Review: Sigmata – This Signal Kills Fascists
Most of the time that politics and gaming cross paths the overlap is subtle; a splash of background lore here or an NPC there. This isn’t the case with Sigmata: This Signal Kills Fascists. It wears its heart on its sleeve and in its title, creating an experience that’s thrilling and chilling in equal measures.
To get any potential confusion out of the way right from the start, Sigmata seems to be a very clear response to the rise of Donald Trump’s Republican government. The villains of the piece are right-wing fascists who use the guise of moral conservatism and mumble-mouthed ‘Christian Values’ to oppress people of colour, those on the LGBTQ+ spectrum and anybody else viewed as threats to the American way of life. If this set-up irritates or annoys you then you probably won’t enjoy the game at all.
However, even then I’d still advise you to check the book out, because while Sigmata may lack much in the way of subtlety it’s core premise is terrifyingly plausible. It’s set in a version of 1980s USA where McCarthyism never flopped, leading to increasingly polarised domestic politics and – somehow – even more globe-trotting proxy wars. By 1986 the government is thoroughly despotic and the burning-petrol scent of revolution and rebellion hovers in the air.
The players are dropped into the shoes of some of these revolutionaries, and throughout their adventures they battle the forces of the government agents, shadowy security forces and occasional outbreaks of neo-Nazis. Against these many foes they need to rely on their fellow freedom-fighters, their wits and a determination to bring down the system.
Oh, and radio-transmitted superpowers. They have those too.
This is the Sigmata that the title refers to – an inscrutable power that manifests in random members of the population and is triggered by exposure to a specific radio signal. When the signal is being broadcast nearby the player characters have access to incredible powers and abilities. This allows them to pull off all manner of power-fantasy stunts that range from teleporting through phone lines to firing beams of blinding light from their eyes and mouth.
Rolling with the Revolution
This may sound as though it’s building up to a complex, crunchy, action-oriented games with an in-depth combat system, but while Sigmata certainly doesn’t shy away from battles and brawls they aren’t the main driving force. In fact, when you get it on the table it feels closer to a narrative game than a conventional D&D-esque RPG, with dice rolls and checks being heavily abstracted while players are given free rein to narrate the results as they see fit.
Virtually all your dice rolling takes place in one of the three flavours of ‘structured scene’ – combat, evasion or intrigue – and everything outside of those specific scenarios is left clear of rules and restrictions. Even when you do slot into one of structured scenes things play out in a curiously boardgame-like fashion that favours raw mechanics over any attempt to simulate the game world.
Combat scenes, for example, are all about trying to inflict ten points of ‘exposure’ to your opponents while avoiding the same fate yourself. Each enemy generates so many points depending on their rank, to be allocated as the GM sees fit, while the players are limited to four basic moves that amount to either reducing exposure for their side or inflicting it on their opponents.
Things get a bit more complex if the Signal is raised and superpowers are thrown into the mix, but most of the time battles really are that simple. There are no rules for grappling, taking cover or moving through difficult terrain, and the ‘Storm’ move works the same way whether you’re smashing a thug with a beer bottle or unloading a machine-gun into a line of troopers. You pick a move and give a rough outline of your plan, then roll the dice and narrate the consequences.
This mechanics-led approach to things may seem at odds with Sigmata’s attempt to focus on the narrative, but in practice it results in a strange sort of freedom.
By allowing the dice to dictate only the broad outcome rather than any specific moments of the battle, interrogation or car-chase, both players and GMs have full rein to let their imaginations fly. You don’t have to worry about trying for risky stunts in the middle of a firefight, because by the time you’re narrating it the dice have already been rolled and you know that you already have your success or failure in the bag.
It’s a weird system that can produce some wonderful moments when everyone at the table leans in to their roles as impromptu narrators, but on a raw gameplay level it does suffer in the face of repetition. So long as you use roughly the same number of threats a structured scene is likely to play out the same way each time, no matter where or when it takes place.
An alleyway knife-fight with thugs can be mechanically identical to a sniper duel in a bombed-out city, while gossiping your way through a corporate party is damnably similar to interrogating a band of captured spies. Once you spot this, it doesn’t take too long for things to all feel a little familiar.
Those Who Fail to Study…
To be honest the entire game sits in a strange conceptual place. It’s a heavily abstracted, story-driven system that nevertheless has plenty of powers, upgrades and enhancements to choose from. The fact that there are rules governing the impact of grenades and APCs, for example, seems almost at odds with its hand-waved approach to concepts like cover and distance.
The way around this probably involves either leaning fully into the narrative-game aspect of things and cutting out most of the crunch, or doing the opposite and building up a more comprehensive, simulationist ruleset. And if it did either of those it just wouldn’t feel like Sigmata anymore.
Yes, it’s a bit awkward. Yes, it’s built around political ideas that are going to piss some people off. Yes, it’s insists on giving the player characters l33t-5p34k handles for some goddamned reason I can’t truly fathom.
But despite all that it’s a truly impressive creation. One that deserves to be tracked down and explored, even if you’re only going to read through the book, nod along with the neat rules ideas and shudder a little at its well-realised vision of creeping despotism.
Now, go and repeat the Signal.