Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Diaspora review

Diaspora is a recent sci-fi role-playing game. It's part of the "indie" crowd (Burning Wheel, Fiasco, Spirit of the Century, Dogs in the Vineyard, etc). It's basically a dramatic re-imagining of Traveller.

Diaspora has:
  • one great idea, cluster creation and integration with character creation
  • one excellent solution to numerical advancement (i.e., power-gaming by design, an issue with most RPGs)
  • a bunch of interesting ideas, the sub-games.
Diaspora uses a modified FATE system (FATE is a good, generic system for RPGs that uses FUDGE dice.)

Someone else's review describes a lot of the content, so I won't focus too much on those aspects. I agree with their "The Good" and "The Bad" conclusions. Especially:
I'd love to see a 2nd edition that goes into greater depth discussing hard sci-fi concepts, physics considerations, and how to make all of that fun at the gaming table. More attention to technological development of societies and its implications would have been helpful, especially given the importance of societal tech level in this game.
Otherwise, I don't think the game is lacking anything. I love how it's quite simple and yet offers a huge amount of scope.

Cluster Creation

The theme of the game, as the title suggests, is diaspora. Humanity has spread out over the universe/galaxy and become fragmented. No-one really knows where home is, they're lost in a sea of stars. All one knows is a small cluster of star systems that one can travel between using slipknots (sci-fi gobbledegook - otherwise the game is hard sci-fi). They don't even know how far away, in kilometres, each star system is from another. It's a lot of unknowns. Great start!

The setup, then, is to create star-systems and link them together. Each star system has three "stats" associated with them; technology, environment and resources. This is enough to give you a good basis for a description of each system. Players add information to each system, trying to evoke as interesting a system as possible. Individual planets are described also, especially the habitable ones. Finally, each system is linked into a network.

Cluster creation is a clever idea. In most RPGs, the players interact with an established setting, either from published material or from the gamemaster's creation. In Diaspora, everyone is involved with establishing the setting. From this point, the characters are grown.

Game Mechanics and Character Creation

Diaspora uses a modified FATE games system, an upgrade to FUDGE. Without boring you with the details, undoubtedly FATE is better than FUDGE. FATE uses two main mechanics, skills and aspects. Skills are terms associated with numbers (e.g., Engineer 2, Climbing 1). The higher the number, the better able you are at performing the skill. Aspects, on the other hand, are solely terms. Aspects are, for instance, "all attractive people must die," or "rich people are the bee's knees." One uses aspects to modify skill rolls. I see Skills and Aspects as the core concepts to FATE, or at least to Diaspora's modified system.

I'll quote the book to elucidate all the elements of a character.
Characters are composed of four mechanical elements: their Aspects, their Skills, their Stunts, and their stress tracks (Health, Composure, and Wealth). Aspects are short, evocative statements that describe the character in ways that can be used mechanically both for and against the character as well as being points at which the referee can suggest actions to players for their characters. Skills are the basic abilities of the character, chosen from a list provided later in this section, and used mechanically to add to the basic roll during any conflict in which the Skill is relevant. Stunts are new rules that apply to the character. Stress tracks are indications of how stressed the character is physically, mentally, and financially. Aspects derive from the character’s story. Skills and Stunts are selected after the story is constructed. Stress tracks have a basic rating modified by some Skills and Stunts. (pg 32)
You might notice one thing missing, something that virtually all RPGs possess, ability scores (those "innate" abilities that all characters have). This is a great thing as they are redundant concepts. Often, all ability scores do is go on to become new numbers (strength bonus, initiate bonus, etc.), like some weird number generating machine.

The only Diaspora mechanic I dislike are Stunts. They seem like a trite way to get a bonus. Why aren't Aspects sufficient? Aspects are used, when applicable, to give a +2 bonus to a skill or a re-roll. A stunt seems to give an extra bonus on top of that. I don't see the utility, though perhaps I'm missing something subtle. The game could be played perfectly well without Stunts, so it doesn't matter.

The real innovation, in my opinion, is the idea that Skills don't "improve" in the way they appear to in most RPGs. Instead, characters have a pyramid of abilities.
Players select 15 Skills for their character and rank them in a pyramid: one at level 5, two at 4, three at 3, four at 2, and five at 1. (Pg 34)
A player may move any Skill up the Skill pyramid one place (though not past 5) and then must move a Skill from that new rank down one level. That is, the Skill pyramid must be maintained, always having one Skill at rank five, two at rank four, and so on. (Pg 59)
This innovation goes against basically all ideas in conventional RPGs. When I first read it, I was horrified. After thinking about the consequences, I realised that that's how all RPGs should work.


The sub-games are: personal combat, space combat, social combat and platoon combat. I've only read personal combat and bits of social combat. They look like good fun. With personal combat, you draw up an abstract map, place aspects on objects in the world (uneven terrain, furniture, trees, etc.) and costs to move between areas. This gives you an abstract but very usable way of describing the game world. Combined with rules for weapons and wounds, I find the personal combat rules very compelling.

The other sub-games might be good too, I wouldn't know. The great thing about them is that all the sub-games are completely optional. You can add/remove/modify without disrupting other parts of the game.

From an author:
So, we loved Traveller but one day we started experimenting with "new" games. We built a setting with Universalis and that was enlightening -- games could go places we hadn't thought of. We played Burning Wheel in that setting and that was enlightening -- different ways to think about success and failure, reward cycles, and players communicating what they wanted from the story through these. We played some Spirit of the Century and had a couple of months of the most inclusive, honest fun we'd ever had gaming. It had distinct flaws, but we found those attractive because we like to fix things.

But we loved Traveller. It wasn't delivering on the level of some of these new games, but then these new games weren't hitting the sweet note that Traveller did for us either. So we had a stupid idea: what if we hacked SotC to do Traveller? (The RPG Haven)
Now I just want someone to hack Diaspora and do RuneQuest.


I think Diaspora is one of the most innovative RPG books I've ever read. It ditches so many bad ideas (e.g., false ideas of progress, ability scores, unnecessary complexity, etc.) and presents a game system that is incredibly playable. Even if you're not into sci-fi at all, this should be the game you're looking at at the moment. Take the ideas from cluster creation, the re-working of FATE (minus Stunts, perhaps), and anything from the sub-games and you probably have the best RPG that currently exists.


  1. Good review. I agreed with most of what you said here with my own experience with this game. The sub-games rules work really good. They're a bit more abstract but more focused in what they do manage. I liked them. I don't think Diaspora necessarily needs a 2nd edition but a supplement to expand on the sciences would be nice.

    There is a fantasy game using FATE called Legend of Angelerre. You would have to change the setting to fit into Glorantha if that's where you play RuneQuest in but it may help if you wanna hack RQ into FATE.

  2. Thanks, I'll check it out. I've already made good progress FATEifing RuneQuest, but anything I can plunder would be useful.

  3. People don't understand what a great concept they are getting. See 1 and 2.