Earth is gone. Mankind is now a digital species whose consciousnesses exist as streams of data awaiting a new home, be it an idealized meat body or a robotic working husk. Scattered amongst the planets, our homeworld gone, humanity is dying. This is the world Eclipse Phase, an upcoming sci-fi horror RPG from Catalyst Game Labs. While at Gencon 2008 we sat down with designers Rob Boyle and Brian Cross for a conversation about their upcoming tabletop RPG.
Randol: Eclipse Phase looks to be full of transhumanist or posthumanist ideas. What kind outside inspirations have you had?
Brian: Iain Banks.
Rob: Yes, and Alistair Reynolds, that have dealt with kind of transhumanist or posthumanist themes; we took a lot of influence from that stuff. Both of us as well, outside of the game, are interested in transhumanism in general.
Brian: As a broader movement.
Rob: Yeah, like I organize a local Chicago chapter of transhumanist group that meets once a month. We’ve been blogging about it for a while. It’s stuff we’re interested in philosophically and politically.
Brian: It’s also one of my research interests. I’m not a full time game designer, I’m a student getting my PhD and I’m doing on my research on how technology changes social norms; the social impact of things like texting, the World Wide Web and the like. Particularly as more and more transhumant technologies, body modification and the nanotechnology revolution appear these things will pose real quandaries as to how they’re going to affect social forms. Eclipse Phase is a great way to explore some of the hypotheticals.
Randol: Before we get too deep into the setting, I believe you all are going with a percentile based system, yes? And how is combat?
Rob: It’s a basic “roll under type of system”. It’s a percentile, skill based system. The way we handle characters, because they switch from body to body, is a little different.
Brian: Physical characteristics change, sometimes multiple times in the course of a game session.
Rob: Characters are divided into Ego and Morph. Ego is the personality and mind and Morph represents the different bodies, biological or synthetic that you can inhabit. There are aptitudes, sort of like attributes, for your ego and your skills are built off your aptitude. Every skill is linked to an aptitude and when you buy a skill you buy it up from the aptitude. If you had an aptitude of 15, all the skills linked to it would default to a 15. Your skills stay with you but your aptitudes will sometimes be modified by the morphs you have. If you’re an Olympian morph, for example, they’re genetically engineered to be athletes so you’ll get boost to somatics and reflexes which boost all those linked skills.
Brian: So they’re much better at climbing and jumping and doing freefall activities, getting around stations quickly.
Rob: Combat’s pretty deadly. There are some elements that add a more cinematic feel such as moxie that you can use to switch your dice rolls and the like to save you.
Brian: If I roll a 91, which would be a failure most times, I can spend a point of moxie to flip the dice and get a 19 and succeed.
Will: There’s no reason to let the dice get in the way of a good story.
Brian: Absolutely, and I don’t think it’s cinematic in the traditional way where you’re the bullet stopping tank that eats cannon rounds and keeps on going. Although if you pick a certain morph you can probably take a few hits. However it’s cinematic in that it encourages players to take risks and do daring things knowing that death is not the end. You don’t have to worry about pushing those limits and spending the entire next session creating a new character. If you’ve backed yourself up you can just come back in a new body and take another shot at it.
Randol: Are you really you when you do that?
Brian: That’s one of the things. The backup system works in two ways; everyone has a piece of cyberware called a cortical stack
Rob: From Richard Morgan, obviously.
Brian: The cortical stack is constantly saving their brain constantly. If that’s recoverable then you start back up exactly where you left off.
Rob: But you remember your death.
Brian: Exactly, you remember your death which is not always a good thing.
Rob: That causes you mental stress. There’s kind of an insanity mechanic to it as well.
Brian: The other thing is you can have a reading taken of yourself and have it stored in a secure, a very secure, data vault. If for some reason your entire body is destroyed or your thrown out an airlock and you’re drifting through space where nobody’s going to find you they can back you up. Most people have a contingency for that. ‘If I don’t report back in three months bring me back.’ But that presents certain things too since you wake up and you’ve lost three or six or however many months. You’re also not 100% certain that you’re the only one of you walking around which presents some really interesting roleplaying opportunities. Am I the only one, and if not what do I do? There are two of me now and both of them depending on where you are may have legal claim to all of my stuff. Which is the real me and what should I do about that other person?
Will: It sounds pretty interesting making your body sort of a piece of equipment.
Brian: That’s a somewhat transhumanist way of looking at things, your body is a piece of equipment and you can modify it. You’re seeing people doing sort of gene hacking and one of the outgrowths of this could be what you see in Eclipse Phase with factions like the Scum, who push the limits of what it means to be human. Actually there are several factions like that have different ideas about the direction humanity should be going; the Scum are one of those with an “anything goes” freewheeling outlook. Another important influence would be Warren Ellis and Transmetropolitan, Orbiter, Ocean, Ministry of Space; he’s got lots of interesting fantasy stuff as well; the idea that your body is yours and you should be allowed to do with it what you want no matter how weird people find it.
Randol: Now in the setting has the law, such as it is, been changed to cope with things like that?
Rob: The setting is pretty varied, its post apocalyptic in the sense that Earth has been destroyed. Most of transhumanity has expanded outward to the rest of the solar system and to a lesser extent other solar systems. There are different factions with completely different political and economic models. The inner system is more traditional and capitalist with a sort of representative democracy. The outer system they get more into
Brian: Freewheeling, frontier anarchists, a nod to a lot of the transhumant Sci-fi writers who come from a sort of libertarian anarchist and socialist backgrounds. They all have different approaches to how they handle the “who’s the real you” question.
That's all for the first part of the interview, check back week for the next installment where we will discuss more about the Eclipse Phase setting. Until then, you can find out more about Eclipse Phase at Eclipsephase.com.