Covenant Game Design: Advantages and Disadvantage

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.

Radio Free Covenant: Episode 1 – Hello World!

Radio Free Covenant: Episode 1: Hello World!
Episode 1: Hello World!

It took longer than we thought it would, but Radio Free Covenant is finally on the air. Join Sean and Sazzy as they talk about:

  • The Covenant and Matriarchy from their tabletop roleplaying game Covenant
  • Idealism vs. pragmatism in science fiction
  • Sean’s elevator pitch for his novel Crossing the Line, to be published soon by Black Opal Books

The articles we talked about in this episode were:

How did we do with this first episode? How was the sound quality? Let us know! If you don’t tell us what we did wrong, we can’t fix it.

Our announcer was the dulcet-toned voice actor Markus Phoenix. You can reach him at

Interstitial music was Worst Sound by Gowler Music at and Used with permission.

Outro music was Speed of Light by Lyvo at and Used with permission.

Vocabulary of the Orion Arm: The C’s

Vocabulary of the Orion Arm: The C's

Trade was originally developed over 120,000 years ago during the founding of the Covenant on the calerre homeworld of Cadelle. The Covenant at that time was comprised of refugees, adventurers, mercenaries, and other ne’er-do-wells, many of who didn’t speak each other’s language.

Trade was originally a stripped-down, easily taught and learned mercantile language. It was designed for trading, defending the Covenant from military attack, conveying the most basic of needs, and nothing else. It eventually became the de facto common tongue of the Covenant and began to pick up phrases and vocabulary from across Cadelle, and eventually from across the Orion Arm.

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

Continue reading “Vocabulary of the Orion Arm: The C’s”

Covenant Game Design: Traits

Covenant Game Design - Game Mechanics - Traits

Traits in Covenant are anything that your character is, knows, or knows how to do. Their species and gender are traits. So are where they come from. So are their jobs, careers, hobbies, and any random skills that they’ve picked up along the way.

Whenever you spend a trait on bid, you add one to your bid. That’s one less Discipline that you have to spend on your bid. Best of all, you can spend any trait that applies to your current bid on that bid. It doesn’t matter how off-the-wall the connection is. As long as you can convince the FM that a trait has something to do with your bid, you can spend it on that bid.

Say you have the Rifles trait. You could spend this trait on bids when you:

  • Shoot a rifle (you know how to aim a rifle and line up a shot)
  • Defend yourself from a rifle attack (you know how people fight with rifles and can use that to your advantage)
  • Repair a rifle (you know the inner workings of rifles)
  • Buy a rifle (you know how to recognize a good rifle from a shoddy or inaccurate one)
  • Talk to people who use rifles, like soldiers and mercenaries (you can talk shop)

And so on.

Many other roleplaying systems, like Dungeons and Dragons, have something similar to traits in skills. They works, but we decided that they were a little too restrictive for Covenant. They tend to have a small number of well-defined uses. If you try to use them for something unconventional, you either can’t or must come up with a house rule on the spot. The Discipline game mechanic, on the other hand, implies that you can use any and all of your character’s resources in any way you can imagine, or at least in any way that fits the current situation. Covenant’s traits had to have that flexibility, as well.

That’s about it on traits for now. Tune in next week for advantages and disadvantages.

Covenant Game Design: Bids

Covenant Game Design - Game Mechanics - Bids

Yesterday, I told you about Discipline. I told you how everyone has it in Covenant, whether you’re a PC or an NPC. Now I’m going to tell you how to use it.

If you want your character to do something, you spend some of your Discipline to make a bid. You always make a bid to either overcome something in the environment or against another character.

You make fixed bids to overcome something in the environment. Examples include hacking a computer or performing a difficult spaceship maneuver. Your bid must exceed the target of the task, which is a fixed number determined by the Force Majeure (FM). If your bid exceeds the task’s target, you succeed at accomplishing the task. If not, you fail and possibly suffer penalties, like being detected by the computer’s security or crashing your spaceship.

You make opposed bids to overcome another character. Examples include hitting someone with a weapon or bluffing your way past a guard. Opposed bids always have an attacker, who is trying to make some change in the world, and a defender, who is trying to prevent that change. If the attacker’s bid is higher than the defender’s, then that player accomplishes what they want. Otherwise, they don’t.
Remember that your character’s Discipline represents all of their available resources. This means you can roleplay or skin your bid any way you want. For instance, if you’re trying to talk your way past a guard, you could skin it by:

  • Showing a forged pass that you got from a contact
  • Spending money to bribe the guard
  • Use your speaking skills to convince him that you belong there
  • Intimidate him so that he’s too scared to stop you

The winner of a bid also gains storytelling control – that is, the ability to describe the bid’s outcome. If the player wins a fixed bid, then they describe the bid’s outcome. Otherwise, the FM does. If the bid is an opposed bid, then the bid’s winner describes its outcome.

Discipline isn’t the only thing you can spend on a bid, though. Tune in tomorrow when we talk about your character’s traits.

Covenant Game Design: Discipline

Covenant Game Design - Game Mechanics - Discipline

Well, I told you yesterday that Covenant has some strange rules – so strange, in fact, that new players would need transcripts from a full play session to get their head around them. I should elaborate, huh?

Covenant is a tabletop roleplaying game, similar to Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder. The players control characters (known as player characters or PCs) in the game. One player is the game runner or game master, called the Force Majeure or FM in Covenant. The FM controls nonplayer characters or NPCs, which represent everyone with whom the PCs interact – enemies, allies, monsters, robots, etc. So far, so good, so vanilla.

However, players and the FM don’t roll dice to accomplish tasks. Instead, they spend a highly abstract, finite resource called Discipline that periodically renews itself. (Vehicles and robots have something similar called Endurance that works the same way) Discipline represents all of a character’s resources, including:

  • Physical Resources: The character’s strength, endurance and agility, as well as their ability to dodge attacks and take hits
  • Intellectual Resources: Training, education, life experience, resourcefulness, logic, and intuition
  • Mental Resources: Mental endurance, grit, and the ability to keep going no matter what
  • Material Resources: Ammunition, money, fuel, energy for technological gadgets, and specialized resources, like bandages, antidotes, and medicine for healing injuries
  • Social Resources: Political capital, contacts, good will, and the ability to persuade and/or threaten people into doing what you want
  • Financial Resources: Money, trade goods, assets, and the ability to take out loans

This isn’t as unusual or innovative as it seems at first. There are other diceless RPGs, like Amber, and some of these have a measure of resource management, like Nobilis. Discipline was inspired by a number of Wizards of the Coast mechanics, including the d20 Modern’s wealth bonus.

We think that Discipline is a logical progression from the “hero points” or “brownie points” used in other games. In fact – early in Covenant ‘s development, when it still used dice – characters only used Discipline as hero points and story control.

However, Discipline’s roles expanded until players were able to spend it on bonuses to their rolls on a 1-to-1 basis. It was at that point that we decided to get rid of the dice and make Covenant diceless. That one change opened up a lot of possibilities, as well as created a lot of headaches.
So how do players use Discipline? Tune in tomorrow, when we talk about bids.

Andy Kitkowski: Teaching Rules with Replays

Kotodama Heavy Industries – Japanese TRPG Replays : What are they? How are they different from Actual Plays?

They do things differently in Japan.

For instance: replays. You know those corny one-page sample games that most western RPGs stick at the start of their rulebooks? Japan goes way beyond that, selling recordings and transcripts of entire game sessions in book or audio format. I never understood the idea of reading or listening someone else’s game, but they’re not made for me. They’re made for a Japanese audience, and apparently they sell like hotcakes over there.

It was only a matter of time before someone came up with the idea of using RPG replays, not just as entertainment, but as a teaching tool – specifically Toichiro Kawashima at Adventure Planning Service for the game Shinobigami.

According to Andy Kitkowski of Kotodama Heavy Industries, which translated Shinobigami into English, doing so makes sense in Japan. Players there prefer one-shots to long drawn-out campaigns. Including a replay in your rulebook that teaches players how to play your game makes it easier for players with busy schedules to learn it. It also benefits games with weird rules or play methods, because a replay lets players see a successful example of play. Shinobigami has been so successful, in fact, that other RPGs have adopted teaching replays, as well.

It’s definitely something I want to try with Covenant. I’ll never say that Covenant is !!!GROUNDBREAKING!!! or !!!INNOVATIVE!!!, but it is unusual (more on that tomorrow). Including an actual example of play will should lower player frustration when learning it, if nothing else.

Vocabulary of the Orion Arm: The B’s

Try to think of the Covenant’s Trade language as an alien version of English. It Hoovers up words and phrases from everything that it encounters, no matter how much that contradicts what it already has. Like English, it can be frustrating to learn, but worth it.

Continue reading “Vocabulary of the Orion Arm: The B’s”

Covenant Game Design: The Gutenberg Zine Option

Tabletop roleplaying games have a potential unmatched by any other art form (and yes, I said that TRPGs are art).

First, they’re cheap entertainment. All you need are pencils, paper, dice, friends, and some rules. Furthermore, since everyone can afford them, everyone can play them. And finally, since they’re little more than guided improv theatre, that huge, inclusive audience can be whatever they want to be, at least within the confines of the game.

RPG equipment is minimal and multipurpose. You’re always carrying the most important piece between your ears. This means that RPGs are more versatile and interactive than either video games (which need a computer), board games (which need a board and pieces), or card games (which need cards).

Best of all, RPGs are cheap to make. You don’t need to know how to program, run a printing press, draw, or make 3D models. You don’t even need a computer. Just bang your game out on a pawn shop Underwood or Selectric, run off copies at a Kinko’s and sell those. Or give them away for free. Your costs are minimal at that point.

Of course, I want Covenant to have a nice package, not to mention popping art that’ll get tweeted out or pinned on some influencer’s Pinterest board for publicity. So does everyone who makes an RPG.

And that’s a problem, because an honest desire like that can turn into the sinking-in-a-vat-of-leeches effect that I talked about in yesterday’s game design article. That effect has been a part of the RPG industry for some time, and It’s accelerated recently, with:

  • Essential rules spread across two or more books
  • Proprietary dice, cards, counters, and other equipment
  • Preprinted character tiles instead of blank, easily copied character sheets
  • “Starter sets” with pregenerated characters, walled garden campaigns, barebone rules, and ads for the full game

Capitalism’s rule of “If you can, you must” applies to game design, because you’re competing with every other game designer and they’re competing with you, so you better have nicer art and more bespoke equipment and swag in your package than they have in theirs.

The alternative, of course, is to keep your costs down. Keep things simple. Play to the strengths of RPGs. Ignore your competition, then ask yourself, “Wait, why am I competing with these people again? Who put us up to this, and why did we agree to go along with it?”

I originally called this “the Gutenberg zine option” as a joke. The more I think about it, though, the more appropriate it is.

Books had been kept out of the hands of European commoners for centuries because of the high costs of book produciton. Part of that production was illumination – putting them in a pretty package, in other words.

Then Johannes Gutenberg invented the printed press and movable type, and suddenly books, along with what was in them, were available to a wider audience.

Luckily, that DIY/punk/zine attitude has been part of RPG culture since its very beginnings, too, with players publishing homebrew rules, and it continues to this day. Just Google “200-word RPG”, “micro RPG”, “one-page RPG”, or just “free RPG”.

I’m not publishing a one-page RPG, of course, or a free one. I want nice art and layout for Covenant, like I said. But even the costs of a Wizards of the Coast flagship-grade core rulebook are microscopic compared to those of a triple-A video game.

The sales are microscopic, too, but that’s okay. It’s just the two of us, and I for one am not in this to get rich.

Covenant Game Design: We Live in a Society

The Super Nintendo Entertainment System was released in North America in 1991. When one of us (Sazzy) bought theirs, it came with two controllers and Super Mario World, a game that two people could play. You could take it out of the box, plug it in, and be playing a game with your friend without spending another dime. Pretty slick.

Fast forward a scant 10 years to 2001, when the Xbox was released in the U.S. When Sazzy bought his, it came with one controller and no bundled-in games. You’d have to shell out more money just to use the console, and even more if you wanted to play a game with someone. And if your friend lived in another state, you’d have to pay yet again to play with them over Xbox Live (late 2002). Convenient subscriptions are available.

The situation in the video game world has continued to deteriorate, with loot boxes, microtransactions, games-as-a-service, and soon subscription game streaming, and I’m probably forgetting a hell of a lot here. It’s like sinking into a vat of leeches.

If you’re a gamer, the last thing you should be worried about are the “SJWs” and their “forced diversity” and “political correctness”. You’re being bled white, dude, and the worst part of it is I think you realize it.

People like Jim Sterling have been up to their elbows in this sort of thing for longer than I have. They have a reputation for railing against it, and they’re right to rail against it. However, since I checked my privilege in the last article, I think I have to check my outrage in this one.

See, most of these practices, possibly all of them, are legal. Are they ethical, though? Well, these game publishers are trying to survive in a capitalist society, just like you and me, and capitalism says they can make money this way. And they do make money this way. They’re very good at it.

However, since we live the Mirror, Mirror universe, if you can do something, then eventually you must do it just to survive – or at least survive in the manner to which you’ve become accustomed, which is the same thing to many people.

Game publishers have run out of games, so they have to find new ways to sell you the games that they have. And then sell it to you again. And then again. And then charge you DLC for that game. And monthly subscriptions to that game. And chapters. And game passes. And roadmaps. And “optional” cosmetics. And loot boxes. And locked loot boxes that you can wait to unlock, but why wait when you can buy a key right now?

I’m not immune to this, either. This was originally supposed to be part two of a much longer article. Blogs aren’t conducive to longreads, though, especially ones run on a shoestring. So I had to cut it up and spread it out.

The baloney machine has broken down at the tail end of capitalism, so the butcher has to slice the baloney he has left thinner and thinner. Pretty soon, he’s cut it so thin that he has to sell you the idea of baloney and the idea of eating it. Because if he doesn’t, he’ll starve.

How does this affect tabletop RPGs? Worryingly, it does, but there’s hope. Stay tuned for tomorow’s article.