Repeating the Signal: A SIGMATA Review

By Anthony “LibrariaNPC” DeMinico, 08 August 2018


I came for the 1980s Dystopian Cyberpunk, and I left with learning something new.

Chad Walker’s newest game, SIGMATA: This Signal Kills Fascists, brings is a game that revolves around a tough to approach topic that both educates and entertains. Like his previous game, Cryptomancer, we find a game that is used to teach about a topic that is tough to approach while also giving the framework for a game to explore that topic.

While Cryptomancer focused on the issues of cybersecurity and the importance of it, SIGMATA brings us a topic shown in very few other games: how freedom fighters communicate and take down a fascist regime.

Writer’s Note: SIGMATA is a game that requires its own Trigger Warnings due to discussions of violence, rape, homosexuality, blind patriotism, fascism, and a slew of uncomfortable topics, political and otherwise. This review will be an objective view of a roleplaying game and it’s setting.

==The Pitch==

The year is 1986. In an America where Joseph McCarthey became president for one disastrous term, the policies and mentality that he presented caused a ripple effect that changed the way of life for anyone that could have been the target of the Red Scare.

Now, years later, the police and military are blended into one unit called the Freedom Fist, and the American people are the enemy. The rules of the world are simple: work, pay taxes, have kids, don’t question the government, obey the rules. Of course, people who are “different” don’t have it so easy; immigrants and people of color are being blamed for the country’s problems, sexual deviancy is a tool to sow seeds of dissension, and unmarried women who speak against having kids are all suspect. Inflammatory policies that remove human rights win terms in office, and everyone is suspect, doubly so with the Cold War still ongoing.

And that’s where our heroes step in. You play a Receiver, a human that has been “gifted” with what is called the Sigmata. When you are exposed to a specific type of signal, you gain powers the stuff of legends are made of; you become bulletproof, you can throw an APC with ease, or any number of near mythical capabilities.

This is the story of your fight. Repeat the signal.

==What You Get==

SIGMATA is currently available as a PDF on DriveThruRPG. As a PDF, it weighs in at 331 pages, which is a full 100 pages less than Chad’s previous game, Cryptomancer.

Within these pages, we are given a setting in the form of an Alternative Universe America, one in which a fascist regime has come to power, while being presented with the core mechanic and it’s various permutations.

Mechanically speaking, we have a fat-trimmed version of Cryptomancer, one that removes the awkward equipment mechanics and completely guts the traditional “health” system while giving players four actions (literally) within three different scene types.

Setting-wise, it feels like a cross of Shadowrun (dystopian cyberpunk), Grey Ranks (RPG; play as an insurgency group in Poland against the Nazis), 1984 (novel; the wars never ended, all must have faith in the government, the government knows everything), Brave New World (RPG; superheroes are ostracized after the death of Jacqueline Kennedy and must either fight with or against the government), and even Marvel’s Civil War storyline (comic, film, and RPG; heroes go underground to fight against laws they deem unjust).

As a combination of the two, we are given resources and information to assist with the game; the COIN Tracker (think reputation mechanic), notes about similar anti-fascist movements (specifically focusing on the events of Arab Spring), and everything you need to understand about how a regime like this comes to power (allusions to pre-WWII Germany, for example).

All of this is crammed in a 330 page book.

==The Good==

No lie, this game is quite the step up from Cryptomancer, and it would be a disservice to not specify that.

For starters, while the game uses the same core mechanic (five dice, Attribute in d10s, rest in d6s), it’s much cleaner overall. You only need one success to “succeed”, but more never hurts (and actually count toward whatever it is you are doing). Unless you have a Subroutine (special power), your choices for actions are restricted to four regardless of scene (an “attack,” a “defense,” a “cover”, and a “reckless attack”), which greatly assists those who deal with decision paralysis over the course of a game session.

And it’s not nearly as complex as this autopsy report shows!

The book also has a step up in the art department. Unlike its predecessor, SIGMATA opts for full-color artwork, and the sporadic bits of art are fitting; usually in the form of advertisements, newspaper clippings, and propaganda posters. It is still a little sparse compared to other RPGs at similar price points, though.

From a setting perspective, like Cryptomancer, I found the book to be well researched while not feeling like a pile of propaganda or an educational tool that was ramming facts into my brain at full speed. It makes direct references to events that have occurred in world history, how specific organizations functioned, how they succeeded (and failed), and then finds a way to wrap it all into a mechanical system that works.

Granted, some people may feel that it is propaganda, but they would probably feel the same way about any art that speaks of world issues (and would avoid the aforementioned works that have overlap, such as 1984 or the RPG Brave New World), especially if they are as timely as SIGMATA. There’s a lesson to be learned in this book if you are willing to look at it as a reflection of the time it was written, and I hope that gamers of the future look back on this and say the same.

Finally, I have to talk about the Subroutines. Most games fall apart once superpowers are introduced. They often skew too drastically to those with power, and make the game almost unplayable when powers get thrown around. Not so in SIGMATA. Instead of powers breaking the game, there’s a set of requirements that must be met first (Signal must be active and a Critical Success must be rolled), and even when they are met, the powers are often short lived because of the narrative. In fact, there are some foes that you need powers to even take out, and at end game, your opponents start to have powers of their own.

In the end, SIGMATA probably handles powers in one of the most balanced ways I’ve seen in an RPG, and I enjoy that thoroughly.

==The Bad==

Like Cryptomancer, I have a few concerns about SIGMATA and, regretfully, some of them are going to be repeats from that review.

The one that is different is, honestly, the price tag. SIGMATA is currently $24.95 for a 330 page PDF. The book is in color, but it is light on art (two pages per chapter opening), with erratically placed art (with it being clustered in set parts, usually an additional 1-2 pages per chapter), and the work as a whole doesn’t feel like it flows as well as it should. That pricetag is a bit of a turnoff, as that same amount of money can buy quite a bit in RPG materials (like Zweihander twice over with money to spare, or a 20th Anniversary Edition of a World of Darkness RPG, both being about twice as long).

In Cryptomancer, losing your character was absolutely a matter of “When, not If.” While characters are much harder to get rid of in SIGMATA (thanks to how actions are handled, powers available, and a better scaling mechanic), losing your character to death (or worse, capture and brainwashing) is bound to happen sooner rather than later. While SIGMATA has a number of ways out of it to keep you in the long-term fight, there’s still ways for an unlucky roll and/or a vindictive GM to take a PC out in one go.

Watch out! The GM is here to take you character, your gold, and all of your Sanity! Wait…which game am I running now?

The second part is, oddly enough, the setting. While we have a moderately detailed Fascist USA and a number of Resistance groups that are difficult to look at or want to willingly associate with (because this game is not one of black and white, but rather shades of gray), there’s a great deal left untouched. We are not given explanations regarding the Sigmata, how people are selected, or how they make such a drastic change because of a radio signal. It’s been stated that this is truly up to the GM to decide, but with how much else is fleshed out, it seems like a cop out to me.

The final “real” issue is the need to find the right group to run this with. I live in an area that is rather conservative, and many take offense to this game as they claim it is a stab at the current political environment and promotes dissent/terrorism/other “bad things.” As the game is also difficult to file the serial numbers off of for other styles of gameplay without rewriting large portions of the game, as you would need to rewrite new opposition, heavily modify the power mechanic/requirements, and run a game that utilizes the three types of encounters (combat, evasion, and intrigue) in a fitting manner. While it’s possible, it’s not necessarily ideal, making this a game that can be a hard sell for areas such as where I currently live.

At the end of the day, the game is very much like Cryptomancer, in that you need the right group to grasp the mindset as well as the play style that is required for the rules as written.

==The Middle==

As much as I like how the mechanic has been streamlined, I do have some issues with it. I enjoy the aforementioned speeding up options, but I’m ambivalent on the idea of every scene is basically the same type of actions. It makes the game easier to utilize when a social combat is mechanically identical to sneaking around, but I feel that there could have been additional options that were overlooked.

Additionally, I was a bit put off by near-identical paragraphs in each chapter; while some examples were re-written, the content was almost identical and I found it a bit dull with regards to reading (but understand why it all was set up that way).

I’m also on the fence about how Exposure works. Once a target (with some exceptions) has 10 or more Exposure, they are Knocked Out of the fight. They have a Reboot option (a way to come back ONCE), but otherwise it’s 10+ Exposure at the end of the turn and you’re done.

Considering that some attacks can deal up to 12 Exposure to a single target (and there are usually multiple targets dishing out Exposure), it can get pretty brutal.

But, on the flipside of that: Exposure is dealt to PCs at the beginning of the round, giving the whole party an opportunity to clear Exposure from their allies as best they can. Did the heaviest hitter just take all of the Exposure for the round? Well, a party member (or two) could spend their actions to reduce the incoming Exposure to keep the fight going.

And I don’t mean publicity type Exposure here…

It’s a mechanic I have a love/hate with. I enjoy it because it espouses teamwork, but it also has certain party expectations (having more than two players, players that like supporting one another, having someone not blitz to the end of an Evasion scene, etc).

But, as everything balances out in the end, and the Risk mechanic from Cryptomancer has been completely revamped with the COIN sheet, it does lean more towards the good, but there are some spots I’m still hung up on that keep me from putting it directly on one side of that fence.

==The Verdict==

Even after analyzing it, I have been debating about giving SIGMATA the same 3.5 buns that we saw with Cryptomancer, but because of the clear improvements made, I’m going to nudge it up to the 4 bun mark (with the ability to argue it back down when viewed as a stand-alone work).

SIGMATA is a timely written, well-researched book that shows the global political environment and applies a “What if…” to the standard comment of “That would never happen here.” It’s an easy to learn and fast to pick up game with a number of elegantly moving parts.

But, the game is considered too timely for some, and the game itself carries some of the mechanical limitations of its predecessor. While it is an improvement (thus the 4 buns), it does have a high cost for a PDF and not as much to offer for that pricetag.

To quote directly from the book, “SIGMATA attempts to both teach and gamify the concepts behind keeping a people’s resistance network alive in the face of government crackdown, informed by the events of the Arab Spring.” (pg 214). This game is a timely piece of artistic material that shoves an uncomfortable topic into light, in a way that is readily consumable and, arguably, easier to accept and utilize. It’s an education tool in the form of a game, and I absolutely respect Chad for putting the two of them together again.

If you like dark, gritty, dystopian, 80’s themed Cyberpunk, then you should absolutely pick up a copy of SIGMATA. If you don’t agree with the ideas of the book, found 1984 to be too political, or want more black-and-white with your superheroes (and less of the grays found in stories like this), then you’ll want to give this a pass.

SIGMATA: This Signal Kills Fascists is currently available as a PDF on DriveThruRPG for $24.95 as of this writing. You can learn more about the game and what inspired it on the SIGMATA Facebook page, checking Chad’s Twitter, or by reading an interview found here.

Repeat the Signal…

 


Anthony, better known as LibrariaNPC, wears many hats: librarian, gamemaster, playtester, NPC, and our Editor-In-Chief. You can support his work here.