Eclipse Phase Review

Eclipse Phase Banner

Your mind is software. Program it.
Your body is a shell. Change it.
Death is a disease. Cure it.
Extinction is approaching. Fight it.

This is the tag line for the tabletop role playing game Eclipse Phase by Posthuman Studios. The team that created this game, many of which worked on the Shadowrun 4th edition rules (this game bears some similarities to Shadowrun), have created a game that pushes at boundaries, both in the game world and in the real world.

Concept and Execution:

The basic premise of the game is similar to a lot of films and games already made: humanity has created artificial intelligences (known in the game as TITANs), resulting in a technological singularity event, and those super intelligent AIs have turned against them. After a devastating war, humanity has fled to space stations and habitats on other planets, leaving Earth a destroyed shadow of its former self, populated by killer robots and self-replicating nano swarms. While we have seen this paradigm before, EP puts a unique spin on it by changing the manner in which most people escaped. Using cutting edge technology, humanity has found a way to digitize their minds (referred to in the game as an ego), separate it from the body (referred to as a morph), and transmit it over vast distances, where it can be downloaded into a new morph or exist as a digital program (called an infomorph). As a result of this technology, humankind has effectively achieved immortality, as they can switch morphs whenever their old one becomes too old, damaged, or sick. They can also store digital backups of their ego, making it possible to restore from a sort of “save point” if their morphs are slain. Most of humanity has a device called a cortical stack implanted in their morphs, which creates a new backup of their ego every second, in case of their untimely death. This cortical stack can be retrieved, and the ego can be resleeved (downloaded into a new body) with no loss of memory up to and including their own deaths. Should the cortical stack not be able to be retrieved, the ego can still be resleeved from a backup created prior to their death. This allows the ego to continue on, although they will be missing (and will have no memories of) the time between their last backup and their death.

This single innovation creates a multitude of interesting twists on the standard role playing game. The most obvious is that the characters can die. Or rather, their morphs can die (which many players would probably equate with character death in other games). This is almost unheard of in tabletop RPGs, where character death usually means scrapping that character and writing a new one, which the Game Master (GM) has to incorporate into an already existing game. It is a jarring experience to say the least, and GMs who have character death as a regular part of their game tend to not have players for very long. In EP, however, this is not only possible, it is almost expected, especially for character concepts that involve high risk occupations. GMs can take advantage of this by designing adventures that truly challenge players, and players can take advantage of this by creating plans that don’t necessarily have to include their character’s survival.

Another aspect of this technology pushes at the metaphysical boundaries of humanity. Players are offered a multitude of choices for character concept, including traditional humans, but also uplifted animals (animals raised to human level intelligence and given genetically modified morphs that are anthropomorphic versions of their original animals), AIs (not like the TITANs that destroyed earth, but ones specifically tailored to prevent a singularity event), synthetic morphs (essentially robot bodies), or they can even choose to exist as an infomorph (a purely digital copy of an ego that runs like a program on a computer). All of these are considered a part of the larger transhumanity. Morphs can be genetically engineered to nearly any specifications and egos can be altered (voluntarily or otherwise) using psychosugery, essentially treating the mind as a program that can be edited on a whim. Egos can even be copied through a process known as forking, allowing multiple copies of the same ego to be active and aware at the same time. All of this leads to a sort of existential crisis, where characters (and, consequently, players and GMs) and forced to ask: what really is human? More specifically: what am I? These questions are presented in such a way as to require the players and the GM to consider them in nearly every character they make or game session they play. This level of self-reflection is simply not present in games like D&D, and even in games (like most World of Darkness and Shadowrun products) that deal with these themes it is not integrated as well or as thoroughly into the game setting as EP is doing.

The other major innovation of EP comes not from within the rules, but from Posthuman Studios itself. EP is distributed under the Creative Commons license, which allows people to share and remix the material freely. That’s right, the PDFs of this game’s rule and sourcebooks are free. Obviously people still can (and are encouraged to) pay for the electronic versions, which usually run between $5 and $15, and the hardcover books are available for purchase as well, but everyone can freely download and share the PDFs as much as they want. People can also use any of the rules, text, and even most artwork from the books to create their own games, sourcebooks, and adventures, as long as they acknowledge the source materials, don’t use it for commercial purposes (in other words, make money off of it), and distribute it using the same or similar license (meaning that it is fair game for others to use in their own works). This is rare in the RPG community, which is usually characterized by developers keeping an iron grip on their IPs in order to protect their brand.

Though it has a familiar starting point (the war between humanity and AIs had been done ad nauseam), EP manages to take it in an entirely new and interesting directions. Though the struggle against the TITANs is ostensibly the focus of the game, it almost fades into the background in favor of more personal questions involving the very nature of humankind (known as transhumanity in the game), and thus of the people playing the game as well.

Concept and Execution Grade: 23/25

Game Mechanics:

The two main stats that make up a character are aptitudes and skills. Aptitudes represent raw ability, encompass things like Cognition, Coordination, and Willpower, and are rated between 1 and 30. Morphs alter aptitudes, with many offering bonuses specific to their purpose, and all morphs have an aptitude limit, which caps aptitudes while an ego is sleeved in them. Skills are built off of aptitudes and represent training and education. Skills start at the level of their associated aptitude and range up to 99. The number of skills is staggering, ranging from combat skills to social skills to esoteric sciences such as gene therapy and xenobiology. Morph and Ego derived stats round out the characteristics, with morphs contributing things like Durability, Wound Threshold, and Speed while the ego supplies Lucidity and Moxie, among others. Moxie is interesting in that it represents a mixture of luck, karma, and sheer determination, and provides a pool of points that the player can spend to influence the mechanics of the game, such as allowing the player to flip the percentile roll (thus turning an 82 into a 28) or downgrading a critical failure into a normal one. Players of Shadowrun will recognize this mechanic as it is very similar to the Karma system employed in that game.

Eclipse Phase abandons the more popular Difficulty Class (DC) and hit based systems used in many RPGs (including Shadowrun) recently in favor of a “roll under” system using percentile dice (dice that produce a number between one and one hundred). Most actions are carried out by rolling under a target number which is usually a skill total, but may also be a combination of two or more aptitudes or one aptitude multiplied by two or three. If the player rolls under the target number, they succeed, if they roll over, they fail. Modifiers (both positive and negative) can be applied to the target number and the players can achieve a critical success or failure if they roll doubles (11, 22, 33, etc.). The game also uses a measure of success/failure mechanic that aims to reward characters with higher skill totals. This mechanic favors rolls that are higher but still successful. For example, if a character’s skill total is 65 and the player rolls a 20, they succeed with a measure of success (MOS) of 20. However, if they roll a 62, they succeed with a MOS of 62. The higher the MOS, the more spectacularly the character succeeds at whatever they are doing. The game mechanic also allows for a tracking of the measure of failure (MOF) that a character can achieve, by subtracting the target number from the number the player rolled over it. For example, if the target number is 50 and the player rolls a 94, the MOF would be 44. MOS/MOF above 30 usually represent a specific benefit or penalty, such as more damage inflicted in combat for a high MOS or a character turning an NPC into an enemy with a high MOF on a social roll. Opposed tests are handled by comparing MOS between the two rolls. The character with the higher MOS wins, even if both rolls were a success. This can lead to some frustration on the part of players, as the system felt more random than it was, which was not a good thing. The relative ease at which actions could fail spectacularly (through critical failures) can also lead to frustration.

Combat is handled in Action Turns, which are further broken down into Action Phases. Characters act in initiative order (initiative is derived from other stats and may be enhanced by augmentations bought for morphs) and have a variety of action types available. These action types include Automatic actions, which require no roll or effort on the character’s part (such as basic perception); Quick actions, which the character can perform several of during an Action turn (such as reloading a weapon or talking with teammates); Complex actions, which the character can usually take one of each Action phase (such as attacking, hacking a computer, or disarming a bomb); and Task actions, which require more than one Action turn to complete (such as repairing or building a machine). The number of Action phases the character gets to act in during each Action turn is determined by their Speed stat, which can be modified through augmentations and other means. Combat, especially ranged combat, is deadly. The Fray skill, which is used to dodge, is halved when used against ranged attacks. This makes it very difficult to dodge, as even a character with the highest Fray skill possible has only a 50% chance to be successful against a ranged attack. Even if they are successful, the MOS system favors the attacker, who can have a target number as high as 99, and can therefore still hit even if the defender is successful on their Fray roll (which has a much lower target number due to the halving of the skill). If a weapon does more damage than the Wound Threshold (WT) of a character’s morph, that character takes a wound, which puts a persistent -10 modifier to all target numbers and stacks with other modifiers, including further wounds. This leads to a situation where once a character (or NPC) gets injured, it becomes easier and easier to further wound, and eventually kill them. Armor (and augmentations) can mitigate these disadvantages to some degree, allowing characters to ignore some wound penalties and other negatives, but on the whole the balance is skewed towards offense, which often results in short, bloody conflicts. This can be frustrating for characters that are not combat oriented, and it can also result in a vicious cycle where the characters get wounded, have a lower chance to effectively defend themselves, then get wounded easier, leading to a quick death. This also makes one very tough combatant much more dangerous than a large number of weaker enemies that have a hard time exceeding character’s WTs.

Character design is handled through a point based system, allowing players to design a nearly infinite variety of characters without being constrained by a class based system. Players are given a number of points to spend on Aptitudes and skills, and a have more points they can spend on whatever they want, from gear to multiple morphs to positive traits that augment their egos and/or morphs to more skills and rep. Rep is a form of currency that is used in post-scarcity economies in lieu of credits (the equivalent of money) and represents how well-known and liked the character is with a certain group of people, and consequently how likely someone who identifies with that group of people are to help the character. Characters advance through the earning and spending of Rez points (essentially experience or upgrade points) which are earned after adventures and can be spent to increase skills, aptitudes, or pretty much anything else on a character. Rez is earned fairly quickly, which allows for small upgrades to be made on a regular basis. Unlike Shadowrun or White Wolf games, Rez costs don’t get proportionally higher as a trait increases (with the exception of skills, which cost two points instead of one to upgrade beyond 60), meaning the first point of an Aptitude costs the same as the final point. While this allows for relatively quick upgrading, it doesn’t seem natural, as it doesn’t take diminishing returns into account, and allows for relatively easy maxing out of a stat. This can lead to a feeling of stagnation as the player has to look for new ways to spend their Rez after maxing out the stats that are important to their character concept.
While the systems are well implemented, some of the inherent flaws of the “roll under” mechanics are insurmountable, as the MOS/MOF system can be extremely random and frustrating at times. The skewing of combat towards offense and the relative ease of maxing out character traits also hamper what is otherwise a well-designed system. These flaws are not bad enough to prevent the system from working, but it is far from perfect.

Game Mechanics Grade: 21/25

Atmosphere:

The creators of Eclipse Phase obviously put a lot of time and effort into creating and explaining the world in which transhumanity finds itself. Nearly one half of the almost 400 page rulebook is dedicated to the history and current situation of transhumanity, including detailed discussions of the habitats, culture and science involved in the game, as well as a lengthy short story detailing a mission that could easily have been inspired by a game session. The beginning of the book consists of an exhaustive accounting of the history of humans up before and after the Fall of Earth to the TITANs. This is followed by details of every major transhuman settlement, discussion of the various factions and governments, and a general primer on the science and culture of the game. Some of the science is based on current scientific theories and conjectures about what might be available in the near future, including things like genetic engineering, sophisticated computer programs, and nanotechnology used in production and medicine. There are also details of the various economic systems of the game, including the old economies, which represent traditional capitalism, new economies, which are post-scarcity economies, and transitional economies, which blend the other two systems.

All of this is told through the lens of the default campaign, in which the characters are assumed to be agents of Firewall, a secret paramilitary organization dedicated to protecting transhumanity from existential threats (threats against the very existence of transhumanity as a whole). The history and culture descriptions are peppered with articles, definitions and verbatim conversations about related topics in sidebars that make it feel like the player is reading a field handbook designed to bring them up to speed on what they need to know to be an effective agent. There is a lot of information here, which may seem daunting to some people who want to jump into the game right away, but it is presented in an interesting manner (through the sidebars, personal conversations, and the like), which helps alleviate the volume of information needed to play the game.

Atmosphere Grade: 23/25

Entertainment Value:

In order to judge this game thoroughly, I ran a few sessions with my core gaming group (which consists of four players, each with 15 or more years experience playing tabletop RPGs). The first session was the one-shot adventure designed by Posthuman Studios entitled Ego Hunter. The players used characters designed for the adventure, and the it was fairly linear (as one-shot adventures tend to be) and focused more on investigation and social interaction than combat. The players each played a beta-level fork of the same person (beta forks are copies of an ego that are intentionally crippled in some manner, usually by limiting certain skills and erasing many memories). This presented a unique opportunity, and challenge, in that all of the players were essentially playing the same person. Thus, they were encouraged to speak with similar mannerisms, act with similar purpose, and collectively create an identity for their alpha (the originating ego that they were copied from). The adventure consisted largely of problem solving and investigative tasks, as the forks were required to unearth and put together a series of clues that leads them to their alpha and allows them to save their colony from an aggressive alien spore that can control a morph’s actions through infesting it. It was fun and interesting, though much of that stemmed from the novelty of the type of characters they were playing (this had literally never been offered in any game we had ever played before), and allowed the group to familiarize themselves thoroughly with the rules.

The second adventure I ran was based loosely on the short story that opens the EP core rulebook, and focused more on combat, hacking, and other non-social actions, as I wanted to test those systems more thoroughly than I was able to during the first adventure. For this adventure my players had to create their own characters, thus allowing us to more accurately judge the character creation system. The players had to find a way onto Earth, which is guarded by orbiting “kill-sats,” satellites programmed to shoot down anything entering or leaving the vicinity of the planet, avoid or destroy any security or opponents on the surface of the planet, and retrieve a piece of data and transmit it off-world to their Firewall superiors. This adventure exposed more of the flaws in the game, especially the character creation system (discussed in more detail below) and the combat system (discussed in detail in the game mechanics section and below). However, the world created by EP is so compelling that it overcame many of the mechanics flaws through sheer interest. My players universally commented on how interesting and deep the setting was, even as they complained about other things.

Playing these adventures, especially the second one, exposed some of the flaws inherent in the system, which I detail in the game mechanics section. It also exposed a flaw in the character creation system. During character creation, my players consistently told me that they felt they had too many points to make a starting character. Using the base rules (I did not modify any of the rules or place any additional restrictions on my players other than what is detailed in the book), it was very easy to reach the highest levels of ability in the core skills needed for most character concepts at character creation. This lead to a feeling that there was no growth in characters, as they already have all of the needed skills and aptitudes to excel at their specialty. While this may be mitigated somewhat by placing additional restrictions on the character creation process (like capping skills at a lower level or not allowing certain pieces of gear or morphs to be purchased at character creation) or encouraging more diversity in skills within the characters, it cannot be fully overcome when following the standard rule set. My players also complained about how deadly combat was, especially for characters that were not fully geared towards combat. This lead to a feeling of being “left out” for those players who did not make combat monster characters, as they spent most of combat cowering behind cover, watching the other characters do everything.

The final flaw in the system is that the players need to be very well informed in order to effectively play the game. Unlike D&D, you can not really get by with an understanding of the rules alone. The game world is nearly seamlessly integrated with the rules. While this allows the game to feel more “real” or “alive,” it makes it nearly impossible to function within it if players do not know how it works, at least without needing lengthy explanations by the GM whenever an unfamiliar term or concept is mentioned. While I would not go so far as to say this game is not for beginners, it definitely requires a thorough reading of both the rules and the background to play effectively.

Entertainment Value Grade: 23/25

Overall, the strengths of the system far outweigh the weaknesses, and there is much more detail and thought put into the background and environment of the work than many other major RPG product on the market, and that alone is a reason to pick up and try Eclipse Phase.

Total Grade: 89/100

 

Included below are some links to the Eclipse Phase website if you want to check it out.

The Eclipse Phase main page, where you can read information and buy their products.

Rob Boyle’s professional site, where you can download the PDFs for free.

 

Share

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *