Categorized | Reviews, RPGs

Eclipse Phase RPG Review

Posted on April 20, 2011 by Ray Frazee


Available at RPGNow.com

    Why does Eclipse Phase draw me in so?  Is it the dystopian setting that keeps bringing the misery?  Is it due to there being enough future tech to choke a blue whale?  Is it the metaworld so rich it makes you want to live there right now, despite it being such a deadly, alien environment that none of us would survive for very long?

    Yes.  Yes to all of the above.  And then some . . ..

    It goes without saying that Eclipse Phase is a hell of a game.  The moment you turn the first page (if you can actually turn a page in a pdf, that is), it sucks you in like a hunk of flotsam circling an event horizon.  It makes you feel the unlimited scope of adventure within while, at the same time, makes you realize this isn’t only a game, it’s a way of life . . . and that life ain’t gonna be pretty.

    I know this may not mean but, the accolades: Origins Award for Best RPG of the Year, 2010; Gold for Best Writing, Silver for Best Cover, Best Product, 2010 ENnie Awards.  Sure, this isn’t the first time a game received a boat-load of accolades and then proceeded to crash and burn the following year for various reasons, but with the follow up support and Internet support from fans, it is likely that Eclipse Phase will be around, to enjoy, for a while.

    So what is the game about?  Glad you asked.

    Eclipse Phase postulates a future world where humanity was nearly wiped out, reduced to a population of about half a billion people (from a total population of eight billion) 10 years after The Fall, an event where Earth was laid barren by hyper-aware AIs (though the antimatter bomb dropped on Chicago by humans didn’t do the Midwest a hell of a lot of good; so much for keeping my ancestral home in Northwest Indiana), leaving the survivors scattered throughout the Solar System and, in some instances, to other worlds–thanks to the Pandora Gates (which are not to be confused with other wormhole transporters of a similar name).

    Now, I know what you’re thinking: we’ve seen this world before.  Someone watched the Terminator movies a few too many times and, in a burst of inspiration, came up with some clichéd variation of the genre.  But you’d be wrong, ’cause this isn’t some “AIs become aware and kill everyone!” knockoff.  This game has taken great care to immerse the player in this world, and in doing so they’ve taken things to another level and turned it into something so much more.

    (To me the game feels like it was driven more by John Varley’s Eight Worlds collection than the Terminator flicks, though it’s obvious the humans in-game aren’t being driven out of the solar system—yet.)

    In terms of mechanics the game is percentile-based, with one trying to make the under target.  Targets are calculated based upon your skills, and then changed with difficulties and modifiers used to adjust the base.  Rolling doubles results in a critical effect: either the gods (defiantly lower case here) are smiling upon you, or the universe is going to show you just what a tiny, insignificance little spot you are.  00 is always going to be a critical success and 99 is always going to be a critical failure—proving, once more, there is not much of a gap between a great hero and a complete mutt.  And there is an option to allow a character to flip a die roll—making say an 81 become an 18—but that requires some expenditure of luck (known in game as “Moxie”, obviously a nod to the fact that transhumanity started during the First Great American Depression) on the part of the player.  Mechanics also allow the GM factor in margins of success and failure, so making a roll by the skin of one’s pod butt may not be as good a thing as the player was hoping for.

    Character creation reflects the futuristic feeling of the game, because as the player builds their character they find that the mind and the body are separate entities—in more ways than one.  As each character is “transhuman”, they are beyond the limits of what we, today, define as humanity.  (I should say “could be” instead of “is”, as there are factions in this world where being good ‘ol “Human” is not only enough for them, it’s The Law, and trying to play that transhuman game might get you in a whole heap o’ trouble.)  The mind (or “ego” as it’s called) actually defines the individual in Eclipse Phase; the body (or “morph”) is transitory and can be changed as often as your underwear (or, in the case of some gamers, more often!  Ba-da-boom!).  Where there is only one Ego per character, there are many, many Morphs, and those can be used as needed.  So when creating a character the player also creates the morph they will start with, and this remains with them . . . well, maybe forever, or maybe until it’s destroyed.  Keep in mind, however, just because you lost your body (maybe in some backwater bar on Mars) it doesn’t mean you’re dead . . ..

    As I was once told, “This game gives everyone a reset switch”.  A character can die in game and yet never die.  Characters back up their Egos constantly, so even if one get tossed out an airlock for whatever reason, they could retrieve their latest back up, “resleeve it” (download the backup into another Morph) and return to whatever life the character had before getting smoked.  Oh, sure, a character might fine they have a gap in their mind from the point of their last backup to their new awakening, but then . . . they might not want to remember all that happened that led to that gap, right?

    Death in Eclipse Phase can become something of an inconvenience at times, and in a world where immortality is seen as a reality, it would appear one has to work hard to reach the point where they check out permanently.  And seeing how a character will likely die more than a few times in the game, that’s a very good thing.  This brings up some interesting bookkeeping points, however.  If a player has been a bit negligent in keeping their character’s Ego backed up, and has gone weeks or even months since they last put the Ego down on the Seagate, when the Dying Time comes and are resleeved, they are likely to not only lose some times but a lot of experience–which, in game terms, means they lost character advancement.  If you like a bit of fun, GMs should have their players makes copies of their character’s sheets when they backup, and then hand them over with a date stamp.  Then, when said character takes that Big Dive the GM can shoot them a sly smile before giving them their last ego . . ..)

    We got the people out of the way, so lets look at the world–

    Saying this universe is dangerous is like saying lava is hot.  Humanity exists in a highly fragmented state throughout the Solar System.  Everywhere there are different political entities, different economic systems, different cooperative powers.  There are the remaining individual threats: those who want even more radical change, those who want to stop evolution, those who desire an end to all personal restrictions.  And beyond that are the watchmen who work behind the scenes ensuring that events leading to The Fall and the near death of humanity will never happen again.  Given all this, drama and conflict are inevitable.  And your character will to know where they stand in this world.  What side are you on?  No, question is more like: how the hell can you ever know?

    This is the next logical step beyond the cyber movement 1980’s and early 90’s science fiction.  The “Metal is Better” meme has been altered and moved way the hell out beyond that primitive neo-concept.  In the Eclipse Phase world, bio and nanotech are used to make a body as perfect and/or useful as possible.  Anthropomorphism isn’t always the norm: if you need to work in null-gee, resleeve into an Octomorph (think of a big, almost human-sized octopus) and give yourself eight arms; if you need to get around a Luna city quickly, resleeve into a Neo-Avian and take to the skies; if you need to work on Mars, then get your ass sleeved into a Ruster or a Flexbot and go on walkabout in the red sands.  Anyone can have a better body: all ya gotta do it build it, friend.  (As before you ask: yes, there are morphs, known as furies, that are made for combat, solely designed to kick ass and forget to take names—with a caveat.  I’ll let the game lay it out:  “To offset tendencies for unruliness and macho behavior patterns, furies feature gene sequences promoting pack mentalities and cooperation, and they tend to be biologically female.”  Adds a whole new meaning to some NPC telling you, “Let’s move out, Ladies”.)

    People are wired directly into the Mesh (the game’s “Internet”) and are able to access data with but a thought.  It is such a common aspect of life that one is always accessing every wiki known to humanity to get your info that people are openly ridiculed if it seems like they are spending too much time accessing their next witty quip, ’cause if you can’t at least look as if you’re coming up with ideas on your own, what good is having a brain?  Information is there for the taking, only requiring the will to mine it or having your muse (a personal AI helper program that is with your Ego from birth) find it—but can you understand what you’ve found?  One can also be inundated by these facts, their minds fogged by augmented reality data taking up too many of one’s visual receptors.  One can have their brains hacked like a cheap computer with a weak firewall.  One could even find their Ego infected with a virus that could give you really cool psi abilities—or turn you into an alien freakazoid that’s gonna be put down with a tac nuke.  The Ego is software; don’t be afraid to re-write it.  Just make sure you’re the one doing the coding.

    Money isn’t a driving force in the game: getting goods and paying for services in a society where auto-factoring something requires throwing some raw materials in a nanofabricator and waiting for the goods to pop out the other end requires more than having a fat wallet (if there were such things as wallets any more).  Rep in Eclipse Phase is everything—it’s how you maintain your lifestyle, it’s how you call in favors . . . it’s how you may get that brand new, hot-ass morph you need to pull off your next gig.  Cash is for the losers in the Jovians and those fools in the Inner System still clinging to the old-world economy: the new economy means being a productive member in any of the social network to which you belong and using it to leverage your life.  (Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong does not count, Hero!  Now where’s my fracking pizza?)  Sure, you can burn your rep to get some bigger, chiller toys, but what’s that saying: “In Space, no one can rebuild your bridge once you’ve flamed it into atoms”?  Even more so than in Night City, rep is everything.  Loose too much and you’ll soon have fun with a simple, menial job that is now known as “life”.

    Travel isn’t a big of a deal in game.  Need to get to from the Moon to Venus?  You Egocast your mind into a new morph at your destination, ’cause Slowboats (otherwise known as space ships) are for losers.  The only time you take a boat anywhere is if you’re in a cluster and you need to go station-to-station.  Anything over ten million kilometers and you ride the light wave.  Sure, there’s always the possibility that your signal might get ‘jacked and you’ll end up in VR storage doing something you don’t want to do, or getting downloaded into a synthmorph and doing something even worse, but those odds are down right astronomical.  Hell, there are much greater possibility that one of your many enemies will discover you’re taking a ship to Mars and decide to copy their ego into the ship’s computer and fly the sucker into Phobos at 30 kps–assuming it isn’t shot down long before it reaches Phobos, but hey, same result in the end, right?

    And then there’s the trips to the stars through the Pandora Gates.  What’s on the other side?  Wouldn’t you like to know  Each world is pretty much a secret, and a lot of people would tell you all about the trip if they ever make it back.  Who knows?  A bright future in the stars might be just the ticket for you.

    Eclipse Phase is the Cyberpunk concept flipped on its head and turned to 11.  The world of Eclipse Phase has hundreds of conspiracies, evil corporations galore, dozens of different socio-economic cultures, shadow organizations hell bent on furthering their own agendas, alien viruses and their ET overlords, sane and crazy AIs perhaps fighting for the soul of humanity . . . it is as perfect a world as one is ever going to find in any RPG.  It is a world where gender roles are irrelevant in a world where changing your body is easier than getting a new ID; where relationships are unusual when immortality looms large and the ability to be just about anyone a person wants to be is the norm; where gray is the predominate color, where fighting for the right side may not be the same as the correct side, where it helps if you fully embrace your inner Tyler Durden.  It’s a game that hasn’t come along in a very long time, and it made be a while before we sees the likes of this richness again.

    And it’s a game you should be playing.

    Review by Ray Frazee

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      2 Responses to “Eclipse Phase RPG Review”

      1. Draxar says:

        Good review; gets the feel of the game over really well.

        One tiny niggle that I’ll note is that unless you die somewhere particularly irretrievable or in an impressively complete fashion, your ego is constantly updated to a backup in your neck, so you can get a pretty much full recolection, if they can get your body.

        Also, the threat of madness, which (along with the cost of new bodies, and the Lack that you mentioned) is the main limiter on constantly dying and coming back.

        Reply

      2. Ray Frazee says:

        All good, valid points, Draxar. There is the cortical stack that allows you to constantly “back up” the ego as you go along, and if your Morph gets trashed in some backwater area, you need someone to recover that stack if you want to know the how and wheres of what you were doing up to the moment you flatlined. The introductory fiction to Eclipse Phase show just what that backwater area might be like.

        And the cost of Morphs is important. Some are dirt cheap, and you get what you pay for. And others, like Furies, will run you thought whatever nose you have to buy one. Of course, maybe some nice . . . people will put you in a Morph for next to nothing. Sure–sure they will.

        Reply

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