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Author Topic: [Covenant] First Name Terms  (Read 1544 times)
Simon C
Member

Posts: 510


« on: May 07, 2009, 07:37:16 PM »

(Crossposted and more information here:http://www.collective-endeavour.com/node/1602)

Malcolm, Steve, Emma and I played a three-session game of Covenant.

There were things I really liked and things I really didn't like about the game.  The game itself was a really intense experience.  We were playing the remains of a cult based in Wellington, New Zealand, and we drew on a lot of New Zealand cinema references to inform that, the "Cinema of Unease" especially, with kind of gothic trappings, lots of long-buried secrets, themse of lonliness, missed communication, silence, the unsaid.  There was a good splash of kitchen sink drama as well, with a lot of our conflicts focusing on the relationships between individuals, family members, husbands and wives. 

Covenant was excellent at really drawing out those conflicts - at promoting really harsh calls in conflict.  Working traits and consequences into a conflict can be a really powerful engine for discovering new things about characters, and about their relationships.  The best conflicts were between characters who cared about each other, and seeing how much they'd hurt the other to get what they wanted.  My character, Gavin, threw his wife's failure to bear them a child back in her face.  Emma's character told her daughter that her father was only remaining close to her because he hoped to repair the marriage.  These all drew groans, cheers and indrawn breath around the table.  I found the conflict resolution system was a good prop to support these conflicts.  Looking at traits, consequences and so on, and figuring out how to bring them into the conflict was a great prompt for inventing these kinds of details.  That aspect of the system worked really well.

There were other aspects that didn't work so well.

Cell creation, I thought, didn't really fire on all cylinders.  I could see that it was trying to set up internal conflicts and start the game with an interesting situation, but for our game at least, that's not how it worked.  In game, we referred to our "faction" very little, and our orders not at all after the first session.  What the game was actually about went in a very different direction.  I would have liked to see a more explicit tie between truisms and relationships, and the situation creation system.  The conventions and motifs, on  the other hand, were fantastic, and did a really good job of getting us all on the same page in terms of tone and genre.  I found they were actually much less important during the game than they were at the beginning of the game.  That was tied to some of my problems with the conflict resolution system.

Maybe it's because it's still fresh in my mind from reading it, but I was thinking a lot about Vincent's recent "Rightwards Facing Arrows" essay about the relationship between mechanics, players, and the fiction.  If I understand him correctly, he's saying that what a lot of "Story Games" lack is opportunities for the fiction of the game to mechanically affect the procedures of play.  So, for example, in My Life With Master, you roll the appropriate dice for the scene, and then describe what happens in the scene based on the result.  What I interpret Vincent as saying is that games like this can sometimes drift (non-technical sense) away from their fiction - that the dice game takes precedence, and soon you're barely justifying your mechanical actions in the fiction, and the fiction begins to feel like a millstone.  I could feel the mechanics and the fiction kind of tugging apart at points in Covenant.

In a physical conflict with Frank (the monster who ran a large part of the cult), I didn't feel very invested in the actual events of the fight, though I was very invested in the actual outcome.  I found myself scanning the character sheet for traits I could bring in, and then justifying them after the fact.  It began to feel like what was happening in the fight didn't really matter - it was an afterthought.  What mattered was getting those traits ticked off and staying in the fight.  Going back to Vincent's essay, there was no "moment of judgement" where my contribution the the fiction was assessed for its impact on the mechanics, it was purely the reverse - my use of mechanics translated directly to the fiction. Narrating in conventions and motifs was especially susceptible to this.  It was easy to invoke one of these with spurious or weak justification. In social conflicts I felt this effect less keenly, because we were more invested in the actual fictional events.  What people said really mattered.

A lot of this was exacerbated by what I saw as a pretty serious flaw in the conflict mechanics:  The number of relevant traits you have is a far bigger determinant of success than what you roll on the dice.  Because you have to bow out if you have no further traits to roll in, you're encouraged to scrape to find any relevant trait you can.  Sometimes this led to interesting and powerful new content, but sometimes it just felt like scrambling.  I felt like rolling the dice was superfluous to what really mattered in the conflict.  It also led to a lot of conflicts spreading beyond their original arena.  A fist-fight usually involved a lot of trash-talking, just to use the traits.  I usually found these uses of traits far more interesting anyway, and I felt like there wasn't a lot of usefulness in the seperation of "arenas" of conflict anyway.  Similarly, the rules for bowing out of conflicts and intiating them again in a different arena weren't very useful to us.  We didn't use them at all.

So it was a mixed bag, I guess.  There were things I found really amazing about the game - things that I really enjoyed.  I think the mechanics of the game did help us to produce something that wouldn't have been possible with a different system.  Other times though, I wished we'd been playing Sorcerer or something instead.  Definitely an enjoyable game though, and it's made me really excited to play more games with the same people.
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Callan S.
Member

Posts: 4268


WWW
« Reply #1 on: May 07, 2009, 07:51:00 PM »

Hi Simon, nice write up!
Quote
Because you have to bow out if you have no further traits to roll in, you're encouraged to scrape to find any relevant trait you can.
Why were you trying to stay in a conflict rather than bow out? Were you staying in because it was important for you to (try to) author something about that conflict, or was it perhaps remnant gamist stubborness and refusal to 'lose'?
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Simon C
Member

Posts: 510


« Reply #2 on: May 07, 2009, 08:21:47 PM »

I was staying in the conflict usually fror character-advocacy, y'know? like, wanting the character to succeed, because if you don't, why are you even playing?  It's not about authoring something about the conflict in the sense of "I want to say what happens next".  It's about going after your character's goal.  Sometimes something would happen in a conflict that would cause the character to reconsider their goal, and you'd bow out (a lot like "giving" in Dogs), but for the most part, you play to win because the character wants to win.
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Daniel B
Member

Posts: 196

Co-inventor of the Normal Engine


« Reply #3 on: May 09, 2009, 11:33:59 AM »

Hello Simon,

may I ask for a link to that "Rightwards Facing Arrows" essay? I searched the site and also did a google search but couldn't find them. (Granted they were BRIEF searches .. but easier to ask than do a more extensive search)

Thank you in advance,
Daniel
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Arthur: "It's times like these that make me wish I'd listened to what my mother told me when I was little."
Ford: "Why? What did she tell you?"
Arthur: "I don't know. I didn't listen."
Simon C
Member

Posts: 510


« Reply #4 on: May 09, 2009, 12:10:01 PM »

Of course! Sorry, I meant to link in the OP.

Here's the URL: http://www.lumpley.com/comment.php?entry=438
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AJ_Flowers
Member

Posts: 30


« Reply #5 on: May 11, 2009, 09:17:04 AM »


In a physical conflict with Frank (the monster who ran a large part of the cult), I didn't feel very invested in the actual events of the fight, though I was very invested in the actual outcome.  I found myself scanning the character sheet for traits I could bring in, and then justifying them after the fact.  It began to feel like what was happening in the fight didn't really matter - it was an afterthought. 
...

Because you have to bow out if you have no further traits to roll in, you're encouraged to scrape to find any relevant trait you can.  Sometimes this led to interesting and powerful new content, but sometimes it just felt like scrambling. 

What you're describing is EXACTLY how I felt playing Dogs for the first time, which, puzzled me, because, most people seem to speak the world about Dogs. But to me, it was just an exercise in "bsing" how useful this particular trait might actually be in this particular conflict. 

I think in large part this is because, a gunfight was one of the first scenes I was in in Dogs, and maybe this just isn't the best way to intro the game to someone.  The scene was full of "um, the bullet hits my Bible, so I'll throw that in!" kind of justification.  I walked away thinking, hey, that kind of conflict resolution mechanic is just not right for me as a player, and I'll probably avoid games in that vein from now on.  It seems like a lot of games do use this kind of conflict system though, so it must be working really well for some people in the right situations.
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Simon C
Member

Posts: 510


« Reply #6 on: May 11, 2009, 12:46:00 PM »

I've not played Dogs, so I can't really speak to that game so well, but Vincent actually adresses that issue somewhere in his discussion.  He says something about how Dogs is vulnerable to that kind of thing - the "BS" issue, if you will - but that if you follow the game's admonition to "lead with the fiction" that shouldn't be a problem.  I don't know how effective that is in Dogs.  In Covenant, the limited number of traits, their often vague applicability, and the fact that narrating them in was so central to staying in the conflict made it kind of inevitable that you'd get some bullshitting to draw in traits.
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Matt Machell
Member

Posts: 479


WWW
« Reply #7 on: May 12, 2009, 12:06:57 PM »

Hi Simon,

thanks for playing and special thanks for the writeup. This bit here makes me really happy:

Quote
Covenant was excellent at really drawing out those conflicts - at promoting really harsh calls in conflict.  Working traits and consequences into a conflict can be a really powerful engine for discovering new things about characters, and about their relationships.  The best conflicts were between characters who cared about each other, and seeing how much they'd hurt the other to get what they wanted.

as it nicely sums up what the game is for. I've said elsewhere that conflicts really work when the people your character is up against really matter to them. So it's heartening that you picked that up. It's pretty much what the cell creation, crucible and scene framing rules are there to set up.

Obviously what's not so heartening is that some things weren't working for you. There's a couple of things I'd like to ask about that.

First off, and this is always my first question on a Covenant AP, is how many characters resolved truisms? For a three session game you should be looking at all the characters having resolved all their issues. There's a tendency (and I think it's due to the way the book is structured, so entirely my fault) for people to focus too much on running conflict after conflict, but not on moments of truth which are what conflicts are there to generate. I'd be interested in your thoughts on that, how much "stop and reflect" were you getting after conflicts?

Second query is on factions not appearing much. How much time at creation did you give to factions, their NPCs and the agendas they have for your characters? Without that third direction of story pressure, some of the relationship and truism stuff won't fire on all cylinders as everything comes down to a two way choice of self vs society. Which is cool, but not the whole enchilada. Did you feel like this was a problem in your game?

On shoehorning of traits, yep, can be an issue. That's a bug or feature depending on your tastes. As you say it can produce powerful and unexpected narrative, but it needs fairly strong group self-policing. There's some notes on the errata about that. If it feels like scrabbling to those not involved, it probably is.

Also it's worth remembering that traits can only be used in the arena you've chosen for the conflict, so you shouldn't be seeing the drift you mentioned away from the arena. I know I'm really bad at enforcing this in play though (and especially when I demo), but it can really lead to a slight shoehorning problem being a whole lot worse as there's no limiting factor other than who the opponent is.

Cheers

-Matt

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Simon C
Member

Posts: 510


« Reply #8 on: May 12, 2009, 01:21:24 PM »

Hi Matt,

Those are good questions.

Truisms: My character resolved two of three truisms, Steve's character resolved one truism, and Emma's character didn't resolve any (although her most powerful scene came at the end of the game, where resolving the truism wasn't mechanically important, and Emma was also the least familiar with the rules, meaning she probably wasn't looking for the opportunity as much).  Part of the issue with truisms was that what we initially thought the game would be about (the ends justifying the means, doing horrible things for a cause you believed in) was not what the game ended up being about (emotional honesty versus long-buried secrets - like all good New Zealand film).  That meant that the scenes that really had a lot of emotional punch didn't always relate to a particular truism.  We had a number of scenes end without conflict, and a lot of discussion about the emotional state of the characters, where they were headed, and what their issues were.  The game definitely didn't feel like "conflict after conflict", and where there were conflicts, they had a lot of impact, most of the time.

The cell creation thing was crippled at the start by a player dropping out after game creation (which we spent a session on), making a lot of the networks we'd established suddenly not make sense.  We had a "splinter cell" of rogue conspiracy-members who we were ostensibly hunting down.  We had a few scenes regarding this, but they really didn't feel very directed to us - they weren't relevant to the characters' issues.  Malcolm did a good job weaving those elements back into relevance during the game, but it felt like a lot of work for little payoff.  Part of that might have been the "kitchen sink drama" aspect of our game.  It was much more focused on domestic issues - relationships, marriages, the lies we tell people, than on international conspiracy or action.  That made factions and cells much less important to the fiction, I think.

I'm not sure I grasp what you mean about traits only being usable in the arena we chose.  It's possible there's a rule I'm missing there.  The main problem for me was that the number of relevant traits was far more important that your results on the dice - this made shoehorning in traits almost essential.

Thanks for your reply.  I'm glad you found parts of the AP heartening.  It was definitely a good experience overall, and the parts that worked well for me really worked very well.  I also suspect that another group would find the conflict mechanics unproblematic.  I'd be very interested in hearing about some of your inpirations for the game, Matt.  It felt to me like a good mix of Sorcerer and Dogs.  Is that accurate?

Cheers,

Simon
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JoyWriter
Member

Posts: 500

also known as Josh W


« Reply #9 on: May 13, 2009, 04:42:36 PM »

My first thought was that if there is an over-incentive to use traits that overwhelmed the fictional integrity, then perhaps a dis-incentive should be added to resolve that, such as the risk of damaging a trait when applying it. But I don't like that specific form, as it might well be too high level, the opposite of what you want.

Instead, how about attacking the fight-length problem directly: if conflicts ended sooner, presumably you would never get to the dubious justifications. In that sense what is presumably needed is some kind of "knock out blow" system, to add to the aggregate system that currently exists. I'm not sure exactly what would constitute a knock out though, perhaps something relating to the core themes. My idea is that instead of being able to just wipe out an opponents traits by piling on more of your own, isn't there a way to insure that there are permanent effects from single dice, either as an unlikely "critical hit" mechanic or as a side effect of the form of action used, regardless of if you win.

Basically at the moment, the game doesn't recognise low blows or very appropriate blows, at last as far as I can see, so the blunderbuss of dice is in action. It's good that players wince when their characters are that rutheless, but I'd love to see that players skirt around an issue, in case they strengthen it, or create more repercussions that they then need to deal with. Now players can totally work this out on their own and I suppose that is part of what the game requires of them, but I'd love to see players drop out because they don't like the way something is going, or because they've boxed themselves into a corner and there are only dubious tactics left. I get the impression that particularly is what is intended, so perhaps the solution is just more ruthless veto-ing of inappropriate trait use.

Alternatively, is there a way to bring the faction into the resolution system? A whole different form of escalation can be found in bringing in other people into a conflict. Threatening to reveal people or otherwise "tell'in on you!" is a whole other edge to a conflict, and I'm not sure if it's currently represented.

Another entirely different way to solve this may be an in-built time limit; the requirement to cover things up quickly  should be a pretty frequent motivation if you are part of a conspiracy. I wonder if scenes could be built with a time window before you have to conceal events. Would this stop conflict going on too long? Probably. Would it also lead to less "talking things through"? I suspect so. Such a pressure would have to be restricted, as these are supposed to be members of a very good conspiracy!
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Matt Machell
Member

Posts: 479


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« Reply #10 on: May 14, 2009, 12:53:23 PM »

Quote
The cell creation thing was crippled at the start by a player dropping out after game creation (which we spent a session on), making a lot of the networks we'd established suddenly not make sense.

Ah, that's unfortunate, not having a good number of the structures you build at creation available in play will hamper you. The cross-connection of characters'  networks plays a pretty heavy part in the scene framing elements of the game. Not always a problem, but if you're up against an NPC who was previously an important connection to another player, a big part of the consequences and implications of that conflict are gone.

Arenas. There's a clarification in the errata about that as it is vague in the book. You should only use an edge in a way that matches the arena in play. So if you're in a physical conflict you can't use an edge in a way that isn't physical, so wise-cracks mid fight don't allow you to use your "witty" edge... That kind of tangential influence is for Conventions and Motifs.

On the subject of inspirations, the original game was written around 2000/2001, at that point Sorcerer played a part and The Pool. There's a lot of frustrations with World of Darkness in there too ;). There's less of Dogs in it than people think, bowing out being the main influence point there and that only came in in about 2005.

-Matt
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