Unknown Armies: In the Beginning

Guest post by Unknown Armies co-creator and UA3 lead designer, Greg Stolze.

I don’t remember when it happened—some time in the distant past, back when John Tynes was still attending GenCon, possibly before I even had kids—but I remember telling John that I felt like I’d been the parasite half of the duo when we coauthored Unknown Armies, way back in the late 1990s, when computer screens were only green and phones were usually tethered to the wall.
“What are you talking about?” Tynes replied. “You did all the serious work.”
I thought he was messing with me, but eventually we got it sorted. Each of us really did believe the other had put in the lion’s share of the effort.

John and I had worked together on Wildest Dreams, a supplement for Over the Edge (from Atlas Games! Robin Laws was in it too!) and he was looking for someone to assemble a rules-set for an intellectual property he was developing called (at that time) The New Inquisition. He’d knocked together a short comic with Brian Snōddy, and he’d assembled a rough cosmology that arose, I suspect, from Call of Cthulhu fatigue. 
On the off-chance that you aren’t familiar with Call of Cthulhu, it’s based on the Mythos stories of HP Lovecraft and the gas in its horror tank is cosmic indifference. In it, more than any other game perhaps, you don’t matter. You’re an aberration, a bit of fluff caught in the gears of physics and spacetime, destined to be chewed up by forces that are not aware of you and which are not in the least impeded by the transitory task of destroying you.
So that’s good and fun and very popular, but after founding Pagan Publishing and moving across the country to pursue publication of The Unspeakable Oath, Tynes was maybe a little weary of cosmic horror and wanted to do something with a more heft, action and agency. Something where you, the main characters, did matter. Maybe something where you matter too much.
Blended this was a disinclination to re-plow the old-style Crowley/Paracelsus/Templar/Blavatsky/Illuminati fields of occultism, due in large part to reading Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. He wanted something new, yet accessible.
I’m going to give him the credit for the Ulysses-like conceit of taking the everyday and making it epic, godlike and magickal. He came up with the idea of the Statosphere and Avatars and certain of the magick schools—Dipsomancy and Pornomancy were potent early favorites, and wallowed in topics that Lovecraft wouldn’t have touched with someone else’s ten-foot-pole. So he came to me with that and said, in effect, “Hey, we can put on a show! We can use the barn!”
From my perspective, all I did was (1) throw together some percentile rules for it, mostly optimized to reduce handling time (2) look deeper at the material he’d given me and try to fill in details in a creepy way and (3) exorcise my personal emotional demons by saddling every character with a detailed psych profile.
(At the time I was working on UA 1ed, my paycheck job was typing and filing for social workers specializing in abused children. It was not work for which my cosseted middle-class Iowa upbringing had left me well suited, and I was flailing around for some kind of intellectual framework that would make sense of what I was hearing and experiencing.)
Tynes, on the other hand, was well-pleased with my tendency to take a handful of details and turn them in multiple directions. We batted the rules back and forth, coming up with interactions between the factions he’d sketched in, reasons for the odd effects he wanted, and spaces where PCs with more heart than brain could make spectacular mistakes. By the time we got Thomas Manning arranging artwork, we’d crafted a cosmology that was relentlessly, horrifyingly humanist. People were the gods of this setting, and every cruelty and injustice occurred because we, collectively, heaped the coals on our own heads, screaming about the heat all along. We had a violent brute of a setting that would hold Lovecraft down on the playground and yell “Where’s your indifferent cosmic force NOW, huh?” while making him hit himself with his own hand.
Surprisingly, we found an audience.


  1. Huh. That... actually got illustrated by a Trail of Cthulhu campaign I ran, where one PC had, basically, the whole we-are-insignificant thing as a Pillar of Stability. The player (correctly) decided that this pillar shattered after the PC saved the world. The PC had to deal with the realization that if you have just saved the world with time and space warping magic, you can't say, "Well, it's no use relying on me for anything -- _I_ can't make a difference!"

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  4. A compelling collaboration that redefined cosmic horror, infusing agency and humanity into a setting that challenged the norms of traditional occultism. The result: a rich RPG experience where human actions held terrifying consequences in a brilliantly crafted world.

  5. The author reflects on co-authoring Unknown Armies with John Tynes. Tynes sought a departure from cosmic horror, desiring a world where characters had agency and mattered. The author focused on rules, fleshing out details, and infusing psych profiles. They crafted a humanist cosmology where people, not cosmic forces, were the gods. The setting challenged Lovecraftian themes, emphasizing human responsibility for cruelty and injustice.

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