You know I really hesitate to look into this style of game. It’s not just that this kind of game seems to attract exactly the wrong kind of people. And I get that it’s maybe not fair to stereotype. But my impression of these sorts of games… it’s like people get ahold of these things, they have some kind of religious experience or something… and then the next thing you know, they’re tearing up the internet making these bizarre proclamations like that D&D is not a role-playing game and stuff like that. You know, I’m all for live and let live and different strokes for different folks… but this kind of this is really irritating….
Just me personally, I like the old role-playing games just fine. And honestly, I’m not sure I really want to have some kind of whiz bang life changing experience at this point. But if you’re peddling this sort of game, let me give you a hint. If you want to get people try your stuff, you’re going to have to dial down your arrogance levels a bit. If you can establish the fact that you are indeed familiar with some of the classic rpgs from the bad old days, that won’t hurt you, either. Finally… if you can get some kind of format where the new guy doesn’t have to drop fifty bucks on your weird game and doesn’t have to wade through five hundred pages of stuff to see what you’re on about, that’s good too.
Which brings us to Diaspora. This game costs ten bucks in Kindle format. If you buy this game, you aren’t paying for scads of color illustrations that do absolutely nothing for you at the tabletop. You get the gist of the Fate system that so many people have been talking about. (This appears to be one of the flagships of a whole raft of “new school” games.) And even better, you get it from guys that know Traveller inside and out and that can tell you exactly what’s so appealing about that venerable game system. Diaspora, as the designers explain in the introduction, takes some of the best games design ideas from games like Universalis, Burning Wheel, Dogs in the Vinyard, and Spirit of the Century… and it adapts them so that they scratch exactly the same sort of itch that Traveller was built for.
Now, I have to say that getting into a game like this is very difficult for me. Everything I read about the Fate mechanics sounds like this to me: “bar bar bar bar bar.” And I’m really skeptical about this whole idea of the game master giving up even a shred of his authority of the session. (How could that even work…?) But I have to say, these guys are running Fate almost exactly the same way that I run traditional rpgs. “Say yes, or roll the dice” is their main advice for keeping a game going, and I really can’t argue with it. For one thing, play doesn’t tend to get held up for rules lookups when people start playing that way. For another… players tend to stop thinking in terms of what’s on their character sheets and start thinking about the imaginary situation instead!
The central mechanic of the Fate game strikes me as being a bit bland, though. It comes down to rolling four dice, which have nothing but plusses, minuses, and nothings on them. Add the plusses and subtract the minuses, and you get a value from between -4 and +4. It’s like they wanted a rules system that only required people to be able to count in order to play!
There is very little to the Fate game system, though. It surprises me. It’s like there is only about 20% as much game rules as I expected. Most of it is straightforward and unconventional. Some of it is relatively slick in how well it can be adapted to such a wide range of circumstances. But the rest of it is utterly incomprehensible to gamers used to only the more traditional style of rpg. There is talk about a Fate point economy… and it almost sounds like there’s no game master. I have no idea how this would work in actual play.
Now, the premise of this game, though, is that players will be sitting down and creating the setting at the same time that they generate characters. For a referee that is antsy about running and being responsible for keeping up with a whole universe, this is kind of a genius idea. It’s another aspect of the game that is relatively airy– as if there is no game here but somehow we’re supposed to trust that something will emerge in actual play anyway.
A funny thing about the cluster generation system here, though, is that players will split up six worlds among themselves to create for that first session. That’s funny because, in my experience prepping for running rpgs, six of anything is all you’re going to need. I call it the rule of six. If you have less than six scenario hooks, significant locations, or whatever… the game feels like it’s constrained or not particularly fleshed out. If you have more than six things… the human mind can’t keep up with the excess, so all the extra stuff is wasted effort. As far as star systems go, this game kicks off in the Goldilocks zone. By design.
Now… each of the six worlds will get a rating from -4 to +4 in each of three areas: technology, environment, and resources. Note that of the classic Traveller world codes, size, atomosphere, and hydrographics are all conflated into just the one environment stat. Population, government, and law are not covered directly at all. And technology is common to both systems. Just like in Traveller, though… you’ll look at this mess of numbers and come up with something to explain it.
Thinking about this just knowing myself… I wouldn’t necessarily feel anything just by myself looking at this game. For the solitary gamer, rolling up a classic Traveller subsector is going to be far more entertaining. On the other hand, from a “less is more” standpoint… this relatively simple starting point means that the rules aren’t going to get in the way of the players coming up with something that seems cool to them. And if there is anything that is difficult to explain, even if it would have stymied a lone referee, if you’re sitting at a table with two or three friends, it’s hard to imagine the dice giving you anything that can stump several gamers at once!
So just looking at the first few chapters of this, these guys haven’t managed to scare me off from this “new school” stuff, yet. In fact, I can see that their overall attitudes towards role-playing in general are more or less in line with how I do things already. Sure, I’m not going to be getting rid of my little black books any time soon. But I expect I’ll be taking another look at this some time. The hardest part that I can see is convincing some of my gamer friends to take a chance on this– and unlike a traditional role-playing game, there’s not much you can do with this game if you aren’t going to sit down and actually play it. That’s both a plus and a minus. It’s a plus because the focus on the game is on the important part. But a good chunk of the charm of something like Traveller is in all the stuff you end up doing with it even when you’re “not playing” the game.