You Should Be Playing…
Every day, we are greeted with new advances in science and technology. Computers are growing smaller and more powerful each month. Materials are becoming lighter and more durable. Medical science is exploring fascinating new aspects of life, and humanity is once again turning its eyes towards the solar system for exploration and economic development. Elements that would have been science fiction two decades ago are commonplace, and the spread and development of technology does not appear to be slowing down. Quite the contrary: the whole of human information is currently doubling in less than two years at present, and by 2020 that time span is predicted to shrink to a mere 2-3 months.
At the same time, new diseases threaten millions. Global economics lead to global recessions and near collapses. Climate change is a controversial debate on which humanity’s continued survival may hinge. Eclipse Phase is set in a future less than two centuries ahead of our current world, and it embraces both the promises – and the dangers – of the world we are seeing.
Published in 2009, Eclipse Phase is a fascinating game written by Rob Boyle and Bryan Cross and produced by Posthuman Studios. It uses a percentile success/fail system, with several factors adjusting a target number. The game is set ten years after a near-extinction event has forcibly evicted humanity from Earth and into its colonies and habitats in the solar system. Nearly destroyed by a group of post-singularity artificial intelligences called the TITANs (Tactical Intelligence Total Awareness Networks), humanity has undergone a hard recovery into a transhuman world. The idea of the self has been divorced from the biology of the flesh, and consciousness is treated as software capable of running on a variety of platforms. Death is little more than an inconvenience when a copy of a person’s entire memories and cognizance can be saved and downloaded into a new, healthy body. With the majority of human civilization having been destroyed by the TITANs and needing to be downloaded into new bodies, the world is a vastly different place.
Eclipse Phase is one of the most compelling settings released in the last five years, and it wears its futurist bias on its sleeve. While it does approach how such new technology can lead to abuses and evils virtually unimaginable in the current world, the advances inherent to their setting are seen as providing more benefits than detriments. From game setting standpoint, the effective immortality of a character pushes the narrative of a game away from the simple set ups common to most adventure games. The “kill them and take their stuff” model also falls apart when death is just a small hurdle and virtually anything can be fabricated with minimal effort. Eclipse Phase instead focuses on the bigger picture. It is a game of conspiracy and cosmic horror, with humanity teetering on the edge of complete extinction.
In the default model of a game of Eclipse Phase, the player characters are members of “Firewall”, a conspiracy devoted to stopping existential threats at all costs. Alliances are hidden, enemies are everywhere, and the stakes cannot be higher. As a cell of this conspiracy, the PCs are expected to investigate situations in the solar system and beyond, assess their threat, and deal with them accordingly. While they can expect some help from the conspiracy as a whole, there is an element of paranoia in most interactions. While Firewall’s purpose may be noble, its means are not, and it operates in secret out of necessity. Eclipse Phase channels the cosmic horror of Call of Cthulhu quite effectively in this game, with its player characters often out of their depth with only the faintest hopes of award. The continued existence of humanity is dependent on their actions, however, even if there are elements in humanity who would gladly oppose them.
The world of Eclipse Phase is vast and exceptionally well researched. Many of the technologies featured in its setting are actual extrapolations of existing scientific theories and technologies. For example, space stations are modeled after current theories on how to create gravity in space, and the troubles of colonization in the solar system takes much of our current understanding into account. While it does have several elements that stretch the imagination, it’s often closer to “harder” science fiction settings than “softer”.
Technology is used to improve life in nearly every aspect, with computers and communication technologies incorporated to the point where it is a flaw a character can take to not being constantly in communication with the setting’s equivalent of the Internet. The “Reputation” economic system of the setting offers an alternative to traditional economies, and is modeled after the power of social networks in the modern world. Even its softer science fiction elements, including uplifted animals, aliens, faster than light travel, and psychic powers, are explained as much as possible using currently understood scientific principles.
Who Are You Anyway?
The central technology to the world of Eclipse Phase is the separation of a mind from its body, and the digitization of both. Referred to in game as the Ego (mind) and Morph (body), Eclipse Phase explores the possibilities of how this technology would change humanity. In the language itself, Eclipse Phase uses transhumanity to describe the people of its game, consisting of humans, uplifted animals, and sentient artificial intelligence.
Mechanically, the player character is the Ego created by the player, with their list of skills and aptitudes. This Ego can be downloaded into the body of anything from a computer construct to a normal human being designed for life in space, to a humanoid robot, to a cybernetic weaponized giant crab, to even a blue whale designed to swim in the upper atmosphere of a planet. Travel across great distances is achieved inexpensively through sending a digital copy of a consciousness to be downloaded into a local body, then sending a later copy back and downloading it into the original body. The sheer variety of Morphs available to a character fuels the imagination with its possibilities.
Not all the possibilities are good, however. To its credit, Eclipse Phase does not shy away from discussing the less savory aspects of this technology. With most of transhumanity surviving as data files uploaded to a series of satellites, the corporations with the technology to create bodies have crafted a system of indentured servitude that allows people to “earn” the right to be a physical being again. Copies of people can – and are – stolen by criminal organizations for any number of purposes, and memories can be hacked and modified. What’s more, exchanging bodies is an emotionally and mentally disruptive action, and doing so is not without risk. Characters possess a mental hit point system that takes damage under stressful situations, of which changing bodies count. Discovering you have died and were reinstalled into a new body, is even more damaging. Think about how you would feel.
Finally, there is the subject of price when it comes to Eclipse Phase. The purchase of any game in the current market can be a little daunting. The costs of publication have steadily increased, and straying out of established brands is a risk not every gamer would be willing to take. Luckily, while Eclipse Phase is lavishly put together with excellent typography and amazing illustrations, it has the single best price point of any game on the market. That is, it’s available for free online in electronic formats, as Posthuman Studios has published the game under the Creative Commons licensing. A PDF of the main rules can be downloaded from the co-author’s WordPress website, along with several supplements and even an adventure with audio files. In return, Posthuman Studios merely requests proper attribution for its content and to not try to profit off of their work. Furthermore, they need money to continue making it. If you enjoy their game, they request purchasing some additional content through Amazon or DriveThuRPG.
Science fiction role-playing is a difficult angle in a market dominated by fantasy game giants. A game requires more than just an interesting system in order to be successful. Eclipse Phase tells a story of a transhuman conspiracy where the only thing stopping the light of humanity being snuffed out like a candle are the player characters. It is compelling, believable, and highly accessible, requiring only the commitment of time. In the speculative and ever-changing market of new role-playing games, Eclipse Phase looks into the future with all of its fear and wonder, proudly embracing both.
And that is why you should be playing Eclipse Phase.
David Gordon is a regular contributor to the site. A storyteller by trade and avowed tabletop veteran, he is always on the lookout for creative tabletop games. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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