WHAT IS UNBOUND?
UNBOUND is a universal tabletop RPG with a focus on character-focused world-building, group-led episodic storytelling, and streamlined combat. We use playing cards as a resolution mechanic to create an exciting, freewheeling game system with lots of dramatic highs and lows – and we’ve made a game that lets the gamesmaster focus on running the game, rather than preparing to do it.
The central mechanic of the game is simple: for every action, a player describes what their character does and draws a card from their deck. The opposing party – the gamesmaster – draws a card of their own, and the side with the higher card wins. The building blocks of your character – your core, role, traits, proficiencies, foundations, scars and stories – can change the value of your card, and in combat, the suit of the card has a big impact on the effects of the attack.
Let’s take a look at the core tenets in more detail:
We’ve created a game that encourages players and the gamesmaster to create their own worlds and fill in the gaps through play. Through a series of questions tied to character choices, as the characters are made, so is the environment they live in. We’ve strived to make each character option evocative but not explicitly tied to any single setting, and to encourage players to define aspects about their characters that colour the rest of the world. Each character is made up of four main parts: their Core, which is a shared group identity, their Role, which defines their position in combat, their Traits, which add flavour to their abilities and define the world, and their Foundations, which determine the path they’ve lead up until the start of the adventure.
We like to do a character creation and world-building session that lasts several hours, and colour in a lot of details – but we’ve seen great settings and parties being made in as little as 45 minutes. We realised fairly early on that, no matter how interesting any setting we made was, we simply couldn’t create one that would see players as engaged, involved and excited as they were when they were exploring one they made themselves – so we created a game that makes doing that as easy as possible.
(Some examples of worlds that we’ve played in, generated using the system: power-armoured dwarven police drama; drunk wizards on a field trip intended to kill them as an insurance gambit; young adult cyberpunk rebellion; sci-fi noir; post-apocalyptic dragonhunters; and one where we worshipped the spirits of birds in a doomed city and hijacked a demonic train.)
Because the setting is made on the fly out of a series of parts reinforced by sound mechanics, not only is the world an exciting and explorable one, but it’s unique to every single group. The players and GM will craft a world that no-one else could have done, and that’s something we’re really proud of.
GROUP-LED EPISODIC STORYTELLING
We don’t like doing prep when we GM, but we love running games, so we wanted to write a system that lets us and the players put in equal amounts of effort before a session – and still to get some great drama and action out of the game.
As the players are just as responsible for creating the world as the GM, we’ve established a tone of shared narrative responsibility – players don’t just sit back and let plot happen to them! Our advancement system is tied to fates – events, challenges and troubles bound to each character, generated both by their own player and the group. Players are rewarded for taking initiative, performing for the group, and leading their character into dangerous situations.
The plot of the adventure is generated by the group, too, again through the questions tied to character choices. GMs can sketch out the arc of a story with help from the players in minutes.
Finally, we’ve cut up the way that campaigns work a little differently from most games. Each adventure – a plot focusing around a specific group of characters – lasts about six games, at which point those characters are shelved and a new group of heroes (or villains) are created within the same world. This way, you can explore your setting organically through play, and shine light on parts of the world that a single group of characters wouldn’t let you reach. It also means that, even if players can’t immediately commit to a year-long campaign, they can attend a smaller initial number of sessions and still get a rich storytelling experience out of it.
We love combat in RPGs, and it shows, because most of our rules are about fighting. We’ve created a battle system that makes combat stand as a centrepiece of a session, with a focus on cinematic action and round-to-round tactical decisions. Our system has an emphasis on pulp action, which ties together the universal tone of the game – whatever setting you end up making, it’s going to be the sort of setting where dangerous people are getting into violent trouble on a regular basis.
The thing we’re most proud of is our stamina system. While each player has a deck of cards that both act as a way of determining success in combat and their hit points (once you’re out of cards, you’re out of the fight), each character has a barrier of face-down cards in front of them that they use to absorb damage with near-misses, blocks, and dodges – this is their stamina. If they take a hit but they’re out of stamina, no matter how minor, that hit is upgraded to a wound – a serious strike, generally with some dramatic side-effects.
Each round, players must choose whether or not to push on and press the advantage, or hang back and recover their stamina. We’ve done our best to abstract as much as possible, because we want to leave the mechanics flexible – and stamina is a great example of this. We don’t have rules for cover, for example, and instead represent tactical positioning and enemy lines of sight with stamina – along with a whole array of other factors.
Coupled with a wide array of character options, this leads to some exciting group dynamics and moments of bold heroism, stunning gambits and frantic failure. We love the way that combat feels, and our playtesters have loved it too.
OTHER IMPORTANT DETAILS
We’ve recruited a great selection of guest authors to create world seeds for us that will help you generate your setting. Amongst the designers so far, we’ve got Gav Thorpe, Jason Morningstar, Cara Ellison and Meg Jayanth – and more besides.
We’ve written an exhaustive gamesmastering chapter which contains advice on running not only Unbound, but other games too.
We have some gorgeous art from Adrian Stone, and he’s contracted to illustrate the whole book should we fund. We’re really happy with how he’s managed to capture the spirit of Unbound in his work so far, and we can’t wait to see what he does with the rest of it.
We need funding to pay for producing the book – for art, games design, layout, printing, copy-editing and proof-reading. The text of the book itself is written, and has been thoroughly playtested by sources inside and outside of our group. What comes next is adding finishing touches and polish to make it into a great product. Back Unbound on Kickstarter now, and take a look at our backer levels for some exciting rewards.
ABOUT THE TEAM
Unbound is written by Grant Howitt and Chris Taylor. Grant’s previous works include Goblin Quest, One Last Job, Havoc Brigade, Warrior Poet, Doctor Magnethands, and more besides. It’s Chris’ first published work. He and Grant have been gaming and making systems together for over a decade.
Mary Hamilton is producer on the project. She managed Grant’s successful Goblin Quest Kickstarter, runs Serious Business (a live games company) and is an executive editor at the Guardian when she’s not playing games.
The illustrations are by Adrian Stone, whose clients include Penguin, Harper-Collins, Horrible Histories, Usborne and Oxford University Press. To see more of his illustrations, go to stoneadrian.com.
Alina Sandu is doing design and layout on the book; she worked with Grant to create Goblin Quest. She’s proved invaluable in several of his projects before, as well.
Harry Goldstone is doing proof-reading and copy-editing. He’s new to the business, but good, and has been unofficially doing proof-reading on Grant’s work for several years.