I've liked the FATE system immensely since I first encountered it in Spirit of the Century. It's simple without being rules light, and gives the players a certain amount of control without losing the traditional GM and player structure, or (for me) breaking immersion.
Diaspora is the leanest and most elegant iteration of FATE that I know of in print. It's geared towards a particular type of hard science fiction game, and it succeeds admirably in its aims. I enjoyed running it, and my players enjoyed playig it.
Diaspora begins by describing the basic system and setting assumptions, before talking about a number of 'minigames' for dealing with situations in more detail. There is also a chapter on how the setting assumptions can be 'softened' to deal with such very optional things as alien species and psionic powers. Although such things do not feature in the game as a default, they are largely a 'paint job' on the existing systems.
The FATE system
Under the FATE system, characters are described by Skills, Aspects, and Stunts. Skills are generally rated from +1 to +5; each skill level has an associated descriptive adjective. A skill test involves rolling four fudge dice, and adding the result to the skill level. Fudge dice have sides left blank, marked with a '+' sign, and marked with a '-' sign, and rolling four of them generates a number from -4 to +4.
Thus, Diaspora as written requires special dice, although there are variant (slightly more random) systems where two ordinary 6-sided dice are used instead.
Aspects are short descriptive phrases associated to a character's background, personality, and so on. A character has a number of FATE points with which to fuel Aspect use. The mechanic is that a relevant Aspect can be invoked on a skill check, and a FATE point spent to gain a +2 bonus or a reroll. Aspects invoked need not be the character's; those of an ally or opponent, or even the environment or equipment can be used if relevant.
Aspects can also be compelled- the player is offered a FATE point to do something inconvenient for the character in accordance with an Aspect. Resisting a compel is allowed, but costs a FATE point. Thus, ideally, Aspects are double-edged and can be both invoked and compelled. At the very least, a character needs a mixture of positive and negative Aspects.
Finally, I mentioned Stunts. Stunts are specific ways to do things like give bonuses to skills or give a character access to specific resources. Many FATE games have long lists of possible stunts. Diaspora takes a different approach, having a small number of generic stunts which are customised.
As a default, the only way the Diaspora setting breaks real world physics as it is currently known is in the existence of 'slipknots' connecting points of different solar systems- thus enabling interstellar travel between systems in a small cluster. These slipknots can only be accessed by a suitable advanced spacecraft.
There is no such thing as reaction-free drives, artificial gravity, or travel above a tiny fraction of light speed. There are no psychic powers (though a few rules guidelines are in the appendix for this, as already mentioned). Technological assumptions are conservative; advances such as extreme longevity, true artificial intelligence, or significant nanotechnology do not exist as a general rule.
Such advances are perhaps possible, but cause the collapse of a society or its transformation out of all recognition. These advances have probably happened before in a cluster- leaving mysterious ruins and possible high technology artifacts lying around.
Incidentally, these assumptions were important in our game, which was a combination of Firefly-style dubious trading, and pursuit of the artifacts of a distinct alien race who once inhabited a now technologically primitive ringworld. Space navigation needed a specific rare 'spice', only found on one desert planet.
Cluster Creation is the first of the 'minigames' ,and is done as a group. Each player (including the GM, who does not have to be decided at this stage) creates one or two systems.
The method is to roll four fudge dice to generate a number from -4 to +4 for certain statistics of the system- technology level, environment, and resources. Each number has a description of what it means in the book, and the data is put together to describe each system.
Slipknots connecting the various systems are then randomly generated, and each system's relation to the other systems in the cluster is decided, and the description expanded.
In our group, cluster creation took around two fun hours- long enough that we left character generation to another session.
Character generation is described as another minigame. In it characters are generated in a series of five phases. Each phase is a slice of a character's history, and gives him or her two associated Aspects. Some Aspects involve the character's relation to others at the table.
The process of character generation potentially gives more setting details, such as specific places and NPCs. The GM takes part in character generation as another player- the idea is that the GM's character provides an NPC with connections to the rest of the party- potentially a useful resource.
Actually, when I was GMing, I did not use 'my' character- I've had poor experiences in the past with GMs playing a 'special' NPC. But it was useful for me to be a part of the process to tie things together and have a part in shaping everyone's backgrounds- though things went in directions I hadn't quite anticipated (in a good way).
Character generation took us around another two hours.
The personal combat minigame expands the basic FATE rules for more detail when it comes to fights. The assumption is that a conflict area is divided into zones, and counters are used to keep track of participants- although these can be happily abstracted away.
Zones are not rigid- they are more areas in a quickly drawn sketch of where a fight takes place. I found personal conflict worked well. In the game, we did not always use the whole zone set-up, but did for major showdowns.
One interesting thing about the combat rules are quick points-based generation rules for armour and weapons- with more points are available to 'spend' on an item at higher technology levels. It was a fun system to play with, and there are extensive examples.
Combat between spaceships is another minigame- and one I found absolutely amazing. Spacecraft have a small number of skills me things like movement and weapons, which are modified by the skills of a character working that part of the spacecraft. In space combat there is something for everyone to do- navigation, piloting, gunnery, electronic warfare, and engineering are all important in battles, and different player characters will most likely be involved in each activity.
I found space combat evocative and tactical. There are two things that particularly drew me to it beyond all of the player characters having something important to do. The first is that space combat is very seldom a head to head fight- there is often nothing to gain from destroying an enemy. Usually, it involves seeking to flee or to pursue.
The other thing worth noting is the tactical element (also present to a lesser extent in personal combat), despite the simple rules. Several times, the players faced opposition I did not expect them to overcome or get away from- I expected them to be forced to some sort of compromise, surrender, or other dilemma. They managed to beat me (or just plain get away) by being better tactically every time.
Also more than worthy of mention are the spacecraft design rules at different technology levels. They are quick and elegant, with detail provided by aspects, spacecraft skills, and stunts. There are also numerous examples.
The social combat minigame is zone-based, and is largely resolved by manoeuvering opponents or more neutral elements into a particular zone for victory. It's a nice idea in principle, and one that initially showed huge promise.
In practice, however, I found the social combat rules were too complex and unintuitive and drew us out of the roleplaying. That said, towards the end of the game I came up with a simplified version that worked well for us, and gave us some interestingly tense moments. Like I said, it's good in principle, but didn't quite work for us in practice.
The last minigame involves large numbers of soldiers and tracks units rather than individuals. It looks potentially interesting, and may be something I investigate further in the future, but we did not use it in our campaign, and I do not feel able to comment further.
Diaspora is a brilliant game for a short campaign of around six to twelve sessions where everyone is happy to spend time on communal cluster and character creation. I was lucky enough to have the ideal group for this- but there is some buy-in necessary.
For a game that is much shorter, or for a one-shot, the fun parts of cluster and character creation will not be fully appreciated. Diaspora also has some drawbacks for a longer game. There are no character advancement rules as such- although skills, stunts and aspects can be moved around or swapped. Any monetary gains for the characters- although not temporary drawbacks- are also decided in this way. Anyway, the advancement rules can make it tough to directly reward player characters in a way that has mechanical benefit.
But all of this is talking about using Diaspora outside of its focus- short hard or hardish science fiction campaigns. When used for a short campaign with player buy-in, Diaspora absolutely excels, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.
Even outside of this focus, Diaspora provides some useful and elegant toolds for FATE-based science fiction- in particular technology design (at least for armour, weapons, and spacecraft), and space combat.
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