Monday, March 28, 2016

Five or So Questions with Grant Howitt and Chris Taylor on Unbound

Hi all! Today I have an interview with Grant Howitt and Chris Taylor about their current game on Kickstarter, Unbound! I'll confess to actually being pretty excited about this one - I'll leave the explanation to the guys, but I will note that the art looks awesome and it sounds fun! Here's what Grant and Chris had to say about Unbound!

Tell me a little about Unbound. What excites you about it?

GRANT AND CHRIS, SIMULTANEOUSLY: The most exciting thing about Unbound, for us at least, is the way that it rewards our GMing style - which is to say, extremely low prep, high improvisation. Neither of us like spending hours doing work for a game only to have the players walk in and make it up as they go along - so we thought "Why can't we write a game that lets the GM act like another player?" So that's kind of what we've come up with. There's no setting, because we don't like reading reams and reams of setting text (and we wanted it to be flexible), and at no point does the GM have to sit down and do anything arduous. Everything happens live, from the character creation to the world creation to the game-to-game running of the story as it advances forward. Everything happens in up-time.

Two of my favorite things to do in games are 1) punching things, and 2) jumping through windows. Can I do these things in Unbound, and if so, HOW?

GRANT: 100% on both counts. Punching things is an important and healthy part of any good game of Unbound, and jumping through windows has certainly come up in every game of it I've played. The combat is handled with a deck of playing cards per player, which they use to determine whether or not their attacks hit and also as hit points - when they're out of cards, they're out of the fight. We've found that representing health as a big stack of cards that players deal out of really visualises damage, and we've had people get quite upset when we attack them in combat because it feels so visceral. (I think the best role for punching is probably the Brawler, as they specialise in long, drawn-out melee when surrounded by too many enemies.)

We don't have quite as many rules for jumping through windows as we do for punching, but we can certainly abstract the idea of a window (and you jumping through it) in our combat system by denoting an connection between two areas as challenging - so it becomes a sort of skill test to get through it without taking harm. Also we have a power called Kick In The Door, which means you inflict extra damage on the turn you enter a room, and I definitely think that could apply to windows, too.

How do you accommodate multiple settings while maintaining a consistent system feel?

GRANT: It's been tricky! We've tied everything together with our pulpy battle system, I think, so that no matter where your game ends up it'll still, essentially, be a game about a group of dangerous people going around 1) punching things and 2) jumping through windows. But, importantly, we've done our best to keep everything evocative and exciting, but not explicitly tied to one place, time or idea. So we have Deadeyes, say, as one of the roles - and Deadeyes are people who are good at ranged combat, but that covers everyone from fantasy elven archers to Wild West gunslingers to space-suited recon scouts to magic-missile toting wizards to a dude with a hawk to someone that, I dunno, uses a nightmare science device to create furious clones of himself that have a life measured in seconds and tear his enemies to shreds.

It's been a real challenge to keep the abilities exciting whilst essentially setting-free, and I'm really proud of what we've managed to achieve. We've built something that draws players in with some cool effects and powers, but that they have to put their own mark on.

The traits - extra bonus powers that flavour your character's actions in and out of combat - go a long way to helping people define whattheir setting is about, how magical or unreal it is, how gritty it is. If you get a group picking Captain and Mighty Weapon and Rage and Dirty Fighting, you can tell that they're veering towards a different world from that of a group that chooses Transform and Shadows and and Fire and The Unnatural. So rather than trying to write different setting packs that make the game "Sci-Fi" or "Fantasy" or whatever, we give people the option to build their setting out of parts organically - Aura, a power that gives allies in the character's area certain benefits has a different flavour in a technomagic sci-fi setting (protective amulets powered by silicon demons) to when it's in a modern military thriller (shouted orders, small-unit tactics, self-sacrifice etc). But! We ARE doing setting packs for stretch goals in the Kickstarter, because we're kind of excited to write some more specific rules.

There are a number of setting-neutral games out there - what makes Unbound different?

GRANT: Well, there's the playing card thing! Pretty much everyone else uses dice. But aside from novelty, it gives each player a history of their character because we get them to write on the cards - lasting injuries, ongoing villains, lessons learned, stories experienced and so on. (We used to have people tear up cards when they went out of action because it felt really... squicky to do it, and that acted as a bonding experience. But it messed with the odds of the game too much to be a viable thing, so we've shelved that to use in something else.)

What else? I think it comes down to our world creation, as we mentioned above. When everyone sits down at the start of the adventure, no-one has to have an idea of what they're playing - not even the GM. We've set it up so that everyone builds the setting together, and plots out future scenes together, and works out what's going on in the world through a series of questions bound to character choices. Everything goes towards making a world that's tied to these characters, and vice-versa - it's a world as seen through the lens of people, not omnipotent creators, so it tends to generate more mysterious places and histories that people are eager to explore. (For example: we've got a Dirty Fighting power where you set an area on fire to give yourself an edge in battle, and if they choose it the player has to tell the GM what the most beautiful thing that their character's ever destroyed is. And, like: what was it? Who did that affect? Does the character feel bad about it? Does the owner want revenge?)

While coordinating to design Unbound, how did you set priorities for the system functions (fiddly mechanics to social mechanics), and what did each of you bring to the table in regards to design skill and knowledge?

GRANT: We didn't really set priorities, I guess? We decided, when I moved to the US in January 2015, that we should do some work on a game with each other over Skype to try and stay something approaching sane, and it ended up sticking; what started out as a weird dice system evolved over eight different iterations and hundreds of, if not a thousand, hours of work, into the thing you see today. (We've always had core, role, and trait, though - the three building blocks have always been the same.) A lot of the mechanical aspects of UNBOUND are combat related - almost all of them, really, with non-combat stuff being much broader and using a looser, more universal system tied around abstracted action and reaction more than the fine-tuned blow-by-blow of combat. Not that we're not proud of the dramatic scene resolution, mind, we've got some great play out of that. But I've often found that mechanical specificity in social scenes can really knacker the pacing and flow, so I'd rather build something flexible than something where you have to run the numbers on a conversation to see if it's a viable option.

In terms of design skill and knowledge, I'm definitely the writer of the two of us, so I'm in charge of putting all the words in the right order; we'll hash out rough rules together in a shared document over voice chat, and then I'll tighten up the wording and Chris will double check it. And, honestly, I think the biggest thing that I've got from Chris is a design safety net - where, in the past, I've built very safe, symmetrical systems in my games, this is the first time I've tried to make a serious game with lots of interlocking rules. He's given me the opportunity to try something weird and interesting and to encourage me if it's good, or tell me in no uncertain terms why it's bad. We have a great working relationship. I reckon I'd probably be married to him if we fancied each other.

CHRIS: We didn't set any hard and fast priorities when we began. I had a few goals that I wanted to reach. I wanted a combat system that gave me some chunky rules and combinations of actions and abilities. It had to feel fun as soon as you picked it up, but have an optional layer of complexity under that for me to get my teeth into. I've always loved really rules heavy combat systems for the sheer joy of sliding all of the mechanics and numbers in to place and making a character shine. Unbound also had to allow you to bring what you wanted to the table every game. From the social and skill based scenes, through combat, and even at the first moment you sit down and build a world with your friends. Everything had to provide a framework for that collaborative storytelling.

All of Unbound was written collaboratively which has given us the ability to lay out all sorts of rules that either went straight in the book, thrown away, or modified as we went on. I am certainly not a writer, I'm no where near the skill level Grant has. My talents lie more in the systems and mechanics of the game. So I'd make a new power, and it would be utilitarian. It functions and fits in a theme and performs its role. Grant then comes along and makes it sound like the best ability you've ever read and you simply have to have it for your character. We balance each other out nicely, when either of us wrote anything that wasn't up to standard it got flagged in the document in a lurid red colour and a less than positive comment got attached. Writing together allowed Grant to make a game that maybe he wouldn't have even tried writing before and to rein me in when I started making complicated tables out of everything.

Is there anything else you'd like to share?

GRANT: So what I think I'm really excited to see is what happens after this - and not just from us, but from other designers, too. I've not played anything quite like UNBOUND before, nor have I read anything quite like it, and while we're drawing on a lot of good sources of inspiration for our mechanics, I've not seen this combination. But we're just scratching the surface of what we can do with the systems we've created, and I can't wait to see what happens when other people start getting their hands on it. As in: how can we play with marking cards? How can we play with the way that the GM builds a sort of character for themselves, out of adversaries, factions and twists? What can we do to mechanically track the progress of a saga throughout all the adventures within? We've done some great work on this but I'm buzzed to see what happens if people start picking up our design, our philosophies, and running with them. In video game terms: if UNBOUND is Assassin's Creed, I want to see what our Shadow of Mordor is. I want to see if this can catch on and what that means for games in the future.

I'm really excited to see the final product of Unbound, and you can help make that happen! Check out the game on Kickstarter now to learn more about the game!

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