Unknown Armies (1998)

Unknown Armies (1998) is one of many occult underground horror RPGs that emerged in the ‘90s. It was probably most notable at the time because it was the first ground up design by Pagan Publishing’s John Tynes, but there is a lot of substance that 20+ years later it still has a strong following (the third edition was launched via Kickstarter in 2017, bringing in six times the asking price).

The core idea here is that reality is malleable and that people of special temperaments, usually living on the fringes of society and possessing powerful obsessions, can exert a certain amount of control over it (in terms of the percentile skill system, rolls involving obsessions can be flipped if doing so nets a beneficial result — a 73 becomes a 37). Some can tap into those obsession to work magic. Others can come to embody archetypal concepts as avatars, competing against similarly inclined people the world over to fully ascend. Should enough ascended avatars exist at the same time, reality will reset and begin fresh — perhaps better, perhaps worse. As you can imagine, many people have ideas about how (and if) such an event should occur.

Even without the high stakes of occult conspiracies, adepts and avatars live lives on the edge. The same forces that give them power also leave them more vulnerable to madness and dissolution. To account for this, Unknown Armies has what was probably the most robust sanity system at the time. It is split across five meters — violence, unnatural, helplessness, isolation and identity — and actively seeks to decouple the mental strains of living in a supernatural world from portrayals of real world mental illness. That’s a big step in the right direction, and one that would see further development in Trail of Cthulhu, the stand alone Delta Green RPG and other games.

For more on Unknown Armies, you can read the chapter in my book! Holy crap, that is weird to say!

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