Actual Play Table Top

Diaspora, Session 3: Heat up the Iridium, it’s Shootin’ Time

It had been my intention to introduce everyone to the Ship, Personal, and Social combat mini-games in Diaspora during the first three sessions — basically in that order.

Didn’t work out that way. As I mentioned at the time, the first session took a bit of an odd turn when Kate flipped the space combat setup on its ear and turned it into a Social Conflict (for which I was wholly unprepared). Fun stuff.

So, with that taken care of, and personal conflict introduced in the last session, I made it clear that session three was to be SPAAAACE COMBAAAT. Period.

Unless, you know, something came up. Chris joked about flipping it into a cutthroat game of checkers, but such was not to be — ships faced off, and lo and behold, actually shot at each other.

There are fifteen enemy missile boats in this picture. Can you find them?
There are fifteen enemy missile boats in this picture. Can you find them?

At the end of the last session, the crew of the Tempest had agreed to take a ‘follow-up’ job with the pro-science Dauphine collective they’d sort of accidentally saved from an assassination attempt — in short, to escort the collective’s ship from the soon-to-be-abandoned, not-as-secret-as-they-thought base to a destination elsewhere in the system.

This presented a few problems.

  1. The collective’s ship had no pilot. It HAD had a pilot – the lead engineer, by the name of Darrec – but he’d come down with a bad case of silencer-to-the-temple during the attack, and was no longer an option.
  2. The ship was… sub-optimal. That’s not entirely fair: for Dauphine, it’s a GREAT ship. Not slip-capable, but certainly viable for moving around a single system at something like .1 Gs. It, like everything else in the base, was constructed modularly from materials that could be shipped in-system as something else.
  3. Suspicions abound within the collective. Specifically, a young hothead scientist by the name of Anton pulled Miranda aside and had a lot to say about no one could have known about the Tempest shipment OR about the base unless someone on the Inside had told them. His Culprit-Of-Choice was Eugene Felix, the group’s administrator (whom the heroes had found hiding in the comms chamber inside his office, with is executive assistant, Isabelle).  On the other side of the coin, there’s Terese, the mousy fuel engineer who thinks sleezy Isabelle had something to do with it.  The fact that she has a crush on Anton has nothing to do with it, of course.

The whole thing was giving Miranda a headache.

While the collective loaded up the Intrepid (and Phyll “tweaked it” with a few new Aspects that could be used if needed), Miranda tried to figure out who could help man the other ship.  Eventually, they decided to keep their ‘main’ crew on the Tempest and sent over Maric to keep an eye on the engine, Chance to fly the thing, and Anjela to man the one gun battery.

You know, just in case.

Finally, they got flying, and started the slow crawl toward the outer system.

The Diaspora guys love hard science — everything they do in this game, with the sole exception of the FTL travel (which pretty much has to be made out of Handwavium in order to work in ANY remotely realistic setting), is the kind of stuff that folks at Atomic Rockets would find plausible and supportable.

That makes space combat interesting and different from what you’d expect. Here’s a few key bits.

  • Properly-represented space combat would require some pretty wicked math and a three-dimensional ‘map’ that would take up my whole basement. Cool, but ultimately more work than the pay-off would justify.
  • There’s no anti-gravity, so there’s no dogfighting.
  • The ship and its hardware is going to be much more significant than the skills of the crew, whose impact is really going to be to in asking the ship to do things at the right time, rather than perform the actions themselves. In short, the ships are the characters.

There’s other stuff, but that’s the big parts that inform the combat.

Diaspora deals with the first point by boiling all the four-dimensional vector stuff into a one dimensional map. Yeah. ONE dimensional. Somehow — and I have to say it’s elegant how they manage it — they came up with a combat map where all you’re tracking is where your ship is on a LINE, and yet the location imparts not only location relative to other ships, but also relative velocity, acceleration, AND vector. It’s kind of brilliant.

Anyway, the reason I mention this is because the next thing that happened in the game was a space combat. I know, right? Who’d have expected THAT?

The Intrepid and the Tempest were set on pretty quickly by three missile boats looking to blow the Intrepid out of the sky. Now, if it had just been the Tempest, Iago could have gunned it and been gone before they ever got in range, but while the boats weren’t up to par with the Tempest, they were MUCH faster than the Intrepid.

The first phase in space combat is placement of the ships on the map, which is done by the players, following an opposed Navigation roll. I tried to get Kate to “take an automatic failure” here by offering her a Fate point and compelling her “A little bit Rusty” Aspect, but Kate decided that, while that was cool, she wanted to play the first combat ‘straight’, before we started mucking it up with compels.

So rolls were made, and Kate got to place the Intrepid and Tempest about as far away from the bad guys as she could and still leave them on the map.

The next phase of combat had to do with maneuvering, so Iago and Chance tried to get away. In this, the bad guys seemed more than competent enough to keep the two ships from escaping immediately, despite flying in formation.

The next phase were the weapons that worked at the speed of light — to whit, electronic warfare. This was a pretty one-sided battle, since only the Tempest had the hardware necessary to go on the offensive in this arena, and the enemy ships were hampered by a weak Data ‘health bar’ and Aspects like “Too Stupid to Know We’ve Been Hacked”.  Kaetlyn got into the systems of one of the gun boats and gave it a Major Consequence of “Friend or Foe Fire Control Recognition is Frelled”.

The next phase was Beam weapons, so energy beams started … beaming. This was interesting, because you don’t really want to use the full power of your beam weapons, because you may need to use them again in the torpedo phase for defense, and if you fired them a lot, it would cause some significant heat problems for the ship.  Kate played it safe but still managed to score a hit on one of the ships.

During the Torpedo phase that immediately followed, both Kate and Anjela (on the Intrepid) managed to defend from too much damage (the Tempest took a minor hit), and someone compelled the Hacked enemy ship to shoot one of its allies instead of them. That was cool. Also, explodey.

Then it was Repair phase, and Phyll went to work on patching the minor damage, which he did handily.

Then you start again at the top.  Each “round” probably takes about an hour inside the fiction of the game… it’s not Star Wars, but I find that I don’t mind – it feels like naval warfare, kind of.

In short, we played about three full rounds of all the phases before two of the three enemy ships were destroyed and the Intrepid escaped from the combat by working its way off the edge of the map.  The Tempest decided to stick it out and make sure there were  no enemy survivors, which took something like one or one-and-a-half more rounds, and then turned itself around and radioed the Intrepid for its location and vector so they could catch up.

There is no answer.


Tune in next session to see what the heck happened to the ship the Tempest is supposed to be guarding.


Once again, we had that weirdly ‘traditional gaming’ experience, where the combat scene took up most of the night.

However, the stuff in combat that takes up the time is different.

In a game like DnD, there’s a lot of time agonizing over the pieces on the board, trying to decided between 10 to 100 different bad-to-less-bad moves. It’s like chess without what I’ve realized is the pure genius of using a turn-clock.

Now, to be sure, the stuff in DnD that causes this kind of behavior is there for a reason — with all those tactical options/threats, there’s plenty of good reasons not to remain static in a fight and just plug away: “Roll to hit, roll damage, next guy…”

But there are lots of ways to solve that problem, and Fate keeps things interesting by seeding the play area with a constantly expanding and shifting list of Aspects — free-floating bonuses that you can use to buff up both your attacks and defenses if you can just think of a cool way your guy takes advantage of them.  Rather than reviewing your many chess-like options, you’re looking at the things happening in a fight and asking “what is out there that I can take advantage of?”  It’s kind of the role-playing combat version of what Jackie Chan does when you try to attack him with a stepladder.

((There are other ways to solve the problem of static, boring combats, by the way, and I’m going to talk about how Dragon Age RPG does it in some other post, but not today.))

The problem is, while it’s a more aggressive, active, and generally more inventive way of getting the players to interact with the ‘story’ of a conflict, it’s kind of… different, and it does increase processing time when, during every person’s turn, you have to stop to remind yourself to DO it.


My impression of the game – any game – has to be informed somewhat by what I see at the table and how I feel afterwards.

What I see at the table is that we’re having fun, and that some of that fun – perhaps a higher percentage than usual – is coming from the system. Kudos to the system.

More than any other ‘indie’ game I’ve played recently, Diaspora strikes me as a game that would work well in a longer-form game. This isn’t surprising; it’s a game designed by a group of guys inspired by Traveller, who come to Aspects and a lot of the Fate kung-fu a little uncomfortably, even after all this time — there’s is a mindset that assumes the 20-session campaign, and they built a game that supports that kind of play.

Moreover, they built a game that makes me support that kind of play, which is quite the accomplishment. Again, kudos.

I don’t know how long this game will run — I continue to muse about what game we’ll play next — but I’m in no hurry to wrap up and move on to the next thing. For now, I’m more than happy to stick around and – now that we’ve got system and all the sub-systems introduced – see what happens.

Because, best of all, there’s some stuff going on, and it’s pretty cool.

Musing Table Top

Farscape as gaming group

Recently Farscape became available on the ‘view on my computer’ queue via Netflix, part of a re-release that also put the whole series up for sale for a very reasonable price (as opposed to the original DVD releases, priced for something insane like 30 bucks for two episodes).

All of this pleases me.  Initially, my plan was to watch episodes while I’m on the elliptical, and while I’m doing that, I’m not only doing that, because it’s Farscape, and it kind of sucks me in. (I’m excited to watch past third season, actually, because I don’t think I ever saw all of Season Four, and I never saw the Peacekeeper Wars.)

But in rewatching the show, I’m struck by how strongly Farscape seems modeled on the story/structure of a gaming group. Not ‘game-based fiction’, but the group itself. Not even Dragonlance reflects my experience with the ebb and flow of a game at the table, and the things that happen with your players over time.

Five players, plus the GM.
Five players, plus the GM.

Season One:

So here’s what we’ve got when we first start playing the game.

GM: “I’m going to do this sci-fi game.”
Crichton: Cool.
Most of the players:
“What about the DnD game we’ve been doing?”
GM: “This will still have most of those dynamics. All the classes are pretty much the same, it’s just a few skills that will be different.”
D’argo: “As long as I can still have a big fucking sword.”
GM: “… fine. Whatever.”

  • Warrior: D’argo
  • Ranger: Aeryn
  • Cleric: Zhaan
  • Rogue: Rigel
  • Crichton, the only one who tries a new class, starting out as an ‘astronaut’ (basically a scientist/pilot multiclass with none of the multiclass disads… like the way elves and hobbits worked in original DnD).

Now, the GM quickly realizes that the guy playing Crichton is never going to miss a game session. The dude writes diary entries from his character’s point of view, podcasts random stuff, and even writes some fiction about the stuff that happens between official sessions.  A lot of the game is built around what this player does and the stuff he and the GM talk about. But everyone’s having a good time, and the bad guy seems to be working out pretty well, and word gets around. A couple more players want to join in.

And this GM has a real problem with telling a player they can’t join if they want to.

Chianna wants to play a rogue, but the group’s already got a rogue, so she goes the ‘physical burglar’ route so as to keep from stepping on Rigel’s toes.  It takes a few sessions to really take, and a it’s quite a few more sessions after that before Rigel’s player really acknowledges her at the table, but once that happens, those two kinda bond.

Stark is just a buddy of Rigel’s who’s visiting from out of town for a couple weeks and wants to play, so the GM has him play Crichton’s cellmate. The dude’s kinda of crazy, and doesn’t seem to give a crap about the actual game system — he just wants to roleplay everything instead of rolling dice, but whatever — the GM makes up death-priest variant, figuring it’ll never matter anyway, cuz the guy’ll be gone before long.

Near the end of the first story arc, the GM introduces Scorpius, whom everyone universally decides is cooler than Crase as far as bad guys go, and the GM likes playing him a lot, so Scorpius become the new big bad, and Crase flies off stage with the gunship that the GM mistakenly gave the players (he just wanted to make use of the ship-design rules he’d been playing with, and Crichton saw the design and talked him into introducing the ship via a weird pregnancy plot).

Season Two:

Six is a lot of players, but the situation doesn’t get appreciably better with the new storyline. Crichton is still super active, but the whole wormhole thing is kind of going by the wayside for the player, cuz he likes being chased by Scorpius and trying to hook his character up with Aeryn, so that’s pretty much the main arc.

Other players saw the whole torture scene stuff with Crichton, though, and want a piece of the story-action. D’argo nags the GM to push the ‘I have a son’ thing forward, for example.  Zhaan’s player is pretty pissed about the ‘crappy healing’ that clerics get in this system and continues to nag everyone to go back to the ‘real’ DnD game, but no one’s listening.

Rigel’s fine. Rigel’s always fine. Don’t worry about Rigel. He’s good.

The GM loves playing Scorpius, so he finally comes up with a way to play him even more often by sticking him inside Crichton’s head. Crichton actually stats up Scorpius’ second in command just so he and the GM can play some one-on-one ‘bad guy’ scenes.

Oh man… Rigel’s buddy actually decides to move to town (he’s got a semi-permanent gig with the local community theater). He wants back into the game. As the same death-priest guy. Crap.

Zhaan really wants to quit the game. Honestly, she’s run by Crichton (so he can play in more scenes) and the GM as much as the original player, cuz she doesn’t show up much. (Though she does come back for awhile when Stark’s player shows move into town, cuz she’s got a crush on him, but it doesn’t go anywhere, and she can’t even get his attention with a glorious death scene, so shes quits and doesn’t make a new character.)

The group is left with no healer except for the guy who’s main skill is helping people die. Crap.

So the GM finds someone to play a ‘regular’ doctor. Jool. His girlfriend. Who doesn’t game and doesn’t like science fiction. Even the guy playing Crichton thinks this is a bad idea.

Plus, the group is hitting nigh-critical mass. Too many of almost every class.

The GM wants to split the group into two separate groups for awhile. Crichton hates that idea, because he wants play more, not less, and doesn’t want to make another ‘main’ guy.

“I have a solution,” the GM says.

So the group’s get split up.

Group Moya

  • Fighter, D’argo
  • Rogue, Chianna
  • Jool, “healer”
  • Crichton

D’argo’s spending points on “I have a ship”, but he can’t do it all at once, so the GM’s letting him buy it a little bit at a time. That’s fine. But Crichton realizes that in this group he’s got nothing going on — his “Loves Aeryn” thing and “D’argo’s Buddy” doesn’t let him go after Chianna, no one’s really hunting Moya, Jool is dating the GM and they both give him dirty looks whenever he tries to hit on the character…

… so he only has wormholes to work on. This quickly gets old for EVERYONE.  The only respite is when Crichton takes a break and roleplays Braka in scenes with Scorpius.

Group Talyn

  • Fighter, Aeryn
  • Rogue, Rigel
  • Priest, Stark
  • MORE Crichton, who by this point in time has multiclassed so many times that the GM just simplified the system by making “Crichton” a class. Crichton loves this group, because he gets to continue to hit on Aeryn, shoot stuff, get chased by bad guys, and fiddle with wormhole tech.

But the GM is getting a little fatigued by running two groups every week. He isn’t aware of it consciously, but he resents all the time the game is taking — it starts to leak into the game itself: it’s basically impossible for anyone to do anything in any game session without making the situation worse, even if they succeed.  This trend will, we fear, continue.


And that’s about where I am right now in Season Three.

You gotta admit, as good as the show is, it’s weirdly similar to gaming groups.

… which in turn makes it dissimilar to any other kind of ensemble cast show I’ve ever watched. The characters are more strongly archetypal (or stereotypical, depending on how charitable you’re feeling) than anything like BSG or Babylon 5 or… well, anything.

What’s weird and remarkable is that they largely retain those archetypes even three years into the series. That’s not say they’re shallow, but their depth tends to be strictly confined to the original silos they were built into. Character archetypes. Classes. It makes the show immediately easy to grasp, no matter which episode you jump into.

(Until, if I recall correctly, Season Four, where everything goes CRAZY and the GM starts dropping acid.)

More as I think of it.