Nov 252009

This is a continuation of yesterday’s post about Shock:, which was itself a continuation of the one about Vernor Vinge’s writing.

So, Diaspora.

(First off, let me note that Diaspora is normally available only through, 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.


  13 Responses to “Diaspora:”

  1. Fred, the way Issues move into Protag creation in Shock: is through Story Goals and Antagonists. Those are the tools for giving Issues teeth.

    Since you’re building systems with the Grid, rather than people, what do you propose as connective tissue?

    I’m gonna cheat and say what I’d do: I’d make it so that characters are from one of these systems. They’re personally dealing with the Issues of their home system. Maybe they ran away from one, or maybe they’re there at the beginning of the story. Then I’d sink the Issues’ teeth into the characters’ Aspects.

    (Pardon my ignorance, by the way. I don’t have Diaspora and have only read FATE. I might be imagining things working differently than they do.)

    • Characters are always from systems in the cluster. The cluster of systems in Diaspora *is* the connective tissue of the setting as far as points of origin are concerned — there’s nowhere else for the characters to be from.

      I would have faith that, having generated the shocks/issues prior to making characters, that players will quickly zero in on character concepts that will engage with those.

    • Is there a way to generate antagonists?

    • Diaspora’s going for a bigger canvas, I think — there’s a tight relationship between Protag and Antag in Shock: that’s too intimate, I think, for Diaspora’s priorities.

      That isn’t to say that antagonists can’t emerge during character creation. With many characters I’d expect them to, in the Fate style, by coming up in the character’s backstory and getting encoded as relevant via the character’s aspects.

      A full on Diaspora/Shock: hybrid would likely need to put some effort into making sure that antagonists are explicitly created as a part of the process (like having an explicit Antagonist phase, perhaps replacing character creation’s Moment of Crisis phase in a way). But the lighter weight crossbreeding I’m proposing here is more about letting the issues exist out in the environment, and allowing players and characters to encounter them at what is perhaps a less breakneck speed, less strictly directed.

    • Huh. Antagonists are the primary route toward keeping players focused on Issues. They’re the teeth.

      Also, an important thing about the Grid that I guess isn’t obvious: because no one’s in complete control of it, it surprises everyone, all the time. You use it at the beginning to allocate authority, to give those with the most exciting ideas about a particular subject the reins on that subject. It tells who who gets to spin Minutiæ according to their vision. Without a GM role (and this is the reason Shock: doesn’t have one), you wind up with everyone doing the thing they’re most excited about (and often the things they know the most about), and the combination is always weird. FATE has a GM, which means that the Grid will sort of give an idea of what to do, but doesn’t give you the tools for how to do it. Conflicts of interest abound, with the effective Antag player throwing down all the relevant Minutiæ, which again, have only tenuous connection to the situation.

      Since no one is audience, there’s no judge of the awesomeness of any idea. The only sense of humor twisting the environment is the GM’s.

      I’d like to sit down with you at a con sometime and try this out. I can probably learn something from the process (not least of all, how FATE works), and maybe we’ll be able to effectively scratch your itch, too.

    • That focus is a little too relentless for me, though. Because we’re looking at a relentless collision with the issues, the issues never get to sneak up on me. See the foundational notions of this series posts: Vinge fiction works for me because his big ideas aren’t constantly kicking me in the balls. They’re sneaky. At the end of the day, I’m looking more for the experience of the frog in the slowly boiling pot. Which is why at the end of the day I’m suggesting that embedding the issues in the setting, available to be explored but not constantly clubbing the characters, may be the way to get me my absorbed/sympathetic/identification itch scratched.

  2. Diaspora has interested me since you started tweeting about it. I’m curious what you mean by “hard Sci Fi.” (I’m not too familiar with gaming terms)

    • “Hard sci fi” is more of a term of genre fiction than it is of gaming!

      2001: A Space Odyssey has a lot of hard sci fi elements in it: grounded notions of physics and space travel and all that. (It has some fantastical elements in it too, so I’m talking more about the mundane parts of the story.)

      Star Wars doesn’t. It’s space opera!

      That kind of a contrast.

  3. One of the things I’ve noticed about Shock: is that it’s scale is very different from FATE; it is much more intimate. Protagonist and Antagonist create a tug of war that drives the story. The other players operate tangentially through the use of Minutia. I think that relationship between *Tagonists is the important one and fuels character-driven stories through play.

    My experiences with FATE have been where the characters are connected through common threads and feel fairly ‘complete’ before play begins. Play further defines and refines the characters through their actions. Shock: characters seem to have a lot of definition taking place throughout play.

    Both games have very different approaches, yet you seem to have found a way to fuse the two processes together very nicely. Nice bit of alchemy.

  4. We’ve found so far that really interesting issues already percolate up naturally from the cluster system (linkage being as relevant as stats) but it might be powerful to encode a mechanism for it (or a third axis to derive it from). Thanks for the idea! I may actually nick a variation to push play in Soft Horizon. Hrm, or Soulscape. Think think.

  5. I’m wanting to pick up DIASPORA, I like the character focus myself. Since after all that’s a big draw for a LOT of fictional media is the people who exist within them.

    Has Lulu fixed the issue yet?
    I was thinking of putting it on the to buy list next week, but couldn’t locate it at all…

  6. […] supremacy. Succeed together or intellectually masturbate alone. Oh, that there Fred Hicks has some interesting chatter about Diaspora (though the post serves you better if you’ve read the game, which I have not). I’ll […]

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