Part 1

posted by mellonbread Original SA post

Zone Stalkers, Part 1

Hey everybody, let’s read Eclipse Phase: Zone Stalkers!

This is a short splatbook for Eclipse Phase, released in May of 2014. Like all the first edition Eclipse Phase books, it’s available for free on the designer’s blog. Go get it so you can read along!

Now if you know anything about Eclipse Phase, you know that it can be a difficult game to love, and even more difficult to actually run and play. But I don’t think I’m alone in really liking the treatment they gave Mars.

If you’re not familiar with the Eclipse Phase setting, the game takes place in the transhuman future, ten years after Seed AIs (the TITANs) experiencing a hard takeoff exterminated 90% of humanity (the Fall) and rendered earth uninhabitable. Mars has been labeled the new home of transhumanity by the Planetary Consortium, the main ruling body in the Inner Solar System, and is gradually being terraformed. The population is divided between glittering cyberpunk cities controlled by the hypercorporations, and a vast outback filled with farmers, nomads, and other assorted “rednecks” . The two groups don’t get along and are locked in a low level struggle for control of the planet’s future. If you’ve ever read Robinson’s Mars Trilogy it’s almost exactly like that.

From a gameplay perspective, Mars has all the main setting elements of Eclipse Phase packed into one place. Crazy morphs, communism, capitalism, nanomachines, cyberpunk cities, alien landscapes, indentured slaves, bomb throwing anarchists, killer AIs and deadly alien viruses. It allows the GM to tell all kinds of stories without getting bogged down by the things that can make Eclipse Phase a chore to run, like the omnipresent surveillance that pervades the rest of the setting.

Now that we’ve got all that out of the way, what is the TITAN Quarantine Zone?

Zone Stalkers, Page 2 posted:

Part graveyard, part dormant beast, the TITAN Quarantine Zone (TQZ) is a wide swath of Mars that was never reclaimed from the TITANs after the Fall. When the hot war phase of the Fall ended, it became evident that the war machines and exsurgents that still range free in the Zone were no longer advancing on Martian settlements or attacking in any organized way. Some thought that the leaderless monstrosities should be encircled and wiped out. Instead, war-weary transhumanity settled on a contentious policy of quarantine that continues to this day. Now the Zone is a no-man’s land, a source of sleepless nights to Planetary Consortium policy makers, and a major place of interest to Firewall— both as a target and as a source of knowledge about the TITANs and their works.
Neato! The Zone is very obviously inspired by Roadside Picnic, and the splat draws more inspiration from the novel than it does the subsequent Stalker film and game series. More on that later.

Next, we get an explanation of why the Zone is still there (the Martian government doesn’t have the power or political will to get rid of it), and where the Zone is (“a roughly triangular area with vertices running from the eastern slopes of Arsia Mons to just southwest of Olympus Mons on the Amazonis Planitia to Gale Crater, south of Elysium”). This section would have been improved by a map, but one already exists in the splat Sunward so it’s not a glaring omission. Then we get a little descriptor of the type of terrain you’re likely to encounter in the Zone.

Remember when I said this was obviously inspired by the Mars Trilogy?

Insertion and Extraction
This section summarizes the situation at the Zone border and how the Sentinels (which is what player characters are called in Eclipse Phase) would mechanically get in and out.

Now my first instinct is to make fun of this for being bloated with modifiers like the rest of Eclipse Phase. But in all honesty I think it provides a good mechanical shorthand for getting in and out of the Zone, including an interesting choice between stealth crossing the border and mobility once you’re inside the zone.

This section also gives us some detail about the Martian Rangers who patrol the Zone border. The Rangers are a Martian federal law enforcement agency with jurisdiction over the entire planet outside the cities. They’re one of my favorite parts of Mars because they provide a huge variety of character depth and diversity. A Martial can be anything from The Man With No Name to Vash the Stampede to Judge Dredd.

The rep listed indicates who each Ranger Department is most closely affiliated with. C-rep is corporations and capitalist economies, f-rep is the media, @-rep is anarchists and communists, g-rep is criminals, and i-rep is Firewall (space Delta Green, and the faction the players are assumed to work for).

There’s a brief description of how inadequate the Ranger departments are for patrolling the entire Zone border. They treat things trying to leave far more seriously than things trying to go in. If they think you’re an infection risk, they call in the big guns. The Tharsis League (the Martian federal government) has a contract with Direct Action (a ubiquitous mercenary company) to plaster anything that presents a serious breach of quarantine with a barrage of missiles.

Zone Stalkers, Page 6 posted:

Given the infection risks to the planet, the defense contractors will happily blacken a 1-kilometer radius around a target, and they have the firepower to do so.
Recall how in Roadside Picnic the border guards would shoot at you all night and day, but would never venture inside the Zone to come get you.

Finally, we get a table of travel speeds and miscellaneous rules for moving around inside the Zone.

With all this in hand, an expedition to the TITAN Quarantine Zone fulfils the same basic gaming function as a Hex Crawl in a fantasy RPG.

Which is good, because next comes Threats

Wow! Look at all those random encounters! I’m going to briefly talk about the ones I find most interesting, and that are new to the Zone Stalkers book. A lot of them are a few lines of descriptive text and instructions to reference another splat - most of the TITAN baddies are statted out in the GM section of the original Eclipse Phase corebook. If I miss something you think sounds interesting, you should crack open the book (remember the link above) and take a look yourself.

The book presents the descriptions in alphabetical order, rather than the order of the D100 table. Probably for the best.

Zone Stalkers, Page 8 posted:

A TITAN physics experiment has left an invisible field in which a powerful force or repulsion either pounds matter to the ground (50%) or hurls it into the air (50%). The point person on a team may notice the occasional streak of windborn dust being born up or down with a successful Perception Test. If they fail and bumble into it, they or their vehicle will either be tossed into the air, before flipping backward out of the zone, or will be smashed into the ground and need to be pulled free.
This anomaly is pilfered right out of Roadside Picnic. It also clues us into which translation the authors were reading. The new translation refers to a graviconcentrate as a “bug trap”, while the old version called it a “mosquito mange”.

Zone Stalkers, Page 9 posted:

A group of predator exhumans (p. 362, EP) has come to the Zone to test their strength against the exsurgents. Depending upon how badass the team looks, their reaction may range from avoidance to ambush to demanding that the team hand over one of their number and watch while the exhumans eat them alive before letting the survivors pass. If defeated or sufficiently intimidated, they may share information on the area, possibly even acting a bit fanboyish toward high-rep ultimates.
This is a fun idea, but mechanically it may prove to be a bit of a letdown. If we crack open the Eclipse Phase corebook as recommended to stat up our exhuman friends, we find that they aren’t exactly going to strike terror into the hearts of the average group. Their main attack is a bladed weapon that literally does not deal enough damage to pierce even a modest suit of body armor, melee weapons being something of a joke in Eclipse Phase. You could feed yourself to them as requested and they would gnaw on you ineffectually for hours like a man struggling to open a jar of marinara sauce. Clearly, there is room for improvement here.

Zone Stalkers, Page 9 posted:

A swarm of headhunters (p. 383, EP) appears from over a nearby ridge and dives in to attack. They’ll carry off any heads they capture to a still-active recharging bunker, outside of which lays a grisly collection of heads in various stages of decay.
Headhunters are another baddie with a fearsome reputation in-setting whose mechanical representation fails to live up to the hype. They're like the manhacks from Half Life 2, only when they kill you they lop your head off and spirit it away so your brain can be peeled and uploading. For this reason, the bunker is a nice touch.

Zone Stalkers, Page 11 posted:

This invisible, virtually undetectable zone 1d10 meters in radius transmutes matter as the matter transformation exsurgent psi sleight (p. 372, EP). Bones in biomorphs are softened to a rubbery consistency, leaving limbs passing into the zone useless. This effect cannot be resisted but can be fixed by time in a healing vat.
Another riff on Roadside Picnic. In the novel, Burbridge the Vulture steps in a pool of hell slime (or witches jelly if you’re reading the older translation) and has the bones in both feet dissolved.

Part 2

posted by mellonbread Original SA post

Zone Stalkers, Part 2

After the random encounter tables we get a section on TQZ Denizens, monsters unique to this splatbook.

Zone Stalkers, Page 12 posted:

Prior to the Fall, the TITANs experimented with ways to weaponize captured pod morphs. In one program, they scanned the central nervous systems of hundreds of Earth-based predators. They sleeved these “egos” into simulspace bodies that duplicated human pod morphs. Those that learned to control human bodies were allowed to run for millennia of subjective time, during which the TITANs tailored their environment to rapidly teach them to use their cyberbrains to full capacity. Their greatest success were the ny’knikiin: a species of voracious predators derived from mantis shrimp. Ny’knikiin can run on any transhuman-built cyberbrain. Their simulmorphs, modeled on pleasure pods, had virtual mesh inserts, so the TITANs taught them a language employing their headware radios and pheromones. Then the TITANs began talking to them. These communications were preceded by the “god scent,” a simulated burst of pheromones that prompts genitals-clutching lust and slavering hunger.

The TITANs taught the ny’knikiin to use transhuman technology to fight, to heal, to fabricate gear, and to implant cyberbrains in their newborns. The ny’knikiin’s own name for themselves means “Those who can scent God.” The Yazidis named them “ny’knikiin” after a demon in Yazidi mythology. Ny’knikiin use their cyberbrains and mesh inserts very differently from transhumans. Data structures in their cyberbrains are analogous to sensory and language centers in the human brain; these directly employ their mesh inserts to communicate.

Ny’knikiin are semi-nomadic, ranging in bands but also maintaining small domes. If they capture transhumans, they either eat them or steal their bodies. Pod cyberbrains are wiped to house a ny’knikiin ego. Biomorphs are decerebrated to make room for a ny’knikiin cyberbrain. Synths, they recycle. They’re not exsurgents and kill or exile those who contract the virus. Ny’knikiin have beautiful, doll-like features, but they trim back their lips to produce permanently bared teeth and sculpt the tongue to make it long and pointed. Their vocalizations are limited to wails and grunts made to frighten prey.

Firewall is unaware of the ny’knikiin, although once discovered, a Research Test in the Eye’s archives may turn up reports of “exsurgent-infected” pods that might have really been ny’knikiin. It’s also possible the TITANs seeded them on exoplanets.
Ever since The Oatmeal did that strip about them, people can’t get enough of Mantis Shrimp. The accelerated simspace “evolution” is a cool detail.

Zone Stalkers, Page 13 posted:

Wastewalkers are exsurgent cyborgs designed by the TITANs to fill an infantry role in ground operations. Unlike many exsurgents, they’re intelligent and employ sophisticated tactics. During the Fall, they used waves of lesser exsurgents as shock troops and indirect fire spotters while providing fire support from the rear. “Feral” wastewalkers survive without TITAN control in places like the TQZ. There they run in packs, with an alpha dominating and coordinating the others.

Wastewalkers are tall and wiry. They wear smooth, white masks that completely cover the face and may in fact be part of it. Their masks are starkly minimal, with circles for eyes, a narrow slot at the mouth, and short, horn-like protrusions that curve up from the cheek bones to one side of the eyes and end in rounded-off nubs. Their arms, legs, and fingers are elongated and spindly, with jagged protrusions at the joints that give their bodies a sketchy appearance. Wastewalker hands end in long, sharp claws. They’re covered in a hidelike, patterned, black material that might be skin or might be polymer armor. Humps high on their backs, from which several long, thin cylinders protrude vertically, house hives of fabricator and disassembler nanobots. The humps hold feedstock and nutrients and fabricate ammunition for the weapons growing from wastewalkers’ arms.

Wastewalkers communicate with each other in bursts of noisy, pulse-modulated sound, like static blasting out of a distorted speaker. The few recordings of this sound have never been decoded; linguists believe they are encrypted. Wastewalkers are known to emit signals on radio frequencies used by the TITANs, so perhaps there’s an unspoken component to this horrid language.

Post-Fall, wastewalkers are thankfully rare, but many still range the White Zone or lair in ruined habitats such as Qurain. Lacking orders from the TITANs, they’ve taken to defending the territories they’ve staked out, alternately cooperating with or hunting other exsurgent types. They still need organic nutrients, but the terraforming of Mars has helped them to survive. They’ve taken to hunting small animals, gathering vegetation, and preying on the occasional zone stalker. When not patrolling or hunting, they may sit immobile for long periods, feeding by letting their nanohives forage for raw materials.

Wastewalkers replenish their numbers by restraining transhuman victims and placing a mask on them, which quickly fuses to the face. Once masked, the new recruit metamorphoses into a wastewalker within a few days. It’s not known whether the process is reversible, nor what the result would be if an uplifted animal were masked. It is known that it works only on biomorphs; synths are immune.

Unfortunately the wastewalkers and the ny’knikiin are both quite bland mechanically - human sized enemies who use human sized tactics to shoot you with human sized guns in a human sized firefight.

Zone Stalkers, Page 14 posted:

Yazidis are a religious sect of Kurds abandoned in the TQZ during the Fall. Rather than perish, they became infected with a mutant strain of the Watts-MacLeod virus, in effect becoming exsurgents. Other exsurgents and many TITAN war machines simply ignore them. They’ve since adapted to live among the dangers of the TQZ. Laden with survival gear, they dress in ragged, desert-patterned ghillie suits purpose-built to foil the senses of TITAN warbots. Their lifestyle revolves around subsistence nanofabrication and maintaining concealed greenhouses (much like the nomads of the Martian north). Yazidi gear is unusual in that everything has access jacks. To avoid detection, they only use wireless meshes within shielded camps.

The Yazidis were already a close-knit community before the Fall, most having emigrated from Germany, but religion now occupies a central place in their lives. They revere Tawûsê Melek, the Peacock Angel, whom they believe granted their async powers to help them survive. Peacock and sun motifs are common on their clothes and gear.

Yazidis aren’t hostile. Usually they hide from outsiders. Many have been killed by the Rangers when they went too near the Zone perimeter. On occasion, they approach transhumans who go deeper into the Zone, offering to barter. A few zone stalkers are rumored to get most of their artifacts this way, but if true, the details of their arrangements with the Yazidis are well guarded.

When Yazidis do make contact, they sometimes offer visions of Tawûsê Melek to guests using the scenario sleight (p. 371, EP). Those who accept are shown the Yazidi story of the Fall, including their survival, which they attribute to the Peacock Angel and other heavenly beings. Visions last an eyeblink, but are much longer subjectively. A character who submits to a Yazidi vision must make a WIL x 2 Test. If they fail, they’re infected with the Yazidi variant of Watts-MacLeod. They gain the following traits: Psi (Level 1), Mental Disorder: Cosmic Anxiety Disorder, and Mental Disorder: [player’s choice]. They don’t initially gain any psi sleights. For each week spent living among the Yazidis and practicing their lifestyle, the character may ignore the effects of the cosmic anxiety disorder for 1 month. Because this requires a dangerous trip in and out of the TQZ, many of those infected stay with the Yazidis permanently. Finally, within the boundaries of the TITAN Quarantine Zone on Mars only, exsurgents are neutral to the character, only attacking if the character takes hostile action first. War machines only attack if “hungry” (e.g., fractals scavenging for raw materials).
Keep in mind this was all written before Yazidis started appearing in the news w/r/t all the ISIS stuff. This was back when the average person had never heard of them. The part about getting the WML virus (the psychic version of the exsurgent virus) from them and being bound to the Zone is a great plot element. It’s an excellent alternative to the Futura Project if you need to explain how your character got psychic powers.

After this comes TITAN Artifacts. These are the reason Stalkers go into the Zone in the first place.

In brief you’ve got If it seems like I’m a little disappointed with the selection, it’s because I am. There’s nothing as evocative or mysterious as something like an empty, it all seems pretty similar to things transhumans could just make themselves. This is the weakest part of the book in my opinion.

Up next, we’ve got a few Locations

There’s the Canyon of the Creepies (a canyon full of robots infected with the exsurgent virus) and the Mogura Bunkers (with nothing interesting inside). There’s a blurb about Qurain,, a pre-fall Muslim city state which happens to be the setting of Million Year Echo, one of the few published modules released for Eclipse Phase.

The most interesting location, and the one that’s given the most detail, is the White Zone. This is the center of the TQZ, where the real action happens. The White Zone has a few points of interests in it, the most interesting of which are:

Zone Stalkers, Page 18 posted:

These hexagonal grids of smoky, impact-proof glass hold the imprisoned egos of asyncs. Touching or walking on any of the panes triggers their powers— perhaps along with tortured pleas for release. A handful are found on the surface, but they’re more common below ground, where the comet strikes can’t destroy them.

Wastewalkers have carved out a town of sorts here. The town itself is several levels deep in the tunnels, but the most-used entry points are at the foot of the mensa, where comet strikes are uncommon. These entries vomit forth midden heaps of scavenged refuse stripped of useful elements. They’re surrounded by orderly grids of ramshackle buildings—an odd combination of military camp and shanty town.

The town is unknown to Firewall, and so what goes on here waits to be discovered. Why would an exsurgent species whose basic social units are packs of hunter-nanoforagers have a gathering place? Do they come here to increase their numbers through the pleasures of the breeding crabs? To wait for a sign from their silent creators? To make plans for their own place in the solar system? Is “town” even a proper description for this gathering place; might it have purposes very different from those for which transhumans build settlements?

What of the things underground? Is there any truth to the rumor of the Seethe, a massive, computationally dense pool of gray goo somehow held in confinement here? What of the thing seen in a satellite photo of the breach opened by a comet impact, controversially interpreted by one Firewall analyst as a massive, photosynthetic, grub-like organism, tended by other exsurgents in a deep chamber so that it would exhale breathable atmosphere?

The pinecone shaped objects in the background are presumably fractal barrows, one of the Zone’s distinctive terrain features.

There’s a section called FIREWALL AND OTHER GROUPS which describes the various factions and their relationship to the Zone, but it’s all stuff you could have figured out on your own. Nobody who wants the Zone destroyed has the power to do so. For now, they’re stuck observing and containing.

Part 3

posted by mellonbread Original SA post

Zone Stalkers, Part 3 (Final)

Last but not least, there’s your TQZ PLOT HOOKS

Zone Stalkers, Page 19 posted:

BioTeka, an ambitious hypercorp startup, seeks a leg up on its competition by collecting specimens from the Zone for study. A caravan of heavily armed BioTeka vehicles (mostly crasher trucks) ran the Zone perimeter and spent several weeks tracking and trapping wild artificials and exsurgents. They’ve bribed key Ranger and League officials to look the other way when they exit a few days from now. This leaves it to Firewall to prevent them returning the contraband monstrosities to BioTeka’s labs on the outskirts of Noctis-Qianjiao. Possible complications includes exsurgents escaping from the caravan en route, Ozma taking an interest, and divided loyalties for Lost Generation player characters when research reveals that the company’s young executives share their origin.

Bored rich kids have been running the Zone, doing video and XP shoots in the ruins, and sneaking back to civilization (see Death Valley AF9, p. 10). Aside from representing an infection risk, they’ve set in motion a meme that trivializes the dangers of the TQZ, breeding complacency and even dangerous copy-cats. Can a countermeme then be crafted to undo the damage they’ve done?

What should have been a routine patrol ends with a Ranger flyer wrecked in a dust storm—20 klicks inside the Zone. The Rangers are prepared to deploy a search team to its last known position, but someone high up in government has other ideas. The patrol officers saw something they shouldn’t have, and now the Rangers are being ordered to leave their comrades to their fate. Hands not quite tied, the Ranger officer calls in a marker—one with a Firewall proxy’s name on it. Firewall’s interest is only heightened by the possibility of a coverup. Can the team reach the downed Rangers in time—and keep them alive long enough to learn what they saw?

The PCs are approached with an offer from an unusual client. Several unknown organisms have been stolen from a colony of Factors visiting the solar system (they refuse to identify the exact nature of the specimens). The thieves have taken them to a lab inside the perimeter of the TQZ. Will the humans be so kind as to locate this facility and burn it thoroughly? Recovery of the missing organisms is not requested and in fact undesirable; the infection risk is too severe. Returning with the identities of the perpetrators and information as to the nature of their research is worth a bonus. Utmost discretion is, of course, required.
A bit basic, but serviceable. I’m not sure where they’re getting the idea about “divided loyalties” from. Every Lost character I’ve ever had in my games would probably have greeted their former classmates with a bullet.

And that’s all she wrote! At 19 pages, Zone Stalkers could fit in a pamphlet, but it’s far and away the most “table ready” splatbook Posthuman ever released for 1E. Eclipse Phase always had a real problem with translating the intricately detailed setting concepts and world into something actually playable, and more books like this would have gone a long way toward addressing that. I’ve actually used a lot of the stuff in here, which is more than I can say for something like Argonauts (which provides an intricately detailed summary of future university ethics procedures).

Like I said in post one, give it a read yourself and check out the other books if it tickles your fancy. It’s all Creative Commons so you’ve really got nothing to lose.