Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Diaspora's Killer App

So, I recently got my hands on a copy of Diaspora[1], a game of hard, character-driven sci-fi using a version of Fate. It's a lovely book; the cover's gorgeous the size is exactly in my sweet spot, and of course I get a little thrill seeing something like this come out. When people come out with games like Diaspora, Awesome Adventures or Starblazers I take a little pride in the fact that these things have been born from the decision to open up Fate fully enough to let people take true ownership of it and create these projects.

Anyway, Diaspora's pretty hot. Good tech rules, excellent setting design material, squad and social combat, and I'll cheerfully admit that I think the explanations of some fate concepts (notably zones) are probably even clearer in Diaspora than they are in SOTC. If you're curious, CW Richeson has written one of his (as usual) thorough reviews of the game, and Fred has also put in his two bits. It's a good game, and I found it worth the price, but it's also a starting point for something.

It's always a little weird when you find someone else had a similar thought to you, and I had just that experience when I hit the section on "Scopes." Scopes are basically categories of aspects[2] - it might be personal, it might be on the scene, on the zone, on your enemy and so on. This is important because in Diaspora, you can only use one aspect per scope per roll. This is important because it puts a limit on the behavior of just using 4 or 5 aspects to make a phenomenal roll. This is an intentional part of SOTC - it's in keeping with the high-action pulp tone of the game - but it doesn't translate well to less cinematic genres.[3]

Scopes are a really good idea, and a better name than "Categories", which is what I called them, so right off the bat, consider the name stolen. It's one of those small rule shifts that organically generates a very desirable outcome. See, one of the weaknesses of the SOTC maneuver system (which is how you put aspects on other people and things) is that characters have enough aspects that it's very rare that they'll run out of things they can use, so they have little incentive to make more. [4]

Scopes change that. Players want aspects in every scope possible because that optimizes the number of potential bonuses they can get. By maneuvering to change the situation - putting aspects on enemies, zones, scenes and the like - the players can try to put an aspect in every possible scope, and maximize their bonuses. That means that the cheesiest, most combat-monkey abusive thing you can do is to run around doing things that are cool, creative and more interesting than "I shoot him". This is such a wonderful expression of the idea that the optimized way to play is also the most interesting that it nearly brings a tear to my eye.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Scope is a wonderful playground for a lot of other ideas, old and new. The idea of "Campaign aspects" has been around for a long time - aspects that are always around during the game, usually ones that reinforce genre - and it's easy to add a "Campaign" scope and slap it into your game. Better yet, it means you could define the campaign in more than one aspect, and it doesn't mechanically create any problems - the limits is still one per scope.

You want to introduce magical weapons without them getting out of hand? Bam, equipment scope. Simple as that.

You could even abstract the idea further, and change the categories from descriptive to conceptual: What if the scopes are Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Void? Sure, this won't work for every game, but for a version of Fireborn or L5R? You'd have to ask what those things mean, sure, but that makes them MORE useful. What if the magic of the universe means you can't use Fire aspects in a situation where Water dominates? What if you can't use earth and wind aspects in the same scene? What if your fire aspects grant a higher or lower bonus based upon how much fire chi you're carrying? What if your magical powers depend upon whow your aspects are distributed within the scopes? [5]

I'm only scratching the surface here, but hopefully in doing so I reveal how robust the design space underneath is. Scopes are a fantastic addition to the toolbox, and I hope that anyone else looking to play around with the Fate toolset will give them a look-over and see if they might be just the thing needed to tighten that last screw.

1- I paid for it, so all's good on that front.

2 - I'm assuming some familiarity with aspects and fate here, but if this is gibberish, here's the shorthand - an aspect is a descriptor that can be applied to anything. A character might be "Strong", a building might be "On Fire" and so on. You can use these descriptors for bonuses, or when they create problems for you, they can generate currency. For more detail, just check out Fate.

3 - Interestingly, original Fate addressed this problem differently. In core Fate, aspects dont' grant +2, they let you turn one of the dice to a +. This usually was equivalent to a +2 (as you flipped a - to a +) but subsequent aspect use suffered from diminishing returns and capped out at +4, the best the dice could roll (though after that you could get a +1 per aspect).

4- The "free tag" rule (that the first user of a created aspect is free) was created to balance this out and give some incentive to maneuver, but it's really only worth it when players are running low on points. This isn't bad - it means desperate fights are more colorful - but it's not ideal (especially since these new aspects rarely matter past their free tag).

5 - Just saying: Scopes + Keywords == Awesome.

If you're interested, the Diaspora SRD is now up with all their open content, and the guys have a blog which offers some nice insights into their thinking.


  1. 100% correct. I'd gotten completely distracted from the existence of scopes by the time I started giving specific blather about Diaspora around the intertubes -- thanks for bringing those back to light.

  2. The cunning design feed loop in the Fate community tickles me like few other things. Now if only I played or ran the system more.

  3. @fred Given the sheer number of awesome bits in Diaspora, I think any list is going to be incomplete. It's a freaking gold mine.

    -Rob D.

  4. @Cam I think we've reached the point where there are now so many games that the differentiators between them are rarely the game itself. More often it's the community around it or the resources the produces provides.

    Still chewing on the implications of that.

    -Rob D.

  5. One other use for Scope occurs to me: It is another thing that Stunts can do - specifically, they can add another Scope.

    For example, if you've got a bunch of Jedi or Zen Monks, you can have a stunt that adds a scope for state of mind. It's not on the books for other characters, but if they can successfully add an aspect to it (by meditating for a moment or the like) then they can use it to be more badass. A really powerful stunt might introduce a Scope that you can permanently "put an aspect in". An example of that might be, say, Cyberware - take the cyborg stunt and you can buy your cyberware as aspects.

    -Rob D.

  6. Shortly after SotC came out there were several threads on rpgnet and the yahoogroup about making Fate grittier, including lot of ideas about limiting tags in some fashion.

    For my fantasy Fate game, I allowed only one "personal," one "opponent," and one "scene" Aspect to be tagged in any given exchange. We immediately saw an improvement in our play. That change alone didn't necessarily make it grittier, but it did make it more dynamic. It's otherwise entirely too easy to find personal Aspects to tag, making the Maneuvers that result in a changed narrative less enticing.

    "Scopes" though, yeah… Diaspora is very cool.

  7. @nemo Yeah, there's something magical about taking an idea that's kind of kicking around and giving it a name that just _feels_ right.

    -Rob D.

  8. Is the forthcoming "generic" FATE 3.0 book too far along to include mention of scope and/or keywords? Much less other awesome bits from Diaspora?

  9. Scope can also be the key to an Aspects-only Fate variant, with scopes occupying the role of skills.

    Oh, and to @buzz, I suspect there's plenty of time for Diaspora to get stolen from. :)

    -Rob D.

  10. Stunts can also interact with Scopes by tying stunts to scopes rather than skills. The "Gearhead" stunt gives an extra +1 when using a "gear" aspect for example. Alternately, they can have special effects when using aspects in certain scopes - Leadership grants other peopel a bonus when they use an aspect from your scope, for example.

    -Rob D.

  11. Summarizing some thoughts from Twitter:
    Scopes as skillsets. Pick one at +2 and two secondary at +1. Baseline competence is +0 for "heroic" adventures, +3 for "paragon" adventures, and +5 for "epic" adventures. This establishes the rung and determines the scope for using aspects. Could be as simple as Battle, Magic, Miracles, Thievery, Court.

    So, I might have a +2 Court, +1 Battle, +1 Magic guy on the Heroic tier. Pick 5 Aspects, base stress tracks on tier.

  12. To elaborate, Cam's comment is in relation to the idea of doing an aspects-only game. If the prospect of a flat default of 0 does not appeal, there are a coupel of alternatives.

    1. Simply have character's have a level, in the old school sense. This sets their baseline, starting at 0 and going up.

    2. Giving certain scope's bonuses, so your primary scope might have a +2 if you can use it, secondary ones might have +1. This works well when scopes correspond roughly to classes.

    3. Have a lot of scopes and count on a combinative model. At the simplest, you could have a "Stat" and "Skill" scope and add on from there, but you can be more creative than that.

    -Rob D.

  13. You guys are mowing all over my Soft Horizon lawn. :D A lot of this is ground I've covered while analyzing scopes but some of it is new as well, which is exciting. An upcoming project, Soft Horizon, uses scopes as a critical component of character generation and it pays in extraordinary ways.

    During character creation, when asked to select an aspect, the player may choose either an aspect or a scope. She gets one scope for free -- Myself. Every aspect must be under a scope. Refresh is the number of aspects only.

    I'm sure you can already see most of the cool trade-offs being performed here. One that's less obvious, perhaps, is that the player is making decisions about autonomy: when the ref compels an aspect under the scope "The Royal Family", it's the character's obligations that are pushing. Were the aspect under "Myself" it would be a personal decision. The story of accepting or denying the compel must take the scope into account.

    Another feature is the empty scope. What does it do? Well, when someone maneuvers to put an aspect on you (friendly most relevantly but also hostile) they must put it under an existing scope. So empty scopes are places where your friends can make you extra awesome by empowering your relationships (your DEMON SWORD or your CREW OF PIRATES).

    Scopes rocks.

  14. @brad Yeah, I;m absolutely _tickled_ by what effectively creates a dual-axis model with relative (rather than consistent) payouts. A new scope is good, though how good depends on how many scopes there already are. Similarly, a new aspect is good, but also dependent on how many other aspects are in that scope. A new aspect for an empty scope is _very_ good, but also probably quite rare.

    The other thing this allows is a little more traction for internal conflicts between aspects, which is one of the oldest questions: If my love says to do one thing and my loyalty says to do another, what do I do? If those are different scopes (Myself and Others, say) then the act of putting them in conflict means that whichever scope the player chooses, he perhaps cannot use the other one for the appropriate duration.

    (This, in turn, illustrates another incredibly fruitful area for scopes: Situationally taking them away)

    And the ability to tie scopes into the setting, then tie the player in that way? Imagine if you only have "Self" and "others" (or maybe one of the other pairs from fading suns, which might be a good root here) - you might have an implicit stat based on the difference between those two, something zero-centered that fuels magic.

    For example, FS had Faith/Hubris - Faith fueled theurgy, hubris fueled psi. If you have Faith & Hubris scopes, the distribution of aspects between them could determine your relative power with those.

    Plus, that introduces one more sophisticated pricing decision: Every aspect you put in faith has less bang for the buck as an aspect, but if it's making your theurgy more potent, is that worth it? What if each hubris aspect subtracts from your theurgy? do you forgo an aspect in that scope entirely?

    Just *delicious*.

    -Rob D.

  15. Oh, and to @buzz, I suspect there's plenty of time for Diaspora to get stolen from. :)

    I am both happy and sad to hear this. :D

    An upcoming project, Soft Horizon, uses scopes as a critical component of character generation and it pays in extraordinary ways.

    100% happy on this one. More info somewhere?

  16. Buzz, we design in public (though not publicly -- there is no write access to anyone but the authors) at our skunkworks. There should be a link there to Soft Horizon and other projects.

  17. Just chiming in on how awesome the scope concept is. I did something similar in wuxia hack, Spirit of the Fist, but there it's pretty much limited to personal aspects. Expanding that to cover every aspect is great, assuming there's never a struggle to classify them as they come up.

    The last time I ran my fantasy and swashbuckling hacks, too, I limited invokes and tags to once per aspect per scene, and it really made a difference.

    Anyway -- well done to Brad et al. for a great game!


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