(First off, let me note that Diaspora is normally available only through Lulu.com, but Lulu screwed the pooch recently and the title isn’t currently listed. As soon as it’s back, you want to get yourself a copy. No, it’s not available in PDF yet (and probably not for some time). I may talk more about that publication of Diaspora some other time, but that’s enough about that for now.)
Diaspora is hard science fiction storytelling built on top of Fate. (As it so happens, I know a little about Fate!) At first blush, that’s a weird fit. As a gaming chassis, Fate can give you plenty of detail to work with, but generally it’s all about characters and character-driven stuff. Hard sci fi leaves one thinking that hey, maybe you should instead focus your game system on precise models of physics, concern yourself with resource management in the black depths of space, etc. Which might be true to a limited extent — and that’s the extent to which Diaspora gives it support. Diaspora knows how to grab onto the attitude of hard SF without shouldering its baggage as well. Then it takes a cue from Vernor Vinge (among others) and focuses in on the characters.
This is smart, at least if you’re trying to get me excited about your science fiction game (and I so very am with Diaspora, really the first deeply satisfying third party Fate product I’ve seen). It’s smart because it pulls the same trick I was talking about Vinge pulling: there are big ideas about technology and blue collar life in space in Diaspora, but they sneak in around the edges while you’re busy paying attention to the characters in the story. By using Fate the game is buying hardcore into characters. In Fate, character isn’t just the main thing, it’s everything (and anything else in the system follows the character model). Diaspora gets this.
But like Shock:, Diaspora also makes sure the setting and situation get created by the players. Games start with the players using a genius little “cluster generation” system for creating the corner of space that their stories will take place in. There’s buy-in there, the same kind of buy-in really that you can get from a vivid set of shocks-and-issues intersections in Shock:. But once that’s done, Diaspora moves quickly onward to Fate style character creation, exploring backstory and linking characters together with phases. The result is a vivid hard sci fi universe with detailed characters and plenty of overt flags for what the players are interested in.
Here, the priorities of the system match the priorities of the kind of science fiction that sucks me in and gets me excited. There are big ideas here, oh yes, but character trumps them — the ideas develop around them, not vice-versa.
That said, Shock:‘s grid is a strong tool for setting and situation, and it’d be a shame to see it go to waste for players like me, who dig on the ideas that it develops but not on the system/play that follows. So that begs the question, can Shock: and Diaspora interbreed? I think so, and with very little overhead. If I was running a hybrid of the two — call it Diaspora: for now — I’d run the setup like this:
First, determine the number of systems you want in your cluster. (If these terms are opaque to you, again I say: go get Diaspora as soon as you can!)
Next, sketch out a Shock: issues/shocks grid that has as many or more intersections as there are systems in your cluster. So if you had, say, 5 systems, you’d want at least a 2×3 or 3×2 grid, yielding 6 intersections.
Determine issues and shocks for the grid. Your shocks probably shouldn’t include “space travel!” because that’s straight up ambient in Diaspora:. Think about the sort of shocks that might happen within that context. Try to make your grid as “square” as you can; there’s a reason I suggest a 2×3 or 3×2 for 5 systems, and not a 1×5 (I’ll get to that reason shortly).
Continue with mostly-standard cluster generation ala Diaspora. But here’s what changes: when someone takes on a system to detail, they first claim an intersection on the shocks/issues grid for that system. So instead of coupling a protagonist with an intersection on the grid, it’s a system in the cluster. This puts the Big Ideas in the background and setting that the characters will be exploring, but doesn’t force the characters to be mere idea exploration tools. This approach is part of why I favor two or more shocks on the grid, and making the grid as squarish as possible. With a grid shaped like that, you’ll be likely to see multiple systems facing the same kind of social issue, but each one through the impact of a different kind of shock.
Once all that’s done, you’ll have a cluster that’s rife with social issues/shocks for exploring, but without those ideas forcing themselves on the characters. Have faith: the issues will come up during play, but it will (I think) be a lot more organic in feel. And since at this point you’ll proceed onward to Fate style character creation, you’ll have some deeply detailed characters for doing it.