Monday, December 10, 2012

FATE Library: Diaspora

"Two Diasporas" photo c. 2012 by John Everett Till
This is the second post in my FATE Library series, in which I discuss the FATE RPGs in my personal library and what I have done with them. The first post was on Spirit of the Century.

Today we are looking at Diaspora.

First, my rating system:
  • Book Condition? Dog-eared cover, lamination starting to peel, spine very much intact, thoroughly page-flagged. I also have a PDF which is in perfect condition.
  • Actually Read? Numerous times.
  • Ever Played? Held the first Diaspora game in a public venue in MN - a six hour marathon in fact! I have run a campaign (the longest I have ever run, in fact) as well as a one-shot adaptation of  Hereticwerks' Rogue Space scenario: Quick Score on Xudriss II at The Source Comics and Games. Never a player. I am also using Diaspora for my FATE SF-specific blog posts for Sector I-5 of the Kepler 22-B collaborative world-building project (more on the project here).
  • Science Fiction? The game's subtitle is "Hard science fiction role-playing with fate." It manages that in refreshing, player and GM-empowering ways, dropping the math-kludge of many Hard SF games and jettisoning the libertarian baggage that the Hard SF field has been burdened with for decades. Diaspora was the second FATE-based SF game. (The first, Starblazer Adventures, will be the subject of my FATE Library post next week. That will be followed by its sister game, Legends of Anglerre, one week later.) 

This is a 4DF version of FATE. 

Characters start as very competent people. Their apex skill on the skill pyramid is +5, which is higher than the skill level of starting Heroic characters in Starblazer Adventures. There are 36 skills to choose from, and these skills are highly optimized for science fiction settings [i.e., Aircraft, Archaeology, Brokerage, EVA, MicroG (combat), and Navigation (space)] to name a few. There is differentiation of skill types and a specific subset of skills with the marker (space), which are used to operate spaceships. 

A very important aspect of skills is that your apex skill is the only one you may use to make a declaration. I like this; its a very elegant and simple way to create characters with a clear differentiation in specialties.

The game takes a very minimalist approach to Stunts, which operate by means of simple axioms such as military-grade versions of skills (for example enabling access to non-civilian weapons), skill substitution (for instance, using one skill in place of another in specific circumstances), or have a thing (access to special equipment, resources, technology), alter a track (extend or change the functionality of a stress track), or free form (in which case the player negotiates with the GM/table for a specific stunt that they create (this creates a lot of room for creating special powers and abilities).

There are three stress tracks: health, composure, and wealth. The latter comes in very handy if you want to run a game in which the PCs are engaging in commerce, and/or contributing to the maintenance costs of operating a space ship.

PCs have 10 Aspects, which are generated in a collaborative process with five phases running from Growing Up to On Your Own.

But the real heart of Diaspora is its cluster generation system. Diaspora comes out of the box with an elegant sub-system which allows players to create the setting in which they will play. The setting is called a cluster, and clusters typically consist of 5-6 solar systems that connect to each other by means of slipknot (essentially spatial discontinuities or jump points). 

The number of connections any given system has to the other systems in the cluster is determined randomly. Systems can be relatively connection poor (a link to one other system) or connection rich (with slipknot to multiple systems). This helps produce the physical relationships between systems that give rise to a range of political and economic scenarios. 

But these scenarios are far more than spatial, which becomes evident once the ratings for Technology, Environment, and Resources for each system are determined. Each of these three ratings range from -4 to +4. For example, the lowest rating for Technology is T-4 which is stone age levels of technology. The high end of the scale is T+4 which is described as on the verge of collapse. At T+4 a system is one the verge of one or more technological singularities which are both wonderful and terrifying. Disapora's view of the singularity is that it is often a precipice; civilizations often reach this point and unravel, implode, collapse. You need at least T+2 to have slipstream use (i.e., interstellar FTL travel). But be careful how high you reach...

The Environment and Resource scales operate similarly to Technology. Together, they create three parameters for a system. Of course, the very same ratings might be interpreted differently by two different people. This is where the table comes in. Each player interprets one system's ratings, specifying three Aspects and a brief description for one system in the cluster. An entire setting takes shape as people take turns.

In the setting we created for my Diaspora campaign, it took roughly two 2-hour sessions to generate the setting. We had a group of extremely intelligent and creative players who had very strong but divergent ideas about how to interpret the T-E-R ratings. It took a while to reconcile these divergent viewpoints into something interesting, plausible, and coherent. We eventually got there. On the other hand, I ran Diaspora with a group of complete strangers at a convention and we came up with a fun, interesting sector in about 45 minutes.

Diaspora also has subsystems for space combat (I have tried and enjoyed them), social combat (haven't tried them and don't quite grok them yet), and platoon combat (haven't tried them yet). It was designed to be a complete hard SF RPG in one small package. It provides GMs and players with simple frameworks for building clusters, characters, space ships and more. These frameworks are simple but carry within them significant complexity and richness.  I think it succeeds admirably in all these goals. 

As long as you buy into a few core axioms - the nature of clusters and space travel; playing very competent but specialized PCs; sticking to hard SF by excluding things like artificial gravity, transporters, and technomagic; and the ethos of empowering the table to make decisions about the setting - Diaspora can take you very, very far.


  1. I'm in some kind of eccentric orbit around this system. I like the cluster generation idea in theory, and the overall assumptions they've gone with seem relatively fresh and more than reasonable enough. It's very comfortable just to have the game out there as a focal point.

  2. The game gives me a really good feeling too. The designers also have a taste for wargames, as PC combat, space combat, and platoon combat do not really require a GM (or a story). They are structured as mini-wargames that can be run using a "caller" who moves people through a sequence.

  3. I moved my Traveller game to Diaspora and just kept on using the map and Traveller style jump drives with no adverse effects. That's why I think what you listed as core axioms at the end of the post are not mandatory. We switched to Diaspora because we wanted Fate, Diaspora provided a skill list appropriate for the setting, and as a GM I loved the simplified stunts (since I was utterly confused by the long lists in Spirit of the Century and its gadget rules). Either way, Diaspora can take you very far, I agree.

  4. Thanks for stopping by, Alex! I think you are right that the axioms aren't mandatory to have fun with the system. I do think they are interesting and generative though, and produced a very intriguing game and default meta-setting.

    In my series of posts about the Empire, I have broken the Diaspora axioms a bit too. The setting has both hyperspace travel (which I define as movement through higher dimensions) and slipknots (which I define in the setting as direct sutures in the topography of spacetime).