Diaspora… via Skype!!!

The last time we played Diaspora , I floated the idea of possibly getting together over Skype to play sometime.  With my dwindling free time and the prospect of being tied to the house for a few weeks after the new baby is born, I thought that it might be a good option for us to keep up the momentum of our “Fathers’ Children” campaign.  With just a little prodding, we managed to get our stuff together and make “the call” on Sunday night for our first remote session.

The Story Continues…

Before I get into the technical side of how we handled play, let me give a quick recap of what happened in the story.  At the end of our last session, our characters had just repelled a boarding attempt by a gunship from a covert arm of the Combine government.  Despite what we stated at that point, we decided that the captain of the ship had a reason not to simply blow us out of the sky, so this session dealt rather exclusively with a Social Combat that ensued as they hailed us and demanded a surrender.

As part of the Social Combat mini-game, we started by drawing out a map to represent the stakes that each side wanted, as well as the path to get there.  The captain of the other ship obviously wanted us to surrender, while we just wanted him to let us go.  I decided (as the caller/referee) that if the conflict’s timer ran out (6 turns), lack of resolution (neither side getting their stakes) would mean that the captain would just decide to cut his losses and vaporize them.  That way, I could see the characters switching gears and trying to move into the “surrender” space if they were about to run out of time (which would have made for an interesting wrinkle in the story).

Using the Google Documents drawing function, this is what the map looked like:

CB was the Captain of the gunship, while Esteban, Adam, and Jind were our player-characters.

Since we held two of the soldiers as hostages, we added the free-taggable aspect “We’ve got hostages” to the scene, as well as “Big Damn Guns” for use by the captain, and “Someone will be here before long” since the conflict happened right next to the slip point. 

The Captain opened up with a blanket demand for unconditional surrender, with the only other alternative being destruction.  Kenny (playing Esteban) moved himself closer to the Captain, focusing on how we are all reasonable men, and that maybe a deal could be worked out.  Tom (Jind) and my character Adam did the same, with Tom focusing more on his assignment as a Diplomat from Combine.  Now that Kenny was closer, the Captain instead focused more on the fact that he really only needed Jind to accomplish his mission, and tried (successfully) to reduce the barrier for Kenny (as captain of our ship) to choose that option.  

As things progressed, one of the coolest things about the conflict was how we discovered more and more about the Captain.  In the coming round or two, both through how Kenny pointed his argument and then from a direct maneuver/declaration that I made (which finally added an aspect to him), it became obvious that he valued the lives of his men more than the need to accomplish this particular mission.  After moving him closer to our side, however, Adam made a pretty obvious threat against the lives of the prisoners (adding a pass value to him moving backwards through the map), to which he responded vigorously by moving backward very anyway.

But then again, Kenny and Tom joined forces in bringing both their assets and our promise of silence about the exact happenings of the mission into play, and as I cut the bonds of one of the captives, the Captain agreed to let us go to avoid further bloodshed.  (The picture above actually shows the end state of the conflict, where the Captain settled on letting us go.)  

Using Skype for Diaspora  

 Before Sunday night, I had never used Skype.  I’d heard several people online and on podcasts talk about using it for recording podcasts and playing certain games, but since I don’t really have the issue of wanting to play with people in far off places, I had never bothered with it before.  So the first thing that we all had to do was to download Skype and set up accounts, which is rather painless.

The bigger issue for Diaspora, and particularly the mini-games, is that they are pretty heavily dependent on drawing (during play) and using maps.  For this, we turned to Google Documents, and the drawing feature included in it.  To make this work on my laptop, I had to download Google Chrome, but again, that was easy to do.  I played around a little with it prior to the game, and even built a standard space combat map (which is a lot more pre-defined than the maps for social, personal, or platoon combat), so I felt pretty comfortable with the interface before play.  Overall, it may have taken a little longer than it would have in person, but I still think that the map worked just brilliantly.  

We also used Google Docs to track stats for our characters and for the Captain.  I put together a standard word processor document with our full character sheets, which wasn’t all that useful in play.  But I also created a spreadsheet that included just our aspects, fate points, and stress tracks, along with the stats that we created for the Captain throughout play.  And since we could modify things in real time there, and how it let us see all the stats side-by side, it worked really well to keep us all clear about what was going on.

I can’t remember who I heard first mention using Google Docs along with Skype play (Jason Morningstar, maybe?), but I am so glad that we gave it a try.  It’s so easy to create and share documents, and the real-time visibility of any added or changed information makes it perfect for collaboration and play.  I really can’t recommend them highly enough, whether for something like this or just for sharing information about characters, world-building, or even between session updates for any roleplaying campaign.

Overall, we were all impressed with how the Skype session worked out.  While Tom and I were pretty hopeful about it from the start, Kenny didn’t really think it would work.  By the end, though, we all agreed that we would make it a regular addition to our roleplaying time.  There are certainly limitations and complications for this sort of setup, mostly in losing time for fiddling with the interface and because you lose a lot of the non-verbal cues in your communication.  But while we wouldn’t necessarily choose this method over face-to-face play, it’s certainly a very nice alternative to expand our roleplaying opportunities.     

It also makes me wonder what other things could be handled over Skype…

Running the System 

Things are getting smoother with the Diaspora/FATE system, but we continue to have a few issues and questions about how things are supposed to work.  Putting together the map was still a little bit of a chore, and I’m not sure where the line is really supposed to be drawn between “story-based collaboration” and “fair and balanced competition”.  Because while it sounds like you draw the map together (which may favor one side over the other), each player then gets to add in one pass value of 2 or a free-taggable aspect onto one zone.  We more made the whole map togther (including a few aspects and pass values) and then added in some extra stuff as well, which I think worked out okay.

But the whole conflict felt very unfair to me mostly because it was 3 against 1.  I sort of had the idea that since they were communicating over a large viewscreen (or something similar), only Kenny (as the Captain) would really be a true participant.  But that just didn’t seem right, and it would have totally left Tom and Me (as a PC, anyway) out of the action.  Having all three PC’s involved, however, gave them three times the opportunities to affect, move, or attack the Captain.  Maybe it was still pretty fair because the consequences for them with failure (or running out of time) were pretty severe, but it didn’t seem that there was much chance of them failing once we got into the scene.

We also spent some time teasing out more detail (and giving mechanical teeth) to a couple of Tom’s stunts, but the only other thing that seemed unclear to me was how to handle Declarations in Diaspora.  The rules text barely mentions them at all, and explicitly ties them only to a character’s apex skill.  But that just seemed ridiculous to us, especially when the skill I was trying to use (Alertness) was at level 4 and the aspect I was trying to add to the Captain (“My men are more important than my mission”) had already sort of appeared thematically in play.  What we decided on was sort of a mishmash of the Diaspora rule (paying a fate point for a declaration based on your apex skill) and Spirit of the Century (where you make a skill roll to add the aspect, much like a maneuver), in that we required a skill roll (for non-Apex skills, anyway) and the use of a fate point.  This way, the fate point could still be paid off by the referee if the aspect didn’t align with his plans, but you’d still have more flexibility in making declarations.

But we’re still having a lot of fun, and Kenny has said that he’ll take on the main role as Referee/Caller for the next session, when we’ll finally make landfall in the “too perfect” system of Lord Carnavon…