Monday, December 14, 2009

Unknown Armies

There comes a time when you’re being attacked by delusional porn actresses, McDonald’s employees are doping your food with spells, you can’t attack the bad guy without throwing a wad of twenty dollar bills at him first, and you’re desperately mooning the cops outside your window to get more magic power that you may stop and think “How the hell did I get here?”

You’re playing Unknown Armies, that’s how you got there. As possibly the best roleplaying game ever written, it brings out the best and the worst in players by throwing them in terrifying situations that require them to resort to absolute insanity to get out of.

Imagine a world very much like our own except that a few weird people are keeping quiet about their ability to do strange things. That kid who can’t miss a single episode of Law and Order, that old drunk who has no intention of ever becoming sober, that girl who keeps a life-size statue of Elvis in her room to which she sacrifices CDs on a daily basis.

They’re crazy, sure. But they’re so dedicated to their brand of crazy that the universe lets them slide a little. Soon enough, they can channel the power of their obsession, save the day and rewrite the world. Unless they miss an episode of Law and Order, in which case they’re screwed.

In Unknown Armies, magic (or “magick”- yeah, I’m not crazy about the k either) comes from complete belief in something, whether it’s pointless risk-taking, the collection of rare books, or even just getting high. You can also trick the universe a little by acting out an archetype it likes (The True King, The Mother, The Masterless Man.) There’s no cosmic being that wasn’t created by humanity, no power created by anyone other than us. Or, as the book likes to say, “You did it!”

It’s not heavy on rules (they use the roll-under mechanic and have pretty simple sanity checks), but the rulebook is heavy on stories. Characters and groups to interact with, backstories aplenty, and (my favorite) rumors and conspiracy theories that probably aren’t true (there’s a town that makes you act out Shakespeare plays...pop music contains secret government broadcasts...Jim Morrison is alive and well and worshiping himself...)

The books are entertaining, the art is beautiful, and the tone is always entertaining. There are things I could quibble about (the damage system is odd, and I’m still not sure how I feel about the modern incarnation of the eternal Goddess being a porn star), but why should I? Playing or even reading Unknown Armies is possibly the best gaming experience I’ve had in a long time.

If you like roleplaying games that require more of you than killing things and stealing their stuff, check out Unknown Armies (Or, as it’s nicknamed, Cosmic Bumfights. Or Quentin Tarantino’s Call of Cthulhu.) If nothing else, it’ll reassure you that you’re not the only one to care about catching every episode of your show.

1 comment:

  1. I've had Unknown Armies on my shelf for years and have yet to play it. It's one of the few RPGs I've held on to that I haven't played at some point. It will happen. Oh yes, it will happen. Repo Man will be my touchstone of inspiration.

    As for the Goddess being a porn star, I look at it as just another version of Ishtar and her temple-prostitutes. Just taking things waaay old school, that's all.