Eclipse Phase Second Edition Review
Posthuman studios has always been confident in how they sell their books: they licensed Eclipse Phase with Creative Commons, meaning that the files are free to legally share with others. You get everything free, and they hope that it turns into you buying their books. It’s a tactic used by some other book publishers that are convinced that the problem today is not to get buying customers, it’s to find customers in the first place. In role-playing games the challenge is still to stand out from the shadow of Dungeons & Dragons. Even if your game is not about killing orcs and stealing their stuff, you still have to convince people that whatever you’re offering is preferable to that. Giving away your books and then hoping that the people playing the game also want to buy them is a possible approach, one that seems to be working for Eclipse Phase, which is now in its second edition.
As the addition of a number to the end of the name implies, much of the game is still the same, but you can see how the game has matured over the years. It’s still a game about brave Firewall agents fighting against existential threats that might snuff out whatever is left of transhumanity. Or you don’t have to play Firewall, but that is like saying that you don’t need to kill and loot in D&D – technically true, but that means ignoring what is central to the game. Some things from the books published after the previous edition have found their way into the new book. For example, running through mysterious portals into alien worlds – gatecrashing – is now detailed in the main book, suggesting ways of playing the game that were less apparent in the previous edition. Another thing that found itself into the main book is an alternative character creation system, which structures creating the character into choosing three times from a set of templates. Some of the new example characters also showcase how you can play Eclipse Phase as something else than Firewall. You can tell that there is additional material in the new edition also from the length: the first edition was just shy of 400 pages and the new version goes on even longer.
While there are some interesting additions, the rules stay mostly similar to the first edition. The best part of the d100-based rules is that they are intuitive, and probably familiar if you’ve played role-playing games after 1978, when the mechanic deputed in Runequest or 1981 when the rules migrated to Call of Cthulhu. The even distribution of results has been a problem ever since, with failure a regular occurrence even to characters that are experts in their fields. The solution Eclipse Phase uses is also familiar ever since the 80s, with varyingly named fate points being the usual approach for making player characters stand out. As this historical framing reveals, the rules are probably the least brave aspect of Eclipse Phase. The rules feel familiar because they are what we’ve already used in role-playing games for several decades.
This continues throughout the book, with combat borrowing a lot from D&D probably via Shadowrun. You get your big actions, your move actions and your small actions, your initiative and your damage rolls. If you think Eclipse Phase was a game of existential horror and not a combat simulator, you quickly run into two facts: the new cover replaces the old tagline of “horror” and “conspiracy” with “survival”1 and rules for almost all other kind of interaction are grouped under combat, a section losing in length only to gear listings. Social interaction gets one page of rules, about the same length as different types of special ammo. By page count alone, Eclipse Phase is a game about getting cool gadgets and then using them to kill stuff. With length comes complexity. If you want to aim (+10) your dual-wielded (-20) machine pistols in a dark room (-20) at two targets close to each other (+0) in partial cover (-20) over a long distance (-10), you better like your math. And those were just the situational modifiers, which probably change often. The number of different modifiers in combat can hit double digits, if you’re doing it right.
And that’s not bad! There’s nothing wrong about enjoying when you get the modifiers on your side and mow through a bunch of tactically inferior foes. I look at the different combat morphs and drool as much as the next person. But sometimes I want to contemplate what it means to play an AI character in a society that views them as a existential threat, and there Eclipse Phase has a lot less to give me, despite AI and existential threats ostensibly being central themes of the game. With enough effort, you can use almost any kind of game system to play any kind of game, but some of them make playing in certain ways easier – and it’s hard not to notice that Eclipse Phase gives you a lot of tools for different types of exotic murder. Perhaps this is simply a way of saying that I liked Eclipse Phase more when it still pretended to be about existential horror, even if that was mostly a matter of fictional emphasis.
Some rule changes streamline the experience from the first edition. There are slightly fewer skills, and there are new abstractions both for acquiring gear and morphs. They are now evaluated in points, and at character creation you can take gear packs that fit your background. Combined with the new character creation system this means that you can get from empty to full character sheets much faster. There have also been changes in how swapping morphs is handled, which might help with the tiresome bookkeeping needed to make regular body-swapping work. Instead of giving bonuses to base stats, like in the first edition, morphs give access to pools of points that can be used in a variety of ways.
This is not entirely new to Eclipse Phase: first edition had a pool of points called “moxie”, mostly used to ignore results on bad die rolls. Moxie is still there, but it’s joined by other pools for different purposes: insight, vigor and flex. The first two are meant to help with mental and physical challenges, while moxie is rebranded as the social pool. They still allow you to ignore bad rolls, but also let you do things like take extra actions and ignore wounds.
Flex is perhaps the most interesting of the new pools. It allows players some narrative control by allowing points to be exchanged for the power to introduce characters, items, environmental details and relationships. These must be “plausible”, but otherwise allowing players narrative control over the game is never discussed in detail in the book, beyond the quarter page it takes to introduce these mechanics. This may be familiar to players from other games, but otherwise it’s a big conceptual leap from the other rules used in the game, and as such, could have probably used more guidelines.
The pools also introduce a new game mechanic that solves a problem typical to investigative games ever since Call of Cthulhu. The problem usually manifests like this: Your characters have found an encrypted device holding the next clue to your investigation. Luckily, one of your characters has Infosec, so they roll to decrypt it – and fail. What do you do next? You can keep rolling until you succeed, but what is the point of rolling in that case? Robin D. Laws solved this problem in 2006 with Esoterrorists and the system designed for it, GUMSHOE. It divides abilities to two categories: those you can fail in and those that you can’t. Investigative abilities are never rolled. You use points from them to get new clues, and even if you run out of points, you always get the clues that are necessary for the plot to go forward. You still need to use the right ability in the right place, but you never get stuck because of a bad die roll. GUMSHOE takes its design cues from investigative TV, where the interesting part is never collecting the clues, but figuring out what to do with them.
Many of the previously published scenarios for Eclipse Phase struggle with this issue. They present you a clear path towards the end and the hurdles that need to be overcome, often in the form of a specific test. The scenario continues when you succeed in the test – but not when you fail. The new pool system in Eclipse Phase addresses this by allowing you to acquire clues either through investigation (insight) or social interaction (moxie). But unlike in GUMSHOE, where the game is designed around this interaction, this system of pools seems like a shortcut around the investigation problems. Why bother with the investigation in the first place, if you can just spend some points instead?2 Designing and using these kinds of systems is careful work, as any game master with GUMSHOE experience can tell you. Yet the book offers no guidelines on how to use this new, fundamentally different, mechanic effectively. It seems like the page introducing the new pool mechanics is an interesting afterthought that has not been interwoven with the rest of the game, which is still about rolling your d100 while juggling a dozen modifiers in your head.
This dissection of rules probably gives an impression that Eclipse Phase is mostly its rules, when the opposite is very much true. Out of the over 400 pages in the second edition, around half are dedicated to presenting the world, which is still as complex and rich as it was in the previous edition. There aren’t many role-playing games where a meeting between an uplifted octopus and a AI in a human body are common enough to be thought of as mundane. Every corner of the world is brimming with space oddities, from viral psionic powers to futuristic crustacean sheriffs upholding libertarian law. You’re just trying to finish your archaeological dig on an alien planet in peace, when another bunch of fungal aliens come and drop mysterious warnings of technology gone too far. Then, of course, you kill them, because you didn’t pack your morph full of battle modifications and learn those complex combat rules for nothing.
Posthuman studios has also recognised that Eclipse Phase is about more than rolling d100s. Before the second edition they collaborated in the creation of Transhumanity’s Fate, a Fate Core version of Eclipse Phase. If you prefer your future a bit less complex, but just as rich in detail, you can pick up the short Fate-based rulebook and focus more on the heroic characters and less on the combat modifiers. Since Eclipse Phase is licensed with Creative Commons, there is also a rich scene for creating alternative versions and modifications of the game. Perhaps this will be the legacy of Eclipse Phase: not any specific mechanic or rule, however fine-tuned or not, but the fictional cornucopia of its world, which borrows liberally from the minds of the best science fiction writers and fits it all together with surprising finesse.
Like its world, Eclipse Phase second edition is large, complex and combines things that you didn’t think could go together. It successfully brings in ideas formulated fully in source books published after the first book and solves some of the problems the previous edition had. But not all those solutions seem as successful as others, and the result is a bit confused at times. Despite any weaknesses the first edition had, you could say its design was coherent: whatever the problem, you threw your d100 at it. The second edition brings in ideas from other, often newer, games, but doesn’t stop to think through what it means to hand narrative control over to the players or how to structure investigative scenarios so that they stay meaningful when you can just spend points from a pool to skip the investigation part. These are not problems that a group of players working together can’t overcome, but that’s true of everything in role-playing games – the games are just tools we use, and some of them are better for some uses than others.
Luckily, if this review makes you hesitate on whether you should get Eclipse Phase second edition, you can legally find yourself a PDF copy, thanks to the Creative Commons licensing. And maybe, if you like what you see, you can also buy the book.
The tagline on the first edition cover is “The Roleplaying Game of Transhuman Conspiracy and Horror”. The new one is “The Roleplaying Game of Transhuman Survival”. ↩