Reading a game and playing a game are two different experiences, which both teach you different things about the game text, how the rules work, and indeed whether the game is something you enjoy. When it comes to traditionally-styled RPGs, the big hardcovers with lots of art and glossy pages, the reading experience is placed often on equal footing with the play experience. Sometimes the reading experience ends up being better. Eclipse Phase is not quite like that. While Eclipse Phase is a game that draws readers in with a great setting, evocative art, and a fair dose of in-line fiction, the mechanics definitely hold their own, though the game has benefited greatly from revision.
Eclipse Phase, over its two editions and Fate offshoot, has garnered praise for its intense and evocative worldbuilding while drawing ire for its complexity and unclear gameability. The first edition fell into the category of games that people love to read but never manage to play. The second edition cleaned up the rules and the character creation procedures significantly, and the improvements in all aspects of the game were one of the reasons I praised the game effusively in my review. Playing the game, though, has left me with a more nuanced takeaway than my original review, and one perhaps a bit tempered in enthusiasm.
I still like Eclipse Phase quite a lot. Compared to its former stablemate Shadowrun the rules are significantly clearer and better presented, and the setting is wildly original. That said, when you try to actually play the game, there are issues that crop up. The improved and optimized core mechanics are let down by some fairly primary subsystems, namely gear. The book’s organization doesn’t irk a reader if that’s all they’re doing, but is frustrating if you’re trying to GM. And unfortunately, the setting, easily the best thing about the game, isn’t well supported with the right mechanics to fully engage it and doesn’t offer many obvious entry points beyond the ones handed to you by contrivance.
Eclipse Phase is set in our solar system after “The Fall”, an apocalyptic event that occured when military AIs, TITANs, were infected with an extraterrestrial virus, bootstrapped themselves, and began propagating the virus throughout humanity in an effort to subjugate and/or exterminate it. The Exsurgent Virus could infect through biological or digital means, and humans were at first helpless to stop it. The events of The Fall ended inexplicably, with the TITANs simply disappearing, and the Exsurgent Virus itself is still a pervasive albeit low-level threat.
To make things even more complicated, the technology level of the setting is quite high, enough so that humanity is now effectively transhumanity, and the disconnect between mind and body has allowed transhumanity to overcome death itself. While this means an immense amount of power and capability is at the fingertips of those who can afford it, it also means huge swathes of Earth’s former population are basically stuck in digital “cold storage” until someone pays to have them spun up. In addition to setting the stage with all manner of amazing technology, the setting also takes the wealth inequality that already exists in the real world and turns it up to eleven, if not twelve.
There is a fairly significant disconnect here between setting as presented and setting in play. To explain, I need to air one of the dirty secrets about this game: Eclipse Phase is basically Call of Cthulhu. There is a lot of window dressing about the political situation across the system, a lot of writing about the authoritarian planets and the hyper-capitalist planets and the crazy ANCAP space stations and everything in between…but the mechanics care about the characters seeing horrors from beyond and trying to deal with them. As the system is d100 and uses parallel physical and mental health tracks, I doubt I’m the first person to observe the Eclipse Phase/CoC similarities and I doubt they’re controversial. But, if you’re someone who was attracted to the game because of the way the politics of the authors shines through in the writing, the mechanics don’t really back that up.
This doesn’t take away from how good the setting is, not at all. There’s a wealth of hooks in here, though as you may have guessed, the designers were somewhat at a loss for how to actually present them in a usable way. This was a much more serious issue in the first edition, where there was only one example campaign in the book. The second edition does a much better job of creating a palette of easily accessible hooks, though for the most part they illustrate the issue I point out above. The book offers three campaign starting points: Firewall, where the characters join the eponymous organization and hunt down existential risks throughout the solar system, Gatecrashing, where the characters venture through one of the mysterious Pandora Gates to unknown worlds somewhere else in the galaxy, and Guanxi (or Criminal), where the characters get up to one of many illegal trades, including smuggling, drug manufacture, and patent infringement. Both the Firewall and Gatecrashing campaigns are all but designed to avoid engaging with the political content of the game, in the case of Gatecrashing to an extreme degree. The Guanxi/Criminal campaign is better aligned with how many RPG groups think, but is let down by a couple of the game’s mechanics, or lack thereof.
This game has no currency mechanics, and it desperately needs them. If you think about it, the setting of Eclipse Phase, where different planets are in completely different places regarding their economic systems, their use of currency, and people’s day-to-day subsistence, is one that *begs* for a robust, maybe even minigame-like economics system. Instead, the system we get manages somehow to be worse than coin-counting from D&D and the like. Since this is the first paragraph of this section and it’s relentlessly negative, I’ll say that the gear/currency mechanics are the only ones in the book I truly dislike. But for a book written from a very specific political slant, the *one* chance to make the rules align with the politics of the designers was completely wasted. The way gear pricing works in this game is that each piece of gear has a gear point cost and a complexity rating. The complexity rating signifies how difficult it is to fabricate the gear using nanofabricating printers. This part is great, I’m glad they have it. The gear point cost is in a meta-currency, so there are no mechanics for determining how much things cost in-game. Now, I get the idea…there are nanofabbers everywhere, you don’t really need to pay for things, etc. Except you do. The entire inner system is a semi-capitalist transition economy, and then you have the Jovian Republic, Extropians, and others who are extremely capitalist. Beyond that, there’s an entire campaign premise about being a criminal…with no mechanics which explain how you can use crime to enrich yourself! This is the one thing that’s linked to the politics of the designers, and the writing says so. But there are no mechanics to make it important in the game, and in fact the absence of mechanics makes it more difficult for GMs to actually distinguish between the different economic systems while playing.
Let’s step back. The gear sticks in my craw because it is the single thing that has made this game aggravating to run as far as the mechanics go. But if we look at the rest of the package, things are pretty good. Combat is both easy and well-balanced, which is saying a lot when you consider how many options characters have between psionics, physical weapons, and hacking. I like the core mechanic, even if it’s got a relatively high mental load. The blackjack approach (you want to roll as high as possible without exceeding your skill rating) combined with superior successes has made my players engage with their dice rolls, and made it easy to present the impact and consequences of meta-currency spend. Speaking of meta-currencies, tying the pool recharges to an ingame rest instead of a real unit of time was very smart, and helps encourage my players to spend their points instead of hoarding them. The mechanics are very scalable. There is a two page mechanics document which provides the vast majority the references you’ll frequently need. Another good example of scalability is hacking. Hacking is…a lot. Tons of potential actions, a bunch of extra stuff to monitor, and a bit of the separation issues you see in Shadowrun and Cyberpunk 2020, though fortunately without a different time step. That said, there’s a sidebar that reduces hacking down to two or three rolls. The detail is there for those who want it, but it’s easy to do away with, and easy to use the summary version and bring in a detailed hacking roll for something specific. The designers have clearly learned a lot about managing complexity, and while I talked about that in the context of the character creation mechanics in the initial review, it really does permeate throughout the book.
Let’s talk about the book for a second. I’ve been running my game out of a hardcopy of the book, and it’s a classic “big and glossy” RPG manual in a roughly 9×12 format. This book, and this is not because of anything that the Eclipse Phase designers or layout team did, has thoroughly convinced me that the giant glossy book format needs to be reconsidered fairly severely. The Eclipse Phase page layout, within the constraints of the form factor, is very good. The art is great but also unobtrusive, the formatting is clear, there are copious inline page references, and the tables and sidebars are both readable and easy to understand. It is a two column layout because one-column layouts are incredibly difficult to read in a book this size. But two-column layouts, even if they’re the best choice in a 9×12 product (they are), are death in PDFs. I recently spent a good chunk of money on a 27” monitor and I only now have a monitor large enough to comfortably read a full page PDF without scrolling. For most people, who generally have laptops which top out at around 18” for screen size, this is an utter pain in the ass. As I said above, none of this is specific to Eclipse Phase. But, when I’ve spent so much time running games like PbtA games and Fate out of digest-sized books, I have to admit that what used to be the standard is starting to get old for me.
Let’s talk about something which is specific to Eclipse Phase. There are no weapons in the gear chapter. That’s not my complaint, but it’s an example of a broader problem. A lot of gear gets listed early in the book, coming up in the chapters where the relevant mechanics are introduced. Then, later, there is a gear chapter with the rest of the gear. If there’s one thing that’s *wrong* with the book, this is it. D&D has always done this better: Whether or not the gear chapter comes first or the combat chapter comes first, put all the gear in the same place, instead of making people flip between two completely different sections to figure out what anything is.
A lot of what I discovered about Eclipse Phase from playing, and indeed a lot of what appears in this review, skews negative. It’s important to remember this is an addendum to my existing review of Eclipse Phase Second Edition. Go ahead and read it, I’ll wait. You’re back? Good. You may have noticed that review was glowing. I really enjoyed reading and reviewing the game when I did, and I enjoy running it now. But, in large part because of what it is, Eclipse Phase has been the game that’s gotten me irritated at the norms around how RPGs are designed. Behind the immensely creative writing of this game is a conservatively designed ruleset that could have benefited from stepping outside the box a bit more. The form factor of the book is the same…aside from one unforced error, the book is a well-done example of a format that has probably outlived its usefulness. None of this will get me to stop playing Eclipse Phase. I’m having fun, my players are having fun, and the setting is continuing to inspire me. As I keep running this campaign, though, the places where I do have frustrations with the game continue to make me think about what GMs actually need when it comes to a setting, a ruleset, and the book itself. Running Eclipse Phase has made me realize that my needs may be different than what I once thought.
Eclipse Phase Second Edition is available at DriveThruRPG.
Like what Cannibal Halfling Gaming is doing and want to help us bring games and gamers together? First, you can follow me @LevelOneWonk on Twitter for RPG commentary, relevant retweets, and maybe some rambling. You can also find our Discord channel and drop in to chat with our authors and get every new post as it comes out. You can travel to DriveThruRPG through one of our fine and elegantly-crafted links, which generates credit that lets us get more games to work with (including the ones needed for this article)! Finally, you can support us directly on Patreon, which lets us cover costs, pay our contributors, and save up for projects. Thanks for reading!