The interview you are about to read is the nearly complete transcript of Scott’s conversation with Brian Cross of Posthuman Studios from Saturday, August 17th 2013 on the Gen Con floor. Brian is one of the three co-creators of the game Eclipse Phase and a professor at Webster University.
We chose not to edit out any real content of this conversation for a number of reasons. First and foremost among them is that Terrible Gamers is incredibly proud of this interview. This conversation, which goes into great deal about the intellectual genesis behind Eclipse Phase, is one of the main reasons we started Terrible Gamers in the first place. We are not afraid that the gamers who find this interview we find critically engaged journalism and game design boring.
So you have been warned! This is a long interview, and parts of it read like a conversation, which gets closer to the truth of what this was, but boy do we think that it is worth your time. I have tried, where possible, to embed links to information about both the titles and the academic issues we discuss.
For those interested in picking up Eclipse Phase:
The hardcover books can be ordered-here
And the creative commons free pdfs found-here
Brian, can you tell me about Eclipse Phase?
It’s a post apocalyptic transhuman science fiction horror game of conspiracy… and large portions of it were written at UC Irvine.
Really? [Terrible Gamers editor Scott Mills is a PhD candidate in Political Science at UC Irvine]
Yes! I got my PhD there a few years ago.
Interesting! I’m in the Political Science department at UC Irvine. I’ve probably met you before, and don’t remember it. When did you get your PhD?
Then we were there at the same time for sure.
When did you start?
2007… it all gets really confusing after your 4th or 5th year…
Yeah, [we were there at the same time, but...] I was already done with classes at that point in time.
So you were on the same track as I am then. You were done with your classes and dissertating forever? Is Eclipse Phase what you were doing instead of your dissertation?
Yes. You know, there comes a point in every dissertation where you think that maybe you’d like to do something else.
That’s where I am right now. So I totally understand that.
So from an academic standpoint you will probably appreciate Eclipse Phase. We had a lot of [academic] influences that we wanted to bring to the game. So making Eclipse Phase [a] science fiction and horror [game]… there is a long tradition of [both science fiction and horror]… that we liked. Not necessarily the “jump out at you” stuff, but the sort of existential dread… like Event Horizon, or you are out in the middle of an airless void and you are dependent on technology. And that element is in Eclipse Phase.
Yep… and our fans debate it forever
Were you a Philosophy student at any point? I only ask because Philosophy was one of my undergraduate majors, and Philosophy of the Mind in particular…
Oh yes. I know absolutely nothing about Eclipse Phase and I already think it is awesome.
What it [Eclipse Phase] allows you to do is upload your consciousness into any body for a mission. So do you need to be a giant snake? You can be a giant snake. Do you need to be a swarm of micro-bots? Well you can do that. And it means that if you die, you can come back from your last “save point.”
So, like I said a second ago, I hate to admit this, but until right now I hadn’t even heard of the game. Looking around here it looks like you have a whole lot of content.
We are a small press though… what we do is produce about a book a year and some pdf supplements, but we put a lot of work and care into Eclipse Phase. And we make sure that it is a good product. We aren’t selling D&D or Paizo levels of stuff, but we do well. We are profitable and we fill a niche in the RPG market
Was Eclipse Phase your idea?
It was our idea [Brian gestures over at Adam Jury, one of the co-creators of Eclipse Phase] and was based on another idea we had…
What was your impetus for making Eclipse Phase?
We [Brian Cross and Adam Jury] had both worked on Shadowrun and he [Adam] used to actually be the line developer for Shadowrun. Eclipse Phase original started as a pitch to Catalyst Game Labs, well actually at that time FanPro, to do a Shadowrun that was much further in the future. They [FanPro] were not that interested.
[That is when] we started developing Eclipse Phase as its own thing. At that point we realized that we were no longer wedded to a whole bunch of Shadowrun tropes, so we were able to bring in a lot of the science fiction elements that we really liked… we brought in science fiction elements from guys like Charlie Stross and Corey Doctorow.
There are a lot political elements in Eclipse Phase too. One of the central conflicts of the game is between the capitalist inner system and the anarchist outer system. The anarchists are basically smaller enclaves of self sufficient communities, where everything is done based off of reputation and building consensus.
Eclipse Phase sounds like a game you designed just for me! You guys obviously put a lot of real life intellectual work into designing the game. Did you feel like there was a community out there that was really going to “get” Eclipse Phase.
Yes and yes. So Steve Jackson Games had done a GURPS supplement called Transhuman Space, which was done very well. People loved Transhuman Space, but the complaint was that they [the players] did not know what to do. There are a lot of “crazy” things to do in the future, but really? What do you do with that? What Eclipse Phase brought to [the ideas behind Transhuman Space] is… and I think one of our strengths is building a world. We built a world that feels lived in and gives players something to do.
[In Eclipse Phase] humanity has suffered this crisis–an apocalypse–and you are on the side of those trying to help humanity rebuild and not kill each other because of the struggles that develop when you bring large groups of people together with disagreements. That is your mission. You are an existential threat handler. So that hook alone, and the game world, was enough to get people involved…
It seems like you did the lore and world development for Eclipse Phase first and then built the game system?
[Laughing] the game system was something where we thought we literally need something that is going to work and isn’t going to get in the way. And so [what we ended up with] is a percentile skill based system. It is very light weight…
It is similar to Call of Cthulhu. It is a “blackjack” mechanic. You want to roll as close to your skill as possible without going over on a scale of 1 to 100. Most skills are around 40 to 50, so you have a decent chance and then modifiers after that.
So how does Eclipse Phase play? Is it more character driven than other games?
It is more storytellerish. We do have a light roleplay push mechanic where characters have motivations and they get pushed to keep being involved. It gives the influence, bonuses, and the ability to help push narrative direction. So it has those elements in it, but when we started working on Eclipse Phase it was 2002 or 2003… most of it [Eclipse Phase] was in place before the real push in indie story games.
What were your influences in terms of other games when you were making Eclipse Phase?
Obviously Shadowrun [chuckles]… Transhuman Spaceshad, Call of Cthulhu… we knew a lot of these people. Some of them we worked with. Dungeons & Dragons was not an influence except in the sense that it was the thing that got us into gaming.
I think Dungeons & Dragons served that function for most of us who got into tabletop RPGs as children…
[Laughing] Well… no not everybody. You will find a couple people who didn’t start with Dungeons & Dragons… particularly for some of the younger gamers it will be some other things. And even for some of the old school gamers it will be stuff like… TORG.
I actually just talked to the Tunnels & Trolls guys. I remembered those games from my dad. I was kind of shocked to see them here honestly. Not because I thought there was anything wrong with Tunnels & Trolls, but because I figured games like that died out when my dad stopped buying their stuff.
Speaking of those old games, there is certainly a palpable resurgence of “old school” games with clones of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and new games like Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game becoming popular.
Yeah. The “retro” clones.
What do you think about this resurgence of “olds school” games?
Its good. It is that nostalgia… I mean [look at] Dungeon World. It just won [an award] for best new rules and it is basically a really brutal take on original Dungeons & Dragons where you have really crappy scores and hordes of monsters.
It’s like “screw your roleplay.” This is what these games were… [the characters] don’t have a personality, you are just trying to kill the monster and take his treasure. It [Dungeon World] does that, but it also brings a modern flavor to it. If you get a chance I’d say check it out. It is really a kind of unique game.
Forgive me for dwelling on this, but I find the whole “retro” gaming trend fascinating. What do you think is behind it? A lot of the people who seem to be in to these “old school” games are people like my [college undergraduate] students. There is no way they were around for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition. Why are they suddenly so taken by these older games?
I think that these old games still have their appeal… [and] for older gamers they never lost their appea… [The retro games are] also hard, so it has ramped up difficulty and then you [younger gamers] can see what all of the “old timers” liked about those older games. And it replicates that quintessential gaming experience, which is sitting around the table and bitching about how crappy you are and how much more powerful you wish you were.
I mean you can play games where your character is basically a god. White Wolf has all of those.
[laughing] Like Exalted…
[laughing] Exalted being the primary offender there, yeah. But… [players] want that variety, because in the case with older games it doesn’t sound like much. You suck and you are going to get beat down by a monster, and probably won’t survive. In videogames it is the same thing with titles like Dark Souls. [In tabletop RPGs] the hook is the group and the bonding experience.
Well there is something to be said for a game where there is a very real possibility that your character will die. I remember the first Advanced Dungeons & Dragons campaign I ever played in–an 8 month campaign–the highest level character was 3rd level. So it really made the characters who got to actually level up in that game a treasure.
We recorded an interview with Roleplaying Public Radio the other night and they were asking us: “what was your first game?” I told them about how it took me 2 years before I finally realized there were levels [in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons] beyond 4. And Jack [Graham], who isn’t here, was talking about… 1982, his first character [in a tabletop roleplaying game] ever that was brutally killed on his very first adventure. [Jack Graham] said he still holds a grudge for that character. It is just that thing. It is that sort of childhood playing experience some people are trying to recapture and some people who did not have it and want to know what it is like [want to experience].
For some people that all sounds horrible, but for others they really want to try it out.
Bringing this back to Eclipse Phase: there is no death at all?
[chuckles] There is no death, BUT you lose sanity. So there are two things. If you are backing your mind up there are two ways that you can come back. You can be brought back by a little piece of hardware in your head that records your memories, experiences and your consciousness and if that happens your character remembers dying. That’s a traumatic experience that erodes your sanity.
[Either that] or, and this is where the existential stuff comes in, if that little machine is destroyed when you die you are backed up from the last time you paid your insurance. That may have been months ago, so then you will have to figure out what has happened to you in those intervening months. And you, as a conscious entity have to deal with the fact that for you, passage of time has been nothing, but you’ve been brought back and just back into a life that’s not quite yours.
Eclipse Phase first written in 2002, so I know this probably did not influence you, but that insurance thing sounds a lot like Eve Online. In that game if your “pod” is destroyed you can lose skill points, and that really does add to the feeling that your character has something to lose, even if they can come back from death.
It gives you that extra motivation. We call it lack [in Eclipse Phase]. It is that lack of time that you don’t remember living… and because your consciousness is digital, there is a very real possibility that there is another you out there. Maybe your insurer just jumped the gun, and heard that you had died when you hadn’t and then made another you and you are going to run into [that] other you out there.
Most games do not have that issue: who owns your stuff when there are two of you? Which one is the more authentic you?
Is there an original “biological” basis for the characters in Eclipse Phase? The original organic “you” whose consciousness was uploaded in the first place?
For most people, no. Not anymore. This is because of the catastrophe that wiped out a large amount of humanity. And most of those who survived did so by having their consciousness uploaded and then dumped into whatever was at hand in terms of bodies.
We are really iffy on the time[line] because we do not want to specify how far in the future Eclipse Phase actually is, but there are certainly people [in this world] who have been alive for 200 years at this point. The technology was developed a few decades before the catastrophe, so some of them are tired of living. Then there are the people who believe that everyone who is alive now and not in their original birth body is essentially a zombie or a ghost, and not a real person… and refuses to have anything to do with them.
I don’t know how familiar you are with the debates surrounding biological conservatism and cloning, but there are people like Leon Kass… who believes strongly that there is a material soul that cannot be replicated, and that if we were to clone a human being it would be a soulless dead thing… so how does [this type of belief] mesh with the new technologies that lead people to believe that software emulations of themselves is the real deal.
That brings up things like, what happens when you move into another body and your other body is shut off? Are you killing a thing? Or are you just erasing data.
Right. And in what sense are you really the same thing as that other consciousness you are now shutting off.
Exactly. And it gets into the idea of the Ship of Theseus….
If you take away the planks of a ship one at a time and replace them, at what point is it not the same ship anymore…
Exactly. How much can you take away and still have the same material thing.
From an intellectual point of view Eclipse Phase sounds fantastic. I’m not exaggerating when I say I am finding this fascinating.
You sound like you really a someone who really appreciates how Eclipse Phase tries to tackle these philosophical concepts…
And you don’t really do that often in a lot of roleplaying games. We have put up entire campaigns that our fans have run about these issues. About… who am I? Who is the real me? What does it mean to be me? And it is awesome to see that from our fans… people who are willing to talk about the nature of reality…
Brian, you are touching a bit on the community that surrounds and supports Eclipse Phase. Can you tell me a bit what your community is like?
I would say vocal… [at this point Adam Jury joined the conversation]
Our community is sweet… there are a good portion of them who… have a high level of interest in anything that relates to the setting. Literally one of the people who helps us proof read… is a rocket scientist.
There is a guy that works at NASA that helps us out a lot too
We have experts in every imaginable field who are constantly giving us input
A lot of our players are experts in their own fields and they bring that in to the community and the game
It really does sound like a perfect game for me… [laughing]
[laughing] So yes, our fan base is very cool and they like in-depth discussion about a lot of things and obviously the mind/body/spirit discussions are ever going [on our forums]
We see Peter Singer come up a lot because we have the idea of uplifted animals–what does it mean to take something that does not have the intelligence of a human and then raising it to our level? What is the relationship between the person who has done that, and the thing that has been raised?
Well, here is another thing that… helped us establish our nerd cred. Everything we release is released under a creative commons. Everything. So [Eclipse Phase] is free to download, it is free to share, it is free to modify… as long as you do not charge someone else for what you make.
One way we look at it is that… [releasing our work under creative commons] means that if we were ever to disappear the game would keep going. And if someone were to buy us out, like if we all died and someone came in and bought our game, everything that is out already is already out there and the fans have it forever.
The one [question] we get most often from other game companies is “are you insane? You are leaving sales on the floor.” Eclipse Phase is a small game. 3/4ths of the entire company is standing in front of you right now. There are 3 of us, and we just added a fourth person. And I have a day job. I am a professor at Webster University… I work on this [Eclipse Phase] in my spare time. We only have one fulltime guy.
We do not have the marketing heft of bigger companies so we give our game away for free, and if people like it they understand that the only way they are going to get more of it is by supporting us. The deal we make with our fans is the same deal that I make with my students. We are going to make you a pretty good product and you are going to support us if you want more of it. If you don’t want more of it, well that’s… on us
Do you find you are influenced by what people do with Eclipse Phase?
Yeah, and we’ve got a really good relationship with our fan base… to the point where our most recent book, which we kickstarted–which is one way we engage with our fans–we asked for $14,000 to produce it. Our fans gave us $120,000.
Thanks. To be honest having that kind of support from our fans can be overwhelming , but you know a lot of the authors and contributors to… [Eclipse Phase] are fans. They are people who have been playing the game and giving us suggestions and saying “here is what you can do to improve it [Eclipse Phase]. And our response is, prove it! Give us 2,000 words on how to make [our] hacking [mechanic] better. Give us 5,000 words on what it like to play an uplift character and the philosophical, ethical and moral issues involved in that.
And they gave us things, and we put them in[to Eclipse Phase] as a way of saying, hey look you engaged with us so we are going to engage with you and give you what you are asking for… and you will go buy it because it is what you have been asking for.
We do not yet. There has always been some kind of engagement with the idea of that, but we haven’t run out of things to write about just setting up the Eclipse Phase world… we started [writing about]… the sun and moved outward from that building up the universe… So far people have been happy to see the new stuff about the world as it exists.
Also [you have to keep in mind] that some people don’t want… [a metaplot]. They want a world that they have control of. So it can be a divisive thing. Shadowrun [on the other hand] was built for… [having an ongoing storyline].
I was just over talking to the guys at the Catalyst Games Lab booth and they were telling me that it gets kind of hard trying to keep up with a living storyline…
There has got to be away around this though where you are moving forward a major earthshaking plot in a way lets the characters be the hero, but it doesn’t require the buy in of entirely different sourcebooks. Like a series of linked adventures. So that… I think if we had our druthers that is how we would want to do it. Though it is tricky to do that because to do a series of linked adventures, economically has some issues attached to it.
What kind of things do you guys do… I am currently living in San Diego and I’m trying to think if I’ve seen your books…
I would hope so. What kind of places… let me think. Is there still a WAR store over by… in El Cajon?
Well there is… well no. You know that these days gaming retail…
There was that nice one [game retailer] down in… not Normal Heights, but Hillcrest?
[There is also Vilanous Lair Games, that I did not bring up in the conversation, but no way I am leaving them out of the article].
I did my undergrad in San Diego. I haven’t been there since basically 2000.
Well that is where I am from. My wife and I were up in Irvine and my Dad and Stepmom are in San Diego. And after we had our baby Irvine was just a little too far away… so that’s how we ended up back in San Diego.
Well, you are at the part of the degree where you don’t need to be on campus all the time.
Except when I have to teach.
Well they are giving you TA gigs I guess that’s good.
[laughing] Well, we will see. When I started they told me 5 years of funding but no problem if you need more. Then about 4 years into the degree that all changed.
Well I lived through the reign of terror of… [top secret] where they told us basically, 5 years and you are out or nothing.
Well that is basically what we are going through now. We are told all we need is 5 years, but you know… some of us are theorists. Median time to degree for theory students [in Political Science] is 7 years… If only I just crunched numbers!
Were you at the [Gen Con] panel we did earlier about gaming and education? All we got I think were high school teachers who wanted to know how to get games… [through the high school] curriculum approval process. We don’t know that, but we can tell you how to use games to teach game theory or an animation design class.
No, we are working on that. I think that’s only because comic books as a locus of academic interest has more history… games are just starting. Mostly it is because of video games…
Getting back to Eclipse Phase before I stop bothering you… you guys worked on Shadowrun. What I’d like to know is what games did you play for fun? Eclipse Phase has the storyteller stuff going on. Were you in to the old White Wolf stuff?
Wraith gets a lot of underserved hate…
It was hard! What it was asking out of the players was incredibly difficult for a lot of gamers at the time.
Yeah, I mean what the expected out of characters was a lot more abstract, whereas Werewolf it was like, “just go around and kill shit!” And Vampire was more like, “yes, kill stuff. But do it elegantly.”
I think both of those games were just a little before their time, because nowadays you have a lot of successful beautiful high concept narrative games …
I agree. Besides the “old school” trend in tabletop RPGs the other trend seems to be narrative games.
Right. And I think it really just took time for that kind of audience to develop a bit. And when Wraith and Changeling came out the gaming community just was not there yet; However, both of those games had a big impact on a whole lot of game design. I talk to a lot of game makers who say, “yeah, I loved Changeling! My group never wanted to play it, but I still have the books and dozens of pages dog eared.”