This Signal Kills Fascists. Repeat the Signal.
Sigmata is a gold-seller at DriveThruRPG, a Judge’s award at the Bamfsies (Best Superhero RPGs) and now an ENnie nomination.
I find it a hard RPG to review because I think expectations get in the way.
You’re already expecting a good game with an award line up like that. You’ve just paid $20 for the PDF or $45 for the print on demand hardback at DriveThruRPG and when you flick through all 330+ pages what you’ll probably see are big clumps of text, single columns like you’re reading an essay (or some anarchists rant) and very few illustrations. You might well be disappointed.
There’s also the politics. Now, Sigmata is not an oversimplified black and white of the heroic Resistance versus the corrupt Regime. There are factions within the Resistance which you’ll hate. Author Chad Walker put them in there on purpose. The great betrayal, when one Resistance faction is strong enough to push for control of American and get it, is inevitable too, and that will be dark, brutal and messing. I suspect the fact that Sigmata is set in an America in which the powers-at-be have swung so far to the right that they’re now considered fascist might hit too close to home for some gamers. Or the game triggers an “I don’t want politics at the table” reaction from others.
I loved it, though.
Hell yeah, let good story games reflect the real-life issues we actually have to do deal with and still be escapism. I think Sigmata finds that balance.
Let’s kick Nazi butt.
A clever and innovative game
While the game looks and reads like an essay at times, it is actually a ruthlessly simple system. Your characters have four stats (four core processors) and they are Aggression, Guile, Judgement, and Valor. They have skill libraries and a few augmentations, and that’s it.
Health? Nope. Over-powered superpowers? Nope.
Sigmata may be one of the most carefully balanced super games I’ve ever played. Depending on the scene you’re working through the counters in use are called something else, but you’re effectively taking action (or inaction) to try and take control of the momentum. Characters and baddies are knocked out of the scene one the momentum tally stacks too far against them. It’s only a 0-10 scale, and each trained opponent generally adds 3 points against you. It would be easy for them to gang up and knock your character out.
You do play a superhero Resistance fighter in Sigmata. It may not be obvious at first to people looking at you, but you’ve become a strange cyborg.
Your powers need two things to work; enough momentum (in the right shape and size) and the signal. With your abilities, each one represented as 80s techno-talk, you can hugely swing the course of the scene around. Those 3 points trained operatives can levy are nothing to you when you’re in full swing. Nor are attack helicopters.
But you do need that signal up.
That’s an old school radio signal. It’s a signal that brave resistance fighters and perhaps the occasional supportive member of the public are boosting with repeaters and transmitters hidden on water towers and on escape routes.
That’s a signal being broadcast like pirate radio from an old abandoned school. You know the Regime will be there in minutes, you know the resistance fighters who set it up will probably be caught and shot on the spot, but those few minutes of transmission will be enough for you and your fellow Receivers to get the job done.
That’s why the signal kills fascists. That’s why you should repeat the signal.
In those few parts of America where the Resistance has some sway, the signal is broadcast often and healthy. Most of the time, though, the signal is only up for a short while and at a high cost. Once again; it’s about momentum.
So, what’s not to like? Let’s talk about the big blocks of text. It turns out that they’re all good, easy to read and add value. They don’t make scanning for rules easy. If I were to rerun this game, I would make my own cheat sheet of the core mechanics. I think it’ll fit entirely behind my little GM screen. PDF bookmarks would help.
I’ve mixed feelings about the narration rules too. I think Sigmata gets it right, but I know new groups will struggle with it. If a PC succeeds on their turn and swings momentum in their favour when they get to narrate what happens; with their PC, with other player’s PCs, with NPCs and even with the whole world. If they decide carloads of Resistance fighters turn up to help out, then that’s what happens.
It’s crystal clear. If your PC scored successes, then narrate that victory, don’t ask permission, just go for it.
Except when it’s wrong. It turns out players can’t ignore the theme of the game and can’t railroad other PCs (or rather, can be politely asked to re-narrate a scene).
Overall, I think I’m in favour of this, but that’s because I will play Sigmata with players I trust. I’m not sure I trust myself, though, the urge to wend in helpful little foreshadowing, tactical hooks, or bait for the GM to pick up and chew on, would be very high with me. I think you could have an NPC do pretty much anything throughout a few flashbacks to build up motivation and layer in a few baby steps towards whatever ultimate u-turn you wanted them to do. But perhaps that’s fine with the spirit of Sigmata.
I mentioned the lack of art… but that’s not entirely true. You can see plenty of great pictures in this review. What Sigmata does is save art for full-colour chapter separators. There are impactful images, and I like this.
It’s easy to see why Sigmata made such an impact with so many people. It tries new things and gets them very right. The simple mechanics, the superhero balance and the momentum counters (in all their names – especially exposure) are brilliant.
It’s also easy to see why some gamers would drop it like a cold stone.
I’m a fan, though. It gets the cybernetic thumbs up of Resistance from me. I’ll repeat the signal.
You can pick Sigmata – This Signal Kills Fascists up at DriveThruRPG.
Have you played Sigmata – This Signal Kills Fascists? What did you think of the game? This review is part of Superhero Week which means you can pop onto this teleport link and vanish off over to another random superhero-themed article.