Why Play: Eclipse Phase

If you’ve been following this blog, by now you’ll realize I have a few favorite game systems; today I’ll be talking about why you might want to consider giving Eclipse Phase a shot if you’ve never tried it out before. It’s a bit more complicated and esoteric than the the last system I looked over, but just as rewarding of a game.

First off, the authors of Eclipse Phase, Posthuman Studios, have offered the game up with a Creative Commons license. They even host PDFs of the books for public player use, so if you want to take a look, you can; they just ask that if you decide you like the game, you consider buying it when you can. I’ve bought the entire collection of books in PDF, and I have all the sourcebooks in hardcopy save the most recent one, Firewall.

Eclipse Phase is described as a post-apocalyptic game of conspiracy and horror, and this is an accurate enough one-line pitch, but it fails to really do the game justice. The rough of the setting is that a decade ago, the Singularity kicked off with the creation of recursively self-improving artificial intelligence – but then things went awry and in a terrifyingly short time period most of humanity was wiped out. Then the TITANs, as the evolving AIs were dubbed, went mysteriously silent and seem to have disappeared. Humanity has tried to recover from this, but even after the apocalypse the survivors are divided by ideological gaps large enough to sink nations.

So, what makes Eclipse Phase special as a game?

It’s post-apocalyptic without the post-Doomsday desperation. Almost every time you pick up a post-apocalyptic setting, there’s a question of scarcity and survival amid the desolate ruins of a fallen civilization. Not so here; humanity took a beating like nothing ever before, but we were in the middle of a transformation from mortals to posthuman gods at the time. Nanotechnology allows for the fabrication of complex goods from raw feedstock, smart non-sapient AI can handle complicated tasks, and neural uploading permits people to come back from death itself.

While some locations in the solar system certainly still have shortages of materials, the ability to digitize a mind and run it in a virtual state on the staggering amounts of processing power available make it so that no one has any real reason to stay dead during a game. Sure, there are huge numbers of people in cold storage, with no useful skills and no one to rescue them from the digital coffins, but the PCs are assumed to not be such unlucky souls. When you can build your own gear from scratch in a day or two, the scarcity vibe of most post-apocalypse settings just doesn’t exist.

Likewise, there’s none of the post-apocalyptic psychological mess. Yes, mental health is still an issue – this is still a horror game, after all. Sanity is a stat you have to worry about, and shit can get incredibly real incredibly fast. In most cases, however, there’s none of the chest-beating over-the-top angst that comes with most settings in a similar vein – and with good reason. Most of humanity may be dead and gone, but this is a future with psychosurgery and your very own pocket psychologist in the form of your Muse, an AI program that acts as your best friend, personal secretary, mental health specialist, and research aide.

As a result, despite the desperate situation humanity is in, sitting on the brink of extinction with all kinds of unanswered questions and unmentioned dangers looming, people are fairly well-adjusted unless they want to be otherwise. As a result, while plenty of people suffer from the normal range of mental health issues, no one is locked in the thrall of survivor’s guilt over escaping the apocalypse. It’s a quietly accepted fact that when the world came crashing down around those who were left, there wasn’t any time or space for people to work through their issues the slow way.

Put this together with the last point, and even with most of humanity gone, the future’s not so bad. You’ve got food (if you live in a biological body), shelter, and pretty much all your other basic necessities in place, which is more than can be said of the present world, much less other games with a similar genre.

Death is for chumps. Most horror-themed games rely on the threat that you can die in horrific and gruesome ways to help lay on the horror. Eclipse Phase can do more than that – with the ability to upload the mind comes the ability to restore people from death, so your players can actually have their players die in those threatened ways.

With it comes a few other interesting quirks. Not only are the dangers of the apocalypse still laying around, you might still be, too. If you egocast a copy of yourself to safety but didn’t leave your body behind as a mindless corpse, you might one day run into a very different version of yourself – one that has seen and done things quite different than you have.

And, with certain types of bodies being incredibly cheap, you can solve some issues by literally copying yourself into spare bodies to swell your numbers. It comes with a bit of psychological stress for the copy, of course, but if you need half a dozen extra sets of hands with weapons to deal with a problem, who would you rather have? Half a dozen people you don’t really know who agree to lend a hand for favors and credits, or half a dozen copies of yourself who know that their only hope of continuity is to survive long enough to be merged back into you?

Of course, sometimes you may find a situation where you’d like to be able to erase your mind and forget the last month – and you can, if you’ve got a backup of yourself from before the things you want to forget. Death comes in many forms, and some feel a lot like hitting Reset on a game console. It’s a little stressful to think of yourself like that, perhaps.

Augment yourself because you’re not entirely human anymore. A key point of Eclipse Phase is that there are still baseline humans left – mostly over in the Jovian Republic, bastion of all things conservative – but most of the minds in the solar system are now transhuman. They live in bodies that are improved or just transformed from the model we’ve lived in since the advent of modern man, no longer subject to things like evolution.

Some people now live in heavily augmented bodies, starting with genetically streamlined and upgraded Olympian bodies and adding bioware and cybernetics from there to become nearly godlike compared to us today. Others forego biology, living as software in robotic bodies, with some far enough from human that they’d fit well in a robot horror film. Some live in genetically engineered animal bodies with robotic brains, like the Novacrab. Some go so far as to ignore embodiment entirely, coming to dwell entirely on the ubiquitous Internet-equivalent of the setting, the Mesh. Some aren’t even human to begin with – several types of uplifted animals exist, as do limited Artificially Generated Intelligences (or AGIs).

In Eclipse Phase, you’re not stuck with what you were born with; you can edit your mind and change your body to become who and what you really want to be, with almost no fuss.

The Apocalypse may be over, but the fighting isn’t. The Fall, as the events around transhumanity’s near-extinction are called, may be nearly ten years in the past, but everything that happened then has left scars on the present. Mars has a massive Quarantine Zone. Luna lost an entire city, buried and nuked to try to seal the horrors inside away. Earth itself is completely quarantined, and everyone would like to pretend it isn’t in Luna’s sky, visibly scarred by the Fall.

And there are certainly plenty of horrors left over. The Earth is still soaked in hostile nanomachines, head-stealing hunter-killer drones, and titanic war machines. The TITANs let loose several strains of terrifying viruses that rewrite the mind on the fly, or corrupt and transform the body. Even robotic bodies aren’t safe – nanoswarms can rebuild them on the fly and reprogram the mind inside to the strange purposes of the TITANs.

Even with the TITANs gone, transhumanity isn’t safe by a long shot. And when you add in all the tension between the factions, it’s a wonder that the end of the Fall wasn’t those survivors wiping each other out to finish the job they started.

A wild new future with strange new concepts. Transhumanism itself is just the first concept that this game will introduce you to. While trying to remain hard science fiction, it does its best to speculate at the end result of technology as we know it. The habitats people live in are almost solid with sensors, recording audio, video, and more around the clock. This panopticon would be oppressive, were it not for the democratization of the process; anywhere public, anyone can access the sensor feeds. Many public officials broadcast live streams of their recorded experiences 23/7, to prove that they’re not up to anything suspicious. This sousveillance provides a safety net, as well, as even minor crimes are likely to be witnessed by someone.

In this future, even your identity is somewhat subject to public opinion, with reputation networks allowing people to vote you up or down based on their interactions. These networks can literally be more valuable than cash, potentially giving you the ability to ask for favors well in excess of what you can actually afford, as long as you continue to prove yourself to people on that network.

The only cost is any sense of genuine privacy, which can seem like a small cost when you almost went extinct a decade ago.

Conspiracies? Yeah, we got that covered. The default assumption of the game is that players are a part of an organization known as Firewall, which is a clandestine group grown out of several spy networks. It works to preserve transhumanity at any cost, hunting down existential risks that range from something as simple as a single terrorist who keeps forking his mind and sending those forks to different stations to orchestrate a system-wide mass bombing to fighting off squads of exhumans trying to assault the remnants of transhumanity to prove their superiority. Then, of course, there’s the biggest X-threat of all: the exsurgent virus that self-mutates to transform victims into servants of the absent TITANs.

Then there’s Project Ozma, the evil big brother of Firewall. They like to play with all the things Firewall wants to destroy, and they have both the wealth and the firepower to take things away from Firewall if they get there soon enough. Neither wants anything they deal in to reach the public, so occasionally the two groups cooperate in an uncomfortable fashion until things are resolved.

Other conspiratorial groups exist, and factions exist within each of them. Intrigue is a natural factor in Eclipse Phase games if that’s what you’re looking for.

And then there’s that thing over there. There are aliens in Eclipse Phase. One species of them is still alive: the Factors, a species of sapient slime mold. They’re incredibly coy, opinionated about artificial intelligence and robots, and they loathe the Pandora Gates. That last one is a series of gateways around the solar system with a level of technology well past what transhumanity is capable of developing, which can produce wormholes that connect to other gates around the galaxy.

And that’s where the other aliens come in. We’ve found a few thoroughly extinct species, each of them showing signs of having died during or soon after their own version of the Singularity. At least one, the Iktomi, also knew about the Pandora Gates, and colonized several other systems before they ceased to exist. Of course, some might say the exhumans are on their way to being alien, if they aren’t already.

All in all, Eclipse Phase is a deep and complex setting with a great deal of meat to sink your teeth into; if you’re willing to adapt to the mechanics of the system, which can be a little clunky at times, it’s an excellent game that I strongly recommend as one of the best sci-fi games I’ve ever played. If you’d rather have a simpler system, they’re planning to release a Fate Core adaptation in the near future!

So if any of this sounds interesting, I recommend dropping by Rob Boyle’s page and taking a look – and if you like what you see, buy the PDFs, at least, to support these clever folks in developing more for the system!

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Why Play: Eclipse Phase

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