Alien Culture: You All Look Alike to Me

Covenant Game Design - Alien Culture: You All Look Alike to Me

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Sean again. Let me ask the trekkies out there something – well, two somethings.

What’s the first word that you think of when I say “vulcan”?

What’s the first word that you think of when I say “klingon”?

I’m going to guess that most of you out there thought “logical” for vulcans and something like “warrior” or “warlike” for klingons.

Now, let me ask you something else.

What’s the first word that you think of when I say…


I don’t want a sentence or phrase. I don’t want three words, or two words.

Sum up all of humanity with one word.

I don’t know what you chose. Not that it really matters, because I’m going to guess that there’s a huge variance in what everyone reading this chose.

I’m also going to guess that the more self-aware of you out there felt pretty uncomfortable trying to reduce all of humanity – with all of its ethnicities, all of its national and regional identities, and all of its contradictions – down to one word. Not even one idea. One word.

That’s something that started bothering me… I’m going to say a decade or so ago, way before I started thinking about Covenant – why all the aliens in Star Trek were monocultures. All vulcans were this. All andorians were that. Their homeworlds were essentially one world governments with one culture, and if they managed to take over more than one planet, then that extended offworld, too: Romulan Empire, Klingon Empire.

Humans, naturally, were part of the only “good” multicultural faction in the galaxy: the United Federation of Planets. Also, naturally, they played an outsized role in the affairs of the UFP. That was partly because of limited makeup budgets and a desire to make easily relatable characters for a prime time audience, but still.

I don’t know as much about Star Wars. Since it’s more pulpy than Star Trek, though, I suspect it’s worse.

Sexy twi’leks. Shifty toydarians. Dirty jawas. Savage Sand People. Thuggish hutts. Bad-tempered wookiees. You get the idea.

I’ve seen this in roleplaying games, too. All elves are this. All dwarves are that. All half-orcs, halflings, gnomes, tieflings, dragon people, wolf people… they’re all easily summarized and monolithic. They may be separated into kingdoms, tribes, or hordes, but these are all culturally and politically identical.

Hence what I’m trying to do with Covenant: make the species that you can play and encounter a little less monolithic.

I’m not going to be able to make complete cultures. Cultures develop over hundreds or thousands of years, while I’ve been thinking about this universe for maybe two decades.

I’m also not going to be able compete with franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek. They have deep pockets to hire top-notch writers, armies of fans working for free to expand them, and too big a headstart on me.

What I can do is avoid the “All X are Y” trope in my own game. That’s what I’m going to do with the next few posts here. I’m going to give some of the nations, ethnicities, and general outlooks for each playable species in Covenant, including the humans.

I hope you’ll stick around for it.

Pronouns in Covenant

Covenant Game Design - Pronouns in Covenant

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Sean here again. So, we’ve learned that alien sexual cues may be incomprehensible and downright repulsive to other species. This has some surprising consequences, and it forces us to take a side on a contentious, real-life subject.

Dealing with aliens on a regular basis is more stressful than you think. That’s because you can never be sure of the gender of the alien to whom you’re talking. You can learn their sexual cues eventually, but in the mean time you’ll be pissing off a lot of people and possibly starting a lot of fights.

Now, add in aliens that can change their gender like the calerre, sequential hermaphrodites like the thk’kok, and all the posthuman madness that comes from genetic engineering, cybernetics, and body-jumping artificial intelligences.

To avoid these problems, Covenant citizens use genderless pronouns, at least until everyone knows what pronouns everyone prefers. These pronouns are ze and hir, and they are used this way:

Instead Of:Use:
“He flew away in his ship.” “Ze flew away in hir ship.”
“I tried to yell at him, but he was gone.” “I tried to yell at hir, but ze was gone.”
“He seemed pretty satisfied with himself.” “Ze seemed pretty satisfied with hirself.”
“He knew the day was his.” “Ze knew the day was hirs.”

We’re going to use these pronouns, too, in the game and on this blog.

It’s not just because we want to be respectful and polite. Covenant is to some extent not just a game about the Covenant, but a game from the Covenant. It carries some of the Covenant’s values with it, values that we hope to explore in future blog posts and podcast episodes.

We’re not saying that you should use these pronouns in everyday life. We don’t. Covenant as a game is filled with suggestions, not rules. You are welcome to use the suggestions that fit your gaming group’s play style and discard the rest.

These pronouns aren’t hard to learn, though. If you feel confused, don’t worry. We’ll include a link here to every blog post we write from now on.

We hope you’ll indulge us in this, and we thank you for your patience with us.

Alien Romance: Close Encounters of the Naughty Kind

Covenant Game Design - Alien Romance: Close Encounters of the Naughty Kind

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Sean here again. Instead of writing a post on Covenant’s Trade language, like I normally do on Fridays, I want instead to continue talking about alien biology and communication.

Remember that photo of the female chimp that I posted back on Friday? It’s relevant to what I want to talk about today.

When a female chimp is in estrous, her genitals will swell and turn bright red. That’s absolutely sexy to male chimps, but absolutely repulsive to humans.

Now, chimps are one of humanity’s closest genetic relatives, if not the closest. Yet their sexual cues are incompatible with all of non-freak humanity.

Now, as biologist PZ Myers has pointed out, imagine the sexual cues of an alien – an organism that evolved on another planet, with an incompatible biochemistry and a thoroughly foreign perceptual apparatus and psychology.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy the sexy aliens of Star Wars and Star Trek, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t, either. There’s nothing wrong with them, okay? They’re fun, they’re sexy, they conform to genre expectations… what’s not to like?

However, if you want to make things a little more realistic, like we do, then you’re going to have to get rid of sexy aliens. Just like faster-than-light travel and the Force, they’re not possible.

Love between species is going to be complicated, too. I’m not saying it can’t happen. However, the suite of emotions and drives that one species calls love may be nonexistent or completely different in another. A human may feel trust, concern, and even a feeling of comfort with their alien partner – or partners – but they should probably expect to receive either nothing or a different and incomprehensible suite of emotions in return.

Sex is going to be a problem, too. They’ll probably incompatible sexual organs or practices, and they’ll definitely have incompatible sexual biochemistry. We can assume that intercourse is going to involve an exchange of bodily fluids and, between alien species, those fluids will either be completely inert or toxic.

We can also rule out hybrids like Star Trek’s Spock and B’Elanna Torres. That’s because genetic material will also be incompatible between alien species.

I’m not saying that love and sex are impossible between species. Humans get creative when they’re horny, and there’s no reason to assume that aliens wouldn’t be equally creative. Nature will put up a lot of obstacles, but I’m confident that we’d overcome them if we really want. We just might have to suit up like we’re going on a moonshot first, is all.

And if we want kids with our alien lover, or lovers, we could always adopt. The desire to have children is a powerful one, so much so that some mammals that lose their own babies will adopt children from other species. It’s hard to tell the effects that being raised by alien parents will have on a kid but, if the parents are attentive and careful enough, I don’t see why it can’t be done.

This post is getting long enough, so I’m going to end it here. There’s one more thing I want to touch on here, though. Tune in tomorrow for our very first weekend post to find out what it is.

Alien Communication: Darmok at Tanagra

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Sean here again. Yesterday, I was talking about how aliens would have incompatible biochemistries with humans. That’s not the only way that they’d be incompatible, though.

Aliens with different anatomies and biochemistries will, by extension have different neuro-anatomies and neurochemistries. They’ll have evolved in alien environments with alien stimuli and hazards, so they’ll have alien ways to perceive them, alien ways to communicate them, and alien ways to deal with them on a societal level.

These differences will have profound effects in alien psychology. They will go way beyond the “all X are Y” tropes of popular science fiction – you know, “all vulcans are logical”, “all klingons are warlike”, “all wookiees are bad-tempered”, etc. In fact, there’s a very good chance, if we ever do meet aliens from another world, that we won’t be able to communicate at all. The differences in how we perceive the world, process those perceptions, and then communicate them may be so profound that there is no overlap, nor any possibility of overlap.

However, I think that communication is possible, as long as there’s some common ground. If an alien hangs around humans long enough, then it’ll learn that, in some cultures, patting a human on the back soothes them. It may not understand why, but it’ll know how to get a desired reaction out of a human, and that’s good enough.

That goes the other way, too. I could learn that if my alien buddy’s splorgis is flungilating, then I should stimulate its third glorpicle (but NOT his second – that’s a good way to start a war). I may not understand that this deflungilates its florble cycle to release more gwee-gwee into its yurgle sacs. All I know is that it’s less likely to sink its fangs into my neck when I do that. Again, that’s good enough.

I’m not artistically brave enough to turn Covenant into Arrival: The RPG. That might be fun, or at least entertaining to watch, but that’s not what I want to do with this game.

Anyway, I don’t think the differences will be that severe. The Covenant is old enough for its member species to learn how to deal with one another.

There will still be misunderstandings, though. These can be represented by disadvantages to bids when talking to or bargaining with NPCs from other species, and these can be lessened by giving your character the right traits or abiliies. Needless to say these disadvantages probably won’t apply to the PCs interacting with each other. We can probably assume that the PCs know each other well enough to overcome them, and even if they don’t, using Diplomacy checks on your fellow players is never a good idea.

There is one last thing that I want cover about alien relations, though it’s probably the one thing that most game groups will do their best to avoid: love, sex, and reproduction. Tune in tomorrow for that. It’s going to be awkward.

Alien Biology: What Are Little Aliens Made Of?

Covenant Design - Alien Biology: What Are Little Aliens Made Of?

Sean here again. Before we talk about the biology of life from other planets, it’s helpful to know a little about the biology of life from Earth:

  • It’s comprised of hydrocarbons, the most important of which are proteins.
  • It stores genetic information in long, replicable hydrocarbon chains consisting of diribonucleic acid or DNA.
  • Much of it – not all, but a lot – uses oxygen to “burn” ingested food.
  • It uses water as a solvent and to transport food, oxygen, and other compounds.

We assume that alien life will follow these rules for the same reason we think sapient aliens will look like humans with funny foreheads. Here’s the problem with that, though:

  • Life could be based on elements other than carbon, such as silicon, boron, or sulfur.
  • Carbon-based life could use some method to store genetic information besides DNA, or it could reproduce with some method that doesn’t require genetic information.
  • It could use other gasses for respiration, like methane or sulfur. Or its metabolism might not require the respiration of gasses.
  • It could use other liquids as a solvent, like ammonia. Or it might not need a solvent at all (e.g., artificial intelligence).

And that’s assuming that alien life would even use chemistry as we know it. Robert L. Forward’s novel Dragon’s Egg has life on a neutron star whose biochemistry is mediated by the strong nuclear force instead of the electromagnetic force – in other words, via neutrons and protons instead of electrons. That’s about as alien as you can get.

You can quickly develop analysis paralysis from this, because the possibilities for alien life are so numerous. It helps to put some restrictions on your thinking.

For instance, it turns out that both oxygen and water are abundant in the universe. Oxygen is highly reactive, which is one of the reasons why life on Earth uses it (the Great Oxidation Event being the other). Water is an excellent solvent, and it has a large range of temperatures at which it’s a liquid. Since humans evolved to use both oxygen and water, we can also assume that aliens that use these evolved in environments that humans won’t have too much trouble surviving. Even if our aliens are sapient fish, we can still interact with them via a submarine or SCUBA gear.

Since roleplaying games are all about interaction, we can therefore start putting some bounds on our speculation. Covenant’s aliens (unless they’re artificial intelligences) will breathe oxygen and use water as a solvent, and they’ll do it in environments that humans can easily survive.

I’ll admit that this is just intellectual backfilling to justify the aliens that we already came up with. But it works, so we’ll go with it.

But what about food and medicine?

Even if our aliens are carbon-based, they might not be made up of molecules that we could metabolize, like proteins and carbohydrates. That means we can’t eat their food, use their medicine, or get high on their drugs. At best, a human would vomit up or excrete them. At worst, they would kill a human.

There’s silver linings to this: you probably don’t have worry about catching the alien version of the Black Plague or the clap, and alien predators will probably ignore you, since you don’t smell like food.

However, it complicates a roleplaying game like Covenant:

  • Food has to be coded for each species.
  • Medicine and drugs could harm or kill an ally from another species.
  • Things that many players like to ignore – like keeping track of rations and medicine and, by extension, inventory and encumbrance – become incredibly important.

There’s a reason that many science fiction franchises handwave these issues away. Will Riker can tuck into a plate of delicious wriggly gagh. Dr. McCoy’s job isn’t twice as hard because he has to treat a human ship with a vulcan first officer. Jabba the Hutt can sell “spice” without worrying about who exactly is going to use it.

Covenant, on the other hand, is all about the difficulties in aliens interacting. We want them to be able to interact without too much difficulty, which is why they all breate gaseous oxygen, drink liquid water, and evolved on planets where those two can be found fairly easily. But neither should it be too easy, either.

This extends to social interactions, including love and sex. Tune in tomorrow for more.

Radio Free Covenant: Episode 3 – We Get Letters

Episode 3 – We Get Letters

We put the call out to our friends to find out what they wanted in a roleplaying game, and today we respond! Tune in to learn what they want and how (or if) Sean and Sazzy can incorporate their requests.

We round out this week’s episode with what we want in an RPG. We are the ones making Covenant, after all.

Oh, and if we missed you this week, we’ll respond to you next week. Send us a message at, and if we like it, we’ll respond on air. Remember, if you don’t tell us what we did wrong, we can’t fix it.

Don’t miss the previous episode of Radio Free Covenant, Fascism and Noodles.

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.

PZ Myers on Alien Biology

Sean here. To get you ready for what I want to talk about this week, I’m going to have to take a page from biologist PZ Myers and show you a little porn. I’ve hidden it below the page break, so click through when you’re ready to get a little sexy.

Continue reading “PZ Myers on Alien Biology”

Vocabulary of the Orion Arm: The J’s and K’s

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

Acoes are one of two artificial species in the Orion Arm. However, unlike SADEs, they are organic, not electronic.

“Aco” is an acronym of Artificially Created Organism. They were originally designed to be toys and tutors for the children of wealthy human parents, but have since found their way into nearly every economic niche outside the Covenant.

Each aco consists of a “chassis” (the skeleton and organs) and a “skin” (which includes hair, fur, feathers, horns, and claws), both of which can be customized for a specific job. Most acoes are designed as toys or maintenance workers in spaceships and machinery and so are around 18 inches tall. Popular skins include ponies and unicorns for girls, soldiers and spacers for boys, and dinosaurs for pretty much everyone. However, more exotic models exist, including ones with more than four limbs and specialized organs.

The very first acoes, known as Generation One or Gen-1, were vat-grown and asexual. They were usually installed with cybernetics for specific jobs in vitro. These included brain implants that gave them skills and indoctrination as soon as they were decanted.

Acoes are not recognized as sapient beings or even as pets outside the Covenant, however, and many are horribly mistreated. There’s even a market in acoes designed specifically as sex toys. Life as an aco can get very dark very fast.

To give them greater control over their own destinies, an aco rights group developed Generation Two or Gen-2 acoes. These individuals reproduce sexually and have none of the implants – or conditioning – of their vat-grown peers.

Aco culture is marked by both resilience and resistance, as well as a thirst for freedom. Those who can’t make it to the Covenant escape into the countryside or the bowels of cities to create their own societies. They bring to Trade the language of marginalized human cultures, most notably the Polari from Britain’s homosexual and entertainment cultures and the slang of American slaves.

(Acoes are based on Richard Chwedyk‘s novella The Measure of All Things and Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH)

Read on to learn common Trade words that start with the English letters J and K.

.Read more

Covenant Game Design: Damage Types and Tech Levels

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

We said last time that we would talk about the types of damage that your character can face in Covenant. Let’s do that now.
Your character’s armor has a rating just like their weapons. If they are hit by a weapon or any other damage source, then you subtract your character’s armor defense rating from the damage rating of what hit them. Your character takes the rest. If their armor’s defense rating is higher than the damage rating, you don’t take any damage.
The problem is that different kinds of armor have different levels of protection from different damage sources.
For instance, a Kevlar vest might protect you from being shot with a gun, but only partial protection from a laser. In fact, your character’s armor rating drops by half if they’re struck by a damage source for which their armor isn’t designed. To keep track of these, both damage sources and armor have damage types:

  • Kinetic Damage: Caused by something striking your character, usually at high speed
  • Inertial Damage: Caused by your character falling or being tossed around a vehicle during a fight or a crash
  • Thermal Damage: Caused by thermal energy being added to your character, usually by something burning like a torch, flare, or flamethrower
  • Cold Damage: Caused by thermal energy being taken away from your character, usually by something cold like liquid nitrogen
  • Electrical Damage: Caused by high-amperage electricity, like lightning or an electrical generator
  • Chemical Damage: Caused by chemically active or corrosive compounds, like strong acids and bases
  • Biological Damage: Caused by poisons and disease
  • Radiant Damage: Caused by radioactive materials
  • Psychological Damage: Caused by loss, trauma, or stress

Thermal and cold damage can also come from environmental sources. For instance, environmental thermal damage could come from exposure to a desert, while environmental cold damage could come from a snowstorm. This is important, because a character’s gear might react differently to environmental damage. A heavy coat might protect your character from the environmental cold damage of a snowstorm, but not from the cold damage of being splashed with liquid nitrogen.
We are also working with the idea of tech levels (TLs) for character gear, including armor and weapons. The tech levels are:

  • Tech Level 1 (TL1): Muscle-powered. The period ranging from the Stone Age to the Iron Age is TL1.
  • Tech Level 2 (TL2): Chemical-powered. Much of modern-day Earth is currently TL2.
  • Tech Level 3 (TL3): Fusion or antimatter-powered. This includes lasers, rail guns, warp engines, and Lorentzian distorters. A TL3 civilization is approaching or at Type I on the Kardashev scale – that is, it can harness all the energy available on a planet.
  • Tech Level 4 (TL4): Highly advanced technology powered by black holes, neutron stars, and other stellar objects, including hard light, programmable materials (or “smart goo”), and effective nanotech. A TL4 civilization is approaching or at Type II on the Kardashev scale – that is, it can harness all the energy available from a star or other stellar object.
  • Tech Level 5 (TL5): Technology so advanced that it’s hard to distinguish from magic. A TL5 civilization is approaching or at Type III on the Kardashev scale – that is, it can harness all the energy available in a galaxy.

Armor is designed for a specific tech level. For instance, plate armor stops swords and arrows (TL1) but not bullets (TL2), while a Kevlar vest will stop bullets (TL2) but not knives or arrows (TL1). Armor and damage sources interact this way:

  • Same Tech Level and Damage Type: Armor provides full protection
  • Different Tech Level OR Damage Type: Armor provides half protection
  • Different Tech Level AND Damage Type: Armor provides no protection

As you can see, tech levels add another level of complexity to Covenant. Only time and playtesting can tell whether they’re worth it. If they aren’t, they’ll be removed.
That’s it for now. Join us next time for a discussion of gender in the game.