Review: Eclipse Phase

Posted: 2 January 2013 in Reviews
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“An eclipse phase is the period between when a cell is infected by a virus and when the virus appears within the cell and transforms it. During this period, the cell does not appear to be infected, but it is.” – Eclipse Phase

Eclipse Phase is (and I quote) "the roleplaying game of transhuman conspiracy and horror" by Posthuman Studios. In a gutsy move, they have made it and many of its supplements available for free download from their website under a Creative Commons Licence, but I bought mine, because I think their creativity in rules, setting and marketing approach should be rewarded. So there.

In a Nutshell: The PCs are undercover agents, investigating species-threatening nastiness. They can reprogram their minds, resleeve themselves in new bodies more appropriate for the next leg of the mission… and respawn from backup when the hideous aliens eat their brains. Point-buy character creation, roll under your skill on percentile dice to succeed at a task.

CONTENTS

As ever, I got the PDF file, which is 402 pages. What has it got in its pocketses? Well…

Lack (10 pages): Introductory short story. OK, moving on…

Enter the Singularity (14 pages): This is the usual introduction, and covers what role-playing games are, what transhumanism is, and the main themes of the game: Post-apocalyptic, conspiracy, and horror.

A Time of Eclipse (82 pages): Here’s your setting information; history, culture, society, technology, factions, economics, gazetteer and so on. Capsule version: Near-future history moves from today, to Blade Runner, to Terminator, to Aliens. Our current situation gets more extreme in all directions, until the Fall, when a "hard-takeoff singularity" results in AIs wiping out most of humanity, rendering Earth uninhabitable, and disappearing up their own informational event horizon. Ten years later, in the primary time frame of the game, what’s left is a broken and fragmented off-planet society, populated by enhanced humans. Some of whom realise that the worst is yet to come…

This is a richly-detailed and well thought-out background, that understands and plays on the tropes of transhumanity. I like it.

Game Mechanics (16 pages): The core mechanic is this: When a PC tries to do something, he rolls percentile dice. If he rolls less than or equal to his skill level, he succeeds; otherwise, he fails. 00 counts as zero, not 100. Situational modifiers for difficulty etc. are applied to the skill level, not the die roll – so for an easy task, you might roll vs skill + 30 rather than raw skill. Doubles are critical success if the roll succeeds, or critical failure if it doesn’t. That’s the heart of it, although this chapter also talks about teamwork, retries, taking extra time, opposed tests and so on. Simple, easy to understand, gets the job done. However, in some circumstances you need to note the Margin of Success or Margin of Failure – how much you made (or missed) the roll by.

The section also speaks to action turns (the tactical combat round, three seconds long) and the various types of action that can be performed – how many you can do in a turn depends on your Speed stat.

Perhaps a little out of place, you’re encouraged to define your character in terms of a single sentence, background, faction, and motivations. I’d have put this in character creation, especially since background and faction are important there.

We also learn about the various stats, and which of them are part of your ego (the bit of your character sheet that gets backed up, uploaded, and transferred from body to body) and which are part of your morph (the meat or metal body you inhabit temporarily). There’s also Moxie, which is the equivalent of Action Points, Bennies, or Edge – points you can spend for effectively a little piece of narrative control ("It looked like I failed that roll at first, but actually…").

This piece closes with a one page summary of the most important rules.

Character Creation and Advancement (26 pages): This is where I start to part company with Eclipse Phase. Ten basic stats, five each for ego and morph. Seven aptitudes, which are the baseline or starting values for skills, each of which can be modified by the morph you currently inhabit (29 different types listed). Dozens of traits (advantageous and disadvantages qualities your PC possesses). Seven different kinds of reputation, each with a different group, each tracked separately. Cybernetic, genetic, bionic or nanoware implants that can modify any of the above. Psionics, which require the Psi trait to grant access to psi powers, or "sleights". You have about 1400 points to spend, and what you buy typically costs 5 points a pop.

It’s all just too complicated for me, I’m afraid. I just wanna dive in and play.

Advancements are bought with Rez Points, which are the local flavour of experience points. Costs range from 1-15 Rez. (They’re called Rez points because they bring the character into sharper resolution. I see what you did there.)

Sample Characters (16 pages): 16 characters already worked out for you, thank goodness. You can be the ultimate merc (think Shadowrun Street Samurai), a titanian explorer (think Stargate: SG-1, and yes Virginia, the setting does have stargates… errm, sorry, Pandora Gates), or a mercurial scavenger (I like this one because it’s an ego downloaded into the body of a giant octopus).

Skills (15 pages): There are nearly 50 skills, many of which are subdivided into specialisations. You really ought to have Fray (combat dodge), Networking (interacting with NPCs), and Perception (noticing things), the rest depend on what you want to do. As in Shadowrun, skills are split into Active and Knowledge skills.

Action and Combat (29 pages): This begins with a quarter-page summary, which is good as it emphasises the essential simplicity of the rules before you become immersed in the special cases. Combat is an opposed test, generally weapon skill vs Fray (I told you to get that one); if you roll less than your skill but more than the target’s roll, you hit, which is elegant. Then, you roll damage, which is reduced by armour.

Initiative is rolled at the beginning of each turn, using 1d10 + Initiative stat. As usual, when it’s your turn, you pick what to do from a list of actions. There are automatic actions (essentially free), quick actions (usually 1-3 per turn, but the GM says how many you can have), complex actions (take a whole turn) and task actions (take more than one turn). Movement is usually a quick action, but an all-out sprint is a complex one.

Damage is tracked against Durability (essentially, hit points), but a PC taking more damage than their Wound Threshold in one hit suffers a wound, which applies modifiers and other effects.

There are also rules for called shots, demolitions, shooting at vehicle passengers, hostile environments and so forth. Most interesting is the tacnet or tactical network; you know how in RPGs players behave as if they can see everything from an above-the-table God View? In Eclipse Phase, that’s how the characters see things, too – they have maps, positions, encrypted comms, ammo and damage trackers, and if one of them can see a foe, other party members can attack it using indirect fire.

Fortunately, there is a good worked example of combat.

Oh, did I mention some things cause mental stress rather than physical damage? Your PC can go mad as well, if it sees too many Things Man Was Not Meant To Know… in over 40 different ways…

Mind Hacks (18 pages): Psi powers in this setting are the result of a character being infected by one strain of AI-created virus. Psi powers can only be generated by a biological brain, and psis get traumatised if they are forced into digital or synthetic bodies. The more powerful a psychic you are, the less mentally stable you become.

Psi powers or "sleights" come in several types; the nearly 20 different psi-chi sleights improve perception and cognition, while the 20-odd psi-gamma sleights contact and influence other biological minds, human or animal.

This section also speaks to psychosurgery, which is the process of editing a mind, usually while it’s in a digital state. Like your PC’s backup, for instance. There are a dozen or so ways They can mess with it before you get resleeved. Just so you know. Wouldn’t want to worry you or anything.

The Mesh (32 pages): This is the setting’s answer to the internet. How you connect to it, what you use it for, the disembodied intelligences that inhabit it, and the nasty things that users and AIs can do to each other in there; security, intrusion, malware, hacking, etc. I tend to gloss over these sections in RPGs as well, because I work in IT in the real world, and so they are not terribly relaxing for me as a game.

It’s worth spotlighting the Muse; an AI that grew up with your PC and is his built-in friend and mesh interface. The muse has its own space on your character sheet, that’s how important it is.

Accelerated Future (28 pages): This, for me, is what makes Eclipse Phase stand out from the pack – the technology of editing your PC on the fly, during an adventure, to make it better suited to the next encounter. Of course you have your cortical stack and backups – if either survives, your PC can be resleeved into a new body and take another crack at that pesky Big Bad. You can create a personality fork – a copy of your character which goes off and does stuff on your behalf, the ultimate trustworthy envoy, and then on its return gets merged back into the core personality. There’s egocasting, in which you transmit a copy of your personality by radio or laser to another location, where it is reincarnated in a morph – a flesh or robot body. There are rules for trading and building morphs. There’s nanofabrication, where you can turn raw materials and blueprints into useful gear. There’s a section on life in space and the different types of space habitats. There are rules for using your different types of reputation to get information and favours, and which factions are interested in which type of rep. There are rules for high-tech security measures, and defeating them.

Gear (56 pages): I am well-known for glazing over at the equipment section of RPGs; they just don’t do it for me, whatever the game system. It’s what you’d expect here; armour, weapons, personal augmentation by various means, comms and surveillance devices, drugs and poisons, nanotech, pets, survival gear, robots, vehicles. I will say this, the authors have actually thought about transhuman tech, and it all seems credible to me. If I ever play this game, though, I’m going to have a giant space roach as a pet. Because I can.

30 years ago, I would have been really interested in the spacecraft section, but these days I see spaceships as part of a cutscene that takes PCs from one encounter to another, rather than a sub-game in their own right. Chalk that one up to advancing age.

Game Information (40 pages): Here’s the Game Master’s section, which as usual explains what is really going on. There’s some awesome stuff. There’s some nasty stuff. There are secrets that NPCs in the setting have died to obtain, several times, then edited out of their own memories so that those secrets are never discovered again. You’ll get no spoilers from me, other than to say IT ROCKS. The last half-dozen pages talk about GM admin; handling Rez (experience points), PC backups, reputation, and so forth.

The book closes with tables, references (very nicely done, these), index and the obligatory character sheet.

FORMAT

This is a colour-intensive file, and would kill my printer; but it seems inappropriate to print out a game about transhumanity – that’s just SO 20th century, dahling. The PDF does have layers, but switching off the background or other bits doesn’t help much with the colour – it stays intensive.

A lot of the background info is presented in-character, in the form of mission reports, log entries, lectures or blog posts from NPCs. That works well, as the quality of writing is good.

The artwork is superb.

The chapter heading pages have stylish and useful tags which summarise the section contents. This works very well.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I think character creation is too complex, inconsistently so considering the simplicity of the rest of the rules. The sample characters are a big help here, but… it’s too complex for me. Could I have "EP Lite" please?

It’s traditional to have an introductory adventure in a game’s core rulebook. I think that would help here too, even though there are freely-available adventures in Glory and the Quick Start Rules, of which more anon.

CONCLUSIONS

Eclipse Phase is something like a mixture of Call of Cthulhu, Shadowrun and Dark Heresy. It’s hard for me not to think of it as "Call of Cthulhu in Spaaaace" – but in a good way.

The idea of being able to "respawn" from your PC’s last save point is an interesting one, that I’m sure will appeal to videogamers. As a GM, I have a slight problem with it in that a respawning player knows things that the PC newly recovered from backup wouldn’t know, but I don’t think my players would care.

Throughout the rules, actually doing something is simple, the complexity is in the initial character setup and retooling the PC for the next challenge. This has the advantage that once play begins it should flow quickly, but it requires a fairly deep understanding of the rules and setting, at least by the GM.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. I love the setting, but I can’t see myself using the rules. Maybe a Savage Worlds hack; looking at the EP forum, it’s clear I’m not the first to think of that.

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