Thursday, September 26, 2013

Social Combat In Diaspora

"There's a saying: 'War is a long cliff.'" You can avoid the cliff completely, you can walk along the top for as long as you have the nerve, you can even choose to leap off, and if you only fall a short way before you hit a ledge you can always scramble back up again. Unless you are just plain invaded, there are always choices, and even then, there's usually something you missed - a choice you didn't make - that could have avoided invasion in the first place. You people still have your choices. There's nothing inevitable about it."
-Cheradenine Zakalwe
From Iain M. Banks's Use of Weapons (1990)

Banks' Use of Weapons involves a covert operation to prevent a regional civil war among the solar systems and political factions of a recently divided star cluster. The book evokes a bit of a Diaspora vibe, as the story features Zakalwe, a world-hopping hired gun for the Culture. There are a number of vignettes set in the midst of ground combats (something you can wargame quite nicely with Diaspora's platoon combat subsystem, thank you!). The novel also constantly refers to its star cluster setting simply as the Cluster, which even made me wonder whether +Brad Murray's usage of the term for the smaller units of connected solar systems in Diaspora might even be a tip of the hat to Banks.

Probably a stretch, I know.

But after reading the passage at the beginning of this post, I had the sudden realization that you could play out this dance on a long cliff at the edge of war using the social combat rules in Diaspora. Which got me started re-reading those rules a couple of nights ago around midnight.

The social conflict rules map rather well to what Gramsci called a war of position (ideology, propaganda, persuasion, negotiation), which often precedes or precludes a war of maneuver (the hottest and most fluid forms of conflict).

The map could present polarized competing endpoints such as Total War Breaks Out vs. A Path to Peace. A critical part of the contest for Zakalwe, the agent of the Culture, is to find, get close to, and push/re-position a central "NPC", the retired Cluster leader Beychae: the one person with the ability hold things together in the Cluster and prevent a regional war.  Beychae's buried deep in an archive in an undisclosed location, under the watchful eyes of Governance, a faction apparently opposed to the Culture's interests. The brush fires have already started in a number of areas of the Cluster; time is of the essence for even someone of Beychae's stature and credibility to prevent a regional war.

The figure of Beychae is a present absence for the first third of the book. I suppose he's a bit like a kinder, gentler Marshall Tito - one who just sort of faded away, after defeating an enemy and unifying diverse peoples into a single state. (I have about 100 pages to go in the book so that may become a bit clearer by the weekend.)

The book feels fresh, almost timeless. It's hard to believe the passage above was written 23 years ago, and published just a year before the Yugoslav Wars began.

It could have been written about Syria.


  1. Exactly such conflicts have played out using Diaspora's social conflict system at the table Brad ran.It's on p. 169, titled "changing history". The multiple variables created by having a social map, and various "pawns" to move along with the two main parties to the conflict, produced a really neat outcome where no one got everything they wanted.

    Four years later I remember the evening quite fondly. Looking back there was a decent bit of hand-waving (called out explicitly in the text) and I'm not sure more rules would improve it.

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by TQuid! I normally skip play examples, but I will go back and read the Changing History section. Sounds interesting!

      Diaspora and Starblazer Adventures are my two favorite FATE games, and I like SBA's approach to factions and organizations as well. Diaspora's approach to most things is more focused and procedural; SBA's approach is more free form. Both games had great ideas. I could play and run either one for the next decade without getting bored or exhausting the possibilities each game opens up.

  2. This section on Social Combat has been the most intriguing part of Diaspora for me, personally. The majority of the rules seem to be a pretty bog-standard re-modeling of old Traveller-tropes into a new idiom (and Very Well Done as well), but this social combat stuff is fascinating and has been nagging at me quite a bit--it is something that I wish I had found right when I started work on Riskail. Will have to look at Starblazer Adventures once the new edition is out--I'm curious how they handle factions and organizations.