Eclipse Phase: Rimward: The Outer System (RPG review).

December 29, 2012 | By | Reply More

‘Rimward’ is a setting book for Eclipse Phase, the futuristic role-playing game (RPG) of transhuman conspiracy and horror, detailing the settlements and societies of the outer Solar System.

The setting of ‘Eclipse Phase’ is an alien and yet scrupulously plausible one, occurring at some vaguely defined time probably 100-150 years away. Ten years in the wake of an apocalyptic conflict between Skynet-esque military AIs called TITANs, which ruined the Earth and left billions dead, mankind has settled all throughout the Solar System, from Mercury to the far-flung reaches of the Oort Cloud but it’s not precisely ‘humanity’ any more.


Because the central technology of ‘Eclipse Phase’ is ego-uploading: the creation of a near-perfect digital copy of the human mind. The technology is widely available, enabling a whole panoply of digital wonders. Body-swapping (called ‘resleeving’) for fun or profit; virtual existence online as an ‘infomorph’; stored ego backups in case of death; ‘egocasting’ in place of physical travel; splitting off copies (or ‘forks’) of your ego as servants, tools or entities in their own right.

Together with a raft of complimentary technologies, including advanced robotics, AI, bio-augmentation, cloning, VR and countless others, ‘resleeving’ tech has allowed humanity to fracture and diverge from the traditional concept of the species: two arms, two legs and a head containing a normal human mind. There are types of body (‘morphs’) available for every possible hostile environment or dirty job and the imagination being what it is, plenty more and stranger besides.

Meanwhile, some of the people inhabiting those bodies weren’t ever human in the first place. Artificial General Intelligences (AGIs) have bodies and rights of their own, as do the ravens, parrots, apes, dolphins and octopi which science uplifted to human-level intelligence. They might be walking around in a humanoid body now, but that wasn’t always the case.

With this vast and ever-fragmenting selection of intelligences filling up the Solar System, ‘humanity’ as a concept began to seem a little anachronistic. ‘Transhumanity’ is the term of choice, covering everyone from AGIs and uplifts to the millions of infomorphs still un-sleeved in the wake of the Fall.

The Fall – the AI-initiated conflict which ruined Earth – is the other lynchpin of the setting. Military AIs called TITANS kicked it off, launching net attacks on each other before escalating to nuclear, biological and other weirder weapons.

Millions died before transhumanity got its act together and millions more were mind-hacked, their consciousnesses forcibly uploaded into the TITANs themselves and then…the TITANs vanished, taking their stolen minds with them. Ten years later, still nobody knows where they went or whether they might return.

In the meantime, transhumanity has licked its wounds and expanded into the Solar System, discovering mysterious artefacts – the Pandora Gates – which open on worlds far beyond their reach. Is this where the TITANs went? Should we destroy the gates – if we even can – or head through them and establish exo-colonies safely out of reach of some unknown future calamity?

The philosophical implications are pretty complex, even before you factor in the Factors. The only aliens transhumanity has encountered turned up in the Solar System three years after the Fall, sentient mould colonies claiming to act as ambassadors for a number of off-screen alien species.

They are eager to trade, showing a particular interest in scientific and cultural information, but have issued stern warnings against either the development of artificial intelligence or the use of the Pandora Gates. Speculation as to their motives abounds: are they truly the impartial merchants they say they are or are they scavengers and opportunists attempting to keep transhumanity contained and ignorant?

So this is ‘Eclipse Phase’ in a nutshell, exploring the full dualities of technology: granting unprecedented equality and freedom of expression on the one hand, but changing who and what we are and bearing the potential for devastation and exploitation on an unprecedented scale on the other. It’s a beautiful balance between progression and fear of the unknown and I am, as you can probably tell, a bit of a fan.

It’s that fear of the unknown which drives the Player Characters (PCs)’ adventures. Conspiracies – and conspiracy theories – abound, making even the most peaceful-seeming habitat a potential nightmare, while the TITANs left plenty of nasty technological surprises behind to litter the Solar System before they vanished.

‘Eclipse Phase’ really plays up the unsettling, alien aspect of technology and thrives on the unknown. Decent horror takes a lot of effort and craft to pull off, so it’s probably not a game for a novice Games Master (GM) but the quality of the writing really helps you get an idea of the tone of the game and there are plenty of plot hooks to catch the imagination.

‘Rimward’ is no different. The very nature of setting books often makes them pretty hard reading, given at their worst, they’re effectively just a catalogue of places, people and historical happenings to flesh out your game, but ‘Rimward’ does its best to avoid this pit trap by presenting its densely-packed information through a variety of local voices.

From the amusingly upbeat corporate adspeak of Solaris Midsystem Investment Associates to the gives-no-shit attitude of Spam del Psycho, engineer on one of the self-identified ‘scum’ flotillas which circulate between the worlds, the delivery adds a (trans)human touch to the necessary infodump.

While some of these voices stand out, most of them tend to slip into the same informal, informative style of information delivery. While they’re no great hardship to read in themselves, the sheer density of the information can make some sections of ‘Rimward’ a little dry. It’s worth stressing that this isn’t a book you’re supposed to read from cover to cover, it’s designed to be dipped into whenever you need a new, interesting or disturbing location to inflict on your players.

Thankfully, ‘Rimward’ provides just that, containing vast amounts of information on the outer system, everything beyond Mars, effectively. It travels from the miners and settlers of the asteroid belt, through the extreme bioconservatives of the Jovian Republic and the techno-collectivists of the Titanian Commonwealth, out past the anarchist habitats of the Autonomist Alliance and into the far-flung reaches of the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud where the really strange folk live.

The book is at its strongest when looking at the larger scale, examining the everyday implications of technological advances on aspects of society as far flung as tourism, crime, sports and politics. As with the rest of the ‘Eclipse Phase’ gameline, the authors seem impressively well-versed in science, economics and sociology or at least have done some serious research, giving the societies in ‘Rimward’ a credible realist grounding.

No matter how alien the society they’re describing and some of them are pretty damn strange, you can always see how humanity’s imagination, eccentricity and…well, irrationality might end up there, given free rein. ‘Rimward’ also takes pains to describe how some of these fringe societies co-exist with more traditional ones, devoting a sizeable chunk of pages to explaining how the reputation-based economies of Titan and the Autonomist Alliance work and how they interact with the traditional money and labour- based economies of the inner system.

Let’s look at the Titanian Commonwealth. Based on Titan, a large and icy moon of Saturn, the Commonwealth is a direct democracy where every adult votes on legislative issues while the elected parliament administers the day-to-day running of government. It’s also a so-called ‘new economy’, where the basics – a body to inhabit, food, shelter, simple tools, even weapons– are freely available to everyone, thanks to government-run cornucopia machines (nanotech assemblers which can make pretty much anything).

If you want something more complicated, however, than that depends on your ‘rep’ – a social reputation score on which your relative worth is judged. If you’re nice to your neighbours, contribute to society in some meaningful way and are generally a good citizen, you’ll likely carry a decent rep and be able to get most of the things you could want, whether it’s exotic or unusual items, information or simply favours from your fellow citizens.

If you’re a lazy, greedy arsehole, on the other hand, chances are that the people you interact with will notice and begin to penalise you and your rep score will sink to levels where you have to wait to get what you want, if you get it at all. It’s a self-correcting mechanism which encourages cooperation, citizenship and making nice.

The Commonwealth is a post-scarcity socialist utopia, in other words, at least on the surface. Because utopias are boring and boring does not a good RPG session make. There’s plenty of material in ‘Rimward’ on the drawbacks and downsides of the reputation economy, from gaming the system for your own benefit to ‘griefers’ who maliciously and disproportionately punish others for their own amusement. The whole thing has a wonderfully creepy Stepford vibe, using social mechanics to effectively enforce conformity. For a game of conspiracy and subtle, sinister tensions, this is a goldmine.

The other major state in the outer system is the Jovian Republic, called the Jovian Junta by most people living outside its heavily-patrolled borders. If the Titanian Commonwealth is the poster-child for progressive left-leaning rationalists, the Jovian Republic is their bogeyman. Aggressive, nationalistic, technologically and socially conservative, dominated by religion and deeply fearful of outsiders, the Junta seems like a future nightmare version of an America ruled by the extreme religious right.

The writing here is of a particularly high standard, however, and does an excellent job of casting the Republic in a far more sympathetic light. From their perspective, they’re safeguarding humanity, a single, cohesive, true humanity, not whatever it is the rest of the System is hell-bent on turning itself into. Their paranoia and draconian security measures aren’t for the sake of the ruling elite, they’re a backlash against the rest of transhumanity’s reckless embrace of technology, in place so that at least part of the species might survive. As the narrator of the Jovian section puts it:

We are ready for the day when the TITANs return. When they do and when your AI systems and your very bodies betray you, we will be standing strong, having prepared and planned and run the simulations. Then, perhaps, you will have to turn to us, your last hope. The shining city on the hill that will offer the benighted masses of transhumanity the possibility of salvation from the instruments of their own destruction.’ Or perhaps not.

…we are taking the cautious path. We grow steadily, without exponential curves. When your transhumant society has collapsed…when your machine gods have reaped all of your souls, when you have accelerated your ‘evolution’ and transcended into nothingness, we humans will still be here, ready to reclaim our birthright and heritage.’  p.33

But in the meantime, the Junta might make a fine villain and ‘Rimward’ includes advice on running them as either the evil space empire they superficially seem or the stalwart, unappreciated saviours of baseline humanity or any nuance in-between.

‘Rimward’ isn’t all setting fluff. There’s a respectable chunk of game information at the end of the book, including stats for a fairly broad array of new morphs, enhancements, and antagonists, as well as useful GM information on travel times, communications times and environmental hazards. Personally, I’d have preferred to see this better integrated with the rest of the book, linking the game info with the setting fluff, but I can see how it’d be useful to know exactly where to look when you need to reference something urgently mid-game.

The majority of ‘Rimward’ is less a reference for when the game is in progress and primarily idea fodder for the GM’s pre-game planning. While much of the book makes for a fairly conventional, if well-assembled catalogue of habitats and space stations, it’s broken up with sidebars and pull-out boxes highlighting notably interesting slash creepy aspect of the local colour, most of which would make excellent plot seeds for a session or full campaign.

Take Nomic, a judicial AGI on the libertarian habitat of Extropia where anything goes and everything from food and accommodation to sex is available on a free-market, contractual basis, including legal protection. You contract with one of the local courts for the duration of your stay, receiving protection from lawsuits and charges according to the court’s own legal code.

Nomic runs one of the best, but where most are made up of whole battalions of legal experts, she’s merely a single Artificial General Intelligence, albeit one of unusual sophistication. In fact, the locals are beginning to fear she might be more than she seems, a self-modifying seed AI like the TITANs or even one of the TITANs themselves, in hiding for who knows what reasons. Nomic isn’t saying, however:

When publicly asked if she had self-modified her own neural network architecture, she simply responded with ‘What I do with my mind is none of your fucking business.’  p.23

Other snippets of conspiracy or potential horrors or simply of high-tech cool abound. Take the Reyes Simulation, a virtual hell running on fast time. The simulation contains dozens if not hundreds of digital clones (‘forks’) of Edward Reyes and was created by Reyes himself as a kind of Darwinian proving ground, enabling him to improve himself through brutal natural selection until he reaches his evolutionary peak. Located somewhere out in the darkness of the Kuiper Belt, no one would even know the Reyes Simulation existed…if nearby habitats hadn’t recently received a distress call from Reyes himself.

Or the Thorne, a high-capacity radio telescope in the outer fringe of the Solar System which has started a craze for ‘egocasting’, beaming forks of yourself out into the interstellar void in the hope that distant aliens will receive the signal and resleeve you.

Or MeatHab, a habitat in orbit around Saturn which is made entirely of living flesh, with a guiding consciousness which (presumably) used to be human. Or Catal Hayuk, a Jovian habitat recreating Neolithic Anatolia, whose inhabitants undergo voluntary psychosurgery to remove all memories of transhuman life. Or…

Or or or. You get the gist. The primary purpose of an RPG setting book is to provide exciting and interesting new backdrops for your game and ‘Rimward’ does that in spades. It’s a good expansion with numerous moments of excellence and I’d heartily recommend it, along with its parent game, to anyone who likes their Science Fiction to be scrupulously plausible…and tinged with horror.

Martin Jenner

December 2012

(pub: Eclipse Phase/Posthuman Studios. 200 page hardback. Price: £44.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-98458-355-3)

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Category: Books, Games

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