Sigmata: This Signal Kills Fascists by Hostile V
INTRODUCTIONOriginal SA post INTRODUCTION
This isn’t a promise, this isn't an active or passive or any sort of threat to do harm, this isn’t a brag, this is a simple fact of my privilege in America in 2018: if I was to kill people I could probably get away with it. They would take me alive and I'd see the inside of a jail cell for the rest of my life but there would be people who defend me. They would say I'm only a misunderstood young man who was failed by the system and radicalized by video games or the rock music or not having sex because I don't view women as people. I'd become another speculation or think-piece subject and then people would forget and I'd do the time but what would change?
If y'all are here for the game, scroll down, I just want to explain where I'm coming from with my worldview. Look for the logo and read on if you don't want to know more about me.
I’m 28, I’m cis, I’m white and I’m male. My folks live comfortably and I live with them. If I was in a substantial amount of trouble, they would help me out because god knows they’ve already helped my brother out a good deal with his own legal issues. I work a dehumanizing retail management job that doesn’t pay me what it should but I’m not in any debt because my expenses aren’t particularly huge. I’m neurotypical, I’m not outwardly disabled, I didn’t really understand I have depression until recently. Really the only thing that sets me apart from anyone else is the fact that I’m a very large man weight-wise and even then, that’s something I’m currently working on with the help of my folks. These, again, are not brags. This are empirical facts of my existence.
2016 hit me like a truck, like it did for a lot of other white people who think America is better than this (it isn’t), or that when they go low we go high (for all the good that did) or that we wouldn’t elect such a morally reprehensible man (it did). I had the luxury of not really thinking about the consequences and a lot of us are still broke-brained over that. I know my folks watch so much MSNBC I am constantly considering hijacking the child locks to limit how much of it they’ll take in because it’s all just noise and outrage and promises. I had to sit down and look at what I believe in and what I needed to change in my life. I listened to new podcasts, I finally talked to trans people, gay people, bi people, enby people and made friends with them. I stopped listening to NPR because it was making me angry all the time, I learned to limit my intake because I can’t just be Always On. I sat down to understand the tenants of socialism and hey while I may not entirely get it I now have something to believe in and think critically about. I learned to like talking with folks from other countries to discuss politics, what their systems do and what they think about ours. I learned that when all you have is nebulous hope you cling to anything, especially the belief that this was the fault of another country, especially that a big strong whistleblower will come along with a piece of killer intel and blow this entire thing wide open. Which isn’t me saying “hope is dumb and stupid for babies” just, y’know, have hope but be reasonable. You can't not have hope because the alternative is unthinkable.
But really the important thing I had to learn was that there was no set answer to resolving this. I was already aware of my privilege and how despite that I’m just a commodity to be manipulated. I had to learn about the lies in the social contracts from the people who knew the games were rigged. How the enemy isn’t a sneering Machiavellian mastermind but how they tend to be fucking selfish idiots supported by a corrupt system of capitalism and greed. How it’s okay to punch a Nazi and is in fact socially acceptable despite all the tone policing and tut-tutting.
If you’re looking for some big meaningful answer or plan well let me know if you find it, I guess. I don’t have a definite answer myself. A complete socialist reformation of the American economy along with addressing the intersectionality of feminism, people of color, gay rights (I'm using the term gay as an umbrella term), medical reform, trans rights, etc. would be pretty dang good and I’m a big believer in that. Change it all to help everyone and make us all not worry as much, let us live to live and not live to work. As for how we get to that point, shit I dunno. Political reform, maybe probably. Mass exodus of the people who can followed by an uprising of the suffering people who remain, possibly. Worst case scenario the anthropocene hits and by then it's all changed by a tidal wave. It’s probably not gonna be how Sigmata thinks it’ll shake out though.
Hi I’m Hostile V and this is my F&F of Sigmata: This Signal Kills Fascists. I guess I’m supposed to repeat the entire title every time. That tends to happen in promotional materials. Anyway, I’m doing this because as a friend phrases it I’m chronically incapable of not touching the poop and because hey this is a new hotness and it’s topical and stuff. I’m hip and trendy and in touch with the algorithms!
But in all seriousness the allure of grabbing the zeitgeist with both hands is one half of why I’m doing this. The other half is that I like to tackle something I have questions about head-on myself so I can dissect the text with my own eyes. And as someone who was interested in the Kickstarter before being gently dissuaded by my friends (and realizing I was kinda just hooked on Populist Feelings that made me interested in the work to begin with), I’ve been wondering just what the deal is this entire time.
In short Sigmata is okay. It’s a little bit forgettable, the whole Kickstarter push was the major thing that made people take interest in it and there’s a little bit of lacking pizzazz outside of that. I wouldn't be so mean as to call it, like, a tabletop version of some Washington insider's book. It is a bit of a heartbreaker in more ways than one though.
You all are mostly here for the politics, so let’s get down to that first. The politics are more than a little weird, there are some textual implications caused by the factions that the author has himself apparently admitted have been a misstep and there was an emphasis on transplanting the spirit of the Arab Spring to an alternate reality 1986 (which doesn’t entirely work). There are more further explorations of what each faction is about, the strengths they bring to the table and their shames and flaws. It’s a bit of a cop-out to say “oh the gun nuts are more nuanced than one expects!” but Sigmata is a game that is admitting it’s going for shades of grey across the board amongst the heroes and the villains. Yeah that’s right, there are some interesting politics to the people who make up the Fist who are basically what happen when you combine all of the armed forces with the police in an extreme example of militarizing the police. The banality of evil gets name-checked here as well.
So, let me just say this: if you’re really interested in seeing weird political takes, I would actually highly recommend you go back to my Brave New World review and…well, look at that. Forbeck’s political writing and takes are kind of worse than what Sigmata has to offer and it also has to offer a resistance network that uses guerilla tactics that is made up of squabbling groups with differing views including an armed militia and a religious faction. Hell, Sigmata doesn’t even really address firearm laws too much whereas BNW has “everyone is armed all the time forever and there are duels in the streets again”. So, again, if you just want how bad the politics are all the time forever, Brave New World and its dumb religious metaplot are probably more your speed. I never really set out for this to be a hate read and after having finished this entire thing I can safely say this is not a hate read. I have a pretty wide net of things I want to tackle and talk about so let’s give a brief overview of what to actually expect.
- The world building of Sigmata is a bit lacking and there’s some interesting focuses on what to include and what not to include. If you’re looking for bad alternate timelines, look elsewhere I guess, it’s not really interested in realism so much as using it as a jumping off point with suspension of disbelief to make the central concept of fash USA hang together.
- Verisimilitude is here in force except for when it isn’t. There are four small chapters on the mechanics of propaganda
- I’m super not a fan of the layout of this entire thing, it jumps back and forth between world building and historical events to mechanics to factions to the bad guys to the rest of the mechanics.
- Not a lot of art, which is legitimately disappointing! There’s a few full-page spreads of in-universe documents (TV guides and classified ads) and every chapter has a splash panel of Receivers in action or in peril or something but when it comes to smaller bits of art or quarter pages pieces, nope, not so much.
- Weird focus on internally consistent technology that I’m not entirely sure how to grasp because while the author is particularly tech-minded, I graduated with a BA in Creative Writing (for all the good that did me). Also ties into “verisimilitudinous until it isn’t”.
- I have to sit down and suss out the probabilities of this dice system, it’s creative but I need hard numbers in front of me.
- Thanks to the disjointed nature of the layout, there’s no dedicated chargen zone and sample characters don’t appear until the end of the book. Which is unfortunate, it honestly is. There are also some things that don’t really go explained and make me feel like I’m reading the wrong edition of the book.
- I really need to see the mechanics in action in some form because I’m having a hell of a time wrapping my brain around seeing them flow in the moment. It’s not particularly obtuse, there’s no HP and it becomes abstractions of pressure and danger in the moment threatening important scenes, there’s just an interesting focus on guerilla warfare and teamwork from the bones out that I need to see in motion to fully get.
Oh, and this will all be in the order presented in the book so you all can see how they try to make this flow together.
NEXT TIME: the rise of the Regime and how America got the way it did, the start of the Resistance, what the Signal does to you and what it’s like in 1986.
EVERYTHING’S FUCKED IN THE USAOriginal SA post
EVERYTHING’S FUCKED IN THE USA
No Cute Thing Here; Everything is Fucked in the USA
This will cover the first 59 pages of the book which are roughly the history of America’s descent into fascism, the rise of the rebellion, the power of the Sigmata and life in 1986. The first whole non “what is this game?” chapter is also a series of interlocking vignettes showing life in America and a Resistance operation in action. The writing is okay. There is a lot of raw emotion behind it, especially this section entitled “The Rules are Simple” which is more or less a series of snippet sentences you’d hear interspersed with “the rules are simple” and “follow the rules”. Some of these sentences are things like “pledge allegiance” or “you look like a whore in that makeup” or “these illegals breed like rats”. The intent is pretty clearly to draw a direct line between our time and the game’s time to show how things aren’t so different and to ground us in their world despite the 32-year gap. It is a piece that is clearly written with emotion and it is a damn shame that it kind of comes off as middle of the road reactionary slam poetry.
First thing’s first: this game has content warnings and I can’t fault that decision. Let’s let it speak for itself:
Content Warning posted:
SIGMATA features some troubling concepts, images, and language. Some of the uncomfortable topics explored in this text include but are not limited to misogyny, homophobia, white supremacy, religious bigotry, systemic police brutality, paramilitary death squads, genocide, armed resistance against an authoritarian government, and the strategic calculus behind acts of political violence including terrorism, torture, and tyrannicide. Some or all of this content may be particularly difficult for players because of their own experiences. Prior to beginning play, it is imperative that everyone at the table talk about their level of comfort bringing these topics into the story space and agree on some content limits. If you are not already familiar with safety tools for tabletop gaming, now would be an excellent time to look up the X-Card by John Stavropoulos and utilize it at your table.
This may just be something sticking in my head recently but I find it weird to mention the X-Card and then put the onus of education on the audience. This might just be because I saw someone else include the text of what the X-Card is in their own stupid PBTA game about 2000s gamer webcomics and I thought “oh, that’s a good addition!” But yeah expect those issues to pop up going forward. If you’re not gonna want to read further, that’s cool, I appreciate you reading this far but you should probably bounce now.
There’s also a listing of the main design principles behind Sigmata which I find interesting. The four tenants are kind of overlapping a lot but the main emphasis is on team play and minimal prep time. Every scene will have something for someone to do, every player must work together if they want to get through their troubles, everyone is collaborating on the story and lastly the GM will be able to easily create jumping-off points for their players to tackle. I will say it does succeed in these design goals and we’ll get into that with mechanics.
I’m serious when I say this game is pretty light on the alternate-timeline shenanigans. It’s a little egregious but the background is relatively secondary to the main text of “fight the government through insurgency” so I can understand why it’s a hella soft alternate timeline. Case in point: the divergence point is that Senator Joe McCarthy is not censored in 1954 and gains a stronger populist following because he’s not stopped. McCarthy runs for office in 1960, beats Nixon in the primary for the Republican party and then beats JFK in the general election. So as wildly implausible as it would be, McCarthy is the 35th president of the United States of America.
He does not get a second term.
It turns out when you’re a psychotic populist who is paranoid about Communism you’re not necessarily a good presidential candidate. McCarthy’s term as president is a shameful period of disaster and military blunders. Repeated international military interventions result in countless deaths of soldiers. Repeated failures of diplomacy that lead to skirmishes against Soviet proxy states lead to wars and future seeds of conflict that will later bloom in the late 60s, the 70s, even the 80s. The only successful thing McCarthy does is shift the Overton Window in American politics and introduces the concept of the Interior Threat. "It’s not the fault of bad leadership/bad policies/bad diplomacy/fundamental misunderstandings about the changing world, it’s the evil machinations of a Soviet/LGBTQIA/immigrant/Jewish conspiracy!" And like in the real world, the Republicans took the chance to run as far right as they possibly could with the Democrats continually trying to be increasingly right centrist.
Interestingly it’s not said if the Civil Rights movement still happens and is successful because LBJ probably never becomes President. This is what I mean: there are trucks you can drive through the alternate history but then again this never intended to have sound alt-history grounding. You don’t even know who the president of 1986 is, they’re just always referred to as The President because the Resistance doesn’t want to give them the luxury of a name or identity.
Anyway, here’s what we conclusively know happen because of the focus on the Interior Threat. First amendment rights are trampled and any journalists critical of the government are labeled foreign agitators and are imprisoned or bullied into silence by mobs. School curriculum is rewritten to focus less on world history and other countries and is replaced with propaganda about American exceptionalism and how to be a good civic participant in the glorious American system. Leftist influence is methodically crushed and discredited. The big project of the late 1970s and 1980s is systematic mass incarceration and deportation of “criminals”, immigrants and prospective immigrants. Anyone trying to come to America in 1986 isn’t even sent back like how Australia (those shameful human-rights violating motherfuckers) tries to do and is instead forced into an overcrowded internment camp for indefinite detention (like how Australia tends to do in execution). The railroads and interstates are full of trains and trucks carrying people to detention camps for use as slave labor.
The biggest project that wasn’t a gigantic human rights violation was nullifying the Posse Comitatus Act to repopulate the wildly diminished military. The US’ armed forces were completely merged with police across the nation and revisions to Title 10 of the US Code lead to expanded powers for the newly minted Freedom Fist. This was the final straw for a lot of military veterans, active soldiers, gun nuts and militiamen who were previously supportive of (or at the very least apathetic towards) past atrocities. This was, of course, way too late for them to make a difference and yet they still tried to resist. The first armed uprising against the Regime was lead by armed insurgents...and was pretty easily put down by the Freedom Fist. Those who renounced their ways became officers in the FF and the rest were killed, save for a handful who escaped capture completely. Some of those people would isolate themselves and go into hiding, slowly evolving into the Resistance faction of The Old Men. The rest hid amidst the victims of the regime and began to help them craft the heart of the Resistance proper, promising to help right the wrongs they were complicit in and empower the oppressed and downtrodden with methods of resistance.
The Regime has no ideological nexus. It inherited the trappings of fascism and gladly wears them to ensure that all wealth and goods trickle upwards to the President and his cronies. Everything they promote is a means to that end and they're so open about its rampant corruption that governmental loyalists don’t care, not as long as the people they dehumanize and other can be punished in their eyes. Communists, immigrants, The Gays and liberals are enemies of the state who should be punished and cast out and The State is strong and powerful forever but constantly under attack.
Less than a third of the power of the government is held by Democrats. The Bill of Rights and Constitution still exist but nobody wants to punish the executive branch. Elections are generally only held in areas where loyalist interest is strong enough. Free speech is unequally enforced while laws for suffrage and women’s/POC’s rights only exist to punish people for breaking them. Even sodomy laws are still on the books. These laws are enforced by the Freedom Fist, state-occupying law soldiers equipped with automatic weapons, pistols, riot batons and riot shields. The Fist wields helicopter-mounted guns, APCs, security checkpoints and sheer numbers to enforce the law but their biggest weapon is their mask. All officers of the Fist wear skull-shaped masks to protect their faces from attacks but will more often protect them from identification. The Fist is generally focused on detaining individuals who meet certain criteria/break the law and then imprison them for indefinite detention at an internment camp.
Because the Fist is already pretty overextended what with covering all of America, the Regime has propped up the dying railroad industry and the less-dying shipping and trucking industry with lucrative government contracts tasking them with transporting prisoners. Trucks have two armed drivers trading off shifts and they never know their final destination. All they know is which truck stop to drive to next where their cargo will be inspected and assigned a new destination. The final destination is one of three euphemistically named “processing centers”: Justice East in NY, Justice South in Texas or Justice West in California.
A processing center is a gigantic Fist-run internment camp set in what was a regular military camp that holds up to half a million prisoners at any given time. Said prisoners are kept in squalor in tent cities or makeshift shanty-towns, exposed to the elements and copious amounts of waste and pollution and guarded on all sides by armed Fist officers and barbed wire. The book doesn’t explicitly say if the final processing for a prisoner is extermination but it does say that the major purpose the camps have are to provide sources of slave labor. The American manufacturing industry is in shambles due to many stupid decisions so the Fist’s beloved APCs are made by prisoner labor as are many supplies vital to the nation.
The seeds of the resistance had been sown for a while since 1964 but they were scattered and disorganized. Political machinations of the Regime kept them discredited and kept them from interacting as much as they could have. While the militias drilled and the fundamentalists prepared for the End of Days, Marxists protested and capitalists started manipulating. Off doing its own thing were unaffiliated resistance movements made of marginalized people running smuggling rings, community defense groups and mutual aid agreements. But they stood relatively distant from each other, isolated and insular interest groups unable to brace themselves for a big push.
That changed as illegal experiments perpetuated by the Regime began to get out of hand. While the Resistance was starting to get its footing in the 1980s, the Regime was covering up a series of “freak accidents”, “gas leaks” and “natural disasters” at government-run military labs. Rather than let the stories be broken by the press, the Regime instead used friendly media sources to claim that the attacks were the result of Soviet super-soldiers smuggled in for use in terrorist activities. “We’ve killed all the cybernetic super-soldiers and here are gruesome autopsy photos, god bless America, stay the course, oppress foreigners to ensure this doesn’t happen again, etc.” The Regime turned all radio stations into national assets and made home broadcasting illegal while continuing to blame the Kremlin.
The Signal was clearly created by the USA. Nobody is sure how exactly but there are some whispering in the USSR of rebellions and uprisings that had happened in proxy states that matched the US’ general reports. It’s likely the initial purpose of the Signal was to destabilize enemy states the same way they later found themselves reeling from the rise of the Receivers and the Resistance. But even this wasn’t the proper impetus behind the rise of the Resistance. That falls to the Military Parade of 1985 and the First Receiver.
What is known: in 1985 a massive military parade was being performed by the Freedom Fist as a show of strength for a crowd of loyalist citizens.
What is claimed: a gigantic juggernaut of chrome of and flesh burst through the loyalist lines waving an American flag. This being, dubbed the First Receiver by the press, body-slammed through the Fist forces with the flag on his shoulder. He threw tanks and helicopters around like they were nothing, shrugged off bullets and baton blows and systematically beat every single Fist officer in hand-to-hand combat before the Signal was neutralized and he was beat to death by the battered remains of the forces.
What really happened: the person who broke through the line was a brown-skinned teenage immigrant with a toy American flag. The leader of the procession waited until the skinny youth was close enough before beating his him to death with his baton for the cheering crowd. The officer was unaware that a soldier behind him had removed his mask and drawn his sidearm, shooting the officer in the head before he could react and in full view of the loyalists. What followed was a massive riot of infighting as Fist soldiers removed their masks and start attacking each other in a blind panic with batons, firearms and tear gas.
In response to this show of weakness and the way the Regime was trying to spin the narrative to be about another Soviet super-soldier, the Resistance launched its first major operation: coordinated attacks on all three internment camps across the USA. Hundreds of thousands of detainees were liberated and provided weapons, shelter and nourishment as the Resistance fortified positions in the cities to cause further damage to the Regime. But it only took two weeks for two of the cities to be retaken by the Fist, the Regime working overtime to spin the narrative and mislead the populace.
The final step to solidifying the Resistance was when a lone gunman took the mayhem as a sign and proceeded to storm a radio station, take a DJ hostage and broadcast the Signal across national airwaves for the first time. For 30 minutes he held the broadcasting booth against the Fist as a handful of people were transformed into Receivers and went on a rampage against the Fist while the Signal was live. While he was being gunned down and the Receivers were being beat back, his home computer was broadcasting his manifesto on how to propagate the Signal and making it open-source.
What Is the Signal?
Okay so I’m not great at technobabble or pseudo-technical terms but I’ll explain it as best as I can. The Signal is a string of numbers that is continually spitting out more and more numbers. When it’s modulated and broadcast over the airwaves, it has a transformative effect on people who are just able to naturally demodulate the white noise. These people are permanently transformed into cyborgs. The flesh is hardened and polished into a protective shell, prominent veins become circuitry and seams form to segment digits and limbs and allow flexibility. A Receiver never needs nourishment, air or protection from the elements ever again. Other Receivers instinctively know where they are once they transformed and will try to take them in at all costs to protect them.
So, what makes someone candidate for being a Receiver? Good question. There’s no apparent rhyme or reason, it just depends on two criteria regardless of what numbers the Signal are currently broadcasting. If the Signal has never been broadcast in an area before, it’ll automatically create new Receivers. If the Signal has been broadcast before then you have to wait a sufficient period of time to broadcast again, generally because the previous Signal has been killed and this is a new Seed.
What’s a Seed? Well. Here’s the part I really don’t get. You can’t keep broadcasting the Signal forever because even if you do the best possible job to defend a radio broadcaster the Regime will just bomb it. The safest way to broadcast the Signal is to pump it out of a deep Resistance location and keep it playing locally before engaging a series of repeaters to pick it up and carry it to where it needs to go. You can’t just record the Signal and loop it, it must be broadcast and played over FM radio. But that’s not efficient and if that was the only way to go about it then the Signal would have been wiped out a while ago.
Here’s where Seeds come in. A Seed is made by recording a live Signal and running it through a program to demodulate the noise back into waves on a hard drive. You can then use the program to predict what the waves will look like in the future and can then copy the predicted Signal onto a floppy disc or just transmit it through a modem. If you play that predicted copy (the Seed), it’s a properly functioning Signal if you play it within 24 hours of its expiration date and can be used to start a new Signal proper. Depending on the type of media it’s stored on, a Seed can be used up to a minimum of 24 hours in the future or up to three weeks. This is tied into something I frankly don’t understand called a “deadline instant”.
A Receiver deprived of Signal only has one active ability besides their immunities. That ability is called the Gift of the Stranger. It’s an active weirdness filter that will kick on and make people see what they want to see: a regular everyday person. This is also an oral ability because the Receiver can speak with impunity but force people to hear what they want them to hear. Everyone who looks upon a Receiver with an active GotS sees and hears what they want to hear, like seeing a soccer mom gossip in whispers or a bored-looking day trader ramble with financial jargon they don’t understand. These benefits also expand to digital media like security camera feeds or photographs. They also have access to the Sigmata BBS, a bulletin board system hidden in the depths of the phone network that’s only accessible to Receivers who wish to access it. Run by an anonymous being known as the SysOp, the BBS is where Receivers name themselves, giving themselves “true names” they can change whenever they want that will allow people to see through their Gift of the Stranger. Unfortunately, all these names tend to be stupid leet names even if the Receiver has never used a BBS before. Sample names include: “b0lt-thr0w3r,” “d4rk4rt,” “s4tyr,” “@ombomb,” “cathode_god,” “di0de,” “d0m1n0,“ “j0hhnyha$h,” “sykl0ps,” “p1ndr0pp3r,” “s1r3n,” and “z1pp3r”.
Does the Regime have their own Receivers? Yes, unfortunately. Not all Receivers join the Resistance. Some run screaming to the arms of the Regime and become indoctrinated into fighting special forces shock troops with their own Signal empowering them. Others just go into isolation and slowly lose the ability to use Gift of the Stranger, transforming into strange biomechanical monsters with stronger abilities.
Things you need to know about 1986:
- VHS, AM/FM radio, portable televisions with two-hour batteries, tape-decks in your car, portable tape players and boomboxes are standard. Cell phones are in their infancy and are five-pound bricks, you’re more likely to have a pager and a landline with an answering machine or know where a public phone is. 64 KB of RAM is standard for a home computer along with a 10 MB hard drive and 256 color graphics on a 13-inch desktop screen. The modem is the big invention that’s taking off in the tech world and the BBS exists with the internet not yet in its infancy.
- Sedans are the car of the masses and still come from Detroit. Conversion vans are big, minivans are taking off, only poor people use public transport, etc.
- There’s a whole guide on how a detective in the 1980s would do their job and it mostly amounts to going to city hall to check records and going to the library for public news archives while using contacts and phone books.
- Malls are still the place to be, there’s a lot of punny names for clothing stores (Vogue Scholar for cutting edge fashion, Rube Icon for MAGA CHUD ‘Merica duds like rebel flag patches, Yuppie Mill for, well, yuppie clothes) and for parallel existing games you’d find in an arcade (Plumber Jumper, Mrs. CramMan, Triple Tiamat, MiG Hunter.
The central notion of how America slips into fascism isn’t bad, but the main issue is the fact that it plays too loose with the alternate timeline stuff. There’s a distressing number of things that would not have gone down if JFK wasn’t president. The main reason LBJ pushed for civil rights and certain reforms was because he wanted to have accomplished something with his presidency despite setting events in motion caused by making the Republicans mad. I legitimately don’t know, like, who else could have been elected and shot for it. Did Kennedy get elected in 1964 because he wasn’t assassinated? I don’t know. Do we still go to the moon? I don’t know. Do we still fight and lose in Vietnam? I guess that’s somewhat implied we do, we just fight more wars than Vietnam. It’s a lot of transporting modern-day fears and experiences back to 1986 and pretending it’s a quaint thing and throwing in some death camps.
See here’s the thing about a soft alternate timeline that is just there for flavor: you really need to sit down and explicitly say “these things I’m telling you here are the main divergences, pretend nothing else changed outside of that”. Which…I’m not saying it’s a great solution, but it makes sense to admit that this is soft fiction and you should relax and roll with it. So y’know say that.
In lieu of saying that there’s a weird focus on internally consistent technobabble. I get it, the author has a huge tech background and that has influenced his previous works. It still feels like an enormous misstep to not really consider what you’ve left unsaid in your worldbuilding and then share a certain degree of too much to explain why the PCs are cyborgs. It still just strikes me as an enormous misstep in all these pages because I kinda quick-read a lot of the historical stuff and then got hung up on tech specs.
I think that’s really all I have to say on the matter so join me NEXT TIME when we focus on game mechanics. They’re interesting and have a neat focus on guerilla mechanics but let me just level with you right now: I keep wanting to play Demon the Descent. The fact that you’re a cyborg saboteur and Resistance agent in disguise and granted techno magic when you blow your cover and pop the Signal just makes me want to rub my face up against some good ol’ ChronDark. And I feel like that would be the right move because I handle the mechanics for that a lot better than I do for this.
MECHANICS AND GAMEPLAYOriginal SA post
Sorry for more or less dropping off the face of the thread. It's very easy to just not post or work on any of this and god knows I'm having the malformed half-baked corpses of F&Fs starting to pile up and seeing people talk about Sigmata reminded me that I'm doing this. So I'm going to try and get this shit done at a more reasonable pace because I want to at least finish one more of these projects before 2019.
MECHANICS AND GAMEPLAY
The Ideal Strat in Any X-Com Game Is to Just Play with All Cyborg Mechs All the Time and This Game Feels Like X-Com
Instead of mechanics, Sigmata uses what it calls an Operating System NO WAIT COME BACK IT GETS WORSE. But yeah, it’s called an Operating System because goodness gracious it can’t go a half second without being technologically twee. The mechanics are used for four separate types of scenes: Combat, Evasion, Intrigue and Free Play. To interact with the game’s mechanics, you need to understand the stats.
Except they’re not called stats. They’re called Core Processers. And there are four of them. Quad-Core Processors.
God damn it.
Stats (I’m not calling them different) range between 1-5 with 1 being below human average and 5 being well above average. What is average? Good question. Look at you bein’ all smart and inquisitive.
- Aggression measures “courage, extroversion and willingness to commit to an action”. High Aggression means you fight with great courage and passion while low means you are cowardly and second-guessing. In theory this is meant to mean that your character is passionate. In execution it means your character is mechanically better at taking stupid risks and being dumb as hell.
- Guile measures “agility, cunning, creativity and hand-eye coordination”. High Guile means smart and crafty, low Guile means clumsy and easily-telegraphing their moves. In theory it means you’re a sneaky bastard who wins by outmaneuvering in the enemy and in execution that’s still the case.
- Judgement is spelled the British way for some reason. Judgement measures “patience, intelligence and situational awareness”. Low means you’re bad at problem solving and oblivious, high means you’ve got a tacticool Cumberbatchean Mind Palace and curiosity about the world. In theory it represents using patience and tactics to strike hard when needed to deal a strong blow. In execution Judgement is a stat that emphasizes personal protection and self-defense.
- Valor measures “physical strength, empathy and commitment to the team”. Low means you’re callous to the state of your allies or unable to put the team first. High means you promote good synergy and will work for the company whole-heartedly and never join a union I mean good team player and good team supporter. In theory you’re supposed to be the heart if this is high, the team mom, the guardian. In execution that’s kind of the case; high Valor means you’re better at defending allies.
Any dice result is equal to or higher than 6 is a success. Everything else doesn’t matter except for 1s. 1s are botches and if you remember fucking anything about the 90s you know this is already an awful idea but at least the dice pools are smaller. Botches eat Successes, plain and simple. You want more d10s than d6s. You can in fact have negative successes! Let’s look at the outcome table~:
- -2 or fewer: Crit fail! The GM narrates how badly the roll went and gets to add something new and dangerous to the scene.
- -1: Regular failure, GM narrates outcome.
- 0: Soft failure, GM narrates but player adds silver lining.
- 1: Soft success/success at a cost, player narrates but GM adds grey lining.
- 2 Regular success, player narrates.
- 3+: Critical success, player gets to narrate and toot their own horn.
- 1d10: 50% chance of a success, 10% chance of a botch. Not too shabby honestly, good odds.
- 1d6: 16.666% chance of a success, equal chance of a botch. Not great, mostly useless, higher chance of eating successes.
- 5d10 will on average generate 2.5 success, give or take a 40% chance of losing a success. Pretty good.
- 1d10+4d6 will on average have a 50% chance of the d10 pooping out a success and then a 66.666% chance of both eating that success or adding another success with the d6s. Less than ideal and the 10% chance of the d10 crapping out feels negligible.
- 3d10+2d6 will deliver 1.5 successes with the d10s and then a 33.333% chance of Further Fuckery either in favor or not with the d6s and a 30% chance the d10s fail. Pretty nice odds.
Health is abstracted into what’s called Exposure. Exposure is ranked 0-10 where 0 is safe and 10 is “about to be screwed”. Because this game is meant to portray three different types of combat, Exposure can be how hidden you are, how shot up you are or how suspicious you are. Exposure doesn’t come into play in what’s called Free Play. Free Play is anything that’s not combat, evasion or intrigue and is mostly a freeform back-and-forth improv conversation between the GM and the players. Any time you want to do something Suitably Dramatic is when you roll. Otherwise free play is somewhat abstract where you talk about the world and your actions and so on and so forth.
But what about Structured Play?
Combat, Evasion and Intrigue fundamentally all share the exact same mechanics but with different stakes. Enemies can have up to 10 Exposure, PCs can have up to 10 Exposure. The point is for one side to knock the other off kilter and out of the confrontation in combat or for the PCs to get a lot of successes and reach their goals. This is done using tactics that correspond to the four stats.
- Judgement is Regroup in combat, Fade in evasion and Gel in intrigue. Roll your dice pool and each success lowers your Exposure by 1 point per success by laying low.
- Guile is Flank in combat, Sneak in evasion and Snoop in intrigue. Each success either deals 1 Exposure per success or just accumulates 1 step towards completion per success by being cautious offensive.
- Valor is Suppress in combat, Deny in evasion and Support in intrigue. Each success reduces a single ally’s Exposure per success because you’re standing up to back them up.
- Aggression is Storm in combat, Rush in evasion and Confront in intrigue. This one is interesting because it’s heedlessly pushing forward to gain an advantage and leaving yourself open to blowback. Going aggressive automatically increases your own Exposure by 5 points but you also inflict a minimum of 5 Exposure/gain 5 progress with extra Exposure/progress gained for extra successes.
And here’s why I really need to see this entire thing in action: the emphasis on group tactics and covering each other’s backs and constantly performing a little dance of Exposure juggling. On the upside, enemies never lose Exposure or the players don’t lose progress. Enemies who are raised to Exposure 10 are either killed or have their morale broken or knocked out and are out of the moment. Players are knocked out at Exposure 10 at the end of the round and their fate depends on who wins the structured scenes. Intrigue and evasion play differently but I’m going to take each mode and put them more specifically under the microscope and pick them apart.
There are still a few more things that apply to every mode of structured play.
- A player who has taken 10 Exposure and can’t lower it by the end of the round can opt to reboot their character, flush their Exposure and reset it to 0. It’s like a second wind with some major drawbacks because this leaves you vulnerable. For the rest of this structured period and the next one if the player’s character ends a round at 10+ Exposure, that’s it for them. They die, they’re captured, they surrender, they quit, they’re out of the game as long as they’re vulnerable.
- If things aren’t going to plan you can also choose to withdraw which is to call the operation a loss and retreat. This is an automatic failure and concession to the enemy but also if any players are vulnerable in a retreat the GM rolls a d10 for them and rolling equal to or lower than their Exposure they are removed from play forever.
- You can always choose to have someone relay the command to pop the Signal and give yourself a massive boost once per structured encounter. Doing this buffs your character significantly and results in a whole other little minigame that doesn’t get explained until the end of this entire book.
There are also some further rules and advice that I'll just sum up here real quick: respect the rules, respect established tone, respect the established facts, respect the other players' characters, emphasize that your actions are assists and you're all working together (by like having your success being giving someone an in to do good work), help others narrate if they need a hand, do dialogue with the GM instead of just narrating your outcome by telling the GM how you'd like the conversation to go, don't be afraid to set the GM up with a question in your narrative that you want answered. Not too bad for advice.
Man this game is lethal on your character! Like okay yes it’s abstracted damage but it’s really not hard to lose a character or just get hosed. Or at least it feels like it. Because to be honest I’ve never really seen anything quite like this system and its focus on more or less juggling heat and aggro so I have zero idea what this actually looks like in motion. As a whole I don’t exactly hate it? I need to know more. I’m really not a fan of how swingy the dice are and how it’s really easy to get shoehorned into only doing one thing and doing it well. It feels like it wants you to just go hard on enemies and not be too cautious because you’re always going to have the heat slowly be cranked up but when you consider that your damage is either “each enemy does a single attack that deals 2-3 damage and the GM picks who they attack” or “everyone takes 2-3 damage per round automatically and then you do your stuff” there’s never going to be a situation where one person will tank all the hits and the others will back them up indefinitely. It’s a strange system to parse and also I dislike all of the doofy emphasis on technological terms because ha ha you’re a cyborg get it.
NEXT TIME: picking apart the things that make the Combat structure unique which is mostly that certain troops or enemies exist vs. that not being a thing in the other modes.
COMBATOriginal SA post
I Wrote This While Listening to the Furi Soundtrack Because It’s A Really Good Soundtrack. There’s Nothing Cute or Funny to Say, I Just Really Like Scattle and Carpenter Brut.
Combat is…combat. It’s when fists meet face and you can’t just run away from or talk your way out of problems. It’s generally the logical conclusion to fucking up stealth or intrigue where you flow from that failure state there into a right proper slobberknocker and then beat feet when you’ve got the opposition on the pavement. The general mechanics are the same as the baseline frame-setting and mechanical structure of structured scenes: Exposure stands in for health, pop the Signal to do it to it, second wind, etc. The main difference, as previously mentioned, is that instead of just a nebulous force/oppressive situation dealing out Exposure damage to everyone at a rate of 2 or 3 per round is that in combat there’s a pool of baddies who are either Conscripted Soldiers (dumb and meh) who deal 2 or Dedicated Combatants who deal 3 per enemy in the pool. So, if there’s 5 lazy Fist soldiers, each one deals 2 damage at a target they pick. You can add or subtract more depending on the narrative circumstances, but a 1:1 ratio baddie:player character is probably best so that way if you can spread the pain over everyone equally or mix and match. The stat rolls all work the same as previously mentioned. The only addition is that if someone gets a crit, the GM can either shut down the Signal if it’s up or can add more enemies to fight the players.
If the PCs lose a combat encounter, thankfully it’s not the end of the world unless any of them were rebooted and at a risk of being permanently lost. Losing combat is just a hard twist in the tale that throws them into an evasion scene after escaping capture/while handcuffed or whatever or…strangely, negotiating their own release and surrender in intrigue. That one doesn’t make a ton of sense but whatever.
So why do I feel like Combat needs its own section? Well that’s because the thing that sets this mode apart is specialized enemies/threats because the Fist has some tricks up their sleeves.
- Armored Personnel Carriers are six-wheeled troop transports that can carry up to 8 people and come equipped with a roof-mounted machine gun. Their main threat isn’t the machine gun but the fact that they’re incredibly durable. Normal attacks simply dent an APC’s armor plating and you need either another machine gun, RPGs, chemical lasers or Receiver subroutines (explained later, basically trippy cyborg powers). The enemies inside are completely protected from harm and only the machine-gunner can be targeted at the cost of being unable to attack. Alternately they can be parked to provide a strongpoint (explained below) and pop open doors to deploy a fireteam laying down bullets. Their durability is a double-edged sword, however. Because they can take a lot of punishment, the damage done to take one to 10 Exposure tends to make the APC explode. Anyone inside of an APC taken to 10 Exposure takes 5 Exposure from the explosion along with any excess Exposure damage the vehicle took. So, if Slappy Robonuts hits it with 5 Exposure and it was at 8, everyone in the APC takes 8 Exposure.
- Grenades don’t affect vehicles but they do have a fancy trick. They can either damage everyone inside of a strongpoint or do damage to two people who are close to each other.
- Gunships are armored assault helicopters manned by a pilot and a gunner in a tandem cockpit. The pilot flies, the gunner controls the machine gun beneath the gunship’s landing gear and the rockets attached to hardpoints on the wings. Gunships hit hard and are high-priority combat targets: the machine gun either deals 6 Exposure to one target or 3 to two and rockets either deal 12 Exposure to one target or 6 to two. Thankfully they can only use one of those weapons per round at a time but unfortunately, they have the same armored defenses as APCs when it comes to taking damage. At least dealing sufficient damage to them either makes them retreat or explode and you don’t have to deal with the pilot and gunner.
- Jammer Units are right proper fuckers and the Regime’s last resort. Mechanically, if the players are going to win the war, the Regime pulls out the stops and deploys Jammer Units. A unit is compromised of four Fist commandos armed with chemical lasers lead by a Receiver who is a Regime loyalist or a “Jammer.” For formatting purposes let’s break down what this means below.
- Chemical lasers were developed by the Regime in case Project Sigmata went off the rails and they needed to take down Receivers. Shoulder-mounted and fed from a battery pack, the chemical laser paints a target with a beam of light and then fires high-frequency microwaves that function as a targeted EMP. Because it’s a weapon meant to damage electronics, it only acts like a normal gun against a normal person. When aimed at a vehicle, it tears through armor and starts shredding the internal mechanics. When aimed at a Receiver, it cuts them off from the Signal if the Signal is up. When turned against an enemy Jammer, the Jammer does half damage as it forces them to slow down and become weaker. And of course, a critical failure burns out the battery or renders it useless in your hands. Technically I think this is a laser in the proper electronics sense but it’s still just a very disappointing weapon for the name “CHEMICAL LASER”.
- Jammers are bigger, faster and stronger than Receivers and that’s a huge problem. When exposed to the Signal, the Jammer can take 40 Exposure before being defeated and inflicts 8 Exposure on one or 4 on two Receivers per turn. They also pop their ults at 10 and 30 Exposure taken, dealing 16 damage to one Receiver or 8 each to two.
- Machine guns are mostly found attached to tripods or vehicles but can still be carried. They function like grenades (damage everyone in a strongpoint or deal Exposure to two enemies) with the benefit of being effective antivehicular weapons. Another benefit is that using the Suppress (Valor) action lets you heal the Exposure of an additional ally. Critical failures mean the gun jams or runs out of juice.
- RPGS are basically like grenades. Go figure what with being rocket-propelled grenades. They also affect vehicles making them strictly better than grenades.
- Strongpoints are landmarks or fixtures of the environment that are solid defensive or advantageous positions like a pillbox or being inside of an APC with the doors open or a sniper’s nest. Enemies using a strongpoint drop 2 Exposure at the start of each round while Receivers double their successes for Regroup (Judgement) rolls meaning you heal more better if you’re keeping your head down.
- Tanks are crewed by four soldiers and have a machine gun and a cannon turret. They’re like APCs, kind of. Tanks are immune to machine gun fire but like an APC you can only target the machine gunner. They have an Exposure limit of 20, becoming immobilized at 10 and exploding at 20. The cannon can be fired every other round and deals 10 Exposure inside of a target or 5 if they’re near it and destroys all strongpoints and targets outright automatically. Also, the main reason I compare them to APCs is because they reused the APC line directly in regards to targeting the machine gunner, down to forgetting to say “tank” instead of APC.
- Tear gas automatically deals 1 Exposure per round unless dealt with/moved away from. Freedom Fist soldiers are immune to tear gas thanks to their masks. Bastards.
- Transport choppers are basically just flying APCs that don’t have machine guns and only carry 8 soldiers at a time. They can also function as a strongpoint if they hover with the doors open and the only difference is that they’re too high up for you to whip a grenade inside to kill everyone inside.
- Ignore all of those ordnance rules above; they’re there but there’s so many it’s just a whole damn thing.
- Consolidate all enemies as a single force that deals 3 or 4 Exposure a turn to everyone and is defeated when it takes 40-100 Exposure.
- Narratively each point of Exposure done to the force takes out a single enemy or 4 points takes out a vehicle.
So yeah combat is designed to just kick your shit in, just put the boots to your back and make that ass concave with well-placed swings. Fundamentally the end state is the easiest to understand of the three structured modes. In execution there isn’t actually any advice for how to build an encounter, just “add stuff as it sounds narratively good”. Sure, it makes sense for the basic enemy to fight to just be Freedom Fist soldiers but pretty much everything else exists to be a call and response of stuff to deal with if the players don’t have the proper powers to deal with vehicles. The other issue is that when you start mixing other baddies, even just chokepoints, you start getting ramping difficulty by making the enemies more chufty or deal way more damage. Even a simple grenade is a pretty big threat if you give four Fists a grenade each and throw them at four Receivers.
Or at least that’s how I feel because I actually need to see this whole thing in motion at some point to see how well it actually stand up.
NEXT TIME: Evasion scenes and Intrigue scenes and their nittiest gritties.
EVASION AND INTRIGUEOriginal SA post
EVASION AND INTRIGUE
This Time It Was The Payday 2 Soundtrack to Get Me Through This Slog
Evasion is the easiest structured scene to deal with. Exposure is automatically increased at the start of each round depending on the level of alarm (Guarded for 2, High Alert for 3) and environments/threats don’t necessarily have to be combat oriented. Evasion can take the form of a nighttime drive through checkpoints or keeping your head down in a crowd or sauntering into an office building like you belong there.
Completing evasion is also pretty easy: accumulate 10 Waypoints which are more or less just successes. This can go up to needing to get 20 and waypoints can be split across multiple areas you need to progress though. However, once you get your own cache of waypoints together, you’re out of the scene and in the clear and can no longer influence anything. The teamwork element here is the fact that it’s better to try and keep pace with the others so you can help them out if they flag instead of just sprinting to the finish line.
Because if you do sprint to the finish line, anyone left behind who hits 10 Exposure and can’t flush it at the end of a round automatically triggers a failstate of evasion that rolls into combat or needing to talk your way out of nonsense. You have to go back and get them or get them released. And this is just a single player failing means the Regime is on to you and the entire op is tits up in the bay. Also critical failures tend to turn off the Signal if it’s popped or raises the heat level of the alarm.
Tips for evasion narratives: focus on building and releasing tension, treat the narrative like a camera and play with the perception of the scenes, indulge the senses, show the courage of the actions of the evading players doing dangerous things, show chases or alternately flip the script so that a foe is the one evading and needs to be caught in X successes.
But that’s really what evasion is and how it differs from combat. Everything else is the same except for enemies. As for intrigue!
Intrigue varies depending on the mood and the events. It could be talking an armed gunman down from escalating things into a firefight, it could be trying to find a mole, it could even just be a classic library montage of trying to collect data. You’re trying to fulfill an Agenda and need to accumulate Talking Points (Waypoints/successes) to do so. Your main enemy is here Pressure which is how hostile the environment is to you (Tense inflicts 2 Exposure to everyone per round, Hostile inflicts 3). Intrigue isn’t all talking. It can be interrupted with moments of focused violence or powers or stealth to maneuver into a more advantageous position. And Agendas themselves are pretty simple: you’re either gathering intelligence, changing someone’s mind or talking your way into getting access to things you shouldn’t see.
The main upside of Intrigue is that you’re all working together to a total pool of Talking Points. At a minimum you’re trying to get 20 as a group with 40 being a harder side of things or the sky theoretically being the limit. On average you want 30-50 successes which…isn’t too bad because hey, cooperative effort. Plus there’s no rest of the entire thing being a goatfuck if one person slips up and gets 10 Exposure at the end of the whole thing. At worst you go from on the rails to off the rails and the GM introduces a complication or emergency that is directly responding to your gaffe that you now have to work around. This could mean switching to evasion or combat but it could also be that you stumbled and put a hole in your cover or that the receptionist told her boss something you said and he wants a word with you. Even a critical failure just raises the mood of the moment or turns off the Signal if it’s up. The downside is that the Talking Points needed could be pretty ludicrous and they’re all broken up into different checkpoints of what you’d need to accomplish to pull the entire thing off.
But, all things considered, baseline Intrigue is probably the easiest one to tackle as a group. It’s not unreasonable and it lets you really just have the heavy-hitters dig deep for dirt while the supportive characters gloss over faux-pas and drain Exposure. Narrative advice amounts to letting the players immerse themselves in the details of the scene, work with the GM and other players to show what your actions are doing based on your successes or failures, “show fascism but don’t be fascist” by showing a comfortable level of societal bigotry and the consequences of it and finally to let the Gift of the Stranger allow the players to chat amongst themselves freely or cover up their subroutines/powers as being more banal and benign than they are (super strength translating to a firm and memorable handshake, stuff is just a freak accident completely unrelated and not worth calling the Fist over).
Anyway because we can’t have nice things here’s an optional rule: the Voice of the Outgroup.
The VOTO is meant to simulate walking into a situation where you don’t have the advantage or the privilege found in the dominant culture. A woman in a room full of rich white male stockholders, a black man in an Alabama café, an out gay man in a hard-right fundamentalist church where Leviticus is embraced. VOTO is, specifically, not being a part of that inner circle and trying to get their attention and change their mind despite one’s status as an outsider. What this means mechanically is that the successes accumulated by 10s are doubled so one 10 counts as two successes…at the cost of 0 successes being counted as a critical failure instead of just a weak failure. You’re intentionally making yourself a target by standing up and swinging a bat at the hornet’s nest. This is an interesting rule…but is wisely optional due to the implications of trying to emulate actual real-world social affairs mixed with this unedited writing.
This book's writing and voice and messages posted:
The Voice of the Outgroup can be a movement’s most powerful political weapon. When someone defies social expectations (typically the expectations of silence and obedience), it can be a showstopping call to action. However, its use comes at enormous risk to those who use it. When a member of an outgroup speaks, the ingroup will generally only hear her words if she is able to maintain absolute composure and incorporate some of the norms and expectations of the ingroup. Any release of emotion, moment of inconsistency, or factually debatable statement will inflame the ingroup, causing them to question her motives, attack her character, insult her intelligence, and cite anecdotes (however rare) to invalidate her argument.
It is not fair, but those are the ingroup’s rules. When a woman makes an accusation against a powerful man, the ingroup will typically not believe her unless she is exceedingly attractive, articulate, powerful, or wealthy. When a black man is shot by the police, his case will not garner the ingroup’s sympathy unless he was a saint with a spotless academic record, a photogenic smile, and a history of community leadership.
Note, the Voice of the Outgroup should not be leveraged by someone who is simply the scene’s oddball or outlier. For example, while an ivory tower academic attending a dirt bike race in the country might make for an awkward encounter or two, this isn’t a social difference deeply embedded in our conscious due to centuries of bias and social programming. Further, someone can still possess the ingroup’s social power even if they are the lone member of the ingroup present in the scene. After all, chances are good that society has their back.
Again, this is an entirely optional rule. The decision to use it or not rests solely with each individual player, not the GM. This rule can put the Resistance’s most powerful voices front and center, but it also stands the potential of being infuriating and exhausting to players who endure this type of experience every day.
So yeah that’s intrigue and why VOTO isn’t…a great rule, even as an optional rule.
So yeah combat really gets all of the crunch and cruft because like at some point it’s going to come to blows and the simulationist inside of all of us cannot be denied the blood they hunger for. But in all seriousness, this is what the normal modes, like, look like. If you were to sit down with a copy of these mechanics and get jazzed to make a new form of structured scenes (hacking! ritual magic! crafting! drug synthesis! building power armor!) this is what the actual diceplay of the game looks like. You either try to get a big ol’ pile of bennies in a specific scenario or just try to get them all for yourself. And it’s…okay? It’s passable, it’s solid enough, and while it looks pretty unreasonable now to get like 30 successes to find where the Declaration of Independence is being held, we’ll see that tune change pretty quick when we take a look at character generation and what exactly powers are.
Speaking of, NEXT TIME we’ll take a look at building a character! I will not be taking requests because I have a very special character in mind for October and also for this woke-ass age of shenanigans.