More on Failing Forward

Covenant Game Design - More on Failing Forward

We’ve talked about Covenant‘s fail forward mechanics, but I want to touch on something more fundamental here: how the Force Majeure (FM) can prevent failed bids from grinding their games to a halt.

This was inspired by a post on the RPGdesign subreddit from xxXKurtMuscleXxx entitled: “A new (?) kind of social mechanic“. The rule itself is interesting – I might even steal it later – but it’s also unimportant to this discussion. What I want to focus on is the top response, by remy_porter

The underlying problem here is the same as the lockpicking problem: how do you fail forward? If an NPC has vital information, having the NPC clam up derails the plot.

This touches upon the fundamental problem in RPG social systems: they tend to take the fundamental “winner/loser” logic of combat and apply it to social interaction, which isn’t how social interactions work.

… and the top response to that, by DastardlyCoxcomb:

This complaint is always so contrived. It’s not a system fault, it’s the GM’s fault for, in order:

– Hiding plot-vital information behind a fail state

– Not having more than one way of accessing vital information, fail state or not

– Lacking flexibility to introduce said other ways of accessing information even if not originally present

– Railroading players in such a way that the players missing one plot thread instantly derails the entire plot

– Not understanding that sometimes players just want to make a U-turn and turn the campaign into something else.

Your complaint applies to literally any system where players can fail a conversation in some fashion, from DnD to PbtA (ed.: Powered by the Apocalypse).

The best way to do handle these situations, of course, is to not gate vital information, items, or events behind bids. This is because even the easiest bids can be failed. If the players fail a bid that’s vital to the story, then the prize behind that bid is inaccessible, and the FM will have to scramble to either replace it or come up with an alternate way to get it into the players’ hands.

One way to handle this is to give the players anything that’s critical to the story, possibly through a cut scene-like bit of narration. Some FMs might feel this puts the game on rails, though. In addition, some players may not appreciate just being handed stuff. After all, they want to earn their shinies, dammit.

If you’re an FM, and you want to avoid railroading your characters, then there are a couple ways to handle story-critical bids. They’ll require you to do more work, of course, but they’ll give your players greater freedom while ensuring that they don’t dead-end the story:

  • Alternate Methods of Success: Make sure your players have more than one way to succeed at story-critical bids, and try to tailor them to their characters’ specializations. For instance, one PC might be good at fast-talking NPCs, while another is good at stealth. If the first PC can’t talk a piece of information out of a NPC, give the second a chance to, say, sneak into the NPC’s home or office to steal it.
  • Fail Conditions: Make sure your story isn’t a straight line from start to finish. When planning it, include forks at critical points, with one branch for the PC succeeding and another for if the PCs failing. Plot out both branches fully. After all, you won’t know which one the PCs will take until they get there.

That’s about it for now. I promised last week that we’d be talking about tactical movement during scenes, and I intend to deliver on that tomorrow. Stay tuned for that!

Vocabulary of the Orion Arm: The E’s through G’s

Vocabulary of the Orion Arm - The E's through G's

The chiroptim are some of the latest arrivals in the Orion Arm. They came here through a portal between our timeline and another where bats and humans evolved side-by-side on Earth. “The Crossing”, as they call it, occurred approximately 200 years ago. At that time, the Earth of their timeline was still deep in the Great Depression.

Most of the chiroptim who entered our timeline are from the Ya’os (literally “our people”), an ethnic group spread over Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. The portal to our timeline opened in Tayassam, a chiroptim neighborhood in New York City’s Lower Manhattan, and many chiroptim today retain some New Yawker attitude.

The Ya’os were among the lowest of the low in Europe. This brought them into frequent contact with Ashkenazi Jews, with whom they both cooperated and competed. Because of this, much of their slang is derived from Yiddish that they picked up from their Jewish neighbors.

As if living in a world dominated by humans wasn’t enough, chiroptim are blood drinkers and had to suffer literal blood libel in Europe and North America. To cope with this, the Ya’os developed the Machyefshef or feeding Code, which forbade feeding on humans except in extraordinary circumstances.

The situation for chiroptim appeared to be much better in other parts of “the Old World”, particularly in East Asia, where bats are seen as auspicious animals; in Central America, where bats were associated with the underworld; and in Egypt, where jackal-headed chiroptim were associated with the god Anpu. Chiroptim were much more integrated into these societies and often held prestigious positions, even up to the modern era. However, most of the chiroptim in the Orion Arm of Covenant are from the heavily persecuted Ya’os ethnic group.

The chiroptim don’t miss the Old World and aren’t particularly saddened about the portal there collapsing. Instead, they see the Orion Arm of the 28th century as a fresh start and the Covenant as the first society to welcome them with open arms.

Some “feral” chiroptim want to keep to “the old ways” that kept them alive in the Old World. Millennia of persecution leave deep scars, and the ferals are understandably suspicious of their new hosts. The rest of the chiroptim, however, are eager to integrate into this new world.

Read on to learn common Trade words that start with the English letters E through G.

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Episode 2 Is In Progress

Loading Bar Courtesy Brian McCumber.DeviantArt
Loading Bar Courtesy Brian McCumber/DeviantArt

Sean and Sazzy just finished recording the first half of Episode 2 tonight. We talked about how to portray the Covenant’s rivals in the game. These rivals are all either autocratic or fascistic, but there are reasons why they’re autocratic and fascistic, and we want to portray them in as empathetic a light as possible.

However, we also don’t want to sympathize with them. There’s a huge difference between empathy and sympathy. The former understands, while the latter endorses, and we don’t want to come off as supporting fascism.

In addition, we don’t want to make the mistake that franchises like Warhammer 40,000, Star Wars, Judge Dredd, and even Mad Max: Fury Road have made – that is, accidentally portraying “the bad guys” in a favorable light.

We think we’ve figured out how to walk this particular tightrope. However, Sazzy wanted more time to think about it, so we’re going to revisit it tomorrow. Stay tuned.

Covenant Game Design: Size

Covenant Game Design - Game Mechanics - Size

(Don’t forget to tune in to the latest episode of the Radio Free Covenant podcast!)

Covenant is filled with sapient species of wildly different sizes, from tiny acoes to hulking valka Matriarchs. We handle that by assigning everything – people, creatures, even gear and vehicles – a numerical size based on their longest dimension. See the following table (one of the few tables you’ll see in Covenant’s rules, I’m proud to say):


Size

Longest Dimension

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

And so on

0.125 m (~5 in.)

0.25 m (~10 in.)

0.5 m (~1.6 ft.)

1 m (~3.3 ft)

2 m (~6.6 ft)

4 m (~13.1 ft)

8 m (~26.2 ft.)

16 m (~52.5 ft.)

32 m (~105 ft.)

64 m (~210 ft.)

And so on


These sizes can be adjusted, by the way. Something thin like a snake might have its size reduced by 1, while something massive like an elephant might have its size increased by one.

This system allows both players and the FM to compare relative sizes during opposed bids, especially attack and stealth bids.

  • For every 1 size the attacker is smaller than the defender:
    • Add 1 advantage to attack and stealth bids
    • Subtract 5 from weapon damage
  • For every 1 size the attacker is larger than the defender:
    • Add 1 disadvantage to attack and stealth bids
    • Add 5 to weapon damage

Let’s look at some examples:

  • A human (size 5) is fighting a valka male (size 4). The human:
    • Adds 1 disadvantage to attack and stealth bids
    • Add 5 from weapon damage
  • A human (size 5) is fighting an aco (size 3). The human:
    • Adds 2 disadvantage to attack and stealth bids
    • Adds 10 from weapon damage
  • A human (size 5) is fighting a valka Matriarch (size 6). The human:
    • Adds 1 advantage to attack and stealth bids
    • Subtracts 5 from weapon damage

Sizes can also be adjusted by the target’s cover and stance. Both effectively reduce the target’s size. For cover (which also includes shields), it depends on how much of the target is covered:


Percent of Target Covered

50%

75%

More than 75%

Size Adjustment

-1 size

-2 size

-3 size


For stance, it depends on how upright the target is:

  • Standing Stance:
    • Add 0 advantages to ranged attack bids
    • Add 0 advantages to defense bids vs. ranged attacks
    • Add 0 disadvantages to defense bids vs. close quarter attacks
  • Kneeling Stance:
    • Add 1 advantage to ranged attack bids
    • Add 1 advantage to defense bids vs. ranged attacks
    • Add 1 disadvantage to defense bids vs. close quarter attacks
  • Prone Stance:
    • Add 2 advantages to ranged attack bids
    • Add 2 advantages to defense bids vs. ranged attacks
    • Add 2 disadvantages to defense bids vs. close quarter attacks

Characters can also make called shots against parts of a target’s body. Called shots adjust attack bids based on which part of the target’s body is being attacked:


Body Part

Limb

Head

Hand or Foot

Eyes

Size Adjustment

-1 size

-2 size

-3 size

-4 size


Well, that’s a long post, and it’s late. Tune in next time for when we talk about how Covenant handles tactical movement during scenes.

Covenant Game Design: Story Control

Covenant Game Design - Game Mechanics - Story Control

(Don’t forget to tune in to the latest episode of the Radio Free Covenant podcast!)

Last week, we talked about how a character can fail forward in Covenant – that is, how they can succeed with consequences or fail with benefits. Failing forward is one kind of story control in Covenant, but not the only kind . Here are the others:

  • Characterizing: Players can characterize their bids – that is, they can describe their actions in particularly vivid ways. Doing so gives them 1 advantage to that bid. To save time, these descriptions should be no longer than three sentences and take no longer than 15 seconds to say. Players should also decide on how to describe their actions before making their bids.
  • Sacrificing: A player who wins a bid can choose to fail it in order to gain a benefit. This is called sacrificing a bid. A player who sacrifices a bid can either:
    • Recharge a trait, ability, or piece of gear
    • Automatically turn their next bid into a half-cost bid (i.e., more advantages than disadvantages)
  • Stunting: A character with a half-cost bid can choose to convert it into a double-cost bid in order to gain an immediate benefit. This is called stunting. A character who stunts their bid gains one of the following benefits immediately:
    • Gains a free use of a trait, ability, or piece of gear for the bid (i.e., immediately recharges it after using it)
    • Gains additional benefits if they win the bid (e.g., does double damage, pulls off his task in a spectacular way, etc.)
    • Automatically turning their next bid into a half-cost bid
  • Flashbacking: Players who lose bids can occasionally reverse their fortunes by using something relevant that they learned in their lives. This is called flashbacking. To flashback, a player relates an episode from their character’s life that is relevant to the bid. For instance, a character who is about to be hit by an attack may remember a defensive trick that their drill sergeant or master taught them. When the player does this, their character automatically wins the bid. A player can flashback once per chapter.
  • Complications: Some species and gear have complications. Each complication has its own effects and duration, typically one bid or the end of the current scene. Other characters can tap a complication and trigger its effects when its requirements are met, but only if they know it exists. Discovering a complication usually requires winning:
    • A fixed knowledge bid (e.g., knowing the limitations of a species or piece of gear, etc.)
    • A fixed social bid (e.g., bribing someone or piecing together rumors, etc.)
    • An opposed perception bid against the target’s stealth bid
  • Banking: If a character accomplishes one task easily, then they can devote more time and resources to other tasks. This is simulated by banking advantages. A character can bank 1 advantage per half-cost bid. Banked advantages last until the start of the character’s next turn (during scenes) or the start of the next scene (during interstitials and intermissions). Characters can:
    • Use banked advantages on bids
    • Impose 1 disadvantage on an opponent per banked advantage
    • Spend all their banked advantages to avoid being affected by someone else’s abilities (i.e., disarming, tripping, etc.)
  • Desperation: Characters may be faced with hopeless situations that require them to do something desperate, crazy, and/or stupid. When this happens, the FM should allow it once. After that, identical or similar actions should either automatically fail or automatically be at double-cost.

That’s it for now. Come back tomorrow to see how Covenant handles character size.

Jeff Treppel: Rules Are for Fascists

I don’t know much about Varg Vikernes, and I definitely don’t know what I can say about him without opening myself up to a libel suit.

I know even less about his roleplaying game MYFAROG (Mythic Fantasy Role-playing Game). I do know that some YouTubers like it and that Jeff Treppel of Metal Sucks does not.

Treppel wrote a review of MYFAROG back in 2015 that had a big effect on the design of Covenant. Or rather, one sentence in his review did:

Set in the antediluvian land of Thule, a repository for a bunch of generic fantasy tropes filtered through Vikernes’ own Norse-centric historical revisionism, this isn’t that far off from Dungeons & Dragons or Conan the Barbarian – only so racist it would make Conan creator Robert E Howard himself seem enlightened. Basically, you’re trying to survive in a barbaric, Iron Age land governed by the philosophy of a man who happens to be a big fan of Hitler, Nietzsche, and Social Darwinism. Varg has done a lot of research into the culture and lifestyle of prehistoric Europeans, but even the most historically accurate material has been so colored by his toxic worldview that it feels made up. Life in Thule seems to be nasty, brutish, and short, and it’s governed by a whole lot of rules. Fascists tend to like rules. (emphasis mine)

“Fascists tend to like rules.”

That one sentence is one of the reasons why I’ve tried to simplify the rules so much in Covenant. After all, I don’t like to think of myself as a fascist.

The question, though, is: Are rules fascist? I think a game, like a society, has to have some rules. Otherwise, you’re playing calvinball, which sounds fun in theory but frustrating in practice.

But you can go overboard with them. Just take a look at this table of swimming modifiers from MYFAROG.

MYFAROG swimming modifiers, Photo courtesy of Metal Sucks.
MYFAROG swimming modifiers. Photo courtesy of Metal Sucks.

You want to avoid that, if you can.

I think what you have to do with game design, like anything in life, is to find a happy medium. Game rules should be like a country’s laws: enough to ensure fairness and happiness, but no more.

What do you think? Do you agree with Treppel, or did he go too far? Have you played MYFAROG? Let us know in the comments.

Covenant Game Design: Failing Forward

(Don’t forget to tune in to the latest episode of the Radio Free Covenant podcast!)

Bids aren’t simple pass/fail affairs in Covenant. Instead, it follows the recent roleplaying trend of allowing characters to fail forward – that is, to let them succeed even if they’re incapable of doing so, but with consequences. Characters can usually only fail forward with fixed bids, but the winner of an opposed bid can choose to let the loser of the bid fail forward, too.

There are six ways to fail forward:

  • Setback: The character’s actions cause a problem with which the character must deal. Examples include:
    • The character sneaks into an office and finds secret documents, but alerts the guards.
    • The character evades a missile in their starship, but strains their ship’s systems and burns out a critical system.
  • Silver Lining: The character fails at their task. However, they gains something unexpected or succeeds at a related task. Examples include:
    • The character is captured while sneaking into an enemy camp, but overhears their guards talking about an upcoming attack.
    • The character fails to find a cure for a disease, but discovers a technique that gives halves the cost of their next crafting bid.
  • Improvement: The character fails this time, but gains 1 advantage the next time they attempt this task against the same target. Examples include:
    • The character misses when shooting a machine gun, but then “walks” her shots into the target.
    • The character fails to crack a safe but figures out part of the combination that they need.
  • Opening: The winner of an opposed bid can allow the loser of the bid to succeed in exchange for a tactical advantage. This is usually represented by the winner gaining 1 advantage on their next bid against the loser or by a free use of one of the winner’s abilities. Examples include:
    • The character manages to hit their opponent but overextends theirself and is tripped.
    • The character is so busy chasing a starship that they don’t see its wingman slide onto their six.
  • Ablative Gear: The character succeeds, but loses a piece of gear selected by the FM. Examples include:
    • The character jumps over and barely manages to clear a space between two buildings but drops their backpack into the alley between them.
    • The character’s starship fails to dodge a missile. They eject a module from their ship, which takes the hit.
  • Condition: The character succeeds, but the FM places a condition on them that lasts until the end of the scene. Examples include:
    • The character climbs over a wall but strains their back, doubling the cost of physical bids.
    • The character sneaks past the guards but makes too much noise doing so, doubling the cost of bids to sneak past or fast-talk opponents.
  • Drain: The character succeeds, but the FM places a drain on them that does ongoing damage to their Discipline. Examples include:
    • The player climbs over a fence but rips their arm open on a piece of exposed metal, leaving their bleeding.
    • The character manages to concoct a cure for a poison, but their chemicals react unexpectedly and explode, setting their clothes on fire.

Characters have other ways to control the results of their bids and the story, as well. We’ll talk about those next time, though.

Covenant Game Design: Ties

Covenant Game Design - Game Mechanics - Ties

(Don’t forget to tune in to the latest episode of the Radio Free Covenant podcast!)

So, characters in Covenant spend Discipline to make bids and accomplish things. This Discipline represents a raft of things: their money, their mental and physical health, their social standing, and more.

This begs the question, though: From where does a character’s Discipline come?

The answer is it comes from the character’s ties. Each PC gets three ties at character creation and can gain more during the game. These can be almost anything – family, a job, a belief, a goal, even a prized possession – but they all have two requirements:

  • They must be something that your character values and is a source of mental if not physical support.
  • They must be something that your character can lose.

That second requirement is important. Losing a tie means permanently losing the Discipline that it gives to your character. As a result, losing all of your character’s ties means losing all of your character’s Discipline, which will eliminate them from the game.

Ties are vulnerable, too. They can be injured, kidnapped, and even killed. That gives your character an incentive to protect them.

Remember, though, that your character’s ties aren’t just sources of Discipline. They’re people and things that need care and upkeep. If you refuse to maintain your character’s ties, they might remove themselves from your life. Family members may refuse to talk to you. You might get fired from your job. You might lose faith in a belief. A prized possession may break and fall apart.

Your ties also have ways to control your behavior. They can temporarily cut off your character, halving the amount of Discipline that you get from those ties until you pay more attention to them or do what they want.

You can also try to find other ties, too, but this might wind up losing you the ties that you already have.

Your character isn’t just a murderhobo, and their ties aren’t just NPCs or supporting cast in Covenant. They’re people. You should treat them like that.

Covenant Game Design: Incapacitation

Covenant Game Design - Game Mechanics - Incapacitation

(Don’t forget to tune in to the latest episode of the Radio Free Covenant podcast!)

If your character can spend and lose Discipline, it stands to reason that your character can run out of it. So what happens when they do?

Before we get into that, let’s review how you can lose Discipline in Covenant:

  • Scene Damage: Recharged at the end of the scene and the start of the next interstitial. Typically lost to bids and to stun or nonlethal weapons.
  • Chapter Damage: Recharged at the end of the chapter and the start of the next intermission. Represents lethal damage from weapons, mental stress, and serious financial or social loss
  • Long-Term Damage: Restored only through roleplay or completing quests. Represents loss of limbs and body parts, mental trauma, and permanent financial or social loss

(See how Covenant handles time for more)

So, you can theoretically take a lot of chapter or long-term damage before being dropped to 0 Discipline or lower with one injury’s worth of scene damage. For example, a character could be shot several times, then get a punch to the gut to finish them off.

The opposite is possible, too. You could be weakened with a lot of scene damage, then drop to 0 or less Discipline with a single chapter or long-term damage wound. For example, a character could be weakened with exhaustion or by being kicked or punched before being dropped with a single gunshot.

In other words, when it comes to incapacitation, the only thing that matters is the injury that dropped you to 0 or less Discipline. Covenant has two kinds of incapacitation:

  • Exhaustion: Your character was dropped to 0 or less Discipline by scene damage. They fall unconscious or are otherwise too exhausted, physically and/or mentally, to continue. They’ll be back on their feet if they survive to the end of the scene, though, when they’ll regain their scene damage.
  • Elimination: Your character was dropped to 0 or less Discipline by scene damage. They fall unconscious or suffer a mental collapse. If they don’t regain some of their lost Discipline, any of it, by the end of the scene, they’re out of the game.

This leads to some interesting and nasty strategies to eliminate your opponents. It’s even possible to defeat them without entering into a single fight with them. Instead, you can cause so much damage to their finances and social standing that they suffer a nervous breakdown, lose their social ranking, or are even arrested. This allows players – and their opponents – to fight as dirty and unconventionally as they want.

That’s all on incapacitation for now. Tune in next time for when we’ll talk about a character’s ties, or from where they get their Discipline.

tetsubo57: The d20 Profession Skill and Covenant’s Traits

tetsubo57 – RPG Pondering: Redeeming the Profession skill.

A lot of people contributed to Covenant. Not all of them know it, though.

The game’s rules, design, and even feel have been influenced by the ponderings of a lot of RPG nerds. We’re lucky for that, because nerds like to tear things apart and figure out how they work. Not that we haven’t done that, too, but it has helped us immensely to take advantage of the work of people who are far smarter and creative than us.

One of our unwitting contributors is the YouTuber tetsubo57, a long time roleplayer who has been uploading videos to YouTube almost as long as it’s been in existence. His video RPG Pondering: Redeeming the Profession skill is a proposal to broaden the d20 system’s useless Profession trait: if a task relates in any way to your Profession skill, you can use it to perform that task. It’s an old solution that stretches back at least to Dungeon’s and Dragon’s second edition, but tetsubo57’s presentation of it proved to be hugely useful in the development of Covenant’s traits.

It’s not a perfect solution. It offloads a lot of interpretation onto the FM and players that should be done by the rules and can lead to game-time arguments.

Covenant had the opposite problem, though. It originally used a skill system like the d20 system, but trying to stretch skills to apply to five or six different wildly different character species simply wasn’t working. There were too many edge cases and too many weird alien abilities.

Better to describe the character species and traits as best as possible, then leave what it all meant up to the players’ judgment. And so that’s what we did.

There are a lot more videos and articles that shaped the design of Covenant. Join us when we share them on Mondays.