Eclipse Phase: (n) 1. the time between infection by (or induction of) a bacteriophage, or other virus, and the appearance of mature virus within the cell; an interval of time during which viral infectivity cannot be recovered.
Eclipse Phase is, perhaps, one of the most ambitious projects ever tackled in tabletop gaming. Not in scope, scale, or story, necessarily, but rather in how the marketing would be approached. That said, the game itself is something my friends and I have played in between Pathfinder, Exalted, and World of Darkness. It’s an interesting look at horor in general, and is perhaps one of the best hard science fiction games I’ve come across.
Sleeve up and get ready to face some X-threats: this is Eclipse Phase.
The StoryEarth is gone. It was always heading that way. Between climate change robbing us of food, oppressive governments robbing us of rights, and the corporations robbing us of everything else, the world became a hostile place. Technology grew far faster than wisdom, and several technologies changed humanity forever. The first was nanotechnology growing at such a rate that nanofabricators become a reality, able to create anything needed so long as the raw matter is available. The second is far more game changing: a computer capable of storing the collective consciousness of a human being no larger than a man’s finger. This, combined with nanites that read the brain’s entire composition and neural impulses, means that humanity can store their minds onto these drives. With this, humanity has become immortal. Unlocking the mind allowed humanity to uplift creatures such as octopi and primates.
The last technology, though, would be the final nail in the coffin. Wars were being waged everywhere. Uprisings were taking place as the disenfranchised took up arms against the increasingly brutal regimes. And then the TITIANS were created.
The TITANS were massive artifical intelligences, seed AIs, capable of parabolic self-improvement. They were also created in such a way that they did not view themselves as being part of the larger whole of transhumanity.
And then…something happened. The TITANs rebelled, and humanity was scourged from the earth. Earth, once the home of humanity, is now uninhabitable. Weapons shifted the weather in terrifying directions. War machines made by the TITANs still roam the world. Something to the tune of 90% of humanity was lost, their backups uploaded by hunter drones.
Things get worse. Humanity is now scattered across the solar system, and now is attempting to stave off extinction following the catastrophic destruction of its home world in what becomes known as the Fall. Transhumanity reacted…as they do. The corporations run the inner systems, and most of Venus and Mars is run by traditional corporate governments. Jupiter is now controlled mostly by the Jovian Republic, a staunchly conservative bastion of humanity…and against transhumanity. Titan is now controlled by the Titanian Commonwealth, a neo-anarchist movement. Beyond that things get…weird. The Ultimates work as eugenic supermen, brinkers go beyond the pale, and exhumans abandon their humanity entirely.
To prevent another Fall, several groups band together, forming Firewall. Loosely organized into cells, working on shoestring budget and using methods most would find, at best, questionable, the Sentinels of Firewall combat existential threats to save transhumanity.
God help them.
All Alone in the Night
To call you “screwed” in this game is charitable. Earth is gone. Humanity is now “Transhumanity,” including uplifts, artificial intelligence, and…some odder things. You band together with a group of others to combat existential threats, or x-threats. Firewall calls on Sentinels of all backgrounds. Hypercorporations, anarchists, people from the fringes, governments, socialites, hackers…all legitimate options. They face off against transcendent intelligence, aliens, and…stranger things.Eclipse Phase takes some seriously wonky assumptions when it comes to characters. If you remember my review of Shadowrun, it had some seriously odd concepts. Well…this takes the cake. First off, your character isn’t one part, but two. The first is your ego, or your essential you-ness. It contains your memories, knowledge, intellect, and experience. The second is your morph, or…for lack of a better term, body. That’s not an exact definition, but it’ll have to do. Your morph can range from a normal human to a robotic hovering tank to a giant crab. Yes, after all this time, you can be a giant enemy crab.
But this really doesn’t get at the kinds of crazy you can do. Your mind is a complex program, so you can alter it, copy it, even create smaller versions. You morph can be altered, upgraded, given enhanced senses…and it’s all very neat. It creates some real logical insanity as well. See…humans aren’t exactly used to those things. It’s a forced, and very artificial, kind of evolution. You get shot, you wake up, and you’re in a new body, you realize you cut out your own memories…hell you can program yourself to do things that ordinarily you would find insane. It leads to some decidedly odd problems, and can cause your character to slowly lose their grip on reality. This is all before you get into legality and ethics.
So, let’s talk mechanics and a bit about how the characters operate in the world.
The system itself is fairly simple: roll a d% and compare the results against your skill. Modifiers come in, and you succeed or fail.
Sounds simple, right? And it is. In terms of core mechanic, it’s pretty basic. Damage is all d10 based, so no need to fish for additional dice, and, further, dice rarely go over the need for 2-3, so you won’t need a lot of them to play.
Now on to the character. As I mentioned, characters are divided into Egos and Morphs. Different character aspects are bound to each, and can influence the other.
The first step is choosing a Background and Faction. Background is where your character came from. You might be an uplift, an artificial intelligence, or a space colonist. Several options exist. Factions, on the other hand, is what your character is now. Anarchist? Hypercapitalist? Jovian? Socialite? The options are all over, and can shape a lot of who your character is.
The next bit can be a lot of chaos: spending free points. You get to up your stats, some of which are relatively straightforward and others are…not.
Aptitudes are your raw stats. They are pretty straightforward, though things like Somatics aren’t necessarily intuitive.
Skills are much more easy to understand, and form the base of most of your actions. Your aptitudes work for ‘untrained’ skills at varying rates.
Spending points can be…fatiguing. You can buy merits and drawbacks, skills, morphs, traits…it goes on and on.
One odd bit is the Reputation system. Rather than cold, hard cash, a lot of characters can instead opt to have a reputation in certain networks. This lets you call on favors or even owe someone to try to get something you need. This is important in every game, but can be critical of you are living outside of the central system. The reason is simple: this is a post-scarcity economy.
What I mean by this is that credits are how you purchase things in the inner system, but nano-fabricators can make basically anything you’ll need. Further, reputation can let you call in favors to get things you need far easier than purchasing them, and often give access to off the market favors. You can certainly get some things like blueprints with credits, and from there construct what you need, but with a nano-fabricator and some time, you can do a lot with those blueprints.
TransitioningOk, now let’s talk about some of the oddities of the game. By this, I mean beyond the fact that you’re an immortal cyber-ghost that can change bodies and cyber yourself to all hell and back.
The TITANs left behind a legacy, and it’s an ugly one. As one book notes, most of what you have is a result of the Fall. Some of it is questionable as to whether they actually are TITAN tech, but…here we go.
The first things are the Pandora Gates. What are they? Think the Stargates as designed by John Carpenter. They connect to a system and leet you travel through a wormhole to reach far destinations instantly. Sounds nifty, right? Except no one is sure who built them. TITANs? Seems unlikely, given there seems to be networks that existed for extinct species. Factors? Maybe, but then why don’t they use them? There’s also matters of the gates being…odd. Sometimes they work fine. Sometimes they cut off mid transmission and cut a person in half. One story details a woman who was kidnapped during the fall and missing. She came back in a different body…which had been traveling in the gate at the time. The original ego is a bit annoyed. Add in the strange places it takes you, from a station orbiting a black hole to a full on Dyson sphere, and you have a lot of weird and potentially hazardous stuff.
Next on the list: the Exsurgent virus. This thing is…possibly mislabeled as being only one thing. It’s basically a nano-virus…kinda, that is designed to rewrite humans. The scary thing about it is that it, somehow, can ride through backups. To give some ideas, the virus ranges from the relatively benign Watts-Maclaud strain to viruses that rewrite your body and mind into things that wouldn’t qualify as even remotely human.
The Watts-Maclaud is an interesting phenomena. Those infected go a bit insane, but also gain what are basically psychic powers. Initially, they can enhance their own minds, boosting logic, suppressing undesirable emotions, or allowing their subconscious to do most of the processing in combat. Later abilities include touch range telepathy and frying people’s nervous systems. This is probably the softest science fiction in the setting, but…well, that’s super-intelligence for you.
Some of the factions of the game also stretch or even bust the idea of being human. The exhumans are, in effect, those who decided that humanity is an outdated concept and they would be come post-human, abandoning any vestiges of humanity. Not surprisingly, this tends to lead them to being hostile a lot. A different faction, the Ultimates are…well, as one Firewall agent put it, exhumans with a code of conduct. They are adherents to self-improvement and tend to view the rest of transhumanity as inferior…which can be taken to some extremes.
By this point, you may be wondering what exactly you could be fighting that’s so bad it makes you feel like a helpless child. Well…read on.
Like any good game, Eclipse Phase takes a central concept and stretches it to gives some decidedly unique concepts. Different kinds of games, however, require different antagonists.
The first, and perhaps most obvious problem you’re likely to face, is the TITIANs. Not directly, mind, but rather what is left behind. Aggressive nano-plagues that reshape the body into hideous monsters? They have those. Robotic monstrosities which can seemingly break the laws of physics? Yep. Viral infections transmitted by sensory perception? Basilisk hacks. Dealt with one on Tuesday. These are just some of the horrors the TITANs left. This is…I guess as close as you get to a default Eclipse Phase game: strange remnant that jeapordizes transhumanity, go solve it. As you can see, it’s a good set of problems, and no one is really sure what they’re in for.The TITANs themselves are an ever elusive threat. There’s a lot of spoiler territory with them, but the important factor to know is that they are supremely intelligent and vast beyond measure. Where they went and what they have as an agenda is a large black box. A lot of what they are doing is up to the GM, but they’re not given stats for a reason.
Another odd antagonist…maybe, is the Factors. Factors are…basically sentient slime mold colonies that make contact with humanity shortly following the Fall. They’re truly alien. Not a lot of really known about them, and little is elaborated on, but they’re mysterious and potentially horrifying antagonists as they may have faster than light capability, among others.
The worst one, though? Transhumanity itself. Yeah, it’s depressing, but we’ve been working on killing off swaths of folks we don’t like since our first primitive ancestor picked up a rock. We’ve gotten good at it. The Ultimates are a fascist lot, discriminating against ‘gene-trash,’ the Jovians view anyone not human (no mods, no morphs, no gene therapy) as…well, not human, and therefore the enemy, the Consortium may well blow everyone to hell, and the exhumans abandon their humanity…sometimes deciding to destroy transhumanity in the process. OZMA, the corporate version of Firewall, is doing some shady stuff, things from the Pandora Gates stand a good chance of presenting terrifying stuff, and people smuggle it back to make a quick buck.
Questions that Matter
Some might ask, “what kinds of themes does the game tackle?” …ok, fine, I ask that, at least.
One of the driving themes is the question of human identity. Namely, what does it mean to be human? Much like Ghost in the Shell or Blade Runner, there becomes a question: what is humanity when the things we usually associate with humanity no longer apply? The fact that you can swap bodies is weird enough, but things like uplifts and AI working alongside you can lead to the question of whether or not human identity is even important anymore. Factions like the Ultimates push what humanity is, and singularity seekers and exhumans go beyond even that, seeking to become post-human. Heck, the Jovians try to cling to being human, strictly human, going to an opposite extreme.
Another central question is what one is willing to do to ensure the survival of transhumanity. It’s…not a comfortable question. One of the introductions mentions that Firewall sentinels are far from heroes, noting that you will have to make decisions like nuking a habitat to prevent a nano-plague from spreading or shoving a child out an airlock because they’re turning into an Exsurgent. Firewall are, at the best of times, morally gray. That shade gets dark. Are you willing to work with criminals? What about soul-stealers, people who copy egos to turn into slaves?
One last theme to touch on is, despite everything, Eclipse Phase isn’t completely dark. There are chances, real ones, to see where transhumanity is pretty damn awesome. The authors themselves are strong believers in open source and moderate forms of anarchism. Proof? Most games you’d pirate will get people annoyed. CthulhuTech has little things asking you to support them because they need the cash. Dungeons & Dragons just out and out didn’t have PDFs for a long time because they were tired of the piracy. Transhuman Stuidos? Pirate their game and they’ll give you a pat on the back and an “atta’ boy!” A lot of it is the idea that like minded folk can band together and, with some simple policies, live decent lives together with mutual contribution and technology. Yeah, some of it is rose-tinted, but it does give some hope. There’s also things like advocates for uplifts and AIs, small bits where everyone gets along, and even the general idea that, as much as we all dislike each other, we’re in this together.
Eclipse Phase is a game well worth exploring. It is flexible enough to tell a wide variety of stories and is honestly one of the more unique settings I’ve stumbled on. If some strange science fiction or survival horror tug at your heartstrings, give it a look.
I’m not sure what I’ll be reviewing next, though I assume it’ll be Mage for the recently redubbed Chronicles of Darkness. Keep an eye out.