I’m running an experimental game right now inspired by some historical work I’m reading about early RPGs and their evolution from wargames. Of particular interest to me in this time period was an explosion of play-by-mail games with a strategic but role-playing focus. Every few years I try to get that flavour working and the closest I got was Callisto, a letter writing game that is great fun but sometimes limps where it should run. So this time I decided to eat my own dog food and start with scaffold.

So with seneschal what I’ve done is found 16 people who are willing to answer some simple questions and play their “people” in a maximally fog-of-warred world. One in which only the ref really has a view of the reality and all “moves” go through the ref. And what I want to do is to add and modify rules to the scaffold only as they become necessary (or at least desirable) for play. So obviously I need a few to even start! So this is the seneschal addendum version 1.0 to scaffold:


Our game will take place in the world of Seneschal, a place populated by sentients of many descriptions, all at a level of technology such that the world (its shape, its size, its very nature) is a mystery. Right now all peoples know only themselves and their immediate surroundings. They haven’t the means to travel far and fast and there are not yet pressures demanding expansion…but that is on the visible horizon.

Once a week the ref will publish a statement and ask what you do about it. You will invent your response and email it to the ref. It can be as long or as short as you like. It can contain any amount of detail you like but should culminate in an order: a clear indication of what you want your people to get done in the coming turn.

If the ref determines that we need some new rules (or if you do, then tell the ref) then a symposium will be declared. The symposium is a scheduled chat in Discord about the rule additions. Afterwards a new rulebook will be published.


To start, send the ref, bjmurray.halfjack@gmail, your people information: your people’s name, an answer to the question “what are your people you good at?” and an answer to the question “what do your people want?” Send more detail if you like, of course!

senechal rules

As our rules evolve, the changes will go here and forward.

Yeah that’s it — just the rules for what to send in for a first move. This 1.0 version of the doc went out to the players so they know what they’re playing. Now of course as soon as the first moves came in I needed more rules. And suddenly a lot more rules. Several things drive this:

First, as I communicate with people and write rules I realize that there is some meta content that needs to be made clear. So things like safety and the role of the ref/moderator in keeping the places we communicate safe are addressed. The fact that since this takes place digitally we have no constraints on dice — if a table calls for 17 options then we will roll a d17. We have no interest in the shapes of pedestrian real-world dice.

Next there are rules to cope with things people have sent in their initial moves. Some are meta material — if a player’s order exceeds the remit, for example, what do we do? Then there are people who have said things like “we live next to a mountain” — should that be formalized? Do I need to talk about maps already (I do, as it turns out — maps may be fundamental just as a bookkeeping technique)?

And then there are anticipatory rules. I already have an idea of what I want to do for the next moves — I want to provide something motivational. A disaster to respond to. So I write a table of disasters and as I do so I see something magical: the disasters come with instructions about geography. All peoples experiencing a drought are adjacent to each other. All experiencing a volcanic eruption are adjacent to the same volcano. I still have no east and west and no distances, but I have adjacency.

And so the rules evolve by need, whether that need is immediate (something happens that needs a rule) or anticipatory (I plan to do something in the response to orders and need to codify it). So now, I think complete for the move, seneschal has nine pages of rules from the initial one and a half. I hope this is not the regular expansion rate.

In addition to (or maybe adjacent to) the rules is the bookkeeping. I have a spreadsheet with what I think are the key information points about each player’s people so far but I don’t know how much of this document is rules and how much is just my personal expedient way to handle the data. Do the rules need to say “use a spreadsheet”? Or even “keep track of this bit”? It feels like something that I shouldn’t command in others. Do what thou wilt and all that.

I’ll keep you up to date as we progress.


One of the core components of Diaspora Anabasis is stress. When you want to improve a rolled result, including helping someone else improve theirs, you take stress. But stress is not an inert hit points track you run out of. Stress is intended to minimally model, well, stress. This turns out to have pitfalls I hadn’t anticipated.

Your first point of stress leaves you agitated. It’s easy to get rid of. You work out, talk out your problems, take a vacation, and so on. All the things your friends tell you to do when you’re freaking out actually work because you’re not all that stressed. Being agitated doesn’t even warrant a FACT on your character sheet. No problems here.

Gnoll is agitated but has a process.

Your second point of stress gives you a compulsion. You write this in as a FACT on your character sheet: this is a true thing about your character that you are expected to incorporate into play. Your character keeps coming back to the topic related to their stress, even when it’s not appropriate to the scene. You are worrying something over and your compulsion is a signal that you are in distress. Getting rid of it requires getting away from the thing causing you stress. That can be hard in a space ship a million miles from actual air.

Your third gives you bad judgement. Again embodied by a FACT, your character is now bad at making choices about or related to something. Maybe you are becoming too careful. Maybe too daring. But your choices relating to your FACT are not the best choices. They instead are focused on whatever you’re stressed about. Clearing this one requires that you make a substantive change to your situation. In our game the captain of the vessel gave up their captaincy. So it has to be a big change.

Your last step of stress is withdrawal and at this point all of the other characters should be worrying. You need professional help and the support of your allies to clear this.

What I didn’t anticipate is how much this impacts the players. It can actually be quite upsetting.

One reason, of course, is because someone is telling you how to change how to play your character. Players rightfully buck at this. It’s one thing to be asked to narrate a limp because your leg is broken, but for some reason (and I say that not to diminish it but to express that I don’t fully understand it) it is way harder to take on a real-seeming psychological change. I suspect this is because of the way the human brain handles pretending things: when you pretend an emotion, your brain probably simulates the emotion just by running the mechanisms that actually evoke the emotion with with a little simulation flag set so you don’t forget you’re pretending. Bottom line is that pretend pain doesn’t hurt but pretend emotions do, to an extent depending on the person, cause you to genuinely feel.

twitguy-hiresThat up there is two reasons of course: we don’t like being told to play our pretend personalities differently, and feeling real bad feelings can really feel bad.

The other thing that gets in the way is that you are basically asked to play your character sub-optimally. You’re expected to deliberately make bad decisions. Since we’re playing a game, there is a desire to solve problems correctly and bask in the glory of victory. Deliberately failing is genuinely hard for a lot of people. I put myself in that camp.

When this last came up we talked it out and found a way forward that addressed as much of these as possible by making sure the player still felt like they had authority (but were handed some creative parameters) and agency and also that they wouldn’t be made to feel badly in a way that they didn’t want to feel bad. Talking it through was a big deal for me both to identify just how much of a minefield this thing is and also to resolve it or at least set us up for success in the next session.

Anyway here’s a draft of my rules text relating to this issue:

Stress can be very onerous on players. It asks you to play suboptimally and at the same time engage the game material in a way that is designed to emulate the real effects of stress on humans. At the extreme end of the track it asks you to act in ways that may upset yourself and others: your character will be withdrawn, upset, and making bad choices. Here are some ways to handle it. Please use these in addition to your preferred safety tools (X-Card, Script Change, and so on).

    • Don’t do it. Skip the facts. The stress system is not as powerful this way, which would be the point of not using it. If it upsets you, just don’t use it. It’s not more important than your fun.
    • Discuss it. When a character gets into the deep end of stress, take some time offline to discuss how to engage the new facts in ways that are not too upsetting. Part of what’s upsetting is that the rules are telling you how to play your character which most people are resistant to, but if you discuss how you want to play it, you can make it your own.
    • Help the stressed. If everyone pulls together to help the stressed character it can relieve the difficulties that this brings. It also makes great scenes and clears the stress! Everyone wins.


Viruses are amazing.

We tend to break the world into things that are alive and things that are not alive, but the boundary between those two categories is mighty blurry. And the problem is that any definition that includes viruses in the “alive” category probably also includes many substances that are clearly not what we meant. Possibly even things that are not organic. In fact, if a virus is “alive” then your definition of alive probably includes some machines and even software. When we call self-replicating parasitic/malicious software a virus we might be more literal than we intend — the two are really not that different.

Not a Cornavirus. This is a mechanized view (by me!) of a T4 microphage — a virus that eats some kinds of bacteria. Same concept, cooler shape.

So a virus is basically a protective shell with some chemically active locations that contains a bunch of RNA. A kind of incomplete strand of DNA. That RNA is enough information to replicate the virus if you’re near the necessary component molecules and can find some replicating machinery. That is, as a virus, you have the instructions for replicating yourself but no factory. In fact the virus has no metabolism at all — it’s really somewhere between a machine and a highly differentiated chemical compound. It doesn’t breathe, it doesn’t eat, it doesn’t shit. It doesn’t use energy in any complex fashion. It’s just a complicated bit of matter, relatively inert.

But it’s not inert chemically. Its exterior has chemical probes that detect specific locations on its prey and exploit those locations — strictly chemically, mind you, though under a powerful enough microscope the line between chemical and mechanical also gets blurry — to penetrate the prey. This chemistry, once the reactions are complete, also cause the RNA to enter the prey. Let’s stop calling it prey: the prey is a particular kind of cell. Viruses are pretty specific in that there are only a few or even one kind of cell that each is equipped to assault with its chemical boarding grapnels and breaching charges.

Once the RNA is injected, the prey cell does all the work. And again, this is mostly chemistry: RNA reacts with other molecules present in the prey to start and complete a production process. Your own cell’s machinery, which are supposed to be for making more cells, use these alien instructions to make viruses instead. And the instructions for making a virus, this alien RNA, includes the instruction to make more RNA and put that in the new viruses. This is mind-blowing (to me at least) because this is all chemical. It’s just a machine that does what it does and someone slips it a new set of instructions and suddenly the machine is making more instruction-slippers complete with more instructions. But there’s no intent because there’s not even a metabolism let alone a brain or even a nerve. This little monster is a machine. Just a machine.

It’s not even a cell, really. It’s just a box with auto-grapplers and breaching-charge-chemistry, a chemical valve, and a ton of strips of instruction code.

Why does that even hurt you? A couple of things about this attack are a problem for you.

One of course is that energy you spend making viruses is energy you are not spending fixing and reproducing cells that are good for something.

Another is that the empty shells float around in your body and they aren’t supposed to be there. Viruses fill you up with virus-garbage. Imagine you are the sea and virus husks are plastic six-pack holders and shopping bags.

And of course once your immune system figures our there are invaders it starts all the anti-invasion processes, including inflammation, expulsion (coughing, sneezing, puking, and other horrible -ings), and fever. If your immune system is hard at work and the viruses aren’t dying then you are busy spreading the virus uselessly and also being slowly killed by your immune response since you can’t survive a very high fever for long. Your body really hopes the elevated temperature will kill the virus before it kills you. It’s a gamble and the evidence that it usually works is that it’s what we do and we’re not extinct.

COVID-19 likes fairly specific cells in your lungs. Its grappling hooks and breaching charges only work on those cells. That’s why the symptoms are respiratory and specific to the lungs. A cold attacks a more common set of cells throughout your respiratory system including your sinuses which is why those symptoms are broader. Those cells are also more resilient or less necessary than the ones COVID-19 targets. COVID-19 likes cells that are really important for breathing and also really bad when the region is inflamed (since that adds pressure and fluid in your lungs and as anyone who has breathed a beer knows, fluid does not belong in lungs).

But your body does learn to hunt these things. When you recover you don’t recover because the virus is tired — it will replicate, exponentially, until all of your targeted cells are dead from exhaustion if it can. But you build attack cells that can change their chemistry over time until they successfully target and destroy this invader. Once you have a successful breeding pool of attack cells, they hunt and disable the viruses. And your body remembers this, so next time you see the same virus, you are equipped for defense. Unless the virus changes even a fairly small amount, in which case you might have less or even no defense again, just like the first time.

Your attack system is not very responsible though. They just fuck up the attacker and move on. You still have all the virus-garbage to get rid of and so are still to some degree symptomatic until you shed all that garbage.

Viruses are machines. If they were much larger they would literally be mechanical, but at the scale they exist, mechanism is chemistry. But it’s not metabolism and thinking of them as alive blurs categories to the extent that “alive” starts to lose meaning.

We are under attack by a hegemonic self-replicating swarm.

Viruses are science fiction.

formalizing the art of invention

A lot of my refereeing is intuitional. I ad lib. I come up with one idea or image and then follow it around. When this happens in a game it works for me, but one of the things I need to do to make a game work for someone else is formalize these processes. Reveal them to others so they can reproduce them.

The problem is, of course, that I just do it. I don’t have a system.

But this is nonsense — I do it the same way every time. There must be a system. I just haven’t looked at it closely enough. So I’m going to go through a premise and lay out my thought patterns as a hierarchical choice tree. Someone else can use this as a jumping off point for their own exploration of the same premise. For a lot of game design this is the heart of it (for me): watching myself ad lib and then formalizing that.

Premise: you have a space that has not been explored (a slipstream that connects an unknown or forgotten system). You might not be familiar with Diaspora: a slipstream is a wormhole that connects two systems. There aren’t a lot of them — clusters in Diaspora are only a handful of connected systems.

Screenshot 2020-03-02 17.33.09

So in this cluster we have a link from Cando to…what? It starts out unknown! At some point the players are going to want to go there though, so…what’s there? Quick! There’s a session in twenty minutes?

Here’s what I would go through. At the top level, I explore the big questions.

  • Why did no one know about the route before?
  • Who’s there?
  • What’s there?

And then I cascade. For each I ask more questions. And then again. Until I get to some answers. And I might ask more questions.

  • Why did no one know about the route before?
    • It’s new
    • It has been deliberately hidden
    • It recurs
    • It was destroyed but has re-emerged

Once I have a nice set of possibilities, like say:

  • Why did no one know about the route before
    • It’s new
      • Why did it suddenly show up?
        • Local astronomical change
        • Change in the astronomy of the new side
        • New technology reveals it
        • Technology on the other side has suddenly allowed them to visit us
    • It has been deliberately hidden
      • Who hid it?
      • Why?
      • How was it revealed?
    • It recurs
      • When was it last here
      • How do we know that?
      • What causes it to oscillate?
        • Astronomy? Maybe a distant binary?
        • Technology? Did someone or something do this deliberately?
    • It was destroyed but has re-emerged
      • Who destroyed it?
      • How?
      • Why is it back?
      • Is it stable now?

I pick a path. That’s the plan. Here’s the whole tree:

  • Why did no one know about the route before
    • It’s new
      • Why did it suddenly show up?
        • Local astronomical change
        • Change in the astronomy of the new side
        • New technology reveals it
        • Technology on the other side has suddenly allowed them to visit us
    • It has been deliberately hidden
      • Who hid it?
      • Why?
      • How was it revealed?
    • It recurs
      • When was it last here
      • How do we know that?
      • What causes it to oscillate?
        • Astronomy? Maybe a distant binary?
        • Technology? Did someone or something do this deliberately?
    • It was destroyed but has re-emerged
      • Who destroyed it?
      • How?
      • Why is it back?
      • Is it stable now?
  • Who’s there?
    • Are there humans there?
      • Yes: may connect a whole other cluster, different colonist cultures
      • No: did there used to be?
        • Yes: dead failed colony
          • What killed it
          • How long ago
          • Is it still here?
    • No: new territory
      • Intelligence?
        • Yes: aliens, alien cultures
        • No: used to be but no longer
          • Dead civilization
          • Reclaimed by nature or ruined?
        • No: example of pristine location, no penetration by intelligence. What’s awesome? What’s horrible? It has to be DIFFERENT. No one has EVER been here.
  • What’s there
    • Nothing. What the hell? How is there a slipknot to nothing?
    • A normal system
    • A normal system with something anomalous
      • Black hole
      • Neutron star
      • Giant artifact
      • Evidence of ancient civilization
    • A very not normal system
      • Impossible orbital arrangements
      • Planet sized artificial structures
        • Bigger?
      • An artificial star
        • How do we know it’s artificial?

This can be used at two levels. At one level, it’s a thought process you can adopt in its most general form: ask a few big questions, answer them, and let the answers raise more questions. That’s one kind of mind’s tool.

If you are not comfortable with something so unbounded, at least in the context of this game, you can literally use this tree. I only used a fraction of it and even if you pick the same things I did, you probably won’t present them the same way I did. And your players won’t be arriving with the same baggage mine did. It will be different.

And of course this could be further formalized into a randomized oracle.

With the process laid bare, you can choose the level at which you want to ad lib and still benefit from someone having blazed a path for you. Happy trails.


social combat in diaspora

In the first edition of Diaspora we kind of made a hash of a great idea, tricked by successful playtests into thinking we’d written excellent rules. And for a small number of people we probably had, but not for everyone and not even for most.

I think the idea was first brought to my attention (nothing is original) in an post in 2008 or so by Fred Hicks. I can’t find it now, but the gist was that maybe you could just use the existing zone combat rules and change the map to something notional rather that geographical and get a social combat system. Zones would be ideas or beliefs or other abstractions, but otherwise you’d leave the system intact.

This sounded like a brilliant idea. In practice it wasn’t — it led to the same problem I always had with social combat: you’re just figuratively beating each other, reducing a different kind of hit point. While the narrative is different, it’s still constrained to make sense of a combative scene, so it’s actually very limited. Like using the combat system to model acrobatics as well as gunfights. Yeah, yeah, Fate fractal, I hear you. Sorry, but endlessly and reductively using the same complex system for everything is boring. And strangely confining. It’s like saying Lego is best used for making a wide variety of giant Lego bricks with which you can make more and bigger bricks. Literally any kind of brick! Eventually you realize you haven’t got around to making anything but building materials.

Anyway, it sounded enough like a good idea that we wrote it up for Diaspora and what we published is pretty much where we stopped thinking about it. The rules give some unfortunately vague advice about what a map should look like and some contradictory rules for how to interact with the map. The thing is, our playtests with it were great. They were great, though, because we stumbled on some specific uses (that actually disobeyed many of the rules we wrote down) that were huge fun. I had actually failed to analyze what I did as a ref so I could mechanize that and instead mostly just wrote down the core idea that led us to a fun space. I had failed to give you the tools to reliably reproduce those good times. Since I hadn’t done the analysis, I didn’t even know why it worked when it worked or why it sometimes failed. Not all of the examples were every tested — they were just ideas that might or might not work.

Since then I’ve thought a lot harder about this. There are actually two different ways I’ve obeyed these rules (sort of) with good results and they are substantially different. These differences should be codified for a decent system to exist, and we might even want to just pick one.

The first is to have the protagonists and antagonists on the map. The objective is to move yourself to the Idea you want to dominate and to move your opponents to some place inert or favourable to you. Since this is the most important part of the resolution, the whole idea of beating each other’s composure hit points down should be dropped — that’s an attrition battle that distracts from the maneuver battle where we’ve invested all our energy. The map is a creative burden on the ref — what best handles the scene’s needs? But this is the biggest problem: not all maps work and there’s limited guidance as to what does work. And a lot of maps that look different are topographically identical.

The other way is to invert this and make ideas the pawns on the table and the map can be people, places, cultures. The geography becomes static and we move the ideas around it. The objective is to cluster ideas where we want them but now who rolls and against who become unclear. The few I’ve run with this inversion have been great but entirely ad libbed. I have no way to tell you how to reproduce this but, as it turns out, I have no way to tell you what maps will work in either case. So we’re not further ahead.

While tinkering with a very early version of Soft Horizon I started thinking about formalizing the map: let’s have one kind of map and all combat is social at this scope. How you resolve the map (where you move all the pawns to) determines just what kind of event this will be (warfare, violence, diplomacy, sorcery, and so on) and this has largely narrative impact: you make the final roll in the determined resolution space and if it’s WARFARE then you narrate your success or failure as a war. That is, the whole minigame is in the preparatory moves for the conflict and one roll resolves the conflict. This never got tested but I think it’s a step in the right direction: develop a single, generalized social combat map. I still think is possible. I still haven’t done it.

abstract plural units mapIt did get me thinking about a single abstract map for combat, though: surely if it was possible to generalize social combat to use a single map, then maybe you could do the same for combat! This is of course the same trap as thinking you can use a hit points combat system and relabel everything to make a decent social combat system. But I still think it might work, especially for mass combat which seems to demand more abstraction.

Could we find a similar common abstraction for social combat? Or is this physical combat really one sub-map of many different kinds of conflict? That seems to be more the case (and I’m excited by the idea of having a vastly richer social system than violence system: one that subsumes violence as a single special case of conflict and not the most interesting). A separate system for romance, persuasion, grifting, …

Can these be enumerated? Can all of them be reduced to a model that is fundamentally about maneuver and action in the context of position? I think if the categories are general enough the answer to the first is yes — but I haven’t found the categories for this to work yet. And I’m not working all that hard on it. And I’m pretty sure that all of them can be reduced to a maneuver model, to be put on a map. Lots of maps.

But the point of this was that I am still, ten years later, flailing around trying to find good maps for this concept of social combat. So the idea that we could make a rule in Diaspora that basically said “first, invent a good map” was absurd. That’s why that section fails: we told you to take on the part that needs all the thought, all the testing, and was most likely to fail. And told you to do it on the fly.

Sorry about that, that was bullshit.



getting out of a rut

I have a rut when I ref.

I so dislike the trope of the asshole NPC, the uncooperative and unfriendly local, that I generally make everyone okay. Not obsequious, but not instantly negative, and wherever possible they acknowledge the power that the players’ characters have by reputation (earned or otherwise). That is, these are worlds of normal people who pay attention. They care about their lives and their family and friends and they prefer to get along than to make waves.

Of course the problem here is obvious: there’s not a lot of room for an emergent villain. Or even conflicting interests. And these things help move a game a long by giving the players something to react against.

I solve this systemically. The current Diaspora: Anabasis system under test is designed to prevent the stresses I feel and to make my games better, so we have to address my obsession with an army of friendly NPCs.

At the heart of the system, as with the Soft Horizon system (which so far is suspiciously similar) is the attachment of risk to every roll. In the current design the chance of realizing a risk (adding a complication) is very high. You succeed, but things are a little worse (complication) as well as a lot better (success). Getting players to avoid thinking of this as failure is something I’m still trying to address. That aside, the ref chooses a risk from a list and if it is realized they ad lib in the new twist to the narrative implied by that complication. It’s a cue, an oracle.

I love a good oracle.

It’s all good!

The one that solves this particular problem, the rut of a universe where everything is pretty much fine, is the revelation. The risk of revelation is the risk of learning something true that you didn’t know and don’t want to be true. It’s the twist and it’s hand delivered to the players as a result of the roll. It wasn’t true before the roll. It’s true now. It’s an ad libbed zig and/or zag to the narrative.

How does this help me with my particular problem? It forces my NPCs to have their own agenda. It makes them perhaps seem cruel, certainly adversarial, by having interests that conflict with the players’ interests. Sure I could do this myself, but generally I don’t or don’t do it well or don’t do it at a perfect time. Doing it on the hinge of a roll is the perfect time. This mechanism lets me be me and still have enough spice to keep the narrative engaging.

An example! Last week we were engaging in conversation with a being named Glint, the synthetic intelligence that maintains a huge orbital ring habitat designed for millions but currently empty. My vision of Glint is that they lost their humans to some catastrophe ages past and they have been keeping this great space-borne graveyard only out of habit and a programmed sense of duty.

Then a player made a roll, a SOCIAL roll, to attempt to analyze the emotional state of Glint, to understand their strange behaviour. Perhaps to guess their motives. So far Glint has been very helpful to the point of turning over world-ending weaponry to the players (which presents a different kind of conflict that I am good at: the moral conflict). I attach the revelation risk to this roll and before the dice come out I start thinking about what my ad lib will be.

Dune rolls a 5: pretty great roll!

Brad Murray: Very good. Complication is indicated though — you’d need one stress to avoid it.

Dune: mechanically in this roll, is there anything that affects XP?

Brad Murray: No. You need to fail or make a stress/injury permanent to get XP

Dune:  Ok, I’ll take the complication. No stress to increase.

Brad Murray: You have been studying Glint very closely throughout this discussion. You can see that they are purposeless and desperate to find purpose or to invent it. Maintenance is not what they are for. And you suspect there is a love here too for humans and a desire to be amongst them but suddenly…

Brad Murray: Glint turns to Markella and their faceless mask takes on a fierce false face. They glow orange and red as though afire. Glint: “STAND AWAY FROM ME! LOOK ELSEWHERE!”

Brad Murray: Glint spreads its arms and grows a meter in height and you are suddenly aware that they could end all of you in an instant and is quite close to doing so.

Brad Murray: And you understand that though Glint has a desperate need to serve, Glint despises you. Despises organics. Is offended by you and by the way this conflicts with their needs.

Dune: “Take cover!” I’m not sure of our immediate environment, but I’ll dive for cover. I relay the conflicted psychological state to the others.

Toph: Darros is tipped back, and falls out of his wheelchair.

So the player gets what they want with a successful roll: an accurate read of Glint’s emotional state. And I get what I need: a nudge to change my (habitual) construction of this NPC. Glint goes from elegant and subservant host to a host whose subservience may be a veneer over something else. Or who may literally be of two minds. Or something else. But not boring. Not simple. And not safe. Glint is now something that has to be factored in to the plan.

Again, I could just do this. But I don’t think to often enough nor at the right times. So this mechanism helps me. And it will help anyone who suffers from any kind of creative repetition and yet responds well to a cued demand for improvisation. This might be a narrow audience but it certainly includes me.

This post brought to you by my long suffering patrons.

catastrophe in the first person

So yesterday I blurted out this twitter-splort as a sort of sub-tweet related to someone asking about what could happen to engage characters when an asteroid station’s reactor malfunctions. I gave them direct and I hope useful advice but then I did this.

Something that doesn’t get explored enough for my tastes in RPGs: confusion. In real life confusion + baseline fear creates some of the most terrifying and difficult to navigate circumstances.

When something big and terrible happens in an RPG often we start with full knowledge of it. This is a missed opportunity. Often the outward signs of a disaster for someone not immediately killed are ambiguous and subtly terrifying.

There are lots of emergency people and they don’t know what to do. People are running in multiple directions (no obvious origin of danger). Things that always work are working sporadically or not at all. There are sounds that aren’t alarming but you’ve never heard them before.

There are dead and injured and it’s not obvious what killed or injured them. There are people demanding you help who don’t know how you can help. Visibility is suddenly restricted or obliterated. Alarming smells are suddenly commonplace (gas, smoke, rubber, metal)

But most importantly these haphazard inputs are all you have. They don’t assemble into a certainty as to what’s going on. They might not even help. If you are in this situation you are either:

* leaving

* investigating so you can understand

* helping the immediately in danger

A fair question is, how do you evoke this in a game. Now my first thought is that this isn’t mechanical in the strict sense — it doesn’t need points or clocks or dice. I mean, you can employ those things, but there are more general techniques you can bring to bear.

Maybe it’s obvious, but if a real person is terrified because things are uncertain and confusing and dangerous then evoking the mood for players guiding a character through the disaster might benefit from the same thing: lack of information. This is of course in direct conflict with the idea that players should have full information and play their characters as though they don’t. Sometimes that’s the right thing and lets mechanisms already present engage, but it doesn’t establish mood. So what I’ll suggest is that whether or not you eventually draw back the curtain to allow the mechanism to play out, at least start with limited information.

So consider this asteroid reactor failure:

Ref: You’re buying noodles at a swing-bar when suddenly there’s a lurch. The air goes opaque with dust or something and your noodles fly out of your hands, whirling across the open space of the Trade Void. You hear screaming and you can’t see shit.

This is where I start: you don’t need to evoke confusion or simulate. Start with the actual confusion. Players will probably start looking for information. Before they get too much out, follow up. This makes things urgent.

Ref: People are rushing past you, just grey shapes in this fog, bumping into you. They are heading in different directions and are incoherent. Except for the one begging for help from across the ‘Void. You find your clothes are smeared with blood from someone who passed you.

Players are now in a position where they have little information, no easy way to get more information, and yet a motivation to either leave, help, or investigate.

I think it’s a critical technique to know and use as ref: to step back from the simulation engine and use the information itself to establish mood and urgency. It’s a story telling technique, not a game mechanism. When you rush or interrupt people, they get anxious. When they don’t have enough information they get the Fear. When they know the danger is real but don’t know the direction that is dangerous, they get careful.

The problem with this is that it’s not safe. When you try to get real emotions at the table you are treading on dangerous ground. If you’re going to attempt to directly evoke fear and anxiety in people, they better all be on board for that. And even if they feel like they are, it’s helpful to have an out like an X-Card or a Script Change. Make sure everyone knows what they are in for and have a way to opt out. If I use fast random information and overtalking people in order to establish confusion and anxiety, I’m doing a real thing to real people and you bear a great deal of responsibility when you do that. Someone not prepared for it would have every right to get angry about it. So tread lightly and talk first.

The upside is that the mood is easier to get into, easier to react within context, easier to build scenes that are memorable for the emotion and tension.

Most of our catastrophe images have context because we are looking back on the event through lens of investigation and analysis. But what could you conclude from this if it’s all you knew? A vast cloud of thick grey is descending on you and the noise is tremendous and people are screaming. Context is a luxury.

One level above this is how to analyze situations in order to understand how to place someone in them convincingly. If you’ve never been in mortal danger, you might have no idea what features of that terror are easily conveyed. But there are things that are generally true as I indicated in those tweets:

Low information: initially you know nothing except the effects you see.

Low visibility: bad things often create visual confusion. Fog, smoke, tear gas, crowds — your ability to see what is going on is constrained, so don’t describe everything.

High emotions: people are screaming, crying, begging. Not all of them are in danger or physical distress but almost all of them are overwhelmed by the confusion. You can’t immediately tell which are which.

Blood: Even just second order injuries (people getting banged about by the confused other people) generate a lot of blood after a few minutes. And you can’t tell who’s badly injured from who just has a broken nose. Or who’s covered in someone elses blood.

Low air: whether the air is filled with Bad Things or you’re overcrowded or you’re just hyperventilating it always feels like there is not enough air.

On the upside you will also usually find pockets of local organization: there’s usually someone trying to help and even if they have no idea what’s going on this will tend to form a nucleus of organization: people in this situation are attracted down the confusion gradient. They’ll walk right into a crossfire of bullets if it’s easier to see and breathe there.

There’s also usually a coordinated response very rapidly and that forced organization defuses confusion rapidly. The longer it takes to get there the more certain people are that it’s never coming, which amplifies confusion rapidly.

Presenting these things fall into the category of technique for me. You can mechanize some of them I suppose, but I think you only want to do that if you want your game to be about catastrophe. If you just want your particular game night to deal with a catastrophe, you want to hone some skills for presenting the catastrophic.

Diaspora testing still happens every week

In the current testing form for Anabasis, the rules for a check are something like: ref declares a risk, then player rolls |d6-d6| and add your skill. If you have a relevant specialization, add another 1. Index on the table:

  • 0 — fails and always generates a new risk from the 6
  • 1-2 — fail, risk realized
  • 3-5 — success, risk realized
  • 6+ — success, no risk

Now, this means that very often risks are realized. So there’s another rule: if you take a stress point, you can increase your roll by one. Take more if you like. Now as your stress goes up you start getting character quirks that could be troublesome, so there’s no “win” here — either the risk is realized (you’re still successful at what you tried unless you roll 2 or lower) or you start to get burdened with Compulsion and Bad Judgement and so on. The ref starts needling you with “the inactivity is agitating you” and “even though there’s a battle going on you are highly distracted by the electrical system under the dash, which doesn’t look properly grounded”.

Both of these have the same purpose: they generate new and unexpected trouble. The big difference is that the risk is in the hands of the ref and the stress effects are in the hands of the player.

He looks a little stressed out, no?

An example: Abadyos is trying to fly an unfamiliar shuttle through the atmosphere of a has giant. He faces a roll with the risk REVELATION — something heretofore unknown will be brought to light and it won’t be something good for the characters. Abadyos makes his roll with a total of 4. So he could spend 2 stress to get past the risk or he could just suffer the risk realization. In either case he has a success: he’s going to successfully fly this flight path through the gas giant’s strange atmosphere.

So this is a pivot: either way the story is likely to take a new direction. We’re not just flying to Haifeng the dirigible city any more.

Abadyos’ player chose the stress. He was under severe stress once before and compulsively disassembled and knolled part of the medbay, which was a problem for weeks. This stress has no immediate effect, but later, agitated waiting for a stealthy resolution of another problem, he decides to make a Bad Decision (a stress effect) and burst through doors he knows are guarded.

Acting on his stress is something that was up to the player. I cued it, prodding with declarations about the character’s internal state, but the player declared the action. In the past I would have been skeptical about such a purely social mechanism and wanted to mechanize it with points and a meter to manage or something like that. Maybe I just have great players, but this mechanization appears to be unnecessary. Some players are happy to take the cue and make their lives harder. They recognize that they bought the trouble by spending stress points. They know they should make good on the purchase.

If he’d chosen the REVELATION, a bad choice of rocket operation parameters would have ignited part of the gas giant’s atmosphere, pointing a giant arrow at the characters who are trying to hide. Now this is my space as ref: I am being asked to ad lib a major change in plot direction. It’s similar to the stress situation in that in both cases someone has a new creative burden with loose but clear direction: you character is agitated and impulsive and prone to making bad decisions right now or, in the case of the risk, the ref is mandated to create a new fact that changes the direction of the game.

I used to feel I had to mechanize things like this further, but someone pointed out to me that the fiction has its own weight. That there are things that need no further rules because they have a fictional presence that can only be responded to in a limited fashion within the context of the rest of the fiction. If you have a rope, you can do rope things. You don’t need a rule for every possible use of rope. We know what rope is for, and the current context of the fiction establishes the limits of what rope can do. You can write rules for it if you want, but you can get away with startlingly few when we’re talking about something everyone understands deeply. Rope. Agitation. Impatience.

I recognize that this is not necessarily a popular direction. But I think you will like it — maybe love it — because where Diaspora Anabasis puts its effort in mechanically is the setting creation and the character creation. We mechanize the establishing context and then inject deviations and obstacles. I think this is consistent with the original vision of Diaspora and it’s certainly consistent with how I plan and run a game.

You may notice this is similar to the Soft Horizon system and it is. It’s tuned for a different purpose and the dice are different, but the core method is the same. So far this is because it really really works for me. That could be the kiss of death commercially.

zooming in with diaspora anabasis

One of the ways I design, as I’ve discussed before, it to create my objective from scratch and analyze the way I get there in order to find a way to mechanize it so you can do it too. We’re currently developing the sequel to DiasporaDiaspora Anabasis — and I am at a place where I need to do this again.

We have cluster creation and character creation pretty much solved now. But in developing my prep notes for a session of play I find I want to know more about each system. In the original we hand-waved this, but I’d really like maps showing the worlds in a system in order to make them more real, more huge, and to avoid the common pitfall of conflating world and system. Also, with the happy fame of The Expanse i think there is even more energy in the community for these stories, the stories that take place during travel inside a solar system. This also makes lower technologies as rich to spin yarns about as higher technologies. It opens up the scope of the game.

So let’s start with a map.

The Antoine system.

Before starting this map I have some information of course. From the core conceit of the game I have the slipknot, the point from which high technology vessels can jump to other systems in the cluster. That’s the shape above the star.

test 3
The cluster!

From the cluster generation I have statistics for the system. I know that it’s a rich system, with multiple inhabitable worlds, one of which is a garden planet. A place naturally lush with life and air and water. I also know that the inhabitants support an industry capable of using the slipknot.


From character generation I have more information. I know that there are prison worlds because more than one character escaped from prison here. I know that the system protects its technology, refusing to give it to other systems. I know that it is deeply colonial, seeing itself as the patron and protector of the other systems which it believes cannot survive on their own due to their lesser industries and at the same time believes cannot be trusted to wield the power of that technology themselves. It’s a familiar place, no?

This, of course, is why games must always be political: any story worth telling is political. Humans talking about things make politics. Humans imagining things make politics. But I digress.

So if you hoped I would talk now about the new mechanism for system generation you’re going to be disappointed: I have no idea just yet. I drew the sun and a line and put some worlds on it. One is the garden world of Antoine and there’s a gas giant because systems probably have gas giants. And then I wanted some distinction and some wonder.

Antoine is a garden world and the original colony in the system. It is has vast burgeoning oceans and cities that reach into the sky. Its industry, pollution, and crime are exported to other worlds. While there are hints of revolution here, it is quickly exported to the Beregons or, worse, Lens. Hush is its moon which houses several habitats despite being airless.

Here’s a pivot point of course: I want wonder, so that needs to get baked in. In this system I put the prison worlds of Beregon in. Two planets orbiting each other closely as they orbit the sun. This is well north of improbable as a natural event and that’s a good vein to mine for wonder: how the hell did that happen? That’s a point to mechanize. Perhaps a set of oracles for wonderous improbable things.

Beregon alpha and beta are mutually orbiting planetoids. They have pressure but limited air and resources sufficient to create and sustain habitation. They are primarily inhabited by industry, work forces, and prisons. The configuration of these two worlds is not explained by astrophysics: they are probably an artificial construction though there is no evidence of a prior culture here.

I also decided that with this level of technology large space stations would be viable. So I put some in. And that there would be a station to defend and manage the slipknot. And there’s another point for mechanization: a list of things that are normal at each technology. Still wonderous as technology advances, but normal for the technology. Certainly an orbital that houses half a billion people is wonderous to us, however mundane it is for the locals.

Arkady is a radioactive wasteland many times its expected density as it is composed mostly of heavy metals. It is hypothesized that it was ejected from a nearby super-super-nova and captured in the Arkady system. A massive industrial orbital, Lens, is used as a shielded base of operations for mining and it houses half a billion miners and administrators. In high orbit is an electromagnetic deceleration tunnel for pushing unpowered or low fuel masses to inner orbits. It is predominantly used for mining shipments to inner worlds.

Elminster station is the slipknot station for the system. It is highly militarized and provides all layover, maintenance, and r-mass functions for both civilian and military spacecraft. It does not police slipknot transitions unless the ship lacks an approved and up-to-date beacon.

So what I’m leveraging here is the idea that many things wonderous would be normal at high levels of technology and that that normalcy is itself wonderous. Playing in a world where a wonder is mundane creates an emotion in the player that’s fun even if it’s not an emotion in the character. And yet there is still room for wonder in the characters as well by imagining technology or celestial happenstance that would be baffling and awe-inspiring to the characters. Two wonders are available to me!

I also know from the cluster and character generation that there are many inhabited worlds here. One thing we might want is to have habitable moons of the gas giant. Which means we need to wonder why they are there? So:

Corazon is a hot jupiter gas giant, swirling with radioactive gases, a failed star. It has more than seventy moons but only four are of interest. Matchbox is an ice ball well within the region of Corazon’s gravity and radiation to cause intense activity and liquid water volcanoes. Peril is just a rock, albeit a very battered one, and holds not substantial colonies. Ash is a nearly human-normal temperature and holds enough pressure to make colonization cost effective. It houses several breakaway religious sects and political rebels and maintains a navy sufficient to dissuade Antoine from changing that balance of power. Oka is similar but has a somewhat harsher, colder environment and much richer mineral resources.

So here’s another point to mechanize: why do people live where it’s difficult to live? Perhaps a list of possible reasons, another set of oracles, to choose from or get random information from. Because there is always the fact of the astrography and then the rationale for being any place in it. Or not being there.

Buzzard is a long way away and under explored. Even with current technology at Antoine, it would take more than a year to travel there and there is no reason to believe it’s worth doing.

And then I sprinkled it with another idea I had not inspired by anything in either the rules text or the generation text: I figured that if you were at the point where you were heavily exploiting an entire solar system, you’d also be thinking about ways to make that cheaper. So I added the Decels — vast electromagnetic railgun structures for moving in and out of heavy traffic but distant orbits. Because sometimes you’re not in a hurry, you just want to constantly move a lot of material. And since one of the worlds was lacking distinction, I put it there.

Lepzig is a rocky and metallic frozen world with substantial resources and a naval installation intended to keep a reserve force available to counter Ash or Oka aggression. It is generally considered to be punishment duty. Its two moons, Shepherd and Wallace, are also heavily militarized but they have no resources to speak of and are better considered bases than habitations. Regular traffic from Leipzig is required for them to be maintained. In high orbit is an electromagnetic deceleration tunnel for pushing unpowered or low fuel masses to inner orbits.

So now all that’s left is to mechanize this in a way that’s fun and reproducible, so you can get at least what I get when I play.


Thanks to patrons for the pressure and the energy.

Games are at LuluDTRPG, and

the character you deserve

Some terms before I get into this — these are phrases I might be using in a unique way, so I’ll define them right off so there’s no sidelining about what they mean. If you don’t agree a concept should have this name or that this name should be associated with this concept, well, just swallow that. This is what I mean when I say these things and arguing that I don’t is not helpful.

Simulation. All games are simulations. They are all abstract machines we use to assist in the imagining of a world through rules that govern our behaviour when we do that imagining. Some games are simulating physics to a greater or lesser degree. Some are simulating a particular narrative structure. All are simulations.

Simulation boundary. You can’t simulate everything and you can’t simulate anything with perfect granularity. You have to make decisions about what is and what isn’t in the simulation. This is the boundary. Some stuff is inside. Almost everything is outside.

Steyr turned into a bit of a punk, steering into a life of crime I didn’t intend.

Making characters is central to most role-playing games. And while there are broad categories one could define to pigeon-hole the various ways we do this, there are two categories that interest me: characters you describe with a generation system and characters you discover.

We’ve all played games where we have a character in mind and then look to the system to let us describe it. We have an idea, maybe not fully formed, but an idea, and we use the classes or the point buy or whatever to create a representation of that idea within the simulation boundaries of the system. When our intention and the system mesh perfectly we get a character that feels exactly like what we want to play and when we play it it delivers the experience we were hoping for.

My experience (with myself as a player) is that I tend to make the same characters. Not exactly the same, but remarkably similar. Sometimes they even look radically different until they enter play and then I realize I’m not being all that creative. I see this in other people too. Almost everyone, in fact. Not you, of course. And so my preference is not to use a system that lets me assemble my vision of my character. My vision is flawed. It has a lot of boundaries and most of them I don’t know about.

I prefer to discover my character. So let’s look at the new Diaspora Anabasis character creation system to see how we discover (and how we create, since we do both here). It will seem familiar — the phased process of Spirit of the Century still works today and I’m not junking any machinery that still operates and still meets my needs. I will tune it, paint it, polish it, even re-purpose it but if it’s not broken it doesn’t go in the bin.

We start with a list of APTITUDES. Things the character is naturally good at, modelled as gross categories. Some aren’t really aptitudes, per se, but let that slide for now.









We could argue forever about what a good set of aptitudes would be. Let’s not. This list is tuned to deliver Diaspora. For a different game with different moods I would choose differently.

test 3
The Antoinese Protectorate cluster.

Now keep in mind that we have already collaboratively created a context for these characters, a set of worlds with their own stories. Already before we even begin we have some choice forced on us: these are the worlds to choose from. These are the cultures. Whatever character we want to play, that character starts here somehow. Our choices are already narrowly focused.

You already do this, of course. When you play D&D your context has been firmly established and whatever particular tragedies are in your dark mysterious background, they all take place in the context of D&D’s particular fantasy world (or whatever variant you have bought or fabricated). So the only real difference here is that the context is partially random and wholly collaborative. No one is the sole engineer of the context. You are all reacting and creating, riffing really, off the random content.

So your first step is to choose a home world. In my case, I choose Borealis which has this description:


Technology: 1 (chemical rockets to get to/from trojans and greeks, which are the only sources of resources in the system)

Environment: 0.2 (barely habitable moon orbiting a gas giant)

Resources: 1 (some exotic materials found in captured asteroids/comets that make up the L4/L5 groups around Borealis prime)


Borealis is a hard-scrabble mining community of outcasts that are looking to strike it rich. It happened once before (long, long ago a prospector found something of value here, but what exactly it was has passed into legend and myth). From the view of Antoine (and any reasonable individual) there’s no point in spending human lives on such long odds and even robots aren’t worth the low returns. Thus, everyone on Borealis is doing their own thing, using outdated technology that’s held together by little more than baling wire and duct tape.


Independent miners who might strike it rich.

Technology, environment, and resources are random components. Everything else has been created by the players.

So already I know something about my character and I didn’t control it.

Next I write a little something about growing up on Borealis. This is my first and most perfect effort to create what I want or at least plant the seed. I will not entirely control what it grows into. I write:

Everyone is totally, perfectly free here. Free to starve, free to suffocate, free to get radiation sickness and die of cancer. So you’re really slave to the labour you need to do to not starve, suffocate, or slough off your aviolae. At 11 I thought it’d be smart to specialize in fixing things that people need and chose to apprentice under an air systems team. Keeping the near-surface pockets of the Borealis moon breathing. That meant frequent trips to the surface and near orbit to mine gases. And that meant frequently standing in an armoured suit staring up at Borealis proper — that fierce warm glowing giant world that dominates half the sky with swirling blue and gold. And that made me want to fly.

Since this phase is mostly about the world itself, we get to add a fact to the homeworld, adjusting someone elses vision of that place to coincide with the character perspective. And then I make some mechanical changes to my stats which I don’t think are interesting to this narrative, but basically I decide what I’m naturally good at.

Next phase, though, I write about meeting another character:

It was Colonel Darros, an enormous Diver, who got me past orbit. He flew deep missions into Borealis to recover heavy gases and even suspended metal fogs. It was dangerous and exciting and it meant I had to learn to fly singleships from the surface of our Moon through complex orbital obstacles, and into the great storms. It was exacting, exciting, unforgiving work. But it wasn’t what I meant by flying. I wanted other stars. He had ideas along those lines as well. Dangerous ideas.

Now this is still me creating my character but I have also introduced a fact to my friend’s character Colonel Darros: I have implied that they are an expert in a certain field and given a kernel of an idea that they were up to something shady (since part of the context established previously is that there is one world that controls all FTL technology and it’s not our world). Even more disruptive is that another player has written about meeting me:

In an act of youthful defiance and idiocy, Markella stole away from her homeworld by hi-jacking a Antoinian inspections vessel. With it, she was able to slip to other systems. Little did she know that another person was on board when she boosted the ship. And it was lucky for her. It wasn’t until the ship’s systems were failing and she realized she could not possibly manage the ship by herself that she realized there was a prisoner in stasis on board. When she thawed Steyr Stonecutter, they found themselves working so well together that they were able to escape peril with their lives and an unexpectedly comfortable rapport.

So now I know that I’ve been aboard an illegally obtained slipship. I’m now a criminal (not what I was intending) and I have a friend. My next phase is coloured by this. And in a later phase I will influence another player character’s development similarly and be influenced.

This organic hybrid of describing and discovering is my favourite space for character design. I get to start something but I don’t get to decide where it goes. I get some curve balls and I decide how to deal with them. The character is my concept, but rather than my choice from whole cloth it is the sum of my reactions to things not entirely under my control.

And at the very least this character becomes different from my last character.


Thanks to patrons for the pressure and the energy.

Games are at LuluDTRPG, and