Unknown Armies (abbreviated UA) is a 300-page, drug-inspired, possibly satirical screed co-written by Courtney Love and Kevin Smith. It sees little popularity, except among a minority of readers who misconstrue it as a roleplaying game. They usually come to this conclusion after using it beat themselves repeatedly in the forehead. They also tend to interpret it as completely serious. This is despite its repeated claims that Ron Jeremy is a cult leader, and the "What I Hear" pages, in which the authors list things that sound funny to them while high.
Unknown Armies is divided into three sections of similar length.
The First Section
Courtney Love wrote the first section. In it, Love encourages readers to "Go downtown, fuck shit up and get fucked up" in various ways for 100-odd pages. Readers find this portion of the book especially confusing, because it offers little information on how to do so, other than ways to form groups of "fuckshituppers". It also warns the reader not to read the second section, for some reason.
The Second Section
This one is Kevin Smith's fault. It's slightly more coherent, and more obviously satirical. Smith rants about pop culture, counterculture and postmodernism, frequently using magic as some kind of metaphor, but never developing any clear message. He claims that magic comes from pretty much anything self-destructive and irresponsible and anyone who thinks otherwise is a "modernist cunt". He also insists that anyone who becomes "really fucking awesome" and is seen as such by others will acquire "cool powers", and spends a large amount of space explaining how Shaquille O'Neil and Richard Simmons are such people. Once again, he says not to read to the next section.
The Third Section
The final section is almost incomprehensible, having been written by both Love and Smith. It appears that they took turns, paragraph-by-paragraph and sometimes sentence-by-sentence. Anyone with the stamina to plough through it sees that it's even more bizarre than the last two. Other sections at least attempt some kind of central theme or thesis. This portion, on the other hand, is a milieu of bad jokes and philosophical misfires. Highlights are the list of "Stuff that's Bullshit, 'Cause Everything Else is Real" and the claim that Oscar Wilde can shapeshift and rules the world. Yet again, it warns the reader not to read the following section, but this time also advises the authors to follow their own advice and not write the next section.
Unknown Armies can't really be said to have a setting, although those who think it's a roleplaying game usually say it does. They refer to an incoherent jumble of pop culture references, conspiracy theories, ungrounded assumptions and smug allusions. Since most of the "setting information" is in the third section, it's difficult to make out. What little data there is in the earlier sections is mostly in isolated, contradictory anecdotes. However, there are repeated references to three distinct figures:
- Ronald McDonald, who has magical powers and legions of followers who put acid in McDonald's food, hoping that this will help combat Donald Trump and Ron Jeremy (why they think it will is never explained).
- Ron Jeremy, who has a growing cult of sycophants who sit in hotel rooms watching his movies and masturbating. This gives them magical powers.
- Donald Trump, who has no magical powers because he likes to be contrary. However, James Bond works for him, as do Batman, John Constantine, Mr. T, and legions of henchmen with horrible aim.
- For some reason, all the factions are very worried about Marilyn Manson.
Ronald McDonald and Donald Trump both claim that the other stole his name and changed it slightly. The irony of this is supposed to be very deep. Ron Jeremy is a wild card who both of the other contenders are very worried about because he has "that freaky tape from The Ring" (which Unknown Armies always refers to as such).
Offense to God
The book also discusses demons extensively. This is probably one of the main reasons why people misinterpret Unknown Armies as a roleplaying game, as all roleplaying games have satanic messages. It states that demons are "really dead guys, but you don't know that." It also mentions angels, but goes on to say that "they're not really angels and we're not telling anyone what they are, especially not you."
In a bizarre feat of liberal interpretation, Unknown Armies players have managed to glean a game system from Courtney Love's intoxicated diatribe. These come mainly from a few passages in the first section. The generally accepted interpretation is as follows:
Each character must have a "Hang-Up", "because everyone's fucking fake." If the players have ignored Love's warning and read the second section, Hang-Ups usually relate to what inadvisable habit fuels the character's magic or why everyone thinks the character is awesome. Then the player writes down a list of the character's "skills", one of which he or she links to the Hang Up. Skills can be described in any way a player wants, and are usually things like "Smash Your Balls" or "Hit Ten Shots of Cheap Vodka and Still Party all Night".
Fans also glean a resolution system from the rant. Whenever a player wants his or her character to do something, the GM may have that player hit him or herself in the head with the "core book" as hard as that player can. If the player's head feels softer afterward, the character succeeds at the action and the player puts a "Softened notch" on his or her character sheet. If the player's head maintains its firmness, the character fails and the player puts a "Failed notch" on the sheet. If the action has to do with the skill linked to the character's Hang-Up, the player may "flip-flop", asking another player to hit him or her in the back of the head. Since that player has a better vantage point and is not inhibited by self-preservation, this makes success more likely. Characters can only perform actions that have to do with their skills. The only exception is if a character's player allows the GM to kick him or her in the crotch.
Failed and Softened notches are both forms of prestige among Unknown Armies players. Softened notches denote greater arm strength and pain tolerance, while Failed notches show a stronger skull and greater intelligence. This is another irony that players say is very deep, usually after they have several Softened notches under their belts.
Critiques of the System
Critics of Unknown Armies claim that it's too hard to generate sufficient force to damage one's skull, making failure extremely likely. Fans of the "game" argue that the commonality of failure isn't really a problem, and that these people would stop worrying if they'd play more often.