Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Diaspora Hack: Revolt on Antares

The very first 'gaming' product I ever bought was the old TSR mini-game "Revolt on Antares." While my first copy is lost somewhere in the attic or something, I grabbed a fresh copy off eBay a few years ago and have fallen in love with the setting all over again. I've made a few half-hearted attempts at figuring out some way to do some gaming in the setting - either RP, or once I stumbled into the wonderful world of 15mm sci-fi minis, tabletop wargaming. Nothing has ever really seemed to click, but I think Diaspora's version of FATE (plus its integral wargaming ruleset!) might be the way to go. I'm going to hammer away at this some here as well as on the Diaspora mailing list, and I'm actively soliciting feedback, suggestions, or just commentary on the process. I think one of the main strengths of this approach will be the player 'buy-in' as they'll be actively involved in detailing the setting, which was one of the neatest moments in our first Diaspora session.

For people who never played the original "Revolt," the bare-bones version of the backstory is that Antares 9 is on the edge of the (presumably crumbling and decadent) Terran Empire; seven noble houses, descended from the first wave of human colonists, are fighting for power and control of the planet. The leaders of each house have some fantastic over-the-top psionic ability (teleportation, electrokinesis, telepathy - a different one for each house), and each house also has some artifact of unreproducible Precursor god-tech. In the basic scenario for the original game, some of the houses revolt against Terran rule, some remain loyal, and the others get recruited into one side or the other as the game goes on. Other wrinkles in the setting include a lot of off-world (some frankly alien) mercenaries;. the (again presumably) oppressed native population of Antares 9; and gribbly tentacled alien invaders (that show up in the second scenario, but I'd certainly want to include them in my conversion).

One of the reasons I'm thinking Diaspora will be a great fit for this is that rather than sitting down and doing all sorts of background work for all seven houses and hoping that I'm brilliant enough to capture the imaginations of the rest of the players, I can hack the Cluster creation rules and let the whole table help define each house, with the help of some Fudge dice! But this takes us right up to my first issue: what are the 'stats' we'd be rolling up for each house?

Here's the only one I've gotten so far: the starting state of Loyalty. This is the key, because rather than having to sit and decide who takes which side, etc, we'll roll for it. +4 is absolute fanatical servile devotion to the Terran Throne; -4 is going to be open and total rebellion, taken to war-crime-y lengths like systematic atrocities visited on Terran civilians and/or Terry sympathizers. Zero will be 'neutral.' We'll put a 'slipstream guarantee in at this point as well: if there's not at least one House at +2 or higher and one House at -2 or less, we'll use [some algorithm that we'll determine when we figure out what the other stats are] and place a House at any needed value of +2 and -2.

Now we've pointed out my problem - I'd like to figure out what other stats need to be determined. I don't think tech is a good choice, as the original game presents each of the houses having equivalent values for their forces (in other words, everyone's laser tank battalions are as good as everyone elses), with the Terran forces being slightly better than their House counterparts. So I think tech gets a pass here. Which house gets which power is set by the original game as well, and rolling to determine which Artifact they get isn't interesting enough from a narrative point of view to bother with (if we even stick with this idea, it'll just be a flat die roll, or picking the actual chits from the original game out of a bag).

The original game does give each House a slightly different mix of forces, and the ones who have arguably 'worse' forces get more reinforcements - this dichotomy might lend itself to a 'guns or butter' stat, where +4 is an overbuilt military force that's already stretched the limits of a House economy to the point that it's unsustainable, while -4 is a House with virtually no military at all, but with tons of economic and industrial potential to be converted to a war footing in the future. The problem is that this feels a bit reductionist and silly, and I'm not sure it really passes the laugh test. I could split this into two seperate stats - 'Mercantile' and 'Military.' That would give us the possibility of having some houses be all-around powerhouses, and some getting screwed on both fronts. This doesn't replicate the game, but I want to be inspired by the setting, not shackled to it; and the thoughts of some Houses getting to be like pre-WWI Germany, with a massive military and a bumpin' economy while others get stuck being post-WWI Germany with no military and a boned economy seems like it could make for both good RPing as well as interesting fodder for wargaming scenarios. But splitting them out thusly means we're already at 3 'rolled-up' stats for each house. I'd be willing to go to four stats, but five or more feels like it would be a bit much.

Can anyone suggest any other stats that you, as a player, would be interested in knowing about a faction before you sit down to game with it? I'd thought of some sort of 'democracy' or at least 'decency' stat - while the houses are all run by the noble families, maybe something that moves them along a spectrum from 'legitimately concerned with our subjects and giving them some voice in their governance' to 'throw another serf on the fire, this one's quit screaming?' Maybe a stat for how stable each House is? While the backstory suggests that they're some sort of long-standing hereditary nobility, an unstable house might have lots of cadet branches of the main family arguing that they're the real heir?

Any suggestions will be greatly appreciated. Later on this week I'll post something about character creation in this setting, and fish for ideas on how to handle the 'immovable objects' of the setting (the Imperial Terran Consulate, the natives, the invaders, and the mercs).


  1. I'm not going to answer your question. Instead, let me ask another one...

    How much "balance" would you want between houses? Obviously, the orignial wargame was balanced between the sides (as you mentioned a couple of times). So in setting up the "cluster", do you need to add in something additional that would "guarantee" that the houses were of equivalent power level?

    Clearly, "loyalty" doesn't affect that at all, so it's a good choice. But assuming that balance is an important thing to maintain, then none of the stats can really reflect anything that would give an advantage to one or the other (like all of the Diaspora stats would), unless there is an additional mechanic in place to counterbalance it.

    Does that make sense?

  2. It makes perfect sense, and it's a very appropriate question to ask. Now that you've formulated it for me, let me turn it back around on you: as a player, would you prefer factions like this be roughly balanced, or is the possibility of rolling up real underdogs/overdogs interesting to you?

    Assume arguendo that you really wanted to play a scion of House Edistyn because you had some neat ideas about a precognitive character; however, we roll up House Stats and House Edistyn gets bad results on both Military and Mercantile strength. Would this increase or decrease your desire to play a character from that house?

    Second idea: if some imbalance is acceptable/desired, maybe it would be better if we limited the possible 'height' of that difference? What if we had some House characteristics that were rolled up on 4dF like usual, and then some that we wanted to hold tighter to the baseline that were rolled on 2dF? The natural progression of the game could still push these above or below +2/-2, but for the starting state we'd have less overall difference between houses. Plus we'd still get the interesting possible edge cases of having some houses with +2/+2 and some with -2/-2, so there's still room for dominant and weaker houses. Maybe we'd have 3 'traditional' 4dF stats (Loyalty, ??? and ???) and 3 'tighter' 2dF stats (frex, Military, Mercantile, Population)?

  3. It would seem to me that it is the power imbalances that would make things interesting. Furthermore I don't think 2dF is necessary if you have enough characteristic categories that reflect different aspects of a houses power e.g., Human resources, Political resources, Economic resources, Tactical resources etc...

  4. 1) Inequity among the houses would probably make for more interesting stories, so it may not be a big deal at all. For it to be a believeble extended conflict, though, there does seem to be some need for balance.

    2) I don't know that having 2 whole sets of stats is such a great idea. I like maybe pushing it to the four you have listed, though, and then maybe enforcing some sort of "guarantee" like for slipstream tech.

    You could maybe total up all the houses' "conflict" stats (Military, Mercantile, and Population) and then somehow bring them all up to an equivalent level. Maybe add the difference between totals to the highest stat of the weaker houses. That way, you'd be pushing the houses to being more differentiated (with strengths and weaknesses) rather than towards having balanced stats.

    Does that make any sense?

    3) Back to Loyalty. I like it being random, but as you said in the OP, there's a lot of possibility for even more manipulation with some sort of "guarantee" there as well.

    Maybe it'd be better to approach Loyalty more analagous to how you link the systems in normal cluster generation. Where you build a "map" of alliances and conflict between the houses, rather than just rolling independent stats.

    Oooh... I think I just got a bit of a shiver from that little flash of inspiration there. But what do you think?

  5. Anon and Chris: thanks for the feedback, I think you're both right that inequity - or at least the possibility of inequity - will make for more interesting games rather than trying to closely-couple any of the stats, a la my 2dF idea (also Anon, if you don't mind me asking, how'd you make your way here? just curious).

    Also, using the cluster connection mechanism to draw the initial web of alliances is gold. Thinking about that has given me an idea that hopefully bridges the gap between the 'balancing' idea and trying to keep it computationally simple:

    Roll up all seven Houses, on 3 or 4 different stats - Military, Mercantile, Population* and Political/Diplomatic power (great idea Anon!). Instead of a loyalty stat, you take the House with the highest total score, and you place that house at the far end of the 'cluster map' from Terra (which is obviously your other anchor point; they're your first openly rebellious house (which fits the original game as well). Then you put the next-highest total beside Terra, and the next beside Rebel 1, etc, until you've lined them up. Then use the normal Cluster linking mechanics to draw connections between them all.

    Our 'slipspace guarantee' will be that if the House with the highest total is less than [some number I haven't figured out yet? 6?], you'll add one to every stat. Ties broken by highest Military stat, further ties broken by discussion at the table?

    *=I've starred "Population" as a stat for a few reasons; one, the original game makes no assumptions either way, so you could assume a rough parity between the houses. On the other hand, it might be cool to have it as a stat, since the interactions of Population with other stats could suggest some very interesting Aspects for each house. On the third hand, you could do that anyway voluntarily at the Aspect creation phase, without having to have an explicit 'Population' stat. At the moment, if anything is going to get axed, it's probably Population.

    The next issue: How do we deal with Terra? In the game, they're by themselves probably equal to any two Houses. On the other hand, there's something neat about letting the table determine and explain the nature of their particular version of Antares 9's Imperial Terran presence. They've got to have a strong military - but it might be interesting for one table to get a Terran Consulate who's a consummate diplomat a la Richelieu or Castlereagh (High Politics) versus another one whose entire tenure has been marked by his utter disdain for the old colonial Houses (negative Politics).

    Further thoughts? Or should I bust that out into a second post?

  6. PS: I am in fact going to bust how to treat Terra out into a second post, which I am writing even as we speak.

  7. Followup - a kind soul on the Diaspora mailing list suggested, among some other good ideas, Morale as a community stat. I don't want to get this too crowded, but that's just such a great idea that I'm really wanting to include it as a House stat. Morale as a stat just screams with ideas for both RP and wargaming application... so do I go back to 4 stats? Maybe we dump mercantile/economic strength - after all, there's nothing relevant to it in the original game, and while there's some neat stuff to be done with the idea, it's also the kind of thing the table could encapsulate pretty effectively with Aspects....