Running a Diaspora Heist

Heist movies have always been among my all-time favorites. Heat, Ocean’s Eleven, The Italian Job, and Mission Impossible hold some of the scenes I longed to bring to the gaming table. Until I found Diaspora (and the FATE system), however, I just couldn’t make it work.

I believe the key element in creating a successful RPG heist sequence is taking the focus away from the specific task resolution of most games and moving it to scene and narrative resolution. The Social Combat mini-game featured in Diaspora is a great example of this mentality.

According to the Diaspora Rulebook, setting the stakes is the first step in creating a successful Social Combat. In the case of a heist, the stakes are usually pretty clear: success means stealing the money, finding the information or whatever it is that the heist is targeting. Failure means getting caught, which means no loot and the possibility of jail time (or some Personal Combat to fight your way out).

The next step is the map. The map I created has three tracks to represent the three common routes the group might take toward their goal: Physical, Digital and Social. (Click here for a pdf copy of the map).

Physical Track
The Physical Track represents feet on the ground at the site of the heist. People jumping fences, breaking windows, blowing up walls and cracking safes would all fit into this category. Skills like Agility, Alertness, Demolitions, Repair and Stealth are all appropriate to this track.

I also found it thematically appropriate to include Combat skills on the Physical Track to represent direct engagement with guards. Range 0 allows Close Combat or Brawling, Range 1 allows Slugthrowers and Energy Weapons, and Range 2 imposes a -1 penalty on ranged attacks. (I recommend limiting range to 2). This replaces the usual Composure attacks allowed in Social Combat.

Digital Track
The Digital Track represents computer-savvy character(s) hacking into the target’s system, finding floor plans, disabling security cameras, deactivating alarms and generally messing about with digital defenses. Communications and Computer are the obvious skill choices for this track but you could easily justify Assets (for bribes) and Bureaucracy as well.

In addition to the standard options available in Social Combat, characters on the Digital Track may also attack the Detection Track. The Target is the current position of the marker on the Detection Track. Reduce the position of the marker by the number of shifts generated (cannot go below 0).

Social Track
The Social Track represents the efforts of the characters to “socially engineer” their way into the confidence of the target. An “inside man”, someone posing as a delivery boy or someone attempting to impersonate authorized personnel would all count as actions on the Social Track. Assets, Bureaucracy, Charm and Intimidation are the usual skills used on this track.

In addition to the standard options available in Social Combat, characters on the Social Track may also attack the Detection Track. The Target is the current position of the marker on the Detection Track. Reduce the position of the marker by the number of shifts generated (cannot go below 0).

Instead of the standard time track, the heist map has a Detection Track to represent how close the characters are to getting caught. If the marker reaches the eighth box, the heist ends in failure. The alarms go off, the lights come on, the guns are out, the cops are on their way, etc.

– At the end of each round, move the marker on the Detection Track to the next highest box.
– At the end of each character’s turn, move the marker on the Detection Track up one place for each guard in the same zone as that character. Do this at the end of each guard’s turn as well.

The Actors
The players may either place their characters individually or form teams. If they form a team, they’ll need to build a composite character based on their available stats. The composite character has a 5-cap pyramid for skills and uses the Composure and Health Tracks from one character on the team (if used, the Wealth Track can be from a different character on the team). Aspects can be tagged from any character on the team (though the team counts as a single scope).

Three markers are used to represent the opposition and they begin the game on the zones marked in grey. So long as the characters have at least one marker on each track, the opposition remain spread out as well. If, at any time, there are no character markers on a track, the opposition may move off that track (using the usual rules for movement) to one of the others. The opposition may move into the Goal zone, but may not move into the Getaway zone.

Note that neither the Goal nor the Getaway zones count as part of any of the Tracks (Physical, Digital, Social) and, therefore, characters in those zones cannot use the associated special rules (Physical Combat and/or attacking the Detection Track).

The heist is a success when all character markers are in the getaway zone. They cannot move into this zone, however, until all of them are present on either the Goal or Getaway zones. In other words, the characters must gather together on the Goal zone before they can proceed to the Getaway.

It is important for the characters to remain spread out among the tracks. Too much focus on a single track will make it easy for the opposition to gang up on a single space. Two guards on a single space with a character can quickly move the Detection Track marker all the way up.
While it is a solid strategy, for story and playability reasons, I recommend that the Referee not just sit back and build obstructions until the Detection Track reaches at least 3.

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3 Responses to Running a Diaspora Heist

  1. Jeremy Friesen August 13, 2011 at 6:22 am #

    Jared, excellent stuff. I’ve been struggling to handle social combats in Diaspora, and this is another example to help me better understand.

    Could you clarify you last sentence. I’m a little confused on the advice?

  2. jared August 13, 2011 at 12:31 pm #

    Glad you like it, Jeremy.

    The last line refers to the Obstruct option available to characters in the Social Combat mini-game. It’s possible for the Referee to move all three guards back to the goal zone and simply use the Obstruct option to make it virtually impossible for the players to pass. In a pure tactics sense that’s a good idea, but it makes for a very boring scenario.

    Waiting until the Detection Track reaches at least 3 gives the players some time to establish position and use Move Another to get the guards away from the Goal zone before obstructions get set up. This allows a much broader variety of viable options, which creates a much more interesting conflict.

    A further refinement we used in the scenario was the option to use a maneuver to reduce the pass value of an obstruction. The Target is the current pass value and you reduce that pass value by the number of shifts. This prevents either side from putting up obstructions that permanently cut off one Track.

  3. Craig Payne October 23, 2011 at 3:23 am #

    Very cool idea. I used a social combat from Diaspora in our Strands of FATE game and it was very well received by the group, so I think I may adopt something like this approach for a future session, although it’ll be a while before getting to the point. I’m toying with the idea of the moment of making the guard pieces set up any blocks not with their roll, but with the current Detection Track value: it means that sitting and setting up the blocks on the first go aren’t as effective a tactic anyway, and the level of opposition in that way represents how “visible” the players are.

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