Monday, February 27, 2012

Eclipse Phase

Quick, name a fantasy RPG, one of the old pen-and-paper types.  What did you say?  Dungeons and Dragons, probably.  Maybe not though, maybe it was Pathfinder, or Exalted, or Dark Sun, or Nobilis if you're so indie it hurts.  Now name one with an SF setting.  Shadowrun!  Except that has magic too.  Cyberpunk 2020, you offer, tentative because it's such an ungainly system.  GURPS?  Yes indeed, there is a great lack of role playing games set in the bold future instead of the never-past, and I've never understood the reason for this.  Surely we ought to get more excitement out of imagining our possible futures than remixed editions of fairy tales, that owe their origins to a time when a pointy rock was seen as the pinnacle of human science and engineering.

Seems like someone out there agrees with me.  Specifically, those ones are Posthuman Studios.  And that agreement is Eclipse Phase.

Mars, The New York of Eclipse Phase.  Something Bad Happened To The Actual New York.
Eclipse Phase, just to catch those of you not familiar with the idea of PNP RPGs, is a game where one player creates a story, a scenario, in the world, and each other player makes a single character that will try to confront the scenario, interact with NPCs, and will generally either accomplish his mission, or die trying.  Except NOT!  Because Eclipse Phase has a transhuman setting, where human science is at a point where mortality has been transcended.  If your meat body ends the session riddled with bullet holes, other players can recover your cortical stack; basically, a backup copy of your brain, and put it into a newly grown body!  And in the case everyone's meat body gets in a similar way, or you all die in a spectacular, unrecoverable fashion, you'll just be put into new bodies using backups of your mind, from before the mission started.

PCs Can Even Reject Their Fleshy Bits And Embrace Infolife.
This right here is probably the best part of EP's setting: death is, rather than a finality, a financial setback.  D&D has long worked this way once players get into the middle levels, but has never really explored that.  EP embraces it, incorporating it into the world it imagines.  Everyone lives forever, consciousness can be digitized, copied, forked, backed up and, frighteningly, edited, like any data.  That's not to say you don't care about dying: if you have to be brought back from a backup you don't get whatever Rez (XP) you got since your last backup.  And if you all died, that means you may have failed your mission.  Then again, maybe you succeeded, but in an explodey or otherwise terrible way.  But what won't happen is someone losing their beloved character, which they put in months or even years of gaming and thought into, to a night of bad luck or poor preparation.  I've seen games have the life fall out of them when a PC died unexpectedly.  No more.  The scientists over at posthuman studios have cured PC death.

Let's talk about those missions I mentioned, shall we?  That involves getting into the premise of the setting: really roughly, AI apocalypse.  A decade or so ago, some military types decided weaponizing AIs that could improve themselves recursively was not at all a bad idea.  They went rogue as omnipotent AIs tend to do in SF, and ended up killing/capturing the vast majority of the sentient population.  Transhumanity, as the game consistently refers to our species at this point in the future, survived by fleeing, mostly as digital life forms, and managed to contain the AIs on Earth.  They already had settlements on or around most planets, so they escaped across the solar system.  Things are still recovering, but the AIs and their weapons are still out there, somewhere.  Players are assumed to belong to Firewall, a secret agency outside of planetary governments, dedicated to fighting these AIs, making sure nothing like this happens ever again, and confronting other "existential threats" to transhumanity.  You're the Illuminati in many ways, the benevolent conspiracy.  Firewall does what must be done, who fights the horrors where others cannot, because they are the ones with the skills, the fortitude, and the character others lack.

A Sentient Octopus Wrestles A Robot In Microgravity.  This Is The Best Game. 
Holy shit I just howled in joy after writing that.  EP has this unique combination of horror and optimism that gets into your bones and burrows itself a home.  Yes terrible computers ruined Earth, and left nanobot kill swarms to flay all the flesh off of living bodies, just to name one misfortune, but in others ways the future is so bright!  People are, with near universality, goddamned immortals.  We can travel to planets in minutes by sending our intellect in radio waves across space.  Even the poorest man has shelter, and all the food, clothing, and Internet access, and by extension, pornography he could want.  Between mature nanotechnology and sophisticated weak AI, the average work weak has shrunk to the single digits.  Some planets and colonies have even done away with money entirely, moving to a reputation-based economy, a sort of space-socialism where everyone lives in post-scarcity, for the pursuit of art, pleasure, or learning.

That brings me to the other great thing, in a game full of great things.  Reputation.  Now, just as background, I hate money in RPGs.   It's fiddly and bookish and it's all fine if a computer adds it up for you but it's boring and slow to do it by hand.  And you can have money in EP, and that's helpful in some places, but the main way you get things is by networking.  For each faction in the game (corporations, autonomists, scientists, media...) you have a rep score, representing how much pull you have and how many people you know.  Networking is a skill (again, one for each faction) and you roll it to pull a favor from that group, gaining bonuses or penalties based on how high or low your reputation is and how big of a favor you're asking for.  Favors range from information about the culture and slang of an anarchist space station, to getting a copy of a special purpose AI, to, well, pretty much anything.  The rules are a little gritty and there are tables, but the concept is as clear as glass, and since everything in the game is on a 1-100 scale, it's easy to see where your character stands.

Accessing Pandora Gates, Localized Wormholes To Other Stars, Is A Biiig Favor
Eclipse Phase is a game that takes itself seriously and passionately, but without a shred of pretension.  It builds a huge, fascinating world while at the same time providing a focused purpose for a "default" campaign.  But you can do nearly anything with it; want to run a game about miners, or xeno-archaeologists, or an ultra-capitalist trading company?  Each one of those isn't just playable, it's exciting.  You can play a human, an AI, an animal uplifted to sentience.  You can even play entirely without a body, and aside from the occasional firefight, have a perfectly viable character.

Potential, that's the feeling.  Some RPGs make you want to play them.  Eclipse Phase makes you want to live up to it, to be as clever as it is.  I don't think I've felt this way about a traditional RPG since Exalted: the Fair Folk, of looking at the book and thinking, "You can DO that with a game?  With just some paper, pencils, and a few friends?  What have I been missing?"


  1. I liked cyberpunk 2020, cool stuff.
    Whither Alternity ? d20 modern/future and its offspring ? And for a steampunk martian flavour, Space 1889 ? There are/were/are back with pdf reprinting/ plenty of Sci-fi RPGs out there, just not as famous as some of the big fantasy ones I feel.
    Death mechanic sounds like Paranoia clones to me, death penalties are an interesting game mechanic that have far reaching consequences to the game. Personally I think you can learn a lot about this from MMOs and the varied approaches they have had to death, from hardcore, one kill and you're done, to, nothing but a scratch, reset to last waypoint. Its not so much the mechanics you look at, but rather the ensuing psychology of the players once they settle into it.
    There's no doubting that a minor death penalty tends to lead to a laissez faire approach to danger and tense moments, but allows players a comfort zone that all their work won't go to waste. If you have nothing to lose, why sweat the gamble ?
    At the other end of the scale, hardcore one death and you lose tends to promote paranoia and a huge investment into risk assessment, which generally brings the world alive, but at the cost of death possibly fatally alienating the player from the game.
    Personally I prefer a harder death mechanic. It injects a sense of danger into the world. I think the greatest mistake a GM can make is to either negate a death penalty or give players a sense that they can never be killed for fear of upsetting them or the game.

  2. This game is nothing more than Shadowrun 4e given a new coat of paint THS colored. The only thing original about this game is its glorification of anarchism and simultaneous demonetization of religion. The final death blow to any potential to run this game comes from it's utter lack of proof reading, leading to hilarious situations like where most of the settings spacecraft can't escape gravity wells and sniper rifles shoot like light machine guns. Overall, Catalyst did more harm than good to the potential of Transhuman settings when they released this shoddy game onto the market. Thank god it was free.