All posts by Aaron Marks

Gaming for 15 years and writing about it for nearly ten, I've always had a strong desire to find different and interesting things in the hobby. You can follow me on Twitter at @LevelOneWonk, and read my more personal ramblings at

Eclipse Phase Second Edition Review

Eclipse Phase has been in my gaming shelf ever since it first came out. The transhuman horror game has one of the best original settings available in the sci-fi RPG world, but its take on d100 mechanics were dense and difficult to work with, especially when it came to figuring out character creation. Now, Posthuman Studios has finished their work on the second edition of Eclipse Phase, taking notes from the community on the first edition and the reception of their Fate version, Transhumanity’s Fate. Eclipse Phase Second Edition (2e) is not intended to be a simpler or less complicated game than First Edition (1e) was, but what it does do is take the crunch and streamline it, including a significantly easier character creation system, revised faction rules, and a combat chapter which is an easier read while still doling out some ludicrous weapons and cybernetic enhancements. For me though, the discussion of Eclipse Phase begins with the core of what makes the game pop, the setting.

The Eclipse Phase Setting

The Eclipse Phase setting has been the reason I’ve made sure to get a copy of every edition, and even though 2e has mostly minor changes it doesn’t get old. What I do appreciate about what’s included in 2e is that it reflects a good chunk of the foundational stuff that was included in supplements to 1e; I’m not saying there’s the same amount of game material but at least you get a good primer on the material that was in books like Sunward, Rimward, and Gatecrashing.
So let’s zoom back out: Eclipse Phase takes place in a post-singularity, arguably post-apocalyptic future where the Earth was ravaged by a war with TITANs, self-upgrading AIs which evolved from a US military computing system. After two years of devastation, the TITANs went quiet, and no one knows why. Given the uncertainty of that conclusion, Earth has been cordoned off to prevent the TITANs from returning.
In the intervening years, new political entities have evolved from the wreckage of Earth. The inner system is Hypercorp territory, a Cyberpunk playground. There is also the Jovian Republic in the orbit of Jupiter, another capitalist economy but a more authoritarian one. Most of the rest of the Outer System is home to colonies running the gamut in both size and where they fall on the capitalism/anarchism scale. Because of nanofabrication technology, there are many fewer things that are actually scarce enough to require a market economy.
Another massive technological leap is that of transhumanity, where the human race has basically overcome death itself. Thanks to brain uploading and cortical stack technology, anyone can get another body if they wear their old one out, and become effectively immortal. Alongside this has come a number of biological advances which mean that now in addition to human bodies there are androids, uplifted animals, and infomorphs, where the person lives on solely as data. The technology has also had knock-on effects. On the good side is egocasting, the ability to transmit your mental data to a distant planet, occupy a body when you get there, and then reintegrate the memories with your version back home. On the bad side are all the various and sundry ways that the data portability of human minds enables slavery, human trafficking, fraud, and blackmail. Be careful where you keep your forks.
And this isn’t only a story about transhumans. There is an alien race which has made contact with transhumanity, the amoeba-like Factors. The relationship with the Factors is friendly, but mostly a mystery. And then there are the Pandora Gates. A mysterious alien technology, the Pandora Gates open wormholes to points all throughout space. This has led to the practice of “Gatecrashing”, exploring what’s on the other side of a gate and hoping you don’t get stranded, flattened, or otherwise destroyed in the process. While the Gates and cortical stack tech aren’t related directly, it’s definitely helpful to have a backup copy of yourself back home when you’re planning to step into a wormhole without knowing what’s on the other side.
To say the least, the world of Eclipse Phase is rich with storytelling opportunity. Be an edgerunner in the inner system, play Rogue Trader among Autonomist colonies in the Outer System, or maybe just jump through a wormhole. These are all in addition to the core party conceit provided in the book. That conceit involves Firewall, a system-wide organization dedicated to hunting down existential risks. In addition to rogue AIs and ineffable alien technology, there’s also the Exsurgent Virus, which guarantees that Firewall has plenty to do. Of course, most of this isn’t that far off from Eclipse Phase’s first edition, or its Fate (ahem) fork, Transhumanity’s Fate. The appreciable differences come in from the mechanics, and nowhere is that more obvious than character creation.

Character Creation

In first edition, character creation for Eclipse Phase was a bit of a chore. When you got down to it, you were allocating around a thousand points across about three different non-intersecting pools, basically meaning that you were creating three GURPS characters in terms of complexity. Second edition has cleaned that right up. The majority of character creation is now template-based, meaning that instead of allocating a huge number of points for skills you pick out your character’s background, career, and interest, which each give a number of skills to start with. There are still opportunities to customize both skills and stats (here, called aptitudes for the “ego” section of character creation), but having so much of the character nailed down through a few choices makes it immensely easier to get to someone you want to play compared to first edition.
Second edition still has the ego/morph split, which means that in addition to building your character, you also buy them a body you start in. The breadth of morphs in the book is crazy, ranging from baseline humans and cut-rate android chassis to uplifted octopi, informorphs, and even swarm AIs should that strike your fancy. Morphs all have baseline physical stats; treating every human roughly the same both cuts down on body essentialism and makes the move to something more exotic potentially more appealing.
Smaller notes here: There is more guidance on how to distribute your faction reputations, something that was sorely missing in first edition. There’s also some guidance on campaign styles which helps direct both the GM and the players. I appreciate that here the “default” Firewall campaign was given more explanation, and that the designers took the time to highlight some other campaign styles as well as attempt to make a decently comprehensive list. The world of Eclipse Phase is a pretty foreign one, so this campaign structure guidance is welcomed.

Core Mechanics

Eclipse Phase is still a d100 roll-under system, which is straightforward and has a strong horror pedigree from the likes of Call of Cthulhu and the Warhammer games. Eclipse Phase makes this a bit more interesting by using what are essentially blackjack mechanics: higher rolls are better, so long as they’re under your skill rank. This is mechanized via what’s called the “33/66 rule”. If you roll higher than a 33 and succeed, you get one “superior success”. If you roll higher than a 66, you get two. This also works in the opposite direction: if you fail and get lower than a 66, you get a “superior failure”, and if you fail and get lower than a 33, you get two of them. As much as blackjack rolling isn’t always intuitive, the 33/66 rule rewards those with high skill ranks and punishes those with low skill ranks, which is statistically what you’d expect it to do. Confusing this slightly is that there are also criticals, which occur when you roll doubles (11, 33, etc.). Criticals are much more significant than superior results, in both directions, so there’s all sorts of granularity available to the GM. For those of you familiar with Genesys or FFG Star Wars, you’ll appreciate that magnitude-wise, superior results are like advantage/threat and criticals are like triumph/despair, although there aren’t “success with threat” or “failure with advantage” results available.
Eclipse Phase has four pools of meta-currency available to each character; three are linked to specific abilities (physical, mental, social) and the fourth is a wildcard that can apply to all. In addition to using the pools to affect rolls (spend a point to upgrade successes, downgrade failures, ignore modifiers, or add bonuses), each pool has a handful of specific abilities. The Insight pool (mental) and Vigor pool (physical) can be used to take the initiative or add an extra action in combat, the Moxie pool (social) can refresh your reputation or ignore trauma, and the Flex pool (wildcard) can be used for a number of narrative control moves, including introducing a new NPC and defining elements in a scene. These pools recharge via what’s essentially a short/long rest mechanic, which makes them much more dynamic than other meta-currency systems which recharge by the session.
Combat for Eclipse Phase is simple at its core, but the options are where it comes alive. The use of the d100 core mechanic, along with blackjack rules, continues here, with different skills keyed to melee, ranged, and psi attacks. Each defender gets their defense automatically unless surprised or capacitated; this may seem unsurprising but there are d100 games like Zweihander which require a defender to have enough action points to defend. There aren’t many complications to the rules at their core, though there are many special cases outlined as one would expect in a game of this complexity level.
In terms of core adjustments, armor has values against both kinetic and energy attacks, there are beam weapons in this game. The damage system has two counts going at once, which can be confusing. First, there’s damage, which is however many points get past your armor. Take enough damage to exceed the morph’s durability and you’re incapacitated, exceed the death rating and you’re killed or destroyed. At the same time there are wounds. Your character receives wounds whenever they take more damage from one attack than their damage threshold. Each wound provides stacking penalties to actions and initiative, so big hits can be big problems. This system works, though it is more number crunching than most games in the ecosystem, save maybe GURPS with its separate health and fatigue tracks plus shock penalties.
In my opinion Eclipse Phase is much more interesting on the mental side of the house, and given the setting that makes a lot of sense. In this game more than any other, you’re going to experience circumstances which would equate to ‘character death’ in any other game and then come back from it. Physical damage just isn’t as important in Eclipse Phase as in other games. So let’s talk about Trauma. The “hit points” of your character’s mental state in Eclipse Phase are Stress Points. There are four sources of stress points: alienation, helplessness, the unknown, and violence. Traumas work like Wounds, in that if your character receives more stress points than their Trauma Threshold, they take a Trauma. In the short term, Traumas work like Wounds in terms of stacking penalties. Also similar to the physical health rules, certain things happen if your character takes stress beyond their lucidity rating. Beyond one multiple of their lucidity rating, a character can gain a disorder. Beyond two, they go insane in a Call of Cthulhu-esque manner. Options for healing stress points and disorders are slow (psychosurgery) and slower (natural healing), though the book mentions that if the memories aren’t that important, you can always self-terminate and revert to a more stable version. Forking hell.
These rules aren’t necessarily the most realistic way to deal with mental health, but they aren’t the worst I’ve seen either. The mechanics can give a solid platform with which to investigate what trauma means in a game context, but both sensitivity in the specific roleplaying as well as recognition that this is a game are important. Playing Eclipse Phase with players who have dealt with actual trauma in the past should involve going over these mechanics beforehand and coming to an understanding of how the group wants them employed at the table. I can see scenarios where this game could be either a very positive or a very negative experience; the difference comes from the players in a given group and the effort they put in to make sure that the way they employ rules like the Eclipse Phase trauma rules is sensitive to the real-life experiences which these rules will in all likelihood not reflect.

While Eclipse Phase 2e doesn’t present as dramatic a version change as something like D&D going from 4e to 5e, it’s still a tighter package that has learned some important lessons from the reception of the first edition. What makes the setting so evocative and packed with story hooks is still there, and the book is structured in a way that makes it a bit easier for the GM to step away from the Firewall story seeds. In addition to this, the layout and editing made it easier to parse the rules, so it’s now more likely that I’m going to run a game of Eclipse Phase in the near future.
If you’re a fan of Eclipse Phase, the second edition is definitely worth picking up. If you were turned off by the complexity level last time around, the game is still dense but this new version is easier to read and reference. And if you somehow missed this game when it first came out, now’s a great chance to investigate what is probably my favorite science fiction horror setting.

Thanks to Adam Jury for sending me a copy of the Eclipse Phase PDF even when it wasn’t technically part of my Kickstarter pledge level. Eclipse Phase 2e is available on DriveThruRPG.

Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit Gameplay Review

The Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit made a splash at GenCon, selling out huge stacks of the black and red box set in what seemed like no time at all. Given the hype of Cyberpunk 2077, it’s important to step back and look at both what this means for Cyberpunk fans as well as what we can honestly expect out of a product which is still just a Beginner Box.

Personally, I’ve been waiting for this moment in one way or another since 2005. 2005 was, for those of us who remember, the release of Cyberpunk v3. Without casting (too many) aspersions at that product, I can say that it was not what Cyberpunk fans expected or wanted, and was disappointing to many, including myself. After making my peace with the fact that Cyberpunk 2020 was the last edition of the line that I’d play, the announcement of Cyberpunk Red split me between side-eyed skepticism and bouncing off my chair like, well, a nerdy teenager.

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Kickstarter Wonk: August, 2019

August is GenCon season, but it’s still bumping on Kickstarter! This month we’ve also seen the tagline “Break Kickstarter” pop up, which has produced some intriguing campaigns. Needless to say, there’s plenty to sift through. Don’t worry though, because sift I did, and I’ve come up with my top nine for the month! Check out some hacks, some new games, and some truly odd design projects.

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Traditional Games and Why We Love Them

I’ve made plenty of hay over my opinions about D&D. D&D is not a bad game, but it’s such a limited expression of what a role-playing game can look like. The most common counter-argument I get to saying that a gamer should play games other than D&D is somewhere along the lines of “if that’s what they like, that’s what they should play”. This is usually followed by pointing out several more obscure games, which usually look absolutely nothing like D&D, and harping on about how that’s not the play experience they want. And this straw man argument is one of many reasons I’ve decided to sing the praises of the giant middle ground of the hobby, the traditional RPGs.

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System Hack: Cyberpunk Chimera Combat

The one subsystem that all traditional RPGs bolt onto their core resolution mechanics is a conflict system and, like it or not, the most popular iteration of a conflict system is one for physical combat. Cyberpunk 2020 had a combat system designed with realism in mind, and, thanks to a statistical basis in actual criminal activity using guns, did very well in terms of combat verisimilitude. This did mean that some of the “imbalance” in the system, namely the overwhelming power of a high initiative roll and the destabilizing impact of armor, were based on reality. Quirks aside, what made ‘realistic’ fun was that the system played quickly and had enough detail to mean that player choices in terms of tactics and weapons mattered. The issue with Cyberpunk’s conflict systems, really, is that combat is much more ‘baked’ than the other conflict system, netrunning, and the only semblance of a social conflict system is the ‘facedown’ mechanic, which is one die roll for one specific situation. 

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Fate Space Toolkit Review

I’m a fan of Fate Core, and my favorite additions to the Fate Core family have been the purple books, the System Toolkits. What makes Fate so interesting to me is the level of modularity and genericization available in the rules, which both let players run pretty much anything they can imagine in Fate. With all that flexibility, though, comes the simple fact that there are a hundred ways to do anything, including some really inventive ones that any single player probably didn’t think of.

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Torchbearer In-Depth

In RPG discussion circles in places like Reddit and Twitter, there has been a fair amount of hay made over the relative absence of ‘critique’ in the RPG realm. As someone who reviews RPGs fairly regularly, this is something which is difficult to parse but ultimately fair. A review aims to go over the traits and writing quality of a game in order to answer whether it is worth buying and worth trying to play. In RPGs (though honestly in all media) reviews skew positive because negative reviews get more negative attention, and because honestly writing 1500 words about something you don’t like simply isn’t fun.

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Kickstarter Wonk: July, 2019

It’s July, and the Kickstarters are out in force before GenCon! Well, it was actually a fairly sparse list on the publisher front, though it’s worth noting that there’s a new edition of Chivalry and Sorcery, a supplement for the latest edition of Torg, and a new edition of Aberrant, to boot! Still, those are all editions of existing games, and Kickstarter Wonk is about the new stuff. I’ve painstakingly separated the wheat from the chaff and brought you ten games that should all be pretty solid…or at least pretty to look at.

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Adventure Log: Dungeons and Dragons, Part 14

The party was invited back to the governor’s estate to help interrogate Paul. The stories of the wizards crafting a gate were corroborated, though it sounded like Paul either didn’t agree with or didn’t believe the reasoning of his compatriots. Either way, it was a spirited argument and too many available teleport artifacts that caused the malfunction, opening the gate maybe a third of the way and casting Paul into the Interface. Paul wasn’t imprisoned, per se, but he was held in an office in the administrative district of Third City for safekeeping.

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