Americana and Unknown Armies

Published by: Atlas Staff
It's been said that Unknown Armies is distinctly American in its outlook. Perhaps some will find Third Edition less so—not because the approach to its cosmology is so different, but because the lens with which we view 2016 is so different than the one through which Unknown Armies designer John Tynes saw the world in 1996. With every passing day, the borders among global powers become blurrier, and Unknown Armies has always thrived on fuzzy logic. Mak Attax is an international phenomenon, after all.

Unknown Armies finds a lot of both love and fear about the American landscape. And why not? Our characters in other games have been to the scary old house in England, the moldering castle in the Carpathians, or the ancient ruins in the Yucatan. In the context of roleplaying games, we think of distance as equivalent to exoticism, but the mundane and familiar where we live is less explored. What about the burger joint we all known and love, or the back of our local post office? Unknown Armies plays upon the past, but it's the recent past of abandoned Blockbusters and Radio Shacks. It finds ample fuel in the tabloids, the strip malls, the pawn shops, and throughout the rotting carcass of the Midwestern Rust Belt. That gothic church over there might be creepy, but more so than the truck stop off I-94?

Unknown Armies' seediness owes much to film noir and the writings of folks like James Ellroy. But these aren't unique to America. Noir films in general, while an American genre, were deeply influenced by German Expressionism and the sensibilities of displaced European filmmakers emigrating to the US during or after World War II. These artists' profound ambivalence about the human condition contrasted starkly with the traditional Hollywood "happy ending." For example, designer Greg Stolze cites the more recent Spanish film Intacto as a near-perfect Unknown Armies story.

There's a grottiness to Unknown Armies, like an old VHS copy of Basket Case that's been viewed ten too many times. But you can find manifestations of that aesthetic all around the world, both in native forms and as an American export.


Unknown Armies