Posts Tagged ‘Unknown Armies’

Finally, talking about that game…and gun control (contains scenario spoilers, semantics, politics)

May 22, 2010 1 comment

Quite some friggin’ time ago, I promised a post about the game of Unknown Armies I ran.

Yeah, that post didn’t quite happen.  It turns out, finishing grad school can be kind of hectic!  Amazing.  But here we are, for unexpected reasons.  I want to talk about that game briefly, and the game of Scion that followed, and tie it into our national discussion about gun control.


Unknown Armies has been described as Pulp Fiction as filtered through Clive Barker.  Jim, of Struggle, Fast Talk, and Bluff, has called it “the Secular Humanist Call of Cthulhu“.  Both of these are pretty apt.  It is modern occult horror with a heavy tilt to the weird, and a good dollop of, as the game says, “furious action”.  Now, when I ran the game some weeks back, I took a group of mostly-novice gamers through the “Three Bill Toges” scenario included with the core book.  For those unfamiliar, this scenario is pretty much just straight up high weirdness by mail: the PCs encounter a 3-way accident on a country crossroad.  All three cars are identical, and all three have the same driver.  The cars explode, and the PCs come to to find themselves, 12 hours earlier, crouched in the middle of a supermarket in the midst of a robbery.  Resolution of this scene leads back to the crossroads, another explosion.  Now they’re in an apartment, where one man brutally beats another.  Scene, crossroads, explosion, and now they’re in a trailer park full of cultists in the middle of a desert as the federales are moving in.  The common thread is one Bill Toge, mystically (and unknowingly) split into three years ago, reaching crisis points in their separate lives, and then colliding as they fled, ripping reality apart.  With no direct info, players have to sort out that Bill is the problem here, and that he has to be in some way stopped in each other life, to prevent this accident from having occurred.  Weird and unsettling things happen when they fail to stop a Bill from meeting his destiny.

Now, this scenario has a lot that is quintessential UA: it is big on the mystical weirdness, chock full of uncomfortable topics (child molestation, cannibalism, and more), and never gives the players any answers.  At no point are the players “rewarded”.  They make it through the scenario or don’t; they stop Bill or don’t.  “Success” doesn’t come with answers, and failure doesn’t come with known or understood consequences.

Some players like this.  Some don’t.  It’s UA, though, very much in the spirit of the thing: you don’t necessarily get to understand the what, the why, or the how.

But here’s where the gun control comes in:

My players were a mixed bunch, as were their characters.  Only two, perhaps 3 of the 6 were at all combat-competent, and of those only one really used guns.  What is interesting is how that affected play.  All the characters were members of The New Inquisition; effectively occult mafiosos with the implicit understanding that killing may be necessary.  But when combat broke out, most players opted to try to talk their way out of things, hide, or surrender (particularly to police).  The characters most capable of combat, notably the gentleman with the gun, on the other hand, always opted to fight, and usually chose to do so as a first resort, not last.  Indeed, the gun-toting character cold-bloodedly murdered people, killing even defenseless NPCs in the name of expediency.

Cut to our Scion game.  This is a game of modern day children of gods, literal half-divine, half-mortal sons and daughters of the gods of various pantheons.  Our scenario took the band of godlings to New York City.  A variety of clue paths had led the players to the swanky, high security apartment building of a well-known philanthropist.  Some of the players had talked to him earlier; others had followed his trail from the scene of a crime.  The group, gathered in the secure lobby, wanted to go back up to the gentleman’s penthouse.  A couple not-so-thought-out social gambits were tried, but without much success (the security guards were not fools).  While the party debated their next move, the son of Susano-o (one of the Japanese pantheon) drew his katana from beneath his coat and threatened the security guard (who was behind his desk).

Let’s cover this one clearly:

1) High security building, with

2) Very, very wealthy residents,

3) In NYC,

4) Under plenty of surveillance cameras,

5) And the guard is behind one of those big security desks you see in the fancier buildings, complete with monitors, radios, etc…  and a panic button to the local precinct.

And this cat draws a sword on them.  For no fucking reason.

Needless to say, the guard punches the panic button, jumps back, and all hell breaks loose.

Now, I hear you out there:  “Josh,” you say, “what the hell does this have to do with gun control?”

Please allow me to explain.

An argument often parroted when the subject of gun control comes up in this country is the old saw, “when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.”  Or, as someone I know elsewhere recently put it: “Criminals don’t care [about gun control laws]”.  Regardless of your thoughts on guns themselves, this, at first glance, appears to be a point that must be conceded.  Obviously, criminals (gangs, organized crime, drug cartels, terrorists) are not going to be prevented by gun control laws from arming themselves.  Thus, the laws only really serve to keep guns out of the hands of decent, law-abiding citizens.

“Hey!” you shout.  “I cannot really argue that point, and that upsets my liberal ideals/coheres to my conservative worldview/fits nicely with my pro-gun but otherwise non-partisan opinions!”  Gun control serves mainly to keep guns out of the hands of ordinary, law-abiding people.  It’s true.  What people don’t seem to understand is that this is entirely by design, and the debate is not over whether or not gun control does this, but whether it should.

The real question is: why might it be a good thing to keep guns out of ordinary, law-abiding hands?  To answer that, we go back to the “only criminals will have guns” motto.  See, the people who make this argument are implicitly suggesting that crimes are committed by a category of people called criminals.  By extension, law-abiding types (who, they argue, should be allowed to have whatever guns they want: they’re good people, see?), do not commit crimes.  Criminals don’t care about laws, and cannot be stopped by them.  Law-abiding citizens obey laws.

Do you smell the bullshit yet?  For this argument to be true, all gun crime must be committed by criminals, a category clearly implied to be synonymous with gangsters, thieves, and terrorists.  Hardened criminal sorts.  But what they forget is that the act of, say, shooting someone for rear-ending your car, or for sleeping with your spouse, or whatever…that act is transformative.  It turns a formerly law-abiding person instantly into a criminal.  We can’t stop criminals from shooting people if they really want to, but we can make it less likely that an ordinary, law-abiding citizen is transformed into a criminal, and we do so by making it more difficult to possess a gun.  Yes, violence will still occur, but as violent crime involving firearms rose through the 80s and 90s, other violent crime went down.  Leaving aside the fact that non-gun-related violent crime is drastically less likely to result in death or crippling injury, guns make violent crime easy.

People, decent, law-abiding people (even not-so-decent ones) have a certain aversion to violence.  They may love it on TV and in movies and games, but ask them to take a bat to someone in real life, or just to punch someone, and they tend to balk.  We’re conditioned to be (comparatively) nonviolent.  But guns provide distance.  They have a seductive power.  Pointing a gun at something and squeezing the trigger is not at all like pummeling that same thing (be it person or target) with your bare hands, or with a melee weapon.  It removes questions of size and weight and reach and all the other things that incline even the aggressive away from open violence.  The gun is an opportunity.  And people are insecure, often powerless sorts in a world much bigger and more powerful than them.  A gun can make them feel like they can even things out, even if it’s just in this one situation.  He stole my girl.  He fired me.  Fighting them would be hard.

But a gun?

Bang.  Solved.  Bang.  Vengeance.  Bang.  I win.

I’m not saying guns cause violence.  They don’t.  It is true that people are what kill people.  But guns change the psychology of the situation, and to pretend otherwise is to play the fool.  But I’m not here to advocate for gun control (in truth, my stance on the matter is…complicated).  I’m here to talk about how this is relevant to gaming (my apologies for such a long route to get here):

Guns, or any weapon, really, change the psychology of the person who carries them.  This applies in gaming as much as it does in real life.  Think about your games: violence has probably figured strongly in most of them if you’re anything like most groups.  Sure, part of the reason is that RPGs are the descendants of wargaming; they were explicitly combat simulators before they were anything else.  And it’s true that part of it is almost certainly due to the fact that combat is one of the easiest forms of conflict – to set up, to make rules for, and to resolve.  You can try to lay the blame on our cultural referents, as well: action films and pulp thrillers are full of fights.

But none of these are really the main reason.  Plenty of games have moved beyond the wargaming roots.  Plenty of games are drawing on cultural references that are as much, if not more, about nonviolent conflict as they are about violence.  And most games make at least a cursory nod towards rules for resolving non-combat conflicts.  The real reason gaming tends to keep being about combat is, I think, because it’s almost always about weapons.

Pick up an RPG at random.  Odds are better than chance that, even if the game is not supposed to be all about combat (say, I pick up Vampire, which is ostensibly a “storytelling game of personal horror”), if you turn to whatever passes for a section on equipment, most of said “equipment” will be weapons (or combat-related, such as armor).  Players especially have a tendency to only think about their character’s possessions in terms of what they put on their sheet; what goes on the sheet is usually what they find in the book.  What they find in the book, is, of course, weaponry.  I would argue there’s a not-so-subtle reinforcing effect: the player thinks of their possessions as being, in essence, a collection of weapons.  When they face a problem in-game, their toolbox is, basically, full of hammers.   So everything looks like a nail.

In our Unknown Armies game, the players without weapons tried honesty, they tried deceit, and they tried persuasion.  They tried cowardice; they tried surrender.  They tried cunning and running and thinking.

The players with weapons attacked.

Every time.

I can’t say whether or not that’s a bad thing.  It may not be, for a given game or for a given group.  But I think it’s interesting.  And it makes me think about the applications of the realities of gun control to gaming: not to to prevent criminals (bad guys) from committing crimes, but to prevent good people from becoming criminals.  It’s often been remarked upon that RPG “heroes” are really violent sociopaths.  But maybe, just maybe, that’s because a character isn’t “done” until they’ve chosen from a list of weapons.



Sweet Chin Music

March 27, 2010 1 comment

Tonight I ran a session of Unknown Armies for some folks here at the Guildhall.  Violence, madness, tragedy, and just plain weirdness ensued.  A full after-action report will follow tomorrow, but for now I just wanted to note that it’s good to put on the GM hat again, good to revisit this truly strange game, and that I still don’ t feel like I’ve got the chops to run a really good weird game.

My thanks go out to the players, whom I hope I did not bore overmuch.

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