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SIGMATA: This Signal Kills Fascists
Publisher: Land of NOP LLC
by Christopher L. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 08/20/2018 11:25:14

Short version: excellent fast-paced game for playing rebels fighting a totalitarian government alongside hated allies. Definitely not a general RPG, and definitely not tame on subject matter. Extremely political in themes.

Now the long version:

Recent political events have brought fascism, Nazism and other serious topics into the forefront of modern society. So it was only a matter of time before fiction and games started to hit what is culturally relevant for this time.

Sigmata is a tabletop game of anti-fascist politics and insurgent strategy. Taking place in an alternate universe 1980s, the United States has taken anti-communist paranoia and American jingoism to its natural conclusion, and transformed into a totalitarian state where "un-American" behavior is a crime, and minorities of all stripes keep their heads down in fear of a police state that takes joy in their suffering. From there the setting takes a fantastic twist. A government experiment called Project Sigmata succeeded at creating the Signal; a pseudo-supernatural data pattern that, when transmitted via radio waves, can transform select electronic devices and human beings into supernaturally-powered metal components and cyborg superhumans respectively. Now hunted by the Regime trying to exploit your existence or hide it from the public, you have little choice but to join the Resistance that hopes to topple the government in revolution and restore freedom to the nation.

First I'll talk about the mechanics of the game, then the central element of the setting; the so-called "Signal". One interesting thing to note is that the game mechanics operate on two scales: the tactically-scaled "Operating System" which acts as the core mechanics of the game during play, and the strategically-scaled (and aptly-named) Strategic Phase that monitors the progress of the campaign overall.

The core system of the game is an interesting one, as it combines high-level abstraction with narrative-driven resolution mechanics. The fundamental dice roll of the game (much like it's predecessor Cryptomancer) is a pool of five dice: a number of d10s equal to the "Core" (the name for this game's attributes) you are using, along with an amount of d6s to bring your total pool to 5. All rolls of 6 or higher are considered a success, while all rolls of 1 are botches which subtract a success. If the net total exceeds 0 (which isn't particularly hard), you have succeeded to some degree. If the result is negative or 0, you have failed. Of interesting note is that the pool itself cannot be modified by factors external to your Cores; modifiers may affect the final result, but these all take place after you roll. Ultimately this gives the game a decent simplicity, as there's no need to remember pool adjustments. Instead, various character powers and traits positively affect your result after the dice land, allowing you to ignore botches, double the successes of 10s, add free successes, or any number of other benefits. All this comes at the caveat that you must work the implant (known as Blades), superpower (known as Subroutines), skill, memory or equipment into the narrative description of your success. And true to newer game trends, narrative control falls either entirely on the player if they succeed, or entirely on the GM if they fail.

Of interesting note is the flow of play in the game. To simplify work for the GM, they make no rolls and track no attributes. Instead, the GM adds a fixed quantity of exposure (the game's analog of hit points) depending on the scene type (evasion, combat or intrigue) and degree of opposition faced. Then the players use their turns to respond or negate those effects with their actions. Exposure is capped at 10, and if any PC's exposure remains at 10 at the end of a round (as in after every player has taken an action and just before the GM takes his next move), they are taken out of the scene in some way... captured, injured, whatever. Players may get a second wind and jump back into the fight with an action called Rebooting, but that character then spends the rest of that scene and the next one at risk of being permanently removed from the campaign. Thus, PC death effectively rests in the hands of the players, and its up to them at any point whether or not they wish to risk it. That so much of the tactical play rests in the hands of the players not only reduces the workload that sits on the GM's shoulders, it alleviates GMs of many of the common complaints that players often have... whether it be that they have too many good rolls, or that they're being too lethal.

The strategic ops of the game are interesting in that they have broader mechanics that the players have indirect control of, and provide gauges and scores that help the players understand the status of the war effort. This makes the effects of the campaign very visible to players in an obvious and readable way, rather than relying solely on the descriptive talents of the GM running the game. Another neat feature is that players choose their missions rather than GMs (with the exception of choosing what the Regime does in each Strategic Phase, which still happens at the GM's behest). The play structure of the game lends itself well to improv missions rather than pregenerated or designed ones. GM's mostly need to set the scene and define objectives, while the players will largely control events from there. It makes for a very comfy game behind the screen, and a fast-flowing and frenetic game on the other side.

One thing I'm learning very recently is that the structure of the game lends itself well to play-by-post. Since players retain narrative control on successes (and they will succeed on most rolls), and the game's explicit use of exposure and progress trackers, it's pretty easy to let the players take most of the reins during play and just sit back to watch the madness happen. So long as their descriptions don't contradict the trackers and mechanics (they don't declare an NPC dead that hasn't hit max exposure, or don't claim a bonus they didn't work into their narration), they're fine and need little babysitting. And if you're playing on a forum or asynchronously in a chat, that's a godsend for easy play.

Now we'll talk about the force that creates the game's namesake: the Signal. Land of NOP's previous game Cryptomancer utilized metaphor to teach infosec concepts to laymen, turning fun and fantasy into educational symbology. The developer continued this idea with the Signal, a metaphorical superpower-creating radio signal that represents the information feeds and internet connections that sustained rebellions during the Arab Spring, or were suppressed to topple similar rebellions in China. Much like in these real world rebellions, the existence of the Signal and retention of the feed puts the Regime in a weakened position and forces them to remain on the defensive; when the Signal goes down, the Regime becomes free to crack down hard, with the player characters becoming powerless used as a metaphor for when media blackouts give tyrannies liberty to use excessive force and violence to smother resistance.

This, combined with the strategic elements of the game, is intended to teach players the complexities of managing a contemporary rebellion, and why revolutionaries often ally themselves with unsavory folks. In many ways, it's a contemporary take on the plot of Star Wars (complete with seemingly supernatural powers and cyborgs) which does not shy away from the gruesome aspects of rebellion and paint the rebels as saints and martyrs. You'll be allied with religious fanatics, self-serving businessmen, disgruntled war vets and Soviet apologists... and you have to figure out for youselves how you stick to your ethics while preventing your revolution from falling apart at the seams.

Trust me, after a game of this you'll fully understand why the Founding Fathers joined up with slavers, French nobles and German mercenaries.

Now this game might not prove enjoyable for everyone. The book is chock full of trigger warnings, and for good reason. This game deals with racism, sexism, bigotry of all sorts, and especially fascists and Nazis. If these topics bother you either because you are offended by things that address them directly, or because you think these are things that are exaggerated too much in modern society, you will not enjoy this game. The writer clearly does not see Nazis as a harmless presence, but an imminent threat to modern society that he is trying to warn you about the dangers of. It does not pretend to be apolitical, and it does not pretend to have no agenda. This is entertainment for education's sake, not entertainment's sake... and at no point does it claim otherwise. You have been warned, and the book will warn you again.

Overall I think the game does a fantastic job at its goal, which is to portray an ugly emulation of revolutionary politics. If you want to play a lighthearted game of good vs evil, this won't be it. To that end, the mechanics are wrapped tight around its premise, so this game could in no way portray things outside a revolution. I wouldn't recommend it if you wanted to play any other thing, regardless of whether it's a supers game, cyberpunk game, or even an anachronistic 80s game. Admittedly, it wouldn't be hard to make adjustments to the specific genre of the game... making blades into magic artifacts and subroutines into spells would be a simple way to convert this into a fantasy setting... but the themes are ingrained so it will still be a game about revolution against a totalitarian state. And towards that purpose this game is excellent and highly recommended.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
SIGMATA: This Signal Kills Fascists
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Worlds in Peril
Publisher: Samjoko Publishing
by A customer [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 11/27/2016 16:11:51

I've been looking for a good superhero RPG based on the Apocalypse World engine. Luckily, there have been quite a few in the past couple of years, with this and Masks releasing. I've only gotten a chance to try this game out very recently, but I have to say that I'm sad that I missed the opportunity to play this sooner.

I'm going to skip the discussion of the Apocalypse World Engine proper. You can read any review of Dungeon World or Apocalypse World itself to get that. What I will say is that the moves for Worlds in Peril are pretty tight. Push is an awesome way to further develop your powers in play, as commonly occurs in superhero stories. And you can see from the way the moves are structured that the writer was taking a direct page from Apocalypse World itself... Takedown and Seize Control are not just reminiscent of Go Aggro and Seize by Force, I'd argue that they are more concisely written than the first edition versions of those moves. The only move I have complaints with is Aid or Interfere, but I'll get to that later.

The biggest spot this game shines is in how powers are handled. The Power Profile is one of the best ways that any supers game has handled superpowers, period. It's far more flexible than Masks, and much more narrative and less restrictive than games like ICONS and Mutants and Masterminds. That powers continue to expand during play thanks to the Push move is awesome. The four categories of Simple, Difficult, Borderline and Possible go a long way to defining what is and isn't easy through your character's abilities. Impossible defines hard limits to your power. This is great, because it emphasizes what makes the Engine so wonderful; description is often more important than numbers are.

Drives and Origins are a neat replacement for the playbooks that other PbtA games have, and they work out really nicely. Drives replace character advancement mechanics from other games by making so that your characters motives, and how they push to fulfill those motives, give them the means to increase in power elsewhere. Advancement seems a bit slow in this game (as you need to be moving towards resolution of your drive moves to gain Achievements; nothing for failure, using a highlighted move, or any of the other sort of things that might gain you experience in other such games), but since powers develop naturally through the Push move anyways, it's not so debilitating... your character still matures, just not as broadly.

Conditions are also a great way to detail injury in a superhero game, and I'm glad that Worlds in Peril used them. They're much more flexible than the tag-based damage system from Masks, and such flexibility is necessary when dealing with truly bizarre supers concepts; an undead hero probably won't be as hampered by a broken arm as Spider-Man would, for example... so it would make sense that one character's minor condition might be another's moderate or critical condition. This was my favorite part of Venture City, and it works just as great here.

Now the bad part: Bonds.

Bonds in other games tend to portray something about your character in relation to other characters. Apocalypse World's Hx represents how much your character knows another character; bonds in Dungeon World represent debts or motives your character wishes to resolve in regards to another character; strings in Monsterhearts represents emotional leverage your character has on another character, and so on. All such things represent something about YOUR character, in relation to another one.

Bonds in Worlds in Peril represent another character's feelings about your character, and this inversion of the relationship complicates the game needlessly for multiple reasons. The obvious being that players at my table often were confused about the values on their sheet; it was very counterintuitive that they had to reference someone else's character sheet in order to find out whether they liked that character or not. They would often find themselves almost acting out of character and aiding someone they apparently detested, and not realizing it until the other player pointed it out. Furthermore, Aid and Interfere's effectiveness is entirely based on whether the character likes you, not whether you like the character. One superhero can easily help a character he detests, as long as that character is in love with them. In the opposite, you'll have a hard time assisting someone you love if they can't stand you. All in all, this very much detracted from play. I ended up having to houserule out the Bond mechanics and steal Hero Points from M&M and Hx rules from AW to fill the gap.

One last problem I had was not with the game itself, but one of the documents: the epub version of the book has a CSS glitch that makes it unreadable on my mobile device. The CC version of the epub works fine, it only seems to be problematic on the final version.

Overall, Worlds in Peril is an amazing supers game with some excellent game mechanics and a rich structure for superhero play. The one mechanic I found not to work does not reduce this in the least, as it would be a shame to skip past the amazing Power Profile mechanic, or the Drives and Origins. Hopefully there will be a second edition, or a major revision to the game to address this. That said, don't be afraid to give this game a chance.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Worlds in Peril
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Dungeon World
Publisher: Burning Wheel
by Chris L. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 06/19/2013 10:18:14

Fast, fluid, and simple to play, Dungeon World is an interesting take on the dungeon crawl genre. Having almost enough elements of the Most Popular RPG to be called a "retroclone", Dungeon World takes a left turn when it replaces the core engine of the traditional d20 game with Apocalypse World's mechanics. The result is an interesting hybrid that gives you much of the best of both worlds, with only a few of the faults.

Apocalypse World's engine is wonderful for it's quick and simple character creation and advancement, it's extremely solid move-based core mechanic, simple NPC design, easy and friendly structure of game plot, and the shared narrative structure of world creation where the setting starts sparse and gets richer as both the MC (or DM) and players add to it. Dungeon World does a great job of taking these elements, and melding them with the D&D atmosphere that old-fashion gamers will love. The classes that are presented are archetypal, and the use of one-sheet characters is absolutely excellent, being exponentially easier for newcomers to try this game as opposed to an actual Edition of D&D. The game-bogging mechanic of initiative has been axed, instead allowing players and DMs to determine pacing for themselves... which seems confusing but turns out to be very fluid and fun (especially since the game is designed so that the DM will rarely if ever roll). Lastly, the use of tags simplifies both rule management and tactical play, grinding down the usual exact measurements that D&D required during movement and action down to descriptive terms that define range, effects and a whole lot more.

Unfortunately, it does fail at points. While we are all used to the traditional six attributes of D&D, they almost seem forced into the design structure of Dungeon World, and at times don't feel like they fit well. An extreme lack of uses for attributes like Charisma and Wisdom, though in the vain of recent iterations of D&D, are a weakness for the game even if it is homage. Polyhedral damage dice almost seem like a forced mechanic (as Apocalypse World was lauded for only requiring the easily-accessible d6), and the game would have been better served with fixed damage from attacks or the use of d6s rather than using this holdover. Spellcasters still have an excessive amount of power if prepared the right way, and even sometimes have a tendency to run out of spells less often than they did in D&D, making them in many ways more dangerous. More so to the point, the Defy Danger mechanic (an Apocalypse World-styled replacement for saving throws) is terribly explained and organized, leaving many playgroups assuming that these rolls will occur all the time throughout the game.

These failings don't detract much from the experience, and most of them are just as rampant in various iterations of D&D that the sheer number of improvements leave it still a refreshing and great experience.

The game tries to be a complete and full panoply of options for playgroups, but it doesn't always fulfill that role. Some character options alluded to in the book (like compendium classes) are completely absent, leaving you to make them yourself or find some other product with them in it. I don't mind this to an extent, but it still would have been nice to get at least a small set of samples of this concept, rather than just a reference on what they are and how they are made. Hopefully this is just a sign that this book is the start of something, and definitely something good.

All in all, I highly recommend Dungeon World. It injects new life and ideas into a roleplaying genre that is over 40 years old, and does so while still paying deep homage to its roots. Grab yourself a pile of dice, a character sheet, and get into the game!



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Dungeon World
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