Level One Wonk: Unbound

Are you a Butt-Kicker, a Specialist, or a Story-Teller? There is a huge world of games out there to satisfy every player’s and group’s style. And while there are academic discussions in every corner of the internet, sometimes it’s best to start at level one. Join the Level One Wonk in exploring the possibilities that RPGs have to offer, from Aberrant to Zorcerer of Zo. Today we crack open some playing cards and get ready for pulp action with Unbound!

Most role-playing games use dice. There have been many designs in the past that have tried to get rid of them or alter them, but for every success story there are a least half a dozen games which would have been better if the designer just left the dice alone and focused on other elements of the game. Unbound is an example of a success story, where the choice to use a randomizer other than dice opened up some gameplay options that plastic polyhedrons simply cannot replicate.

Unbound is the brainchild of Grant Howitt, best known for a number of smaller RPG projects including Goblin Quest and the infamous Dr. Magnethands. He and Chris Taylor designed Unbound as a pulp RPG that fit in a niche adjacent to other pulp games like Fate and Savage Worlds. Unbound is intended to be as light as Fate, but is written in a more mechanically constrained way because it’s all about action and combat. Players choose their character’s Core, Role, and Trait, which each give certain special abilities. The players also write foundations, which are similar to Fate’s Aspects and give the player latitude to flesh out their character beyond the basics of what they select in the book.

Like Fate, Unbound has no scaling for player characters. All of the abilities are fairly generic, and there are only five maneuvers during combat (strike, shoot, move, use, recover). What’s encouraged is for players to come up with their own definition of how their abilities actually work. So while two players could have the same shoot maneuver, one may have a submachine gun while the other uses a magical staff. These trappings don’t affect damage or relative power level in any way, which makes sense for a pulp game with relatively low lethality and high variance in ability among characters. What Unbound does differently than Fate is give their Cores, Roles and Traits some very distinct abilities. This means that while the power level is the same, the roles actually feel different in play.

The big unique element in Unbound, as implied by the first paragraph, is that the game uses playing cards instead of dice. The mechanic is fairly simple: the player and the GM draw cards from their respective decks, and whoever pulls the higher number wins. The proficiency mechanic works with this fairly easily: if you draw a card with a value less than the value of your proficiency rating in a given move, that card counts as a 10. There are some color-based and face card effects as well. Now this is all well and good so far, but these elements could all be replicated with dice. The more interesting mechanics of playing cards in Unbound are the ones without dice equivalents. For one, your deck represents your “health” in a way. You have a stamina rating, and in combat you set that number of cards face down. When you take damage, you discard that number of cards from your stamina. If you don’t have enough cards to absorb the damage, you take a wound, which has a strong narrative effect and also makes you discard cards. To avoid wounds, you can use your recover maneuver which lets you draw more cards into your stamina. If you run out of cards, though, you’re taken out of the fight.

Beyond using cards for combat tracking, specific cards are marked during the course of the game; when those cards are played something special happens. There are story cards, which trigger narrative events, boost cards which give special bonuses, and scar cards which are created when you take a grievous injury in play. These cards are marked for the duration of the game, so when an event in-game makes you mark a card, it can literally come back to haunt you later.

Combat in Unbound is designed to run fast but also have meaningful options. In addition to special abilities and card conservation strategy, Unbound takes the zonal combat map from Fate and adds a slight amount of pizzazz to it. In addition to having multiple zones in combat, the passages between zones are now defined as well. Both zones and passages can be defined as either Challenging or Damaging, stating that a character either could or will take damage when occupying a zone or passing between zones. Aspects in Fate could work this way, but Unbound chooses to cement the mechanics down to two choices, once again letting the players or the GM skin these as they like.

Unbound reads like an unholy marriage of Fate and D&D Fourth Edition. Everything is very specifically demarcated like 4e, but all the trappings are left blank, giving players the leeway to define their abilities any way they like. The result of this is that the game has two layers: a tight combat card game over which any game setting imaginable can be layered. A GM will have to be comfortable with skinning, but it feels much more intuitive in Unbound than, say, Hero System, where skinning generic abilities is tied to poring over rulebooks to make sure you aren’t missing any modifiers.

There’s one mechanical issue in Unbound that, though the authors have provided workarounds in the game’s appendix, still ends up being annoying. I noted earlier that the cards get marked. Rules as written, this means you make a number of permanent alterations to a deck of playing cards. Playing cards aren’t that expensive, but when you consider that every player needs their own deck and a typical Unbound campaign lasts only 6-8 sessions, you may be burning through card decks at a rapid clip. The authors offer up three alternatives, the best one of which is buying a set of deck protectors and slipping small notes inside them. This works fine, but does mean you’re stuck with materials prep that you don’t need in other games. Though it’s an extra purchase, it’s fair to note that a deck of cards and set of deck protectors per player don’t cost more than a set of polyhedral dice per player.

Unbound provides two novelties in its design: first, basing combat around a replenish/discard card game is a neat twist on resource management combat systems like that used in D&D Fourth Edition. Second, where most games choose to either provide balanced combat rules or freeform setting adaptability, Unbound is one of the first I’ve seen that has attempted to give both. The skinning mechanics in Unbound allow for both satisfying, gamey combat as well as a significant amount of narrative and setting flexibility. If your group enjoys both narrative games and tactical combat, I recommend you give Unbound a try . . . just make sure you have plenty of playing cards.

Information about Unbound, including where to buy the PDF, is available on the Unbound website.

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