I’ve awaited The Unexplained for years now, since I first heard about it at OGC in 2006. Back then, Brad Younie called it Strange World. He pitched it as a paranormal investigation game, for running games along the lines of television shows like Ghost Hunters and Paranormal State. This past February, I had the chance to not only play two Unexplained adventures run by Brad, but pick up my own copy of the book at TotalCon.
My primary interest in The Unexplained was as a go-to source for paranormal phenomena and their packaging for use in role-playing games. Powered as it is by FUDGE, I knew it would be easy to ignore the mechanical material while harvesting the ideas and information for use in my own campaigns and adventures. Paranormal investigation is something I’ve followed for a while, mostly in the form of podcasts like The Paracast and EERIE Radio, so the idea of a one-stop shop for role-play ready material really appealed to me. I was also interested in what ways The Unexplained would recommend running paranormal investigation games, as one of the hallmarks of the field in real life is the ever-hanging question of whether or not there’s any validity to the phenomena people experience.
After a rendition of the FUDGE rules in the first half of the corebook, The Unexplained turns to encapsulating some of the most prominent varieties of paranormal phenomena discussed today, including ufology, cryptozoology, shadow people and psychic powers. Each subject gets a competent rundown of symptoms and phenomena, as well as some discussion of prevalent theories about causes. Are shadow people, for example, ghosts, time travelers, or occupants of an adjacent dimension? The Unexplained doesn’t push one theory over another, but encourages GMs to make their own decisions about the true nature of any particular paranormal phenomena.
In honesty, that’s where I got frustrated with the book. Everything is presented in terms of signs and symptoms typically associated with a phenomena. The underlying causes are always left up to the GM’s imagination, with a few starter suggestions to get one’s mind going. Such a paucity of answers is perfectly in keeping with the paranormal, it’s the nature of the field to generate questions without answers, particularly due to the lack of traditional physical evidence, but it’s maddening as hell for someone like me, who’s looking for material to twist to taste, rather than generate it wholecloth from a starting point. Maybe it’s just the way my brain works, but I have an easier time saying, “No, this is how my version goes” in reaction to someone else’s material, than creating something out of the air. Over the years, I’ve gathered I’m in the minority on that one.
In terms of covering its chosen subject, The Unexplained is a great starting point for someone interested in running paranormal investigation games. It provides the essential information about various phenomena, as well as how it’s investigated, and by whom. As a field populated largely by hobbyists and amateurs, paranormal investigation has a variety of tools and techniques that come from making do with limited means and resources. The Unexplained explains all those gadgets one sees people waving around on shows like Ghost Hunters and why they’re considered useful in looking for signs of paranormal phenomena, and their pitfalls – an EMF detector does just that: detect the presence of electro-magnetic frequencies; where they come from and what they signify is another matter entirely. Regrettably, the PKE meter has yet to be invented.
Brad has a very conversational style throughout the book, often directly addressing the reader. He frequently uses anecdotes from his own experiences running games of The Unexplained when discussing matters of mixing role-playing with paranormal phenomena. It’s a dramatic step away from the detached voice one finds in role-playing game material. From my own perspective, it was familiar, as I know Brad and have talked with him enough to have a sense of his modes of speech. If we were strangers, though, I suspect I would find the direct address approach off-putting. Proof of testing in play, however, is always a helpful thing, and that makes the direct address approach worthwhile.
Reading The Unexplained helped me figure out what does and does not work for me about the genre of paranormal investigation. From a player’s perspective, particularly one who tends to the explorer’s mindset of mapping and charting, an unending series of questions with no sign of answers can become fatiguing. So the book was very helpful in showing me what I would need to do to make the genre work for me. The Unexplained also works as a resource for GMs needing an introduction to the tropes and received wisdom of both the genre as represented in fiction and practices people utilize in real life, particularly inventive types who just need a starting point to start spinning their own creative webs.