RPG Test Drive: Eclipse Phase

Take away: An awesome and dark sci-fi world with a steep learning curve and overly-complicated mechanics.

Eclipse Phase in a Nutshell

Eclipse phase takes place in an apocalyptic future where rampaging AI’s devastated the Earth and then departed the solar system through alien gateways. Owing to the ability to copy one’s consciousness into digital storage, humans have transcended physical forms, and the majority currently exist as digital refugees hoping once again to have a body. An organization called Firewall attempts to maintain order in the solar system and prevent another apocalypse from eliminating humanity once and for all.

The stats for characters exist as a combination of their core competencies (determined by their consciousness, or ego) and the physical form (morph) that they currently inhabit. Most dice-rolling is limited to percentile roles against one’s skill ability (often opposed by another character/system). Advancement is in the form of customization points (these can be used to increase the players abilities or hardware) and reputation with various factions (allowing for the ability to call in greater favors).

Eclipse phase is free for download and has a large number of source books detailing different aspects of the world.

Test Drive Details

Test Group: Five fourteen-year-olds (3 boys, 2 girls) with two years of D&D experience.
Ruleset: Version 1
Modules: Ego Hunter and

What worked. A rich world with a super premise.

Eclipse phase feels cool. All the players enjoyed looking through the different morphs, augments, and weaponry. In Ego Hunter—where most characters play the same person in different bodies—the group had a good time playing up the differences between morphs. The stories were interesting and led to some memorable moments, such as when multiple players got slaughtered by a giant fan, one got blown out an airlock, and another got slaughtered by a version of himself infected by an alien virus. Oh, did I mention that there is a high lethality for players in this game? It’s okay, they have backups.

What failed. A huge learning curve with lacklustre mechanics.

The scope of this world is very large and, as far as I’ve seen, there isn’t a gentle introduction to build player’s knowledge and skill. Unlike a system such as D&D or Pathfinder where players gradually acquire new abilities and progressively explore the world, Eclipse Phase throws everything at you at once. As GM, I needed to give a lot of guidance on how to get things done. Here are some specific things that frustrated the group:

  1. Large Skill List and Too Many Stats. One look at the character sheet will tell you there is a lot going on. There are 17 abilities and calculated stats, a host of specic skills (like Kenetic Weapons, Palming, Animal Handling), but also a large number of open-ended skills where you indicate specific proficiencies in academics, art, personal interests, professions, networking, hardware, etc. It’s too much in my opinion, and the large number of skills only serves to pigeon-hole characters.
  2. Research and breaking into computers. Hacking sounds cool, but in practice its very boring. Both rolling research roles (searching the “Mesh”) and infosec checks feel kind of useless in the game.
  3. Death is both quick and irrelevant. Since your consciousness is backed up and you can be “re-sleeved” into a new body, dying lacks the same kind of punch that it does in other games. GM’s will need to think of other stakes (fates worse than death) to keep tension high. Even though we only played a couple games, it also became apparent that the same kind of things that killed you in the first adventure would likely continue to be able to kill you several adventures later because the gear largely determines how much damage you can dish out. While I can see an advantage to this in terms of realism (a person spraying a machine gun at you is going to kill most people regardless of how experienced you are), they don’t get to feel like their character has the chance to really advance in awesomeness.
  4. Repetitive Scenarios. I looked online for what adventure modules were best to play and chose Ego Hunter and Continuity as a result. While they take place in very different settings, both ultimately involved you stopping an infected version of yourself before they had a chance to spread the contagion. I looked at one other module, Glory. And guess what, you have to track down the White Kahns, an infected gang that threatens to spread the virus. This isn’t a fault of the world, there are lots of scenarios I can conceive of, but there are few enough official Eclipse Phases modules that I was surprised the themes of these adventures weren’t more diverse.
  5. Battles were furious, deadly, and over quickly. Maybe it is partly the age group, but standing your ground in a fight is a quick way to get killed.

Advice for running this system with young teens.

  1. Make them read the core rule book. My impression of Eclipse Phase is that it is difficult to have a newbie sit at the table, give them a character sheet, and get started. They won’t know what to do. Death, currency, manufacturing, skill use, and social organization are not intuitive and looking at a character sheet is no help. The stat blocks are confusing with bewildering abbreviations. If you don’t have a group that is willing to skim through the rules ahead of time, you will have a long road ahead. If they can’t handle reading the rules, maybe this game isn’t for them.
  2. Use reputation favors as a chance to develop NPCs. Since technology has advanced to the point where almost any material thing can simply be manufactured by advanced printers called cornucopia machines, trading favors is the new economy. It is boring, however, to just call in a “major favor” and have something or information appear. I suggest developing a world of contacts and use the opportunity to develop character backstory.
  3. Watch out for things that allow a speed increase (ie., neurachem). Speed in the game indicates how many actions you can perform in a turn. Letting a character get a speed of 2 or even 3 when the other characters have a speed of 1 can severely unbalance things. A second edition is soon to be released, and I wouldn’t doubt they will deal with this issue.
  4. Take the time to make setting detail come alive. The adventure modules tend to be a little sparse in their canned material. As the GM, you won’t have a lot of set blocks of text to read or simple maps to follow. You’ll need to take extra time before the game to prepare some of this detail or do a lot of quick thinking during the game.
  5. Make sure you have players interested in story without concern for character advancement (at least in terms of game stats). There are a set of conversion rules for Fate Core, in my opinion, might be a better fit. I love the world of Eclipse Phase and, quite frankly, I’d rather just throw away a lot of the mechanics and just let the narrative carry the story.

Conclusion:

I really love this world and will probably continue to follow their material for that if no other reason. I’m curious to see what changes they make with the 2nd edition mechanics, but am strongly considering using the world for a Fate Core game.