Released under a Creative Commons license, Eclipse Phase is freely available as an official electronic version and as a hardback that is not as sturdy as it should be. Weighing in at over 400 pages, the game is colourful, diverse in its overall layout and presentation, but with the text being presented in mostly two-column justified with a serif font with rather too much whitespace (or "bluespace" in this case). There is a good table of contents, and each chapter is introduced with a page summarising the critical subsections and page references. There is an excellent index and a collection of GM aids and source material. The artwork is creative and with a consistent style, a sort of high-technology water colour, with typically above average technical execution.
The writing style is appropriately formal, albeit verbose at times, but with plenty of informal out-takes in the sidebars with some great narrative moments. This is a great combination which is highly recommended for other game authors. The general setting is near-future science fiction, with a transhumanist society (which includes the uplifted) spread across the solar system and with recent alient encounters, with strong post-apocalytic, conspiracy, and horror genre influences. So, if you think the liberal eugenics of transhumanism exciting, let's just temper that, with the game's title definition.
An "eclipse phase" 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.
Eclipse Phase opens with a good working introduction to roleplaying wide sidebar discussions on transhumaninsm, and the "themes" of post-apocalytic, conspiracy, and horror. There is also an introduction to the contents of the book, ten chapters being a history, game mechanics, character generation and advancement, skills, action and combat, psionics, the wireless mesh, advanced technology, equipment, and game information. The organisation is a little questionable; if one wants to actually play the game they have to be thoroughly immersed in the setting and mechanics before character generation. This does not seem to be the best method; in particular it reads very weirdly in the mechanics chapter being presented with specific examples of character resolution methods before these have been explained properly. The introduction also provides an exploration of the distinction between the "ego" (mind and personality) and morph (the temporary physical body), and a very handy - if necessary - terminology, along with an introduction to the "Firewall" default campaign, "an organization dedicated to protecting transhumanity from threats - both internal and external - to our continued existence as a species".
The timeline of Eclipse Phase starts with the destruction of Earth by an conspiracy led by artificial intelligences called TITANs (Total Information Tactical Awareness Network) that destroyed almost all life, following mass movements towards various space colonies as new habitats leading to the contact with alien life forms. Over time these develop into capitalistic cyerdemocracies in the inner system and libertarians (of various stripes, but particularly of the leftist varieties) in the outer system, with a strongly conservative even fascist regime around Jupiter. The economy has fundamentally changed with the introduction of cornucopia machines which can produce pretty much anything from raw resources. There are, of course, various factional groups such as commercial interests, religious, criminal, political, etc, as is the norm of any society. Also introduced as Pandora Gates, wormholes which allow instant transport to star systems. This summary does not really do justice to the staggering amount of detail that is provided in what is an extraordinary summary of the vast entirety of the setting.
The game mechanics of Eclipse Phase follow a time-honoured and flexible method derived from the Basic Roleplaying line; percentile die rolls, roll under a modified target number for success. Because, at least among technical people, indices start at 0, a roll of 00 is always a success and a roll of 99 is always a failure. Criticals, whether success or failure, occur when doubles are rolled and an excellent success or severe failure occurs when the margin is 30 or more. Target numbers are derived primarily from skill levels, and linked attributes. Modifiers include generic situational levels, assistance from others, taking extra time, etc. Defaults, when allowed, are based on the attribute alone. Tests are differentiated into success tests and opposed tests. Standard success tests are obvious enough, but with opposed tests if all participants succeed the highest roll wins with criticals trumping normal successes. Core character statistics are differentiated by Ego (Initiative, Lucidity, Trauma, Insanity, and Moxie) and Morph (Speed, Durabibility, Wounds, Death, Damage). These can be derived from attributes, from each other, or by hardware. For example, a character's Wound Threshold is calculated by dividing Durability by 5, and their Death Rating is equal to DUR × 1.5 for biomorphs and DUR × 2 for synthmorphs. Lucidity, representing mental health, is based on Willpower * 2, whereas the Insanity Rating, where a character goes permanently insane, is Lucidity * 2.
Character generation begins with concept and background. Character background is the social situation the character was brought up, such as drifter, or space colonist, or isolate. Then they choose a faction, such as the brinkers, the extropian, Titanians (democratic socialists, not to be confused with the TITANs), or Venusians. Each of these provide particular skill advantages, disadvantages, and common morphs, which include flats (normal humans), splicers (genetically enhanced humans, various tailored variants, vat-grown pods, synthetic morphs, and infomorphs). Each character has 105 points to spend on aptitudes (core skills), followed by 1,000 customisation points. Skills are differentiated between aptitudes (which everyone has) and learned skills. The aptitudes are Cognition, Coordination, Intuition, Reflexes, Savvy, Somatics, and Willpower. Aptitudes are purchased in character creation and rate between 1 and 30, with 10 being average for a baseline unmodified human. Learned skills are rated from 1 to 99, with the opportunity for specialisation providing a +10 bonus. Finally, there are Traits, both positive and negative, various specific advantages and limitations. Characters are also defined by motivations incorporated into the game system. Each character has three motivations of their own choosing and duration, and are used to regain Moxie points (luck and confidence that allow changing die results) and Rez Points (used to advance a character). Characters also have credit, an electronic monetary system, and reputation among the different factions. Some sixteen sample characters are also offered, followed by the skills chapter. There are over sixty learned skills, plus fields (required specialisations), plus optional specialisations, with each given a couple of descriptive paragraphs plus a listing of potential fields and specialisations, and their linked aptitude. Skills are distinguished between "active skills" and "knowledge skills".
Combat is carried out in action turns of three seconds each, the order determined by a 1d10 roll plus Initiative ((Intuition + Reflexes)/5). In each action phase, a character may carry out one quick action (e.g., movement, and one complex action (e.g., sprinting, reloading), with automatic actions "always on" (e.g., resistance, basic perception, defense). If they do not take a complex action, they are entitled to three quick actions. Multi-turn actions are considered task actions. Characters with a Speed greater than 1, thankfully unusual, can carry out multiple action phases. Combat is carried out as an opposed test, with a noted advantage to the attacker in ranged combat (the basic defense, Fray, is halved). Critical hits ignore armour, an special success increases damage, and armour reduces damage. Damage is rolled, and if the damage received is greater than the Wound Threshold, a wound also occurs. There are various modifiers for wounds, called shots, target size, range, etc. and spot rules for area effect weapons, layered armour, sweeping and concentrated fire, indirect fire, gravity, improvised weapons, vehicle combat, drowning and falling, etc. Also under the combat chapter is the mental health rules; Stress points are accumulated until the Lucidity rating is passed, at which point the character goes into shock. If accumulated stress reaches twice the Lucidity rating, the character goes permanently insane. If a character receives a number stress points greater that their Trauma rating they have a similar effect to Wounds, plus they can cause a range of derangements, or the more serious disorders if they character accumulates four traumas.
Psionics in Eclipse Phase are the result of a virus, acquired in game terms by the purchasing of the trait in character creation. The ability is retained even through morph or upload changes - exactly how is unknown ("entangled on a quantum level"). Psionicists, whilst obviously having great ability, are suspect to mental stress, represented by a reduced Trauma Threshold, and a Mental Disorder. Psionics may be active or passive, of varying range and duration, sometimes resolved through opposed tests, sometimes confronting "mental armour", and sometimes causing strain - all depending on the individual "sleight" used, of which over fifty are described with a paragraph each with expected effects; enhanced senses, mental processing, mind links, and even physical damage. The chapter also includes a range of psychosurgery, including neural genetic modification and neuralware implementation, usually performed on a digital mind state. Such psychosurgery is carried out as an opposed test, with a cost in Stress according to the operation. There is about a dozen specific "edits", as they are called, specifically described.
As mentioned The Mesh is the Eclipse Phase equivalent of the 'net, accessed by a variety of devices and often implanted directly in the brain. The three protocols used to access and manipulate data are augmented reality (AR), an overlay to the user's sensory systems, a virtual reality where physical senses are overriden by a computer-generated environment, or an experience playback, a recording of activities. Haptic interfaces are slower and more prone to error, as the augmented systems operate according to thought. The Mesh itself is a highly decentralised network where there is extraordinay levels of data storage and bandwith. Much less convincingly, there is a suggestion that clusters, parallel, and distributed systems are potential dangers in Eclipse Phase and are often banned due to the TITAN incident, along with any other form of artificial intelligence. More realitically, the game pays attention to the issue of communications limited to light-speed and slower, although there is the expensive option of quantum-entanglement communicators. As one would expect there are hacking rules, interested in spoofing or forging authentication, defeating firewall, and by-passing active defenses.
The Accelerate Future chapter covers some of the major life-changing circumstances that effect characters in the Eclipse Phase setting. The most obvious of these is the extensive personality backup system, allowing for the ego to be resleeved in case of death. Almost everyone is equipped with a cortical stack, a network of nanobots that take thousands of snapshots of the mind every day (critical issues in the mind-body problem are strongly avoided in this game). Other characters make extensive "off-site" backups as well. Resleeving requires an integration test which simulates how well the ego acclimatises with its new body on a physical level, and an alienation test which tests the degree that the character associates with their new body. There is, also, issues with continuity for the ego as well which can cause Stress, along with forking and merging of digital egos. The second major feature of the chapter is about life in space; including the various space habitats, such as colonies, cylinders, and so forth, along with space travel which is sometimes preferred to ego-casting, or even more commonly, resleeving, or even forking. The third major section is nanofabrication, with the combination of blueprints and raw material to make whatever is desired. The reputation and network fields return to discussion of specific tests and favours. Finally, there is discussion and examples of the various forms of Eclipse Phase security technology.
Equipment in Eclipse Phase is elaborated in the "Gear" chapter. A base price is assumed by category (from Trivial to Expensive) with modifiers according to legality or usage, with the added option of nanofabrication. There is an interesting sidebar on future materials, although these do not have a direct influence on play. A significant level of gear is powered and described by size; for example different types of radio technologies only have a range of 50 metres if "micro" sized, but 5,000 kilometres if "large". A significant section is personal augmentation (bioware, enhanced senses, cyberware, etc), followed by various types of armour, from second skin to battlesuit powered exoskeletion, with protective ratings for energy and kinetic damage. This is followed by communication systems, with neutrino communicators and quantum farcasters and quantum entangled communication making up particularly interesting technologies. There is a variety of convert and espiionage technologies, a range of drugs and toxins which are classified as either chemical, biological, nano, or electronic. The rather large range is varied according to effect (obviously) and onset time, duration, addiction, and type of dependency. There is a handful of "everyday technology" items, before moving to the serious matter of nanotechnologies, such as healing vats, detectors, fabricators, and the very dangerous and effective programmed swarms. Pets, scavanger tech, and services make up the next set of items, followed by software which, contrary to probable trends, is priced. Survival gear and a range of weapons follows, with the latter consisting of the high-tech versions of melee weapons, various kinetic weapons (i.e., guns), followed by beam weapons, grenades and seeker missiles, and spray weapons. As a whole weapon damage could probably be boosted somewhat. A small selection of robots and vehicles is also given for a variety of terrains, including spacecraft with various propulsion methods.
The final chapter is Game Information, with spoilers. Not much needs to be elaborated here, except to state the fairly obvious "not all is what it seems". There are, obviously alien intelligences that are taking an interest on what is occurring in the solar system, the disappearing TITANs and their collection of forcibly uplifted human egos are an obvious vector as well, and as for Firewall, the organisation which the PCs are most likely to be working for, are full of many subfactions and interest groups. With all the various drugs, viruses, and nanoswarms about, it would hardly be a surprise to discover that there may be extra, secret, versions of the same are about as well.
Eclipse Phase deserved its prize for Best Roleplaying game in Origins, certainly on accounts of an imaginative setting and a genuine exploration of the setting issues. Other features are, however, quite mixed. The layout has some excellent assisting features, but with some pretty average attention to spacing. The writing style has a good split between the formal and informal, but rambles. The game system has a relatively simple and popular mechanic that works well, but lacks details, especially in the learned skills, in favour of descriptives. But these criticisms are relatively minor, because the descriptive detail is quite significant throughout, especially in the equipment and setting information. It is an extraordinarily good game to actually play - and ultimately that's what gives it success.
Style: 1 + .6 (layout) + .7 (art) + 1.0 (coolness) + .6 (readability) + .5 (product) = 4.4
Substance: 1 + .8 (content) + .6 (text) + .9 (fun) + .7 (workmanship) + .7 (system) = 4.6