Thursday, February 1, 2024

(Eclipse Phase) X-Risks

X-Risks is an incredibly useful book for Eclipse Phase games - a sort of monster manual that gives you a bunch of weird creatures to shoot - that has the unfortunate side effect of landing right in the dead center of my ambivalence about the line so far.

Before we begin, let me be totally upfront about one thing - I'm the asshole here. The entire time I've owned these Eclipse Phase books, I've been using them wrong. I've been reading them as if they were, in themselves, a form of entertainment. "Ooh, Sunward is so interesting, it's taking me on a tour of the inner Solar System after the apocalypse."

But that's not what the books are actually meant for. They're really meant as a framework for me and a few friends to get together and entertain each other, by telling our own home-grown Eclipse Phase stories. And it is the disconnect between the intended function of the books and my personal use of the books that has caused me to occasionally entertain some astonishingly bad takes - "Hey, wait, this tour of the solar system has some very notable gaps . . . no, I'm not inspired to make something up to fill in those gaps, I want you to do it for me . . . well, I guess this has just been a really bad tour, then."

Of course, it's hardly a flaw for a book to give a bad tour, if its intent is to be a good rpg. And yet . . . I nonetheless find myself frustrated when a book like X-Risks gives me all setup and no punchline. The in-character section at the front of the book advanced a half dozen theories for what Project Ozma might really be. The out-of-character section at the back of the book says, "In game terms, Project Ozma is whatever antagonist the GM needs it to be."

Okay, I get it. You'll explain to me in excruciating detail how an air-lock works, but the planet-hopping espionage conspiracy organization is just something I'm going to have to figure out for myself. That's what you estimate my capabilities to be.

Although, it's a little unfair for me to pick on Eclipse Phase for doing that. What's the alternative? White Wolf-style decades-spanning metaplot that requires a studious dedication to keeping current with the supplement treadmill? That brings a whole other set of problems to the table. Besides, maybe the only reason I find the lack of answers so frustrating is because I find the questions so intriguing. Call it the Lost dilemma - season 1 is impossible to follow.

(Although, if I'm really comparing this to Lost, I do have to wonder what makes these rpg writers think I can come up with a better season 6 than what we actually got . . . maybe the theory is that nobody can, but if I'm the one doing the work, I'll at least be invested in my half-assed resolution.)

And honestly, for most of the series so far, I've been content (or, at worst, playfully discontent) with that. I got a little antsy with Gatecrashing, because the Pandora Gates had been sold as the tip of this massive iceberg and the book itself stays well above the water-line, but in general, I've been at peace with the idea that learning about the world of Eclipse Phase was going to burden me with the responsibility of filling in the gaps. 

Then X-Risks comes along and upsets the balance. Because it has all those same lacunae, but by its very nature as an antagonist book, it puts a very particular frame on these gaps - they are something to be afraid of.

And I'm not really a big fan of fear-based sci-fi. Like, obviously I'm being a bit of a brat, because Eclipse Phase has billed itself as a horror game from the original core, but I've so far been able to seamlessly apply an ideological/genre filter - the unknown can be dangerous, but that doesn't automatically make it a threat. Unfortunately, X-Risks is very clear on this matter - the unknown is definitely a threat.

It's probably the right choice for a monster manual, but maybe what I'm learning about myself is that I really didn't want an Eclipse Phase monster manual. I'm much more interested in learning about the Factors (amoeba-like aliens who disapprove of AI and Pandora Gates) as people and as a culture with a particular point of view and understandable motives, and not as a Sinister Alien Threat From Beyond. 

Likewise, if I'm the one who's writing stories about the TITANS or the ETI, then as time goes on, these villains are getting more complex, more nuanced. Maybe just as dangerous, but in a way that invites further exploration. And, at least with the TITANS, we get some of that here - learning that they have distinct code-lines, identities, and interpersonal conflicts - but I'm not sure it goes far enough. They're still fairly limited in the roles they can play in a particular story - instead of just being the superhuman threat that overwhelms humanity with unstoppable fire power, they can now also be the subtle threat that manipulates humanity for its own agenda . . . which we're not going to learn about because that's too close to actually solving a mystery.

In the end, X-Risks is more Eclipse Phase and I still really love Eclipse Phase, but this is probably the first time I've been presented with gaps I didn't want to fill in. Still, regardless of what genre or mood of story you're telling in this universe, there's probably going to come a time when you'll want to throw down with a creature and for all my disagreements with the book's theme, I can't deny that even I will probably find it useful . . . if I ever get around to experiencing this rpg correctly.

Ukss Contribution: Some people keep bioengineered mini-dinosaurs as pets. One of the examples they give is a stegosaurus. Pet mini-stegosauruses. OMG, that is a fucking dream, and a perfect example of why I could never quit this game, despite taking issue with the horror stuff.

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