Unknown Armies started when John Tynes approached me with a passel of ideas for a new game about modern occultism. He was inspired by the way H.P. Lovecraft had created a cosmic mythology that was a definite break from what had preceded it, and he had ambitions t o make a similar break from both traditional mythsand the Lovecraft Mythos. He also wanted it to have a goddess who’d been a star in grindhouse porn.
We both just kind of got in the car and put on the gas without having much of a roadmap. That had its effects, good and ill, on the game. Both of us were plopping out ideas, only later trying to herd them all into some mutual coherence.
My bag was, I wanted UA to be a break from what were then the default horror settings — Call of Cthulhu and the World of Darkness. It wasn’t because I hated those games or had contempt for them. Rather, it was a recognition that I wasn’t going to do what they did better than they did it. I needed to find a new route.
I’ll confess that I was a little fed up with the helplessness inherent in both games. In CoC, no matter what you do, the coleopterans eventually inherit the Earth. The time travelers can tell you all about it. It’s done. In the WoD, it’s not quite that predestined, but there are still vast forces about which you know nothing and can do nothing, while they control everything. All the wretchedness of the world was due, not to the mischief and malfeasance of mankind, but to the vampires or evil spirits or werewolves manipulating the government and big business behind the scenes.
(Interestingly, the new version of the World of Darkness has soft-pedaled that “monsters run the show” angle.)
I never really articulated it, but I wanted UA humanity to be big enough to screw things up all on their own. One day my older brother sent me an email (on a totally unrelated matter — I think maybe I helped him convert a file so his word processor could read it?) with the subject line “you did it” and I really liked the phrase. So accusing, yet so promising of agency and accomplishment! It became the motto for Unknown Armies.
John and I both had strong opinions about where UA should go and what it should be, and we meshed remarkably well. Years later, I confessed to Tynes that I felt a little like a parasite. “You were the guy who came up with the central conceits of the Invisible Clergy and the House of Renunciation and TNI and everything,” I said. “Plus, the layout. All I did was build mechanics and fill in a few gaps.”
Tynes looked at me and blinked and said, “You’re kidding, right? I’ve always felt like you did all the heavy lifting — taking a bunch of half-baked ideas and turning them into something that made sense. And I never could have designed the rules.”
There it is. A testament to the creative power of log-rolling. What I learned from UA is that the best creative partnerships are the ones where each of you thinks the other guy is doing 70% of the work, and you’re the lucky Ringo along for the ride.