Unknown Armies may not be widely known, but it’s a fascinating—and very dark—roleplaying game that may not be to everyone’s taste. The second edition was published in 1998 by Atlas Games, designed by the multi-talented John Tynes and Greg Stolze. Players strive to become avatars, channeling powerful magical archetypes in society, such as the hunger, the demagogue or the mystic hermaphrodite. They usually begin play ignorant of the mystical world, but quickly learn that things are not as they appear.
I ran a game based on the book Flicker by Theodore Roszak using the Unknown Armies mechanics, where players were film students in the 1960s who learn the truth behind the disappearance of a “forgotten genius of the silent screen,” according to the Amazon book description. This game, where I heavily indulged in equal parts realistic props and player railroading, was not really very UA.
Not until we played it with Scott running the game did I find out how scary the game could be. I played Alexandra “Lexa” Valentine, a college student with a personality like Angel-era Cordelia (“Tact is just not saying true stuff.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 2, episode 18), who goes to live in a house with two strangers after her bank account is mysteriously drained. One of the strangers, Fiona, is a professional dominatrix. I forget who the other character was (played by my husband, who dropped out of the game after one session). Lexa finds out along the way that her aunt created clockwork creatures, and that she has the same skill. They investigate a series of very disturbing happenings (yeah, Scott had been reading Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles), which I won’t go into here for lack of space, but here’s an excerpt from Lexa’s diary:
I was in a good mood walking home, thinking about Mrs. Rosemont's friend and what she might tell me. Maybe I wasn't quite as attentive as I should've been, but it wasn't even dark yet. As I passed by an alley a couple of blocks from the bookstore, a hand clamped over my mouth. I tried my tae kwan do, but it's not the same as it was in the gym. He dragged me into the alley, fingers pressing my lips into my teeth so hard I could barely breathe. I've always heard the expression “cold steel”–the knife blade at my throat sent an icy wave shuddering through me, and would've started my teeth chattering had they not been clenched beneath his hand.
His breath on my right ear was like the hot summer air before a lightning storm. He rumbled in a gravelly voice, calling me filthy obscenities and threatening to use his knife on me in places my boyfriend hadn't seen. At that point, his grip on my mouth was all that kept my knees from buckling. Every horror or detective movie I've ever seen about women dismembered by serial killers flashed through my mind. Through the roaring in my head I heard him demand to know where Michael [the owner of the house where we were staying] was. He took his hand away and I protested that I hadn't seen him since last Thursday.
Then he asked the weirdest question–if I saw Michael when he left the house that morning.
I reiterated that I hadn't seen him since Thursday, which didn't make him happy. He ordered me to find Michael and that if we didn't, he would kill all of us in the house.
As I was realizing that he wasn't going to Jack-the-Ripper me right then and there, he shoved me in the small of the back with his foot and was gone. The feel of his hand and the knife burned my face and neck as I picked myself up from the ground and ran.
We later found out his name. To this day, if someone mentions “Mr. Lake,” I get creeped out. It was a genuinely frightening experience.
Fascinating game, though. I think I’d like to play it again. Maybe.