[Game Review] Diaspora

It’s not too often I sit down and read a new RPG.  Okay, it’s never that I sit down and read a new RPG these days.  I’m always like, yeah, sure I’ll read stuff but…  I was sufficiently intrigued and I actually purchased an RPG and read it, and that RPG was the excellent Diaspora.

Diaspora is a hard science fiction game based on FATE 3.0, a snazzy storytelling system that does many things well and other things perfectly and smooths out many lumps in the gaming experience.  It’s also a toolkit and it can be used for anything.  Once it was used for Pulp, it’s quite popular right now in the urban supernatural genre, but me, I come from an old Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov and Robots and Empire background so I was mighty interested in hard sci-fi and see where it could go.

This is not a book about other people’s fancy characters. The guys who wrote this game are not interested in telling you about their campaign.  (Yes, the campaigns are used as examples but it is not the crux of the book in any way.)  This book is a toolkit with a minimal hard science fiction gimme — the faster than light drive for space travel between worlds and some very excellent background on technology — and then hands everything else over to the gaming group.

Diaspora is essentially an RPG wrapped around six internal mini-games, all powered with FATE and using FATE dice: cluster creation, character creation, personal combat, starship combat, platoon combat (!) and social combat.   The first two only come into play when starting a new game while the other four are set pieces for different parts of the game.  These are optional, but Diaspora would not be Diaspora without them.

Cluster creation I could play all day long and never get bored.  Using FATE dice, one rolls up sets of words and defines them with three attributes (Technology, Environment, Resources).  Each of the three attributes has a -4 to +4 sliding scale.  One can have a string of low tech garden worlds full of rich bounty for the harvesting, or a vastly technological world raping its system to the core to make a ringworld, or a system just starting to explore space.  Or all of these.  Then dice define how the cluster is put together.  This is the local Diaspora universe and each game is different.  Simply talking through planet and cluster creation brings up tons of ideas for scenes and games and entire campaigns.  None of them feature Cthulhu.

Character creation is very much standard FATE character creation with a heavy emphasis on weaving the PCs into each other’s background.  This is standard for every FATE game.  Diaspora has a nice list of skills and stunts.

Where Diaspora shines for me are the mini-games.  Diaspora takes what could be very crunchy, mini-requiring wargames and turns them into fast, furious and fun games baked into the juicy FATE shell.  The best part of the mini-games is that they stand alone; one only needs to either make some characters or take some pre-genned ships or platoons and go to town.  They do need a whiteboard and markers to work properly — these are the sort of mini-games that require props — but the results feel so satisfying.  The examples are clear and to the point.  They don’t muck around much with story.  They show you what they need to show you and get out of the way.

And yes, I made a little squeeing noise when I saw the platoon combat mini-game.  Me!  I did!  All I could think about was Aliens.  But my favorite of the four by far is the social combat mini-game.  It’s the best RPG social gaming simulator I have seen since Chris Aylott’s “Dynasties and Demagogues” for d20, a system that never did social combat well but tried.  Unlike FATE which does social combat, and with the Aspect system and compels and social maneuvers, does it well.  It feels like the ebb and flow of social combat.  It feels like the board has pawns and bishops and queens and the players can push them all around by making cunning rolls and burning FATE points.  Maybe I am very visual and I like being able to see the little dots on the field and know what my political target is and how far there is to go to win or lose, but it clicked with me on a deep level.  I want to take Diaspora’s social combat system and use it everywhere.

Yeah, I would totally play Diaspora.  It appeals to my deep gearhead geek.  It gives me toys and gets out of my way so I can go play.  I would probably lose at the starship battle and platoon battle the first several times I played but FATE allows one to lose gracefully so that’s all good.  I’m sure there are now fancy Indie gaming terms I have completely forgotten to codify why I like it but in my terms it is: excellent narrative structure for flow of play, incredibly clean and clear game rules, excellent examples, lots of ships and weapons out of the box, and the process of creating a cluster filled my head with ideas.  It passed my test — if I could think up three campaign ideas while reading the source book, it’s a damn fine game.  If I could think up three ideas and understand the rules clearly then it’s a win for the good guys.

The PDF is only $13, so it is slightly above the “I would buy it just to skim it” price.  It looks fantastic on Good Reader on the iPad, so if you have one of those, you’re in business.  I hear it’s in paperback now, too.  So go buy that. You can even go buy it here.

Not quite 1000 words on antihistamines and cold medicine on a game.  Awesome. Also, it occurs to me that I do not mind reviewing games as long as they are available in PDF that displays on Good Reader on the iPad.