RPG Sigmata + Politics Your Way

This follows on from Kickstarter Sigmata RPG and part 2.

At the time of writing there are just 12 hours to go till the Sigmata Kickstarter ends. It has reached an impressive level of backing, having now gone over $35,000. The stretch goals include several different settings for the game, a soundtrack and now a companion book, has been unlocked.

Whilst initially I had planned on doing an interview with Chad about his game and inspirations, he has provided lots of great answers in several interviews, well as a Reddit AMA. There are quite some diverse Q&A and I’d recommend checking them out.

Instead of more questions I decided that the focus of this blog would be about politics and choice in regards to RPGs. Part of my reasoning is that I’d read several comments querying the focus of the game, a few debates about political terms, ethics, history, plus even an accusation of cartoon evil. Given the nature of Sigmata’s focus: “ethical insurgency against a fascist regime”, it is no wonder that trying to condense such important debates in to a summary of a game, one that also needs to serve as a sales pitch, is difficult. I can appreciate why different people are focusing on particular points, and why given the serious nature of politics someone would have the audacity to gamify the subject.

Whilst I have spent many hours reading and writing about RPG theory, I appreciate that not every player has, nor wants to, as well as why some players think it is all irrelevant nonsense. Sigmata is being designed with mechanics to emphasis the game goals, which is great, but it is worth remembering that players that dismiss RPG theory do have a point, that players can still play however they want, with whatever emphasis they want. This is especially true for a group of friends who regularly play together. After all role-playing is very much what we make it, and my summary regarding this topic is:

Systems matter, I think players & implementation matter more.

I previously had a brief chat with Chad about how in any game players will play how they want, it is of course something he is well aware of. Much like with his Cryptomancer game, Chad is providing players with mechanics and a setting to help explore things in the best way possible: a game. The importance of play is something that gained a lot of credibility in science, whilst this was obvious to so many, unsurprisingly other people dismiss play as childish and an actually waste of time. Also the idea that adults cannot explore ideas to keep learning, or that play has no value, is strange to me; at least it seems that general consensus on play has shifted. So I am all for Chad’s approach to RPGs and gamification.

One thing that has stood out to me is Chad presenting a few game examples with different ways to handle things. Additionally Chad’s Cryptomancer game similarly had choice, but with an emphasis on caution/care, since considering repercussions in a game inspired by cybersecurity was paramount in helping players to think about real life security. I bring this up in regards to RPG choice, since although many role-players are all about choice, other players prefer to play the same narrowly focused violent style games, so it should be no surprise that some people have focused on the violent aspects of Sigmata’s game. Like most games I’ve played with many groups, all with varying degrees of focus, resulting in a plethora of differences, I am all for players playing how they want, as I wrote about in Your RPG is Yours, Not Mine. If you want to play in a game world with a cartoon evil government and hyper violent PCs then go right ahead, plus who knows where it could lead.

Another area of concern for some is Sigmata’s examples of player character factions. If this is an issue for you then feel free to change things, maybe take the the middle ground and make strange bedfellows more of an exception in your games. I appreciate that different words generate strong rationale and/or emotions in each of us. In a highly polarised world it can be easy to forget, or not even appreciate, that most people are not as different or divided as some say we are. I don’t wish to come across as naive, note I wrote ‘some’, I do appreciate that some people are invested in, and profit from, dividing people. Nor that it is just a matter of education, genuine psychopaths exist, people can develop mental disorders, temporary stress is usually a factor in peoples’ responses, etc. Back to role-playing, party conflict can be a great source for storytelling, think of the list of examples as a powerful source of inspiration and conflict.

If someone reads Sigmata’s overview and is worried about players arguing then I recommend they discuss ideas with their group before playing; I find problems can be minimised, or even avoided. For groups that don’t normally have a session 0, or email list to discuss things, then I’d recommend doing so in regards to Sigmata if only due to the divisive subject matter, particularly in comparison the vast majority of other RPGs.

I think Sigmata promises to offer something to all gamers, but particularly to anyone that has an interest in history, military tactics, psychology, or similar subjects. I recommend backing this game and giving it a try, if only to expand your RPG mental tool kit/belt.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2089483951/sigmata-this-signal-kills-fascists

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Kickstarter Sigmata RPG

At the time of writing there is a week to go for the Sigmata RPG Kickstarter. The main designer is Chad Walker, and this alone is reason for me to be interested; I’d like to persuade you as to why this should spike your interest. It’s worth noting that I’ve written about Chad’s Cryptomancer game previously; a great game idea plus it adds something original to the role-playing community.

I am a big fan in reading practically anything to expand my RPG mental tool kit/belt; I need to work out some comedy picture ideas to demonstrate this point 😉 Since Cryptomancer added important real life concepts like Cyber security to RPGs, and Chad is a big believer in life gamification, I am quite optimistic regarding what he plans to add to the RPG community with Sigmata.

From the Kickstarter overview:

“SIGMATA: This Signal Kills Fascists” is a cyberpunk tabletop role-playing game about ethical insurgency against a fascist regime, taking place in a dystopian vision of 1980’s America.

Players assume the role of 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.” When the Signal is up, Receivers lead the charge against battalions of Regime infantry and armor or serve as the People’s Shield, protecting mass demonstrations from the brutality of a militarized police force and neo-Nazi hooligans. When the Signal is down, however, Receivers are mere mortals, desperately fleeing from a powerful state that senses their weakness.

It’s called the Sigmata, a Signal-induced stigmata, because it is a both a blessing and a curse. At least when you’re marked by the state, you can’t sit on the sidelines anymore.

Just based upon the full Sigmata title it should be clear that Chad takes the concept of life gamification seriously, just from daring to mention the word fascist. Politics is always a complicated subject and now it seems to be even more complicated. Personally I’d say political actions/events always matter, but cycles vary and some actions/events matter even more. I think it is reasonable to state that the current cycle matters in particular, so it’s no surprise to read comments questioning Chad’s reasoning for attempting such a project; especially since some view RPG as politically neutral, but I’ll write about that tricky subject another time.

I love the fact Chad is tackling such a tricky subject. Even though I have played a lot of political heavy RPG games, I am sure this forthcoming specialist game will present a more sophisticated game world to explore than the typical RPG. The mechanical explanations Chad has given reassure me that the rules will support the narrative/game goals. I am sure Sigmata will be adding a powerful mental tool to my RPG mental tool kit/belt.

There is a lot to unpack with Sigmata, and I plan to do so over the next few blogs. Meanwhile I hope I’ve convinced you to check out the Kickstarter page for more information. Join in and #RepeatTheSignal.

Prelude – Secret Rage PBM 5

This continues on from part 1 PBM Thanks & Secret Rage.

I’m off to visit Richie this weekend, and to go to GollanczFest. So there will be plenty of time to discuss the ways I plan on running the Chronicle, and see if Richie has developed or changed any of his ideas. It is also possible we will play a session or two.

Here are the next few pages of the comic prelude that I showed in my last post:

Batjutsu Secret Rage p3

Batjutsu Secret Rage p4

Batjutsu Secret Rage p5

Batjutsu Secret Rage p6

Disclaimer: This is a fan project for a friend, not a commercial product. Vampire, World of Darkness, Vampire the Masquerade, etc., are registered trademarks of White Wolf Publishing, Inc.  “Portions of the materials are the copyrights and trademarks of White Wolf Publishing AB, and are used with permission. All rights reserved. For more information please visit white-wolf.com.”

Prelude – Secret Rage PBM 4

This continues on from part 1 PBM Thanks & Secret Rage.

Where and when to start a game are typically essential questions. When I worked at KJC Games I took the long-time running fantasy game Quest and added in role-play with moderation. Since the game had been running for so long, and some customers knew nothing about role-playing, there was a lot of discussion about the best ways to implement such a dramatic change. In hindsight there are so many things I’d like to have done differently, but given the scale of the operation and time pressure, at least it mostly worked out well. So when I proposed this campaign I knew I would need to treat it as another professional undertaking, and not ignore lessons I had previously learned due to being too caught up with enthusiasm.

Years before when I had run my two big Vampire PBM games I had written out very detailed backgrounds, as well as spent a lot of time discussing things with the players. The Elder Night City PBM game had even more background than the Methesulah game, in part because I was merging R. Talsorian’s Cyberpunk with the World of Darkness (WoD), plus the WoD timeline had moved forward by many years. Although two players were replaced, since they lacked the time to play, surprisingly the final sixteen players eagerly read everything and put a lot of effort in to their turns 🙂

The previous bit of nostalgia was at the forefront of my mind when working on Secret Rage. Since Richie and I know the World of Darkness so well, at least I didn’t need to write a synopsis of the cosmology and numerous powerful organisations. This brought me back to the essential question, instead of having the character be somewhat established, why not set the game before the spirit even existed, or better yet at the birth of the spirit. This was somewhat inspired by a local role-player who decades ago was somewhat infamous for setting his D&D games at level 0. The joke became that in the next campaign the players would be playing the grandparents of their characters, with the goal being to make sure their family got born. Then the next campaign their grandparents’ dogs.

Since Richie is an artist, and a lover of comics, I had the idea of making the prelude a comic. I am not much of an artist, and I need to be careful about my ever present wrist RSI, so I accepted that I could not make it high quality. As spirits are more abstract than mortals, I thought this simpler approach could even turn out to be something distinct. Whilst I cannot use speech recognition software to draw, I can use things like https://pixabay.com/ for free artwork, and a few minutes with GIMP https://www.gimp.org/ isn’t a problem. Apart from using a few Werewolf glyphs I decided it was best to avoid using any official artwork, which is a shame since the WoD has some amazing art.

Batjutsu Secret Rage 0

Batjutsu Secret Rage p1

Batjutsu Secret Rage p2

Next time, more of the prelude.

Disclaimer: This is a fan project for a friend, not a commercial product. Vampire, World of Darkness, Vampire the Masquerade, etc., are registered trademarks of White Wolf Publishing, Inc.  “Portions of the materials are the copyrights and trademarks of White Wolf Publishing AB, and are used with permission. All rights reserved. For more information please visit white-wolf.com.”

Spirit Choice for Secret Rage

This continues on from part 1 PBM Thanks & Secret Rage, the 2nd part is Spirit Game – Secret Rage.

Further to what I wrote previously about the scale of any game that includes something as vast as D&D’s Planescape, L5R’s spirit realms, or World of Darkness’s three Umbras, etc., I appreciated I was giving myself a ludicrous amount of work. Powerful characters tend to have a lot of lore and cultural understanding that would be a key factor in any character choices, and typically large networks of others to manage. This applies to all sorts of high-end campaigns:

  • Epic level character in D&D, GURPS, etc.
  • Methuselah in Vampire, or Archmage in Mage, Deathlord in Wraith
  • Clan Daimyo in L5R
  • Epic level Superteam member like one of the Justice League
  • Daemon Prince in Warhammer’s Slave to Darkness and Lost & Damned
  • Eldar Farseer in Warhammer 40,000

In 1995 I ran a Warhammer Chaos Champions RPG, with the goal of one of the party becoming Daemon Princes. Despite how much we all enjoyed it, two of the players left the area and the game was put on hold. Cue reminiscing about one of those cool campaigns that got away…

Whilst this chronicle is very much set in the World of Darkness, games like D&D’s Planescape, L5R and GURPS have been great aids in working out ideas. All part of my RPG mental-toolbelt belief.

Since an ancient spirit would have vast knowledge of many subjects and treaties with many other spirits, I decided to go with the easy solution of starting the game with the birth of the spirit. This way the player and I will develop a better understanding of the character’s development, and as I’ve written about before PBM is particularly good at handling Time. The time between turns allows for all sorts of details to be pondered, worked out, and dramatic character development.

I made a big list of story/chronicle ideas for Richie to choose from. The idea being that by playing a unique spirit, the spirit’s nature and goals can be designed to cater to the type of game he wants to play. The following is part of the list I sent to him:

  • An Ancestral Incarna, this could be ancient Spirit that goes back to the dawn of the Garou Tribes; these types of spirits are heavily linked to Past Life. They might be closely linked to the dead, maybe even formed by long-dead Garou, or they could be epherma (Spirit matter awakened by a Tribe’s actions), or maybe they came from the Tribe’s Totem but gained importance and independence. This sort of Incarna would be focused on members of a single Tribe.
  • Incarna of Historical Big Moment, this Spirit embodies the idea that big moments are guaranteed/inevitable, and that an individual plays a pivotal role; humans tend to fixate on the ‘big-movers of history’, but this Spirit understands things are more complicated, and it figures out what domino to knock over. Maybe it’s an Ancestral spirit, maybe more linked to the dream realm and Chimera’s brood, maybe this is linked to Storytelling Spirits given its narrative nature, maybe a Past Life Spirit, or maybe it is a manifestation of the Fates.
  • A Wyrm healing Incarna that has hidden itself away and wants to heal the Wyrm by re-joining it! This is likely a super-hard mode campaign, which is saying something given the standard hard mode of the Apocalypse. Maybe the Wyrm is insane because this Incarna spirit escaped, maybe with this piece the Wyrm could heal, sounds like a crazy plan, but the Hydra is crazy 😉
  • A tiny spark of the Balance Wyrm, this Incarna focuses on figuring out how free its parent. However, how to fight a Triat? Especially given the scope of the task. Can the Weaver be persuaded? Can the Wyld be slowed enough to talk to? Could the Wyrm reveal a secret even in its current insane state? As above, super-hard mode, and crazy Hydra.
  • A Weaver Spirit that is a hybrid with either Wyld or Wyrm. In the Wenn Diagram of the Triat there is cross-over, albeit normally in smaller ways and only briefly, cosmologically speaking.
  • Maybe a Spirit explicitly dedicated to a different Supernatural race, maybe in regards to healing, communication, monitoring, or maybe the race’s total annihilation.
  • A lesser Incarna that is a sub-part of the Phoenix Incarna, this would be a big secret since the Garou nation does not know about it. It reveals itself only to Garou who must walk a lonely path to carry out a quest associated to a concept like redemption, rebirth, transformation, etc.
  • The Carer of Gaia’s Word, a spirit that has a secret quest, to protect a secret of Gaia, one that was whispered to her sister Luna. What that secret is, how it relates to the Triat, or to the Apocalypse would be a key part for focusing the chronicle’s theme.
  • Crazy Outsider Spirit Pretending to be a Wyld Incarna: This crazy suggestion could be that the spirit is basically one of Cthulhu Mythos in disguise trying to usurp Gaia, or simply get a place at the buffet of gnosis.
  • Trickster Incarna, super-mega-turbo-hard campaign. It claims to have this big secret, and travels about distracting everything so a subtle plan can be implemented. Likely results in many dead Garou, and other Fera. Maybe the secret is even real!
  • Ninja Spirit, because well ninjas.
  • <Insert TODO Incarna>. The ultimate trick of the Weaver, the Procrastination Planning Spirit. Somehow it will resolve the Apocalypse via a night of cramming. This sounds like the most powerful thing ever! 😉

After a lot of discussion we worked out another spirit idea, which will be revealed in a later blog. Once this was done we were able to determine the chronicle’s focus. I also mentioned that once the game is established I will consider adding new players to the game, partly depending on health, partly workload, and also whether I program some of the game aspects to make it easier to run something even bigger.

There had been a good few minutes spent discussing the <Insert TODO Incarna>. I love this idea, and I’ve added it to my vast list of comedy RP ideas to develop; I’ve made a few already for my forever in development role-playing guide, since it previously read like a monotone academic volume.

Next time I will introduce the prelude.

Spirit Game – Secret Rage

This continues on from PBM Thanks & Secret Rage.

I developed the Secret Rage idea by changing the player character from that of following a lineage of Garou, to that of playing a powerful spirit. Making the game about a powerful spirit, something effectively immortal, which can guide Garou, who the player can also play, gave me the idea: “A chronicle to prevent the Apocalypse”. This idea links to the forthcoming new World of Darkness that is in development, which builds upon the old World of Darkness (oWoD), but the end days (Gehenna, Apocalypse, or Ascension) never happened.

The scale of this spirit game is even bigger than my old Vampire Methuselah and Elder PBM games, more like the professional games I ran at KJC Games. Whilst the spirit has vast powers and epic plans, the key is to treat the character like any other, to be propelled by motivations and personal drama. An added benefit with this project is it also allows me to playtest ideas from a commercial PBM project that I’ve been working on for years: Elemental Masters. This game is about the building blocks of reality and the plots of pantheons; I seriously need a better name than this working title, meh.

A few RPGs go in to some detail about spirits, particularly several of the World of Darkness (old WoD & Chronicles) as well GURPS Spirits. Sadly despite the numerous details they present, I still wanted more depth. To be fair to those books, I do tend to go overboard with my ideas, plus the Spirit label is so all-encompassing, so it is no surprise that a collection of predominately enigmatic entities are described in vague terms. One of the strengths of the WoD books is how many ideas they present, whilst not creating a rigid structure to limit possibility. As normal for any GURPS book, GURPS Spirits is filled with a plethora of thought provoking ideas, and plenty of rules options, plus plug-ins to such a powerful system.

When I first read the Werewolf I was reminded of how the game brilliantly compares with Dungeons & Dragons; I’ll justify that statement another time. Manual of the Planes was my favourite D&D book, and Planescape is my favourite setting, so it is no surprise to reveal that Umbra is my favourite WoD book, my second favourite is the Mage Book of Madness.

Spirit Scale

Given the cosmological scale of any spirit world to its setting, any decision made can have far reaching impacts upon said setting. It is common to declare that the ephemeral nature of spirits makes them mysterious to mortals/beings of flesh, which is understandable given that Spirits are not player characters (PCs). The three tiered Umbra (High, Middle and Low) in the old World of Darkness effectively contains every idea and its spiritual impact, so detailing literally everything would be an impossible task. It is up to each group as to the scale of any Umbral impact they want to explore, there is certainly enough information for any Storyteller to launch all manner of games.

Given how many different games I’ve played for extended periods, I’ve gotten to explore the core setting of each game. This is another reason for my obsession with all RPG cosmologies, to explore. For example a very long running game of Legend of the 5 Rings slowly became about the setting’s cosmology; I am quite looking forward to the forthcoming 5th Edition and to see what more they add. As a Star Trek fan, I did consider another name for this campaign:

Tellurian Trek!

Spirit Courts

Another important consideration is the complexity of any Spirit Courts, powerful gatherings that surely would have connections to each other. A design dilemma is how best to present such entities, especially if they are long-lived, and thus would have many ancient relationships to work out; never mind the historical events they could discuss.  The Dungeons & Dragons setting Planescape went in to a lot of detail about the Blood War, which I think really added depth to the D&D cosmology; the machinations of ludicrously powerful entities and Gods is better presented in that setting. Werewolf did a good job of summarising many Spirit Totems and their relationships, and the setting itself is based around the Triat and Gaia.

I believe the vast cosmological scale of is one of the key reasons so many players of the World of Darkness setting preferred Vampire over Werewolf or Mage, and to a lesser extent Wraith, Changeling and Demon. Vampire is a rich enough game; it has plenty of characters, depth and history, without needing the Umbra to be brought out of the shadows. When Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand came out, a few players I chatted with explained that they didn’t like the new layers of plots, and some said they disliked the Umbral tie-ins; there were of course forum posts debating this point. Several players I’ve chatted with who love Werewolf or Mage typically list the vast cosmology as a reason why they do. Of course plenty of players, like myself, appreciate the different games for different reasons.

Spirit Psychology

Years ago I had written a collection of ideas about spirits for Elemental Masters setting, but I had not fleshed my ideas out enough. Typically for me I had avoided finalising ideas due to constantly feeling that I needed to research more. Finally with years of research and this idea for Secret Rage I was able to finalise ideas. I had been working on detailing the psychology of different types of spirits, also drawing upon computing and philosophical ideas. Exploring ideas such as compartmentalised minds, how an Incarna’s brood relationship works, how I think slumber works, more about a spirit’s relationship with Gnosis, Gaia, etc. My spirit work is not ready for public release, but things are at a good playtesting stage, which Richie and I will explore.

I’ve considered whether to develop this work in to a commercial product, so it is interesting to note that the new White Wolf have the Storytellers Vault.

Next time I go over the spirit choice for the game.

My Reflections on #RPGaDay

Despite how much time I ended up spending on RPGaDay, I don’t regret taking part, it was fun and interesting. If you are not familiar with #RPGaDay, then please read this page first. The full list of my answers for each day can be found in my menu’s RPG section.

Before the event had started I had been unsure about participating. I always have too many projects, and due to the time factor I’ve avoided getting too involved with Twitter. The alternate questions were what sealed my participation, although it’s quirky that I didn’t use any of them in the end; I plan on answering them over the weeks to come.

Whilst I knew I would typically spend too much time over-thinking my answers, a task I thoroughly love/hate, I’d be saved by having a daily deadline. Since a few friends knew I was taking part, I had a nice amount of self-inflicted peer pressure to keep me on target.

For me RPGaDay proved to be an overall interesting experience. I’ve cut some negative points out, to keep things within the spirit of the event. I learned about some new games, and interestingly that Kickstarter is even more important to help with RPG advertising than I’d thought. It was also great to get so many different answers to the same question; I was quite intrigued by this, since it is a rare occurrence.

Due to equipment, time, and health reasons I didn’t record any video answers for the event. I may still record my answers, even though the event has passed and I’d be lucky to get one viewer. I agree with the premise that videos and blogs should be made with viewers/readers in mind, but also with the acceptance that maybe only the maker views them.

For me the RPGaDay event proved to be a great reminder of the different experience levels, and preferences, that the RPG hobby contains. An easy or dull answer for one participant could be hard or exciting for another, some of the answers draw attention to these differences, and the positive spirit of the event helped remind everyone to not be too judgemental. I had been planning on writing about psychology, RPG history and the transient nature of the hobby, but I have lots to write already and Runeslinger’s post does a great job of summarising things, so read that instead. 😉

Dave Chapman and Anthony Boyd (Runeslinger) have made this great video: