• Michael T. Christensen

Unknown Armies

Last time, I discussed a few of the systems my group has run campaigns in, namely "Necessary Evil" and "Warhammer 40K." This week, I'm going to focus on the setting we spent all of 2013 playing: "Unknown Armies."


I have a really hard time explaining what exactly "Unknown Armies" is, but it's basically like Twin Peaks, X-Files, Lost and Lovecraft all smashed together and dialed up to eleven. In the fashion of Neil Gaiman, the game is set in an "occult underground" of just the weirdest possible magical crap.


For example, our party included a character that could gain magic powers the more he cut on himself and carved up his flesh - and would lose his powers if anyone healed him. We also had an Arrow-style billionaire/vigilante, an alcoholic stage magician, an Indiana Jones-esque archeologist, and a leather jacket-wearing, motorcycle-riding priest-turned-monster hunter (that was one of my characters), among others.


The best character, however, was Russell's character. He was a "Fool," which in Unknown Armies terms means that he was basically Forrest Gump, but magic. He was basically gullible, in that he had this sort of blind trust and believed anything he was told. He also, basically, had the magic power to be anywhere he needed to be - which is to say, if our plane was crashing, he would excuse himself and go to the bathroom, and then just be somewhere else, like in a mall in Vegas.



Okay, honestly, I'm not sure that's how the power was supposed to work, but that's how it worked in our game.


The truth is, for a long time, I've never really been able to explain the tone of this game to people who haven't played it. It's not exactly X-Files, because it's MUCH weirder. It's not exactly Lovecraftian, because it's much more eclectic/random. I had a hard time putting this post together for exactly that reason.


Then, a few years ago, I listened to the audiobook for John Dies at the End, and that's probably the closest I can come to accurately describing this game.



For those who may not know the book, or have not seen the film adaptation, I'll provide a bit of context - in the story, a bunch of slackers take a magic drug called "soy sauce" and things get REALLY DAMN WEIRD.



And those images are just the weirdness that made it into the movie's budget - try to imagine, if you can, just how weird that book is. Spoiler alert: You can't. It's super weird.


But it's also a closer example of the tone of “Unknown Armies” than anything else I've run across - you’re presented with a world where apparently ordinary individuals have extraordinary powers, monsters exist somewhere between reality and the shadows in your minds and can still absolutely hurt you, and the will of the universe can be manipulated as long as there's enough drugs in your system. But John Dies is still not a perfect match, because “Unknown Armies” is thoroughly unlike anything else I've seen.



Discussion Question: Today I mentioned that we might have been cheating when we played the “Fool” character. And by “might have been,” I mean I’m almost 100% certain we were playing that character wrong. What are some examples you have of playing a character/class "wrong"? Maybe you were making that character weaker than they should have been, or (in the case of our Unknown Armies game) did your mistake make them ridiculously overpowered? How did you figure out the error? And lastly - and this is the kicker - did you change it to be “correct”? Or did your group agree to just keep playing the character the same way you had been? Sound off in the comments below!




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