The Limits of Wealth: a boundary problem in Diaspora

Diaspora is a FATE based game aimed at creating a somewhat hard sci fi feel similar to Traveler, rather than a science fantasy setting like Star Wars or Star Trek. One of the qualities that it tries to emulate from Traveler is the economics of running a small merchant vessel. However, the economic mechanics of FATE do not mesh well with a business simulation and I feel that the resulting rules are simply terrible. What makes it interesting is that it is a different type of failure than the previous articles have discussed, a boundary problem.

Mechanics

Rolls in Diaspora use a typical FATE set up, roll four fudge dice, each numbering from -1 to 1, yielding a roll from -4 to +4 and adding a skill. If a target number or better is rolled, the roll succeeds with possible bonuses for how much the roll exceeds the target. If the roll is lower than the target, the roll fails and may result in penalties for how much the roll is short of the target.

Damage is applied under certain circumstances, like being hit in combat. Damage is scored on a Stress Track, a number of boxes that get filled up as more stress is accumulated. If a character takes too much Stress they are Taken Out. Something bad happens to them depending on how they were Taken Out. Someone Taken Out in a ordinary combat may be killed while someone Taken Out by financial insolvency may be reduced to working in a soup kitchen for the rest of their life or being on the run from the mob. A certain amount of Stress can be avoided by taking Consequences, basically temporary penalties. Only so many Consequences can be taken, however, and if enough damage is done a character will eventually go down.
As implied by the above, Diaspora has a Stress Track for wealth to show the state of a character’s financial situation. Whenever they try to buy something they roll wealth against a target number. On a success they purchase the item, on a failure they purchase the item but take Stress equal to the amount they failed the roll. Selling items can remove Stress damage from the track but can never increase the number of boxes on the track.
Running a merchant vessel has its own extra set of rules. Every so often a roll has to be made for maintenance of the vessel. This uses the Trade skill and is subject a number of modifiers, most of them penalties. If the roll is failed the vessel takes a consequence, which will hamper the vessel and make further trade rolls more difficult, and the owner takes wealth Stress. If the roll succeeds the amount of extra success can be used to heal wealth Stress. This whole situation can be avoided by making a wealth roll against the amount the trade roll failed by, but if the wealth roll fails that character takes wealth Stress.

The length of the wealth Stress Track as well as the bonus to wealth rolls is determined by the character’s Assets skill. This is treated like any other skill and can be raised or lowered by swapping it for a different skill, i.e. a character with +4 gunnery and +3 assets could switch and get +3 gunnery and +4 assets. It can also be raised with experience like any other skill.

The Boundary Problem

The problem occurs because spending and losing wealth is handled by an entirely different mechanic than gaining wealth. Unless a character is spending experience or reducing other skills their Assets skill will never increase. Even if it does increase, that is entirely a matter of experience and skill swaps and can be done even if their mercantile activities are a flop. Buying, selling, and running a merchant vessel uses an entirely separate mechanic that can never increase the Assets skill. Thus the Assets skill forms an upper boundary that buying and selling cannot change. It doesn’t matter how much salvage a character sells or how successful their trading career, that doesn’t affect the Assets skill.

However, while there is an upper boundary, there is no lower boundary. Because wealth can take Stress and result in Consequences or even being Taken Out, with some poor play and/ or horrible luck a character can end up completely bankrupt. Since the system involves lots of rolling and can only go in one direction it is really only a matter of time before any merchant vessel is bankrupt. Now, this may take longer than the campaign and so not occur during play, but it is just a matter of time. Thanks to that boundary, the character could have a hundred highly successful trade missions and they would still be no better off than when they started, but a few poor rolls and they can be in trouble.

It isn’t surprising that the merchant system has an upper boundary as it is modeled on the combat system. Almost all damage systems have a boundary effect. Characters don’t get healthier by not taking damage in a fight but they can be killed in one. For something like physical damage, such a system makes sense. People can’t just get healthier and healthier without limit eventually getting to a point where they can fall 500 feet or get hit by a missile and live. Ok, there are systems where that sort of thing happens, but you know what I’m saying. However, wealth isn’t one of those limited things. Someone can just get wealthier and wealthier.

The rules stress that the Assets skill is a part of the character and intended to be character and story driven. That is perfectly reasonable. But if the upside of wealth is character and story driven why not make the downside also character and story driven? FATE already has the perfect system for this, a way for the GM to introduce problems based on descriptions of the characters. So if the characters have a ship described as a merchant vessel the GM could use this to cause dramatic, story driven problems. For example, if a GM wanted to force the players to scrounge around on a planet for money, and probably adventure, they could have the food shipment spoil in transit so the characters can’t sell it, leaving them with too little money for berthing fees and refueling.

The corollary is if they really wanted a system to capture that Traveler merchant trader feel with money really mattering they could have just gone with a full monetary system. It could be quite abstract even using Stress Tracks rather than a specific currency. But the system shouldn’t limit a merchant to either treading water or failing, they should also be able to succeed.

Conclusion

To make rules more consistent and easier to understand most modern games try to use the same systems for as many parts of game play as possible. This is certainly a worthy goal. However, they often forget that the mathematical models behind a system might not model everything equally well. Tacking an inappropriate mechanic onto part of the system ends up not making the game easier, just more annoying. Also, if game designers want a dramatic rather than “real world” mechanic they should use a drama based mechanic. If they want “real world” they should use a “real world” mechanic. Not that they can’t be mixed but, having entirely different goals, they usually don’t mix well.

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7 Responses

  1. I posted a link to this on the Diaspora web page and the general opinion is “You don’t get it.”

    http://boardgamegeek.com/thread/700971/review-of-the-diaspora-wealth-rules

    I’m wondering if you can’t address this with assets that you can freely tag when you make a wealth roll. Like “Flush with cash” and “Rolling in the dough”.

  2. Well, I guess like all good internet debates that the proper reply is “They just don’t get it.” 🙂
    Seriously, it’s not that it is abstract. I run PDQ were you can take arrow damage to your “Reputation as skilled geologist”. Nor is it that the system is completely unworkable. It’s that I just don’t see how the system for space commerce helps the game any.
    For story purposes using the cool aspect system gets you everything you need without all the fiddly bits of modifiers for the tech level of the starport etc. If the GM wants a merchant based problem, invoke “Merchant vessel” and pay them a FATE point. If they want to increase an Assets roll then pay a FATE point and invoke “Merchant vessel” saying they had a good run.
    As a mini-game of running a small business the boundary problem makes it a terrible model and a terrible mini-game. Imagine a small business worth a little over 100K. They roll poorly the first month and lose 50K, but roll well the next and gain 50K healing the stress damage and bringing them back up to full. Repeat a couple more times and 6 months in the company is fine. Now switch the order. They roll well the first month and gain 50K. But they can’t go up so they have to give it to charity. Again the second and third months. Then they roll poorly and lose 50K. Then again in the fifth and sixth months. So they are bankrupt. The same rolls, just switch up the order and it changes from fine to bankrupt because there is no way to save or have a rainy day fund.
    You can guard against bankruptcy by optimizing your character for that. I just don’t see how that is fun rather than simply avoiding pain.
    I don’t like the 6 of 1, half dozen of another approach. The merchant vessel rules are too fiddly for the story telling aspect but too abstract for a good merchant vessel mini-game.
    Erik

  3. To answer your other question. The Assets rules are basically ok for individual finances, just lousy as a small business model. I’d boot the merchant rules and just go with aspects, ignoring the details of buying and selling cargo unless there was an interesting story.
    For personal Assets, yeah, a temporary aspect like “Big score” along with a FATE point and/ or a free invoke should work well for a cash windfall.
    Erik

  4. I was thinking about this last night, and if you’re not a merchant, you can get screwed really easily if you own a ship.

    Say you have a bunch of Mercenaries and one of them owns a surplus Scout ship. Something that was quite possible in Traveller. No one has the Broker skill, and the Scout has Trade 0. On average, your target number for maintenance will be 2, assuming that you are at a comparable tech level port. If I think I have the math right, they have a 1:81 chance of making that roll, barring any special aspects on the scout like “Designed for ease of maintenance” and that the ship has Fate points to spend. However, if they go on a long mission in system, more than 1 month in length, when they get back, their target number is now 4, maybe 5 if the ship had to take a consequence. The ship has no Fate points left, so they are screwed. Unless they roll all 1s on their fate dice, they will fail and the ship takes a consequence, and the owner takes up to 5 hits on his wealth track.

    If he’s like most grunts, his Assets skill is probably 1 or 2, so there’s a good chance he goes bankrupt then and there and is taken out. The wealth system does something his enemies couldn’t do…

  5. That’s a related problem. By insisting that they not have a currency anything that doesn’t fit the merchant vessel model doesn’t really work. The weird thing is that they are so close to having currency. They have a number, Wealth stress boxes, that goes down, takes damage, when a character spends too much money and goes back up, heals damage, when they do things that would make money. And when you run out of it you are bankrupt. Basically it is a currency. All they need to do is say that you can go above your starting number of boxes. Then a merc unit could just be paid 12 Wealth stress boxes for this dangerous mission. Those would later be used to pay off all those maintenance rolls.
    Erik

  6. I have a love-hate relationship with things like d20 Modern’s wealth checks and Trail of Cthulhu’s credit rating. They always sound so good to me on paper, because it means not having to track specific dollar amounts, consider living expenses, or make up prices for obscure items on the fly.

    In practice, though, they almost always make more problems than they solve. More accurate: they make fewer problems than they solve, but the problems they make are non-intuitive and difficult to translate into in-character terms. If people can’t wrap their heads around what the abstract rules are trying to represent, then it breaks immersion, which is probably a worse sin than requiring monetary micro-management.

    More and more of late, I’m coming to the conclusion that you need either a literal currency with all the annoying book-keeping that entails, or you need to just not worry about resources at all. Anything in between, any attempt to abstract or simplify but still invoke mechanics, seems to be much worse than just waving a hand and saying “you’ve got what you need”.

  7. Don’t worry about it is how we handle it in my brother’s DnD game. It does have some problems though. There’s the absurdity thing were someone says well I can buy a car or a healing potion and not worry about it, so I buy 1000 of them, or the wandering group of characters with no visible means of support trying to buy the 80 story office building next to the bad guy so they can set up their operation. The GM can just say no, but were “whatever you need” ends and “that’s just absurd” begins is very subjective. In some genres, like pulp, being wealthy is a classic trait that some characters have, for that to mean anything there would need to be a way to distinguish between a wealthy and non-wealthy character. And, of course, in old school DnD or running a merchant vessel in Traveller gaining money is one of the cookies for success. I don’t miss it, but some people will be unsatisfied with going from vaguely defined level of wealth and you can have anything you need to slightly higher vaguely defined wealth and you still can have anything you need.
    This all assumes that wealth can be used to solve problems. If their is no mechanical difference between the rich guy’s high end sports car and the PI’s old VW then it’s just a matter of special effects and irrelevant. If the player wants to say that their car can outrun a helicopter, let alone the sedans following them, and so they just leave their pursuit in the dust then wealth becomes an ability. In a game like Heroquest wealth would be an ability like driving and a GM might let someone roll their wealth to represent the awesomeness of their vehicle again the opponent’s driving skill to get away.
    I have no good answers, but I must admit I don’t like halfway systems like seen in Diaspora.
    Erik

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