This Tabletop Game Forces You To Confront Humanity's Future Threats
The horrors of the future, from nuclear proliferation to plagues, are on full display in Eclipse Phase.
Image: Eclipse Phase
The cell doesn't seem like it's infected, but it is.
Called an eclipse phase, it's the phase between when a cell is infected by a virus and when the virus actually shows up in the cell.
It's also the name of an award-winning post-apocalyptic sci-fi/horror tabletop roleplaying game with transhumanist themes.
In the game, characters work with a secret cross-fraction group protecting transhumanity from existential threats like nuclear proliferation and plagues. The game emphasizes immortality and "resleeving"—that is, copying or uploading your mind/consciousness and downloading it into a new morph, or body.
But it's not all about cool tech tricks: Eclipse Phase has horrific overtones, where "the universe is a very dangerous, uncaring place, and our species teeters on the edge of extinction," explained Rob Boyle, Eclipse Phase co-creator and lead developer.
Transhumanism, a movement that uses technology to enhance or improve the human condition, is not as futuristic as it seems. "We are all transhumanists right now, with our contacts and clothes and smartphones, though the people that call themselves such are specifically interested in the era of rapidly accelerating technological change we are heading into and what some of those technologies might mean and how disruptive they might be," said Boyle. These technologies include bodyhacking, intelligence augmentation, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence.
The game explores the impact of technological changes, addressing genetic modification of humans, artificial intelligence, and non-hierarchical political models (i.e., anarchism). "These sort of decentralized, self-empowered social models are going to be crucial for our species going forward, unless we want to suffer under the induced-scarcity yoke of life-extended capitalists or techno-fascists and their killer robots and eventually destroy ourselves," said Boyle. "I mean, we have functional real-life anarchist structures right now, such as the autonomous region of Rojava in what used to be Syria, proving that these alternatives work, so let's figure out how to extend that potential."
He identifies as an anarcho-transhumanist, which he defines as being interested in "seeing that technology is used for positive and liberatory social purposes rather than oppression, and that our advancements are accessible to everyone, not just the rich." The game also explores what it would look like for a society to take advantage of technology to free itself from capitalism. "I also wanted to dive into future tech's disruptive effects from a sociological perspective, to see how it might change the way people operate and relate. So we address a lot of these issues in the game, such as the repercussions of forking (copying yourself), the legal treatment of AI and uplifts, the economic disruption posed by nanofabrication, etc."
Many of these technologies are extremely individually empowering, but could have dire consequences as well. "When almost anyone can cook up a plague in their home biotech lab, you have to address that danger. You can go totalitarian and try to restrict the tech, which never works, or you can make sure everyone has the tech and is well-educated and networked, so that if one bad actor comes along everyone else can cooperate quickly to counter the threat. We either need to mature as a species, so that we stop with the false divisions and exploitation and establish more cooperative social structures, or we're going to be relegated to a security state that is inevitably doomed to fail."
After Earth becomes uninhabitable, humans have populated the rest of the solar system. "You have aerostats (balloon cities) in Venus's clouds, underground cities on Luna, dome cities on Mars and Titan, beehived asteroids, and various cylinders, toruses, and bubble habs in orbit around various bodies, all spun for gravity. There are also colonies on a number of exoplanets, reached via wormhole gates," said Boyle. The game has a decentralized mesh network, sort of like an enhanced internet of things: everything from clothing to tools to park benches has sensors and mesh nodes, relaying data to interconnected devices around it.
Some settings hit closer to him than others. "There's a big split in the setting between the inner and outer system, based on nanofabrication and economics. In the inner system, you have traditional capitalism still trying to profit off everyone. If you want a new toaster or gadget, you pay to download a blueprint from iThings or whatever that you feed to your nanofabber, which then spits one out. The file comes with DRM of course; you can't share it with your friends, and blueprints for weapons, drugs, etc. are illegal. In the outer system, nanofabbers are public and the files are free and open source, so everyone has easy access to almost anything they need," said Boyle.
In fact, the outer system doesn't use money. Characters instead rely on their reputation scores on various social networks. "If you help your friends move, make interesting art, or are just an upstanding mensch, you'll have good rep and few problems. If you're the jerk who never helps clean up the habitat, are a snob to your neighbors, or just generally suck, people are going to look at your low rep score and be hesitant to help you out or trust you with community resources."
Characters in Eclipse Phase are divided into Ego (personalities, memories, skills and traits) and Morph (the bodies they inhabit, which can also impact their abilities).
Sleeving into a morph that's not genetically modified, or is aged, could lead to limited physical and mental capabilities, and some may have physical addictions, low pain tolerance, or other issues. But sleeving into a genetically enhanced body could lead to benefits. "If you sleeve into a robotic shell, you're going to be tougher and won't have to worry about pesky things like breathing or sleeping, but your brain is a computer, so you're vulnerable to hacking," explained Boyle.
Characters can customize their bodies for specific missions, sleeving into morphs adapted to explore alien planets, underwater environments, and so forth. "Going into combat? Take a morph with increased reflexes and a hardened skeleton, or this flying tank loaded with weapons. Your core character remains the same, you just have a lot more options," Boyle explained.
In addition, each character has three motivations, which can be based on goals, ethics, spirituality, or ideology. "They can also be framed as opposition to something, such as being anti-fascist or against infomorph slavery," explained Boyle. "Achieving motivation goals results in extra rez points for improving your character and can refresh your Moxie pool, which you use for flipping dice rolls and other effects."
In the online intro game I played, run by Ray Cox, we got to select pre-written characters. I played Chi-Man, a vegetarian anarchist hacker from Mars who lived in a synth body boosted for cognitive disciplines. I learned the hard way that if my character's brain is a computer, it's vulnerable to hacking.