Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Tabletop Roleplaying Review: Diaspora

    In spite of being into the hobby of Tabletop RPGs since I was a lad back in the 80s, and in spite of being a science fiction nerd, I have never played the grand old game of “Traveller,” not only one of the first commercially available rpgs, but THE Science Fiction game. It’s squarely set in the Asimov/Heinlein/Clarke/Niven side of things (less woo, more tech). I always meant to get around to trying it, but never did. Then a few years ago, I saw a review of “Diaspora” from VSCA Publishing. It grew out of a group’s enjoyment of Traveller, but hunger for a different style of play. They’ve used the Fate system, which I’ve heard a lot about, but haven’t used at all. Generally, it looked like a very group storytelling focused, harder Science Fiction game than is typical; and that made me curious.

    I’ve skimmed it a few times, reading a couple chapters several times over the years since I bought it. But this time around, I decided to get serious and really read it thoroughly. And that became a strange trip. Early on, reading about system creation and character creation, I kept thinking; “stop everything! I want to grab some friends and start playing this game right now.” But then, as I got into the ‘mini-game’ sections about melee, space, and social combat...my excitement kinda died, and reading the final section of the book was almost an afterthought.

    The system and character creation segments are great, and I very much want to use them in a game at some point. What makes it different from many games I’ve seen is that it’s such a group effort. The group, including the referee/game master/what have you, all take part in the creation of the setting you’re going to play in (a small collection of linked star systems called a ‘Cluster’).  Each person takes some ownership over a system, and as a table, you all make choices and forge the relationships between those star systems.  This is where tech levels and resources are figured out.  A player roles for certain numbers, but then interprets those numbers in whatever way makes sense.  There is a great little example, where they present a set of rolled statistics for a system, then show multiple variations on what that might mean.  You could easily have two players roll exactly the same numbers, but come up with completely different systems when they interpret what those numbers mean.  I like that a lot.

Then, with those systems as a background, you all create your characters. And part of character creation involves linking yours to another, so that while not every character has a direct connection to every other character, the group as a whole is linked in some way (like a chain).  I also really like that the characters don’t start out as low level schlubs who have to crawl and beg and fight to be able to gain enough power to do anything of note.  You’re playing characters that are important people, interesting people, shapers, doers, legend makers.  If you take the a skill at what they call ‘apex’ level (and you will take one at that), you’re not just good at something, you’re legendary.  You’re the neurosurgeon who was brought in when the president had a brain tumor.  You’re the actor who keeps winning the top award for performance in the 3D Vids.  You’re the barroom brawler who rose to be Zero-G boxing champion of the Antares system.  You’re the soft-spoken politician who swept the planet in a grassroots campaign of reform.  Essentially, you’re playing important people.  Not necessarily famous, but important to how the future of the cluster is shaped.

Then the game lost me.  Once it got past the creation of the setting and the characters, it gets into plug-in mini-games for determining various types of conflict.  I didn’t care for any of them, particularly, and I don’t care for the extremely ‘plugged-in’ feeling of them.  It’s almost like in a lot of older computer rpgs, where your party icon might be wandering around a large map, then you come across a monster and it zooms in to a little tactical map and do a totally different kind of game.  I didn’t like it in computer games.  I really don’t like it in a tabletop game.  Combat tends to be one of my least favorite parts of a game, because in a lot of systems it stalls the story.  These plug-in games seem to do that on another level.

So I did what I find myself doing so often. I mentally edited things.  I started looking at it like a salad bar; take what I like and leave the rest.  There’s so much good stuff about ‘the table’ having control.  A lot of stuff encouraging group connection and determination.  The way system and character creation is done, you might not even have a game master when you sit down to the table.  And I could see the game master job changing hands multiple times during a campaign.  That’s kind of exciting.  I like when players and their characters are drivers of the story and plot.  But I don’t see myself running or getting together a group for Diaspora as it is.  I think it will be like some other games with interesting mechanics I’ve read.  It will inform how I run a different game.  It does make me interested in other Fate games, as the mechanics for that seem very easy and intuitive.  I’ve heard very good things about “Mindjammers,” and could see using some of the better elements of “Diaspora” with that or a game like it.

-Matthew J. Constantine

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