Diaspora: The Precious Few, Session #1

Kick off Diaspora Campaign

Yesterday we kicked off a Diaspora campaign with the usual suspects. Before we started, Joe said he was playing a scientist. That was the only pretense we had for creating characters. I opted to only slowly reveal the game to the players, describing just enough to give a sense of what was needed for the task.


We quickly rolled up 5 systems, and this is what I have from memory; The group will be sending me their notes from the first session. What seemed to work really well was to define aspects one at a time. We didn’t add much history, though the setting quickly developed as we built the aspects of the system and the aspects of our characters. We connected the systems and it became clear that Real New Mexico was crucial as the throughway for Vulcan, Exxon, and New Florida; Everyone has to stop in New Mexico. It also became clear that New Memphis was a backwater system, with little going for it. So Exxon, New Florida, and Vulcan were going to be the three systems in tension, each with dominance in one key aspect.
Diaspora Cluster Graph

New Memphis

  • Technology -1
  • Environment -1
  • Resources 0
  • Aspects The pharaoh made a deal with the devil; Alone on this damn rock!; Strange alien artifacts

New Florida

  • Technology 1
  • Environment 3
  • Resources -4
  • Aspects Everythings “perfect”; ?; ?


  • Technology 1
  • Environment -1
  • Resources 3
  • Aspects Theocracy; Earth tremors; Commerce Capital

Real New Mexico

  • Technology 1
  • Environment -1
  • Resources 0
  • Aspects We hate those Vulcans; They’re comin’ right for us; Hive of scum and villainy


  • Technology 2
  • Environment -2
  • Resources -1
  • Aspects Over crowded; acid-rain; structured bureaucracy

Simply making the systems proved to be entertaining; We had defined different cultures and it was clear that there would be a lot of action.

Character Creation

Once I get the character aspects, I’ll post more. Needless to say, phase one, Growing Up, started off interesting enough; A refugee, a student of the “Actuarial Seminary”, a smooth talker, a genius, and a tech-nerd.

Wrapping Up

With character creation wrapping up, one of the players got called into work; The challenges of being on call.  So we agreed to fill out a google spreadsheet with all of our work (Systems, Characters Stories, Character Skills & Stunts).


The whole first session is a blast; It had a wonderful cycle of studious writing, then showing our work, discussing the work, and back into the writing.  We could see that the systems were taking shape as we discussed the aspects.  And we were laughing, especially in the phase where we interact with another character.  The evening wrapped up a little early, as one of the players was called into work.  Afterward, as I was wrapping up, my wife said it sounded like we were all having a really good time…I’d wager we laughed and enjoyed each others company more than most RPG sessions.  And this was the character creation session.

Discussing Layers of a Role-Playing Game

Discussing Layers of a Role-Playing Game

Proposed Layers

Narration: The story that is being told. A person not familiar with the system would understand what is happening.

Interface: How elements of the story are fed into the mechanical layer and likewise how elements of the mechanical layer influence the narrative layer.

Mechanics: Responsible for defining the interfaces used to access the underlying model. The mechanics layer implements the interface to the narrative layer through the use of sub-systems and abstraction.



Artorax took a hasty breath and expelled a fiery gout of ashen rage, bathing the mighty paladin Alexandar, but not before he had brought his shield up for protection.  The withering attack was quickly sapping Alexandar’s strength, but he fought on…through excruciating pain…desperately trying to extinguish the flames while still trying to deliver a mortal wound to the ancient wyrm.

Interface via Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition

The above could be modeled by the following: The dragon uses a standard action to use his “breath weapon” attack on Alexander. The dragon successfully hits Alexandar, so after damage is rolled, Alexandar takes 75 points of damage, and an “Ongoing 20 fire damage (save ends)”. That is a lot of damage, and the ongoing fire damage is going to make quick work of Alexandar.

Mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition

Hit points are a resource that can be depleted. If you take damage beyond your hit points, you are taken out of play. Ongoing damage is sustained each round unless you succeed at a saving throw.

Interface via Fate system, as per Diaspora

The above narration could be modeled by the following: The dragon makes a Health attack on Alexandar for 6 shifts. Alexandar only has 5 health boxes that can be checked off, so without a consequence, Alexandar will be taken out. Pete, Alexandar’s player character, doesn’t want Alexandar to be taken out of the fight just yet, so he elects to reduce the shift by one by taking a minor Consequence “My clothing’s on fire!”. Alexandar is certainly in serious trouble, but he’s not given up yet.

Mechanics of Fate system, as per Diaspora

The Health track is a resource that can be depleted. If you sustain shifts beyond your Health track, you are taken out of play. Shifts can be reduced by assuming Consequences; Those consequences will make future actions against you more dangerous.

Further Exploration

There are two common elements being described in the Narrative and Interface layer. First there is the initial pain/injury from the blast of fire. Second there is the ongoing affect of being on fire. In both system examples, the initial pain is represented by taking damage. The ongoing effect is modeled differently.

In the 4th Edition example, Alexander will continue to take damage each round until he successfully makes a save. In the Fate example, Alexandar opted to reduce some of the initial damage by adding a consequence of being his clothes being on fire. The dragon can, and most certainly will, take advantage of that in future rounds.

Obviously Diaspora’s incarnation of the Fate system and Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition are very different systems. Dungeons and Dragons models the “My clothing’s on fire!” as something that happens to your character, and keeps the narrative details vague. Fate models “My clothing’s on fire!” as something that you choose to happen, and the narrative details are quite explicit. Note, in Diaspora’s Fate, there are other ways for the dragon to set someones clothes on fire, but not also do damage in the same action.

Purely Academic Conjecture

Having played Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition, and not having played a Fate system game, what follows is purely speculation.

Compared to D&D 4E, the Fate system interface to the mechanics can more accurately reflect the ongoing narrative. This is due to the fact that the underlying mechanics of Fate knows how to handle descriptive text. “My clothing’s on fire!” has it’s own meaning in Fate, whereas Dungeons and Dragons requires translation of the narrative statement.

I suspect that the ability to provide english phrases to a situation will also help in recalling story aspects. Compare the following:

“Remember that time your clothes caught on fire. You barely survived that nasty dragon.”


“Remember that time you took 75 points of fire and damage AND were taking 20 points of fire damage a round. You barely survived that nasty dragon.”

Certainly if you are well versed in the language of the mechanics you can remember the story just as vibrantly. But there is certainly something lost in the translation.

The Mah Jong of Tichu

Tichu card game special cards (Mah Jong, Dog, ...

Image via Wikipedia

Mechanic: The Mah Jong – Tichu

System: TichuRules of Tichu

Summary: The Mah Jong determines who has the initial lead as well as gives them the power to make a “wish” for another card.


Whoever begins the hand with the Mah Jong has the initial lead. In addition to having the lead, when the Mah Jong is played, the player may make a “wish” for another card (i.e. 2 through Ace, but not Dog, Dragon, or Phoenix). From that point forward, if the wished for card can legally be played it must be played. Once the wished for card is played, the wish is fulfilled and there is no further obligation to play the wished for card.

What I Like

While probably not as powerful as the Dragon or Phoenix, the Mah Jong can very easily set the tone for the hand; After all, the Mah Jong creates a rules obligation to play on the trick if possible.

By playing the Mah Jong you have an opportunity to wreak havoc on an opponent’s hand or with a bit of bad luck, your partner’s hand. In some cases, a careful wish can prevent an opponent from calling Tichu. It can also devastate a fragile Grand Tichu call.


When in doubt, wish for what you passed to the player who’s turn it is next. This is a safe bet; You already know they have the card. But it seems a bit weak. After all, they received the card from you. So it seems to me to be more likely to not fit well with their hand unless of course it is the card that bridged a bunch of singletons into a straight.

Another option is to wish for the card you should’ve seen in the pass. After all, if you didn’t have a Two and no one passed you a Two, there may very well be a bomb of Twos out there. Nothing sucks quite so bad as sitting there all smug knowing you have a bomb of Fours and having that bomb wished for…Except of course having multiple Aces ripped from your hand.

A third option is to wish for an Ace, particularly if your partner passed you an Ace. If a person was thinking of calling Tichu, having their Ace wished out can give them pause. It certainly doesn’t let them sit back and play the hand management game biding their time to safely offload that one losing hand.

If you have the Mah Jong as part of a run, the options become very interesting. You can wish for a card that would ensure one or two cards left behind. If you start with a Mah Jong to Five run, and wish for a Four it is possible someone has a seven card run, Two to Eight, that now has a Seven and Eight stranded in their hand. It is also entirely possible that someone might need to use the Phoenix to construct a run that can fulfill the wish.

And then there is the lobotomy of wishes: Leading with a run and wishing for an Ace, only to have everyone pass. The following up with a triple and watching your opponent howl in rage as they play two Aces and the Phoenix to fulfill the wish.

Passing the Mah Jong

Never pass the Bird to an opponent.  Given it’s strength, arming your opponent with this card is simply a bad idea.

I typically pass the Mah Jong to my partner if I don’t have all that many low cards.  My assumption is that my partner will likely be able to convert a heap of junk into a simple five card run.

Open Game License

Mechanic Name: Open Game License

System: Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition

Summary: A legal document that allows for publishes to declare what is their intellectual property and what they are releasing as open game content.


The Open Game License (OGL) was created by Wizards of the Coast to allow their game material to be referenced and enhanced by third party content publishers. The general idea being that Wizards of the Coast defined certain elements of their Dungeons and Dragons rules system as “open game content.” With that definition, anyone else, by adhering to the Open Game License, could reproduce or modify  open game content, even if they publish that content for a profit.

To provide incentive for other publishers, the Open Game License allows the publisher to define what is open game content and what is product identity; Often times product identity is proper nouns, story, and themes (i.e. the “creative” aspect of the published content). Product identity could not be reproduced in any fashion by other publishers using the Open Game License. So there was a tremendous incentive to use the license. The result was an explosion in role-playing game offerings.

One of the requirements is that a publisher using the open gaming license must include a copy of the license. The publisher must also update the copyright notice of the license to include the exact text of all of the OGL copyright notices of all sources that they are copying, modifying, or distributing.

What I Like About It

Oddly enough, when I buy books, I really enjoy looking to see if there is a copy of Open Gaming License; If one is present, I look at the updated copyright notice to see the rules systems that contributed and influenced the making of the book in hand.

I also truly appreciate that Ryan Dancey, the man who spearheaded the OGL, fought to make available, forever and ever, the engine behind an extremely popular and successful game system (Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition). It is a system that is available for the people to use and modify, so long as they adhere to the legal requirements of the Open Gaming License.

Ultimately, this license grants a level of freedom to use open game content from any source, without fear of legal retaliation; It gives protection to the owner of the product, in the form of product identity; and requires credit to be given for the systems that were influential.

I have included a copy of the Open Gaming License on my site; At some point, I may just contribute something.

Cluster Creation Diaspora

Mechanic Name: Cluster Creation

System: Diaspora

Summary: A mechanism for randomly creating star systems and defining the faster-than-light travel connections between those star systems.


Diaspora is a hard science-fiction role-playing game that uses the first game session to create the cluster of star systems that will define the setting in which the characters will exist. Each star system is created individually, with each system having three attributes: Technology, Environment, and Resources. The star system attributes are then randomly determined, via 4 Fudge dice, yielding a steep bell-curve from -4 to +4. Based on those attributes, short descriptions (called Aspects) are assigned. Once the attributes and aspects are assigned the star systems are then linked via an randomizer.

The result is a cluster of star systems, most of which will have 2+ connections to other star systems as well as attributes that define the star systems spot in the pecking order.

Why I Like It:

I find the randomization of three core attributes to provide a high-level view of what the culture might very well be like on the world. This, coupled with how a system is connected to other systems, lends itself to a game-world in motion.

A star system with a high technology, low resource attribute will most assuredly be looking to its neighbors to fuel it’s endeavors. A resource rich system that is barely habitable due to a low environmental rating could imply a more distributed culture, akin to the wild west.

One evening, I decided to quickly roll-up a cluster of star systems, and found the ideas flowing as I stared at a handful of numbers representing each star system and the lovely graph that connected them. Of course the Technology 3, Resource -2, Environment 2 system is going to be the bully in the system. After all, the Technology -2, Resource 2, Environment -3 world stood in their way, and were blasted back to the iron age for standing against the strip mining of their resources.

Nuances to Further Explore

In the Cluster Creation rules, Diaspora calls out other kinds of clusters that could be modeled using a different set of custom attributes:

Magic Order Weather Science
Warfare Compassion Barbarians Sorcery
Trade Economics Priesthood Sanity

Use the similar cluster creation rules, defining what each rating means, and suddenly the creative juices are flowing. I used this method to help define a cluster of organizations in a Burning Wheel game (Order, Compassion, and Economics) and I found that it help to crystalize what each organization was about as well as how they naturally interacted.

Incentivized Role Selection – Part 2

Following up on my previous post concerning incentivized role selection, let’s take a look at the incentivized role selection of Twilight Imperium.

Mechanic Name: Incentivized Role Selection – Part II

Related Article “Incentivized Role Selection”

System: Twilight Imperium

Summary: Add incentives to ensure that each role is selected multiple times over the course of the game.


Twilight Imperium, much like Puerto Rico, makes use of an incentivized role selection process; In Twilight Imperium they are called Strategies instead of Roles. And much like Puerto Rico, if a Strategy is not selected, it is incentivized. The incentive, much like Puerto Rico, is in the “monetary” currency of Twilight Imperium (as opposed to the Victory Point currency).

In Twilight Imperium, there exists the Imperial strategy card (ISC), a card so strong that you should always select it. The game is played to 10 points, by achieving different objectives, and selecting the Imperial strategy card yields you 2 points.  So the incentive to choose other items is in the form of “monetary” currency, whereas selecting the Imperial strategy card nets you 20% of the required victory points.

Why I Don’t Like It:

I don’t like the Imperial strategy card because it is very heavy handed. After all, if you don’t select it, then your turn should yield at least two points; After all that’s what you gave up by not selecting it.

In Puerto Rico it is hard to imagine a single Role selection netting you 20% of your final points for the game, let alone as your first selection of the game. The incentivized strategy selection system creates an ebb-and-flow in what strategies will be chosen, but with the dominating presence of the Imperial strategy card, you know that you have to chose it when it’s available.  Likewise the other players have to choose it as well. For me, the forced decision results in resentment. I dread the rounds where I “have to” choose the Imperial strategy card.

I want to immerse myself in the game, and have decisions and options that I must consider. There is nothing “cool” about gaining 20% of the conditions for victory, when the other options are going to war, researching technology, or brow-beating someone into a treaty…In other words immersing in the game’s narrative.

I understand that gaining victory points, a