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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Game Day: Playtesting Eclipse Phase

by Ken Newquist / August 21, 2016
An astronaut is snared by a monstrous tentacle as he floats outside of a space station.
The cover art from the Eclipse Phase core rule book. Credit: Posthuman Studios, LLC

I finally knocked one of the items off my RPG bucket list: "Play Eclipse Phase".

My gaming group has been kicking around ideas for an alternate game we can run when we're not playing D&D and Eclipse Phase is a game that two of us had wanted to play for a while. The game is all-in transhumanism, with near-immortality granted by backed-up minds, environmental and social disaster wrought by out-of-control technology, uplifted animal races, and fast-evolving AIs that throw the solar system into chaos.

It also has a fairly lightweight, d100 based skill system reminiscent of one of our favorite games, Call of Cthulhu and a solar system-spanning setup tailor made for self-contained, episodic adventures.

On Sunday 7/25, we ran a playtest using the scenario and pre-generated characters in the quick start rules. The setup involved a black market auction for some mysterious bit of possibly super-AI designed tech. As part of the adventure our heroes had the chance to flit around the solar system, first on a scum city-ship outside the orbit of Jupiter, then "re-sleeving" themselves into new bodies on Mars.

The game mechanics, at least the subset of the ones we used, were reasonably quick. Like Call of Cthulhu, you've got percentile-based skills (though in this case they go from 0-99, not 01-00). When faced with a task, you try and roll under your skill. There's more to it when you get into complex and opposed tasks, and how close you roll to the target number can be important, but that's the basic mechanic.

The game played well, but I will note that we weren't overly concerned with the rules. We looked up a few things on the fly, but we were more focused on getting through the scenario than we were getting everything 100% right. For the rules we did look up, we found that the index in the core rule book worked well. It avoids wild goose chase so frequent in the D&D 5th Edition Player's Handbook though we did have trouble finding the unarmed combat damage tables (if such things exist).

We enjoyed the campaign setting for the game, which deftly splices in transhuman story elements from dozens of science fiction novels. If you enjoy Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space series, Peter Hamilton's Commonwealth series, David Brin's Uplift books, and Ann Leckie's Ancillary trilogy, you'll find a lot to love in this game. The setup is simple enough - the Singularity happened. Humanity's technology ran amok, creating super artificial intelligences called TITANS that devastated the Earth and then evolved themselves out of existence. Well ... maybe they did. Regardless of where they are, they left a lot of very dangerous toys lying around, and humanity is all too happy to try and play with them. At the same time, the human race -- which has splintered and spread throughout the solar system -- is constantly experimenting with new and potentially dangerous technologies.

The player characters are part of a clandestine organization called Firewall. It's mission is to prevent the outbreak of technology that could lead to the extinction of the human race. Typical missions involve the characters jumping around the solar system, downloading themselves into new bodies to deal with ever stranger threats. My group enjoyed Delta Green, a similarly-minded benevolent conspiracy for Call of Cthulhu so the Firewall missions are very much in our wheelhouse.

Eclipse Phase's publishers make it pretty easy to playtest the game. The quick start rules include an overview of the setting, the essential game rules, pre-generated characters, a rules cheat sheet, and the scenario "Mission: Mind the WMD". The quick start rules are available as a PDF as well as AWZ and MOBI format (primarily useful for Kindle owners like me). You can also buy a print copy for $7. The Kindle formats worked great; I'd love to see more publishers do this. The PDF includes the ability to turn off layers if you're trying to save in, but I would have preferred a true printer-friendly black-and-white version of the character sheets. Also, while the cheat sheet is helpful for learning the rules, it doesn't help with understanding the swarm of new acronyms for attributes, aptitudes, and skills. I'd like to see those included in the cheatsheet or available as a separate download.

The best thing about the system is that much of its content has been released under a Creative Commons license. You can download the core rulebook and many of the supplements for free in PDF format. During our playtest we only had one print copy of the core rulebook, but we enjoyed it enough that several players intend to buy their own copies for the next game.

Looking ahead, we're planning on running Eclipse Phase games once a month when we meet for our "D&D Kids" sessions. Those sessions see three of our group's kids -- all 10 years old -- getting together to play through the legendary D&D adventure B2 Keep on the Borderlands. The kids do well, but typically they'll play for an hour or an hour and a half and then want to take a break so they can run around and do something else. We intend to run Eclipse Phase during those 45-60 minute breaks.

Based on our playtest, we think Eclipse Phase's lightweight rules and rapid context shifting should fit into those limited windows of game time nicely.