Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A Veteran of the Psychic Wars...

Unfortunately this has nothing to do with D&D and psionics, so please bear with me.  If you don't care about Cyberpunk, transhumanist ideas, or that sort of thing then I won't blame you if you tune out...

With that said, I just got done with a not-quite-a-year-long hitch playing Eclipse Phase  ( www.eclipsephase.com ), and here at the end I thought I'd share a few thoughts with you good folks.

WELCOME TO THE END TIMES

The world of Eclipse Phase

In the very broadest most general sense you might say that Eclipse Phase is Gamma World meets Star Frontiers and they have a very Cyberpunk:2020 baby together.  But only in the broadest terms.  Eclipse Phase is a post-apocalypse game.  Earth is virtually uninhabitable and has been abandoned by what is left of humankind.  In the middle of a global war that involved nuclear, biological and chemical weapon exchanges and tens of millions of people dying at a monthly rate, war-bots called TITANs massacred most of humanity, cut off a lot of people's heads, poisoned the earth in the worst ways, and then just up and left the solar system.  The cutting off of heads was to get at the ubiquitous "cranial computers" that most people have stuck in their brains that also help store and preserve a person's identity: effectively a backup of yourself so that you can never "die".  Why the TITANs took these and left is (at the current point in the game's meta-plot) a mystery.

What is left of humanity is spread thin throughout the billions of square kilometers of open space in the Solar System, inhabiting dirty, overcrowded spaceships or space-habitats, or living in terraformed cities and outposts on various moons and planets.  Why there is such limited living space when one can inhabit a robot body that has no need for protection against near absolute zero temperatures (or heat in excess of temperatures required to boil steel), or when nano-fabrication can produce virtually anything - including, presumably, the ability to make parts for space-habs and ships - is never adequately explained.

As far as gear and technological levels, the game is a technofetishist's dream: nanotechnology, print-on-demand, biocomputing, bionics, mind-hacking, body-modification, uploading and downloading your consciousness, custom "morphs" (your body type) and on and on are profligate.  Rather than travel from Point-A to Point-B (which could take months if not years even with future technology), most "travel" is done via broadcasting ones consciousness to a distant receiver, be it a computer or a new "morph".

One form of physical travel that is done is via Gate travel.  On various inner worlds and outer planets, what are effectively "Star-Gates" have been discovered (and presumably it is through these which the TITANs fled): these Gates open to worlds scattered across the galaxy (and a few that open to places that cannot be accurately plotted as existing anywhere in known space); some of the worlds contain evidence of alien civilizations, some are so hospitable to humanity that why the whole of humankind hasn't simply fled to them and then destroyed the through gate to escape TITANs and a dying solar system is utterly confusing, and some open up to garden spots like tiny nickle-iron worlds orbiting dead pulsars at distances so dangerously close to those horribly radioactive bodies that staying for more than a mere instant means death.  Many of these worlds are well-charted, colonized, and well known.  Others are a mystery, and many are kept secret from humanity at large to "protect" them.

This brings us to the organization that (presumably) players will work for: Firewall.  Firewall is a crowd-sourced, catch-all organization that works a bit like Investigators from Call of Cthulhu or it's sister product Delta Green.  There are Horrors that Are Not Meant To Be Known, and Firewall's status as an extra-governmental "private" organization is quashing those horrors or at least investigating them to find out what it might be, whether threat or potential ally.  Much of Firewall's time is spent identifying potential TITAN threats or people who are unwittingly using the same kind of thing that caused TITANs to spring into being in the first place.  Most people who do dabble in such things are sanctioned by Firewall and that's that.

As noted, Firewall is extra-governmental, and in the post-Apocalyptic solar system there are a great many political spheres, ranging from anarchist communes floating from world to world to hard-core right-wing juntas that control Jovian space.  The political mindset of the game's authors is clear: the more to the left, the better: capitalism and conservative style governments are at best lampooned and at worst cast as villainous societies that would make Oceania from 1984 blush.  But there we are.

PRESENTATION

I only had the company-offered PDF rule books, however, I can say that they are extremely well organized, and the type layout is quite nice, and the artwork is by and large gorgeous.  There are some achingly beautiful pieces in those books!  However, one thing that drove me nuts (and so so many modern RPGs do this) was background art.  Headers and footers and putting text over and around art drives me crazy.  I can't stand that.  So while the artwork is quite aesthetically pleasing, plopping text on top of it is just distracting.  Fortunately, at least the PDF versions allow for removal of background art and the books can be loaded text-only.  The PDFs are nicely indexed and allow for searching, and has built-in links to documents accordingly.

The books contain a good amount of universe-fiction, conversations between NPCs about various topics, and so on.  The narrative voice is fairly neutral and unengaged, however.

GAME MECHANICS 

or Don't Make Mine A '99 - but 100 will do nicely

Eclipse Phase's mechanics are percentile based - skills nominally range from 0-80, although generally a character can only have as little as 20 in a given skill if they have the skill at all, and with various skill assists from one's "Muse" (another piece of implanted hardware that includes an Artificial Intelligence that works as a sort of personal assistant with a limited skill-set of its own), or from other members in the group, a skill can be temporarily boosted well beyond 100.  A percentile roll is made to try and go under this number, but the way the game's designers chose to address probability is fairly innovative: any roll under the target number that equals a double-number score - e.g., 22, 33, 55, etc. is a critical success.  Likewise, going over that number in a similar fashion (if your target is for example, an 80 and an 88 is rolled) it is a critical failure.  These can be remedied, and dice-rolls can be adjusted, by using moxie which is a catch-all sort of fate-point system where you can take a critical failure (which might mean a deadly toxin grenade falls back on you after trying to heft it through a vent, or you miss leaping over a chasm and fall straight through) and make it a normal failure.  If you have enough  moxie you can potentially avoid any ill effects whatsoever by "flipping" a failure - if you needed a result under 40, and you instead rolled a 53, a moxie can be spent to "flip" the score and make it instead a 35 - a success.

Another interesting (and cool) part of the percentile mechanics is the overwhelming success that comes with rolling one under your target.  Hence, if your target (after all modifications) is a 66, and you roll a 65, it is an overwhelming success.

Combat works like regular skill checks, although I found it to be ponderous and very clunky; chopping a combat round into actions of you go, then I go, then you go three times because I don't have enough "action points" then the rest of the group goes, then I go, then some other folks go is clunky in the extreme.  Combat in Eclipse Phase crams 20 seconds of excitement into four hours of tedium.

As to character creation itself, I could type a hundred thousand words and never approach all of the possibilities.  A point-buy system is used, and basic frameworks for your career can be consulted.  For example, you can choose to be a "Gatecrasher", that is, a character whose career is spent venturing onto hostile worlds through various Gates, hacking the alien computers that control heretofore undiscovered gates to access new worlds, and so on.  Accordingly, each career has a basic template with given skills that a player can choose to emphasize.  Likewise choice of one's background (the society from which you originated) also imparts certain skill bases which can be purchased higher.

Reputation is also a key part of character development: what do you owe to certain organizations, societies, governments and companies, and what do they owe to you?  Acquiring equipment, information, or other bonuses is dependent upon reputation, which can be purchased to certain degrees upon character creation.

Like most role-playing games, stats, skills and reputation can be bought up with reward points handed out by the game master at the end of a campaign: experience points by any other name.

Finally (and I mention it at the last due to the mutability) a character's starting morph can be chosen (which will impact certain statistics).  A player's body can be anything from a small, spider-like robot, up to a titanic (not TITANic) walking tank, and everything in between.  Many are subtle and to most eyes not much different from a basic human, although certain advantages are to be had.  Some are so radically alien that it would take a very special campaign to fit them in; imagine playing as a cybernetically augmented sperm whale, swimming in the hundreds-of-kilometers-deep oceans of Europa, or wearing an all-metal body powered by ion thrusters, cruising between planets in the cold depths of space (without a ship or even a space suit).  These are just a few of the options available for body type.  Of course if you wish to play an un-augmented "flat", a plain, earth-born human with no enhancements of any kind, you can, although their fragility makes playing them a bit iffy.

STARVING TO DEATH IN A WORLD OF PLENTY

Eclipse Phase is a universe of plenty: nano-fabricators can "print" just about anything, from microscopic beads that mesh together to form sub-dermal bullet resistant armor all the way up to (given enough time) giant mechanized infantry suits, and less martial items such as food, breathable air, a good book, a nice stereo, and all the wants.  But for some reason, despite the solar system (outside of Earth) being accessible and having virtually endless amounts of raw material there and beyond various Gates, Eclipse Phase tries to have it's cake and eat it, too: as noted above, humankind is trapped in the void...except there are machines that, in addition to being able to make virtually everything can make more machines that can make virtually everything.  Gates abound that lead to worlds that are primordial paradises that with a quick jaunt could "re-house" humanity forever and hide it from TITANs and all of their ravages once the Gate itself was shut down.  It's like having a Call of Cthulhu game where everyone carries an Elder Sign and knows protective spells that have no cost to one's sanity to employ but tries to suggest that cosmic horrors are still somehow a threat.  It defangs itself, and tries to be two things at once, accomplishing neither.

Were I to run Eclipse Phase, I would likely strip the rules and much of the technology out of the wonky background and designer's politics and use it for a more cyberpunk game, or at least massively adjust it.  This is not to say Eclipse Phase is wholly without merit: much of what the creators have done with the technical side of things, with the game mechanics and overall vibe is commendable, but ultimately the entire package left me feeling very "meh".  If you endeavor to play a "straight" game of Eclipse Phase, manage your expectations accordingly.  It is neither fish nor fowl, and it may take several false starts before a satisfying "game flow" can be established.

I'm not much into awarding "stars" or so forth but if I had to give Eclipse Phase a rating I would say 3.5/10.