Unknown Armies: Dead Presidents

Published by: Atlas Staff
This is another of our series of guest blogs about Unknown Armies to celebrate our ongoing Kickstarter for Unknown Armies Third Edition. Today's post is by award-winning game designer and writer Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan.


I’m sure it’s possible to run an Unknown Armies game that isn’t set in America, but I know I never will. The game is quintessentially about America to me, violent and trashy and rootless and crazy and always about to drunkenly stumble into apocalypse. (Disclaimer: America is also full of lovely people and nice things.) Apparently, I passed that attitude onto my players when I asked them to brainstorm some suggestions for an UA campaign, because they came up with two absolutely brilliant ideas that only work in an American contest.

One of them, the one about a team of cursed Gulf War veterans who turn into terrorists at night – or, to be precise, everyone perceives them as terrorists by night – could have been really interesting to explore, but we were all binge-watching the West Wing back then, so we went with the other concept, and it led to one of the most entertaining campaigns I’ve ever had the pleasure of running.

Dead Presidents

The player characters were all ex-Presidents of the United States of America, on the run from the sinister shadow government/cult that resurrected them. George Washington, Herbert Hoover, John F Kennedy, Richard Nixon and George W Bush (he choked on that pretzel and was replaced by a magical doppleganger) marauding across the Occult Underground, like the A-Team filtered through a PBS biography series. Oh my word, it was fun. All the player characters racked up magical powers pretty quickly – Washington, for example could command anyone who’d ever served in uniform under the flag of the United States. JFK found Excalibur (because Camelot). Nixon, after an encounter with Ben Franklin’s electric ghost, ended up able to throw lightning bolts.

Obviously, the campaign went to bizarre places. Washington spent a lot of the game stuck in the body of a teddy bear toy after mouthing off to Immortal Teddy Roosevelt (who found the fountain of youth during one of his expeditions). The cryogenic head of Walt Disney tried to marry JFK to Snow White in order to complete the alchemical marriage of spiritual and temporal power in America. The Mystic Campaign Bus got trashed by the Lincoln Memorial golem that secretly guards DC.

Here's Looking At You (photo by Peter Griffin)
It all sounds absurd, doesn’t it? But here’s the wonderful thing about Unknown Armies – it takes the absurd, and treats it so f*cking seriously that you don’t have a choice but to run with the crazy.

Look at the funny drunk guy. Look at the funny drunk guy, who’ll only drink from one old Styrofoam cup that he carries with him everywhere, because he claims that it comes from Jonestown and makes everything taste of Kool-Aid. Look at the funny drunk guy, and shudder because he means it all. He’s crazier than you are, and that makes him stronger.

Look at the funny drunk guy as he telekinetically peels your eyeballs like grapes.

In the end, the Dead Presidents saved the world. They crept into the White House by sneaking through a secret time-crossing entrance that went through August 24th, 1812, and liberated the country from the grip of the cult. And by the end of the campaign, what had started out as a pop-culture spoof had become something deadly serious, with real emotion and desperation.

Unknown Armies isn’t the moment when you stop laughing at the absurdity. It’s the moment when you realize you stopped laughing twenty minutes ago, and didn’t notice because you were busy trying to murder Goofy with a shiv made from broken glass.


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