RPG Review

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Eclipse Phase

From: Catalyst Game Labs/Posthuman Studios LLC
Reviewed by: Ron McClung

Eclipse Phase is a Role Playing Game Core Book from Catalyst Game Labs.

I have had a few PDFs in my archives that were given to me to review but due to unforeseen life complications, I was not able to.  I felt I owed those products a review and since I have started Gamer’s Codex, I have gone back in my archives and found a number of those products.  Eclipse Phase is one of them.  Since I received this, it is apparent that the publisher has changed hands from Catalyst Labs , reverting back to Posthuman Studios.  It also won the Origins Award for Best RPG of the Year in 2010 and the ENnie Awards: Gold for Best Writing, Silver for Best Cover, and Silver for Best Product in 2010.  And I am finally getting a chance to review it. Sorry it took me so long.  Life!

From the inner front cover:
“Your mind is software. Program it.”

THE SETTING

Being that I am a sci-fi guy when it comes to RPGs, this game attracted me right away.  I know and love good concepts in a game.  This concept on the outside is very high-brow, intelligent and imaginative.  You will see why I think that as I go through it.  This setting is perhaps Phillip K. Dick’s worst nightmare and greatest dream at the same time.

The primary tag line of Eclipse Phase is that it is a post-apocalyptic game of conspiracy and horror. What does that mean? To this game, it is a little different than conventional thinking.  When I think of post-apocalyptic, I think of Road Warrior or Gamma World.  But in this case, humanity has colonized the solar system and further out (thanks to something called the Pandora Gates).  In this setting, after a long period of hopeless human inaction and inter-factional conflict, Earth is devastated by a horrible apocalypse, reminiscent to the Terminator Skynet combined with elements of the Matrix.  Military self-improving AIs called TITANs ravaged the planet, performing horrible atrocities against humanity, devastating the landscape into a nuclear slagheap and suddenly disappearing without a trace.  This is called the “Fall” and it happened 10 years before the default setting start date.

The conspiracy aspect of the game comes in the politics and conflicting agendas surrounding various human factions.  Unfortunately, even in the face of extinction, humanity continues to fight with itself.  Many rumors and conspiracy theories, for instance, surround what happened on Earth – exactly where the TITANS really come from and why they did what they did.  At the center of many of these theories is a strange alien nano-virus called Exsurgent – a virus that affects both machines and organics.  The virus has many effects and many strains and acts as sort of a boogie-man for the GM to play with.  They even found a “safe” strain that awakens psi ability.  The origins of the Exsurgent virus are not commonly known but the conspiracy theory involves Extraterrestrial Intelligences – the aliens among us.

Horror takes many forms but in this game it can be subtle or terrifying.  It is a very gritty setting, and the dangers of space are just the start.  What one man is willing to do to get ahead of another can also be pretty horrific.  Human mental stability in a time like this with technology testing it everyday can lead to terrifying unstable psychotics running about crowded space stations.  And of course, there is the slow growth of alien influences that we have no idea how long have been among us.

It also leaves out a very important aspect of the setting – Transhumanism.  Transhumanism is the belief that humanity will transcend into the next level of evolution through science and technology. Bio-engineering, cybernetics, and genetic manipulation is commonplace.  Among other things, humanity has developed the ability to digitize one’s consciousness and transfer it from body to body.  Nano-technology and replication of materials from the atomic level are possible.  Uplifting animals to sentience is possible and cloning is commonplace.  Through these various technologies, death has all but been defeated when you can back up your consciousness somewhere on the Mesh and download it back to a new genetically engineered body.  This ability presents many philosophical questions about self, being, and the soul.  Is one’s self simply contained in the electrical charges that encompass our consciousness or are we more than the sum of our parts? They are fascinating questions.

Humanity (now transhumanity) is fragmented throughout the solar system and various other extra-solar colonies found through the Gates.  The Gates, controlled by hypecorps (this game’s version of mega-corporations), were built by the TITANs and left behind.  Using them, the corporations have sent out the first of what they hope is many colonists (indentured corporate slaves) to the other side of the gates.  Meanwhile, what is left of humanity in the Solar system is cooped up in artificial habitats, space stations and asteroid stations from Mercury all the way to the outer edges of the system.

Transhumanity is enhanced and improved, but also battered and bitterly divided. Various factions with their conflicting agendas battle for whatever power is left.  Earth is quarantined by the major powers, primarily being the Planetary Consortium, but Earth history continues to repeat itself on a grander scale of our own solar system.  It’s a bleak, dark universe where humanity has fulfilled everyone’s worst expectations, and struggles to rebuild whatever it can on the remaining worlds it has access to.

One aspect of this I found fascinating and also kind of horrifying was that some survivors of the devastation on Earth still exist in only virtual form.  There are dormant storage units floating out here with thousands of minds stored on them.  There are entire virtual communities made up of the disembodied minds of old Earth, waiting for bodies that may never come because people have forgotten them.  That alone has my mind running with ideas for adventure.

All kinds of threats lurk in the devastated habitats of the Fall; dangers both familiar and alien.   First contact with alien life came in the form of something simply called the Factors.  They warned humanity not to do the things it was already doing – mess around with self-improving AIs and use the Gates.  This let transhumanity know they were not alone. In this gritty and harsh setting, the default way to involve characters is to work for a cross-faction conspiracy secret organization called Firewall.  It seeks to protect transhumanity from threats both internal and external, but “protect” is a relative term these days. Adventures can include risking the ruins of the human homeworld, hunting terrorists through abandoned stations, or searching for prized technology in derelict hulks in the dark reaches of the solar system.

There are a variety of terms and technologies that enhance the setting a little further.  One of my favorite elements in the game are muses.  It is what I would imagine smart phones evolving to.  They are AI implants that act as a communicator, scheduler, and general virtual companion in anyone under 70. Also interesting are nanofabricators – basically Star Trek replication technology.  Of course, the technology to upload, back up and download one’s consciousness or ego is core to the setting. They are so commonplace that even travel has changed – you can upload yourself to a new body in a new location rather than physically travel.   The Mesh is this game’s version of cyberspace, with lots of AI enhancements and high-tech elements that I could spend hours writing about.

In the end, it is a brilliantly dark and fascinatingly gritty campaign setting, with many heady or high-concept aspects to the game.  The players and the GM need to make sure they get a full understanding of a setting like this because it is not like anything out there.

From the inner front cover:
“Your body is a shell. Change it.”

THE SYSTEM

Eclipse Phase uses a d100 percentile system.  However, there is a twist.  First, the highest you can roll on these percentiles is 99, thus making 00 actually the best you can roll.  After playing a lot of other percentile games, that will take a little getting used to alone.  But critical successes/failures are also a bit of a twist.  Any roll of doubles – 11, 22, 33, etc. – is considered a critical.  Whether it is below or above your difficult determines whether it is a critical success or failure.  This in effect increases the possibility of critical success as you get higher in a skill but at the same time, when you are lower in a skill, more of a chance of a critical failure.  Although intuitively, I think that makes sense, I am not sure that would play out well overtime in the game groups I have played in.

Combat takes place in Action turns which are divided into action phases.  Instead of a straight forward way of taking  your turn and then starting the round all over again, it approaches it a little more old school.  The old GDW house system did this.  Each character has a speed score amongst the plethora of stats.  Everyone acts on Action Phase 1.  People with speed 2 or higher can act on phase 2.  And so on.  After 5 phases, you roll initiative again.  A little more complex than I like but I can probably get used to it.

CHARACTERS

There are no classes for characters in this game.  Characters are skill-based, allowing players to customize their roles any way they want to.  What they do have is a Background, a Faction, a Morph (physical body), Motivations, and Traits (advantages and disadvantages).   The character core stats, however, are contained in three areas – Aptitudes (ability scores), Stats – both of their Ego (mental) and of their Morph (physical), and Skills.  This all may sound like a lot and on first glance it did seem a lot to me, but they all do fit fairly well together.  All these stats are obtained through point allocation – a character is allocated a number of Free Points spent on Aptitude (and Stats are calculated from Aptitudes) and Customization Points (CPs)  which are used from everything else.

Of course at the core of character creation is the Morph and the Ego.  The Ego is your consciousness, downloadable and backed-up on the Mesh.  At the core of one’s origin of Ego is the Background and Faction.  Background are general definitions, professions, or group affiliations describing where the character comes from.  Factionalizing, important in any intrigue based game, is what defines the character’s loyalties and motivations regardless of physical form.

The Morph can be one of several starter morphs, and the character can upgrade as time goes on.  There are plenty of Morphs to choose from and they include Implants and Advantages, along with several values that affect other Stats and Aptitudes (primarily physical in nature, of course).  Obtaining a new Morph occurs in game play and is a process called re-sleeving, and other than the cost, it’s like changing into a new suit.  Morph ranges from genetically modified transhumans to synthetic robotic shells.

Additionally, through an odd turn of events involving a “safe” strain of Exsurgent, psionic abilities have awakened in some transhumans.  Psi ability starts at the Psi Trait and then one can purchase powers or sleights.  Psi powers are fairly simple, integrated into the existing dice system, with a few extra mechanics for things like range, duration and strain.

What is very attractive as a GM about this game is that the setting is built for numerous scenario types, from faction-based intrigues to high-tech dungeon-crawls in dark space stations or alien ruins.  One can get lost in mind-scarring mysteries of deep space or see endless wonders on dangerous exploration of alien worlds via wormhole gates.  The book presents an assortment of intriguing factions, from techno-anarchists or soul-trading criminals to future-chasing hypercorps or uplifted animals.  The game master has a good range of NPCs to choose from – rogue AIs, extreme posthuman factions, isolationist aliens with their own agenda and transhumans infected with Exsurgent virus.  It also provides the GM explanations for the Factor – a truly alien alien faction as well as an ancient alien race Iktomi who have left behind only ruins to mark their presence.

Eclipse Phase is available under the Creative Commons Attribution – Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License, which gives fans the ability to create and share free Eclipse Phase material. Whether it is homebrew adventures or hacks and remixes of the Eclipse Phase rules, it is basically open source.  From what I have read, this PDF was initially available for free.  This is a very admirable way to approach things.

In conclusion,  I realize why this game has won all the accolades that it has gotten.  It is a powerfully imaginative setting with a creative but simple system.  It has elegance while at the same time it has darkness and grittiness.  It is a game that sets itself apart as unique in an industry of way too much sameness.  At the same time, transhumanism and evil artificial intelligences are very “heady” subjects and may not appeal to many.  Finding its audience may be a challenge for this game.

For more details on Catalyst Game Labs/Posthuman Studios LLCand their Role Playing Game Core Book “Eclipse Phase” check them out at their website http://www.catalystgamelabs.com, and at all of your local game stores.

Codex Rating: 18

Product Summary

Eclipse Phase
From: Catalyst Game Labs/Posthuman Studios LLC
Type of Game: Role Playing Game Core Book
Written by: Lars Blumenstein, Rob Boyle, Brian Cross, Jack Graham, John Snead
Contributing Authors: Bruce Baugh, Randall N. Bills, Davidson Cole, Tobias Wolter
Game Design by: Rob Boyle, Brian Cross
Developed by: Rob Boyle
Cover Art by: Stephan Martiniere
Additional Art by: Justin Albers, Rich Anderson, Davi Blight, Leanne Buckley, Robin Chyo, Daniel Clarke, Paul Davies, Nathan Geppert, Zachary Graves, Tariq Hassan, Thomas Jung, Sergey Kondratovich, Sean McMurchy, Dug Nation, Ben Newman, Justin Oaksford, Efrem Palacios, Sacha-Mikhail Roberts, Silver Saaramael, Daniel Stultz, Viktor Titov, Alexandre Tuis, Bruno Werneck, and Dr. CM Wong (Opus Artz Studio)
Number of Pages: 402
Game Components Included: One core rule book
Retail Price: $15 (US)
Website: www.catalystgamelabs.com

Reviewed by: Ron McClung

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