It must have been 19999 or 2000 when we were playing a lot of Unknown Armies. I bought the first edition as soon as it came out, hooked by the advertising blurb, “A role-playing game of transcendental horror and furious action.” The game was a nice change from what we’d been playing. Inventive fiction reminiscent of a few sci-fi authors I hadn’t read at the time, mostly Tim Powers, a simple task resolution mechanic, and a lethal combat system. One nice feature was how the game measured a player character’s reaction to violence and the occult, tracking his mental state along a madness meter, a scale that indicated how psychologically damaged the character became as a result of his actions. A second feature was the emphasis on the non-player characters’ motivations. Rather than bad guys and good guys, there are just characters with desires, some noble some not, and the game’s conflict occurs when the characters’ desires bash up against the non-player characters’ desires. Some characters are incredibly ruthless and murderously psychotic, certainly making them “bad guys”, but the majority of characters float in this grey area of conflicting motivations. Good stuff, and if I’ve taken any long-term lessons from Unknown Armies it is to give a scenario’s (or story’s) antagonist a motivation for his actions rather than just making him naughty and evil. This worked well in my Ars Magica adventure “The Champion’s Portion“, in which the two wizard antagonists simply have different desires for the same magical area, and the player characters get mixed up in the middle of the wizards’ attempts at achieving their different goals.
Ten plus years later I still have Break Today: The Mak Attax Sourcebook sitting on my rpg shelf. I didn’t read it when I bought it in 2003. I skimmed it, but we’d petered out playing Unknown Armies and had drifted into some other game. I actually think it was our first (and only) run through a D&D 3.0 campaign. My resent packing and re-shelving of my rpg books brought Break Today to my attention and I read it over the weekend. Not all of it, but enough to form an opinion on the book.
The book opens with short story describing the main characters of Mak Attax, one of the dozen secret occult groups in the game. The story, “What You Think You Know”, is okay. It details the major NPCs and is shows how magick – yes, “magic” with a hanging “k” – works in the game’s narrative, and is fairly violent. It works in painting a picture of the role-playing game and is readable. It might be better than I’m saying, don’t know, but the big point is that it is not awful. Lots of rpg fiction is awful, and many good game designers are poor storytellers and bad writers. Take a look at Monte Cook’s Numenera. The opening fiction is so bad that I stopped reading the book for two weeks. Then when I did pick it up again . . . but that story deserves a post of its own.
After the fiction come the organization’s rules. Mak Attax members work in McDonalds restaurants and hand out magical Happy Meals to random customers in the hopes that their magical meddling will make the world a better place. The authors, Mr. Stolze and Mr. Underkoffler, cleverly avoid writing “McDonalds” throughout the book, neatly sidestepping any legal actions from the food industry giant. An intricate part of the organization are its mailing lists, various email groups that information is passed among members. Wrapping my mind around this as I read, I’m thinking, “so my player character works at McDonalds, and when he is not working he is at home reading emails. Is that fun?”
Next comes the personnel, pages of NPCs. You know how I said that I liked what Unknown Armies does with NPCs earlier, with motivation and what? This got to be a little much, but then again I was reading it straight through. I bet if I used this in a game this information would be invaluable. After the major NPCs we find out what the game’s other occult groups think about this one. All good, I skimmed the lesser cabals section. Then we get the games magic doodads, the magic items and the spells. Because magic, I mean magick, is flavored to suit the theme of the game, most of these artifacts and rituals are weird. Kind of dippy. It probably works well in the game, but I found the new magick schools more cumbersome than cool. The Anagram Gematriast, the Plutophage, the Herpemancer (likes snakes, not herpes) thematically work in the game even if they don’t seem ideally suited for a Mak Attax character. Then there is a section on familiars, which doesn’t fit in with the book (“Hey boss, can I bring my parrot with me as I work the drive-thru window?”).
Finally we get to the meat, I think. What do you do with this book? You use the many story seeds to run games. There are many, which is good. Some of them are so convoluted that no group of players will ever figure it out, i. e. “Lunch Rush in the Sky with Diamonds” (p. 123), for those with the book. We get suggestions how to string the smaller stories into a campaign (a group of stories jointed together into a great sweeping narrative). Lastly, we are offered four starting characters, which can be used as either as pre-generated characters for the group, or as more NPCs.
So what do you get? A lot. You get starting characters, an organization with rules, all the relevant NPCs stated out, guidelines for interacting with other unknown cults, and several stories to run your game. Minus the core rules, this a complete package. But if pretending to be a pimply-faced teenager who works at a McDonalds, probably doesn’t have any magical ability other than handing out magical Happy Meals that someone else makes, and spends his spare time reading email lists doesn’t appeal to you, there isn’t much here for you. The authors wrote to a very narrow audience, I think. I also think that Mr. Stolze loved the idea of a Mak Attax campaign, because the next published release was just that: To Go: An Unknown Armies Campaign.
Unknown Armies is a good game. “Break Today” is a well-packaged supplement if you like the Mak Attax occult group. If you don’t, there isn’t much here for you. I’ll give “To Go” a read over the weekend, and hopefully it is more than just a Mak Attax campaign.