Around last September, I was asked to run a game for a friend whose husband was going off to the wilds of Queens University to finish his doctorate. I sent her a list of games that I could run for her, along with a brief description of each, and asked her to pick one out, and to let me know who else she wanted to invite to the game. She narrowed the list down to six choices, and the four people1 who signed up for the game voted on which one sounded best to them.
The winner was a game very dear to my heart: Unknown Armies.
That made me very happy, but UA has significantly more upfront work than something like, say, Apocalypse World or D&D. The first thing we had to come up with was the campaign frame.
I pitched them a couple, and we discussed it online, and the group was split. They were interested in playing a team of agents for TNI or the Sleepers, or playing a group on the run from one of those groups. I thought about it for a bit, and then gave them this pitch:
You thought you were smart. You had the world figured out. Maybe you had the inside track on weird stuff in your neighbourhood, or were a consummate bad-ass, or maybe you even had a little mojo yourself. Whatever it was, you thought you were large and in charge.
But something went wrong. Something bad.
And, just like magic, someone showed up and made the problem disappear. Unfortunately, you had to disappear along with the problem. Now, you’ve got a new name and a new job. Your name is an alias, and your job is doing whatever The New Inquisition tells you to do. Yeah, they saved you, but they have no intention of letting you go. You owe them. You’re useful. And now, they own you.
When you own someone as completely as TNI owns you, you give them all the shit jobs.
Some of the things you’ve done for TNI don’t sit well with you. And they’re getting worse. They know they have you over a barrel, and they’re taking advantage of that. You’ve committed crimes for them, committed blasphemies for them. You’ve sinned against the law and the church and humanity and reality itself. You need to get out before you lose what’s left of your self.
Yeah, they own you. But not every part of you. And not forever.
You’ll show them.
Because the UA universe has a particular flavour, and the players weren’t really familiar with it, I pointed out some important considerations for this campaign frame:
- I’ve tried to mix the feel of the TNI/Sleeper team with the feel of the fugitives/outlaw frames.
- The fact that you have all been rather forcefully recruited means that it’s cool to have disparate backgrounds, and even ties to other cabals. So, if you want to be, e.g., a Grail Knight still focused on your quest, but now roped into doing TNI’s dirty work, or a member of a mystical outlaw biker gang working for TNI to avoid going to prison forever, that’s totally cool.
- In a frame like this, you’ll have to come up with one extra piece of background for your character: what went so horribly wrong that the only out you had was disappearing into TNI.
- The idea in a set-up like this is that the first couple of adventures will be doing nasty stuff for TNI. At some point – not too soon, but not too late, either – you’ll make your break from TNI, and then the game turns into a fugitives frame.
- Because the idea in this framework is for you to really chafe at working for TNI, I will not be gentle with your characters while you work for them. I will do my best to hurt them – not necessarily physically, but I will certainly gut-punch their souls and consciences.
They decided they liked that pitch, and so we moved forward.
We got together about three weeks ago for character creation. I planned to use the session to create characters, instill some of the UA feeling in the players to shape their expectations, and build some more detail into the campaign using Backstory Cards. There was a bit of a glitch, as one of the players had to cancel, but we decided to go ahead anyway, and work something out with our missing player after the fact.
Character creation was fun. We got all three characters worked out, which takes a while for first-time UA players. The passions and drives take some fiddling to get right, and the skill system has some nuances to it that can take some time to explain and grasp. But, in the end, we had our characters:
- Cooper, a videomancer obsessed with Twin Peaks, that TNI hunted down and forcefully recruited once she started messing with network executives to get the show back on the air.
- Cruz Gibson, an ex-special forces, ex-Sleeper agent who managed to burn ALL his bridges behind him, and took TNI’s offer of “employment” rather than get snatched by a Sleeper hit squad.
- Neon Shadow, a kleptomancer hacker and thief, who ran afoul of the Five Families in magick-free NYC by using his mojo to try and steal the Kimberly Diamond, and thus was amenable to a new job offer.
Then we trotted out the Backstory Cards. I backed these on Kickstarter, and had the print-and-play basic set. The horror or noir expansions would have been nice, but the basic set worked just fine for us. In short order, we had enough background worked out to see the dynamic of the team: the bromance between Neon and Cruz, Cooper’s unrequited love2 for Cruz, and Neon’s general manipulation of everyone and everything, and Cooper and Neon’s rivalry. Also, it brought Eponymous into things, as the one who prevented Cooper from attending Comic Con where the Twin Peaks miniseries was announced, and the big stick that keeps Cruz and Neon in line.
And they came up with their own unit name, in keeping with TNI practice: TEAM BANSHEE.
I’ve compiled a setting bible for the team and sent it out for their review. It’s incomplete, mainly because it doesn’t include anything about our fourth player’s character, because that character is just a concept right now.
I’ve given the player some options for her character: she can be the newest member of the team, with minimal connection to them3; she can be a standard member of the team4; or the team’s first assignment can be to recruit her character for TNI. I told her to think about that stuff, but not make any decisions until she had seen the setting bible.
I’ve sent it out, now, Fera. I’m going to start pestering you for decisions, and trying to set up a time to create your character.
So, that’s it. We’re almost set to start playing. I’m looking forward to it.
And, for the record, Backstory Cards absolutely rock.