Unfortunately, ambition alone does not make for a great game. Eclipse Phase has a lot of problems weighing it down, which is too bad because many of its ideas are fantastic.
The Transhumanist Setting Is Fascinating
Eclipse Phase’s setting is a marvelous place. Set 10 years after a robot uprising laid waste to Earth, transhumanity is scattered across the solar system. Planets and moons of all types have been colonized, from the aging domes of Mars to the utopian cyber democracy of Titan. Ships and stations hurtle through the void, containing their own self-sufficient ecosystems.
And while all of that is cool, it’s mostly window dressing. The real meat of Eclipse Phase is the evolution of brain-scanning technology. Using advanced scanners and nano-printers, it is commonplace for people to back up their mental information, known in-setting as an “ego.” Those egos can then be downloaded into new bodies in the event their original dies, if someone wants to experience life in a different body, or even if they only want to have a best friend who is a copy of themselves.
This technology turns the human experience on its head. On the one hand, people are functionally immortal now. Short of destroying every ego backup, there’s no way to kill a person permanently. On the other hand, doesn’t a person effectively die every time they copy and paste themselves into a new body? The mind is just data, after all; there is no “soul” to be transferred that anyone can detect.
That question is difficult to answer, but Eclipse Phase’s setting is the perfect place to explore it. Because the setting doesn’t take itself too seriously, you can consider these existential quandaries from inside the body of an uplifted octopus. GMs who like heavy research can go even deeper, crafting stories around the TITAN AIs and the mysterious Pandora Gates.
The downside to Eclipse Phase’s setting is information density. Primers exist, but unless new players do a lot of reading, they can easily get lost. GMs must be prepared to shepherd their group, slowly introducing new concepts over several sessions. Confronting new players with everything at once will send them running.
The Mental Health System Is Excellent
Eclipse Phase gets its mental health rules by way of the old Call of Cthulhu (CoC) sanity system, so I wasn’t expecting much. CoC’s system of random insanity in response to seeing a giant squid monster feels hokey to a modern audience, not to mention problematic as it stigmatizes the mentally ill.
But Eclipse Phase surprised me. Instead of losing “sanity,” characters accumulate stress as they experience traumatic events. The trauma in question can range from seeing a good friend die to waking up in a body that isn’t the character’s own. Stress points have mechanical effects, of course. It’s hard to be at one’s best while super stressed out. But they also give the character real conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder and insomnia.
The water gets a little murky here, because characters can also gain conditions like borderline personality disorder, which in real life is considered to be passed down through genetics. It’s unlikely that a person would spontaneously develop it. However, that concern can be resolved by imagining that the character always had the genetic potential for such a condition, and it was then triggered by a traumatic event. Unlike CoC’s random insanity tables, Eclipse Phase leaves the choice of conditions and how to play them up to the player, so the topic can be approached gently if anyone is sensitive to it.
While the system makes a few missteps, like referring to some conditions as “derangements,” these rules are a definite bright spot. They subtly enforce the notion that no person can walk through life completely unaffected by the world around them. The rules also provide a check on the excess of transhuman immortality. A PC might be tempted to copy themselves a dozen times and send their new troops on a suicide mission, but doing so will incur a lot of stress.
Finally, the rules make it clear that a character will heal from trauma much faster if they receive therapeutic help. Trying to “tough it out” on one’s own doesn’t make mechanical sense. That’s a nice reminder of how valuable therapy is in real life.
Obtuse Terminology Adds Unneeded Confusion
And that’s it for the praise. Eclipse Phase is extremely complicated, both in rules and setting. Players need to absorb a lot of information, even when the GM is being careful. Straightforward terminology would have done a lot to ease the process. Instead, the game uses thesaurus-fu to replace every game term with a new one that’s technically accurate but difficult to understand.
For example, what does Savvy mean, as a character attribute? What about Cognition? Turns out they equate to charisma and intelligence, respectively. The list goes on. Hitpoints are called Durability, and wisdom is called Intuition. The grand prize for confusing terminology goes to “Somatics.” Can you guess what that means? I’ll wait.*
Several of the skills have confusing names too. Instead of Sense Motive, Eclipse Phase has Kinesics. Again, a technically accurate name, but not something most players will know. Even worse, the dodge skill is called Fray. That isn’t even technically accurate, as it’s used any time a character has to get out of the way, not just in disorderly or protracted fights.*
Next, look at how the stats are arranged on the character sheet.
I have no idea what this means, please send help! Okay, joking aside, what they’ve done here is abbreviate the various stat names, probably in an effort to save space. This is the worst design choice I’ve seen on a character sheet since Dungeon World didn’t include any blank sheets for GMs to make their own classes. Even if a player manages to memorize all their stats, this sheet is meaningless.
Players new to a system need all the help they can get learning the rules. Instead, Eclipse Phase bombards them with new terminology and a character sheet that looks like it was copied from an accountant’s Excel files. That adds untold aggravation to the learning processes, and it didn’t need to happen. All of Eclipse Phase’s fancy terms have more descriptive, easier to use equivalents, and the character sheet could have been rearranged.
Sometimes it’s necessary to invent new terminology. There’s no word in English for downloading a new instance of a person’s ego into a different body, so Eclipse Phase borrowed “forking” from computer programming lingo.* That term is worth learning because it conveys a new idea. But the obscure names for stats and skills come off as a cheap attempt to sound more futuristic, and the game would have been better without them.
Character Creation Is Deep but Frustrating
Character creation in Eclipse Phase is deep. Really deep. Deep enough you want to be careful how fast you go back to the surface.* Players can make an astonishing variety of characters. Would they like to play a super-smart AI geneticist inhabiting the body of a giant crab? Easily done. What about a master sword-fighter with three bodies, all inhabited by forks of the same character? Child’s play.
The game has rules for a staggering variety of bodies, both organic and synthetic. PCs can have all kinds of cybernetic implants, plus a cornucopia of traits and gear. That’s great for experienced players who want to dive into the setting, pushing the boundaries of transhumanity further than they’ve ever gone.
For new players, character creation isn’t so smooth. The game presents players with 1000 points, but it gives very little idea of how to spend them. Looking at the hundreds of options available, newer players are likely to suffer analysis paralysis, unable to choose anything at all. Worse, many players simply won’t have time to read through all the options available, so the GM must do a lot of extra work to guide them.
Regardless of player experience level, this kind of unguided character creation has another problem: it encourages hyper-specialization. In most roleplaying games, it’s better to be really good at a few things than passable at many things, and Eclipse Phase is no exception. The rules try to discourage hyper-specialization by making skills cost more after a certain level, but the lure is too great! This problem actually gets worse with more experienced players, as they already know how to leverage a maxed out Persuasion skill to great effect. This leaves the well-rounded PCs wondering why they bothered.
Eclipse Phase also lets PCs get even more points from taking disadvantages, and in the time-honored tradition of roleplaying games, some of these disadvantages are actually plot hooks. For example, consider the Frail disadvantage and the Edited Memory disadvantage, both worth 10 points. Frail reduces a PC’s total hitpoints, a serious flaw. Edited Memory gives no mechanical penalty and means that at some point the PC will be the star of a session to find out what happened to their memory. Any player who didn’t know that and took Frail will feel pretty silly.
But by far the most frustrating part of Eclipse Phase is being forced to spend 300 points on “knowledge skills.” These run the gambit from actual knowledge skills like biology to performance arts like dance. They all have one thing in common though: it’s hard to imagine most PCs having a use for them. Even the language skills are worthless, because everyone has translators embedded in their brains. Nevertheless, players must spend nearly a third of their points on knowledge skills, which has the odd result of every Eclipse Phase character looking like they went to college long enough to get half a dozen bachelor’s degrees.
The Core Die Mechanic Still Isn’t Great
Like its mental health system, Eclipse Phase inherits its core die mechanic from Call of Cthulhu.* This is usually known as the percentile system, where most rolls are made on a d100, trying to get equal to or under the character’s skill rating. Unlike the mental health rules however, Eclipse Phase did not improve the percentile system enough to be worthy of praise.
The percentile system’s biggest problem has always been that by default; the difficulty of a roll is determined by the PC’s skill rather than the task they’re attempting. PC Tyrone’s Pilot skill is 60, no matter if they’re trying to land a plane in calm weather or flying down the Grand Canyon at combat speeds. Eclipse Phase tries to solve this problem by allowing the GM to impose bonuses or penalties to a character’s skill based on how difficult the task is, but most GMs forget this option more often than not.
The percentile system is also notoriously bad at opposed rolls. For a long time, Call of Cthulhu didn’t have opposed skill rolls at all, and players had to consult a table when pitting their base attributes against another’s. Eclipse Phase does have opposed rolls, but they’re unintuitive. In an opposed roll, both sides are trying to get as close to their skill total as they can without going over. If one participant has a skill rating of 72, then a 72 is the best roll they can get.* If their opponent has a skill of 85 but only rolls a 45, then the first participant would win.
This mechanic works, but it’s irritating to players who’ve just finished learning that they’re trying to roll low. Another irritant is the way attribute rolls are handled. In most cases, the players have to roll against their attribute times three, and it’s amazing how much that extra bit of multiplication can slow down a game.
Finally, Eclipse Phase’s retry mechanic is a mess. The rules seem to say that any player can retry any task up to six times. Each time has a lower chance of success, but so what? As far as I can tell there’s no downside to retrying as often as possible. The rules don’t seem to indicate if these retries represent the character literally trying again or if it’s all an abstraction. In any case, it’s a terrible rule that does nothing but slow the game down and make it almost impossible for anyone to fail a roll. If that’s the goal, they should have just removed failure from the game and been more honest about it.
Skills Are Needlessly Divided
Many systems struggle with skill granularity, and Eclipse Phase is no exception. Some skills cover a broad range of tasks, while others are very narrow, and there seems little rhyme or reason to it. Consider the Programming skill. This skill is very broad and is used for everything from hacking into a secure server to writing a search algorithm. That isn’t very realistic, but it makes the game better. In a thrilling story of transhuman drama, no one cares if a character can program in SQL or Java, they care if the character can stop the TITAN nano-virus from spreading to the space station’s main CPU.
And yet, some skills are unaccountably divided into what the game calls “fields.” While they’re under the umbrella of a single skill, PCs must spend points on each of them separately. Medicine is the most obvious culprit, with 13 different fields, some of which are just bizarre. Does the game really care if a character has Trauma Surgery or Remote Surgery? What if it’s a surgery performed by a remotely controlled drone on a trauma victim?
Piloting is another divided skill, which just seems cruel. The book makes it quite clear that PCs won’t be spending much of their time in spacecraft or aircraft, and yet it expects players to spend huge numbers of points to be competent at operating vehicles. The game also requires two different skills to use laser weaponry and kinetic weaponry, even though both types of weapons are operated by the same easy-to-use point-and-click interface. For comparison, the Blades skill lets characters wield everything from a battle-axe to a rapier.
This skill division is inconsistent, and it can damage a story. Imagine a scenario where the GM has their players breaking into an evil hypercorp’s weapons-lab. One of the PCs, an expert sniper, gets hold of an experimental laser-rifle. They level the rifle at the enemy and then proceed to miss every shot. Even though the character was a crack shot, they forgot to pick up the Beam Weapons skill in addition to the Kinetic Weapons skill. The player assumed one point-and-click interface was the same as another.
Combat Is Slow and Uninteresting
Even though Eclipse Phase is a system that tries to do everything, most of the rules are related to combat. Reaper drones rain death down from on high, seeker missiles navigate around every obstacle to find their targets, and nano-swarms literally take the enemy apart piece by piece.
With all that going on, it’s disappointing in the extreme that Eclipse Phase combat has little to recommend. First of all, it’s time consuming. Two lightly armored* characters with assault rifles can easily take four rounds of shooting to resolve their differences, and that number gets a lot higher if they pile on the armor. With a party of four to six PCs plus their opponents, exciting gunfights quickly become plodding chores.
What’s more, players have an endless list of bonuses and penalties to keep track of. Did they remember to buy a scope? That’s +10 to hit. Did they remember to aim? Also +10 to hit. What about their weapon’s armor penetration rating or the various types of ammunition available? That becomes a headache fast. Don’t even get me started on the rules for throwing a grenade.*
Most damning, for all of its complexity, Eclipse Phase combat offers very little depth. The game has a thousand different ways to optimize a PC for combat, but once the dice start rolling, there are hardly any decisions to be made. Like Call of Cthulhu, D&D, and many older systems, Eclipse Phase combat consists almost entirely of two sides blazing away from static positions until one side can’t shoot any more. There’s little room for tactics or clever thinking unless the GM puts in a lot of extra leg work.
Eclipse Phase combat has only one redeeming quality: it has low stakes. If a PC dies from an (un)lucky critical hit, they can be easily restored from a backup. GMs don’t have to worry about destroying their campaign with a fight that got out of hand. Of course, this benefit cuts both ways. Players used to more traditional settings may find combat boring if death isn’t on the line.
The Whole System Is Rife With Imbalance
Eclipse Phase is not a well balanced system, and even a cursory reading of the rules shows it. The most blatant offenders are implants that give characters an extra action. By default, characters have only one action. These implants double a character’s effectiveness in combat or any other situation where time is a factor. The only limitation to receiving these implants is their cost, and PCs can easily scrape the credits together with a few skill rolls.
Dual wielding further breaks the action economy. Each extra hand/limb holding a weapon essentially gains its own turn, which stacks with the extra action implants. This means a robot with pistols in each of its 10 hands can make 40 attacks in a single round.* In fairness, each attack after the first receives an increasing penalty, but there’s no reason not to make them. PCs can also purchase traits that will reduce or eliminate these penalties, turning every combat into an unending bulletstorm.
Not all the balance issues are so spectacular. Weapon stats clearly favor bigger guns over smaller ones with no mechanical incentive not to pick the most powerful option available.* Why use an assault rifle when a machine gun is the clearly superior option? The machine gun is more expensive, but as with implants, money isn’t a real obstacle for PCs. Lasers, by contrast, are disappointingly underpowered, a rude shock to anyone who invested points in Beam Weapons.
But don’t worry, combat isn’t the only place where imbalance reigns. Emotional dampeners give a +30 to Deception rolls. Even in a system where skills are rated from 01 to 99, that’s a huge bonus. The supposed downside is that the dampeners give -10 to Persuasion rolls, but they can be turned off at will so it isn’t clear if that will matter. What’s more, the dampeners can be combined with endocrine control implants for a total of +50 on Deception rolls. That kind of epic level lying in starting characters will cause huge problems, as PCs realize they can make people believe the most outrageous falsehoods.
I found these balance issues after reading through the book once. I shudder to think what a true master of the system could come up with. Any GM looking to keep their game from disintegrating will have to spend a lot of time house-ruling or disallowing various options, lest newer players be completely outstripped by those who know how Eclipse Phase does its math.
At its heart, Eclipse Phase is a game suffering from too much complexity. The setting is incredibly deep and asks players to accept major paradigm shifts. Just trying to figure out what death means will leave heads spinning. In this kind of game, the rules should support both players and GMs who find themselves struggling. Instead, the system is confusing and labyrinthine. New players take one look at the character sheet and head for the hills.
Eclipse Phase’s overcomplexity stems from its simulationist mindset. Every possible aspect of the setting must be represented in the rules, right down to how many meters a character can crawl in three seconds. With a setting this sprawling, that means an equally sprawling set of rules. If the designers had used something more abstract, it could have been a stable platform from which to explore transhumanity. Instead the rules mostly get in the way. While the setting is still awesome, it isn’t enough.