Eclipse Phase

by Posthuman Studios

Cover image

Publisher: Catalyst Game Labs
Copyright: 2009
ISBN: 1-934857-16-5
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 393

Buy at Powell's Books

This is the second in my irregular series of reviews of role-playing game sourcebooks. Since it's only the second, I should repeat the caveat that I attached to my first one: I read and review these books against their intent. They're written as games with the intention that one should play them. While I may make an exception for Eclipse Phase (more on that later), I don't generally play role-playing games. Instead, I use the sourcebooks as seeds for ideas and as the equivalent of non-fiction reading but in fictional universes. Some of that is examining the shape of the system, but I primarily read role-playing games for the background and surrounding setting.

This means that if you're looking for a review of Eclipse Phase as a game, this will not be very satisfying. But I think this game, even more than most, is compelling reading as a collection of ideas, as a thought-provoking background, and as a solid collection of the tropes that form the basis of modern space opera (particularly of the type sparked by current British SF).

Eclipse Phase is a role-playing game about transhumanism. At the time of the game setting, uploads of human minds have been perfected and are routine. Nearly everyone has a cortical stack that maintains a backup of their brain (think Richard K. Morgan's Altered Carbon, among others), at least when they're wearing a body (called a morph). Some, infomorphs, live only in computer systems; some people are actually artificial intelligences. Several species have been uplifted and become sentient life in its own right. Humankind and its associated species has settled the solar system, extending out to Pluto, and made contact with at least one secretive alien life form. Thanks to uploading and resleeving, people are potentially immortal, and some habitats have cornucopia machines: nanoassemblers that can make almost any conceivable object. It could be close to a utopia.

However, Earth has been lost. In the fairly recent past of the game setting, a military AI network on Earth, the TITANs, underwent a hard-takeoff singularity and became something utterly alien and apparently utterly inimical to life. Billions died, and Earth was taken over by swarms of self-replicating nanobots, hunter robots that decapitate people and forcibly upload them, and a terrifying and highly adaptable virus (possibly of extraterrestrial origin) that corrupts people and computers and converts them into the agents of mysterious intelligence. Possibly the TITANs, possibly something else. Humans went to war against the AIs and were losing, horribly, when the AIs mysteriously disappeared. Now, Earth is still a quarantined ruin, millions exist only as hastily-uploaded infomorphs without bodies, there are dead areas remaining on several other planets and occasional resurgences of the Exsurgent virus, and no one knows if the TITANs will return.

Oh, and then there are the Pandora Gates. Several are scattered throughout the system, they appeared right about the same time that the TITANs disappeared, and they lead instantaneously to other star systems. They could be a TITAN device or plot, they could be something the TITANs found, or they could be something even more mysterious or dangerous.

That's the tenuous existence that the players are dropped into: a system full of stunning technological possibility and newly-discovered exploration potential, but also lurking horror and the potential for species extinction. While there are multiple, well-thought-out factions, perspectives, and cultures in the system, the general inclination of the setting is to have the players be agents of Firewall: a secret organization cutting across all other political affiliations and dedicated to defending transhumanity from existential threats.

Eclipse Phase advertises itself as a role-playing game of "transhuman conspiracy and horror." The system mechanics and the background both emphasize extensive use of personal and organizational connections, personal networking, and reputation within cliques. There are built-in mechanics for finding information and even acquiring gear and other resources via reputation, which includes the obligation to maintain that reputation (this is explicitly based on open source development culture along with ideas from post-scarcity SF futures). One can use those tactics as an advocate for open information, or one can dive deep into conspiracies and corporation control and influence over governments. And there's always the Firewall organization lurking as a potent plot driver.

Similarly, both the TITANs and the Exurgent virus have huge horror potential, which one can explore as much or as little as appeals. Eclipse Phase pulls in ideas from SF as varied as the obvious Terminator connection to David Langford's basilisk hacks. There are rules for psi powers in the game that make heavy use of some of the creepier aspects of the Exurgent virus. And the game makes full use of the more frightening potentials of human uploads: copying someone so that one can torture their backup copy as an interrogation technique, editing someone's memories while they exist only as a computer program, and hacking other people's brains. Mental health is a base statistic alongside physical health, with an interesting damage and wound system for mental damage.

This hopefully gives you a basic feel for the game system, but one of the things I want to emphasize is just how much material is here. Eclipse Phase is fairly light on mechanics and doesn't spend huge amounts of time on it. The majority of this 400-page, large hardcover (with small two-column print!) is devoted to setting, background, skills, and equipment, and the skills and particularly the equipment are world-building idea mines in their own right. There are numerous sidebars with additional setting material and hints on how to approach the mindset behind the game, and there are several fairly well-written short stories embedded in the rule book for feel. It forms a veritable encyclopedia of medium-term post-cyberpunk future SF concepts, drawn from some of the best current SF and woven together into a coherent and very interesting setting that's worthy of an SF series in its own right.

This book is also absolutely gorgeous. RPG sourcebook art is often obviously amateur, and due to limited audiences and printing costs most RPG sourcebooks have black-and-white interiors. Eclipse Phase is full-color throughout and full of beautiful space scenes and futuristic artwork. It uses a wide variety of different styles and not every interior illustration is at the same level of quality, but nearly every page has artwork of some kind and most of it is excellent. The book is as much a pleasure to page through as it is to read.

The hardest thing for me to review in an RPG, given how and why I read them, is the underlying system. I'm not sure how Eclipse Phase's would work in an actual game, although the background is inspiring enough that I'm seriously tempted to run varients of some of our characters through the system with some friends. I grew up with Hero System, so I find the flaw in Eclipse Phase that I find in most systems not designed to be generic: there are individual rules for each individual character action, from hacking to life support to acquiring equipment, and they don't have very much to do with each other. If you want to do something, you find the relevant part of the rules and apply them. There are some unifying mechanics related to skill- and attribute-based rolls, but it feels like one would spend a lot of time paging to the appropriate section of the rules. Similarly, all the possible equipment is described independently, without much in the way of generic rules to construct new types of equipment. The advantage, though, is that this forces the authors to describe all the different types of equipment, and there are a lot of great story ideas embedded in that list.

One part of the mechanics did strike me, though. All the players get a moxie stat that's similar to a "luck" stat, but it has a more specific game mechanic than normal. Most of Eclipse Phase mechanics are built around rolling two ten-sided dice to generate a number between 0 and 99. Players may expend a point of their moxie to do a variety of low-level mechanic twiddling, such as swapping the numbers on a die roll (turning a 71 into a 17, for example), upgrading hits to critical, downgrading critical failures, or getting initiative. I like the tension of deciding when to use up moxie during the adventure, weighed against not only future need but the occasional required roll that tests against one's remaining moxie. Characters have different amounts of luck, but luck can run out.

With the caveat that I've not yet actually played the system, this is one of the best RPG sourcebooks I've ever read. It's stuffed to the gills with ideas, good ones, that demonstrate deep awareness of the ideas and stories of modern SF. It's beautifully produced and has some of the best RPG art that I've seen. I have some quibbles with the catalog nature of the gear listings and the lack of generality in the rules, but both of those also contribute to the game's sharp focus and its impressive store of plot ideas. If you're looking for a solid, futuristic SF RPG that doesn't feel like something based on stories from the 1960s, give this a look.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-06-30

Last modified and spun 2015-09-01