The Undead in 'Eclipse Phase'

by Lev Lafayette

Death and Damage in Most RPGs

Death of a character in most RPGs is a very significant event. The countless numbers of first level Dungeons and Dragons characters, savaged by an orc, goblin, or even particularly a particularly nasty house-cat in some cases, is a testimony for a game which was not only heavily combat-orientated, but also one which started such characters with but a handful of hit points An interesting exception in first edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons was the Ranger - with maximum constitution and maximum die rolls, they could start with 26 hit points! But of course, this is an exception.

This dramatic moment did not change in games that had less of a combat orientation. In investigative-horror games like Call of Cthulhu character demise is often dramatic and sudden. Poor Scouts in Traveller were famous for facing their demise even before the start of play. As character gained in ability, it was usually of a primary motivation to provide some sort of protection for the character for sudden mortality; whether it is Divine Intervention in RuneQuest, Raise Dead or Resurrection in Dungeons and Dragons and so forth.

In some cases there was a level of dissonance in the mortal experience was due to game design issues and particularly the confusion in creative agendas, a conflict between game, simulation, and narrative approaches. Character deaths could be objected to as being "not realistic" (the savage house-cat example). A game with an extensive character generation process and a sudden mortality (e.g., Cyberpunk, Rolemaster) could seriously offend the player's sense of narrative, even if it was expressed in such terms. Games like Dungeons and Dragons, interestingly, because character generation could be so quick, did not usually suffer issue as badly - first level characters typically had very little character background.

There have been numerous means to get around these issues. Games like RuneQuest and GURPS, for example, had starting characters with static but somewhat realistic starting health levels - they could take a couple of blows and still remain standing. A popular house rule allowed Dungeons and Dragons characters to start with maximun hit points at first level, which was integrated officially in latter editions of the game (with fourth edition rules providing hit points effectively as a 'per encounter' basis). GURPS, unlike it's friends in the Basic Role Playing family, also included rather extensive opportunities for unconsciousness.

Not-Dying in Eclipse Phase

All of this differs to the rather unique way that Eclipse Phase handles character mortality. Now there can be no doubt that the various forms of damage that character receive in Eclipse Phase is rather on the punishing side of the general game continuum, as it should be. The 'structural integrity' of a character's morph will typically be around the 30 to 50 point mark, and with a Wound Threshold of around 6 to 8. With standard kinetic pistol doing 2d10+4 damage (15 points average), it is quite clear that a few shots will see the destruction of the morph. Furthermore, if a character's Wound Threshold is exceeded they will start suffering cumulative damages, such as loss of abilities, knockdown, unconsciousness and so forth.

However - and this is whether things get very interesting - death is not the end in Eclipse Phase. Nearly every character has a cortical stack, a small (grape-sized) cyberware data storage backup of the character's ego, implanted at the base of the skull where the brain stem and spinal cord connect. If this is extracted, the ego can be rescued and resleeved into a new morph. If it cannot be retrieved, the character can still be re-instantiated and re-sleeved from an archived backup. Backups are inexpensive and quick, so it is very unusual for a character not to have a backup. Only in the rare situation where a character has no backup and their morph and the cortical stack is destroyed do they face death as we know it, assuming that they don't have an alpha fork of themselves in operation (or, in the classic introductory adventure, 'Ego Hunter', several beta forks).

In part this provides a very handy in-game justification for characters having a 'save point' between difficult scenarios, and especially with the morph insurance provided by Firewall, the almost invariable sponsorsing organisation in most Eclipse Phase stories. The provision of this capacity is justified as an in-game simulation so the effects avoid a sense of contrivance. Plus there is useful challenge of players having to be attentive of meta-gaming issues, such as their realisation of certain events occuring, but their characters being ignorant, as they are the result of a backup.

In summary, the character's morphological body can change, and the ego retains a sort of graduated continuity through backups and forks, resulting in a situation where the traditional binary relationship that we've familiar with 'dead' and 'not dead' becomes more of a Bayesian situation of degrees 'so in what manner is the character *partially* dead'. To say the least this does need to some interesting narrative possibilities and intriguing character developments which both challenges the player and their association with their characters. Over time, players become more interested in ensuring the integrity of their character's ego and increasingly treat their morphs as an expensive item of equipment, satisfying a core thematic consideration of the setting.

What the Fork?

A core technology in Eclipse Phase is the capacity to make a copy of a brain to a digital form and then for that digital image to be copied elsewhere. As explained this allows for characters to change their physical form, or morph, although some bodily forms are somewhat more difficult psychically than others. In addition, an ego image can be copied into multiple morphs - a process known as forking. Which, as you can imagine has all sorts of interesting problems in its own right.

Forks come in different levels. An Alpha fork is an exact copy (memories, abilities) of the original ego created from biomorph brains using an ego bridge and uploaded. Beta forks are partial copies of the ego, that have been subject to "neural pruning", resulting in a somewhat reduced skillset, and reduced memories from the original. Delta forks are extremely limited copies of an ego, that have been subject to significant neural pruning. They are often considered more like an AI template that have some of the ego's surface personality traits. There are also Gamma forks, also known as vapors, the results of massively incomplete, corrupted, or heavily damaged copies of an ego. Rarely intentionally created they are usually the results of botched uploads, scrambled backups, incomplete or jammed farcasts, or infomorphs or other forks that were massively damaged.

Legally, Alpha forks are pretty much prohibited in most of transhuman space. Beta forks are typically considered property as are Gammas of the original ego. In a mirror effect of the degrees of death that a character experiences in Eclipse Phase there is also the matter of characters being partially alive. The degree to which they are conscious creatures is a matter of some debate and therefore a matter of story exploration. Sure, all the reports say that the Gamma forks are simply echoes of a once conscious mind, but that distress signal seems very convincing, who is really to say that there is not some someone - no matter how fragmented of mind - still suffering behind that plea for help?

The reverse case can be even more difficult; an Alpha may decide that it is an equal (and it is), deserving of equal if not exclusive rights over a character's life. Beta forks, who are for all intents and purposes, the character with a some somewhat spotty memories and slight cognitive impairments, may also be be arguing for at least better recognition that being treated as just property. If a number of them come together (such as in the scenario "Ego Hunter") they may even ask to be merged and upgraded to the equivalent of a primary ego.


If the ability to save a character's ego at various points in time or even create duplicates or semi-deplicates seems enticing, there is the thematic challenge of continuity. It is disconcerting enough that a cortical stack or backup image can be added into a new morph, which is part of the reason why sometimes problems can arise from the resleeving process. Is the same mind in a different body the same character? Is the backup image a clone or the same character? What happens to the character's idenity when it is forked? As these questions are raised it becomes increasingly evident that a character's ego independence is both contextually bound and yet also in a continuum. The core rulebook makes the very pertenient claim:

"Perhaps the biggest shock that strikes most resleeving characters is the loss of continuity of self. This is particularly true for characters who died. If their cortical stack was retrieved, they will remember their own death. If they were restored from an archived backup, they will not remember their death, but they will have lost an entire period of their life—all the way back to their last backup. In fact, if their body was not recovered, they may not even know that they are dead for certain—there may be a surviving copy of themselves out there. The driving point in this loss of continuity is a sort of existential crisis—they are no longer the original person they once were. This leads some to question whether they are who they think they are, or are they some poor imitation and not a real person at all?" p272

An "eclipse phase" is defined as the period of time between when a cell is infected by a virus and when the virus appears within the cell and transforms it. During this period, the cell does not appear to be infected, but it is. It may be added, in a slightly differ it can be considered that even for all intents and purposes a character appears to be alive, but as soon as continuity issues creep in, they're actually not just someone different, but rather have become undead.