Posted by: markfender | October 26, 2011

Eclipse Phase

Eclipse Phase is certainly not a new game, but I recently reread it and thought I’d review it.

Eclipse Phase (published by Posthuman Studios) is a game about transhumans – the hot new trend in sci-fi. Before this, there was GURPS Transhuman Space that dealt with similar subjects, but it’s not a field of sci-fi with many roleplaying games about it. Essentially, humanity has advanced enough to cast off the shackles of their flimsy meat bodies and sculpt new shapes to inhabit. The mind can be uploaded into computer systems, bodies can be switched, octopi can be uplifted, etc. etc.

Originally published by Catalyst Game Studios, the actual book is full-color throughout and boasts some decent-to-nice art throughout. The layout is also pretty colorful, but fails in a few places. Something about the design of the borders and the white columns laid over the color bug me. It looks like the margins are really wide or something. Maybe they are, maybe its an optical illusion, but I’m not a fan. The “spellchecker effect” is in major force here (you won’t find any spelling errors, but you will find lots of words that should have been a different word that an overly zealous editor clicked through on their spell checker search without actually making sure its the right word). Also, the paper is kinda thin and the book smells weird. I can’t explain it, but it’s not exactly pleasant. My copy is a Catalyst copy though, so some of this may have changed.

But you don’t have to buy the actual book. The whole thing was released under a Creative Commons license. Find a torrent site, download the book legally, and see for yourself. This, to me, is a bold step and apparently one that’s working for the game. I applaud them for this step into the future.

The book starts out with some fiction. Let’s pretend we never read it and move on.

After that, we get into the world set-up. Eclipse Phase does some things right here, notably giving an overall threat in the TITANs, rogue AIs that forcibly uploaded a whole bunch of Earthlings and then left the galaxy for parts unknown. Earth has essentially been destroyed and humanity has been forced out into the stars in order to survive. While it does fall into the very-tired “science is bad” trope, it avoids Cthulhu, which no other games seem able to do – so, yay. It also provides a threat for the game, something a GM can point his players towards. And there’s a group in the setting that hires “adventurers” to combat threats to humanity, so your PCs can have an employer. As far the the back story goes, it’s pretty much straight out of Alistair Reynold’s catalog (with a few tweaks), but that’s okay, I guess. This section of the book has a timeline with dates given in Pre-Fall and After Fall, handily avoiding the problem with assigning real dates to events and then looking dumb when real time surpasses your timeline. The problem I have with this section is that it’s full of useless information. It’s nice that Earth has a space elevator – except that the Earth has been destroyed, so who cares? There’s also some pretty-obvious-an-atheist-or-agnostic-wrote-it dismissal of religions as no longer being relevant, which is annoying. But the overall set-up of the universe, with ideological groups arrayed across the solar system is a great set-up. I want to know more about these various factions and that’s a good sign.

The game system is percentile – roll-under. Awesome, my favorite. Looking at the sample characters, it looks like a PC would be lucky to have a 60% chance at success on a few skills – even better. Of course, this is from the same people that brought you Shadowrun, a game that’s pretty notorious for having sub-par archetypes in the main books, so maybe that’s not as much a problem as it appears. This game also features a metric ton of skills. Weapons are broken down into a bunch of different skills, every group has its own Networking skill, every conceivable form of technology has its own skill…it’s skill-tastic. The interesting thing in the game is that people can swap bodies seemingly at will. This is handled by having a set number of “root skills” that act as the basis for all your skill ranks. These roots are modified by which body you’re currently in. This makes it easy and fun to switch bodies – all you have to do is subtract your previous modifiers from the root skills, add your new bonuses, and then recalculate every single skill on your character sheet. Whee!!

Character creation involves spending 1000 Character points on Aptitudes (those root skill things), morphs (bodies), advantages and disadvantages. 1000 points. Let me say it again. 1000 points. Imagine how much fun that will be! That’s not the biggest annoyance to me, however. The biggest annoyance is that this game begins to remind me of Shadowrun 4th edition. The skill break down is the same. The advantages and disadvantages are almost word-for-word. The majority of the equipment is straight from Shadowrun with the categories for equipment being exactly the same. Look, I know the team behind this is the team behind Shadowrun 4th edition. And I like Shadowrun. But I didn’t really want a percentile-based version of Shadowrun.

There’s also Psionics, for some reason. As a mostly hard sci-fi game, it’s an odd inclusion. To their credit, they mostly make sense. Psionics don’t let you summon fire or levitate, they just provide various brain-enhancing/brain-dehancing effects, which seems to me what they’d really be like (if they were real, I guess). Unfortunately, they’re not worth investing in. Getting a Psionic skill up to 50% chance to add +30% to a Knowledge skill is more expensive than just buying the 30% increase in your root skill. Sure, you can swap that bonus around to different Knowledge skills, but the whole thing strikes me as not a good point investment. But what the hell? You’ve got 1000 points and lots of time to figure out the optimal point-spend, right?

There’s also a big section on computers and hacking. It’s really long and detailed for a process that basically breaks down into 3 rolls of the same skill. It’s also almost exactly the same system as presented in Shadowrun 4th edition, with the same ideas that don’t really work in place (although, to be far, they’re better explained here). Everyone lives all the time on the internet (called the Mesh, here) so they leave their vulnerable cellphones open. And the bad hacker people hack into their cell phones. But all you have to do to stop that is to turn your cell phone off. So…why is your cell phone on again? There’s no good in-universe reason for leaving this giant vulnerable hole into your brain (everyone’s digital, dontcha know). Shadowrun and Eclipse Phase both need to present some valid reasons why people would leave themselves vulnerable to an entire subsystem of rules. For instance, one I just thought of, is maybe not allow anyone to make Knowledge skill checks unless their cellphone is on. The book even talks about how everyone has the entire world’s library available to them at all times, so why not? In fact, why not just get rid of all Knowledge skills and just sum up all human knowledge with a Googling skill? Seems in-line with the universe as presented and provides some game reasons why people might be vulnerable to hacking.

Okay, one more annoying thing and I’m done. There is no spaceship combat system. The book says that they weren’t interested in presenting that sort of thing, so I guess that’s fair. But it’s a mighty big hole missing in a game where everyone lives in space. The idea is that people broadcast their brains to other places and just load it into a body there. That’s pretty cool and stuff, but…I like spaceships.

So, yeah, I’m not a fan. I like the basic ideas and find the setting more set-up for typical roleplaying adventures than, say, GURPS Transhuman Space is, but there’s still a lot that annoys me. It annoys me that so much of the high-tech stuff is taken straight from Shadowrun. Sure, it gets a glossy new coat of word paint with scientific sounding words, but there are few new ideas presented here that aren’t also present in the Shadowrun gear catalogs. The reputation system replacing money is a great idea and the various ideological groups in the galaxy are excellent fodder for plotting. But the ‘save point’ style of body swapping, brain back-ups, and egocasting just doesn’t work in a game sense. I hate leveling my characters up – there’s no way I’m redoing all my character’s stats every time I want to go to a new space station.

So, why’d I buy the book if I wasn’t in love with their particular take on transhuman sci-fi? Well, for one, I want to support their business model. As the first commercial game with a Creative Commons license, I felt it was important to throw my support behind the concept. Also, we were going to play it and it’s hard to run a game from a PDF. I made a hacker because I’ve always liked the idea of the decker in Shadowrun and after reading the Eclipse Phase stuff, it made a lot more sense than in Shadowrun. Hidden in my stealth morph body, I sat in the corner and hacked the bad guy’s brains while everyone else traded bullets. This is when we learned something else about the game: combat is lethal. Using a mid-range weapon will, assuming you finally roll to hit, will generally give about two wounds, a -20% to all future rolls. So, even if you did max out your weapon skill, you’re back at 50% odds to hit after getting hit once. This is also when I learned hacking wasn’t all that great. After my three rolls (and judicious use of Moxie points to succeed), I’ve successfully hacked their brains – so that I can give them a -30% to all subsequent rolls. Would have been better off with the one roll to shoot them.


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