Here is a continuation of last week's interview with Eclipse Phase developers Brian Cross and Rob Boyle. This is part of an hour long transcript we made while meeting with the developers at Gencon Indy. Part three will be published next week and will conclude the interview.
Will: How long as this been in development?
Rob: A while.
Brian: Do you want to tell them the story of how it came to be?
Rob: I used to be the Shadowrun line developer. Shadowrun is in the same universe as Earthdawn. Earthdawn is like the prehistory of Shadowrun, it’s backstory is that there is a scourge that came in from another dimension, ate everyone and shut magic out of the world. In Shadowrun magic is coming back into the world but it’s going to be 500 years or so before it’s at the same level it was. Way back I was thinking that it would be cool to have a Shadowrun universe where the Horrors came back. Redbrick is publishing Earthdawn now and they’re doing a game called Equinox that is a continuation of that universe, although they’re not calling it that to avoid legal complications. They’re actually taking the same idea. We wanted to do our own thing too and we are also looking in to more transhumanist stuff and we also wanted to have that horror element. That’s where the germ of the idea came from. After Shadowrun Fourth Edition we started sitting down, writing notes and trying out systems.
Brian: That was what, three, four years ago? The two of us have been working on it for a while and we brought several other people on board, about a year and half a go. At that time we had a pretty well developed idea of the setting and where we wanted things to go, the mechanics.
Randol: What brought you all to the name eclipse phase?
Brian: Lots of Wikipedia use. We have a creative process where we’ll be IMing with each other, we’ll put out a concept and start tossing ideas back and forth as to what to call it. We look for synonyms. I think we tried eclipse phase first and then looked at what it actually meant.
Rob: I remember reading what eclipse phase actually meant and thinking to myself “that’s awesome, we have to steal that.” Eclipse phase is the term used to describe when a cell is infected with a virus but you can’t tell its infected yet but the virus has taken over. It’s that transition phase, the lurking beneath the water.
Will: So when you guys were playtesting this what were some of the surprising elements, the surprising good and the sort of surprising “uh-oh” things that you noticed?
Rob: Well we still are playtesting it but in the games I ran one of the issues I ran into was about spaceships. We didn’t want to deal with them because they create all kinds of problems. You get stuck in them for long periods, only certain characters can have the skills to use them. Space combat can be pretty deadly and it usually comes down to the rolls of one character; one of the ways we got around that was by backing yourself up and beaming yourself to another location. You don’t actually have to travel anywhere; you just send yourself.
Brian: If you’re data there’s nothing to stop you from being emailed from one place to another. In Eclipse Phase spaceships are looked at as kind of quaint; people who travel by spacecraft are seen as anachronistic. Why would you strap yourself into a tin can that can be destroyed by a micrometeorite when you could upload yourself and beam yourself across an entire solar system; in eight and a half hours you’re where you want to go. There is no faster than light travel in Eclipse Phase. Beaming yourself is secure, safe and it’ll get you where you want to go quickly.
Rob: It was kind of interesting in my group I noticed that a lot of the players really got attached to their bodies. People have a bit of difficulty overcoming the idea that they can switch bodies out as a beginning character unless they die. They did everything they could to avoid having to change bodies. I didn’t really expect that and I don’t know how it’s been in other groups. I think Jack’s group was all about that, they were way more into switching bodies.
Brian: My group was a little more middle ground. The thing that surprised me was three or four sessions in one of my players said ‘this game isn’t sci-fi, this is a horror game’. It’s kind of like superheroes. You can be whatever you want and pick your powers, you can do all of these things, you’re superhuman. The point of the game is that you’re protecting humanity and you can see it as a superheroes game. We engaged in these debates where people said it was a horror game because it does this or no, it’s a sci-fi game and so on. We set out to create a sci-fi game that had horror elements in it. People come to the table and if you’re a group that likes the horror aspects they’re there and if you’re a group who likes the sci-fi aspects those are there for you too. If you want to a superheroes game you have superhumans that are looking out for the people. It’s a lot of things and it’s a very flexible game which was somewhat surprising because that wasn’t really our intent, it just meshed well and allowed different groups to look at it however they wanted.
Will: It does seem that in a situation like that where you can download yourself into a new body you get around things like cancer and disease quickly. What keeps everyone from walking around in hyper Olympian, Adonis-like, laser-eyed bodies?
Rob: One of the things with the death of Earth although a lot of people died they were able to back their minds up and beam backups of their minds off Earth beforehand. That’s created this sort of massive group of info-refugees or infugees. They were people that had gotten off of the planet, they’re not dead but they don’t have any money, possessions or anything. You have all these habitats with refugees and no idea what to do with them. You have some that just kept them in cold storage to bring them back another time, others put them to work. They’re like you can take a robot body and build a new habitat for yourself and you pay off the robot with labor. It kind of creates a setting where depending where you’re at you can’t get a morph or get the morph you want; there are a whole lot of people who are stuck in robot bodies and they’re treated as a sort of lower class. They’re cheap mass produced robot bodies that were made for these refugees.
Brian: There are two factors that work against them. One is that Mars is the only planet with good solid colonies on it everything else is a space fringe. You have people living in tin cans, O’Neil cylinders, a hollowed out asteroid, a honeycomb warren with a population limit. The other thing is that bodies are valuable; it’s not that easy to force grow clones so you don’t just want to scrap everything because of the scarcity. The players can have their misadventures sort of underwritten by working for a benefactor that’s willing to underwrite this. The assumption is that if you’re going into a new body you’re leaving one behind for someone else to use and take over.
That’s where the kind of kick-off campaign we offer starts up. You’re working for Firewall, an organization that seeks to protect humanity from existential threats. You have the usual range of crackpots with evil plans all the way to the big bad ‘what if aliens are real’ kind of thing and what if they don’t like us? As agents of Firewall you’re sent to deal with things when they go really wrong.
Randol: Are there aliens in the setting?
Brian: There are, but not a lot. They’re mysterious, distant and alien. They’re living slime molds. They don’t have a language since they don’t really make noise. They communicate through pheromones and chemical spores. You don’t want to shake hands with the alien. A lot of other difficulties are that they’re distant and they’re not easy to approach; there’s not a lot of understanding of how they interact with other species. There are signs that there may be other things out there that went down another evolutionary path.
Randol: Did you all go near religion?
Rob: We have a few disagreements on that.
Brian: There’s a huge thread on our developer forums about that.
Rob: I think I come from the position that with a lot of those technologies and the expansion into space, and a more maturing of society a lot of religion will go by the wayside. Once you get rid of death that can really change a lot of religious systems. There is religion in the game, it’s changing.
Brian: And where it is I think we take a somewhat cynical approach to things. I was the one always saying no, no people are always going to cling to the stories they make up to explain the mystery and wonder they see. A big part of is that the Earth was destroyed due to science. There’s a big group of people in the game that are basically primitivists, neo-luddites who hang out in hollowed out asteroids and minimal amenities. They’re called “flats”, born humans with no modifications living out natural life spans. That’s one of the tropes of the game but not a major one; most people probably don’t want to play a game of transhumanist sci-fi horror as a sort of everyday Joe who’s afraid of electricity. There is the gamut, it doesn’t seek to condense these things down into anything concrete; religion is sort of glossed over.
Will: It seems like so much more than D&D in space, none of this “these are the strong aliens, these are the bug aliens and they hate you” sort of stuff.
Brian: Speaking of which we’ve already determined one thing about the game – no catgirls. We’re both saying that now. If a fan wants to do it that’s fine but you will never, ever see cat girls in canon. It’s just not that kind of sci-fi game.
Randol: It sounds like you created this game to make people ask some very difficult, almost unanswerable questions.
Brian: I think that that’s what makes roleplaying so much fun, you get to explore moral quandaries and what – ifs in a safe environment that’s relatively consequence free. And if you just want to be the gun-toting psychopath that kills everyone in the station you’re free to do that too. I don’t know how long those campaigns can go on but you can have your cake and eat it too.
Will: Was there anything else you wanted to talk about?
Brian: We covered most of the neat stuff, but we touched on it briefly. We have two economic systems, one’s a cash money economy and the other is a reputation economy. It was a pain to figure out things like you see in “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” where we tried to put that sort of cashless economy into a game system. We didn’t want to do things like money points since that defeats the whole purpose.