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Petri Wessman's weblog

Minireview: Transhuman (Eclipse Phase)

Transhuman is more or less the “Player’s Guide” to Eclipse Phase. Unlike the previous support books, it provides very little new setting info, and instead focuses on filling in and improving some weaker points of the rules and the existing general world detail. Since the base character generation rules for the game are… well, “overly complex” to be charitable about it, this book introduces a new, “package-based” character generation system. With it, players choose and tailor general packages related to various character concepts instead of micromanaging each and every skill and related creation cost. While I haven’t tried it out, it looks very good and a big improvement over the original. There is also a new “lifepath”-based character generation option, which looks like fun.

Apart from the new chargen options, we get expanded information (and pictures) or lots of morphs and bots – good stuff since these figure heavily in the game, and having visual references is good. Then there’s a big section on Firewall itself, with guidelines and hints on how to play agents and what needs to be taken into account in the Eclipse Phase world when it comes to investigation, combat, stealth, etc. Very useful.

While it’s not perfect (there are lots of social implications of the Eclipse Phase world that I still haven’t seen covered anywhere, typical family structures being one), it’s very good. The writing is clear and entertaining, the art is good, and overall it just improves the game on many fronts. This book is close to a must-buy for players (or GMs) of the game.

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Minireview: Panoptiocon (Eclipse Phase)

Panopticon is a game resource book for Eclipse Phase covering three areas: the ubiquitous surveilllance society which most parts of Transhumanity live in, the care and feeding of space habitats, and the theory and practice of “uplift”: taking animal species and “upgrading” them to near-human levels. All are key elements in the game world, and all have serious repercussions in how the game world is set up.

The first section, which also gives the book the “Panopticon” title, deals with the omnipresent surveillance that exists on most habitats, and how society deals with it. It’s very smartly written, and extrapolates many current “social media” trends into the far future. In a society where privacy is rare and fleeting (and may even cause suspicion), how do people with things to hide (i.e. most player characters) cope? Obviously, by exploiting the system. All complicated systems have flaws, and knowing what the weak links are is crucial. Also, hiding in plain sight and general misdirection can go a long way. It’s fascinating stuff. It’s a matter of opinion how believable this view of the future is, but one much remember that Eclipse Phase takes place after a near-extinction event. Societies become very malleable after something like that.

The second part deals with habitats, starting from basic “tin cans” to vast structures housing millions. While this is more straightforward stuff than the first section, the info here is good and very much grounded on science (with some creative extrapolations here and there). Many of the ideas here were familiar to me from other science fiction books, but that’s not a negative point; Eclipse Phase is very conscious of basing itself on a firm foundation of classic and new science fiction tropes.

Lastly we have a section on uplifts, including the history, the inevitable social and ethical problems associated with them, and the current “state of the art”. There’s a big difference between sleeving into a non-human morph and actually being an uplifted animal, both in how you perceive yourself and in how society perceives you. As can be guessed, racial prejudice can be a huge factor (in both directions).

Once again, this is an excellent add-on book for Eclipse Phase. While uplifts are an optional element in the game (if you don’t have uplift PCs and don’t use them as NPCs, they do not matter much), most of the action tends to take place on habitats of different types and features high-tech surveillance. Since the game default has the PCs acting as covert operatives, details on all of this tends to matter. A lot. This book is very much a “must buy” for this game.

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Minireview: Gatecrashing (Eclipse Phase)

Gatecrashing is the second major supplement for Eclipse Phase, and like the previous one (Sunward) it’s a fantastic product. The name refers to Gatecrashers, people (and sort-of-people) in the setting who make a living by “crashing” (i.e. exploring) the mysterious Pandora Gate network found as artifacts in a few locations in the solar system, leading… anywhere. Very much shades of Fred Pohl’s “Gateway” here, especially since Gatecrashing is singularly dangerous. The other end of the game might open up on a relatively friendly location, in very rare cases even somewhere which is near human-habitable… but more often than not, it opens up in hard vacuum, in a toxic atmosphere, or near some ridiculously lethal alien ruins. Ideal fodder for an rpg campaign, in other words.

As an aside, “Gatecrashers” would have been a somewhat more obvious name for this book, but I think there was some previous game (or book?) with that name so the Eclipse Phase guys settled on “Gatecrashing”. Fair enough.

The book starts off by describing the basic situation with the Pandora Gates; who “owns” them currently, what their access policies are, what it costs to mount a Gate expedition, the tools of the trade, all the nitty gritty details. After that we get the meat of the book, a huge list of locations potentially accessible via the Gates. This is by no means an exhaustive list, since the network is vast, it’s more meant as a showcase of the sorts of places that might be encountered – and it’s great stuff. Almost all of the places are very imaginative, and most are very weird to boot. You get a Dyson Sphere… but one where the outside surface is the habitable portion. You get an intergalactic version of Chat Roulette (not kidding here). You get disturbing leftover TITAN experiments and some “mad scientists set loose” scenarios. The writing is good and it’s a great read in general, especially so since the location writeups are all done in the same “random 3rd person” style as the previous Eclipse Phase material. It’s not totally objective information, which makes it very readable without sacrificing game reference use much at all.

While the book is geared towards the Eclipse Phase game background setup, must of this could be used in pretty much any large-scale scifi game. All you need is a network of semi-randomly working intergalactic transport portals and you’re set. The basic setup is also familiar from the TV show Stargate, though here the end locations tend to not feature Canadian woods quite so often, and are often both more lethal and more insidiously dangerous.

The Eclipse Phase gameline has yet to disappoint.

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Minireview: Sunward (Eclipse Phase)

Sunward is the first sourcebook for the Eclipse Phase game, and like the title implies it describes the “Sunward” part of the solar system – that is, everything from the Sun itself out to the beginnings of the asteroid belt near Mars. Like the core book, it’s quite excellent and contains a ton of information.

The first item here is the sun itself. While obviously ridiculously hostile to life in any form, some extreme biomods still exist in the sun’s close vicinity. Somewhat like “space whales” in shape and also lifestyle, they use hitech methods of avoiding heat damage and form strange societies in a place where not much else can live. After than we get Mercury, which is one of the more extreme planets in the solar system. Here, groups of miners race the dividing line between the scorching sun and the freezing shadow, trying to extract valuable minerals while always keeping on the move. It’s a cool idea, with lots of game potential.

Next up is Venus. Venus is hellish on its surface, with temperatures hot enough to melt lead and the perpetual darkness (due to cloud cover) hiding both acid rain and valuable minerals. Suprise surprise, there get mined too – though this time by bioforms designed to tolerate the conditions, with remotely uploaded “people” running them. All this is mostly run by the hypercorps, or by the Morningstar Consortium, a newish power intent on both developing a power core of its own, filling the Venusian upper atmosphere with floating cities (think Cloud City in Empire Strikes Back), and fighting the hypercorps on many levels. The politics here get complex, and the Venusian floating cities make good places for the PCs to visit (or have their home in, for that matter).

Then it’s Earth and the Moon (or Luna, as it is now called). Earth remains a hostile, quarantined wasteland, though we get more details here on both the quarantine zone and the dangers on the surface – it’s obvious that some people survived, though the hypercorps do their best to suppress this information. It’s also obvious that some hypercorps (and other parties) are running covert operations on the surface. Luna, on the other hand, it solid, (reasonably) safe and civilized. The cities are underground, and some of them are huge. There is a lot of detail here, and Luna is clearly meant to be a strong contender for an origin point for PCs.

After Earth, it’s Mars, naturally enough. Mars is interesting; lots of “frontier” feel, and well-grounded resistance to hypercorp domination. There are still dormant TITAN leftovers here, and between those and the vast and fairly hostile desert, it provides lots of opportunities for PCs to vanish from prying eyes. For some reason Mars tends to be pictured in a “Wild West” tone in many scifi books and games, but it works very well here and provides and counterpoint to the sterile and corporate-controlled environs of Venus and Luna.

Lastly, there is some description of the first fringes of the asteroid belt(s). Some nice locations here, but there’s not a huge amount of material – I expect more of this stuff from the upcoming book detailing the rest of the solar system. The book also contains some NPC templates and new biomorphs suitable for the locations described here.

It’s a great book, and well written; instead of reading like a gazetteer, it’s written in a very entertaining fashion (told with several quite different narrator voices, representing different NPCs with different agendas and biases). Sure, it’s a hodgepodge of lots of scifi ideas from all over, but it’s mostly coherent and the sum total is a very entertaining and interesting game world.

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Minireview: Eclipse Phase

Eclipse Phase is a very impressive game. I first heard about it quite a while ago, but it took me a good long while until I actually read the thing. Initially, most of the buzz was around the distribution model: the creators decided to go for a Creative Commons license, which means that you can quite legally grab copies of the PDF without paying a cent, if you want. They actually provided free downloads in the beginning, though nowadays they guide you towards the (still very cheap) DriveThru PDF on their official site. In the beginning people said they were crazy; at a time of piracy hysteria, there people were convinced that games would be willing to pay money for something they could also get for free, and also that the free PDF would work as marketing. Well, it seems to have worked, they’ve sold a lot of copies of both the commercial PDF and the more traditional dead-tree version, and expansion books are on the way (one of which, Sunward is already available). There are also many PDF-only supplements available, including some nice starter adventures.

The CC license also means that people are free to modify it for their own use and do “mashups” that include the original material (provided attribution is given and it’s non-commercial). In fact, they also sell “hack packs” of some of the supplements, which include original art and layout source files and other goodies. Very cool.

For an “indie” game that came out of nowhere, the production values are amazing. The art is mostly fantastic, the physical book is solid, and the layout is very classy. This is quality stuff. It’s also a bit deceptive in printed form; it doesn’t look like a thick book, but the fairly thin paper used in printing hides the fact that it clocks in at 400 or so pages crammed full of stuff. There’s a lot here.

Ok, so it has an interesting business/license model and the layout is nice. What about the game?

Well, good news on that front, too. It’s a science fiction game, taking themes from the “new space opera” and “transhumanist” front, with a dose of horror thrown in. There Transhuman Space explored many of the same themes, this game is much darker. Billing itself as a “roleplaying game of post-apocalyptic transhuman conspiracy and horror”, it posits a future in which humanity has begun to self-modify and expand in the solar system – until disaster strikes with originally-military AIs (the “TITANS”) going rogue and almost exterminating mankind. Earth gets turned into a deadly no-go zone, and what’s left of “transhumanity” is in space. The game’s default setting is quite soon after “The Fall”, so things haven’t settled down yet. Rogue horrors left behind by the perhaps-departed TITANS still lurk everywhere, and humanity is a mess of megacorporations, remnants of old governments, and anarchist communes. It’s like the future of Transhuman Space, except with added Terminator-style “machines try to kill everyone” dystopia and layers upon layers of paranoia.

Adding to the paranoia is the fact that bodies have become disposable, with people “resleeving” themselves into new bodies at whim (if they have the cash, of course). Yes, that term and concept is a direct steal from Richard Morgan’s books, and anyone who has read their Alastair Reynolds, Walter Jon Williams, Iain M. Banks and such will also find many familiar themes here. The resleeving technology and associated issues with identity, backup copies and other such things give the GM lots of themes to play with, and while the “bad guys” of the setting may have left for parts unknown, they did leave behind lots of deadly traps.

One thing of note: there is a metaplot here. Some will like this, others will hate it (I’m in the “like” section myself). There is a background story to the events that nearly wracked humanity, and it ties in with the horror aspect of the game; taking lots of cues from Alastair Reynolds’ books, the game posits a universe which is largely indifferent and in places largely hostile to new species. There are things out there that do not like emergent civilizations, and tend to swat them down like flies. Oh, and the game also has aliens, weird sluglike beings called the Factors. There is also limited interstellar travel, in the form of “Pandora Gates” left behind by the TITANS. Are they traps? Maybe. Where do they lead? To weird places. So yes, Pohl’s “Gateway” series also gets a nod here.

It’s a huge mishmash of ideas and themes borrowed mainly from (semi) hard scifi books, with a post-apocalypse feel. There are “psychic powers” available (explained away by nanoviruses and other weirded things), and I have mixed feelings about that… I’m not sure the game actually needed those, but on the other hand there are hints that those powers tie in to the background plot and may become important later. In any case, if you don’t like “psi”, just leave it out in your games.

The rule system is a fairly basic percentile system, seems decent on first read but I hear there are some weirdnesses in there. The star of this show is the setting, in any case, so running this with whatever other system you like should not present problems,

If you intend to only play this, don’t read the “GM” section at the back of the book without GM permission; as noted, the game has a metaplot and that section contains some “what really happened” stuff that may ruin surprises for you later.

This is a fantastic game. It’s inventive and in places creepy, and in a way it’s a dark mirror image of Transhuman Space. “THS with added Cthulhu”, if you will. Even though you can quite legally pick up a PDF of this from some Torrent site, please consider at least buying the commercial PDF if you like this, or (ideally) the dead-tree version. The more money these guys get, the more good stuff they’ll produce. It’s not like we have a huge abundance of quality science fiction rpgs.

Oh, and the name of the game? As their website tells us:

An “eclipse phase” is the period between when a cell is infected by a virus and when the virus appears within the cell and transforms it. During this period, the cell does not appear to be infected, but it is.

Yes, that’s directly related to the (hidden) metaplot and backstory.

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