Review: Diaspora Tabletop RPG

The Diaspora tabletop role-playing game is available from VSCA Publishing (authors: Brad Murray, C.W Marshall, Tim Dyke, Bryan Kerr).

The following game review was written by Cassidy Frazee.



Finding a game with its roots in hard science fiction is a little like trying to bridle a unicorn. You can read all the early Heinlein and Clark you want and geek out on that retro-technical von Braun space stuff as hard as you like, but at the end of the day, if you game in space, your ship is gonna be laid out like Serenity, you’re probably going to get around using a space drive like the one used by the Enterprise, and if you wanna shoot it out with another ship you’re probably going to launch fighters and then close to point-blank range and fire broadsides like in Star Wars. Yeah, it all looks very pretty and fantastic—and doesn’t look the least bit like what would really happen out in the Black.

So if you want to game “hard sci-fi” what are you to do? You get Diaspora.

Diaspora is a different sort of beast, far more than your average space opera game. For one, you know right up front that the authors have spent a lot of time at the gaming table, mostly playing Traveler, and they have a great grasp of the genre. Two, they know what they like about gaming in a universe where “reality” is, for the most part, king. And three, they knew enough about systems to take a very good one that will get the players into the game in ways they never thought possible.

Diaspora uses the Fate system. Fate is used by Spirit of the Century as well and the recent The Dresden Files game. Fate is a unique 4dF system, using four “Fudge” dice (d6 in nature), with each die having a value of 2 “+”s, 2 “-“s and 2 blanks, creating values from +4 to -4. (If you do not have these dice 1-2 can be used for “+”, 3-4 for blank and 5-6 for “-“. One can also buy a computer dice roller that handles Fudge, like PrecisRoller. There is also iFudge, which is free and has its own die roller. Better yet, go to www.fudgery.net and use their interactive dice roller.) Fate uses a difficulty “Ladder” to show the complexity of a task, and this ranges from a +8 for Legendary to -2 for Terrible. One merely rolls the dice, adds their skill and checks the result again the ladder (or an opposing roll) to see the outcome.

The creation process for Diaspora is extremely interactive between the GM and the players, and is performed with everyone present. Rather than go through lots of stuffy tables so you can figure out build points, however, each player goes through a five-step process of taking their character from when they grew up on whatever hell hole of a planet they called home to where they currently are prior to the start of the game. You write up a paragraph or two about these times in your life—and tell everyone else at the table about it—and pick two Aspects that reflect the character at that point in their life. Aspects are nothing more than phrases about the person that can be used throughout the game to assist in getting tasks done if needed. For example, if at a period in the character’s life they’re always in trouble, “Always on the Lam” is a great Aspect; “Staying ahead of the Law” is even better. An interesting part of this process is that two of the periods in your character’s life involve two other player characters, so by the time the game starts there’s none of this, “You’re in a bar—“ nonsense to bring the party together.

After this come the skills and the stunts. Skills are listed in a pyramid form, with five skills at the first level, four at the next, and you kept moving down until the fifth and last, when you get your one hot stuff skill. With the exception of one skill none may be taken more than once, and the skills taken at each level should reflect what was going on in a character’s life at that time in their life. (Needless to say if your character spent all their time working at a mushroom farm on Big Muddy in their early life you might had a difficult time convincing the GM—as well as the other players; remember, this is all happening in the open—that they picked up Demolitions as a skill.)

Stunts are the things that players pick up for their characters that give them a bit of an “edge” when it comes to living the fast and dangerous life of every player character. Each character gets three Stunts, and there are four types of Stunts one can pick for their character: Military Grade, Have a Thing, Skill Substitution and Alter a Track (relating to one of the condition tracks for each character). There is also room for creating a special Stunt for a character, assuming the player and the GM can work out the details.

Stunts are applied to skills which allows additions or changes to them. For example, Military Grade Stunts allow someone with a skill to now have access to military grade items; having a Thing means you… have a thing that’s going to come in handy at some point. Because of the way Stunts are defined they can also be part of an Aspect, or even the Aspect itself. (Once again, this is worked out with the player and GM, and maybe other players. And this Stunt/Aspect should fit with something the character is doing at a certain point in their development.)

Players and the GM also develop something else together: the clusters in which the character live. Clusters represent the worlds and various settings in which the PCs will act, and putting these locations together is an interactive function of the game. In most space RPGs, planets tend to look a lot like the forests outside Vancouver or Vasquez Rocks (funny how that happens), but in Diaspora alien worlds can be just that: alien. And since the players are responsible for creating the clusters (it is suggested that each player build one or two planets using tables found in the game), if your characters should happen to find their ship in a solar systems filled with small, airless, mineral rich planets broiling under a huge red sun, you only have yourself to blame.

Now we get to where the “hard” in “hard sci-fi” comes into play in this game: spaceships. With the exception of the “slipstream drive” that allows one to travel from cluster to cluster within the game (think of the Alderson Drive jump points in The Mote in God’s Eye), handwavium is completely dispelled as far as ship design goes. Ships tend to be large and bulky and comprised mostly of engines and fuel. There are no handy gravity generators and inertial dampers; you get gravity when you are thrusting, and if you have no way of generating your own gravity, you float when they are off. To get from Point A to Point B you thrust to the mid-point of your trip, turn off your engines, flip over, and start thrusting to slow down—which means takes days or weeks to go anywhere. Oh, and these ships have wings: not because they can fly down to a planet’s surface like a shuttle (these are true spaceships, mind you), but because they need a way to get rid of heat.

Now for a quick aside: please visit Project Rho and enjoy the writings of Winchell D. Chung. Mr. Chung has gone to great lengths to explain space flight from the scientific point of view, and lays out how, when we actually get to the point where we are flying from planet to planet, it will likely happen. Yes, there is a lot of math found here, but the math is good for you. And, yes, if you are looking for supporting evidence that despite what science say we will one day build ships that will allow us to make the Kessel Run in twelve parses, you will be sadly disappointed. On the other hand, if you are looking for supporting documentation that fits perfectly with the craft found in Diaspora, you won’t go wrong. I cannot stress visiting this site; if you game, or if you are simply interested in the science behind the conquest of space, this will end up becoming your own private Idaho. If nothing else, you will find out what Discovery from 2001 was supposed to look like, wings and all. You will also learn why stealth in space is impossible.

And lastly there is combat: person, space, social and platoon. Personal is as personal does; you and another get in each other’s faces and throw down. Space combat is handled very simply, but be warned: you are not going to find yourself hopping into a “space fighter” and zipping off to attack space pirates. More than likely you will try to out maneuver your opponent and remove yourself from their sphere of influence, while hoping you get off enough quick attacks from your weapons to disable them before they disable you. (This is where those wings I mentioned become a huge liability. Attacking those means attacking another ship’s ability to dissipate heat, this is a fantastic way to disable them, because if NPCs—or players—can’t get rid of the heat being generated by your vessel, your crew cooks.) Social combat is anything that involves situations with no clear-cut means of resolution—and this does not mean whipping out a pistol and blowing someone away, but rather, at times, the fine art of negotiation, debate, and sometimes seduction. And platoon combat is the art of large-scale combat. Be it three or thirty people, if you need to solve a problem that involves a great deal of heavy firepower, it’s here.

Actually, I lied: here is the lastly, and it’s a very good lastly, because it deals with the economy of Fate Points, and how they not only affect your character but game play. Every character gets 5 Fate Points—the same goes for space ships—while the GM has Fate Points to burn. A player (or GM) can use them to not only change outcomes of interactions, but force changes to the story and create in-game effects. A player can burn a Fate Point to get something they want (“My character is really good at Holding His Breath, so getting down fifty meters of corridor filled with knockout gas is not a problem”). At the same time the GM can try and give Fate Points to players to get an effect they want if they feel it’s warranted (“Sure you can, but that gas is a bit caustic, so you’re going to take a little damage”). Note that a player never has to accept whatever Fate the GM is trying to sell, but at the same time the GM can make things difficult for a player whenever they try to change Fate. It’s all give and take, buying and selling, and when the game gets going it’s possible to get as free-wheeling and involved as the players and GM would like.

And that’s the greatest thing about Diaspora: it’s not simply a case of the GM telling a story and the players following along. The game is designed to be a very interactive adventure, one where the players are as much the storytellers as the GM. The guiding principal of the game is “Say Yes or Roll the Dice”; in other words, the GM goes with an idea a player is selling, or sets the difficulty and has the player roll. It’s okay for the GM to say, “Yes, but—“ if they like, but coming right out and saying “No, you can’t do that” isn’t what the game is about. Find a way to give the player what they want while keeping true to the spirit of the game. Make Fate play a part in how the story is told.

Diaspora is a fantastic game. It dares go places that others don’t. It has the gritty feel of a trip to the outlands, the sort of retro space feel that harkens back to 50’s B-movies. Not everyone is going to like the idea of crawling about in space to get from one system to another and visiting hell holes not fit for man nor beast. But if you love adventure, and you love the storytelling aspect of role playing, Diaspora is for you. If nothing else, you may discover Fate isn’t as cruel a mistress as she’s made out.


Article written by Cassidy Frazee. You can read Cassidy’s blog at wideawakebutdreaming.wordpress.com

The Diaspora tabletop role-playing game is available from VSCA Publishing (authors: Brad Murray, C.W Marshall, Tim Dyke, Bryan Kerr).

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  • Pierre Savoie

    A great game. The fact that spaceships and spaceship combat, social interactions, and platoon combat (*cough* ALIENS *cough*) are handled as add-on minigame rules is powerful.

    Please note that DIASPORA (2009) is based on FATE 3rd edition (Fate spelled with capitals) which requires more starting Aspects for a character and uses different terminology than the current (and very excellent) Fate Core rules from Evil Hat, but the differences are not very serious. Fate games are not heavy on numbers, rely more on descriptors, and the players get more involved in planet-generation, plot-points and other stuff normally reserved for the GM, and can suggest a previously unspecified situation aspect any time they want!