Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Between States

In the last seventy years humanity built an elevator into orbit and explored the Solar System from the Sun’s corona out to the Kuiper Belt. We terraformed Mars and established colonies wherever we went. We mastered nanotechnology and built Artificial Intelligences. We cloned ourselves and uplifted innumerable species. We adopted augmented reality and mastered the ability to digitize our memories and consciousness. We gene-engineered ourselves and new forms of ourselves, known as “Morphs.” We learned how download and upload our consciousness from one body to another. The ability to change our bodies forced us to redefine our sense of self and we got close to becoming something new, a new definition of what it was to be human.

Ten years ago the Fall occurred.

The TITANS appeared. In the wake of these human-created, recursively-improving, military seed A.I.s known as Total Information Tactical Awareness Networks came conflict. First a netwar, then advanced war machines, then nuclear and chemical weapons, nanovirii and nanoswarms, with millions of humanity harvested, their memories digitised to unknown ends. The lucky few got off the Earth with their mind and body whole, but millions had themselves voluntarily digitised and their minds beamed out into space. Some of these infugees or “Infomorph refugees,” were never collected, but many remain in storage or live out an existence in virtual reality, whilst the lucky few work out long periods as indentured servants in cheap Morphs in hope that they can own a body of their own someday. The Earth itself is a smoking, irradiated, toxic wasteland, home to dangerous machines and plagues, abandoned and actively quarantined by the Planetary Consortium for our own protection.

As to the TITANS? Well, within days of the conflict breaking out, they disappeared, taking with them the millions of minds that they had uploaded. Later they were traced to the first of several Pandora Gates, each a wormhole gateway that connect with alien worlds far outside of the Solar System. Each of the known Pandora Gates is in the possession of a Hypercorp – the commercial descendants of the old megacorps, but adapted to harder, leaner times – or a faction like the Love and Rage anarchist collective which operates the Fissure Gate on Uranus.

Barely an eighth of Earth’s old population made if off world before the quarantine came down and ten years on, it has adapted to its new and many environments. The Inner System – Mars, the Moon, and Mercury – is dominated by the Planetary Consortium, a capitalist/republican system in which the biggest shareholders have the largest vote. A military, almost fascist oligarchy rules the moons around Jupiter, whilst the Outer System is dominated by an alliance of Scandinavia-style social democracies and anarchist Collectives. Humanity survives, but its fears are even greater now that its home has been ruined. It already deals with one alien species – the ambassadorial race known as the Factors, a species of intelligent slimes that protects humanity from other aliens, but fears the nature of the others. It fears another outbreak of the multi-vector Exsurgent Virus capable of self-morphing and infecting computer systems and biological creatures, one strain of which, the Watts-MacLeod strain, is known to leave its victims with the capacity to use Psionic or Parapsychological powers. It fears the use of the weapons of mass destruction that destroyed the Earth and worse, it fears the return of the TITANS or the possibility of the current A.I.s becoming fully self-aware and delivering another hammer blow to humanity.

No one faction works to prevent these “existential threats,” most being concerned with signs that their rivals are researching and developing such threats themselves. Except that is, Firewall. This is a secret cross-faction conspiracy that works to protect transhumanity from “existential threats,” whatever their source.

This is the set-up for Eclipse Phase, a near-future trans-humanist post-apocalyptic game of conspiracy and horror published by Posthuman Studios that won the 2010 Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Game. The title comes from the term, “Eclipse Phase,” which is the period of time 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. Humanity then is infected. By what, and what it become is another matter. At the heart of the game though is its slogan: “Your mind is software. Program it. Your body is a shell. Change it. Death is a disease. Cure it. Extinction is approaching. Fight it.” It neatly sums Eclipse Phase up, for in this RPG, a player character cannot die. “His” body can, but his self or Ego cannot, it either being recorded onto an implanted Cortical Stack and retrieved after death, or a back-up body is activated afterwards – if he has paid the insurance that ensures that there is Morph at the body bank to be resleeved into. Thus it is possible to resleeve from one body to the next, essentially holding off death. As to the extinction of the slogan, it is being fought by Firewall, which in the RPG’s default setting, the player characters are presumed to be members of. Other suggested campaigns include salvage and rescue/retrieval operations (the Fall left numerous habitants, on and off world to be scavenged), trade, crime, mercenaries, social/political intrigue, and exploration (the Solar System is not fully explored, and that is before you consider the possibility of Gatecrashing through one of the Pandora Gates).

The divide between body and self in Eclipse Phase begins more or less at the start of character generation. A player decides upon the concept for his character, and then his character’s Background – Fall Evacuee (got off Earth with his body intact), Re-Instantiated (did not get off Earth with his body intact, but his consciousness was beamed off), Martian or Lunar Colonist; and Faction – Argonaut (scientific techno-progressive), Barsoomian (Martian outback colonist), Socialite (member of the inner system glitterati), or Titanian (participant in the Titanian Commonwealth’s socialist cyberdemocracy). Each gives a few advantages, whilst several limit the type of Morphs available to the Background or Faction. He also needs to decide his Motivations of which he will have three at the start of the game. In game they helpa character regain Moxie (the game’s equivalent of Luck) and earn Rez or Experience Points.

A character has two types of skills. The first are Aptitudes (Cognition, Coordination, Intuition, Reflexes, Savvy, Somatics, and Willpower), ingrained talents that every character has and which are the basis of the second type, Learned Skills. Both will be carried with his Ego from one Body or Morph to the next, but each Morph is different and will limit and enhance a character’s Aptitudes and thus his Learned Skills, depending upon the type of Morph. This is why some of the Learned Skills in the character example receive small five point bonuses. Each player has two set amounts of points with which to purchase both types of skills, but in addition a player must draw from the points for his Learned Skills if he wants to select Traits – such as Direction Sense or Adaptability (a character resleeves with ease), his Morph, improve his Aptitudes, and get extra money so that he can purchase Backup insurance (and so has a Morph prepared if his current is killed), services, and implants from an array of bioware and cyberware. Every character starts the game with a Cortical Stack (for recording a character’s Ego) and Basic Mesh Inserts (which allow a character to connect to the all-pervasive wireless mesh), but can purchase more. A character can also purchase his “Rep” or Reputation, a social currency that he can spend with various factions in return for favours. If a character wants more points to spend on these and Learned Skills, he can select negative traits but they grant only a few points.

Lastly a player selects his character’s Morph. It is possible to play a normal, unmodified human or Flat, but they are rare, few having got off Earth following the Fall. In the After Fall, humanity has developed a diverse range of Morphs, divided between Biomorphs and Synmorphs. Most Biomorphs are genefixed humans or Splicers, but other Biomorphs are engineered towards athleticism (Olympians), combat (Furies), particular environments (like the Rusters of Mars), or a particular type of role, the latter being vat-grown morphs known as Pods, and include Pleasure and Worker models. Biomorphs also include Uplifted species such as Chimpanzees and Octopuses. As the name suggests, Synmorphs are artificial and robotic. They include the extremely cheap, mass-produced robotic shells known as Cases that are prone to malfunction, but other options include Flexbots, Reapers, and Swarmoids.

What is important to note here though, is the fact that whatever the choice of Morph, it is only a character’s starting Morph. Due to events in game, a character could easily find himself resleeved, and not in a Morph of his choice, which essentially grants the GM control over what a character’s physicality will be. This can be discombobulating for the players, let alone the characters, but overcoming the limits of one body to use another is the point of Eclipse Phase.

Lastly, a character has two sets of second statistics. One for his Ego and another for his Morph. The process is not that complex, but it is not a short process either, involving a lot of flipping back and forth as a player works out what he wants. The process can be curtailed by using one of the sixteen pre-generated sample characters.

One other option available during character generation is that of Psionics or Parapsychological powers. Available to characters who have been infected by the Watts-MacLeod strain of the Exsurgent Virus and who have purchased the Psi Trait. Once infected, the Psionic Ego – and Psionics are wired or “Quantum Entangled” into an Ego rather than a Morph – can select Psi Sleights that either enhance their users or allow the users to “Mind Hack” others. On the downside Psionics have a reduced capacity to withstand mental stress, are prone to mental disorders, and are vulnerable to further infection from Exsurgent Virii.

The sample character is a Neo-hominoid, an Orang-utan Uplift. As such Maisie is a pro-Uplift rights advocate. When not working as a Zero-g Emergency Medical Technician, Maisie supplements her income and reputation as a security ops/combat medic.

Name: Maisie
Background: Uplift
Faction: Mercurial Motivations: +Exploration+Reclaiming Earth+Uplift Rights

Morph: Neo-hominoid

Initiative 80
Lucidity 20
Trauma Threshold 4
Insanity Rating 40
Moxie 2

Speed 1
Durability 30
Wound Threshold 6
Death Rating 9
Damage Bonus 2

Advantages: Common Sense, Expert (Medicine), Limber (Level 2), Right at Home (Neo-hominoid)
Disadvantages: Addiction (Chocolate), Mild Allergy (Bee Stings)

                                        BASE MORPH BONUS       TOTAL
Cognition (COG)            20
Coordination (COO)     15                    5                      20
Intuition (INT)              15                    5                      20
Reflexes (REF)              20                                            20
Savvy (SAV)                  10                    5                      15
Somatics (SOM)            15                    5                      20
Willpower (WIL)           10                                            10

Academic [Biology] (COG) 50, Academic [Chemistry] (COG) 50, Academic [Genetics] (COG) 50, Academic [Psychology] (COG) 30, Art [Drawing] (INT) 25+5=30, Climbing (SOM) 70+5=75, Fray (REF) 70, Free Fall (REF) 60, Free Running (SOM) 55+5=60, Infiltration (COO) 55+5=60, Interest [English Literature] (COG) 50, Interest [Old Earth History] (COG) 50, Intimidation (SAV) 30+5=35, Kinetic Weapons (COO) 45+5=50, Language [English] (COG) 90, Language [Mandarin] (COG) 50, Language [Russian] (COG) 50, Medicine [General Practice] (COG) 30, Medicine [Paramedic] (COG) 75, Medicine [Paramedic/Decompression Victims] (COG) 85,Medicine [Trauma Surgery] (COG) 60, Navigation (INT) 45+5=50, Networking (SAV) [Mercurials] 30+5=35, Perception (INT) 55+5=70, Persuasion (SAV) 40+5=45, Pilot [Spacecraft] (REF) 50, Profession [Forensics] (COG) 40, Profession [Lab Technician] (COG) 50, Profession [Security Ops] (COG) 30, Psychosurgery (INT) 35+5=40, Research (COG) 40, Scrounging (INT) 35+5=40, Unarmed Combat (SOM) 55+5=60

Implants: Basic Biomods, Basic Mesh Inserts, Bioweave Armour (Light), Direction Sense, Clean Metabolism, Cortical Stack, Prehensile Feet
Gear: Backup Insurance (four months), Cr 2750

c-Rep 25, g-Rep 20, i-Rep 20, r-Rep 35

In terms of mechanics, Eclipse Phase uses a percentile system, but one running from 00 to 99 rather than 01 to 100. Since Learned Skills range from 01 to 99, a roll of 00 is always a success. Rolls of double numbers – 00, 11, 22, 33, 44, 55, 66, 77, 88, and 99 – are always a critical success if under the skill, but a critical failure if over. One tweak with the system is that Moxie can be spent to flip the result of a roll. So for example, a roll of 72 could end be flipped to a 27 and a success. What is interesting in this mechanic is that rolls of doubles cannot be flipped and so critical failures cannot be avoided.

If the system is relatively simple, the setting is not. Lengthy sections discuss in turn the new homes and habitats that humanity has found itself in the After Fall; the politics and economics of the After Fall – the economics having radically changed with relatively easy access to nanotechnology and Cornucopia Machines, though your Reputation with various factions and interests can often get you further than simple money; how to live with the Mesh, the decentralised information and data that pervades everywhere – and not just live with it, but also hack it and use it; and gear that includes everything from personal augmentation and drugs, chemicals, and toxins to weapons, robots, and vehicles. Much of this information has an understandable technological bent, so it is no surprise that the RPG’s most radical technology, that of Morphs and resleeving, gets most of a chapter of its own. Entitled “Acelerated Future,” it primarily explores the ramifications that resleeving has on society, but it also covers rules for handling the alienating effects of integrating into a new Morph and the concept of Forking. This is the sleeving of multiple copies of the same Ego in several different Morphs so that there can be multiple versions of one person moving around. There is a social stigma attached to this, but it is done for various reasons, not just the need to be in two places at once. One sign that Eclipse Phase is a hard Science Fiction RPG is attention is paid to the scale of the setting. It takes time to get around the Solar System. The upshot of the digitised consciousness is that it possible to travel great distances via Egocasting. Once an Ego arrives at its destination, it is resleeved. This is not without its dangers, but it allows easy interplanetary travel.

Rounding out Eclipse Phase is a chapter for the Gamemaster. Although the chapter contains advice for the Game Master, the bulk of it is devoted to yet more setting material. This though is not for the players’ eyes, but the GM’s only, for this setting material is about the secrets behind the setting. In truth, I have not done much more than scan this chapter as I actually do not want to know the secrets! But from what I saw it all looked to be useful, expanding upon earlier information given on Firewall, the TITANS, the Pandora Gates, and more.

Physically, Eclipse Phase is a solid hardback, done in full colour throughout. The standard of artwork is good, especially when depicting the technical elements of the setting, and whilst the layout is clean and tidy, it is does get a little busy in places.

Science Fiction roleplaying depends to veer towards the Space Opera and the light and fluffy, relying on the clichés of the genre. Eclipse Phase stands directly opposite that, its background being rich in terms of both depth and detail. This means that the setting is that much more complex, and thus that much more demanding for players to grasp, though not as complex and as demanding as it is for the Gamemaster. It asks both to grasp and use a thoroughly radical technology, that in addition to the challenges presented by the technology and its capabilities that both have at their fingertips. It is this very daunting nature of the game that is its major problem, and it is not one that is really addressed to any great depth. At least though, the game keeps its mechanics relatively simple when compared to the complexity of the game itself.

A minor issue is that given the level of detail awarded the setting of Eclipse Phase, it is surprising that none of the gear is named. It is all generic rather than branded, and in any fiction, including that of an RPG, brand names do add verisimilitude. That said, this lack of branding is addressed, but even then a list of suggested manufacturers would at least offset this minor lack.

Eclipse Phase has been a book that I have wanted to review for quite some time. I did not until now because I had been daunted by its density, but upon reading the RPG, it is no surprise that Eclipse Phase won the 2010 Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Game. It is an impressive creation, superbly detailed Science Fiction setting, with a dizzying density that grabs you and makes you want to play there. And then makes you want more detail.