Jim DelRosso on Unknown Armies

Jim, what drew you to Unknown Armies?How did you become aware of it?

The question of how I became aware of Unknown Armies is a fraught one: I had thought that I’d first heard about it from either Ben or Josh, but on consulting with them they thought they’d heard about it from either the other or from me. So it was impossible to discover how the game had actually entered our sphere of dice-rollers, which leads me to believe that perhaps the game doesn’t exist at all. Perhaps were were all members of a cabal that made a play for Ascension, lost, and got mind-scrambled by cliomancers. The concept of the Unknown Armies “game” was inserted to explain away any residual knowledge or insight about the real occult underground, and this interview will just let Stolze and Tynes know that we’re on to them.

This is what UA will do to you: you start viewing any oddity or weirdness from the real world through the lens of the game. It’s the game Jack Chick should’ve warned folks about. It’s wonderful, and it’s contagious: my wife started talking about things in UA terms, and she’s never played the game.

In fact, that element is one of the reasons why the game is so enduring for me, though no doubt the established elements of the setting and the ruleset itself hold up damned well more than a decade after the second edition came out.

As far as what drew me to the game, in addition to the enthusiasm of folks who I gamed with, I loved the humanist take on the supernatural. I loved that it was humans — even those who weren’t clued-in to the occult — who were responsible for everything good and bad and wonderful and horrific, both because it fit with my own philosophy and because it meant that the player characters were being set up from the start as folks who could literally change the world. It was a far cry from most modern or semi-modern occult horror RPGs that I’d seen at that time, in which being human usually meant a complete surrender of agency.

I loved it, and still do.

I always love watching you guys apply UA logic to news items.Do you mind fielding a few, taking a few articles and making UA bite-sized chunks out of them?

Brenda Tattoo


Poor bastard. I’m not sure if he’s actually obsessed with Brenda or not, but she’s clearly using him as a proxy… though her methodology lacks finesse. If he is obsessed with her, though, that will help.

Alternately, he’s attempting to mystically disguise himself as someone named Brenda. As soon as he’s completely covered…

HItler’s Toilet

The toilet has no inherent magickal properties: Hitler was as moribund magickally as he was in terms of empathy and art. However, it could be the object of an ugly war among the nastiest of Jersey’s dipsomancers. (Yes, dipsomancers. I said nasty, didn’t I?)

The art one is more interesting, definitely. Canonically, the Reich was associated with phobomancers, so much so that the school seems to have been wiped out at the end of the war. (Unless there was a race among the Allies to capture the phobomantic equivalent of Wernher von Braun, though I’d like to think such efforts ended when an upstanding Allied soldier risked court martial to shoot the target in the face.)

The the art collection, though, reeks of either cryptomancy or a twisted form of bibliomancy, or maybe even a (doomed) effort to Ascend as the Collector or the Artist. Maybe there were other mystical advisors in Hitler’s inner circle. Honestly, the Monument Men read like a group of PCs as-is, so I’d be tempted to do the whole thing as a period piece UA game. Maybe there’s a major ritual in the works, and the MM need to race to stop it. (I’m cribbing mercilessly from some of the hints dropped in Delta Green about occult conflict in the dying days of WWII, but only because I always thought that was cool.)


P.S. I think my greatest work in terms of drawing real world events into UA was when I replaced Alex Abel with Michael Jordan, though.

Please explain that move, switching Alex Abel with Jordan because it mystifies me. I’m not sure I get it.

Basically, Alex Abel is set up in the text to be a popular figure in the mainstream consciousness; the “reveal” that he’s running TNI is supposed to be a surprise. But it doesn’t work in a game because he doesn’t exist outside of UA’s fiction: he exists only to run TNI. Getting players to be surprised by that fact is like getting them to be surprised that billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne is actually Batman. You’d either have to try to subtly introduce him to the narrative over time, or just ask them to pretend to be amazed. Neither seems fun.

So I went looking for a different Alex Abel. Michael Jordan came to mind because as soon as I read about the MVP Archetype in the UA2 corebook, I wondered, “If this exists, how the hell did Michael Jordan not Ascend?” By stealing some of Abel’s backstory, we get an explanation… or at least a better context for the mystery. I even put together a timeline:

1990-1993: Jordan’s career is at its peak, such that a few clued-in folks begin wondering when he’ll Ascend and replace Babe Ruth* as the second MVP. A few proto-mystery cults spring up in and around Chicago, but something — perhaps the murder of his father? — prevents Jordan from Ascending.

1993: The blowback from the failed Ascension manifests in Jordan’s retirement and subsequent move to minor league baseball.

1995-1999: Recovering, Jordan returns to basketball and finds success which mirrors that of the first part of the decade… but something is missing and his frustration grows.

2000-2003: Jordan retires again. During this period his search for resolution to his frustration begins taking him down more and more esoteric paths. These paths lead him to the Washington Wizards: the team’s name and placement in a city designed on mystic principles appeal to his increasing understanding that what happened to him in 1993 was supernatural, and his increased leadership within the club provides him with the opportunity to shape it into a vehicle to reclaim what he lost. Unfortunately, they suck; whether this causes his efforts to fail or is a result of his inability to directly recapture that fleeting moment of greatness is unknown, but he abandons the effort.

2004: Capitalizing on the fact that he’s rich as fuck, Jordan founds TNI to just beat on the pinata of the occult until answers fall out. He is assisted in this effort not only by the canonical NPCs, but by his agent David Falk, who’s clearly a high-level Avatar of the Merchant and has been dedicating most of his efforts to TNI since 2007.

That’s cut-n-pasted from an email chain from 2010. Interestingly, I almost didn’t go with it after a bunch of us reached consensus that it was too comedic. But damn if it didn’t work in play.

Interesting. Thanks for writing that, because when you told me the idea of replacing Abel with Jordan, I thought it was silly too but I know it worked with the players because I talked to one of them.Jim, one thing I have seen folks saying about UA is that they are not sure what to do with it. Any advice for a new UA GM, opening the book for the first time, trying to get their players into it?

I’m trying to come up with an answer that goes beyond, “Play members of The New Inquisition (TNI).” But damn if that doesn’t cover a big part of it.

TNI is just so nice and close to other games’ narrative structure: you’re members of an organization that provides you with a little bit of back-up, and provides a vector for exposition and missions. The missions themselves tend towards a mix of dungeon crawl and investigation. Most gamers are gonna fundamentally get that, since it resonates with the roots of the hobby. But non-gamers will often get it, too: folks who’ve watched X-Files or Fringe or Angel or Supernatural will know the score… or at least enough of it to go out and get into trouble.

Which is the other great thing: there’s no assumption that TNI agents know how the world (really) works. Quite the opposite.

[Note: I kept your response in here because it was a good jumping off point.]

All of the organizationss are a good place to start: TNI, the folks who are legends and take out those who awaken the tiger but are really under-staffed and getting by on smoke and mirrors, the fast food kids. All solid ways in.

Yup. I’ll admit that TNI’s where I have my experience — two solid campaign’s worth, now — so that’s where I lean.

But to some extent, I feel like the Sleepers and Mak Attax and the Order of St. Cecil require a bit more setting buy in, and are a bit removed from that core narrative hook I was talking about. With TNI we could hit the ground running, and then I used my GM time barfing forth UA weirdness at a projectile pace. (Yeah, that’s an Apocalypse World reference. I’m not sure if I’d read AW when I ran UA last, but damn if that Principle didn’t match up with what I tried to do.)

I also wove in stuff like “Bill In Three Persons” from the core UA book and “Drink to That” from Weep. I was pretty pleased with how I worked in “Bill In Three Persons”: I wrote up their first assignment for TNI, set it in New Mexico, gave them the briefing, let them make all their pre-mission prep, and then on the drive from Chicago I had them run into the weird-ass accident that triggers the action in “Bill In Three Persons”.

Which meant they had to deal with that scenario’s weirdness, then actually get back on the road and do their real job before they could fully recover. It also set up the Comte as someone who was interested in them, but didn’t really give a shit about their well-being or TNI’s interests. Which worked well as I brought in the NPCs from “Drink to That” as part of the Occult Underground in Chicago.

TLDR version: have ’em make characters for TNI or another group with a clear narrative for scenarios, and throw UA weirdness in at every opportunity. They may or may not read the books, but if you do these two things it’s less likely that they’ll have to.

I liked the way Ben structured the game we were in together, taking it from monster-of-the-week into a more player-driven sandbox-y style of game.

Yes. I cannot overstate how much the excellent campaign run by Ben Fierce influenced my thoughts on the game, and my later experiences running it. That game was huge for me.

In the months since we started this interview, it has been announced that we can look forward to a UA reboot.

What do you want to see in a new edition?

That’s oddly one of the tougher questions you’ve asked. Let’s see…

I’d personally prefer that more of the units of times used in the mechanics were tied to the real-world table, rather than the in-universe clock. By which I mean, less “days/weeks/months” and more “scenes/sessions”. I think that would rub some folks wrong, and might be tough to work into the obsession theme of the adepts, but it’d be an improvement for me as GM. It might make downtime a bit easier to manage, too.

On a similar note, better rules for putting together NPCs. I was able to fudge stuff pretty well based on my knowledge of the game and the sample NPCs, but folks like avatars and adepts were more difficult. I may have missed it, but I couldn’t find any guidelines for how many charges an NPC adept should have, for example. I could (and did) come up with something, based on what I knew of the school, but it’d be good support to have. (And like I said: maybe it’s there and I missed it.)

One thing that I feel the second edition did well, and the third could take further, is providing campaign models. With first edition, there was definitely a “what the hell do we do” problem, and second edition gave much better guidance along those lines with its mini campaign blurbs for each level of play. It’d be nice if they took it further: select one blurb each for Street, Global, and Cosmic play. Flesh it out with a more thorough discussion of resources, potential missions, larger goals, key antagonists, etc. Not all the way to where Lawyers, Guns, and Money took TNI, but further in that direction. Expand the provided scenarios to discuss how each highlighted campaign structure would interact with them. If there’s a specific scenario type that’s strongly linked to a given campaign — e.g. investigation to TNI — give a more thorough discussion about how the rules should be used to play that out.

Focus on archetypes and adept schools that will work well at the table. Something like the MVP, for example, can work great for an NPC (see above), but giving a full write-up to something that will almost certainly not work for a PC takes space away from more gameable concepts. A short write-up of extra-weird archetypes, schools, and powers to drop onto NPCs — or hack for PCs with the right crew — would be a neat way to handle such things.

Setting-wise, I lean more towards revamping it for 2015 rather than just moving the timeline a decade and more ahead. Too much has changed, too many groups or their stories no longer resonate. Some evolution could work — Mak Attax in a word of strikes at the Scotsman is interesting to me — but others would probably just need to be scrapped, and too much of a focus on the intervening years could be a drag.

And honestly, some of the language that gets used to describe some marginalized groups sounds problematic to me now, and could use revision. Truth be told, a game that focuses on folks who find themselves marginalized into the occult underground could use more discussion of real marginalized groups, either written by (or consulted on by) actual members of those groups. It’d make the game ring even truer, and improve it.

Clearer rules for exactly what happens when a PCs Passions come into play. I remember us struggling with that a bit, and it’s a mechanic I generally love.

All that being said, I think the rules for second edition hold up pretty damned well. The fuzzy logic rules for different kinds of checks is still one of my favorite game mechanics ever, I love Obsessions and Passions, I love the dangerous randomness of combat and the secret hit points and… well, I could go on. There’s a lot to love, and I hope things don’t change too much.

Jim, thank you for taking the time to answer these questions and thanks again for welcoming me into your gaming group all those years ago and introducing me to this wonderful game.

We’ve been sitting on this interview for over a year and upon looking through drafts of blog posts, I discovered it and asked Jim if I could hit the publish button. Thanks again, Jim for your patience and creativity.

Judd, thank you for your patience with my long delayed responses, thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about UA, and thanks for joining the group way back when! For many reasons, I’m glad that came together.

One thought on “Jim DelRosso on Unknown Armies

  1. Pingback: Michael Jordan as the MVP of Unknown Armies | Held Action

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