Roll Perception Plus Awareness: Diaspora

Welcome back to Roll Perception Plus Awareness, my column here on SF Signal about roleplaying games and their place in a genre reader and writer’s world. This time out, I am going to tag back to the hook in the last column, where I tackled Traveller:

Next time, we’ll tackle a recent science fiction role playing game that explicitly tries to take up┬áTraveller’s mantle, to the point of even having the players and GM define the setting in game creation. *And* try to make it with harder science than┬áTraveller, too. What is it? Stay tuned!

And now I can reveal that the game I had in mind is the indie RPG Diaspora.

Welcome to the ancient future of mankind.

Humans have been in space tens of thousands of years, and societies have risen and fallen so many times that no one remembers where we came from.

Colonies huddle together in clusters of a few star systems connected by slipstreams — artifacts of the cosmos, or perhaps a forgotten technology. Only the slipstreams allow travel faster than light. Apart from that, spacecraft make do with reaction drives, dumping heat as best they can.

Lost technologies of a fallen civilization thrum beneath your feet. Just the other side of the slipstream live the last dozen members of a post-Singularity culture bent on raiding your system for the raw construction material of its moons. It’s dangerous out there — and where there’s danger, there’s the possibility of profit, if you’re brave or crazy enough to seek it out.

It’s your universe. What are you going to make of it?

Diaspora purports to be a hard science fiction game, using a variant on the FATE system. Readers of this column may recall FATE is the engine behind the award winning Dresden Files Roleplaying Game. Yes, the game with the funny “+, – and blank” six sided dice, Aspects and Skills. My column on the DFRPG goes into more detail.

Right. We’ve seen how FATE works in an urban fantasy setting. How B. Murray, C.W. Marshall, T. Dyke and B.Kerr work it in a hard SF setting is a little different. A lot of the small mechanics changes aren’t going to interest you, the general reader, and so I won’t bore you with some of the minutia in the differences.

Character Creation is similar to other FATE games in that links to the other characters are built into the Aspect system. In theory, this means that everyone in the gaming group has characters that relate to theirs. Straight up, though, without some prep work, and going in blind, trouble can occur. The Indiegamers and I ran into difficulty when we wound up with a group of disparate characters loosely bound together, and without a tremendous amount of narrative and social cohesion. It hurt the game we played.

Character Creation itself feels and acts like a game within a game, and there are other minigames within Diaspora. Personal Combat is a minigame, with its own quirks and ideas, and there is Platoon Combat as well. There is even a bizarre Social Combat game which we unsatisfactorily tried out, but I think we might not have given it a fair shake. In that last, you can roleplay out, as a “combat” an interaction in scale ranging from a negotiation with a port authority over your docking fees to the entire social direction of a nation.

As promised in the introduction, the game does into strong detail on the hard physics, far harder than Traveller, especially in the space section. Space Combat is a big deal in Diaspora, one in retrospect I had explored in our play more. The table of “V shift acceleration” makes that clear. For all of the fuzziness that FATE as a system can bring to the table, Diaspora does try to have real underpinnings on the space travel. Space Combat, too, feels a lot more like space combat in Babylon 5 than, say, Star Trek. The “map” is two dimensional” but bleeding heat, momentum, acceleration and beam and torpedo weapons all come into play.

My favorite, and the best thing about Diaspora, is the Cluster generation system. As part of character creation, the GM and players build a set of worlds connected by wormholes. Both the raw statistics of the cluster and the connections between them are randomly generated, leading to a map of worlds that the players will have their characters explore. The players then assign the worlds Aspects (just like characters and other things in FATE games) to give them character, personality and hooks. The technique is powerful, and can lead to interesting consequences. In the game I ran, only one world had slipstream (inter-world) travel, leading to them having a monopoly on space travel. We had fun building up the other worlds and deciding how they related to the dominant world and each other as a result of these die rolls and mutual worldbuilding.

Technology in other fields, such as computers and weaponry, is a bit more handwavium. That said, though, the handwavium and the nature of the technological curve is very different than Traveller. There is no threat of a technological singularity in the Traveller universe, it just isn’t going to happen. Here, its a threat for any world reaching Tech level 4, and it was a major theme in the game that I ran, set as it was in a cluster that clearly had been settled by a civilization that had gone bust in just that way, leaving shards behind.

Curious and want to take a look at some of the mechanics? The fine folks at Vsca have put up a fair chunk of the game in a free to use system reference document.

Does Diaspora work as a game? As I alluded earlier, my roleplaying group was somewhat unsatisfied with how it played for us. I think that really stems from following the rules and building the characters as straight suggested in the game. I think bringing a vision to the gaming table, first, is key to making Diaspora work better, and if I ever do run it again, that is precisely what I am going to insist on. Also I am not sure that the cheek by jowl melding of the fuzziness of FATE and the hard SF that Diaspora uses as a theme is entirely successful. However, my gaming group and I may very well be outliers on this score. It should be noted that my gaming group’s last foray into FATE was less than successful. And, it should be emphasized that Diaspora won a 2010 Ennie award for best roleplaying game rules. And this is the sort of game I would love to run for the more SF oriented of the Sf Signal crew one of these days.

Despite these downsides, the thing I came away with to permanently put in my Gamemastering toolkit is the cluster generation system. The text itself suggests that you can do a lot more with it than simply generate star systems connected by wormholes. Given that its a minigame, it is simple to use as a add-on to another game system or game universe. You can export it, using different parameters, to create statistics and links for city states in a fantasy roleplaying game, political parties for a modern urban fantasy game, or any other number of things. I bet a few writers might like to try to use this method, and see what random results inspire for their fiction.

I might try it myself.