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SIGMATA: This Signal Kills Fascists
Publisher: Land of NOP LLC
by Donald G. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 08/01/2018 17:02:06

This Signal Kills Fascists. Beautifully simple title that gets right to the point, and yet Sigmata is very quick to point out that if you just keep taking the violent options in the pursuit of your American Insurgency, you lose.

So what is Sigmata. I feel Chad Walker's overview at the beginning of this book does a great job of laying that out over the course of several paragraphs, but I'll try to pick the one quote that stood out to me:

"SIGMATA is a table-top roleplaying game about repeating a signal at all costs."

That, to me, is the heart of this game. It is a game about desperate struggle against overhwelming odds. It is a game about communication and how the battle of words means just as much as the battle of bodies. It is a game where sacrifice is commonplace, where ideals die and are reborn, where the most epic thing your campaign entails may be just flipping a literal switch: the buildup to and fallout from that simple action is the most nailbiting, intense, and emotional core of this game.

Sigmata, as the product description points out, is about being a Cybernetic Revolutionary in an Alternate History 1986 America. Long story short, a certain Senator Joseph McCarthy manages to win a primary and then an election, becoming the American President. While his presidency fails, his ideas (such as the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the notion of the 'Interior Threat') live on. The fear and paranoia of the Cold War, the omnipresent threat of nuclear annihilation, the rising strife in America as racial, gender, and other civil movements get under way in the Post-War world, it all contributes to the American government becoming more and more radicalized towards Fascism in the name of Security. Rising to fight this decidedly Un-American regime is The Resistance: a loose coalition of wildly different peoples who may only have a common enemy and not much else to bind them together, but hey. That's enough in this case.

The Players star as Receivers: the Radio-powered cyborg super-soldiers of The Resistance, marked by the mysterious Signal. The Signal is an FM Broadcast that rewrites DNA, turning flesh to steel, arteries to power lines, and muscles to blade server modules. It marks those it affects, hence our title: Sigmata. The Signal Stigmata. These Receivers are going to be hunted by the government, feared by those around them, and outcast or killed quickly, but when around other Receivers they can control their appearance, blend in better, and, most importantly, master their usage of The Signal to do amazing things. Receivers are pure Cyberpunk Fantasy at its best: their bodies can be upgraded with new, physical parts to heighten their abilities. When the Signal is being broadcast, they can become literal iron juggernaughts, ghosts in the machine, or just shoot Cyclops-style laser beams from their mouths if that's more your style. As a normal person in the Fascist Dictatorship of 1986, you, by yourself, may not be able to make much of a difference. As a Signal-empowered Receiver, you ARE the difference in a seemingly hopeless war.

Make no mistake, Sigmata is absolutely a game about politics. The game isn't called "This Signal Kills Fascists" because the author is a huge Woody Guthrie and William Gibson fan (although he might be, I don't know his life). The game deep dives into explaining how fascist governments operate and how they systematically oppress "unwanted" groups, citing from real events and history often. It shows how such governments can come to be, and how different parts of societies will react to their rise. It also explains the game's premise of "Ethical Insurgency" (Thoroughly researched with many, many sources cited, very nice to see) - the concept of not just fighting the enemy but winning hearts and minds at the same time. This is not a game of going around and executing law enforcement officers or assassinating hated political figures: The game has a mechanic that will HEAVILY punish you if that's your idea of the American Insurgency. The Resistance has no time or place for vengeance, rampant idealism, or absolute pacifism: just as Resistance Fighters are knocking the walls down on Concentration Camps, they are also hosting protest marches and helping to repair and rebuild damaged areas of America. One of my favorite sections very heavily implies that Resistance agents that steal personal property in the name of fighting The Regime will find themselves reimbursing the unfortunate victims of insurgency-based theft. You're not here just to cybernetically punch fascists: you're here to convince the office worker, the forklift operator, the record label producer, and the farmer why The Regime has no vested interest in their growth, development, or protection. Sometimes that means waylaying and attacking military convoys headed to "pacify" a peaceful protest. Sometimes that means community outreach and distributing food supplies to quarantined areas. Essentially, there's a lot of Revolution to go around and not all of it is done from the business end of a .45

Mechanically, Sigmata uses a system I, personally, have never seen before, but one I'm coming to enjoy. The system only ever uses d6s and d10s, and you will always roll 5 dice for everything you do. Depending upon your abilities (Core Processes) and certain bonuses (from Receiver special features or meaningful items), you will end up rolling more d10s and d6s, where a 6 on a die is a success and a 1 on a die is a botch that removes successes. Sigmata itself is played over 3 different types of scenes: Combat, which may be an all-out firefight in a Regime secret bunker or a tense and drawn-out sniper duel in the Ozarks, Evasion, which could be sneaking and fleecing your way into a Regime-loyal corporate HQ or fleeing as fast as you can from your raided Resistance Base with dogs, foot troops, and helicopter gunships hot on your tail, and Intrigue, which can be meeting a possible defector at an underground punk show or trying to lead a peaceful demonstration against a new Regime policy. These play out like Missions, essentially: the players get told their goal, the GM sets the scene, and then the players use their skills and special abilities to achieve said goal. Anything outside of these major scenes are under the umbrella of Free Play: open roleplay scenes where, if rolls are needed, they are usually resolved quickly and simply. At first I wasn't exactly keen on such structured play, but for the setting and story it's trying to tell, it makes sense: You are members of a paramilitary organization. You are getting orders from above to carry out. You have mission assignments, strategic and tactical goals, and you're constantly trying to stop the Regime from achieveing theirs. It all flows quite nicely: there's no complicated math or mechanics to deal with and all 3 major types of scenes mechanically work the same. Using The Signal to lift an APC and throw it through a wall uses the same exact mechanic as easing tensions at a checkpoint to avoid being searched too thoroughly for that floppy disk you have hidden away. There's nothing like D&D where magic users are basically operating on a completely different playing field than their mundane counterparts, or Shadowrun where Deckers have an entirely separate world to deal with than their fellow Runners. You want to do a thing, you just describe it, roll it, and resolve it.

In terms of resolving it, Sigmata emphasizes player-control over the stories as well. Rolling very well allows the Player to dictate more of what is going on, while rolling poorly means the GM gets the majority of the narrative power. Now, of course, this comes with all sorts of stipulations: a player on a good roll cannot just immediately start declaring things that clash with the setting and tone of the game, but they ARE given a pretty liberal amount of freedom. One of my favorite examples is that on a good roll, a player could possibly provide a quick flashback to a bit of setup their character did prior to the mission to show why they are succeeding so well at the current juncture. In this way, Sigmata has a pretty cinematic feel to it: there's just enough crunch to optimize and theorycraft your Receiver if you're into that, but in practice the game definitely feels like it's supposed to be a movie or a tv series writ large.

Another good mechanical aspect is how everyone, no matter how they built their character, is useful in all situations. There are no "purely combat" or "purely Face" characters: everyone has some sort of competency in every type of scene. It has to do with the way the system handles Approaches: HOW you want to do something is more important than just saying "I'm going to roll this plus this." As a very quick example, one of the main stats (Core Processes) is "Valor": a measure of physical strenght, empathy, and a committment to the team. In Combat, a High Valor allows you to better protect your allies by laying down covering fire or distracting enemies. In Evasion Scenes, High Valor may come across as creating a distraction for an ally to slip by unnoticed or taking point to guide your teammates through a set of searched lights and barbed wire. In Intrigue Scenes, High Valor allows you to break the building tension during a traffic stop or convince a potential ally that the Resistance is not their enemies: the Regime is, and always has been. In each structured part of play, Valor, and the other 3 stats (Aggression, Guile, and Judgment), all have their roles and uses, but they are all USEFUL, which is a nice change of pace. For too long have I not enjoyed being encouraged to sit out of negotations because I wasn't playing a High Charisma character, or cringing when a forced stealth section came up and I, of course, had not put a single point into Sneak. In this way, Sigmata shares some design philosophy with other games that I love (7th Sea stands out from a mechanical standpoint), and I appreciate what the design is trying to do.

So why fight Fascists in Alt-1986? Why deal with heavy themes such as unethical mass incarceration and deportation, the removal of civil protections and liberties, the threat and possible execution of genocide? Why explore the concepts of Ethical Insurgency, of how a popular movement can get its message out when it is being shouted down, of how violence can be both a tool and a liability when fighting against literal government-backed genocide, of how peoples with wildly different ideologies such as Socialists and Libertarians would have to find a way to cooperate in the face of Blatant Fascism?

Yes, some people are going to say that this is "too real". It hits "too close to home". Others are going to laugh at this and call it "bandwagon propaganda". They'll say it's "virtue signaling". I will be the first to say that Sigmata is not for everyone, and that is coming from someone who is 100% behind the team's intentions with this book. Some people may disagree with its message, others may agree with it so much that they feel uncomfortable exploring such subjects via dice and roleplay. The author and co. fully admit in their book that they, too, were and are uncomfortable by the things they had to explore to create this product. It IS uncomfortable. Reading this brought up a lot of questions to me and they are questions that I don't have ready answers for, and some answers that I'm not entirely okay with the fact that I have.

But I also feel that's why it's important. I am a huge proponent of the idea that art, and roleplaying specifically, are how we vicariously experience things to grow and better develop as people. I am a Hetero Cis White Male. I am exactly what most gaming companies and media in general are aiming for when they talk about their target audience. I have never experienced anything near the sheer level of fear and dread that the Alternate History of Sigmata explores, but that's coming from the perspective of someone who is not intimately exposed to the issues this game delves heavily in to.

By taking on the role of Receiver, Revolutionary, Outcast, by exploring what it means to ally with those I, personally, politically disagree with for a cause we both fight for even if we seek different results, by creating a scenario in which it is impossible to not choose a side because the Regime's tragedies are so large and so widespread that there is no way to avoid them.

It also forces me, the GM. The Player. To not avoid them either. To take a second or third look at the dystopian world of the American Insurgency and then, when the dice are put away and my fellow players have gone home for the night, to think of how our shared experiences at the table relate to what is going on today. Sigmata does not at all try and avoid that. It does not hide what it is. It is uncomfortable. It is brutal. It is steeped in what has absolutely happened before in our world and what can easily happen again.

Sigmata is not for everyone. But I still encourage you to pick it up for yourself. To see what it means to join hands with what you THINK is villainy in order to fight what is TRULY reprehnsible. To experience how a movement gains traction, and how to both put a stop to one while amplifying another. To give names and voices to the desperate, the sacrifical, the hungry and the wild. To remember that in the end, tyranny and despotism are not stopped by Cyborg Superheroes but by millions of people all chanting the same message, louder and louder.

This Signal Kills Fascists. Repeat The Signal.

[5 of 5 Stars!]
SIGMATA: This Signal Kills Fascists
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