Why Play (and back): Unknown Armies

First, a note – the game I am about to talk about contains a trigger warning in its own pages; it’s a game that deals in the darkness that can arise in the human spirit, and as such you should be warned that the content may not be for you. While I won’t discuss any of it directly, it’s in the books.

Today, I’m going to talk about a game that I never got to even read, despite wanting to, and the chance that has now arisen for all of us to pick it up and have a go with one of the more peculiar RPGs I’ve ever heard of. Unknown Armies, last time it existed, was the kind of niche game that got a cult following but was almost unheard of outside of that group. By the time I learned about it, it was already out of print, and the one copy of a book for it that I saw I couldn’t afford at the time. When I went back for it, someone else had bought it.

I’ve contented myself with the idea of tracking down badly scanned PDFs of it eventually, when I find the urge to thoroughly de-virus them, but it turns out that I won’t have to do it. There is, right now, an Unknown Armies Third Edition Kickstarter that, if you like alternate-now urban fantasy games, you should go pick up. You should also go pick it up if you like things that are creepy, occult, conspiratorial, or just weird.

So what is Unknown Armies, and why should you care? It self-described, in the perfectly designed elevator pitch, as an occult game about broken people conspiring to fix the world. While elegant and perfect for those dead-center in the target demographic, others probably need a bit more, so let’s dig in.

It’s a character-oriented game; players set a collective goal to chase after, with the GM doing their usual task of representing the world and opposition; in this case, the world and opposition are the antagonistic people and entrenched deep-rooted inertia that keeps the world from being changed the way the players want it to be. Unlike heroic fantasy, the players here don’t want to save the world from a dark and terrible god or a fell necromancer; they want the same thing many of us want. A fair chance, redemption for what they’ve done wrong in life, or a bigger piece of the pie being hoarded by the people at the top of the pyramid.

Unlike most games, where the characters come first and then someone (all too often the GM) comes up with a reason for those characters to faff about together, UA is all about the group and goal first; the group as a whole comes up with an objective, and the GM builds the game around that goal. This is a different approach than usual, and I already like it; it offloads some of the responsibility from the GM onto the players for making sure everyone will enjoy the game, and ties in with some of my previous advice about getting players invested in your games.

After that, the game revolves around chasing that goal, making hard decisions about that chase, and perhaps failing dramatically or settling for smaller victories; instead of finding the hidden ruler of some powerful group, you kept innocent people from being sacrificed in a ritual and that’s good enough. Or maybe the failures overwhelm your group and it crashes and burns tragically; this is an acceptable outcome, if people come out of it having had fun and satisfied with the story told.

You’re not really stuck with the initial objective, even though it should be something the entire group agrees on; maybe your goal was to take out a local crime lord who maintains his power through some nasty occult rituals, and it turns out the person who’ll be taking over is a lot nastier in almost every way so you’d rather stop that one before they get their power base really going. Or maybe you just wanted to buy out and take over that cheesy psychic bookstore that you keep walking by, and you pull it off and discover it’s just one of a series of cheesy psychic bookstores that steal dreams and sell them as a drug, so you step up and take aim at all of them.

An interesting thing, too, is that the one player who always likes to play the cool and aloof loner who exists entirely detached from the world won’t have much luck making that character in UA; every single character has three passions (something they fear, something that causes them rage, and something that they’d nobly sacrifice for) and an obsession. A good way of putting it is that these characters have feelings, and those feelings matter in the game. The GM will know each of these things, and certainly put them into play, so you’re best off making sure those passions and obsessions are interesting to work with.

This all lies on top of the game world itself; at the surface, it’s the world we all know; even more so than most urban fantasy games, which make polite harrumphing sounds to cover up things like “How the hell would no one notice an immortal vampire holding court every night?” UA cheerfully acknowledges the world we know, and then pulls it back to show a hidden side full of the occult wonderland – and here I mean in the original Lewis Carroll sense of something that is the stuff of madness and nightmare – where the familiar rules just don’t apply like we feel they should.

It’s distilled Everything You Think You Know Is A Lie, and most of the time games splash a bit on as a delicate perfume, hinting at it and being coy. UA, however, pours it over you like a sadistic friend “helping” you with the ALS ice bucket challenge. The world is stranger than you imagine, and now you have to go deal with all that strange, wonderful, terrifying weirdness to get things done like you need it to be done.

And that is exactly why I think people should go back this Kickstarter and play some Unknown Armies. This is the game that scratches the itch for all the people who like psych horror and deep weirdness mingled together. It exists specifically to sate that need, scratch that itch. It is the ability to replicate games like F.E.A.R. on the tabletop, and to have a modernized Mythos without all the baggage and unfortunate built-in racism of Call of Cthulhu (unless that’s something you include in the story being told).

So head on over to the Kickstarter and back them; and if you have a spare buck monthly, I also have a Patreon that would appreciate it.


Why Play (and back): Unknown Armies

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