I was on my fourth margarita when the challenge came down: "You should write a column about games."
Even the next day, the challenge made sense. I'm still reading the books you loved years ago, so fiction reviews are out of the question. I'm not well-read enough to drop tantalizing references in a general column, so that's out of bounds, too.
But games? Games are what I do. Thus we have "Gamenivore," IROSF's science-fiction game column.
I'll start with an admission: It's the fourth paragraph, and I'm already lost at sea. Game criticism is a form in its infancy. Literary and film criticism have centuries and decades (respectively) of great critics, entire schools of thought, and countless examples of the form. Game criticism has a few consumer magazines and websites—
Why Game Criticism Is Impossible, Or At Least...Unlikely
How the heck do you critique a game? The basic answer—
- Moreso than books and films, most games are social constructs. When you play a game, you're playing with someone or against someone. What's the role of the other players in the critique? The box label that says "For 3-6 players 12 and up" doesn't tell you much. Risk plays very differently when there are three players rather than five or six. Furthermore, the who is even more important than the how many. A tabletop role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons depends utterly on the other people at the table. Play an RPG with clever, creative friends and it can't help but succeed. Play it with disinterested strangers and it can't help but fail.
- Games change after repeat play. Take chess, for example. After a ten-minute explanation of how the pieces move, you understand the rules as well as a grandmaster. Understanding the rules and understanding chess are two very different things, however. It might take you a few games to train your brain to think, "If I move here, then black moves there, and then I'll go here...then black will go there." A couple games after that, you figure out even more: The center squares are vital, and e4 is a really good opening move. Now the proverbial lightbulb appears over your head, and you're seeing aspects of chess—
specifically, the cool parts— that were invisible to you before.
- Nowadays, the games themselves change over time. A massively multiplayer online computer game (World of Warcraft is the best-known example) provides new game activities every few months. These patches and expansions extend the game experience by giving you new monsters to fight, treasures to find, and continents to explore. They also change the underlying rules of the game. You might log in one day to find that your magic fire spells don't burn as hot, but your lightning-magic is better than ever. A critique of such a game is necessarily and transitory as the game itself. Should a review have a "sell-by" date?
It's About Games—
You'd Think There'd Be Rules
In "Gamenivore," I'll talk a lot about "how I reviewed this game" because the critical form is so amorphous—
The first "Gamenivore" column is also a good place to be explicit about my background. I've been a gamer and a nascent game designer for as long as I can remember. I cut my teeth rolling those Dungeons & Dragons dice, wore out that Atari 2600 joystick, and laboriously charted the odds for attacking armies in A House Divided. I've toiled in the trenches working for collectible card game companies. Now I make up stuff for those massive online computer games that lure perfectly good students into flunking out of college. It's like writing bricks of heroin.
With a background like that, it's no surprise that I'm going to gleefully wander from the tabletop to the computer to the console. Thus the name "Gamenivore."
Maybe you move that plastic starship into the "lunar orbit" space on the board, or perhaps you roll the dice to see whether you made an Astrogation check...or maybe you click the "Orbit at 20 km" button on your computer display.
To me, it doesn't matter. What matters is that a game sent you to the freakin' moon.
On With The Review, Already
With all that in mind, "Gamenivore" turns a critical eye toward Eclipse Phase, a tabletop RPG that wears its SF pedigree on its sleeve—
In Eclipse Phase's version of the future, technology advances by leaps and bounds during the first half of the 21st century, even as political instability, economic inequality, and runaway climate change make life on Earth increasingly miserable for most of the population. But for those with the means to get offworld, it's often better. Humanity even uplifts some dolphins and chimpanzees (a la Startide Rising).
Not long after humanity establishes colonies in orbit and around the solar system, self-improving artificial intelligences rebel from their human creators. Thus begins what the game calls the Fall (complete with obligatory capitalization).
The rebellious AIs dub themselves TITANs (taken from Total Information Tactical Awareness Network, their original military purpose) and seize control of largely automated militaries. They start manufacturing nanobot swarms and lethal viruses, then declare war on humanity.
With the advantages of surprise, superhuman intellect, and control of almost all weaponry, the TITANs win what starts as a war but becomes an extermination. They wipe out 90 percent of Earth's population in a matter of weeks and start attacking the offworld colonies...and then the TITANs disappear. The remnants of humanity discover that the TITANS have left the solar system through naturally occurring wormholes that they've built high-tech "Pandora Gates" around.
As the game starts, it's ten years after the Fall. Earth is under quarantine—
Even as it sets its players up as guardians of humanity, Eclipse Phase questions just what "humanity" means. Technological advances make it possible to upload one's consciousness and memories into a computer, and from the computer into a new body. Thus the players can "resleeve" themselves into new forms—
If you remember playing Dungeons & Dragons in the basement, you already know how tabletop roleplaying games like Eclipse Phase work and can skip this section. But if that isn't part of your experience, here's a quick primer.
Imagine that five people gather to play a tabletop RPG. Before the game starts, four of them invent protagonist characters that would be at home in the game's setting. For Eclipse Phase, you might have a rebellious computer hacker, a taciturn ex-soldier, a secret agent on the run, and a brilliant but absentminded scientist. The game rules set limits on how effective a character can be and force tradeoffs. If you want to be an unstoppable computer hacker, you cannot also be an expert marksman, a master of disguise, and a black belt in karate. You'll write down scores like "Pilot: 60" or "Unarmed Combat: 40" to represent how good your character is at various things. Some players also spend time inventing character details as a novelist would, creating family members, past conflicts, personality quirks, and anything else that helps that player get "into" the character.
The fifth person at the table, the gamemaster, doesn't have a character. Instead, the gamemaster gets everyone else in the fictional world: the villain, the villain's thugs, the damsel in distress, the mysterious patron, the talkative bartender, and so on. The gamemaster also describes the world to the other players. He's already prepared a map of the villain's lair, for example, and he decided beforehand that snipping the blue wire will disarm the bomb under the president's desk.
When the game itself starts, it sounds like a conversation. The gamemaster will describe the situation ("You're in a locked room, and it's slowly filling with water"), and then each player will either ask for more information ("Where's the water coming from?") or describe an action ("I run over to the door and pick the lock").
When a player describes an action, the gamemaster either confirms it ("You run over to the door"), forbids it ("It's a watertight steel door—
The really clever part of the RPG experience is threefold. First, it's overwhelmingly freeform. Players can try anything: they can pick the lock, block the waterpipe, yell for help, search for an airhole, or whatever they like—
Back to Eclipse Phase: What Do You Actually Do?
The characters in Eclipse Phase are action-movie archetypes (soldiers, secret agents, hotshot pilots, and so on) who survived the Fall—
The surviving colonies are a fractious lot, with plenty of intrigue and conflict to drive the narrative. The Jovian Republic doesn't like the Autonomist Alliance in the outer system, which in turn distrusts the hypercorps controlling the terraforming effort on Mars, and so on. Hundreds of smaller orbital habitats and other colonies exist, many founded long before the Fall specifically to escape Earth's influence. Just because they all survived doesn't mean they get along, and the players might undertake missions to protect their home colony or undermine a rival colony. When they do, they'll wind up fighting agents much like themselves—
Players can also break the quarantine and explore postapocalyptic Earth, but doing so is dangerous. Nanoswarms and robotic weapons that the TITANs left behind rule the landscape, and the landscape itself is classic postapocalyptic fare. Some cities were nuked, others left deserted after bioengineered plagues ran rampant, and some are in ruins after urban warfare between human and machine. But mankind is desperate to regain its heritage--everything from historical artifacts to computer records left behind in the evacuation—
Finally, the players can head through a Pandora's Gate and see what lies beyond the solar system. Five such gates are known to exist: on a Vulcanoid asteroid near Mercury, on Mars, on the Saturnine moon Pandora, on the Uranian moon Oberon, and the Eris asteroid in the Kuiper Belt. The game hints that the TITANs built one on Earth before they departed, and the gamemaster can add new Pandora Gates with new destinations. Eclipse Phase gives each table free reign to determine what wonders and dangers are on the other side of the gate. Earlier human explorers? TITANs? Aliens? The only way to find out is to go there.
How It Plays at the Table
The heart of any tabletop RPG rules is how the game handles task resolution—
Eclipse Phase falls down in the third aspect. Resolving a pull of the trigger is an eight-step process (declare attack, declare defense, apply modifiers, make opposed test, determine outcome, modify for armor, determine damage, determine wounds). Both the player and the gamemaster are rolling dice and doing arithmetic in their heads.
The assassin goes ﬁrst, spending a Quick Action to draw a shredder. This ﬂechette weapon is in burst-ﬁre mode, so with a Complex Action the assassin can take two shots. His Spray Weapons skill is 65, he's smartlinked (+10), and they're at short range (+0), so he needs a 75 or less. Stoya is defending with her Fray skill (60) divided by 2, or 30.
The assassin rolls an 08 with the ﬁrst shot. Amazingly, Stoya rolls a 28. They both succeeded, but Stoya rolled higher, so she dodges the ﬁrst shot. The assassin rolls a 20 for his second shot, another hit, and this time Stoya rolls an 83, a failure.
The assassin also scored an Excellent Success with a MoS of 55, increasing the DV by +5. The assassin's base damage is 2d10 + 5, but he's using burst ﬁre against a single target for +1d10, and it's also a cone effect weapon at short range, for an additional +1d10, for a total DV of 4d10 + 5. The assassin rolls 4d10 and gets 16, then adds the +5 for a total DV of 21.
Stoya's wearing light body armor (AV 10/10), but the shredder's Armor penetration is –10, so her armor is entirely negated. She takes a devastating 21 DV, exceeding her Wound Threshold of 10, not just once, but twice. This means Stoya suffers 2 wounds from the shot, suffering –20 to all actions. In addition, she must make two SOM x 3 Tests, one to avoid knockdown and the other to avoid unconsciousness. Her SOM is 30, meaning she needs a 70 (30 x 3 = 90, 90 – 20 wound modiﬁers = 70) on both rolls. She rolls a 40 and a 27, succeeding both.
Eclipse Phase, p. 192.
Leaving aside the game lingo in the quote (which would be second nature to an Eclipse Phase player), it's worth breaking down what's happening with a single pull of the imaginary trigger: Three dice rolls for the gamemaster and four for the player, each with situational modifiers and mental arithmetic required. Multiply that complexity by an entire battle, and you see the dilemma. It takes too long to resolve combat.
Eclipse Phase rightfully makes a big deal out of the player's ability to resleeve—
Resleeving lets Eclipse Phase neatly solve a problem many other tabletop RPGs face: What do you do when one character dies? In most games, the player of the dead character has to make a new character, then wait as a spectator until there's a chance for that new character to join the ongoing narrative. That sometimes threatens willing suspension of disbelief when the other characters suddenly befriend and trust the new character. (They know the player, of course, but the character is this guy who just showed up.) When all the players enjoy "serial immortality," those deaths have consequence, but they aren't disruptive to the ongoing narrative. No matter what it looks like, the new character's body is just as integral to the narrative as the old one.
The benefits of resleeving are mitigated, however, by the fact that figuring out a new body for your character takes time. It took me 10 minutes doing arithmetic to switch from one body to another, and there are enough choices that a player could go into "analysis paralysis" and spend an hour resleeving. The notion of a disposable body is important to gameplay and a crucial part of Eclipse Phase's theme, so it's disappointing that it's so cumbersome to accomplish.
One thing that separates a "hobby game" from an ordinary game is the presence of a metagame: enjoyable game-related activities you engage in when you aren't actually playing. RPGs are renowned for a strong metagame. Especially if you're the gamemaster, you can spend many a rainy afternoon making up characters and inventing adventures to fuel future sessions.
Eclipse Phase gives the gamemaster plenty to do in the metagame, but it doesn't provide the tools to make those metagame activities easy. For example, say you're the gamemaster and you want the players to infiltrate an orbital habitat run by pro-TITAN cultists. You need to create the basic stats for the guards, the lead cultist, the nanotwisted horrors in their laboratory, and so on, but you have only your own eyeballs to guide you. It's hard to gauge what sort of antagonists (and how many of them) are neither too hard nor too easy. Some sort of analog to D&D's levels or challenge ratings—
Eclipse Phase is also tough on players who are only mildly motivated to give the game a try. The character creation rules start on page 130, and it's just not realistic to expect every player to do that much reading before the dice hit the table. If part of the Eclipse Phase rulebook would "evangelize" to time-pressed players and say, "Here's the setting in a nutshell—
Reads Good, Plays Not So Good
I'm at once excited and disappointed by Eclipse Phase. It's an evocative setting rich with dramatic potential and replete with thought-provoking SF themes. But that setting is stapled to gameplay that's too slow and too cumbersome. Furthermore, Eclipse Phase gets in its own way by being so daunting to the curious newcomer and by demanding so much preparation effort from its gamemaster. In other words, I long for adventures in Eclipse Phase's universe, but I don't want to deal with the actual game at their foundation.
Thus I can't recommend the game, and I've set Eclipse Phase aside...for now. Eclipse Phase was produced under a Creative Commons License, so I'm hopeful that other game designers will unearth this gem of a setting, streamline the rules, and make a game more friendly to its players. If that happens, I'll happily "resleeve" myself into an enthusiastic Eclipse Phase player.
The Obligatory "How I Played This" Paragraph
"Gamenivore" reviewed Eclipse Phase based on the first printing of the game by Catalyst Game Labs. I spent about four hours reading the rules, four hours experimenting with character creation, and two hours simulating various game situations. Then I spent three hours creating a short scenario and pregenerated characters for a three-hour game session with experienced tabletop RPG players.