Undermined Expectation

This is another in our series of guest blogs, this time by award-winning game designer and part-time exercise enthusiast Jeff Tidball.

My favorite kinds of Unknown Armies stories tend toward the prosaic. That isn't to say that they come across as normal, per se. Rather, they come across as relatively normal with respect to what I imagine people who are doing Unknown Armies more correctly than I am do in their games.

My favorite Unknown Armies mini-campaign of my own devising was directly inspired by the original edition's sourcebook about The New Inquisition, Lawyers, Guns, and Money, and further, by the lyrics of the eponymous song. Here's the snippet of text the players got, each time I ran it, before we sat down to create characters:
Here's How It Is
The shit has hit the fan. Drop everything, come to Tucson. Meet me at Jimmy’s, on West Cortaro Road. Tomorrow night, 3am.   — Pierce

You got that yesterday, in an e-mail. Pierce Stoker is a guy you used to know; you haven’t heard from him in a while. One time, you got into some serious shit with him, and you owe him.

It’s just after midnight. You’re almost in Tucson.



This situation is not my most ingenious creative work, but that's ok, for two reasons. The first is that not every single thing has to be your most ingenious creative work. The second (and more interesting) reason is the way that what comes next challenges the conventions of how a roleplaying scenario ought to unfold, and how that really wigged out the veteran roleplayers who played this with me.

What happens next is that the PCs arrive at Jimmy's — which turns out to be a restaurant — to discover… nothing. No Pierce Stoker.

No sign of him, no word he's been there, nothing.

But: The guy manning the greasy spoon's counter asks the characters if one of them is Pierce, because this other guy dropped off a set of keys for a guy named Pierce.

The keys, it turns out, go with a cargo van parked outside, which is literally full — full to the very top — of firearms and cash. Crates of assault rifles and handguns and grenades, box after box of non-sequential bills.

Now, traditionally, RPG player characters start a new campaign in a state of substantial mechanical want. Their skills need improvement, their gear could be better, and they lack the wherewithal to make immediate changes to that. Experienced players know this. So when the GM drops all the guns and cash, and then some, right into their laps, it makes them really, really nervous. Because obviously the other shoe is gonna drop any second now.

(So, naturally, there are some Russians who want to know where their guns are.)

(And the lawyer, Felix, who dropped all that stuff at Jimmy's in payment of his debt to Pierce is bad at keeping secrets.)

(And the PCs' memories of Pierce Stoker turn out to be entirely fake, created from whole cloth in their minds.)

(And Stoker is stuck on the literal other side of reality with a major charge he can't bring back just yet because… well, it doesn't really matter because why.)

Anyway, what was eye-opening to me when I ran this is how much more alarmed the players were by those complications because they had been not remotely deprived of the things that would traditionally have been the first order of business: the gathering of magic swords and the accumulation of a bunch of gold pieces.

If you want to keep your players on edge, undermine their expectations, even — especially — their meta-expectations about how games are supposed to be structured, and how the mechanics are supposed to work. Especially in a game like Unknown Armies, where the whole point is weirding everyone out.

Good luck!

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