It-Yourself Skills (renamed in UA3 as “Identities,” and now a little broader than Skills were in the previous editions) and how crazy their guy was. So I decided that, since no one’s bragging about their maxed out Mind score, it would make more sense upgrade the old Madness Meter into the newfangled Shock Gauge. As the Shock Gauge, it not only measures how vulnerable or tough you are in response to different mental strains, but also abilities that gauge how well you’ve adapted to the challenges you’ve faced. For example, if you’ve absorbed a lot of hits to your Unnatural gauge, your ability to hide from things is a bit better than the average person (because most Unnatural stuff, alas, makes people want to put their head under the covers). At the same time though, the character’s ability to notice things diminishes, because the other effect of seeing lots of crazy weird magick is that you start to doubt your perceptions.

As for building your own adept magick, I thought that would be something the fans would love to play around with, and it would be useful for freelancers. Originally, the costs for different effects were pretty much based around my gut feeling (or the instincts of whomever was writing it), so I just codified it to make the guidance clearer. If getting a charge is really hard and your taboo is really strict, then spells don’t cost many charges. If charging up is simple and your taboo isn’t that bad, then spells are far more expensive. Play balance is always something of a moving target, but at least this time we’ve got a better scope on it.

What elements of the setting & setting development are you really excited to see players and GMs get their hands on?

I’m pretty stoked with the way the Sleepers changed. Instead of a monolithic, top-down conspiracy of magick-hogs, you get something like a radicalized Alcoholics Anonymous, only for enchantment. These are not optimistic people who want to be top dog any more. These are folks who have been burned badly and don’t want to let anyone else make their same mistakes. From the outside, this can look abusive and controlling, but if a bad-acting adept is rampaging around, the new Sleepers are the group that aren’t going to consider recruiting and containing her (like TNI would) and they’re not going to dither about morals (the way Mak Attax might). They’re just going to clear their schedules and pull on their stomping boots.

What were some of the challenges you've encountered taking a game with a history and a pretty secure place in people's minds and upgrading it in the ways you've mentioned, without the risk of losing the original concepts?

There are always people who want it to be “the same, but different.” And that’s not out of line! If I bought a game called “Vampire: the Requiem” and it wasn’t about vampires, I’d be pretty hacked off. But the balance between sameness and difference can be tricky to place and, no matter what you pick, someone’s going to wish you’d done it differently. For example, some fans have said, “Why did you take out mechanomancy, epideromancy, and our beloved dipsomancy?” But if I’d just revamped those schools, I’m certain that other fans would have said “Why are you just redoing stuff that’s already on our shelves? Where’s the new stuff?”

It can feel a little like people are saying “Why can’t you surprise me again, exactly the same way you did last time?” but, well, that’s not the way surprises work. Plus, it’s not exactly difficult to get one’s hands on the old material.

Where are you pulling inspiration from, if anywhere, mechanically, in theory, and in fiction or setting? 

I’m not sure if it’s a mechanical inspiration exactly, but I did look long and hard at Apocalypse World and the way it takes “GMing” — something I’d always just kind of pantsed my way through, based on instincts forged in the fires of a thousand pulp novels — and breaks it into a series of steps or tasks. The GM book has a lot of that: “When you are running the game, you need to do A, B and C, and the time to do C is not when you’re at the table in the middle of things.” A is pacing, B is rules handling, and C is generating antagonism. I’m very pleased with how it worked out to explicitly tell myself, when I was running my test game of UA3, that in-between sessions was “antagonism time” when I could look at each character and think “What is the worst thing I could throw at this one? What’s most likely to distract him or her from their goals?” But once we were in the middle of the session, I put away that mindset and switched to “How can I make this session, right now, the most fun for these players?”

The GM has always had to have this split consciousness, being in character as the PCs’ worst enemies while at the same time maintaining the setting and trying to keep the plot moving forward. The stories about antagonistic GMs who pull the classic “Rocks fall, everyone dies!” at the slightest deviation from their pre-planned plot is a symptom of a GM who has gotten these two jobs confused and is using the tool of moderating the session in service of pushing against the characters’ agenda. In UA3, it explicitly helps keep those jobs divided.

Thank you so much to Greg for answering my questions! This was a really interesting interview, and I'm excited to see and hear more about Unknown Armies Third Edition. Make sure to check out the Kickstarter and learn more about the game!

*I am a notorious non-video-watcher. I'll read transcripts, but I'm easily distracted by videos longer than a minute or so, which means I normally skip KS videos except the projects I'm working on (like Ryan Macklin's Katana's & Trenchcoats, the subject of the Five or So interview Monday). The Unknown Armies video is badass, though, so I paid attention.

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