Over the years I’ve gone back and forth on the Fate RPG rules, and whether they’re actually as revolutionary as so many of its (often rabid) fan-base wants others to believe, or if it’s simply an OK alternative that could work depending on the group, the exact implementation of Fate, etc. etc. While the main attraction is the newest revision of the Fate rules as written in the Fate Core book, I’m taking a look at another sci-fi RPG that uses an older implementation of Fate: Diaspora.
It should be noted that as far as hard science fiction goes, I’m completely clueless. I’ve read a few Asimov novels decades ago (holy shit I’m old), and I have a general concept of what I think hard science-fiction is, but basically I’m going into this review assuming that this book is going to teach me at least enough to get started.
Like many other Fate games, the first thing I notice is that it is in 6″x9″, single-column format. It is very easy to read, and I commend VSCA for using that format. At 270 pages in this format, its page-count isn’t too bad, but it’s still higher than what I prefer and know I can read and remember most of the rules in the first couple of readings. At least there aren’t any side-bars unlike Fate Core! The font size is very easy to read, and the tables and boxed text are clean and straight-forward. There’s not too much artwork in here, but what there is has a nice Traveller vibe, so I do wish there was a bit more in that style, especially of space and exotic planetary terrains.
Looking at the table of contents, I really like how this book is organized. One odd thing I notice, both here and in the rest of the book, is that all chapter titles, headings, etc. are all in lowercase. Not really a negative, it’s just odd to see and threw me off at first. After the introduction the book opens with a short 12-page chapter on the Fate rules. It’s a great opening chapter; it lightly touches on the system and some of the ways it works, but it doesn’t try to dive into details and overwhelm the reader right off the bat.
Next is the Clusters chapter (sorry but I have to capitalize them!). It’s interesting that this chapter isn’t closer to the end, where traditionally this kind of GM/Referee-focused information is. There’s 2 reasons for that, and I can agree with both. First is simply because this is a Fate game, and in these games the word of law is Cooperation. Even in creating the universe of the game, Fate intends for all players, not just the GM, to have a say and help flesh out the world. After all, they’re gonna be playing in it, wouldn’t you want them to have a say? That’s not to say that everything players will suggest will work or may even be downright moronic. At the end of the day the GM still has final say, at least in my games he or she does. The second reason for having this chapter so soon is that the GM along with the players will need to know more about the universe before creating characters, NPCs, etc. That sounds pretty logical, but in most RPG books it’s left solely up to the GM, and it still comes after all the rules for character creation, creatures, etc.
Anyways, the Clusters chapter has a pretty simple way to create as well as link systems. The main 3 points to each system are its technology, environment, and resources. There are 9 possible levels for each, though of course you could create your own.
Next it’s on to the Characters chapter. Similar to Bulldogs!, this is also pretty simple and straightforward; you will create your aspects, choose your skills, populate your stress tracks, create your stunts, and then purchase equipment. Also similar to Bulldogs! (the older version), there are quite a few aspects you’ll need to create, compared to the fewer number in Fate Core and Accelerated. There are ten total, two for each phase: growing up, starting out, moment of crisis, sidetracked, and on your own. What’s neat, however, is that you don’t simply write out the phrases, as shown in most other Fate books. Rather, you will write a short paragraph for each phase, read it aloud to the group, and then from that pick your two aspects. It will still take some time, but using this method I don’t foresee it being much of a struggle nor hassle. I guess if a group really wanted to, you could just come up with one aspect for each phase, and then later on once you know more about your character and how he or she interacts with others and deals with things then you can write down the additional five aspects.
Coming from Fate Accelerated, I used to not be that keen on skills. Like any other RPG with skills, you will always run into the issue of what to do when someone wants to do something that isn’t covered by an existing skill. Now I’ll admit the weakness with Fate Accelerated in that it’s too easy for players to try to choose their best Approach to use each and every time (I simply house-rule that the GM has final say and authority over which Approach is used). In Diaspora the number of skills isn’t too large, so it’s at least easy for me to wrap my head around. It may not be as refined (but also not as generalized) as Fate Core, but I’ll take Diaspora or Bulldogs! over Core any day for layout, organization, and rule explanation.
Next we have the Play chapter, and outside of the combat chapters it’s the largest one in the book, but it does cover almost everything besides character creation and combat.
First this section goes over refresh, the first portion of each game to catch up on previous events, assign Fate points to each character and spaceship, check for any needed healing, and utilizing experience gained.
Next we go over opposition. This covers both non-player characters and animals, and each section is fairly brief and easy to understand. Both have skills and aspects like a player character does, but there are far fewer of each. It is very easy to create new NPCs and animals in Diaspora within a minute of reading this short section!
Next the book covers space travel. There’s quite a bit of jargon here, even though it’s an interesting read as to how and why the travel rules were designed as they are. Unfortunately, at the end of this section I didn’t really understand it and I’d be likely to either very generalize space travel if not completely hand-wave it. And when I spend time and money on an RPG that features space travel, I want a simple but flexible system that I can knowingly utilize and eventually modify. Unfortunately that’s not the case here.
Next up is economics. While the knee-jerk reaction to this might be a sarcastic “Oh boy, yay!”, the fact is this is an important part of any near- or far-future world. In contrast to the last section, this one is clearly explained and logical to follow.
Next is mini-games, which is the four(!) combat sub-systems in the game: personal combat, space combat, social combat, and platoon combat. Since this is just a general overview of these sub-systems, I’m not quite sure yet what to think of them. At first glace it seems like overkill, not to mention that many more rules I’ll have to learn.
Finally, this chapter ends with a sample first session. Yes, finally something that will get me in the mood to play this kind of game and start grokking the rules! Wait a minute. It’s just a couple of sample worlds and characters. That’s not what a sample first (play) session is! To say I’m disappointed is an understatement. 94 pages in (including a blank page), and I’m not really getting into this game. Other RPGs would be either completed or getting near the end. What in the world does another 100 pages warrant?
There are four (!) chapters in Diaspora that covers combat (what is called the mini-games: Personal, Space, Social, and Platoon), and obviously it takes up the biggest chunk of the book. At first glance I’m not too happy with that. Yes it’s part of an RPG, and it can be a big portion of a gaming session, but it just leaves me wondering what in the world is expected in a game that I thought would prioritize exploration and adventure, as well as using a rule-system that so many claim is “rules-light”. And do I get a nice overview or anything like that first? Nope! I’m not going to review those chapters, because at this point I honestly don’t care.
Making It Work
This chapter for the referee covers quite a few areas, including how to start an adventure or entire campaign, as well as designing equipment, spacecraft, personal weapons, and armour. As Fate games are meant to be collaborative, I’m not sure why this information is in a separate chapter at the end of the book. There’s also a small section on expanding Diaspora beyond hard sci-fi, namely by including aliens and psionics. There’s also a paragraph on landing spacecraft. Not sure why it’s here, but oh well.
I really wanted Diaspora to work for me. I had such a positive impression of sci-fi Fate RPGs coming from Bulldogs!, and wanted something just as good if not better for hard sci-fi, as I wanted to learn more about that kind of universe and running a game in it. Unfortunately Diaspora didn’t meet those expectations, as well as being weighed down too much by older Fate rules as well as trying to emulate Traveller. Could a new/revised edition help? I’m not sure. I like Fate Accelerated, but with Core and other newer games there’s already as much if not more bulk and alternative sub-systems. I may just have to look at using an OSR or BRP set of rules for this kind of game…
Diaspora is available in PDF from DriveThruRPG, or in paper- or hardback via Lulu. If you order the hardback and email the receipt to vsca, you should get the PDF for free. That’s a nice touch!