Thursday, February 11, 2010

A detour: Diaspora cluster creation mini-game

"Mini-game" not in my normal sense of "game with minis," but in that it was designed by its authors to be the separately playable world(s)building portion of the wonderful Diaspora Role-Playing Game (which, to be fair, does actually include a wargame system utilizing a modifed version of the FATE system, which I hope to try out sometime this spring when/if I ever get any of my 15mm sci-fi stuff painted up). Chris N, Tom G and I sat down during boardgame night this week, broke out our Fudge dice, and took a stab at it.

Briefly, Diaspora is a sci-fi RPG, with only the barest of background details. Humanity has spread throughout the galaxy (hence the name) and systems are connected by 'slipstream points' allowing limited instantaneous travel between connected points. Each Diaspora 'campaign' is set in a small cluster of such colonized systems, and the Cluster creation mini-game is how the table generates and conceptualizes those worlds. You roll for three stats (Tech level, Environment, and Resources), discuss how you're interpreting those stats for the world/system, then roll to connect the systems to each other and discuss the implications of those connections. (Those of you interested in playing along at home should buy the book, obviously, although the creators were kind enough to release a SRD you can look at while deciding on your purchase.)

Since we only had 3 people, we went with two worlds each, for a small cluster of 6 planets. To be fair, we actually threw out our first set of results, as the Fudge dice gave us all a very, very flat set of values, and we wanted a bit more 'oomph' in the stats we were playing with - our first 6 planets had no values above +1 or below -2. Our second set gave us what we thought of as more interesting numbers (although we did have to invoke the Slipstream Guarantee, giving two of our planets advanced enough technology to be able to use slipstream travel), so we ran with them. I'll list the finalized Aspects here as well, although there was plenty of change right until the end of the process:

COMBINE: {0,2,-1}
-Legitimately Foreign
-Totally Unified
-Meiji-era Japan - IN SPAAACE

LORD CARNAVON*: {2, -1, -1}
-Combat Archaeology
-Too Perfect
-Scraping the Bottom of Someone Else's Barrel

THE LESTER STRAND: {0, -3, -1}
-Ghost Town
-Cattle Barons

TELLOS: {2,1,4}
-"No, no - it's on me"
-Hand-me-down Utopia
-Potlach Society

DESERET: {-1,1,0}
-Don't Tread On Me
-Failed Experiment in Transcendence
-Untapped Potential

NEW EDEN&trade: {-1,3,-2}
-Revolution is Right Around the Corner
-Playground of the Idle Rich
-Going All the Way to Get Your Business

(*Lord Carnavon was called 'Junkyard Prime' most of the way through the creation process, until the table drastically rewrote our interpretation of its stats and it's place in the cluster's history - more on this in the writeup)

The two planets blessed by the Slipstream Guarantee were the fantastically wealthy Tellos system and the sort of raggedy Junkyard Prime. Junkyard Prime was immediately described as being the relict former home of a Transcended faction, and the T2 didn't represent an actual working technological base so much as the organized scavenging of the leftover artifacts of the Transcendants that we came to call "The Fathers." Tellos, the other Slipstream-capable system, was obviously the current center of power in the cluster, with a sustainable technological base that we later decided was also based on the Fathers' old technology, but with more of a capability to produce their own new stuff than the grave-robbers of Junkyard Prime.

Deseret, one might argue, was the seed crystal for the theme which grew to encompass the whole cluster (and even our last minute decision to make Combine an explicit outsider to this theme just seemed to reinforce the theme further). The pseudo-Old West theme its name called out wound up being a major thread of our cluster, growing to influence both the Lester Strand (specifically referenced in its first Aspect, "Ghost Town," and later used as fuel for its internal political situation as "Cattle Barons") and at the very end of the design sequence by helping to push Combine from its original conception as a sort of British Empire/Soviet Ukraine analog (don't ask) into a hard-charging Victorian (and therefore Old West-appropriate) Japan as seen through the lenses of The Difference Engine and Red Sun. The insular hillbillies of Deseret, complete with orbiting atomic platforms as the reskinned shotguns toted by a suspicious homesteader warily greeting some stranger come to his front doorstep, wound up being the hidden repository of the Fathers' biological experimentation. Low birth rate, two- to three-hundred year lifespans, and who knows what other alterations may be hidden in the junk introns of their DNA?

New Eden&trade probably changed the least over the course of the creation process, but it had such a wonderfully perfect and spot-on role from the beginning that all the table could do is refine it a tiny bit. With three garden worlds, the system was pictured as a luxurious resort from the beginning; also present from the beginning was the image of the simmering resentment of an increasingly exploited service-industry underclass. As we started to tie everything in the cluster in with the story of the Fathers, I think we agreed that New Eden&trade's utterly unlikely bounty was the result of early practice in planetary engineering by those Transcended busybodies.

The Lester Strand, mentioned in passing before, was visualized as being a mined-out system, stripped bare by those same busybodies as they went about the process of running up the staircase to godhood. As a crumbling, clapped-out asteroid belt, it tied into both the Western theme as well as our continuing story of how the Fathers altered everything in the cluster. Originally we saw it as being like a Chicago gangland, but actually the day after we did cluster creation Tom G realized that a better note than 30's Chicago was the classic Western trope of the warring Cattle Barons. Stranders barely have enough resources to survive, and as things continue to creak along they're having to trade even some of those scarce resources for the simple necessities of life.

Tellos wound up being the next-to-last place the Fathers were messing around with before their apotheosis, and by now they'd gotten things almost perfect. Packed with resources (probably stripped from the Lester Strand), with a single lovely planet and the technological base to exploit slipstream travel commercially, they're the dilettante overlords of the rest of the cluster. Originally populated by the Refusers (those who didn't want to Transcend), whose descendants make up the moden population, Tellos has an elaborate reputation economy based on humility and generosity. Naturally, this pisses off the hardscrabble inhabitants of virtually everywhere else in the cluster to no end.

Right up until the end of the creation session, we were calling Lord Carnavon "Junkyard Prime." Late in the session, however, the table turned this idea through 180 degrees - rather than being marginally habitable due to ecological collapse, the planet (no longer a junkyard) is actually still in the pristine condition the Fathers left it in. It's just that the degree of perfection the Fathers engineered for their day-to-day lives is toxic to normal humans; not poisonous to the body, but to the psyche. Diggers live in windowless bunkers and drug themselves to sleep. When they go outside to search for usable artifacts they do all they can to insulate themselves from the world with earplugs, nose filters, and visors. From here we moved from talking about it in terms of a junkyard, and more in terms of grave robbery and the Mummy's curse - hence the last-minute rename to Lord Carnavon.

Finally, Combine, which never quite seemed to fit into the rest of the Cluster, got revamped so that it actually never was. Unlike the other five systems, which were basically the Fathers' backyard garden/laboratory, Combine was discovered but never contacted by the Fathers (possibly the slipstream link was one of the Fathers' last grand experiments before they got bored with this universe). We noticed that the other five systems in the cluster were either explicitly balkanized, run by warring coporations, or were mere coalitions of individual groups; so to run counter to this we made Combine a tightly-organized unified world government. We also decided that while the other five worlds in the cluster all descended from the same founding population (and were therefore fairly homogeneous), that Combine's population were part of some totally separate branch of the original human Diaspora that no doubt stabilized into a different 'melting pot' state, and so they look totally different from the rest of the cluster. During the final writeups we even toyed with the idea of making them chiral to the branch of humanity found in the cluster (using right-handed proteins and left-handed sugars), but whether they're that different or not, they certainly view themselves as being different (and better, in their own minds), than the relicts of Fathers' Children.

So again, we had a blast. The cluster creation mini-game is a ton of fun, and a great tool for getting the table to come up with weird stuff you wouldn't get with just one person having to handle world-building. It also does a neat job of encouraging the whole table to be involved with each world, while fuzzing the boundaries a bit so people don't feel like they're the sole and final arbiters of what goes on on 'their world.' Although, in the interest of full disclosure, I noticed we did tend to defer to the 'originator' of each world a lot. We still had fun, and still gave and accepted a lot of input among the table, but I wondered if another step (something like everyone rolls up their planets, then hands those raw rolls to the person on their left, or mandating that at least one aspect per planet come explicitly from another player, or something) might help decrease the ownership issue? Again, this presumes that people find it problematic - I don't think our table found it to be a problem, but I did think on reflection that we were probably a bit more invested in 'our worlds' than the Platonic ideal group would have been.

Thoughts/feedback are of course totally appreciated - while I've got my (tiny) core readership who come for the minis gaming stuff, I'm linking this to the Diaspora mailing list, and if you come here from there feel free to comment, or even just say hello!

EDIT TO ADD: I realize I left out the cluster map - which is fine because I cannot find the app I saw once that would draw them for you, and there's no way I can freehand one. Suffice it to say that we uniformly rolled high for connections, with no world having less than two direct connections (Tellos) and a hub connected to four seperate worlds (Lord Carnavon). I'm trying to recall if we specifically said so or not, but I have a vague memory that we cited this high degree of interconnectedness as another relic of the Fathers' screwing around with T4+ grade science to make their little pocket of lab worlds easier to navigate. If someone could point me to the app I'll happily post the cluster map here!

EDIT #2 - thanks for pointing me to the cluster gen software, Brad! Here's our map:


  1. This is great stuff, Ken! If you're in North America, send me a mailing address and I'll send some dice your way!

  2. Thanks Brad, will do! And I do intend to use the wargaming rules some this spring/summer (basically as soon as the weather lets me prime any of my 15mm lead), and I'll be posting here about that too.

    But mostly, thanks again for you folks making such a great game. The group is really looking forward to character creation, and getting our first game session in!

  3. Hey Ken,

    This looks great. There's a lot of ideas here, and I can't wait to hear the story about Junkyard Prime becoming Lord Carnarvon.

    Looks like everyone had good fun. Toph

  4. Thanks Toph! The name change was a purely tabletop story - we came to realize that rather than just another story of people digging through a wrecked planet, it would be more interesting if the Fathers just sort of evaporated into the ether one day, and that what they left behind wasn't wrecked, it was just inimical to plain ol' dumb baseline humanity. We discussed having it be rogue nano, or some plague that the Fathers' perfected physiology ignored that would decimate normal people, but in the end we turned it into a more nebulous, and undefinable threat.

    Our first instinct was to go all Lovecraftian, R'yleh and blasphemous angles and optic nerve hacks and Basilisk macros, but then we thought that it would be a nice inversion of the genre trope if the planet was just too perfect for people to endure. This change was one of the high points of the evening (for me at least) - it's something I don't think I'd have ever come up with, without the input and back-and-forth with the other folks at the table.

    We're all looking forward to chargen now, hopefully we'll have as much fun coming up with characters and inflicting background stuff on each other, as we did with this. Kudos again on a job well done!

  5. I had a total blast with the cluster creation as well. I figured going in that it would be pretty interesting and have lots of opportnity for being creative, but I don't think that I really expected it to be as much fun as it was!

    I was most impressed at how well the mini-game worked to take us systematically from the skeleton of the random stats all the way through the fully fleshed-out and interdependent cluster. We really got into a cool groove of brainstorming and building on each other's ideas, and I thought we did a great job of coming up with some pretty interesting systems. And after we finished the step of connecting them, I thought we actually hit another high spot in how the whole grand backstory for the cluster came together. As you said, realizing that the original Combine didn't work any more and totally re-engineering it was probably the biggest highlight of the experience.

    As I think about how it went, one thing that really stands out to me is that I can't necessarily identify exactly where most of the ideas came from. I mean, I can remember some specific things that I or Tom or Ken said, but not exactly how they morphed into their "final" form. It really speaks to how cool and collaborative the whole thing really was.

    The most telling thing about the cluster creation is that I really want to go forward with playing the game now that we've gone through it. Before, I was somewhat interested in the game and wanted to explore this process more just as something neat to do. But after getting so invested in the "world" and seeing all the really cool story and campaign hooks that are inherent in the cluster, I'd love to have a go at some semblance of a campaign.

    Specifically, the threads I'd most like to pursue in a campaign would be:
    1) Combine's integration into and destabilization of the cluster
    2) The growing revolution on New Eden, and how other systems (e.g. the families of the Lester Strand) and the PC's might influence it
    3) Exactly how different are the "Chosen" of Deseret are, and who else in the cluster might want to want to exploit them
    4) Exploring and navigating the social structure of Tellos, either as an outsider or someone attempting to "climb the ladder" in a society that demands (false) humility and mandatory gift-giving.

    I need to stop writing, though, and finish by simply saying that I'm definitely looking forward to the character generation session!

  6. Ken, the only thing I'm missing from your write-up is the final descriptions of each system. I'd love to see a "Cluster Profile" document that included the cluster map along with all the information for each system. You know, the stats, aspects, and our description for each (maybe cleaned up a bit, since we wrote them in a matter of minutes). Of course, if you can't read mine and/or Tom's we could also work on it together...

  7. Chris - I was planning on entering the vignettes/writeups tonight or tomorrow in a second blog post, just to avoid making this one too unwieldy. But have no fear, they're coming. I just wanted this one to have more stuff about the tabletop process itself. Making a total 'cluster almanac'-type document is a great idea though, and when I write up all our vignettes I'll do it with that kind of theme in mind!

    Also, it's interesting that based on your first comment, I think you felt like we did a better job of relinquishing ownership of our planets than I did. I do think we did a good job of providing feedback and fresh ideas for each other, but at the same time I still felt like we all had 'veto power' over the planets we rolled up - not to a disruptive degree or anything, and I do agree that there's lots of stuff in each planet from everyone at the table. I talked about this issue a little bit on the Diaspora mailing list, and even mentioned some 'fixes' for this issue. I hesitate to phrase it as a 'problem,' as I felt like we worked together very well, but in my recollection it seemed like we had more ownership over the planets we rolled up than the Diaspora text seems to advocate. It was definitely a collaborative effort though, so maybe it's just an issue of us percieving the process differently....

    However, I agree with you a hundred percent on looking forward to doing more with the game; you've identified some great story hooks that, again, leap almost whole from the creation session. Since you're still hogging my copy of the book (heh heh), can you check and see if there's something about assigning an aspect to the Cluster as a whole? I've got some vague memory of such a thing, but I don't think we did it Tuesday night. If there is, you and Tom and I should try to hammer one out - it seems like it would almost certainly have something to do with the legacy of the Fathers, but then again maybe the alchemy of the collaborative effort will come up with something different!

  8. I don't have the (okay, your) book in front of me right now, but I just don't think that it was quite as perscriptive about ownership as you indicate. I definitely agree that the "table" as a whole is supposed to have the final say over the details of all the systems (as opposed to your perceived "veto power" that we all retained in our session), but you still have some level of personal ownership of your systems.

    Look, quoted from the SRD, "Players give each of their systems two Aspects that reflect their unique identities, extrapolated from the attributes. The final result is under the control of the table authority." That's what I was remembering. Players seem to still be primarily responsible for their own systems (through naming them, giving them aspects, writing up the final description...) but this is done in cooperation with the rest of the players, and can't ever be the result of owner fiat against the wishes of everyone else.

    I could, of course, be wrong about the intention of the designers of the game and the overall idea of the book even, but I guess that I just didn't go into it with quite the same expectations of communal hippie love that you did, so I was really happy and completely satisfied with how well we worked collaboratively.

    And just one little other thing about player "ownership" of their systems... I think that (in our case as well as in many others that might arise), keeping some level of personal control over the systems could also help to prevent one or two overbearing players from designing the whole cluster. Particularly in a group that is coming straight from traditional RPG's, I could she the "GM guy" making most of the decisions for everyone. And even in our case, I think that there was a lot of potential for the two of us (who are rather outspoken at times and have gamed together for, if you can believe it, 2 dozen years) to ride roughshod over Tom. But as it was, the "ownership" thing helped us keep some semblance of boundaries in our session.

  9. That's totally fair, and you're right that I seem to have misremembered where the game placed authority, and how much of it got placed there. And you're certainly on to something with the idea that each player having a certain degree of ownership over 'his planets' could help keep other people at the table from running over him or minimizing his contributions. And you raise yet another good point, about how the overrun problem could arise from either people's preconceptions coming in from more traditional RPGs, or the personalities and histories of the people at any given table. (And two dozen years? Wow, way to make me feel old!)

    Certainly I was happy with both the process (which was fun!) and the outcome (which still looks quite good, even in the cold light of day and away from the aforementioned fun of the creation session). And I do think you might have a clearer view of both what the book calls for (since you've had it longer than me, hardy har har) AND for what actually went down at the table that night (since, while I did indeed have a blast, I'd also had a semi-crappy day earlier which might have colored my mood a bit).

    BUT! a followup question - when you find yourself thinking about where to have your putative future PC come from, is he or she (or it, I suppose, since there's room to play some leftover bit of sentient Father-tech I guess) coming from one of 'your' planets? Or one of the other four? I say that because while I can think of totally fun character concepts based off each planet, all of which would be fun to play, my first thoughts are about either some kind of prickly ambassadorial type from Combine or a digger from Lord Carnavon who might have spent a bit too long outside without his headphones on. This is not a rhetorical or adversarially intended question - I'm still trying to figure out the extent and boundaries of my 'problem' with the ownership issue, and your replies are a big help in this process. And I keep hesitating about even calling it a 'problem;' especially since, as we've covered already, we all had fun and we produced a good cluster.

    I wonder if part of what makes me approach it in this fashion is my well-known and long-standing habit (or should we say 'problem?') of making up stacks after stacks of characters, which has recently started to evolve into similar but larger scale things like army lists for minis games, and world-building in general. Like the hyper-detailed Revolt on Antares backstory stuff I mentioned to you....

  10. Touché, Mr. Coble.

    All through this conversation, what you say has been nagging me as well. Because even when I built my list of interesting campaign hooks, I really had to work hard to include stuff from the "other four systems". Not that it wasn't good stuff, but more just that I was most invested and therefore most interested in exploring "my" stuff.

    Again, though, as long as you have people doing the initial "pitch" about it and/or writing the final description, I just don't know how you'd get around players feeling a certain bit of extra attachment about those systems anyway.

  11. Well, at least it's not just me being my normal jerk self then. But seriously, I think you're right that it's probably a non-problem problem, and that anything that a table could do to minimize that kind of extra attachment would probably not be worth the ostensible benefit of reducing that attachment. I guess there's nothing wrong with being fond of the stuff you helped most directly to create, anyway - which is the whole point of involving everyone in said creation process!

    Still, I've sort of made myself think of characters and plot ideas from the 'other' planets this afternoon as I ran some errands, and I'm perfectly happy with the stuff I've been coming up with. When (notice I do not say 'if') we get together to work on character creation, I'm going to pitch somebody from one of your or Tom's planets. I think it'll do me some good.

  12. I guess I'll chime in. You two have run roughshod over me long enough. HA! Just kidding. I didn't feel that either of you were overbearing at all. I realize you have history together and it popped up some but that's the way it is. Same probably happened at my house a couple of weeks ago when we played Savage Worlds. I had a hyper blast creating this Cluster.
    I was like Chris said. Except more so. Not at all interested in Diaspora. None. Erased the posts from the FATE Yahoo group when I got them.
    Now I'm interested and excited to do more with this game. What a credit to the designers! The world building was so collaborative. We were bouncing ideas all over the place. It was incredibly creative and I enjoyed all of it. As to the 'ownership issue' - yeah, we're gonna have some ownership feelings over the worlds we create. As you said, Kenny, that's the point of involving everyone in the creation process.
    Regarding an Aspect or two to the Cluster, I think we touched on that but I would like to revisit it next time. I just don't remember what we said. Refresh my meager memory please. The backstory of the trancendence of The Fathers is interesting.
    Characters - I'm looking forward to chargen. Thanks for reminding me to start thinking about origins. The first ones to my mind are from 'my' worlds, mainly because I have the most in my mind about those worlds. They are clearer to me. So expect a Tellosian who loves his stuff and HATES giving it away. Someone who is proud of what he has and how hard it was for him to get it so he doesn't want to just give it to some stranger because society said so. Or the proud prospector type from The Strand who is standing against The Barons who want his rock. "Keep yer stinkin' paws offin' my land ya good fer nuthin galoot! You an yer shiny civy duds an high falootin' yakaty yak. I don't keer wut no lawyer says. This is MY land."
    But I like the idea of a revolutionary on New Eden. Or on Deseret, who doesn't believe like he is supposed to.
    Can't wait!
    Which one of you is going to run the game? I'm just glad to be a player for a change.

  13. Something that just popped into my head.
    This RPG thing is entertainment for me. Creative entertainment. That is one of the main reasons I do it. To create. And that is what we did. We made some worlds! With people who have stories that are waiting to be told. That is cool.

  14. Tom-
    Glad you had as much fun as Chris and I did, and I'm also glad you didn't feel like we were running roughshod over you! I'm glad to see you are a Diaspora 'convert' - I was enthusiastic about it from the first post I read about it, but it's nice to see someone who was initially a skeptic also enjoyed it in action!

    I think I'm going to probably run the first session or three, so I'm glad to hear you're looking forward to being a player instead of the GM. I think Diaspora, like SOTC, is designed to be easy to hand off the GM's hat among the table, since all the Aspects (planetary, character, cluster, even starship) should provide a giant basket full of ready-made hooks to utilize.

    Also, sorry for bottlenecking on the system vignettes. I'll try and get the Cluster almanac written up tonight or tomorrow - I'm heading out to grab lunch and then go to Hypermind for a little 40k and a little boardgaming this afternoon.

  15. Just because I wanted to Geek out on it a little bit more, I've been working on some graphic design for the almanac, which I'll apply to it once you've got the write-up finished. In my mind, it looks really cool, but we'll see how the actual end product turns out (given my limited photoshop and layout skillz).

  16. What is this 'almanac'? I know not of which you speak.

  17. Just the "Cluster Profile" or "Cluster Almanac" that Kenny and I mention in reply #6 (2/11 @3:51pm) and #7 (2/11 @ 4:07pm) above.

    It'd be a document where we'd put together the cluster map, system statistics, and system descriptions, as well as maybe some of the backstory of The Fathers and the cluster as a whole.

  18. Winchell Chung posted a link to this post over on g+ ( and I was wondering if you ever created that Cluster Almanac, or played Diaspora?