Jim DelRosso on Unknown Armies

Jim, what drew you to Unknown Armies?How did you become aware of it?

The question of how I became aware of Unknown Armies is a fraught one: I had thought that I’d first heard about it from either Ben or Josh, but on consulting with them they thought they’d heard about it from either the other or from me. So it was impossible to discover how the game had actually entered our sphere of dice-rollers, which leads me to believe that perhaps the game doesn’t exist at all. Perhaps were were all members of a cabal that made a play for Ascension, lost, and got mind-scrambled by cliomancers. The concept of the Unknown Armies “game” was inserted to explain away any residual knowledge or insight about the real occult underground, and this interview will just let Stolze and Tynes know that we’re on to them.

This is what UA will do to you: you start viewing any oddity or weirdness from the real world through the lens of the game. It’s the game Jack Chick should’ve warned folks about. It’s wonderful, and it’s contagious: my wife started talking about things in UA terms, and she’s never played the game.

In fact, that element is one of the reasons why the game is so enduring for me, though no doubt the established elements of the setting and the ruleset itself hold up damned well more than a decade after the second edition came out.

As far as what drew me to the game, in addition to the enthusiasm of folks who I gamed with, I loved the humanist take on the supernatural. I loved that it was humans — even those who weren’t clued-in to the occult — who were responsible for everything good and bad and wonderful and horrific, both because it fit with my own philosophy and because it meant that the player characters were being set up from the start as folks who could literally change the world. It was a far cry from most modern or semi-modern occult horror RPGs that I’d seen at that time, in which being human usually meant a complete surrender of agency.

I loved it, and still do.

I always love watching you guys apply UA logic to news items.Do you mind fielding a few, taking a few articles and making UA bite-sized chunks out of them?

Brenda Tattoo


Poor bastard. I’m not sure if he’s actually obsessed with Brenda or not, but she’s clearly using him as a proxy… though her methodology lacks finesse. If he is obsessed with her, though, that will help.

Alternately, he’s attempting to mystically disguise himself as someone named Brenda. As soon as he’s completely covered…

HItler’s Toilet

The toilet has no inherent magickal properties: Hitler was as moribund magickally as he was in terms of empathy and art. However, it could be the object of an ugly war among the nastiest of Jersey’s dipsomancers. (Yes, dipsomancers. I said nasty, didn’t I?)

The art one is more interesting, definitely. Canonically, the Reich was associated with phobomancers, so much so that the school seems to have been wiped out at the end of the war. (Unless there was a race among the Allies to capture the phobomantic equivalent of Wernher von Braun, though I’d like to think such efforts ended when an upstanding Allied soldier risked court martial to shoot the target in the face.)

The the art collection, though, reeks of either cryptomancy or a twisted form of bibliomancy, or maybe even a (doomed) effort to Ascend as the Collector or the Artist. Maybe there were other mystical advisors in Hitler’s inner circle. Honestly, the Monument Men read like a group of PCs as-is, so I’d be tempted to do the whole thing as a period piece UA game. Maybe there’s a major ritual in the works, and the MM need to race to stop it. (I’m cribbing mercilessly from some of the hints dropped in Delta Green about occult conflict in the dying days of WWII, but only because I always thought that was cool.)


P.S. I think my greatest work in terms of drawing real world events into UA was when I replaced Alex Abel with Michael Jordan, though.

Please explain that move, switching Alex Abel with Jordan because it mystifies me. I’m not sure I get it.

Basically, Alex Abel is set up in the text to be a popular figure in the mainstream consciousness; the “reveal” that he’s running TNI is supposed to be a surprise. But it doesn’t work in a game because he doesn’t exist outside of UA’s fiction: he exists only to run TNI. Getting players to be surprised by that fact is like getting them to be surprised that billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne is actually Batman. You’d either have to try to subtly introduce him to the narrative over time, or just ask them to pretend to be amazed. Neither seems fun.

So I went looking for a different Alex Abel. Michael Jordan came to mind because as soon as I read about the MVP Archetype in the UA2 corebook, I wondered, “If this exists, how the hell did Michael Jordan not Ascend?” By stealing some of Abel’s backstory, we get an explanation… or at least a better context for the mystery. I even put together a timeline:

1990-1993: Jordan’s career is at its peak, such that a few clued-in folks begin wondering when he’ll Ascend and replace Babe Ruth* as the second MVP. A few proto-mystery cults spring up in and around Chicago, but something — perhaps the murder of his father? — prevents Jordan from Ascending.

1993: The blowback from the failed Ascension manifests in Jordan’s retirement and subsequent move to minor league baseball.

1995-1999: Recovering, Jordan returns to basketball and finds success which mirrors that of the first part of the decade… but something is missing and his frustration grows.

2000-2003: Jordan retires again. During this period his search for resolution to his frustration begins taking him down more and more esoteric paths. These paths lead him to the Washington Wizards: the team’s name and placement in a city designed on mystic principles appeal to his increasing understanding that what happened to him in 1993 was supernatural, and his increased leadership within the club provides him with the opportunity to shape it into a vehicle to reclaim what he lost. Unfortunately, they suck; whether this causes his efforts to fail or is a result of his inability to directly recapture that fleeting moment of greatness is unknown, but he abandons the effort.

2004: Capitalizing on the fact that he’s rich as fuck, Jordan founds TNI to just beat on the pinata of the occult until answers fall out. He is assisted in this effort not only by the canonical NPCs, but by his agent David Falk, who’s clearly a high-level Avatar of the Merchant and has been dedicating most of his efforts to TNI since 2007.

That’s cut-n-pasted from an email chain from 2010. Interestingly, I almost didn’t go with it after a bunch of us reached consensus that it was too comedic. But damn if it didn’t work in play.

Interesting. Thanks for writing that, because when you told me the idea of replacing Abel with Jordan, I thought it was silly too but I know it worked with the players because I talked to one of them.Jim, one thing I have seen folks saying about UA is that they are not sure what to do with it. Any advice for a new UA GM, opening the book for the first time, trying to get their players into it?

I’m trying to come up with an answer that goes beyond, “Play members of The New Inquisition (TNI).” But damn if that doesn’t cover a big part of it.

TNI is just so nice and close to other games’ narrative structure: you’re members of an organization that provides you with a little bit of back-up, and provides a vector for exposition and missions. The missions themselves tend towards a mix of dungeon crawl and investigation. Most gamers are gonna fundamentally get that, since it resonates with the roots of the hobby. But non-gamers will often get it, too: folks who’ve watched X-Files or Fringe or Angel or Supernatural will know the score… or at least enough of it to go out and get into trouble.

Which is the other great thing: there’s no assumption that TNI agents know how the world (really) works. Quite the opposite.

[Note: I kept your response in here because it was a good jumping off point.]

All of the organizationss are a good place to start: TNI, the folks who are legends and take out those who awaken the tiger but are really under-staffed and getting by on smoke and mirrors, the fast food kids. All solid ways in.

Yup. I’ll admit that TNI’s where I have my experience — two solid campaign’s worth, now — so that’s where I lean.

But to some extent, I feel like the Sleepers and Mak Attax and the Order of St. Cecil require a bit more setting buy in, and are a bit removed from that core narrative hook I was talking about. With TNI we could hit the ground running, and then I used my GM time barfing forth UA weirdness at a projectile pace. (Yeah, that’s an Apocalypse World reference. I’m not sure if I’d read AW when I ran UA last, but damn if that Principle didn’t match up with what I tried to do.)

I also wove in stuff like “Bill In Three Persons” from the core UA book and “Drink to That” from Weep. I was pretty pleased with how I worked in “Bill In Three Persons”: I wrote up their first assignment for TNI, set it in New Mexico, gave them the briefing, let them make all their pre-mission prep, and then on the drive from Chicago I had them run into the weird-ass accident that triggers the action in “Bill In Three Persons”.

Which meant they had to deal with that scenario’s weirdness, then actually get back on the road and do their real job before they could fully recover. It also set up the Comte as someone who was interested in them, but didn’t really give a shit about their well-being or TNI’s interests. Which worked well as I brought in the NPCs from “Drink to That” as part of the Occult Underground in Chicago.

TLDR version: have ’em make characters for TNI or another group with a clear narrative for scenarios, and throw UA weirdness in at every opportunity. They may or may not read the books, but if you do these two things it’s less likely that they’ll have to.

I liked the way Ben structured the game we were in together, taking it from monster-of-the-week into a more player-driven sandbox-y style of game.

Yes. I cannot overstate how much the excellent campaign run by Ben Fierce influenced my thoughts on the game, and my later experiences running it. That game was huge for me.

In the months since we started this interview, it has been announced that we can look forward to a UA reboot.

What do you want to see in a new edition?

That’s oddly one of the tougher questions you’ve asked. Let’s see…

I’d personally prefer that more of the units of times used in the mechanics were tied to the real-world table, rather than the in-universe clock. By which I mean, less “days/weeks/months” and more “scenes/sessions”. I think that would rub some folks wrong, and might be tough to work into the obsession theme of the adepts, but it’d be an improvement for me as GM. It might make downtime a bit easier to manage, too.

On a similar note, better rules for putting together NPCs. I was able to fudge stuff pretty well based on my knowledge of the game and the sample NPCs, but folks like avatars and adepts were more difficult. I may have missed it, but I couldn’t find any guidelines for how many charges an NPC adept should have, for example. I could (and did) come up with something, based on what I knew of the school, but it’d be good support to have. (And like I said: maybe it’s there and I missed it.)

One thing that I feel the second edition did well, and the third could take further, is providing campaign models. With first edition, there was definitely a “what the hell do we do” problem, and second edition gave much better guidance along those lines with its mini campaign blurbs for each level of play. It’d be nice if they took it further: select one blurb each for Street, Global, and Cosmic play. Flesh it out with a more thorough discussion of resources, potential missions, larger goals, key antagonists, etc. Not all the way to where Lawyers, Guns, and Money took TNI, but further in that direction. Expand the provided scenarios to discuss how each highlighted campaign structure would interact with them. If there’s a specific scenario type that’s strongly linked to a given campaign — e.g. investigation to TNI — give a more thorough discussion about how the rules should be used to play that out.

Focus on archetypes and adept schools that will work well at the table. Something like the MVP, for example, can work great for an NPC (see above), but giving a full write-up to something that will almost certainly not work for a PC takes space away from more gameable concepts. A short write-up of extra-weird archetypes, schools, and powers to drop onto NPCs — or hack for PCs with the right crew — would be a neat way to handle such things.

Setting-wise, I lean more towards revamping it for 2015 rather than just moving the timeline a decade and more ahead. Too much has changed, too many groups or their stories no longer resonate. Some evolution could work — Mak Attax in a word of strikes at the Scotsman is interesting to me — but others would probably just need to be scrapped, and too much of a focus on the intervening years could be a drag.

And honestly, some of the language that gets used to describe some marginalized groups sounds problematic to me now, and could use revision. Truth be told, a game that focuses on folks who find themselves marginalized into the occult underground could use more discussion of real marginalized groups, either written by (or consulted on by) actual members of those groups. It’d make the game ring even truer, and improve it.

Clearer rules for exactly what happens when a PCs Passions come into play. I remember us struggling with that a bit, and it’s a mechanic I generally love.

All that being said, I think the rules for second edition hold up pretty damned well. The fuzzy logic rules for different kinds of checks is still one of my favorite game mechanics ever, I love Obsessions and Passions, I love the dangerous randomness of combat and the secret hit points and… well, I could go on. There’s a lot to love, and I hope things don’t change too much.

Jim, thank you for taking the time to answer these questions and thanks again for welcoming me into your gaming group all those years ago and introducing me to this wonderful game.

We’ve been sitting on this interview for over a year and upon looking through drafts of blog posts, I discovered it and asked Jim if I could hit the publish button. Thanks again, Jim for your patience and creativity.

Judd, thank you for your patience with my long delayed responses, thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about UA, and thanks for joining the group way back when! For many reasons, I’m glad that came together.

Star Wars, Aftermath by Chuck Wendig @ChuckWendig – a review


I have vivd childhood memories of always traveling with my Star Wars figures, always being eager to get on the floor and start playing pretend with them. I can still close my eyes and smell what the plastic smelled like when the figures were brand new. I’d tell my parents over dinner what stories I’d created while we all ate dinner.

Star Wars AFtermath

Chuck Wendig’s book evokes that for me. I don’t mean that in a condescending way. Writing books set in established intellectual properties, especially one as vivid and important to my generation as Star Wars will always be playing with toys to some degree or another.

The author pours some toys onto the floor: a bounty hunter on the job, a crackerjack pilot recovering from the battle over Endor, a rebel soldier caught behind enemy lines, an admiral of the Imperial Navy desperate to put the pieces of the Empire back together, a desperate Grand Moff, a kid with a protective, violent droid and gangsters, lots of space gangsters. He stirs them in a pot and pours it all out into a story that takes place in the months after Return of the Jedi. For those who want Timothy Zhan’s books to be what you remember from that period, I don’t think this book will over-write that. If anything, they compliment each other and if my hunch is right, there’s a big easter-egg in there for you Zhan-novel fans.

He does it all without any Jedi, which might be my only criticism of the book and it isn’t much of one. Luke is a mythical figure mentioned by characters throughout the book in awed tones and he lets the Force be something mysterious. I can’t fault him for not playing with the prettiest toy in the Star Wars set for the sake of continuity.

The interludes are where Wendig shines. We see Han and Chewie setting a course for Kashyyyk and we hear about the criminal underworld of Cloud City. Sith cultists are paying any price to recover Vader’s lightsaber (or was it?). But we see things more important than that. We see people recovering from war. There are plenty of blasters, bounty hunters, gangsters and a truly bad-ass sheriff on Tattooine deserving of his own book. Wendig invokes westerns, Grosse Point Blank and of course, lots of Star Wars. He puts the Wars in Star Wars. We see Wookie slaves set free from the Empire’s shackles by the New Republic’s soldiers but not given anywhere to go. Kids on their way to become Stormtroopers right as the rebels destroy the training center are given a new path.

He puts a very human face (even when the face isn’t human but you get the idea) on the Fall of the Empire and makes it feel more substantial without sacrificing an ounce of fun. He makes war something worth hating but lets us still love space opera without any reservations. Wendig picks the plastic action figures up off of the floor where the 8 year old left them when the battles were over and he wonders what became of them. We wonder with him.

I’ve heard that there was some kind of kerfluffle about his inclusion of gay characters. There are in fact three gay characters – one main character and two minor characters who only spoke in one chapter. If this bothers you, if you think the little gay kids playing with their Star Wars figures shouldn’t see themselves represented when the toys are poured out onto the floor – I only hope that your fear doesn’t become anger and your anger doesn’t lead to anything that might dominate your destiny.

May the Force be with you.

Reading, Planning & Writing: Friday on the edge of a Hectic August

I just wrote an e-mail to a friend, giving a kind of status update and explaining why and how gaming during the week doesn’t fit into my schedule lately. This August is hectic, filled with transition. It should be a good thing.

lw and c1

Reading: I am re-reading Lone Wolf and Cub by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima. I vividly remember when it first hit the states and I read it with my dad. I read it entirely as an adult and there is a speech in the next to last book that straight up made me get out of bed and cry.

The re-releases are published in small manga-style collections that I found really unsatisfying; the format just didn’t do justice to the artist’s wonderful black and white landscapes. My phone is actually a satisfying way to read it.

By my bed is Max Gladstone’s latest, Last First Snow.

lw and c 2

Planning: Life is a hectic blur this month. Don’t even.

I’m trying to figure out when I can game.

lw and c 3

Writing: The good news is that once I’m through this transition, I should have a neat space cleared in my life for writing.

And how are you?

DCCRPG: Welcome to the Hell Funnel

Eric couldn’t make it to finish up Doom of the Savage Kings, so I asked Rachel and Renee if they would pick up the characters who died in Frozen in Time and play in an idea I had, playing their dead characters in a Hell Funnel.

Good times.

As with all Dungeon Crawl Classics games I run, I start AP threads remembering the dead, in this case, the dead were already dead but now their souls have become part the infernal flora of hell.

*Rest in Hell*

Elsen the Watchman of King’s Landing, killed by stirge-like apprentices in a wizard’s tower, just off the River Styx.


*Welcome to Hell*

I monologued for maybe too long to set the tone. It might’ve been the longest exposition I’ve ever given to start off a game but hell’s tricky.

The characters found themselves in a 20 by 20 cube, a cage made of iron ribs, on jagged wheels, being pulled by a beast of burden that seemed to be made of the bodies of dozens of sinners, slammed together into a vaguely oxen-like shape, if you were around when oxen were created but don’t really remember or care about the particulars.

There were three comets in the sky, one much lower than the others. The comets stand out specially because the sky seemed to suck light. One was low on the horizon, probably about to crash into the ground.

Everything hurts. Time is odd and difficult to manage. It feels like coming out of a fever dream, the rhythmic creaking of the wheels. The desert sands are bone white. The last thing you remember is dying.

That kinda shit.

*The Devils*

When the comet crashed, the devils flying around the cage grew agitated and began to argue in Infernal, which sounds like a mixture of every ugly word in every language and vomiting. They packed up the items the characters had on them when they died and began to leave.

Maze the Thief tried to beg them to let them out before they left. I reckoned that begging a jailer is a skilled roll for a thief. The roll failed and the devils laughed. One spoke common.

“To the west are the mountains, Asmodeus. You could take your chances with him. To the north is Dis; you won’t make it there. To the east are the Drowned Swamps. To the south is the Styx.”

And with that the demons flew away with all of their stuff.

*The Iron Ribs Cage*

It turns out the cage was a Frost Giant an the lock, its head, still talked. I knew the lock talked when I had envisioned the encounter. I really had no idea how or if they were going to get out of the cage cube. Renee’s character, Nanny Millhouse Cromwell was a blacksmith, so I made a personality roll to talk an iron cage into opening for them a skilled roll, due to her familiarity with iron.

A stretch? It is in hell. Wtf.

She talked the lock into opening and she rolled so well that the lock asked to be unscrewed from the cage, to come with them and perhaps lock up something else somewhere.

After a brief discussion, it was decided that any opportunity to see the Styx in-game should be taken. South they went.


I didn’t do much prep. I jotted down some ideas for what was in each cardinal direction and daydreamed some ideas of what encounters are like in hell. It felt like prep I would’ve done when I was 14 and winging it, high on Mountain Dew and youth.

*The Ferryman*

On the Styx was a ferryman, some patches of scalp and hair still clung to its scalp and it was going through a bag, tossing items aside that it didn’t want. In the hold of its barge were a dozen or so souls, newly arrived, just like the PC’s. They were begging.

They overhead the ferryman talk to a cultist in the hold because he spoke Infernal but the ferryman was unswayed. On the ground around it were ceremonial knives, coins, tiny polished stones, boots, flowers – things people might’ve been buried with. It pulled a long noose out of the bag.

The barge was held to shore by a longer noose rope

After Mave the Thief did some sneaking and got his hands on a few knives – one silver and one bronze. They decided to untie the noose and try to get on the boat and into the Styx’s rough current before the ferryman could catch them.

There was rope swinging and stabbing and derring-do. Nanny fell into the Styx and failed her Stamina roll, getting amnesia, no longer remembering dying at all, no longer aware that she was in hell (I figured if she was in the Styx longer she’d lose more and more memory).

The ferryman was stabbed off the rope.

They found themselves on a barge, floating on a fetid, oily river with treacherous currents.

Mave picked up the ferryman’s pole and made a solid Int roll to navigate the river; that turned out to be a big, big deal.

*The Souls*

Nanny asked for her love. Mave assured her that her love was fine. “She’s fine because she isn’t here. We’re in hell, actually in Hell.”

Mave found the key to the hold in a bag of silver and freed the other souls. Renee rolled up 3 more characters to add to her funneling.

The ship went down the river for four years, it seemed. No one really talked for those years, too scared to upset a shipmate. It felt like an awkward four years on a boat. The river branched off, one area was a calm cove and the other was rough. When one of the souls suggested that a calm cove in hell must be a trick, Mave aggreed and turned into the white water.


*The Tower and Charon*

They came upon a broken, charred tower that was easy enough to dock at. When people stepped off of the boat, Mave felt a churning in her gut, as if something was wrong. It was her first biological feeling in a long time.

Renee’s new characters, all with pretty posh stats, went ashore to see this tower. It had no doorway but had several oblong oval windows.

There was a stretched skin of an abusive wizard, who said his apprentices must’ve cursed themselves with his magic. He had a long conversation with Elsen the Watchmen, who Renee decided had been from King’s Landing.

When the apprentices buzzed into the tower, Renee’s two characters who were at the foot of the tower, casually turned their back on him and walked back to their own barge.

Elsen died, trying to lead the, Anophelii-inspired, stirge-like apprentices back to the ship. George R. R. Martin would’ve been proud as Elsen of King’s Landing’s blood was sucked dry and he was dragged into the tower to be fashioned into a throw rug to go over the wizard-skin. Renee seemed relieved that her excuse to make Game of Thrones jokes was off the table.

Meanwhile, back on the boat, a ship came out of the mist for Mave. She knew it came for her. Charon walked off of his ship from a plank and boarded Mave’s recently stolen ship.

Charon took the bag of silver that the key was in.

J: Renee, did you take the bag of silver?

R: I didn’t say I did, so I guess I didn’t.

J: Asshole Judging is in effect! The silver is still in the front of the boat. Charon takes it.

Charon explained to Mave that she owned him silver for each of the souls she had transported across the river. She offered the silver knife she had stolen and Charon took that and complimented her river skills.

Charon: Would you like to be unmaksed? (showing a sharpened hooked thumb-bone)
Mave: No, I will remain masked.

After explaining that Mave was to charge one silver for each eye of each passenger, Charon walked away.

“The first eye is mine. The rest is yours.”

Renee: 50%, you won’t find a better deal in all of Hell.


Cage – 2
Ferryman – 3
River Styx – 2
Tower – 3

That was fun and a great way to stay sideways connected to the ongoing game but not moving on without a player. If I could’ve gone back and done a bit more prep, I would’ve had a random encounter table for each direction and a loose map for my own use and inspiration.

I’m excited to find out what life is like for a group of damned souls moving with the Styx’s current, with a anointed ferry-woman leading the way.

For Sale: Signed 1st print, Batman: The Killing Joke, Alan Moore & Thoughts on Batman: Reptile Rampage

My dear friend, Alexander is selling his Alan Moore signed copy of his 1st print, Batman: The Killing Joke on Ebay.

Plugging that is an excuse to talk about Batman!

Ever since Hans said that Batman (particularly in the Nolan films) is the myth that the 1% will save us I have not been able to shake his words from my brain. I was talking about that this weekend with Janaki and Carly. I immediately thought of this E-Z reader. E-Z readers are made to bridge the reading game between picture books and chapter books. Time Warner and Disney realize that this is an age where young folks bond with an intellectual property.

In this particular book, Killer Croc wants medicine. He wants his antidote and is rampaging through a hospital to get it. Batman tells him that there are good doctors in prison.

No shit.

At one point, Robin takes Croc’s pills and spills them in the sewer.

“No!” Croc screams.

It is Batman beating up a desperate uninsured person who is suffering from mental illness. He’s kidnapped a doctor but man that detail feels tacked on. The kidnapping is done off-screen and the doctor is never interacted with in any meaningful way. The doctor is never named. We see the doc tied to a chair, being untied in the background by Robin and with a blanket on his shoulders when EMT’s take him away.

As Carly and Janaki said in their best Bruce Wayne voices, “I don’t understand people like Croc. Why didn’t he just have his Alfred get his drugs for him or purchase a hospital?”

“Death created time to grow the things that it would kill.”

I just got done watching True Detective and I liked it but I’d be really careful about how I recommended it to, if that makes any sense.

NOTE: Paula’s review and analysis are spot on!

Spoilers lurk below.

I’m thinking about how I’d game it. My first instinct is to grab Unknown Armies, make up some kind of Room of Renunciation that is a room full of inadmissible evidence that points to terrible occult crimes.

But then I look at this old Sorcerer idea. I think of Rust Cohl’s notebook and his trailer. His notebook would be his demon, wouldn’t it? The trailer is when the demon grows.

“This is a world where nothing is solved. Someone once told me, ‘Time is a flat circle.’ Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again. And that little boy and that little girl, they’re gonna be in that room again and again and again forever.”

That is the quote I want to build the game on. Starting at the kicker and somehow circling back to it again. Maybe even playing the kicker through to its completion and then when it is resolved, picking up and starting over with tiny choices as different, letting the dice fall where they may and seeing what turns out different from the first cycle.

I dunno. Rustin Cohle’s got me thinking.

Have a good weekend.