Today I’m going to talk a bit about Eclipse Phase and the various non-TITAN and non-existential threats that can still be used to build a game. Not everything has to be about the potential extermination of transhumanity, the return (or mystery) of the TITANs, or the Sword of Damocles hanging over transhumanity in the form of the various factions angling to try to wipe the others out.
It’s fairly easy to understand why campaigns about the various X-Risks are popular; we’re trained to think in heroic terms by other games that we play, and the struggle to save transhumanity from doomsday threats are pretty much the most heroic thing that EP can offer. It’s important to remember that this isn’t a heroic genre game, though – it’s horror and conspiracy in the aftermath of an apocalypse that nearly wiped the essence of human existence from the face of the cosmos. There are much smaller threat, equally horrible, out there in the void of the solar system. You don’t even need to leave orbit around one of the inner system planets to have all the terrible things you could ever ask for.
There are plenty of nasty groups you can build a campaign around; players who share an aversion to ego-theft and indenture can have a solid campaign built around hunting cartels like Nine Lives and making raids on the ego storage housing indentures for the hypercorps, forming an Underground Railroad for the unfortunates. The risks here aren’t paltry; running afoul of an ego-smuggling cartel like Nine Lives means running the risk of having your own ego ripped out of your skull and tortured for subjective centuries before being packaged up and sold to the highest bidder, repeatedly. Running afoul of a hypercorp is likely to get you stuffed into cold storage and sold off as an indenture, once some psychosurgery is done to make you properly compliant.
Additionally, EP doesn’t have clear-cut lines of good and evil like more heroic games. Yes, saving egos from slavery and torture is generally a good thing to do, but if you learn one of the victims you’ve rescued was a mass murderer and had a thing for resleeving his victim in case morphs to hunt them down repeatedly, how hard of a call would it be to decide what to do with that ego? If you turn the ego in to the authorities, even anonymously, you’ll be responsible for what happens – if they get deleted, or their ego gets psychosurgically butchered to make them a model citizen in some inner-system polity, or if, somehow, the person is allowed to go free as a hound for some hypercorp, you’re the one who enabled it.
Then there are the hypercorps themselves, all of whom have a profit motive and ample reason to keep citizens in line. Barsoomians want to have Mars for the people, the hypercorps behind the terraforming want to profit from it, and in that conflict are born acts of terrorism like Earth has never seen. Suppose your group is part of a Barsoomian movement; it seems like a reasonable thing, aiming to keep the people free and rescue them from the slavery of genetic ‘patches’ on their morphs. Then there’s the extremists that the players have to work with from time to time – people who may be willing to go collect things from the White Zone and turn them loose in the souks of the cities to try scaring the townies off of Mars, with no concern about what else they might be bringing back. Do the players try to stop them, and risk being exiled from the movement as hypercorp sympathizers? And if they don’t, what do they do when the hypercorps brand all Barsoomians as fanatical terrorists and start bombing even peaceful highland settlements with comets? Will they eventually be willing to consider turning over the fanatics to save the lives and homes of the less extreme Barsoomians, knowing that the hypercorps will eventually want to wipe them all out to maximize their profits?
The Outer System has its own issues; Jovian aggression against the liberal polities in their area can provide an entire war campaign and then some for those who want to side with either the bioconservatives of the Republic or the technoprogressives of Europa. The high-radiation environment of orbit around Jupiter, the use of mass bombardment weapons and imprisonment in places like Maui Patera on Io, all of it can paint a terribly grim picture of post-Fall warfare. There’s no existential threat here, but ample risk of all the dangers of war augmented by a truly deadly environment and one side painting their foes as literal demons and monsters while the other tries to blow them off as backward and primitive – likely to their own detriment.
A brinker habitat with a single serial killer who knows how to manipulate the sensor network can be equal parts slasher flick, crime serial, and detective noir, depending on how the killer goes about their business and how much power they hold over the habitat. Egocast in, expecting an insular community, only to find that the locals live in perpetual fear and refuse to talk about why, with no evidence left on the mesh? Most players won’t be able to resist trying to dig into that mystery, and before long the killer will be gunning for them – and shutting down the farcasting equipment to keep them captive until they can be loaded into bodies that have been modified so that they can’t egocast. It’s no x-threat – if the players are absent long enough, they’ll just be restored from backup in a different station, and the killer has no interest in leaving the habitat that they’ve turned into their lair. But how far will the PCs go in their attempts to fight back, and how dark will they get themselves before finishing their foe off?
There are, ultimately, a nearly infinite number of games and campaigns to be run in EP that have nothing to do with the x-threats hanging over everyone; exploring them can be as fun as any Pathfinder game against mythic evils. They’re just less clear-cut on good and evil, right and wrong, and what someone can do before they betray themselves. Think on it, if you play EP, and consider giving it a try.
You just might enjoy the espionage, intrigue, conspiracy, and horror all the more for the more personal scale of it.