As the first decade of the 21st century was coming to a close, I was still seeking out new and innovative roleplaying games (RPGs). The early 2000’s saw the rise of what I now call “Game Engines”; RPGs built using a common game engine (think “series rules” in wargaming terms) with tailored settings (think “game rules” in wargaming speak). One of the game engines I explored was FATE, and in 2009 I thought I had discovered the perfect game implementation.
Diaspora from VSCA in Canada looked to be my perfect RPG. Here is how Diaspora describes itself:
Diaspora is a self-contained role-playing game, building on FATE (and particularly Spirit of the Century). It’s a game about the future, with humanity scattered through the stars living in clusters of six to ten systems, making do in a hostile universe. FTL travel is challenging, and reaction drives push large ships between planets, draining reaction mass, and avoiding dangers along the way.Diaspora, Space Combat Example
Back then, and even now, Diaspora was (is?) seen as the FATE version of Traveller. Truth is…sorta yes but sorta no. As the designers themselves told us:
Once there was a great idea. Once we played Traveller. We played it day and night. When we weren’t playing it we were rolling up characters for it or generating subsectors or designing spaceships. Who needed to level up, when you were happy your character had survived the generation process?
While not all of us had the same goals to begin with, we hammered out some objectives. First would be that the game retain as much of our previous tinkering as possible because it was really good tinkering. Second would be that the game would aim for the feel of hard science-fiction. Harder than Traveller, than Star Wars, than Battlestar Galactica. No quasi-magical anti-gravity. No inertialess drives. No Faster-Than-Light (FTL) travel.Diaspora, p. xii
So I went into Diaspora expecting Traveller. That approach works…to a point. The difference was narration. Again, I’ll let Diaspora talk:
In any RPG, there is a balance between story and crunch. Some games present rules for every small maneuver, and rigidly plot character locations on a grid. Diaspora recognizes the value of such information, but denies that it is essential to play. While crunch (hard rules) are needed for balancing characters and objects against each other, in actual play we value abstraction wherever possible.
In place of hard rules, though, what Diaspora rewards is narration: narration from the players, and from the referee. Giving details of what you want to happen within the game is as important as working out what roll on the dice is needed for success. Both, of course, will happen. The talk around the table will always be a mix of in-game-character-based narration and out-of-character rules discussion. If the idea of a gradually increasing spider-web crack growing across your pressure suit faceplate seems a cool idea, as your character’s vision is increasingly occluded and panic mounts, then you only need to say so and it has happened. There are no necessary mechanical consequences of this in the game, but the image itself may prove to be the most memorable of the session.Diaspora, p. 4
As I was comfortable with FATE I went ahead with Diaspora.
The rules for character generation appear in Chapter 3: Characters in Diaspora. As the rules are FATE-based, it should be no surprise to see Aspects dominate:
Characters are composed of four mechanical elements: their Aspects, their Skills, their Stunts, and their stress tracks (Health, Composure, and Wealth). Aspects are short, evocative statements that describe the character in ways that can be used mechanically both for and against the character as well as being points at which the referee can suggest actions to players for their characters. Skills are the basic abilities of the character, chosen from a list provided later in this section, and used mechanically to add to the basic roll during any conflict in which the Skill is relevant. Stunts are new rules that apply to the character. Stress tracks are indications of how stressed the character is physically, mentally, and financially. Aspects derive from the character’s story. Skills and Stunts are selected after the story is constructed. Stress tracks have a basic rating modified by some Skills and Stunts.Diaspora, p. 32
To generate a character one follows what I describe as a “facilitated lifepath” process. Characters “grow up” in five phases (Growing Up, Starting Out, Moment of Crisis, Sidetracked, and On Your Own). For each of the five phases the players have to write a paragraph and draw out two Aspects. At the end of this process you will have ten Aspects. This will take time; the book notes, “Going through the five phases for four characters might take 45-60 minutes, including reading aloud the gradual development of the characters after each phase” (p. 32-33). Honestly, I feel that 45-60 minutes is generous…for even a single character. A group will take longer (i.e. your group better have embraced the whole Session 0 concept).
After this first hour or more, players now select skills for their Diaspora characters. “Players select 15 Skills for their character and rank them in a pyramid: one at level 5, two at 4, three at 3, four at 2, and five at 1” (p. 34). There are 36 core skills in Diaspora and the rules note, “Most characters will want at least one combat Skill and one space Skill, or will have a good story for why they do not” (p. 35).
Stress Tracks in Diaspora are mostly derived, and the next player decision point in character generation is to determine Stunts. Stunts usually modify skills, though they can also represent possessing something. Be careful here, for Stunts are not Aspects. Finally, the character gets a selection of Equipment.
Obviously, creating a character in Diaspora is a substantial investment of time, especially as compared to Traveller where a player very familiar with the rules can generate a character in 10 minutes or less. The Diaspora approach to character generation also raises the issue of “player investment.”
One aspect of RPGs that has always interested me is the player’s view of their investment in a game. In Traveller, life is cheap (die in character generation?) and heroes few and far between. I believe this approach moves the focus of a game session away from a particular character and more on the the adventure. It was a major reason I very much disliked Dungeons & Dragons in the early days as all the people I saw playing around me were focusing on min-max’ing their “hero” in character generation. Once they got to play, the Gods be D*mned if a DM actually let them die (for it’s never the players fault, always the DM).
In a narrative-focused system like FATE, especially one that allows player to “create” a character without tables or die rolls, the player investment in their character is much higher. Not only in time but also in personal thinking. In Diaspora, for example, the players literally have to write the characters past. Diaspora will very likely require multiple “Session 0” meetings to flesh out Clusters and characters. What does the player (or group) feel if their character dies or is otherwise “defeated” right off the bat? What machinations will the GM have to make in order to avoid that situation? I contend that the more “investment” a character generation process requires, the more restrictive the play becomes.
The player investment in character generation in Diaspora goes a long way towards explaining why this game is not used in my adventuring too often. While the FATE game engine in the Diaspora setting can potentially create interesting characters, the time demand is great against a return that is highly dependent on the play at the table. In my discussion of Thousand Suns (see TTRPG Roll 23-3) I mentioned that the game sits on my shelf, in part because character generation takes too long and the game engine itself doesn’t really grab me. Diaspora sits in a very similar segment of my collection.
Actually, that’s not quite right, for Diaspora really sits in the wargaming segment of my collection. How did that happen?
Vectors on Lined Paper
Like Traveller, the rules for Diaspora offer several “mini-games.” The mini-games are (in the order presented): Cluster Creation, Character Creation, Personal Combat, Space Combat, Social Combat, and Platoon Combat. The most interesting one to me is Space Combat.
In the original Traveller Little Black Books, personal combat was resolved on simple lined paper with the different lines marking ranges. Space combat in Traveller, on the other hand, required learning rules for vector movement. While I certainly love my Mayday, wouldn’t it be nice if both personal and space combat required learning maybe one core set of rules and then modifying from there rather than two completely different rule sets?
Diaspora, unlike Traveller/Mayday (or even Squadron Strike: Traveller) uses a lined paper approach for space combat:
Space combat is hard to represent in all three dimensions: the math gets complicated fast and the payoff is minor unless you really like the map. As any abstraction from three dimensions to two is going to be either a big abstraction or an inaccurate one, we’ve chosen to go all the way and abstract space combat to one dimension. The rationale for this is simple: mostly what we care about is managing range and building enough change in velocity to escape or to deny escape to another.
So our map becomes a piece of ruled paper: number each line from -4 to 4 and place (or draw) ship models on the lines.
Moving a ship between the 3 and 4 bar (or the -3 and -4) costs 2 shifts. Moving a ship from the last bar off the map costs 3 shifts.Diaspora, p. 126
There is enough “crunch” in the Diaspora space combat rules to make the space combat rules playable as a separate wargame, a fact Diaspora explicitly acknowledges:
This combat Sequence is presented in a form sufficient to play independently as a wargame. The core design philosophy that makes this a wargame is that the combat is chiefly between spacecraft. That is, rolls are based on ship statistics (which function as analogues of Skills) and ship Aspects are invoked, tagged, and compelled. The role of individuals, even player characters, is for the most part ancillary to actual combat.Diaspora, p. 139
So Diaspora remains in my RPG collection, though more as a wargame than an RPG. Now that I think about it, could Diaspora be another form of an Adventure Wargame?
I’ll save that question for another time.
Feature image courtesy VSCA
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