So Covenant by Matt Machell is one of those games I have a real bee in my bonnet about. Not in the sense that I think it's bad. Quite the opposite. It's a wonderful game. The bee is buzzing because I want to see more people play an enjoy it, yet it remains a little known treasure. Bad mixing of metaphors notwithstanding, it was with great delight that I took the opportunity to give Covenant a whirl when is was demanded at Games on Demand at KapCon 2009.
The heart of Covenant is how cell and character creation immediately provides the group with a web of relationships and conflicts. I've not seen it fail to do that yet. Refer back to the 2007 PostBoxCon game for an example of it really, really working. It worked this time around for sure. But the game had a few odd things going on that I'd like to highlight.
First off, this being a con game, you are never too sure who you are going to get. This was very much the case in this particular game. The players all came at the game from a more 'traditional' games background and I think this impacted a lot of what went on around the table. One of the players managed to make everything they said a non-sequiteur, a witty comment or a pithy quote. Ordinarily, a bit of pith isn't a problem in a game, but when it is coming at you every couple of minutes, it becomes wearing. It wore on the other players too, based on discussions after the fact.
It struck me that he we had someone who in all likelihood behaved in this manner during every single game they played in. This was the default character 'shtick' for them: the acerbic, 'witty' one. In retrospect I see this as being a defensive manoeuvre on their part. They were perhaps the person at the table with the least confidence in contributing in a collaborative fashion to the game. Hence, their contribution would be in the form of being 'the funny one'. This had the unfortunate side effect of grating against the tone that we had established for the game through the creation process and particularly the conventions and motifs of the cell.
Perhaps I labour this point too much. But is really did stick with me.
Of the other players, we had some really good input into the game once they got to grips with the way it was all meant to work. The realisation that by giving in to defeat in a conflict they could have cool stuff happen in the story started to come into play as we went on. Initially, it was very much an "I must win" mentality, with the view that 'defeat' would mean something very bad happening to their character. Over time, we moved round to doing stuff that was cool for the characters (but not necessarily advantageous or positive) and story.
What did I do wrong?
Given the background and preferences of the players, I could have taken a slightly stronger GM role from the outset, which would have helped ease people in. When we were creating the cell, especially with conventions and motifs, there was a certain amount of 'option paralysis' at the thought of having to come up with all of this stuff by themselves, rather than having the GM present it to them. My guidance to people on how the game functioned and what their role was expected to be could probably have been a little more detailed.
I also fluffed the use of conventions and motifs a little in the early stages by allowing their use with too much frequency. Referral back to that particular section of the book solved that one.
What did I do right?
Sticking to my guns at the start and asking if we could set the game in a place that we were all familiar with was something that paid dividends as the game progressed. The choice of London was accepted by everyone and made it much easier for me to frame and describe scenes and locales. Acquiescing tot he original though of setting it in a small New Zealand city that I was unfamiliar with would probably have made the game a little less flowing and well described.
I made a conscious effort to let people have the spotlight in a manner that didn't interrupt the flow of the game. On the whole I think this worked.
What did people enjoy?
The conflict resolution mechanics garnered a lot of praise. People really liked the way they played out and how you could bring conventions, motifs, edges and consequences into the conflict in a very cinematic manner. When players were stuck for something to bring in, I nudged them towards just a brief 'cut scene' using one of the two cell sheet options. More often than not this got over a break in the action and prevented too many jarring moments where everything slowed down.
Cell and character creation the way (as discussed at the start of this report) it immediately mapped out a whole slew of relationships and conflicts that provided the foundation of the game.
The game as a whole, compressed as it was, seemed to be enjoyed. We reach a point of quasi-resolution for the characters and finished up at what seemed to be an appropriate point. Interestingly, one character never met the other three at all. Her scenes were played out apart from everyone else, but tightly tied in to what was going on. That bit seemed to work really well.
One of these days I will manage to have a longer game of Covenant, perhaps over three or four sessions. It has worked so well for me in single session play, I'm very enthusiastic to see how it goes over a longer span of time.