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.

Vocabulary of the Orion Arm: The D’s

Vocabulary of the Orion Arm: The D's

The thk’kok are, after the valka, the most numerous sapient species in the Orion Arm. They are also unique in the sense that they did not evolve any kind of vocal cords. Instead, they communicate via clicks and glottal stops. As a result, they have a hard time communicating with other species.

Some thk’kok receive laryngeal implants to help them speak with other sapients. Others, however, either have religious restrictions against these implants or don’t want to cut their own throats open just to be able to talk to other species.

Trade has adapted to the thk’kok by developing a sign language. The thk’kok have three fingers on each hand, so other species usually use their first three fingers to utilize this sign language. These gestures have become so popular that many Trade speakers use them even when they aren’t speaking to thk’kok, to the point that it often resembles spoken Italian.

Read on to learn common Trade words that start with the English letter D.

.Read more

Covenant Game Design: Damage

Covenant Game Design - Game Mechanics - Damage

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

So, your character can spend their Discipline on Covenant to make bids and accomplish tasks. How do they regain that spent Discipline, though? And if Discipline represents (at least in part) their physical and mental health, then how do they heal?

To answer that, we have to talk about how Covenant handles damage.

Damage in represents a loss of Discipline from a variety of sources, including:

  • Being struck by a weapon
  • Trying to accomplish a task
  • Losing social status or standing
  • Expending ammunition, fuel, and other resources
  • Suffering mental stress and trauma

There are three kinds of damage that a character can suffer: scene damage, chapter damage, and long-term damage. (See yesterday’s post on how Covenant handles time for more) Each one differs in when it’s restored or recharged to a character’s pool of free Discipline. They are defined as follows:

  • Scene Damage: Represents a less-serious loss of Discipline to bruising, exhaustion, and non-lethal or stun weapons. It can also represents a minor or easily replaced loss of resources. Scene damage is recharged as soon the scene ends or, if your character takes this damage during an interstitial, at the end of the next scene.
  • Chapter Damage: Represents more serious wounds, loss of resources, and damage from lethal weapons like knives and guns. It also represents a longer-term loss of resources. Chapter damage is recharged as soon as the chapter ends or, if your character takes this damage during an intermission, at the end of the next chapter.
  • Long-Term Damage: Represents scarring, limb loss, mental trauma, and a permanent loss of resources. Long-term damage can only be restored through roleplay, by accomplishing character goals, or with cybernetic implants.

One way to think of damage is as a series of buckets. Whenever your character takes damage, they pours some of their free Discipline into the appropriate bucket. When they regain Discipline, either by recharging or by some other means (i.e., healing, etc.), then they pours the contents of the appropriate bucket back into their free Discipline. This lets them use that regained Discipline again.

Let’s look at an example. Your character has 300 Discipline at the start of a scene. That means they have 300 Discipline in their free Discipline “bucket” and zero in their other buckets.

Damage Example - 300 Free Discipline, 0 Scene Damage, 0 Chapter Damage, 0 Long-Term Damage

You spend 30 Discipline on a bid. Bids usually count as scene damage, so 30 of your Discipline goes from your free Discipline to your scene damage. This leaves you with 270 free Discipline.

Damage Example - 270 Free Discipline, 30 Scene Damage, 0 Chapter Damage, 0 Long-Term Damage

Then you’re hit by a weapon that does 50 damage. Weapons usually deal chapter damage, so 50 of your Discipline goes from your free Discipline to your chapter damage. This leaves you with 220 free Discipline.

Damage Example - 220 Free Discipline, 30 Scene Damage, 50 Chapter Damage, 0 Long-Term Damage

You manage to survive to the end of the scene, so the 30 scene damage gets poured from your scene damage bucket back into your free Discipline bucket. However, the chapter hasn’t ended yet, so the 50 Discipline in your chapter damage bucket stays there, leaving you with only 250 of your original 300 Discipline to make bids, withstand weapon damage, and so on.

Damage Example - 250 Free Discipline, 0 Scene Damage, 50 Chapter Damage, 0 Long-Term Damage

That’s it for now. Tune in next week when we discuss how Covenant handles your character being incapacitated.

Covenant Game Design: Game Time

Covenant Game Design - Game Mechanics - Game Time

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

I said yesterday that I’d talk about how Covenant measures game time – that is, the time experienced by the PCs within the game. Game time is important, because it governs how often characters can use their abilities and regain their Discipline.

Covenant campaigns are broken up into:

  • Scene: A single fight, confrontation, chase, or puzzle. The scenes ends when the action ends or the confrontation or puzzle is resolved. Scenes are separated into rounds. During each round, each character participating gets to take a turn.
  • Interstitials: The time between scenes. Characters usually have a limited number of things that they can do during an interstitial, like gathering information, sneaking into an enemy base, or healing allies.
  • Chapter: A series of related scenes, usually leading to a climax where some plot threads are resolved. You should be able to resolve a chapter during a single gaming session. A one-shot campaign or story usually encompasses a single chapter.
  • Intermissions: The time between chapters. Characters usually have a limited number of things that they can do during an intermission. However, the actions that they can accomplish during intermissions are more complicated than the ones they can accomplish during interstitials, like learning new abilities and crafting or upgrade new gear.
  • Story: A series of related chapters, usually leader to a climactic scene where most or all of the plot threads are resolved.

Your character has four attributes that are affected by these:

  • Discipline: Spent on bids, which is how your character accomplishes tasks. Affected by advantages and disadvantages.
  • Traits: Spent on bids, but more often. Not affected by advantages and disadvantages.
  • Abilities: Gives characters special abilities, storytelling control, or ways to bend the game’s rules
  • Gear: Includes armor, weapons, and other equipment

Traits, abilities, and gear can all be utilized only so often. In addition, abilities and gear can be utilized in more than one way — the more powerful the application, the less often it can be utilized. After being used, they must “cool down” until they recharge, much like your character’s discipline. (And yes, this was inspired by Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition, and thank you for noticing)

All three of these character attributes can be either used, tapped, exhausted, burned, or destroyed.

  • Use: Recharges immediately after use
  • Tap: Recharged when the character’s next turn in a scene starts
  • Exhaust: Recharges at the end of the scene (or if exhausted between scenes, at the end of the next scene)
  • Burn: Recharges at the end of the chapter (or if burned between chapters, at the end of the next chapter)
  • Destroy: Destroys the affected trait, ability, or piece of gear. Your character permanently loses this attribute.

That’s it for now. We’ll look at damage and how it affects a character’s Discipline tomorrow.

Covenant Game Design: Advantages and Disadvantages

Covenant Game Design - Game Mechanics - Advantages and Disadvantages

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

So, in Covenant, your character has Discipline and traits, and you can use these to make bids and accomplish tasks. However, you also need to keep track of the circumstances surrounding your bid, too.

Most roleplaying games keep track of these circumstances with numerical modifiers like bonuses and penalties. The problem with this method, though – at least in my opinion – is that there has to be a different modifier for every circumstance, and often several to represent different levels of severity. This creates modifier bloat: long lists and tables of modifiers that are difficult to memorize and can slow down a game. The game master can make up modifiers on the fly to speed things up, of course, but that just increases the GM’s workload, and they have enough work to do as is.

We wanted to do something different. So, after a lot of thought, we came up with advantages and disadvantages.

An advantage in Covenant is anything that benefits a character during a bid or makes that bid easier to accomplish. This could include:

  • Having an advantageous position
  • Holding the high ground
  • Attacking from concealment
  • Using superior weapons, tools, or parts
  • Having plenty of time to accomplish a task
  • Interacting with a friendly NPC

A disadvantage, on the other hand, is anything that hinders a character during a bid or makes that bid harder to accomplish. This could include:

  • Being outflanked or outmaneuvered in a fight
  • Attacking or defending from a lower position
  • Being attacked from concealment
  • Using inferior weapons, tools, or parts
  • Performing a task quickly or cutting corners
  • Interacting with a hostile NPC or an NPC from a different species

Each circumstance affecting a bid adds either 1 advantage or 1 disadvantage to the bid. Some specific circumstances, like an attacker’s relative size to its target, may contribute more, but this is rare.

Unlike traditional modifiers like bonuses and penalties, advantages and disadvantages don’t directly affect your bid. Instead, you count up the number of advantages and disadvantages affecting your bid. This affects the cost to raise your bid.

  • More Advantages than Disadvantages: Your bid is at half cost. Every 1 Discipline you spend raises your bid by 2.
  • More Disadvantages than Advantages: Your bid is at double cost. Every 2 Discipline you spend raises your bid by 1.
  • Equal Advantages and Disadvantages: Your bid is at normal cost. Every 1 Discipline you spend raises your bid by 1.

Advantages and disadvantages don’t affect traits, though. Traits always add 1 to your bids, no matter the circumstances. They each represent a level of expertise and training in a field or subject that you can always call on, no matter what.

That’s it for now. Visit tomorrow to see how game time is measured during a game of Covenant.