Running Unknown Armies like Apocalypse World

I’ve got Unknown Armies on the brain right now, and several months ago I said I use concepts and methods from Apocalypse World for it. Shortly after I started playing AW, I clicked on how its gritty, hard-fought choices fell in line with how I loved UA. After some early attempts, I ditched my work at hacking AW’s system to do UA, and went the other way: take parts of the Apocalypse World ethos and port them into Unknown Armies’s mechanics.

There are three things that I do:

  • Understand that I, as the GM, have agendas and principles for Unknown Armies.
  • Focus the language of the game on the action (in AW parlance, the “move”) and not the skill being used.
  • Make UA’s strong and weak successes feel like AW’s strong and weak hits.

Agendas and Principles

The last page of the playbooks and MC handouts for Apocalypse World lists the agendas and principles for the person running the game.


  • Make Apocalypse World seem real.
  • Make the players’ characters’ lives not boring.
  • Play to find out what happens.


  • Barf forth apocalyptica.
  • Address yourself to the characters, not the players.
  • Make your move, but misdirect.
  • Make your move, but never speak its name.
  • Look through crosshairs.
  • Name everyone, make everyone human.
  • Ask provocative questions and build on the answers.
  • Respond with fuckery and intermittent rewards.
  • Be a fan of the players’ characters.
  • Think offscreen too.
  • Sometimes, disclaim decision-making

Most of these work as a baseline for a host of games, including how I run Unknown Armies. Specific to UA, I have two more agenda and four more principles:

Ryan’s UA Agendas

  • “Make the characters need the fork.” (The old tagline for UA was “When this many people are hungry for power, you better be the one with the fork.”)
  • Make everyone, including you, just a little unnerved at the dark humanocentrism.

Ryan’s UA Principles

  • Offer horrific bargains and power.
  • Reward hubris at times.
  • Punish hubris at times.
  • Portray the world as unkind.

Focus the Language

This is simple: when people say “I’m using X skill,” get them out of that language and into describing what they do rather than what mechanic they use. It’s small, but the difference is important. “I’m going to punch that dude” is at least marginally better than “I’m going to use Struggle.”

Many play experiences could benefit from this minor shift.

UA-Style Successes & Moves

There are three types of skill checks in UA: minor, significant, and major. You can  read the rules synopsys on page 7 of this PDF.

Caveat: I haven’t played with some of these ideas in a couple years, and others are ones I’ve been chewing on for a bit but haven’t actually tested.

Minor: I’ll toss this rule out, more or less, while adhering to what I see as the principles of the idea: if there is no real conflict or struggle, then the truth of the character holds in that moment. If there’s conflict or struggle, it’s not a minor check.

Significant: Most of the non-combat stuff for my UA-AW blend lives here, and I look at the moves list from AW as the start of my resolution interpretation, using the UA idea of strong and weak success as an AW strong or weak hit. Was someone effectively trying to Read a Sitch? They get hold, they can ask questions, etc. Anything that gives +1 or -1 forward is a +10 or -10 shift.

However, you have to fiddle a little to make it work. AW assumes a single, player-only roll, and UA often assumes two competing rolls. To meld the two: significant checks against NPCs only require the player to roll, but the NPC’s skill as input:

  • Apply a -10 shift to the PC for every 10 points higher that the NPC’s skill is compared to the PC’s. It’s over by 5? No shift. By 15? -10 shift. Keep it to tens.
  • Conversely, apply a +10 shift to the PC for every 10 points higher her skill is over the NPC’s.

When applying shifts, the positive shift pushes the stat up, but not the skill. The negative shift pushes the skill down, but not the stat. It’s math I’ve been playing with to change the odds between weak and strong, rather than having the weak threshold always be the same amount over the strong one. You could take or leave that, but shifting both thresholds by the same amount doesn’t fire me up as much.

Because of this weird math rule, only take the highest positive or lowest negative shift. No accumulation. If you have a positive and negative, combine them before applying the math.[1]

Update (16-May-14): Now that I think about it, I would also consider a Fate-style success at a cost in failures, to help combat the whiff factor. The trick is how that’s different from a weak hit, and I’m not sure how I would pull that off in a consistent manner yet.

Major: If the check in question is combat of some form or another, or it’s PC-on-PC action, then I’ll stick with the major check rules, with a minor tweak: if both sides fail, whichever one fails the least gets a minor Fate-style boost on the other, which is good for a single +10 shift. (Maybe just +5.)

The reason I do this is because the actual numbers on the dice are crucial to how UA combat works, I like a lot of what that system does, and I don’t want to build a replacement. That, and it’s easy to just lean on the competitive system for PvP roles. I only half-like how AW handles that.

For actions that would normally be major checks in UA, but is neither combat or PvP, then I’ll use the significant check rules above.

Cherries and Crits: Those are game changes, and I more or less respect the rules and their intent. Which means either I just go with the rules as written in UA, or I modify them on the fly to adhere to the spirit and the situation.


Anyway, that’s it for this. I’m hoping to take UA for a spin again soon — it’s been too long.

– Ryan

[1] In writing this, I realize that it sounds complicated, but in execution it feels natural to me. If I were to write this as a mechanic for a game, I would first hire a good developmental editor. :D


One Response to Running Unknown Armies like Apocalypse World

  1. Colin says:

    > “Reward hubris at times. Punish hubris at times.”

    “Drugs are a punishment, and drugs are a reward.” Hmm…