Part Four: The Sci-fi Paragon
Throughout this series (see parts One, Two, and Three), you’ve heard me reference the game of Eclipse Phase a few times. This is not by accident. I have previously discussed at length the difficulties faced by RPGs in the science fiction genre. I have written about games that are nearly science fiction but not quite, and those science fiction attempts that failed. I have spoken about the game Eclipse Phase in one of my You Should Be Playing articles. I would recommend reading all of these, if you haven’t already. Eclipse Phase in my opinion is the best science fiction roleplaying game to have come out in the last decade. It tackles each of the problems in sci-fi roleplaying head on while maintaining a setting on the harder side of the genre. It is a game I cannot recommend enough, and one I hope will survive the decades to become a modern classic. It’s a brilliant piece of science fiction that asks some very challenging questions, and it lets its players come up with their own answers.
Finding the Future
I first discovered Eclipse Phase at GenCon 2009. Being my first GenCon, I was admittedly a little overwhelmed with the entire experience. The sheer volume of people sharing my hobby was not something I’d ever dealt with before, and the strangest things caught and held my interest.
What had been an attempt to integrate myself into the Legend of the Five Rings culture there had turned into taking a pick-up team all the way to the championship of the D&D Open. Searching for something to do at midnight on Saturday led me to discover Outbreak: Undead being demoed by its creators in a conference room in my hotel. Five Player Werewolf changed the way I played that game, and the convention favorite of Ninja! gave me a quick and easy game to teach people in the future. (Ninja! is that game where people stand still and try to slap each other’s hands. Now you know. Keep an eye out for it at future conventions.)
Eclipse Phase was located in the depths of the exhibition hall. It featured a poster of an octopus engineer over its booth, and it was this octopus that made me stop. As overwhelmed as I was from the sheer selection of games, I was intrigued about a game that would feature such a creature as its mascot. I tarried a few moments, picking up the book and leafing through the display copy as surely thousands of other prospective gamers had done over the days. The artwork inside was gorgeous and the layout was well-balanced and appealing, but I admit that I didn’t think too long about the game’s slogans when I first looked at it. It had an octopus engineer, and that was enough.
It was not until my exploration of the exhibition hall on the Sunday morning that I returned to their unassuming booth. This time, I spent a little longer looking at the material. I wanted to purchase it, but it was not meant to be. Our car was tiny, the trip had cost more than expected, and my friend and I were suddenly the owners of two-fifths of the D&D Open championship winnings that year. I made a mental note to check further into Eclipse Phase, filing it away into the same space as CthulhuTech and Shadowrun 4th edition.
And like those other games, I promptly forgot entirely about it. Well, until the next GenCon.
This time, they had the octopus engineer poster again, and they were advertising their new book, Sunward. They also had a plushy octopus that would bite with its beak, and a bundle pack that included it with the poster and both of the books. Needless to say, I was sold. I picked up the gorgeous book and promptly fell in love with the vision of an uncertain future torn apart by the abuse of technology, but rebuilt anew with the same. It was then that the catch phrases of Eclipse Phase truly hit me, and how it encapsulated perfectly everything a science fiction game should be:
Your mind is software. Program it. Your body is a shell. Change it. Death is a disease. Cure it. Extinction is coming. Fight it.
These eight sentences lit a fire in my imagination, followed closely by Eclipse Phase’s self-determined description, “a game of transhuman conspiracy and horror”. At the time, I had not yet become familiar with the ideas of transhumanism. As I read more and more about Eclipse Phase, eagerly devouring the material, Eclipse Phase showed itself to be the perfect storm of everything a science fiction roleplaying game should be.
The Three Hurdles
The first challenge of any science fiction RPG is making a believable world that is still recognizable from where humanity currently stands. Eclipse Phase does this by extrapolating our current civilization and engineering technology into the future, past the point of singularity where all predictive models break down.
It posits a human race after a disastrous event, where relatable technology provides everything we could want. Computers are everywhere, and the Internet is a nearly inextricable part of our lives. Popularity scores in social networks are a new form of currency. Entire neural systems can be mapped and reconstructed on a molecular level. While the physical act of death still exists, a technologically created dualism allows for the consciousness of a person to survive as software. These are all technologies that, while vastly more advanced than our current means, humans would still want, and because of that, it is believable.
The second challenge of a sci-fi game is making that believable world compelling. Eclipse Phase puts the human race on the verge of extinction, yet we’re capable of far more than we ever dreamed possible. The Fall, where Earth is destroyed by post-singularity AIs, is such an evocative event that it looms over the entire game, and it translates perfectly from the page to game settings. The entirety of human civilization was very nearly wiped out, and it could happen again. Contrary to Lovecraft’s assertions, however, humanity had not gone mad from that revelation, nor retreated to the safety of a new dark age. Instead, humanity transformed itself into something new and different, something capable of surviving and fighting back against its very extinction. The stakes in Eclipse Phase are high, but so are the means. In a world where humanity could be wiped out, the power existed to protect it just as much.
The third – and greatest – challenge of any science fiction roleplaying game lies in how that game claims its market share. In this, Eclipse Phase was nothing less than brilliant. While transhumanism had existed for decades as a philosophy, the invasion of social media in the American life had just begun to truly take off. Facebook and Twitter have changed how we communicate, and Eclipse Phase acknowledged this. Biohackers and innovators seek new ways to better the human condition through technology, and Eclipse Phase embraced this. Hacktavism and DIY culture spread like a social disease, and Eclipse Phase leveraged this to their advantage. Eclipse Phase fought piracy by giving their book away, embracing digital distribution and Creative Commons to get their game in the hands of the people who wanted to play it. They knew the money would follow, and if the Kickstarter for the Transhuman: the Eclipse Phase Player’s Guide is any indication, they were right.
Asking Questions, Seeking Answers
Eclipse Phase is everything I could ask for in a science fiction RPG. It faces the future with an unflinching sense of grim optimism, the sort of mindset that rewards imagination at the same time as acknowledging fear. It asks questions about the nature of human identity and possibility, and does not immediately provide answers. It eschews traditional morality, and explores instead the murky ethics of a world where our memories, identities, and bodies are both interchangeable and for sale. Eclipse Phase interested me in transhumanism itself, a philosophy that I have come to study and even embrace in some aspects. While it might be trite to say that a game changed my life, Eclipse Phase opened my eyes to things happening in our world that I might have otherwise not recognized. And for that, I will always be grateful.
That said, if I had to level one criticism at Eclipse Phase, it would be on its central mechanic. Eclipse Phase uses a percentile system with a success and failure grade. Rolling doubles, such as a 44 or 88 on a d100 causes critical success or failure, while rolling significantly over or below your Skill number also affects how well you perform. Rolling low is always better, except in opposed rolls, where you are trying to beat your opponent but still roll under your Skill. Skills are given a starting number based on a paired Attribute, which is itself influenced by your Morph (or body).
The game is expansive – almost bordering on a little too expansive, and it includes rules for playing sentient AIs, uplifted animals, and space whales who swim in the upper corona of the Sun. It is easy to drown in the options Eclipse Phase provides you, and the central mechanic of a percentile system can be a very unforgiving one. Even taking your time, or spending extra resources can only sway a target number by 30 points. There is no guaranteed or even reliable success. A character built for a specific task is still at the cruel mercies of the dice as much as a character who is not. They both only get one roll. While the system has a mechanic to allow some manipulation of the target number before the roll or flip of the dice after the roll (turning a 38 to an 83, for example), a single roll is all that can stand between success and failure. While this is realistic in certain aspects, I have never been a fan of percentile systems for that exact reason.
Neverthless, Eclipse Phase is one of my favorite games currently on the market, and it offers a compelling future of humanity where nothing is truly safe. It offers questions about our destiny as a species, our place in the universe, and it steadfastly refuses to rely on easy answers. The game faces the future as more than subject matter, embracing the freedom of information for a distribution model and accepting the epicene “they” as its non-gendered pronoun.
It is a model for other games to follow, even ones that do not share its post-apocalyptic feel nor its focus on transhumanism. Science fiction is a genre about exploring new horizons and being changed by that experience. And Eclipse Phase does this better than any other game on the market.
It is, though, hardly the only potentially successful vehicle for viable sci-fi settings. In my next and final segment on the topic, I address several more intellectual properties of science fiction that could expand into the roleplaying market – and succeed.
David Gordon is a regular contributor to the site. A storyteller by trade and avowed tabletop veteran, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Photo Credits: Artwork by Eclipse Phase.