Thursday, February 09, 2006


My Thoughts On Unsung

Note: This isn't really a review, especially as I haven't played the game (yet). I've read it exactely once, and am giving impressions, mostly as they relate to Carry.

I got Unsung for a couple of reasons. First, it's one of those games that I kinda-sorta paid attention too during it's development, and I want to establish a habit of actually finding out how those end up. Secondly, it's been mentioned in passing that it's in the same general vein as Carry (i.e., a war game that doesn't suck). Thirdly, I need to do better with the whole reading/playing other games as I'm developing mine thing. So, I get on the intar-web and order the coil-bound version from In general, I prefer coil-bound, so I'm always happy when its offered. It's 53 pages, color front cover, 8.5x11, written by Kirt Dankmyer via his Ivanhoe Unbound imprint.

The game is cool. My focus is on how it's similar too and different from what I'm doing with Carry, so that's what I'm gonna talk about.

Basically, Unsung is about forcing hard moral choices onto the characters, with a heavy dose of shared appreciation of said moral screwage. The "setting" is a group of characters who regularly face situations that will force those choices, with the actual setting qua setting being left up to the group (though Kirt offers a fantastic spread of genre settings that hit pretty much everything that qualifys). Systemwise, characters have a small number of traits (6, I think), with a simple d20 roll-under mechanic for determining success.

Carry, on the other hand, is about exploring the effects of the one specific high-stress situation (squad in Vietnam) on the characters, and how their issues interface with the rising stress, and their pre-determined doom. Just to make that clear.

Anyway, the core of Unsung is Gifts and gift points. Essentially, a player can give another players character a Gift whenever it would be appropropriate. A Gift is a detail or event in the scene that forces a moral challenge on the Gifted (heh) character, who must then succeed at a Responsibility check to retain control of the character. If they fail, they suffer a Lapse, where their character must take the morally easy/expedient choice, usually the most violent, brutal action they can. The Gifting player gains a Gift point if the Gift is accepted (more on this in a sec). Gift points can be used to help succeed at rolls (including Responsability checks), take over non-protagonist characters, increase stats, etc.

So, the core of the game is creating a group of characters that continually face morally stressful situations, then having the players Gift other characters with tough choices in order to gain the currency of increased effectiveness and advancement. There is also a Retirement point system, which means that the group accumulates RPs in every mission, and then when they hit whatever threshold (default 50), its time to wrap up the narrative. Character death is also very possible and needn't be avoided, as it can be a powerful statement. Also, gift points stay with the player, not the character, so you still are in on the game even if your protagonist bites it.

This is all cool. My only problem with the rules is the continual presence of veto power - usually, if anything is going to happen to your protagonist, both you and the GM have a veto to use over it. While I admire the social contract enforcement application of this rule - as in, there is a continuous tool available to you when you feel like others are being inappropriate towards your character, encoded in the rules - I feel like it's ...kind of weak as a design statement. To me, it takes the game from being about forcing moral choices to being about allowing moral choices.

However, the issue that it addresses (in my mind) is very real, and very applicable to Carry. That is, this kind of genre gets into some heavy shit. Making the choice to kill a child to save a group of hostages, for example, or to execute an innocent man in order to preserve peace between warring gangs - this is all stuff that, for some people, will push buttons. Especially for police officers, military personnel, and other people that do have to or have dealt with these real issues, how do you make the game a valuable experience?

In Carry, I'm looking to call for a very clear discussion about people's backgrounds and their lines with the material that will come up in play - but once that has been had, all bets are off. In Carry, if you can't deal with the shit that comes up, there's either been a breakdown on one level (social contract level or literal communication level), or you've just learned something about yourself. In Unsung, if you can't or don't want to deal with it, you have a veto. Different approaches.

The awesome thing is the Gift system, and how that encourages everyone to get involved with everyone else's issues. I touch on it in Carry with the Backstory mechanic, but it's not very developed. The difference is that, in Unsung, the actual adversity comes from everyone at the table. In Carry, the GM provides adversity until and unless the players actively pursue conflict among themselves - until the endgame, when the characters have to turn on one another. But, if playtesting reveals that more total table input would be appropriate, I'll definitly be using Gifts as a model.

Oh, and the other thing I really like about Unsung is the Rule of Currency, where if one roll would obviously influence the chance of success of the next roll, you apply a modifier based on the former to the latter. Where this gets really cool is you can roll Instinct (what it sounds like) to apply to Guts (doing violent stuff), and you always have the option to double that bonus, for the cost of making a Responsability check (as of you were given a Gift), possibly suffering a Lapse. This balance of rewards and fallout really appeals to me as a designer, and it's a very cool and elegant way to say that when people gain strength from their savage nature, they will probably lose their moral conviction. Very nice.

Hopefully that makes some sense. Is there anything else anyone is curious about? Any more explanation needed for anything?

I'm glad you liked it. I encourage you to try out the whole-table input thing for Carry; stuff that I would have never thought to include in a game have come out in that way, and every time it made the game cooler.

(I'm very interested in Carry, by the way. It sounds to me like a dark combination of Unsung and Trials of the Grail, and I mean that in the best way. It's got a tragic feel that I really groove.)

I actually agree about the veto thing, but I was concerned about player comfort. It's notable that of all the times I've run the game, I've seen the veto used once, maybe twice. I think the option of having a veto makes people surprisingly comfortable. It's like a safeword in S&M: Even if it's never used, having it there lets you push your boundaries in a comfortable way.

That said, there's a reason the sidebars have an optional rules removing the veto, or making the veto cost Gift Points, or whatever. If your group is that hardcore, I don't think it breaks the game to go that way.
Thank you for posting this overview! It was quite insightful.
Kirt - Yah. I hope that playtesting shows the right mix of input/adversity that will make it sing. Carry is...nothing but tragic.

Yah, I meant to mention the sidebars and optional rules, but the post was getting long enough. I don't think it would break the game at all to not have vetos (or, to have it cost Gift points. Thats what I would do). I guess the difference is, you want there to be that safety net, right there, ready to catch people. I....don't. No biggie.

Dev - Cool, I'm glad it was helpful!
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