The game SIGMATA popped up on my radar a while back and the tagline caught my eye: “This Signal Kills Facists.” Maybe it’s the news, but the idea of a game about a determined Resistance fighting against a totalitarian vision of America really struck a chord with me. The game was headed up by Chad Walker, writer of Cryptomancer, and before entering a book I thought this could be some amazingly cathartic roleplaying or a hollow mess of punching “Nazis” in the face with little substance. Which did it end up being? Read on and find out.
Every campaign world is involved so let’s just admit up front that this will be a quick overview of SIGMATA‘s setting. In a nutshell, SIGMATA is a vision of America where Joseph McCarthy not only rants unchecked in the Senate but successfully runs for president instead of Nixon in the 1960 election. He serves one term but manages to screw things up domestically and abroad (*chills*) so that the US is embroiled in proxy wars against the Soviet Union for decades.
The secret threat of communists and homosexuals in our very midst is a winning platform through the next thirty years and America slipped further and further into an intolerant, autocratic, fascist state. The armed forces and law enforcement are united into an enforcement arm of a police state, foreign nationals (documented and undocumented) are rounded up into internment camps, and “loyal” Americans are encouraged to inform on and assault their “traitorous” neighbors.
It’s a bad scene all around, but many different groups in this alternate-history 1986 are determined to reverse things. The American Resistance tries to undermine the government’s stranglehold for various reasons: some are libertarians, some are legitimately socialist, some are religious radicals, some are wealthy globalists, but all want to see the border walls and internment camps torn down. That’s where you come in.
Who You’re Playing
Now on to the player characters in this game. Just who are you portraying? The blurb on DriveThruRPG says that you’re “Receivers, the superheroic vanguard of the Resistance, who possess incredible powers when in range of FM radio towers emitting a mysterious number sequence called ‘The Signal.'”
Let’s break that down. Receivers are specialized fighters who are on the front lines of the Resistance against the facist government. There are a lot of people in the Resistance but Receievers are the elite squads that deal with the most dangerous situations. They do this because they have training but also because they have incredible powers like mental influence, shooting lasers, immense strength, and chameleon camouflage. You only get these powers, though, when you’re within range of the Resistance’s pirated radio Signal. Why? Because you’re a goddamn robot.
You weren’t always a robot. You used to be a normal person, maybe even someone who wanted nothing to do with the Resistance. This Signal affects some people, though, and in a moment of EM-blasting seizure they will be overcome and transformed into a synthetic being, a Receiver. Your very existence is a threat to the fascist state and something felt by any other Receivers in the area so then it’s a race to see which side will get the new Receiver on their side for this ideological war.
What You’re Doing
So when you’re a Receiver, what do you actually do for the Resistance? The short answer is “Whatever needs to be done” but the longer answer is that there are three particular sorts of missions that your Receiver will be undertaking: Combat, Evasion, and Intrigue. While narratively different, the gameplay of these three mission types mostly works same way. The GM sets the scene and sets some threats up, the players respond with their approaches and rolls, then you narrate the results, and then you start a new round.
The threats are all different in each case (enemy combatants in a Combat mission, alarms and security measures in Evasion) and the specific Ops that you can try are different too (more on that later) so they certainly feel like different mission types. The big impact, though, is how this affects the Regime and how it affects the Resistance. Every time you finish a mission there will be impacts on the Regime’s goals and your Receivers will gain or lose favor with some of the Resistance factions. This all depends on how things went so there’s a freeform, narrative aspect to this step in the process but there are whole tables to help interpret and plan. It’s a tactical game on both sides, which I think emulates the setting really well.
Which brings us to: what are the actual mechanics here? So far, this game resembles a Fate game or a Powered by the Apocalypse game and there are definite similarities. However, it’s not really either of those systems and rather runs on something that the authors call the “Quad-Core Processor.” That’s not an in-game term, it’s what you use to make rolls.
The core processors in the Quad-Core Processor are four stats that determine your Receiver’s abilities. Aggression is your combat stat but also how extroverted you are; Guile is your cunning but also hand-eye coordination; Judgement is your intelligence, awareness, and passion; and Valor is physical strength and social conviction. To make a check, you roll a pool of five dice and always five dice. You gather a d10 (“core die”) for each point you have in the relevant core processor and you pick up d6s (“entropy dice”) to get your pool up to five. You roll the lot and look for a 6+ on the results while avoiding 1s because they cancel out successes. Obviously it’s a lot easier to roll a 6 or higher on a d10 but you could just as easily get successes on your entropy dice only to be let down by your core dice. Nothing is guaranteed.
This is a quick and exciting dice mechanic with little in the way of calculation so I’m a fan. You always determine success in the same way (again, as with Fate or PbtA) where no net successes is a just-barely-failed result, a positive number of successes is an increasingly good result, and negative net successes is a worse and worse failure. You roll different sorts of Ops on each of the three mission types listed above (there are four Ops for each mission, each keyed to one of the core processors) so it’s very easy to figure out what to do. Your Ops aren’t individual tasks either, they’re more like overall plans so you roll to see if you successfully infiltrate the building not whether you pick a lock, then whether you scale the side, etc.
Also in the “that’s easy and makes the game run quickly” category is exposure. You don’t have hit points and you don’t have a social track (there are favor tracks for Resistance factions and overall conflict tracks but you know what I mean). Whether you’re fighting fascist soldiers (Combat), trying to sneak people out of an internment camp (Evasion), or launching a propaganda campaign against the Regime (Intrigue) you’ll be measuring your “damage” as exposure.
What happens when your exposure increases depends on the scene (Receivers might be hurt or killed, Regime reinforcements might arrive, your cover might be blown) but I love the idea of mixing and matching these so that you get into a firefight, then try to sneak into a government office, and you carry that risk and danger with you. I also love the style of play where things are tactical and nuanced but the story moves forward at a breakneck pace.
I have two major critiques of this product. The first is the price tag. It’s 331 pages on DriveThruRPG and the pdf is $25 so that’s just a little on the expensive side. However, if you were to get the standard hardcover edition then that’s $70! For reference, the D&D 5e Player’s Handbook is 320 pages and the suggested retail price is $50 (though of course you can get it on Amazon for about half that). I realize that this is a nice-looking book and that the authors aren’t working at a multimedia giant like Wizards but… that’s pricey.
That brings me to the other criticism. The aesthetics of SIGMATA are good and the game system is fast and narrative while still being original. However, the book itself is not very intuitively set up. Flipping through, I found it very difficult to find things and there are no summaries so wading into the world and mechanics of SIGMATA is pretty difficult. Hopefully from this review you can tell that I found the setting and characters compelling in the end, but I don’t relish the task of teaching this game to new players or trying to find a particular reference in the middle of a game session. If the authors were to do another edition or future products, I would say some summary tables and a prewritten elevator pitch at the beginning would really improve the playability of SIGMATA.
There are a lot of games out there that are somewhat like SIGMATA. You can fight corrupt governments as superpowered warriors in Extreme Earth and you can superpunch fascists in the face in Godlike. You can fight against a corporate state in Headspace, The Sprawl, Shadowrun (of course), Blue Planet and many others, and often you do so with crazy powers. On the other hand, you can live through a crazy version of the 80s in Tales From the Loop and Kids on Bikes, and you can even do it with superpowers in Unmasked. However, there isn’t anything exactly like this and SIGMATA offers something that those other games can’t at all.
While there are powerful protagonists with superpowers, this isn’t really a superhero game. Your characters aren’t heroes really, they’re desperate freedom fighters trying to fix their country and do some good. One section I didn’t really cover in detail was the Ethical Insurgency chapter which lists, among other things, the three rules that Resistance fighters are supposed to adhere to. These are not attacking non-combatants, not forcing the public to give you things, and not committing war crimes. They list these things because they are likely to come up in the game. This is a dark game about fighting a dark regime and not losing yourself in the process, even though you are something distinctly inhuman.
If that sort of grey morality with a high dose of the lethal appeals to you then you should definitely check out SIGMATA. If it doesn’t but you’re still into some of the other games listed above, then the quality worldbuilding and game tips that the authors have written in SIGMATA can also easily be used for that purpose too. SIGMATA is a nice-looking game but it is a very specific sort of storytelling so be forewarned.