Designing Cosmic Archetypes for Beginners
Want to make your own avatar class? Here's some help.
Before I begin, I want to offer my deepest apologies to John Tynes, Greg Stolzye, and everyone else who was ever actually involved in the publication of the Unknown Armies books, because I am about to take their writing, warp it through my own interpretation, and then try to sell it to their customer base. Be warned that I am only a humble player, not a game designer, and my advice should be taken as such.
Going through this site, I’ve seen a lot of Avatar classes that, frankly, don’t seem like they’re based on something that’s really an Archetype. Besides the ones that were probably written as jokes, some of them just don’t have that special something that makes for a good cosmic superbeing. This guide is meant to help you design your own avatars/archetypes, and do so intelligently and with care.
Step 1: The Basic Idea
The first step is to think about what your archetype is. Don’t worry about narrative or gameplay details now; just imagine a fragment of the human condition, given human form and possibly an illustration by Rick Neal. Got it? Good. Now, get ready to adjust it and/or scrap the whole thing and start over.
Before you get into the rigmarole of taboos and channels, or even pick out a name, there are four basic criteria that you should try to make sure your archetype meets.
A. Archetypes are based on simple and un-nuanced concepts of what human beings do, or can be. See if you can break down your concept for the archetype into one sentence (e.g. “The Warrior represents an uncompromising opposition to something”). If you can’t do that, chances are that whatever your Archetype is isn’t fundamental enough.
Step 2: Narrative stuff - Name, Symbology, Masks, Behavior, Taboo
B. Archetypes are broad. Following up on A, try to think of all the different ways a person could follow in the path of an archetype (Check out the Warrior again; since the Warrior is defined by his enemies, there are as many kinds of Warriors as there are things to fight). If you can’t come up with at least five similar-but-mostly-unrelated people who are all avatars of your Archetype, then its focus may be too narrow. Keep in mind that many people, doing what people do, can wind up following the path of an Avatar purely by accident; make sure yours allows that possibility.
C. Archetypes are universal. UA tends to be somewhat USA-centric, admittedly, but that doesn’t mean all the Invisible Clergy have to be. Check and see if your Archetype exists across multiple cultures throughout the world. One way to do this (which might save you time later) is to start looking for Masks. If you can find deity figures or people from the folklore of many distinct countries that are not geographical neighbors, chances are pretty good you’ve got a winner (Take a gander at the Fool. Almost every society has a few folktales about that one guy who acted like a moron but still managed to survive and/or become fabulously wealthy through luck. Good character and determination too, but mostly luck). If you can get stories about your archetype from many different time periods as well, that’s even better; Archetypes are no more timeless than human ideas, but it’s nice to have one with a long pedigree.
D. Archetypes are human. You might think this is a no-brainer, but I felt it necessary to add since it’s conceivable that you managed to get your Archetype of “The Dragon” all the way through C because no one told you to stop. If so, stop now. Unknown Armies might be the most human-centric setting ever made for a roleplaying game. The entire concept of the World of Our Desires rests on the assumption that humankind has the ultimate power to shape reality. Animals in this setting don’t even have souls, let alone the capacity to do magick. Every magickal creature in the rulebooks has a human origin. What does all this mean? It means that every ascended Archetype was once a human, only humans can ascend, and all Archetypes are based around human ideas. Non-human creatures cannot have cosmic power, even if they’re anthropomorphic. If you do ignore this rule, keep in mind that the possibility of non-human Archetypes has some very, very far-reaching implications for the cosmos.
If your concept for an archetype survived the purgative fires of step 1, now it’s time to choose a name. In a setting as symbolism-heavy as UA’s, names are quite important. A good name should be just descriptive enough to give the reader an idea of what the archetype is without being so specific that it misrepresents the archetypal concept. Consider the example of the Two-Faced Man, whose concept is (roughly) “The Two-Faced Man pretends to be one thing while actually being another, with intent to betray.” Now, hypothetically, the Two-Faced Man might be called “The Traitor,” but not all Two-Faced Men betray the side they claim to support… at least not in any visible, obvious way… and not all traitors will worm their way into your confidence before stabbing you in the back. When in doubt, err on the side of vagueness, because you can never have too much cryptic mysticism in Unknown Armies. Also, if you can, try to make the name sound cool: the MVP might be more descriptively called “The Sports Hero,” but that just doesn’t have the same ring.
If you did a good job picking out your archetype, finding Symbols should be mostly a matter of thought association. That’s one of the neat things about having gods which are derived from human culture. Without looking at the book, think about all the things you associate with an Executioner. Done? Okay, now look at the book. Odds are pretty good that at least some of what you came up with are also Executioner symbols. For your own archetype, follow the same process, and try to pick out the most universally recognizable symbols you’ve got (Symbols of the Healer: everyone knows what a doctor’s lab coat is, and many will know the Rod of Asclepius by sight, but would you recognize a laparoscope on sight, or even know what one is without looking it up?). Shoot for 5-12 symbols; any more than that is overkill.
Next up is Masks. You may already have these done from part 1c, but if you don’t, worry not. The best Masks come from religion/mythology; those tend to be the oldest, and most universally recognized. When that fails, folklore makes a good substitute if it’s ubiquitous enough. Try to avoid using pop-culture figures if possible; sometimes they work (if there’s a substantial mythos built around them, like with Elvis), but for the most part pop-culture is fleeting, and eventually sinks into the mire of newer pop culture. A good mask for an archetype does not have to be a perfect match to the Archetype; Hermes is a mask for the Trickster, but that doesn’t mean tricking people was all he ever did. As long as your would-be Mask has a few good stories that strongly tie them to the Archetype, then they’re qualified.
You’re not required to define what is normal behavior for an avatar of your Archetype, but it does help. After all, in order to become an avatar, you need to act like one. If you’ve still got that list of people from 1a, try to imagine how they’d act in their everyday lives, and what habits they’d have in common. Otherwise, just try to think about what an avatar of your archetype is like when they’re “off-duty,” i.e. not adventuring or magicking.
Finally, you have the taboo. This part is important because it’s a major gameplay element, and not mere fluff. That said, for most avatars it’s easy to imagine a taboo: just try to think about whatever would be most antithetical to the Archetypal concept (The Warrior can’t make peace. The Fool can’t be smart. The Flying Woman can’t let herself be chained down by social expectations). The tricky part is making your taboo such that it really does hamper your player’s freedom of action. If the taboo prevents them from doing something that they would never do voluntarily anyway (e.g. The Peacemaker can’t be violent, and some players won’t want violence either), that’s alright, but a strong taboo should be something that funnels the player’s character down the path of their avatar. Keep in mind whether you want your Archetype to be player-friendly or not (The Chronicler, for instance, is a great Archetype but a terrible choice for a player because their taboo is “interfering with events”; a Chronicler character’s taboo effectively prevents them from actually participating in the game, except to watch), and design the taboo accordingly.
Step 3: Channels
Aww, yeah. Supahpowahs! The part we’ve all been waiting for! I want the fourth channel to be the ability to call down lightning strikes at will! …except not. This is Unknown Armies, not D&D or Exalted. Making good Avatar channels is tricky, because for the most part they have to be relatively subtle, and ought to meet three basic criteria:
a. They make sense, symbolically/narratively. Probably the best litmus test for this is to write out your channel, run it through your mind, and ask: “Is this something I associate with the Archetype?” (The Fool’s powers revolve around avoiding harm via luck because… Well… that’s what Fools do. It’s in all the stories).
b. They’re focused. If someone had built a character entirely around a specific Avatar skill, that character would probably be good at a few things related to the Archetype, and only those things; the channels should reflect that. A Trickster’s channels are all about lies and deception; it does not and should not have any channels that make the Trickster better at fighting, or distance-running, or carpentry, even if you could hypothetically give such channels a symbolic/narrative justification.
c. They don’t override each other. Ideally, all of an Avatar’s channels should be useful to them, no matter how many channels they have unlocked. If the fourth channel power makes the first channel power pointless, change one of the channels.
And now, the channels:
First Channel: 1%-50%
- For your average guy on the street that happened to follow a particular pattern of behavior long enough to become an Avatar of something, this is their shtick. A first-channel power should be something that you could just as easily have a separate skill for; a knack, a quirk, an unusual but useful character trait or talent that sets a person a little bit apart from the norm without being clearly magickal. Your litmus test for this one is whether or not the user is likely to be consciously aware that they have magick power. For instance, the Rebel’s first channel is the ability to make persuasive warnings about his Cause; to anyone observing, or to the Rebel himself, it might just look like he’s a good speaker. If there’s no clear explanation besides “magick” for this tier, then maybe you want to shift your idea up a channel or two.
Second Channel: 51%-70%
- Someone who builds a career about whatever pattern of behavior got them their first channel (e.g. an avatar of the Judge who is actually a judge in a federal court) will probably get this channel eventually. This one, too, needs to be something that’s within the realm of statistically feasible possibilities for a human talent, although it can be an extraordinary talent. The Scholar’s “remember everything you’ve ever read and quote it verbatim” ability is a good example; sure, it’s one hell of a trick, but it’s still something that a non-magickal, sufficiently well-trained and obsessive person might be able to do. (Just to forestall anyone who mentions that this is the channel where the Flying Woman starts flying… Let me just point out the she doesn’t fly far, or fast, or for very long. Observers may speculate that it’s something she’s doing with wires…)
Third Channel: 71%-90%
- NOW we get to the clearly-supernatural stuff. True to UA, this power doesn’t need to be anything visually flashy, but it should be more than enough to defy logical reasoning, and make people who are studying you wonder how what you’re doing is possible. This is the level where the Masterless Man cannot be killed in battle, the Merchant can summon demons at will, and the Messenger can start doing divinations. If a character has reached this point, they are almost certainly aware that their powers are extraordinary, although they may not know the source.
Fourth Channel: 91%+
- If this channel is not blatantly unnatural, you’re handicapping anyone who invested so many points to get it. It should be an extraordinarily powerful expression of the Archetype’s concept, or a powerful aid to the Avatar’s divinely-inspired purpose. The last channel, once again, does not need to be anything visually flashy, but it certainly helps; this is the channel where the Warrior becomes invulnerable to attack from his chosen enemies, the True King’s Realm can attack people, and the Pilgrim can start teleporting through doors. Only the most oblivious (or fanatically blinkered) of people will not realize they’ve got magick by the time they’ve hit the fourth channel.
This can be virtually whatever you want. My recommendation is to pick some kind of specific major unnatural phenomenon that is symbolically/narratively tied to the archetype and let that be your power. It can be more specific to the Godwalker character than it is to the archetype itself. Of course, you don’t need a godwalker channel if you’re not making a godwalker.
Step 4: Wrapping Up
Before you sic your new avatar on the world, try to think about all the ways a player might try to break the game with it (trust me, some of them will try). For example, consider the Warrior channel that allows the Warrior to give party members a stat boost when they are helping him in his crusade. What do you suppose would happen if there weren’t a limit on how high that boost were? You might find a whole party full of Warriors giving each other cumulative stat boosts of 40% or more. Some of these shenanigans can be easily blocked by DM fiat, but it’s usually better if the rules themselves block any abuse. Search for loopholes to close, cracks to seal, and exploits to block.
When it’s all written out, spellcheck, grammar check, and coherence-check. Peer review is never a bad thing; let a fellow player critique your work. Maybe they’ll find something you didn’t. And once everything has been looked over and over and over again, and you’re sure all the wrinkles have been ironed out… pat yourself on the back, and publish.
YOU DID IT
semicasual | profile | May 31, 12 | 8:29 pm