Unknown Armies Designers' Notes
In January of 1999, Atlas Games published the rulebook for our "roleplaying game of transcendental horror and furious action," Unknown Armies. Getting to that point, however, was a lengthy and rather convoluted process. The Oracle asked us to draft some notes on how it all happened, so here they are. Most of this document is written from the perspective of Tynes (JT:), with comments specific to Stolze preceded by GS:.
JT: Sometime in late 1994, I had the bright idea of designing a roleplaying game. Settling down in my room one night, probably drunk, I decided to jot down some notes on bizarre occult-related concepts that might lead to a game world. Those notes follow although this, the only surviving version, was revised and expanded slightly in 1997:
So that's how Unknown Armies started. That night I went to bed and promptly forgot about the whole thing.
About a year later, I stumbled across the preceding notes on my hard drive and thought they looked promising as a source for short stories. I dusted them off and wrote a short story called "The Course of Winter," which is now available for free reading on the Atlas Games web site. This story expanded on some of those notes, as well as introducing Alex Abel, The New Inquisition, and Eponymous. Pleased with the way the tale turned out, I wrote a second one and began a third. The second one was so loathsome and mindless that it'll never see print. The third one-Alex Abel talking about his life story and his brush with ascension-simply never got finished. Having thus stalled, the project went back into limbo.
In the summer of 1996, I heard through the grapevine that an acquaintance of mine, a freelance illustrator named Brian Snoddy, was interested in hooking up with a writer to create a comic book proposal. I dusted off the New Inquisition files and wrote up a set of notes for a possible comic series, then sent the notes, an outline of four issues, and "The Course of Winter" to Brian. (Those notes appear on my website, under "The New Inquisition") Brian was enthusiastic about the material. After talking with him some more I scripted the first issue-a straight adaptation of "The Course of Winter," which would now kick off a storyline revolving around the Naked Goddess videotape-and mailed it to him. He dug it, and soon completed character designs for Alex Abel, Eponymous, the clockworker Josef, and some of his clockworks. Within a couple more months Brian had done thumbnails for about fifteen pages, and did finished or partial inking on about a half-dozen of those. By Christmas of 1996, the first issue was shaping up pretty well.
Unfortunately, this wasn't paying Brian anything at this point, and he ended up having to shelve the project in favor of some lucrative but very time-consuming work elsewhere. (He later contributed some illustrations to the UA rulebook, including the New Inquisition group portrait which was based on his old character designs.) The whole mess went back into limbo for a few months more.
In the late spring of 1997, I decided to take yet another stab at bringing these ideas and characters to life, this time in the form of a roleplaying game again. But I knew I couldn't possibly do it on my own, owing to my commitments at Pagan Publishing and to the fact that I couldn't design mechanics any more than I could fly. I needed a co-author, someone who could both do some sweet mechanics and who could also grok the whole weird New Inquisition vibe sufficiently to make it his own and enhance it. My first choice was also my best choice: Greg Stolze.
Greg and I met through Atlas Games during the writing of an early Over the Edge sourcebook called Wildest Dreams, circa 1993 or so. I had pitched Atlas on an OTE scenario about Sandmen and a shapeshifter while Greg was pitching them on a Sandmen sourcebook. Jonathan Tweet and John Nephew decided we were two great tastes who would taste great together and brought in Robin Laws as co-author to turn the thing into a demented menage-a-trois. The project proved to be a lot of fun, and Greg and I worked together on a number of subsequent things here and there.
I sent Greg an email which began: "Wanna make some big bucks? If so, don't bother reading this message." At that time John Nephew at Atlas had seen the TNI stuff on my website and had expressed some interest in seeing it turned into a game. Greg responded favorably to the idea and we got started.
Fortunately for purposes of this article, I have most of our emails from the development process. We got started by having two parallel discussions: what was the theme of the game, and what would the mechanics be like?
Regarding the theme, we each had a starting point. Mine was: "God exists, and he's for sale to the highest bidder." Greg's was: "Things are changing so fast that you can't hang on. There's an order, but it changes so fast that you can't keep track." We merged these two ideas into the general vibe of a chaotic scramble for power in an uncertain world-in short, a game of transcendental horror and furious action.
Regarding the mechanics, Greg sent an email that had the core goodies right off the bat: the four stats, the skill system, obsession skills, flip-flops, firearms damage, melee damage, matches, and martial-arts cherries.
GS: Frankly, I don't really remember the process that eventually yielded the UA mechanics. I do, however, recall a number of concerns I wanted to address when I built them. First, I like fast systems. For me, nothing breaks a fast-moving story like spending thirty minutes mapping out a three-second exchange of punches and kicks. The games I started out playing all tried to seem real by incorporating every possible variable: "Okay, it's +2 for firing from a prone position, but -1 for the fog, but that's offset by your +1 laser sight bonus . . ." I don't think the benefits from that kind of detail-mongering are worth the downside of slow play.
So one idea that got incorporated was stacking rolls: one roll resolves both success and degree of success. In practical terms, one roll for "to hit" and damage. However, there's a quantum difference between being kicked in the belly and being shot in it. I toyed with the idea of two different types of damage, but in the name of simplicity decided to just look for some way that one roll could yield different quantities of damage, depending on how it was read. The answer-obvious to anyone with a little RPG experience-was a percentage roll. Read it flat for the big number (getting shot) and add the two dice together for the little number (getting slapped).
A percentage system had a lot of other advantages, in my mind. First and foremost, it's easy to grasp. If a character has a 50% skill in "Mesmerize Audience With Fascinating Rules Nattering," then anyone who picks up that sheet has a pretty good idea how often it's going to work.
Once I'd decided on a percentage system, the idea of flip-flops was a small jump. Who hasn't rolled an 81% in Call of Cthulhu and thought "Oh, if only that was an 18!" Allowing people to reverse bad rolls was a quick, simple way to reward someone for getting a combat advantage-or, as it turned out, for staying in character.
Then I realized that matching numbers (55, 22, 77, etc.) couldn't be flipped, so I hit on the idea of making them special results. I've always liked systems where it's possible to have an unusually vivid success or failure, and having 10% of all the rolls be extraordinary seemed to fit the chaotic tone we wanted for UA. The fact that these unusual rolls were the only ones that couldn't be tampered with through flipping was icing on the cake.
JT: Within a week of my first contacting Greg, we had the above plus a rough outline of the madness system and a rough draft of the core magick rules, all of which were Greg's inspiration. Things were off to a rolling start.
Our first stumbling block was also in that week. Greg had reviewed all of my various TNI documents and stories, and was concerned that he couldn't find any characters he could really empathize with-they were all venal scumbags. He was right.
See, for some time I'd been growing more and more disgusted with most roleplaying games, and specifically with the ways in which they rationalize and justify acts that are not only criminal and callous in real life, but that most inhabitants of the fictional worlds would probably find criminal and callous as well, to varying degrees. Back when TNI was a comic-book project, I'd been debating creating what would in effect be the Pulp Fiction roleplaying game: a game where you played hit men, drug dealers, and other street-level criminals involved in organized crime. Over time you could expand your crew, rise in power and status, and do all the other things common to RPGs. But instead of killing orcs or vampires or cultists and looting their bodies, you'd be wacking delinquent junkies or criminal rivals and stealing their cash and stash. The point was to strip away all the genre conventions and expose the anti-social activities common to most RPGs for what they were: lawless violence against those who are somehow different from you. Instead of creating this game, I wrote the metagame Power Kill-and I also had a response to Greg's concerns about TNI focusing on venal scumbags. I wanted to focus on the reasons people go after power, and to deal credibly with the ramifications of those reasons. Whether the characters in TNI were admirable or horrifying would be up to the players to resolve.
GS: I think it was around this time that I got a bee in my bonnet about humans being the primary movers and shakers in UA. In most games, especially horror games, humans are kind of limp. They're not responsible for any of life's crap because they're not powerful enough to make it crappy. In Call of Cthulhu, people are cosmic accidents. True, so is everything else, but we're particularly small cosmic accidents. In the World of Darkness, things are smaller in scope but people are still either meal tickets or patsies. This is common enough in horror settings because powerlessness is horrifying. But responsibility can also be horrifying, and that was the tack we decided to take with UA. Think life's sucky? Well pal, you're the author of your own misfortunes. You did it. You can't foist this one off on some malevolent supernatural entity, because we're the malevolent supernatural entities.
JT: This quickly scaled up to the whole notion of the Invisible Clergy and ascensions, the idea that you could ultimately make the world a better place or a worse place on a large scale. In short, we set out to create a game world just as moral or immoral as the players and GM wanted to make it-a game that looked like the real world, you could say. Life in TNI would be what you made of it.
A couple months later, GenCon came around. I spent some time in a bar talking with an associate who was working with Archon Gaming, publishers of the Noir RPG. He told me the Archon story, and I came away interested in talking with Archon's founder, Lisa Manns, about publishing Unknown Armies. Although I knew Atlas had expressed some interest early on, it sounded like Archon would have the financial resources to promote the game in a big way. We spent the fall of 1997 writing and editing, and eventually made our pitch to Archon.
Greg ended up writing the majority of the rulebook. He'd turn in a chunk and I'd spend some time editing and revising it, sending him questions where needed. My role on the rulebook became more that of a developer and editor than a writer, though I did write numerous big and little pieces here and there. But my main goal was to polish the manuscript so that it had a consistent voice and a level of clarity and crispness that I thought a rulebook needed, a goal I had come by while editing the wonderful manuscript to Robin Laws' Feng Shui.
By the end of February, 1998, we had a contract with Lisa and Archon, a 105,000-word manuscript, and had begun recruiting outside playtesters. A number of groups volunteered, and they gamed away through the spring. During this time I wrote the intro scenario "Pinfeathers" (now available free on the Atlas website), using an experimental multiple-choice design approach. This approach proved unpopular with playtesters and we scrapped the scenario; I wrote the replacement, "Bill in Three Persons," a few weeks before Archon was to go to press on the rulebook that summer.
Playtesting led us to revise some rules, mostly to do with combat. Our original initiative system proved unwieldy and counter-intuitive in play, and assorted other fiddling was required. But the rules were surprisingly sturdy and well-received over all, and the results of our playtesting program did not throw any serious monkeywrenches into the works of our schedule.
One thing we weren't sure of was the game's name. We had rejected The New Inquisition as being too focused on one group. Our first choice was Smoke & Mirrors, which we were especially fond of because its initials would have been S&M. But author Neil Gaiman was releasing a short-story anthology around that time by the same title, and we opted not to use it. With that one knocked out, we spent weeks sending emails back and forth, looking for a solution. Other rejected titles included: The Mystic Edge, Schools of Madness, Dead End Club, Lies, Bitter Business, Causeways of Night, Ascension, Avatar, Occultic, Day For Night, 333, Cycle, Karmix, Cat's Paw, Twilight Lives, It's Forbidden, Relentless, Suspicion, Desperation, Godwalker, Clash By Night, Burnt Offerings, Troubled Spirits, Mad and Savage Masters, Litany of Lies, Verboten, Forbidden, Forbidden Armies, Forbidden Practices, Forbidden Lives, Sacred Nightmare, The Sleep of Reason, Under Reality, The Unseen World, Forbidden Self, Unseen, Zeitgeist, Freakshow . . . and those were just the ones Greg and I dreamed up. Other suggestions came from Lisa Manns, Ken Hite, and Tim Dedopulos.
GS: I particularly liked The Invisible World, since it's a reference to a classic witch-hunting text, plus it's germane to the setting. I also remember one playtester who got materials under the title Smoke and Mirrors and was confused because it had nothing to do with Aztecs.
JT: Eventually, it was time to issue a press release and Lisa said we had to pick something. I'd suggested Unknown Armies pretty early on and we had liked it well enough. At the time I thought it was a phrase from William S. Burroughs, but I soon realized it was a bit from W.B. Yeats, a poet and occultist I'd had occasion to study during a Pagan Publishing project called The Golden Dawn. The Yeats connection settled me on the topic, and Greg was amenable, so Unknown Armies it was.
While all this was going on, Greg had been busy writing Lawyers, Guns, and Money and assembling the scenario anthology One Shots, both of which were largely written in the spring and summer of '98. We were looking at an ambitious release schedule and wanted to have some stuff ready in the pipe, so we prepared these books early. At the same time, we expanded the rulebook manuscript quite a bit. I forget the final word count, but it was much larger than the 105,000-word version that playtesters saw.
During the course of development, Greg and I only had one serious disagreement over the project, and it wasn't serious in an emotional sort of way. Greg turned in the chapter titled "The Unexplained," which essentially debunked a number of common supernatural tropes within the world of UA, such as vampires, zombies, and UFOs. I thought it was well done, but it didn't fit into the rulebook I saw in my head; it seemed out of place. We went back and forth on this topic and decided to see what the playtesters thought. It turned out to be very popular, so in it went, and indeed it's an element of the book that we get fan mail for. Greg's instincts were spot on.
Spring moved to summer and we were going into production for a GenCon release. Thomas Manning came on board as art director and managed to squeeze every last dime of value he could from our art budget, coming up with a host of artists and illos. I knocked out a fast graphic design for the book, which I now regret; I've been able to improve on it a bit with the Lawyers, Guns, and Money sourcebook and beyond.
Meanwhile, a problem was developing: we couldn't reach Lisa and Archon.
As it turned out, Archon was swiftly heading towards a meltdown. The demands on Lisa's time from other quarters had exploded, and Archon was unavoidably dropping off her radar. I was ready to send the rulebook to press in time for GenCon, but the silence from Archon was not encouraging. Things were tense and weird. I was simultaneously busy laying out and producing Pagan's scenario anthology Mortal Coils, which was also a GenCon release. When the deadline for the GenCon to-press date passed, I started leaving increasingly agitated messages with Archon, to no response.
We got to GenCon, where Tom Manning and Archon freelance editor Tim Toner managed to set up a nice booth to promote UA; neither of them knew anything definite regarding Archon. Tim suggested we make some preview copies at a local Kinko's, and I'd brought the disks, so I handed them to him and he took off. Kinko's threw up their hands at the complexity of the project after several aborted attempts, each of which meant Tim would drive over there, shake his head, and ask them to try again. By Friday night, when Tim found me drinking in a bar with colleagues, it looked like we weren't going to have anything resembling a rulebook at the show.
I hadn't spent years slaving away in micro-publishing for nothing. Tim and I bolted out the door for Kinko's, running into Greg and his wife Martha on the way out; they wished us good luck.
GS: Yeah, Tim was a real trooper. I mean, you kind of expect a co-author to go to exhausting and absurd lengths to get his work in print, but Tim really didn't have any stake other than wanting to do right by us on behalf of Archon. Kudos to him.
JT: At Kinko's, I got the software set up properly and printed out a master copy of the rulebook files. Then Tim and I commandeered every self-service photocopier in the store, breaking the rulebook into blocks of forty pages or so, running off forty sets of each block. We took over all their tables and set out these blocks, then collated the forty or so rulebooks and got the drone behind the counter to bind them for us. After several hours of slaving away, we finally went to bed around 3 a.m. Saturday morning. When GenCon opened a few hours later, Unknown Armies was there-a little rough around the edges.
After the convention, we spent a couple weeks running in circles with Archon. Eventually I got through to Lisa and we worked things out. She was going to shut Archon down indefinitely, but first she paid off all the UA artists and let us all off the contractual hook, so we could seek another publisher. In the end, she did right by us and then some.
We pitched the game to Dream Pod 9, Hogshead, and Atlas, because they were small companies we both liked and respected. (I never seriously considered bringing UA to Pagan Publishing, because I really wanted it to be somebody else's responsibility; we had enough on our plate at Pagan as it was.) DP9 rejected it outright, as they'd just released Tribe 8 and were not about to launch another line right away. James Wallis at Hogshead was interested, but thought the manuscript needed to be expanded and retooled so it was clearer as to just what you would do in the game. While we could see some value in making things more up front, especially for those who weren't familiar with a few key books and movies that seemed to be critical in "getting" UA, we also were not eager to take apart the ready-for-press rulebook and dive back in again.
Happily, John Nephew at Atlas was ready to print the rulebook as is. At this point you're probably thinking that we just should have gone with Atlas in the first place and saved all this trouble, but in fact, coming back to Atlas with a ready-for-press game was very helpful in negotiations. The confusion also generated some minor notoriety for the game on the internet, though that was hardly our intention.
GS: Oh come on John. Isn't it time to admit that we personally destroyed Archon games as a publicity stunt to launch UA?
JT: Oddly enough, people have credited us with almost as much. Around the time Atlas released the game in January of '99, I saw postings on the net from people commenting on all the pre-release hype for the game and how cunningly we'd stage-managed its debut; one person even congratulated us on making a game that was marketing-savvy in terms of its use of sex and adult content! Needless to say, the game had almost no advertising and its design was about as marketing un-savvy as I could imagine. In particular, the grim and intricate cover painting violates a number of the usual marketing maxims for covers-bright colors; prominent human figures, especially faces; a minimum of clutter-to our great delight, but it follows an unusual one: the cover painting grows in value and interest the better you know the game.
Speaking of cover paintings, we're trying something with the supplements that people might have begun to notice. Operating with an understandably limited art budget, I wanted to find a way to still get good illustrators to do good paintings for us. The solution I hit on was to do the covers without backgrounds, with just one or two human figures glimpsed in some action relevant to the book; they simply do their thing against a rich black backdrop. This greatly reduces the complexity of the illustration (no props, scenery, or complicated light sources), making it more palatable to artists who normally earn higher cover rates, while making our covers very distinctive both from each other and from that of other RPG lines. This is an ongoing experiment, but one that I think will accrue value as more supplements line up next to each other on the shelves.
As of this writing, a year after the game's initial release, we've put out two supplements (One Shots and Lawyers, Guns, and Money)and are going to press on a third, Postmodern Magick. I'm as excited about PoMoMa as I was about the original rulebook, because it's the first supplement to have been written since the game's release-the first two, as noted earlier, were written well before the game was published. PoMoMa is as good an indication of the game's success as any, because the nearly two dozen authors all clearly "got" the game and the world as much as Greg and I did.
The future of UA is an open question. We have a release schedule planned through the next couple of years, and coming up with projects beyond that point is no problem; in just the last month, PoMoMa grew so large that we split off some material into a new project, Statosphere, which will now be the next title in the schedule. Greg and I are both interested in seeing a short-story anthology and/or a novel project happen, and sooner or later I'd love to see that darn comic book occur. We've discussed ideas for a screenplay and may get around to fooling with that at some point.
But for the foreseeable future, our focus is where it should be: making the game world both broader and deeper and increasing the options for players and GMs alike. Fans of Unknown Armies deserve no less.
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