Eclipse phase takes its deep and often detail oriented game into a second edition with a beautifully made 450+ book that visually evokes the post human setting and ethos of the game and its makers. Overall, this is a book and game worth investing in for players that yearn for a simulationist game designed with a modern ethos or players who want to explore the difficult concepts of identity, humanity, and self determination. If you want an overall simplified score – I give it an A-. Why was I impressed? What do I think held it back? Read on to find out!
Eclipse Phase is a rare newer game that leans heavily into the crunch and complexity of the rules like in the days of gaming yore. This isn’t a surprise and the frank admission of complexity – in rules, settings, and themes – is a refreshing hint of honesty. There isn’t a claim it is as easy as falling off a bike only to find a chapter so dense you’d rather fall off than run into it. This can be both a strength and, at times, a weakness. The honesty of the designers and the book is definitely something to be applauded.
From a design standpoint, the overall look and feel of the book evokes a hyperlinked record like the characters would have available to them in the world. The clean design and vibrant images reinforce the game’s themes but the density of material does fall into a Derrida-like stack of related concepts falling back on themselves with the weight of this world. My Personal preference on organization of the book would have proceeded a bit differently as even I got a bit lost in trying to work through character creation and concepts.
While there are some minor typos and copy editing, it isn’t anything outside what you might expect from a 450 page work.
Overall / the sleek design plays into the setting of the game. The lush imagery supports the rich worldbuilding and while there are some points and places where the design doesn’t make it readily accessible, it is overall a beautifully designed and laid out product.
Eclipse phase is a crunchy game. It is a game much more on the simulationist nature and the world it wants to model is a complex one. The basics start as a percentile roll under system. Easy enough. But then we look at the subsystems and specifics so you begin to see the complexity.
The characters in EP are “sleeves” where the original mind is not necessarily in their original body. The transhumanist nature of this setup, given a wider pop culture publication in Altered Carbon on Netflix, means that character creation juggles not only skills on which the game heavily relies but also the physical capability of the sleeve the mind is in. This makes for a lot of moving parts to put together. The admission of complexity extends to the character creation phase, and the book itself admits that it is best to play with some of the sample characters a few times before you are ready to really dive into the Eclipse Phase Character Generation – refreshing honesty, but also a definite barrier to entry for new players.
Characters are defined by two different aspects – the Ego which is the sum of the mind, personality, and whatever else may be inherent covering things like aptitudes, skills, insanity, and parts of the Flex Pool (discussed below); and the Morph which is the physical form the Ego inhabits which can range from a combat drone, to an uplifted octopus, to an enhanced humanoid form, to a plethora of options that primarily provides the Pools, durability, and physical aspects of the character.
Starting from a simple and standard resolution mechanic – the roll under on percentile – give Eclipse Phase a start of an intuitive rule set where the ability to gauge success rates and challenges is clear to players. Then we get into the weeds (and if you’ve listened along to Seize the GM episodes, you know I am on the crunchier side of the podcasting crew here) and you could get a little lost. The exceptional success mechanic is also a fun one where a 33 or better that succeeds is superior, but a roll of 66 or better that succeeds is worth two superior successes. Since Eclipse phase is a roll under system, by having the ability to succeed at 67, that means you are exceptionally skilled, have stacked the tables in your favor, or otherwise had way too easy a time getting this task done! A double roll, though is a Critical, either success or failure depending.
On the complexity side, Eclipse Phase does use derived statistics – that is stats that are determined by a formula using other stats. While this can help encourage game balance, it is crunchier way to do things that some players do not enjoy. While the Pools are ne of those derived stats, they are also a distinct success in the design of the system. Characters abilities are augmented through Pools that represent combinations of skills, enhancements, or other transhuman advantages – Insight, Moxie, Vigor, and Flex. These Pool points may be spent to various advantages, providing the sort of agency enhancement that more narrative games deal with in spades. The addition of the Pools, especially the Flex pool, help prevent Eclipse phase from being so overly rules heavy that it impedes the modern gaming styles. The Flex pool explicitly is there to provide narrative control to players allowing introductions of NPCs or defining aspects of an Environment.
I am always a fan of guided character creation, Eclipse Phase makes good use of that by having your Background, Career, and Interests provide packages of skills to move through the character creation. Combined with the incorporation of “rep” scores across different factions to add a social connection filtered through a post-postmodern social media and the use of character Motivations tied to the advancement mechanic, the Character Creation is one of the richest and most fulfilling character generations I have experienced.
The ideas in Eclipse Phase are top notch, which we will explore in Themes as well. For 30 years, games have tried to make systems and settings that can run across different themes – EP succeeds at that. The setting has aspects of science fiction, postapocalyptic, horror, mystery, and more leaving behind only pulp (which needs a less simulationist set of rules to really shine) in a solar system decimated by AIs nearly ending humanity. The star system is under threat from extinction level events and the stable wormhole gates the AIs left behind give endless possibilities to find someplace for everyone to eventually call home. That is a pretty engaging start but then the writers go above and beyond in fleshing out a world and a setting with more possibilities than most games ever provide in an entire edition through just the Core Rule Book. In trying to write a review for a rich setting, the over 150 pages of pure story and narrative of the setting is as dense and difficult to boil down as the remainder of the game. That doesn’t mean I won’t try.
Within the Solar System itself, there is a large amount of political and social games going on. Entire Eclipse Phase sessions and groups could be spent without combat dealing with the political repercussions of the different factions and organizations, which is one of the strengths in the Themes below. Character Creation has 16 different Factions to choose from, one of which is a catchall “Regional” faction, if one particular part of the setting catches your eyes. The Factions range from the socially conservative Jovian’s who want to limit or stop transhuman technologies and Hypercorporates who support a competition based capitalist social structure to technosocialist Titanians and the revolutionary Barsoomians seeking to free Mars from corporate control.
The book uses the trope of bringing a new reader up to speed in world well, and a hundred of those 150 pages of world building are public facing, with the remainder in the Gamemaster section providing a good dichotomy of the public versus private lives question and theme. In the 10 years since “The Fall” humanity is pulling itself up from the bring – the AI Titans are gone, mostly, having decimated the Earth and other human and transhuman settlements. The Titans took advantage of the wars and distrust that the humans had with themselves having reached a stage where death was optional for the powerful. The augmented reality of the Meshnet allowed instant and total communications between people and devices while the Ego transfer technology allowed a person to sustain themselves across multiple or successive Morphs. These morphs can vary so widely, they can scarcely be described but none are required to be as flatline as the bodies we ourselves know. The constant public facing rep feeds reduce privacy and concerns for privacy across much of transhumanity, though some of the solar system’s outposts still hold that in higher regard. Transhumanity has spread across the solar system with as many different ways of governing or not governing themselves as they have found. The constant tension between these factions and these sovereign and semi-sovereign habitats is a source of conflict. With nanofabrication moving some of these to a past scarcity environment, true questions of identity and society are all that remain for them. In the shadows, secret groups remain on watch for threats to what is left of Transhumanity, the setting’s default is that you work for this hidden Firewall, searching those out within the system but also going through the gates to other worlds and making sure transhumanity is not threatened from what is on the other side and maybe yet able to escape from the boundaries of our solar system before we burn ourselves out.
Different options for the deep secrets and questions of the worlds are provided in the GM section, not unlike the way FASA approached Earthdawn’s greater mysteries. And I have not even mentioned the psi powers that are remnants of an exsurgent virus the AI’s unleashed against transhumanity….
If I don’t stop at this 650 words summation, I will end up just writing as much as the book itself offers. The world is rich and well textured. The contours are well thought out and provide endless opportunities for role playing in social, political, exploration, and combat challenges.
I like games that come with themes. The ideas that motivate what the writers want to see explored through their world. In an ideal game,. These themes are enhanced by and reflected in both the system used and the setting provided. Good games become great when they have this ability to connect system and setting to the unwritten Story off the game before the story inside the game.
Eclipse Phase succeeds at that metric. The complexity of the rules highlights the differences between the Egos and Morphs. The ability to create backups of your character, like save points, that can be reloaded or even run simultaneously ties directly into the questions of transhumanity that the authors expressly put before the players. What is or is not at the core of humanity the human question? Why not change and reflect who the inside sees on the outside when the technology is available? The extent that a person is a person, or the eternal human question comes up as well – not all possible characters have the same legal rights in all of the setting. What is the line between human, and a fully recognized human, and non-human characters who show the same level of intelligence, emotional connection, and advancement – If you prick them, do they not bleed?
The ability and even encouragement to have characters that are near immortal through backups and the “forks” of their consciousness provides the opportunity to ask what experiences do and don’t change a person through the character. It leaves a different set of questions to ask instead of fearing death, perhaps it is something to fear the loss of memories.
I like games that have a distinct point of view, and Eclipse Phase is no different. The authors are crystal clear that they subscribe to Transhumanism themselves and that the game is one way that they are trying to ask the questions that Transhumanism asks about politics, economics, and personhood. The different factions are giving a great amount of detail, and I think the authors correctly focused on the structures that are not “capitalist socioeconomic systems” because readers have a lot of familiarity with those already. What I do see as a bit of a failing is the promise of the rich diversity of the systems and structures is undercut somewhat with a clear villain or focus on the downsides for those less described capitalist systems. The authors admit that some of their questions they want to ask include “But how can small collectives of anarchists maintain their way of life if faced with conquest by an overwhelming outside force?” and “[H]ow can a welfare state that promises bodies for all keep up with its population’s needs when it has more people than it can productively employ?” and not only “Can [capitalism] ever deliver a just level of prosperity to everyone living under it?” I feel that only the latter question was addressed in the book. It isn’t asking these questions that had me take my score down a notch, but not having executed the worldbuilding on the former questions as clearly.
Another part I always like to see is a table of references – the designers and authors providing examples of what inspires them, what influences them, and where we players and GM’s may also be so inspired and influenced. Two pages with three columns running the gamut from television, novels, movies, and comic books to the nonfiction and other roleplaying games to review. I did notice that the reference list didn’t include a show that played with the questions of memories and “forks” – Dark Matter – so I would add that to the list as well.
Post Human Studios provided a review copy of the Eclipse Phase Second Edition Core Rule Book to SeizetheGM.com but had no editorial control or influence on the content of the review.