As I mentioned earlier, the last part of game night this week was dedicated to playing a session of Diaspora. With my life speeding headlong towards the birth of my second daughter, I don’t have a lot of time to fit in extra gaming on weekends or other evenings. But after cluster creation and character generation, Kenny, Tom and I have been getting more and more fired up to actually play this freaking awesome game. So, we decided that sacrificing a few hours of game night once or twice a month would be the best way to get it done.
Unfortunately, we got a bit of a late start this week, and it was around 10:30pm when we finally all sat down and got started. As I mentioned in another post, we had all written down some explicit player and character goals, and we were all going to think of some events that might take place both to give each other what we wanted as well as throw in some complications and twists. I guess that I sort of took the reins to begin with and (since it was on all of our goal lists) recommended that we make our first “mission” be a trip to Lord Carnavon, where we had rerouted a shipment of slaves in the short session that we ran after character generation.
The twist that I threw in was that the in-game impetus for our trip was a message sent to Jind (Tom’s character) from the Foreign Minister of his homeworld (who is the ultimate head of the Emissarial Corps), telling him personally that he was to head immediately to the Lord Carnavon system because a ship full of contract workers had gone mising, and that he was to investigate and report back about what happened. We, of course, know exactly what happened to the “workers”, but jumped at the chance to check on them and get them organized into some sort of resistance against New Eden.
It’s a Trap!!!
Esteban (Kenny’s character) set his ship, The Visitation, on its 5-day course for the slip point, and then made an awesome Navigation roll to get us to Lord Carnavon in just about an hour. As the ship exited from slipspace, however, they immediately detected an unmarked ship which immediately oriented itself towards them and began approaching. Kenny and Tom’s first thoght was to make an attempt at hailing them, to try and use the ship’s On a Diplomatic Mission aspect to keep out of a fight.
Now, as the referee/caller for this scene, I was a little bit at a loss about how to handle this. Based on the backstory of who the attackers were, I didn’t think that it would have much effect, but in looking at the highly scripted sequence of the space combat mini-game, I didn’t even know where exactly it should fit. Regardless of whether making contact would work, however, I figured that the first thing we needed to do was to identify where the ships were in space, because it might have a significant impact on the choices that both parties would make, so we jumped right into the Detection phase of the mini game. Kenny blew this Navigation roll, however, so I was able to determine the positions of the ships on the combat map.
Diaspora‘s Space Combat system uses a very abstract, 1-dimensional “map” which is really only concerned with the relative positions of the ships involved. It consists of a series of lines or zones numbered from -4 to +4, and going past either end means that the ship has “escaped” from combat. I therefore placed The Visitation right in the middle of the map, and put the enemy gunship close to it, but on the positive side (which we determined to be generally “systemward”, as opposed to the negative side being in the direction of the slip point and deep space). So, in other words, our ship had a long way to go to get away, and it would have to go “through” the enemy to get where it wanted to go.
An example of the space combat “map”
This session provided lots of chances for us to learn a few hard lessons about the system and, unfortunately, some weak points in how we had put together our characters. Kenny’s idea for The Visitation was that it was a former pleasure yacht/office for a “mob boss” in the Lester Strand system. So it’s fast (V-shift of 4) and lightly armed. What he didn’t realize, though, was that the effective speed of the ship is limited by the skill of its pilot, which in Kenny’s case was only a 2. Therefore, in the Position phase, our condition didn’t improve any.
Neither ship had any Electronic Warfare capability, but the attackers had far superior weaponry, both in the form of beams and torpedoes. As it opened up on us, our gunner (a faceless NPC) did his best to defend us and occasionally return fire. Kenny used the Barely Legal aspect on his ship to avoid or minimize damage several times, but over the following rounds of combat, we continued to take damage and accumulated both a mild (“scrambled scanners”) and moderate (“almost out of tricks”) consequence. Our (again faceless) engineer did a good job with damage control, but with a frame of only 2, we didn’t have the ability to absorb many hits.
Both through better dice rolls and in using burn, we eventually started making some progress towards the positive edge of the board, first in positioning the gunship behind us and then in moving ourselves. But it still didn’t look good, and I hinted heavily that it might be a good idea for Kenny to concede and negotiate a resolution to the battle. He didn’t take the chance, though, and in the final round, we took both a major consequence (“We lost the slipdrive!”) and were taken out by marking off both frame points.
Thoughts about Space Combat
Let me start with the positive. I like the efficiency and, in most cases, scripted nature of the system. You just follow the order, take care of things when it’s time to do them, and get stuff done. It’s a quick and effective way to represent the very lethal combat between fast and fragile ships in a hard sci-fi setting.
Unfortunately, it seemed to be almost too scripted in a lot of ways. First and foremost, we could never figure out where exactly the hailing of the other ship, or more generally, where any specific character action that didn’t relate the mini-game directly would fit in. And even if such actions were shoehorned in somewhere, what effect should these character actions have on the larger mini-game mechanics? Now, we discussed this during play, of course, and we could have just played fast and loose with the rules and done whatever we wanted to do, but I was pretty concerned (especially in our first interaction with the rules) that we do it “right”.
The other issue I had with it is that there’s no real opportunity for taking the maneuver action in space combat. In every other combat system, you can maneuver to place a new aspect on yourself, the environment, or another character. Whether it’s “taking careful aim” or “sand in your eyes” or “pants on fire”, it lets you introduce new elements into the conflict that you can use in later turns to help yourself (or allies) out. Without them, there’s a lot less room for creativity and drama in the events. Plus, there’s a lot less opportunity to compel your opponent when you don’t have as many aspects around to use.
Since Tuesday night, we’ve been on the Diaspora mailing list and have gotten some input from the designers and other players about what is “okay”. Brad Murray’s specific response was, “player characters act outside this sequence but they cannot affect space combat mechanisms directly. They could place maneuvers, I think, which is an indirect action.” I’m still a little unclear about the direct/indirect differentiation, but it does still answer my real question about whether or not maneuvers are possible.
So, whether I’ve been taking the space combat mini-game too seriously or it’s just taking itself too seriously, in the future I figure that we’re definitely going to relax our approach a lot more and allow more room for maneuvers and other creativity.
Since the attackers won the space battle by taking out our ship, they got to determine the circumstances under which it ended. What happened next was that with The Visitation powerless and floating in space, the gunship tethered to us and sent a boarding party across. In the meantime, we all got into our spacesuits and Kenny evacuated the atmosphere from the ship, and we took up defensive positions. Most of us set up amidships, while the engineer basicaly tried to weld himself into the engine room.
The soldiers breached our airlock and a dozen of them poured in, dividing into two squads that split fore and aft. Kenny, Tom, and the “Butler” NPC were through the next hatch forward, while I hid myself in the corridor leading to engineering and the back of the ship. I see my character as sort of, well, Batman (which Kenny or Tom pointed out as we were doing chargen), so I imagined him dropping in behind people and taking them out without making a sound, only to disappear into the shadows again before their allies could figure out what happened. Unfortunately, I didn’t account for the total loss of gravity in this little plan. So, without having the MicroG skill, I was pretty scared to do much of anything, and just hunkered down looking for my chance to make an impact when the odds were a little better.
Meanwhile, Kenny and Tom were ready when the soldiers finally opened their hatch. Kenny speared the first one through, piercing his suit and taking him out. He wounded the second one, opening him up for Tom to blast away with his ceremonial pistol to finish him off as well. Kenny then managed to re-seal the hatch and have a little time to prepare for the next wave. So, as Tom was flailing around from the recoil of his shot, Kenny (the only one of us with MicroG) deftly used his Profession: Corpse Broker skill to make a maneuver, opening up the bodies of the dead soldiers to lay down some (pardon my language) Freaky Shit right in front of the door.
When the soldiers made their next attempt at entry, he tagged this gruesome new aspect to make a composure attack against them. Between the distraction of the composure attack and me vaporizing another soldier’s head with my laser rifle, the rest of that squad pretty much fell apart and were easy pickings, with two of the soldiers being captured for leverage/information later.
The leader of the aft squad (who were still trying to breach the door to engineering) sent a couple of men up to see what was going on, both of which were taken out almost immediately. Seeing no real chance for success, he therefore called off the boarding action and his men retreated the way they came.
Thoughts about Personal Combat
Unlike space combat, personal combat in Diaspora is all about thinking outside the box. I mean, seriously, Kenny using his Profession: Corpse Broker both to set up the aspect and then make a Composure attack was just freaking awesome! In what other system could you have real, mechanical support for such a thing? And speaking of Kenny’s actions in these two scenes, he actually got to accomplish three of his big player/character goals in this one session:
1) have a spaceship battle
2) have a boarding action/zero-G combat
3) the chance for his character to solve a problem in a manner that would horrify the other party members
For Tom and me, though, our lack of MicroG training proved to be a lot more of a hindrance than we realized. Partly from just not being completely familiar with the rules surrounding Micro/ZeroG and partly from not fully comprehending the fact that gravity would be lost as soon as the ship stopped accelerating, my character just wasn’t prepared. It makes some sense that Tom’s character, a royal-born diplomat, would be pretty comical in ZeroG, but my “Batman” character really should have been able to handle himself a lot better. It’s a problem that I will correct with the “advancement” rules for switching around skills.
But still, it was a lot of fun, even if managing myself and the soldiers was a little taxing at times.
Where do we go from here?
When we finished with the baording action combat, it was around 1am. So we made up some quick reason why they wouldn’t just blow us up (that another ship had come into the system) after failing to take the ship. But I don’t like that at all, and with what the motivation was for the attack in the first place, there’s another explanation.
But let me back up just a little and explore one other thing. I’m also struggling just a little bit with keeping secrets in this open/collaborative play environment. My idea for this little encounter is that a certain faction of the Combine (Tom’s homeworld) government, led by the Defense Minister, is secretly obtaining ships and weapons to build a fleet that would be capable of gaining control of the cluster by force. He is using slave labor from New Eden to help accomplish this task, and is buying a lot of the equipment through channels in the Lester Strand families.
The Foreign Minister on Combine is not necessarily involved in the conspiracy, but was manipulated by the Defense Minister to direct Jind and the rest of us into a trap because of his actions in the earlier session. The attackers in this session were therefore supposed to capture Jind (and possibly his allies) and deliver them somewhere else for interrogation and whatever else. But since I’m so used to keeping things like this secret from the players (waiting for the perfect time for a “big reveal”) in the traditional games I’ve run, I didn’t actually share any of this with Kenny and Tom the other night. I suppose that they just found out about it when they read this… So guys, what do you think?
But anyway, my thought for the next session is that it needs to begin with a Social Combat between the players and the captain of the gunship, as they negotiate for surrender and Jind’s fate. And maybe the other guys have some ideas about where it could go from there.
And given our limited face-to-face time, we’re even considering using Skype and the Google Docs drawing function to maybe try out a session or two remotely. But I’ll keep y’all informed about that as it unfolds…