Review: Eclipse Phase Second Edition

Eclipse Phase is described as a” pen & paper roleplaying game of post-apocalyptic transhuman conspiracy and horror.” The first edition was released in 2009 and originally published by Catalyst Game Labs but now the game is published by its creators, Posthuman Studios. The first edition won an Origin award and several Ennies. 

The second edition of the game is available as a PDF following a successful Kickstarter, which launched waaaay back in April 2017. At the time of writing, physical books are still incoming to backers, but a few copies were reportedly available at GenCon 2019. 

I’ve read a couple 1st Edition Eclipse Phase books but never played the game (apart from a FATE conversion): when I discovered Eclipse Phase, I devoured the lore in the rulebook but my enthusiasm was cooled when I reached the rules and found them incredibly dense, not merely too crunchy to be a good side game or mini-campaign, but problematic in regards how it interacted with the world. The success or failure of the 2nd Edition really depends on how well the game addresses these problems. 

What It Is

Eclipse Phase Second Edition is a 434-page rulebook with full colour illustrations. Like the 1st Edition book, the PDF makes liberal use of hyperlinks throughout the book: every time it references a rule on another page, it gives a page number and that number is a link to that page. The pages are clean: mostly white with a splash of colour on  the side, which changes depending on the section of the book (it’s mostly dark red but the middle lore section is blue). At the edge of the coloured side flair is a small white triangle, that gradually moves down the page as the chapters increase, allowing you to potentially glance at the pages and spot the changing chapters. (Theoretically, one will be able to hold up the book and guess the chapter.

While the book is only available as a PDF at the time of this writing, there is a hardcover incoming. 

Included in the rulebook are all the rules for character creation, playing the game, and running the game including information on the Mesh (read: internet) psi powers, common tech, and gear. There are 46 “morphs” in this book, a couple dozen NPC adversaries, and a hundred pages on the setting of the game.

Also out for the game are the Quick-Start Rules, as well as a seperate document with the pre-generated characters included in this book

NPC Statblock Comparison

The Good

Appropriately for a game about the future of the Information Age, the game is released under Creative Commons Licence, (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) It’s an open source RPG. The gamebook encourages you to freely share the rulebook among players at your table. This also means you can “hack” the game and freely release homebrew content and conversions of prior edition material. I think most gamermasters end up sharing PDFs across their table rather than forcing their players to buy the books, so it’s nice not to feel like a criminal for passing a digital book to someone whom I’d also loan a physical book.

Right off the bat, the game looks simpler than 1st Edition. This doesn’t mean it’s a rules lite narrative game: it’s still a crunchy game with a skill list of 20 options and fairly heavy amount of options and rules. But the game doesn’t feel oppressive with its rules. Tellingly, there’s a two-page cheat sheet with the absolute basics of playing, and this doesn’t cover most actions or skills. If you liked the heavier system of 1st Edition, this 2nd Edition shouldn’t seem barebones or incomplete. NPCs seem fairly similar, with the math being *fairly* close and a lot of the same terminology. However, character creation seems quicker and less like a chore.

Specifically morphs. 

For the uninitiated, Eclipse Phase is set in a world where cortical stacks (like the ones seen in the book or Netflix TV Altered Carbon) record your memories, personality, and experiences. These can be easily swapping between bodies, allowing you to change what you are while retaining who you are. What your are is your “morph”, while who you are is your “Ego”. This is the core concept of the game, and means you can die horribly and still continue to play the same character…repeatedly. And given you can have a complete back-up, the party can unrecoverably TPK in a nuclear fire and it’s only an inconvenience. But this was a chore in 1st Edition: changing your body meant changing a lot of the numbers on your character sheet, making it a slow process. It was significantly faster in-world to transfer your mind from a humanoid robot body into the body of a genetically modified octopus than it was to actually make the change at the table. You were subtly discouraged from swapping bodies. Not so in 2nd Edition. Very few morphs change more than a few stats (and that’s a choice), and morphs have their own distinct & separate mechanics, making them largely independent. The character sheet even reflects this, with the morph section being off to a corner inside a dashed box, implying modularity. Mechanically, each morph has its own rules and pools of roll-modifying points making it pretty easy to change bodies, but still making morphs useful to the relevant tasks. The character built and kitted for combat will still potentially be effective in a morph not designed for combat, but their odds of success and the reliability of their actions will be better in a battle-ready Fury. It’s very elegant while also customizable. 

Because morphs are designed around modifying resource pools, this allows the game to incorporate a “Flex” pool into morphs. Flex points are the narrative manipulation mechanic in Eclipse Phase, the equivalent of Story Points or Plot Points, and allow you to do such things as add an NPC or define the environment. This allows people to take less combat focused or “optimal” morphs without being overly penalized, instead having a different way of getting bonuses or contributing to the team. If you don’t want to get the good morph, or modify the morph, or buy extra gear, you get Flex points. It’s a slick option. 

Flex points also tie into a character’s Motivations, which connects the role playing aspect of the game to the mechanics. Having some RP-facing mechanic that encourages action based on your character’s goals or values is a standard part of most modern games, but I still appreciate it’s inclusion.

Eclipse Phase 2nd Edition looks really cool. It’s not just better than the system in 1st Edition, but it makes me excited about the game. You want to swap bodies and try different types of morph, because even taking the same base model has some levels of customization and variability. 

The game system is based on percentile dice. Most tasks are skill checks, with your skill being a number between 0 and 99. The game encourages you to learn skills as multiples of 5 and modifiers to checks are +/- 10s. Despite this, you couldn’t just replace the d100 with a d20 as critical—both successes and failures—are tied on rolling doubles, such as 44 or 77. Eclipse Phase is a rare game that treats a 00 on 2d10/ 1d% as a zero, which is important as you want to roll low (i.e. under your rank in the skill). Kinda. The system also has varying degrees of success based on how high you roll while still rolling under the target number. I’m always fond of games where success isn’t just a binary succeed vs fail. In this edition you can succeed, succeed with one or two superior results, or succeed a critical result. Or get a superior failure or a critical failure…

The book begins with 10 pages of short fiction, which is useful for establishing the world and the tone of the game. In this case, it emphasises the feeling of reesleeving while also giving an infodump on events. Reading a few pages of fiction can efficiently convey a lot of tone and flavour, and ten pages is a relatively small percentage of the book. After this essential set-up it moves right into the rules. 

Similarly, the middle lore section of the book is also presented as a series of in-world articles. But these are fairly tightly focused and informative, presented as in-world information pieces, so they’re not just flavour. It doesn’t feel wasteful or like padding, forced realia.

The game is very much for mature audiences. It doesn’t hesitate to slip in a few eff-bombs here and there, and references adult entertainment and drugs. But it generally feels more mature than other “mature audiences” games I’ve read of late. It doesn’t force as much adult content into the book. It’s mature without being “edgy”. 

What really drives me to Eclipse Phase is the setting, which is just cool. The world is heavily inspired by a lot of modern transhuman fiction, knowledge of which helps explain some of the world and setting choices. The game wears its inspirations on it sleeve and you can see many elements of Ghost in the Shell, Altered Carbon, The Expanse, and The Matrix. The writing of Iain M. Banks, Charless Stross, Alastair Reynolds, and so many more. Which, admittedly, can make the final product seem a little redundant, or even unoriginal. It’s basically a mash-up of concepts and ideas. But I’d argue it does this in much the same way D&D is a mash-up of pulp swords & sorcery and high fantasy fiction, taking inspiration from a wealth of fantasy sources and blending them together. 

As mentioned, the principal hook of the setting is a world where your body is just hardware than can be upgraded and replaced, and even your mind can be altered and edited. And yet humanity’s extinction is looming, as Earth has fallen to AIs and a possible exovirus, which killed 90% of the population, excluding those who could escape offworld. Earth is quarantined and the remains of humanity makes its home across the solar system, on planetary colonies, space stations, asteroid shelters, or flotillas of spaceships.

The baseline campaign of the game is fighting against humanity’s extinction, combating the remaining enemies that might end the lives of the final 10% of humanity. You work against threats— both human and nonhuman—to preserve humanity. Or… not. That’s not the only way to play. The core book provides three types of “core campaign” to players: firewall, gatecrashing, and criminal. Firewall campaigns are the aforementioned “good guys” campaign about saving humanity. Criminal campaigns are self explanatory. Gatecrashing is a little different and mashes up Eclipse Phase with Stargate, and adds exploring exoplanets via alien wormholes, exploring strange and hostile worlds devoid of intelligent life yet full of mysteries. Each of these gets a few paragraphs, but five other types of campaign also get name dropped and receive a small paragraph. You could easily use Eclipse Phase to tell the story of gritty beat cops on Mars dealing with future crimes or a group of Firefly-esque travellers moving in a beat-up ship, always looking for jobs, or rebels fighting for freedom against the Military-Industrial complex on Jupiter . 

The Bad

The biggest problem with Eclipse Phase is inherent in the genre. Science fiction is simply trickier than fantasy in a roleplaying game perspective. You simply need to know and be comfortable with the science and how the physics works, especially the physics of microgravity and space travel. Just knowing the level of tech is tricky. When I ran a game, I had trouble remembering gravity wasn’t a thing in most spaceships (as artificial gravity doesn’t exist, unlike in most TV shows & movies), and my players assumed you could do things like “scan for lifeforms” or employ FTL communication, which are staples of stuff like Star Trek. There’s a lot of stuff that would be common knowledge for the characters but just isn’t there for the players. 

The combat system uses opposed rolls, which is a little slow, doubling the number of rolls for each attack and requires a little extra communication for each action. Plus, it introduces the opportunity for a great roll on the part of the player to be countered by a better roll from an NPC. Getting a couple superiour successes but still failing is deflating. 

The game is mostly based around percentile dice, but not exclusively. It uses other dice for damage, which is odd. The d6s aren’t used for much else and might just float around the table until combat comes up, or have to be fumbled from a dice bag when a sudden combat occurs.  

Speaking of weapons, these are located in the book’s combat section and not gear, which is funky and not where you’d expect to see weapons if coming from most D&D-type games. Heck, most RPGs in general. 

There’s limited art for gear. Art is pretty sparse at times in the book, being both expensive and hard to fit into a game book this full. But knowing what some of the fancy devices look like would have been nice. Having seen Aliens I have a good idea what an “Atlas Loader” might look like, but my knowledge likely isn’t universal. 

There’s very limited rules for spacecraft, and none for spaceship combat. You can’t have ship to ship battles easily, or even shipboard encounters where you navigate a debris field or are desperately escaping detection. They can’t function as morphs, so someone can’t “play” the ship, which feels like a huge missed opportunity. (But ships are assumed to have limited AIs, which do most of the flying and might have some personality.)

The setting has a lot of mysteries, which is a huge feature/bug. I like the idea of mysteries because the answer can be anything, which is always more interesting than something, which is inherently limited and finite. But just because the answer could be whatever I want in my campaign doesn’t mean my ideas are good and a team of writers familiar with the setting might not have better ideas. And it’s always tricky to know what mysteries are teases that will be answered in a planned future product (and thus you shouldn’t answer if you don’t want to run afoul of continuity) and what are unanswerable mysteries left for the GM. In fairness, Eclipse Phase is significantly better than many RPGs in this respect, having a two-page “secret history” section that reveals some of the hidden background details, but leaves it open to the gamemaster to retain this lore or ignore it.

Similarly, there’s a lot of content gaps. Elements that are introduced (like the Iktomi) but only get a handful of paragraphs of detail. Which is the problem with game systems produced by small publishers, who can release a very limited numbers of books each year. Being a setting that spans multiple solar systems, there’s ample room for sourcebooks and gazetteers, but only a handful will end up published. Still, there’s quite a few rules-light books for 1e that can flesh out the details if necessary, but new adversaries and NPCs will be few and far between. A GM planning a longer Eclipse Phase game will need to be prepared to homebrew and be comfortable with some game design. Thankfully, monsters and gear is pretty similar, so converting between 1e and 2e shouldn’t be too difficult. 

The Ugly

The rules are super late. The PDF of the core rulebook came out in July 2019 and the physical books haven’t shipped yet, but the Kickstarter was meant to be fulfilled in 2017. I didn’t really expect to see the books in 2017 (I know how small RPGs work) but was expecting 2018 fulfilment. Getting the PDFs a year later is a bit of a harsh delay. But it does make it seem less likely the game will receive additional support anytime soon, and makes me wary of supporting future Kickstarters. I would absolutely prefer to have a good product than one rushed out the door to meet an arbitrary deadline, but the delay is still worth noting. 

The pregens are neat but don’t have as much information as I would like. You can’t run the character easily with just the pregen, and there’s stuff on the sheet I’m not sure I understand. I had to spend quite a while trying to hunt down some aspects. 

Characters start off almost as experts. You can pretty effortlessly hit the 80% skill cap at character creation, being the master of a skill, leaving you less room to expand. There’s not much room to get that much better at your chosen skill or niche. If your players need to constantly advance and level up, the system might not be as satisfying as a level based system. 

The Awesome

The rulebook starts out right away with a message about gender and the use of pronouns. And later sections of the book discuss sexuality and gender. By its very nature, Eclipse Phase is very genderqueer and genderfluid. Which isn’t new to this edition: 1e used the “singular they” back in 2009.

The introduction also lays out the politics and bias of the authors, which the game wears on its sleeve. Eclipse Phase can be a very political game, and the authors self-identify as “radical, liberatory, inclusive, and antifascist”. What I enjoy is that they come out and declare “If you support bigotry or authoritarianism in any form, Eclipse Phase is not the game for you.” 

There is an expansive list of recommended reading & viewing. Two full pages of fiction, comics, movies, and even other RPGs. 

I like that the setting is divorced from an actual year, with dating being tracked by the time since “the Fall”. It’s at least 90 years in the future, but could easily be 110 or even 150. Not being tied to a hard year makes it more future proof (unlike, say Star Trek, that had to wrestle with the absence of a 3rd world war in 1990 or Cyberpunk 2020, which has to continually shift the date forward despite the date being in the title). 

The Gamemastering section includes the usual tips but also includes advice on how to handle the issues created by future tech and potential player abuse (likely from dealing with past attempts at abuse), such as creating an army of doppelgangers or gaming the system to rapidly gain skills in VR. 

Final Thoughts

I loved the world and style of Eclipse Phase when I discovered the ruleset back in 2011. But, at the time, the rules felt too heavy and character generation too dense for a game I would likely use for mini-campaigns and one-shots. With some reluctance, I set the game aside and moved onto other systems. 

With Eclipse Phase 2nd Edition, the game is not only back on my radar, but has been simplified enough that it has jumped right to the top of my “to run” list. Very likely the next time I need a one-off game session or need a two or three session game between campaigns I’ll look to Eclipse Phase.

The setting is excellent and bursting with story ideas. The concept of body swapping is engaging. The execution and world building is top notch.

I think fans of the 1st Edition of the game will still like this edition. (At least I hope so.) The world and setting is unchanged and the game seems much smoother, but retains the basics of the system. Just by trimming down the skill list and ease of character creation & morph changing, the game feels much more accessible to new players, and easier to run for side campaigns or mini-games.

Shameless Plugs

If you liked this review, you can support me and encourage future reviews.

I have a number of PDF products on the DMs Guild website, including a bundle of my Ravenloft books including the newly released Cards of Fate and my FIRST adventure on the Guild, Smoke, Snow & Shadows. Others include my first level 1 to 20 class, the TacticianRod of Seven Parts, Traps, Diseases, Legendary Monsters, a book of Variant Rules.

Additionally, the revision of my book, Jester David’s How-To Guide to Fantasy Worldbuilding is on DriveThurRPG, available for purchase as a PDF or Print on Demand! (Now in colour!) The book is a compilation of my worldbuilding blog series, but all the entries have been updated, edited, and expanded to almost two-hundred pages of advice on making your own fantasy world.

Plus, I have T-shirts available for sale over on TeePublic!