Interview: Eclipse Phase – The anarchist RPG

For all that “nerd culture” has become hegemonic on our screens, role play games (RPGs) have remained on the fringes of that success with Dungeons and Dragons being the only truly famous example, known for its geekiness. But today’s RPGs encompass far more, spanning everything from horror and the Old West to sci-fi.

In that latter category sits Eclipse Phase. By turns utopian and dystopian, it explores themes of transhumanism, AI singularity and post-Earth scenarios. Woven into its fabric is a complex tale about an anarchist-led fight for autonomy against corporate oligarchy.

Since its award-winning launch in 2009 EP, as fans know it, has spawned a 404-page introductory work, dozens of subsidiary stories and an astonishingly dense lore. Rob Ray interviewed EP co-creator Rob Boyle for the upcoming launch of their second edition, which drew no fewer than 13,000 backers on Kickstarter and raised £142,000 — quintupling their target.

Given the radical and political nature of EP were you taken by surprise that the RPG community proved so enthusiastic?

Not necessarily, there’s a large portion of the RPG community that swings left, and quite a few that are interested in games as a way to explore sociological or political issues, especially in “indie RPG” circles. We’ve definitely attracted some attention for our openly political nature, but it’s mostly been positive. There’s a heavy right-libertarian streak in transhumanist circles, and we draw some of that crowd, so we occasionally get some flak for portraying anarchism positively.

That said, I think Eclipse Phase was well-timed with its initial release, following a wave of great transhuman fiction (Stross, MacLeod, Sterling, Morgan, etc.). It’s hard to break ground with sci-fi games, but we hit the point where cyberpunk was too synonymous with reality — it was time for the next thing.

How would you say anarchist theory has had an influence over the project? Any theorists and thinkers in particular?

I first identified as an anarcho-communist back in high school in the 1980s, and through the ’90s and beyond I was heavily involved with anarchist publishing and organising projects. EP co-creator Brian Cross also identifies as an anarchist, and he has a background as a sociology professor. We obviously injected a lot of our outlook.

If I had to highlight my specific influences I would say Murray Bookchin, for his approaches towards confederalism, technology, and social ecology, and probably the entire German autonomist/antifa movement, for its non-dogmatic approach to synthesising radical ideas. Anarchist science writer Brian Martin probably impacted some of my views on scientific responsibility.

Overall, politically, I think my ideas have been strongly shaped by the Sojourner Truth Organisation, active in the ’70s-80s, who have had a larger impact than I think most modern anarchists realise. I should probably also give a shout out to James Hughes and George Dvorsky, who helped shape and cohere the technoprogressive side of transhuman politics.

The use of extravagant homebrew high tech in anarchist zones places them as main foil to the hypercorps. Was that intended as a hub of story creation?

Definitely, we wanted to illustrate both the dangers of technology used for control but also the possible uses for liberation. So we detail how nanofabrication tech can create an almost post-scarcity situation where people are liberated from basic needs and how mesh networking, AI assistants, and real-time online polling can facilitate more cooperative and consensus-based organisational models. And, frankly, we wanted to show how capitalism aims to perpetuate cycles of work and bondage so elites can hoard wealth and power, even when it’s entirely unnecessary.

Could you run through your thinking around the anarchists being portrayed?

As anarchists, I think we’re all well aware of the difficulties of social revolution. For EP, we looked at the likelihood of future space expansion and resource exploitation and saw an opportunity there for autonomists to establish their own presence outside of capitalist control. The vast distances and time scale of space travel make it challenging to exercise dominance over remote outposts and the technologies available make it possible for autonomists to establish self-reliant colonies. So they were able to thrive and even grow without interference.

And, of course, they are an attractive safe haven for refugees, escaped indentures, and others sick of corporate exploitation. The Fall of Earth in the setting (during a war with self-aware AIs) helped to boost their populations, and also threw the forces of capitalism into disarray. By the time new capitalist powers had arisen, the autonomists were entrenched and a significant counter-power. Capitalist expansion hasn’t grown to the point where the two are forced into direct conflict yet, and given the rapid technological and societal changes, it may never get to that point.

Regarding human augmentation, how has EP tended to handle the threat that in the future, a heavily upgraded, functionally-immortal elite might eventually simply out-tech us?

We’ve taken the view that technology empowers everyone, not just the ruling elites. Yes, the elites have more resources and gain early access, but there are several mechanisms countering that. First is the cyberpunk maxim that the street makes its own uses for things, meaning that even technology deployed for purposes of control is often subverted and repurposed.

Second is that hierarchical systems of control are slow and cumbersome in relation to agile and flexible decentralised systems, which is why social-media-coordinated uprisings have led to toppled regimes and 4th-gen guerrilla warfare networks are able to mix it up with the world’s advanced militaries. And even as technology advances, we see that hierarchical systems are riddled with vulnerabilities.

And even as the elites develop advanced technologies, it’s important to remember that they do not have access to it first — the scientists, engineers, programmers, and other workers that make it do. So in Eclipse Phase we had a number of elements who have taken this corporate technology, gone rogue, and taken advantage of a space exploration resource rush to establish their own autonomous zones and then open sourcing the tech.

In EP we’ve assumed that self-improving artificial super-intelligences are more likely to appear before super-intelligent augmented humans, so that’s been made the primary threat.

An awful lot of reference points for your writing will look familiar to left-leaning sci-fi fans — David Brin, Ken Mcleod, Ghost in the Shell, Ursula Le Guin etc — but there does also seem to be a gleeful rejection of Iain M Banks in your treatment of AI. Were you taking a bit of a “give ’em as many play options as possible” approach there, or more fitting things into a balanced model?

Yeah, we absorbed a lot of different sci-fi while working on EP, so you can see a lot of influences. We were definitely working to make the setting as multi-faceted as possible, so as to provide possibilities for players with varied interests. We heavily push the default campaign angle of saving transhumanity from extinction threats, but we left the door open for dozens of other campaign styles: cyberpunk corporate espionage, shady criminal dealings, exoplanet exploration, political intrigue, virtual worlds, uplift liberation, etc. Part of this was also simply our love of world-building and extrapolating out some of the consequences and possibilities that a setting like this opens up. Transhumanism and the technologies we’re addressing are really going to shake up our society, and it’s fascinating to work out and explore the ramifications — and also important for us to do, because these may be real questions we need to face as a society some day, or may already be facing now.

I don’t think we entirely rejected Banks, though. [spoiler alert!] To go back to the Prometheans again, we included a group of ASIs that work on transhumanity’s behalf, much like the Minds in his Culture series. We just opted to keep them in the background, in part because we want to focus on the actions and motivations of the transhuman players, and give them agency, rather than being at the benevolent mercy/direction of ASIs all the time. It is certainly possible to include the types of machinations and interactions you see with Banks’ Minds in an EP game.

What did you hope for in the use of disposable bodies (sleeves) and a “humanity” essentially uploaded onto the web as a core feature of storytelling?

Well the main element here was to explore that sort of functioning immortality. For RPGs character death is a pretty big deal, and many game directors will avoid it so as not to upset players who have invested lots of time and emotional energy into their characters.

So for many players the option to come back after you die is quite novel, even if there are repercussions in the form of lost memories or remembering your death (depending on how your backup was restored). This of course has some interesting effects on gameplay — it is not uncommon for PCs to sacrifice themselves for others, for example.

The secondary aspect was to really dive into the idea of switching bodies. While for gaming purposes this means you get to treat your body as customisable gear, the whole idea of literally becoming a new person, with a potentially different sex, ethnicity, or number of limbs — or possibly a synthetic, virtual, or nonhuman body — is a really great storytelling exercise. There is just so much you can do with that.

You mention in the first edition that use of sleeves has the effect of essentially eliminating sex (indeed most biological attributes) as a discriminatory factor. Has this had any interesting feedbacks?

Yes, prejudicial notions become all the more quaint when people can take whatever form they want. My personal sense is that with other games, you often have players (usually men) who simply always stick with the same gender (usually male) when making characters.

With EP, players are much more willing to take on characters with different gender, sex, or other characteristics, and to then repeatedly change that as they go. By putting it out there in the forefront, and sometimes having it forced upon them by the game director, we definitely create a situation where players often have to think about the ramifications of body dysmorphia, and so put them in a spot where they have to think about what transgender people feel on a daily basis.

And we’ve gotten some attention from transgender sociologist Katherine Cross for that (disclosure: she has contributed to Eclipse Phase’s second edition).

Have you got any tasty teasers for what’s in store for the autonomists?

We have received some criticism that our depiction of autonomist space is sometimes “too utopian,” so in the future we’ll be focusing a bit more on some of the problems that might arise within a transhuman anarchist society, which is I think a good exercise for us as radicals.


This article first appeared in the winter edition of Freedom Journal