Actual Play – Greater Good (10/16/2010)

GM: Dennis Jordan
Players: Brian, Sean, Luke, Matt, Robert and Regina
System: Diaspora

This was my introductory game to Diaspora, a game I had wanted to play for a while. I was one of those nutty early adopters who bought the hardbound copy of the book when it first came out and then never read it. I lacked for inspiration. I thought the game sounded cool; I liked what I heard about scope, about world creation, and some of the mini-game structures the world provides, but that still wasn’t enough to get me reading it and playing the game.

What I needed, is finally what I got, someone to run it so that I could check it out.

My game was in good company. I was sitting around the table with a bunch of great gamers. It was a bit loud but I had my back to the other games, so they didn’t distract me much.

The game

Dennis started off the game with an introduction to the system and the setting he had created. We weren’t going to do planet creation because the time slot didn’t allow for it, but clearly also his adventure was very tied into the worlds already created.

There were three major powers, the monarchy Karsa (sp?), a North Korean colony system Deer Planet, and a company that made the only inoculation for a plague that started when those two powers were fighting called New Horizons. This was only a tad distracting for me as I’ve take several IT training classes through a company called New Horizons in Sacramento, but the name is a good one, so I can’t fault Dennis for my random associations.

Four of us were the crew of a kick ass ship, that, as it’s aspect indicated “could do anything but make money”. Regiana played the problem with authority captain, I was the cock sure gunner and navigator. Luke was the shady steward and Matt finished off the crew with the “bored now” engineer.[1] Our crew was clearly pretty mercenary. We all had issues with authority and tended to play as rough as we like and then jump slipstream when things got uncomfortable.

To come with us as passengers, liabilities and the plot hook was an investigator and a doctor (played by Robert and Brian) who were both the exes of the same woman and shared a bond in their mutually misanthropic manners. I was reminded of the Fiasco relationship from the Artic North play setting “Two of a kind misanthropes”. Besides just being annoyed by most people, the Doctor and the now Journalist had stumbled onto some out of place documentation relating to New Horizons and both of them found when they tried to investigate further, they were immediately shut down and eventually hunted (which started off the first scene).

I’d go further with our adventure but I remember Dennis saying he might run this again at another con, so I don’t want to spoil any plot points. Suffice to say, we had a space-faring adventure.

Props

I’ve got to give Dennis props for his props. Dennis was a self-proclaimed gun nut and it showed. We had pictures of our characters (both male and female so we had the choice), but also pictures of our ship (several of them) and of every gun in our hold (at least 8+ different models). We probably had enough pictures to spread across the table and fill it up if desired.

Also, Dennis knew the material very well. He could speak very comfortably about the specific weapons, the crazy modifications done to our ship, the contents of the space station. So not only did he have the props but he had the knowledge to flesh them out and make them feel real in the world.

Whar rocked

We had some hard core character decisions made. Brian put his doctor in a wheelchair (“You want hard sci-fi, take that!” I believe was his words). Luke took horrible advantage of middle management functionaries. And most of us were pretty comfortable being reasonably callous, if not cavalier even, about laws and human lives. In a world that didn’t look like Road Warrior at all, we were playing a six headed Mad Max.

As mentioned above the props were pretty killer.

A lot of the player interaction was awesome. Sometimes it was just flavor and lacked impact in the game (see below) but it made for a fun camaraderie of thieves and vagrants (ala Firefly).

The character aspects were great. They had real attitude and adventure written all over them. “You’re about to see the light” was probably my favorite (especially for a gunner with nukes on her ship).

Mechanically there were a couple tweaks on Fate I really liked, specifically:

  • First blood. A simple rule that could be easily ported, but it simply means that the physical first blow you take in a fight does an equal amount of damage on your composure stress track as it does to your physical track. This was to represent the shock of being hurt, which only happens once but can still really surprise you.
  • Aspect scopes. I love the idea that you might have a lot of fate chips, but you’ve got to draw on lots of environmental factors to use them all. Thus your gun might have aspects, so might your ship, the scene, yourself (of course), and even the system. The hitch is that regardless of fate coins, you can only tag one aspect from each scope. I dig it.

What could have improved

For the mechanical effects that I liked, there were some that either I missed or didn’t like at all.

  • World creation. This was the big one I wanted to see and was sad we didn’t get a chance to do it. I understand under the time constraints but it’s still something I’d like to see a group tackle.
  • Ship to ship combat. It was planned in the adventure, but we ran out of time so it got skipped.
  • Social conflicts. We did one of these at the end and I was very unimpressed with the mini-game mechanics. It felt like a lot of complexity for complexity sake that really didn’t serve the system. Also, it was SO balanced (we each were rolling the same skill values, had the same number of fate points and had the same objective) that I couldn’t conceive of the conflict ever ending, as it required three tokens to be in one place and both sides were constantly moving them. Dennis announced that we could take other actions like maneuvers and blocks, but neither side ever tried anything but attacks. At the end of the day we had all spent our fate chips and the field was nearly evenly divided. Maybe then maneuvers would start happening, but I doubt it.

The adventure had a lot of weight to it, the kind that is hard to move off course. While I really appreciated the time Dennis put into the back story of the worlds as well as the characters, until the very end of the game (when we got to set stakes for the social conflict), I didn’t feel enough wiggle room in our course of action. Some examples of times when I felt myself (or others) scraping against the rails:

  • Early on to introduce our characters I started talking about an aquarium and some rare fish we were supposed to transport. The other players bought into it and I thought having to retrofit our bilge to act as an aquarium because the box itself would have to be broken down to fit into our cargo would be a really fun complication to flight. Images of having to break out of slipstream so that someone could take a piss without destroying our hull’s integrity by opening a hatch, seemed hilarious, but it was just a figment of our discussion. Said rare fish never really existed.
  • There was an opening fight we couldn’t avoid. It wasn’t a bad tactic to get the adventure rolling and get people familiar with the system, but to keep it fun the fight needed some options. Several players were trying to get the goons attacking us to back down, either by offering them money, a better job or making threats. Our opponents however, had the kind of indomitable will you expect of the undead. They wouldn’t talk, they wouldn’t back down, they would fight to the last or jump ship and escape, but they certainly wouldn’t leave any prisoners behind. We did get one of their dying words, but even that was inherently cryptic. I know that when players trying to talk their way out of a fight, most games don’t adjudicate that very well, but Fate does, so I think it should have been an option and it really felt like it wasn’t.
  • Brian’s character had some cool theories about what was really going on. Conspiracy theories that seemed very appropriate for a future that looks polished on the cover of corporate ad campaigns but has a dirty underbelly. Each time he brought them up though the result was either a) you don’t have enough evidence or even reasonable suspicion to pursue that idea or b) that’s not what’s happening. I liked Brian’s conspiracy theories and would have liked to see them have some substance to them.

There was a point in the game where I hit a figurative brick wall and got very frustrated. We skipped the ship to ship combat because of time and so I was more than a little trigger happy. Our ship was equipped with 6 nukes and I really wanted to use one of them (or preferably, if a reasonable enough target was found ALL of them). Without going too far into the story, at one point a target was identified by the engineer. So in very slow and detailed precision I explained to everyone how I was arming the weapons, locking on my target and preparing to fire a nuke. I was trying to make very sure that I took all the player’s considerations into account before I did it (even though my character probably wouldn’t have). I looked around the table, got a lot of thumbs up and then fired away… or did I?

The result was confusing and frustrating. Dennis began describing an emergency happening, which I assumed was a reaction from my target being blown to space dust. We reacted to the emergency accordingly and then talked about all the destruction we had caused only to find out that this emergency actually happened before I fired the nuke. And further, that the nuke had never gone off. In retrospect I understand why the nuke must have not been fired to maintain the internal consistency of the game, but my opinion then and now is still that player agency is far more important than internal consistency. As a player I’m fine with the man behind the curtain not making sense 100% of the time, but if I’m told that I didn’t take an action I explicitly declared I was taking, then I’m not playing the game anymore. Sometimes this is a matter of clarifying events (i.e. why before I did that something else happened) or better yet putting it to die roll (see how fast you can pull that trigger), but there always need to be a framework for players maintaining their agency in the game, otherwise they aren’t players, they are spectators.

Right after this incident of destruction our ship took some serious damage, which is cool. I mean a ship getting dinged up is part of space faring; except it didn’t make any sense. There are two reasons for this. First, it had been described as this juggernaut of a ship, loaded for bear with weapons and armor that outmatched something ten times its size. In every description of it, this ship made the Defiant [2] look like a cruise vessel. Also, the captain piloting it rolled a 12 on her piloting check. A 12! Now, for those not familiar with Fate, the dice produce a result between +4 and -4. Our skills ranged from +0 to +5. So on the best roll you can make, with your best skill, the best you can get is +9, which I think is one step past Legendary (+8). A +12 requires not only a fantastic skill (which she had +5), a fantastic roll (which she had +3) but also being able to spend fate chips from at least two different scopes (personal and ship), which she did. The highest roll that she could have possibly made in the entire game, spending as many fate chips as she could have would have been +13. As is, with a +12 she got a marginal success, safe but injured.

For some of these issues I haven’t suggested a solution but this has a really easy one. Instead of having the player make a roll that is already destined to fail, use a fate chip to compel some aspect either of the player or the ship in this case to say “You made it, but barely.” One fate chip buys a lot of good will from the player because it means they are getting something for going along with the story, and in doing so they get to contribute as well.

Actually that reminds me, Dennis did make that offer earlier on in the game. When I wanted to take out one of the goons with non-lethal force he flipped a fate chip my way to finish the guy off and for that I smiled as a wasted the guy with two in the back of his head.

My final suggestion for improvement was that we needed more really concrete information late in the game. Our characters arrived on scene and because information kept trickling out, we kept digging for more, and in the midst of it we performed that horrible act of player masochism (not character masochism, mind you, I eat that stuff up for breakfast, player masochism): The planning session. We started to plan, which was as interesting to me as watching paint dry and as frustrating as trying to paint while the paint is drying! [3]

My suggestion for this game going forward would to extend it to six hours, allow for some part of the planet creation (maybe just putting the finishing touches, like some aspects on them), and then make the end goal a bit more transparent at the beginning: “You know you’ve got to do XYZ”. That way the players have more flexibility to move around within the game, knowing they are heading towards an understood goal. For a sailing analogy, it is easier, more efficient and more fun to tack back and forth while your destination is upwind than to hold a course that will keep in irons. This applies to both the GM and players.

[1] Too obscure? I’m referencing Dopple-Willow from the Dopplegangerland episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
[2] Of Star Trek DS-9 and First Contact
[3] If you’ve ever painted a wall when the paint start to dry and gets all tacky, you know what I mean.