Monday, February 13, 2017

What Do I Know About Reviews? Sig: Manual of the Primes

Back in 1994, the Planescape boxed set was one of the last roleplaying products I picked up before going on a long hiatus from gaming. It was such an open ended setting that it seemed like a wonderful setting for D&D. Any world or plane of existence was fair game.

And then almost a decade passed before I got to game again. Everyone I knew that was still into gaming during that time raved about the setting. I had to find solace in the fact that I played Planescape Torment on my PC.

As it turns out, a setting that crosses planar boundaries and examines the power of belief and conviction and how that effects the universe is the kind of thing that captures quite a few imaginations.

The original version of the campaign setting of Sig came out for the Spark Roleplaying Game a few years ago. The campaign setting is conceived around the idea of a planar city that touches multiple other realities and allows for the exploration of multiple planes of existence while also navigating the politics of various factions operating in the city. If you were one of those people that got to play Planescape while I was busy not playing games, all of that might sound familiar.

Sig: Manual of the Primes utilizes a much more narrative game system that D&D. We'll go into that a little bit more later, but the best explanation I can come up with for how the game system works is that it's kind of like using Fate aspects in a game of Fiasco with dice step mechanics kind of like Cortex Plus.

What Form Does It Take?

Currently, this newest version of Sig as a stand alone game is on Kickstarter but the PDF of the game is available to backers. The PDF is about 240 pages long. The pages have a faded colored pages with some nice fonts. There are some background images and symbols on many of the pages, and several very nice portraits throughout the book. One thing that does stand out, however, is that a few sections of the book, notably those that show parts of the character sheets, seem to have a blockier feel to them than the rest of the book. It's a little odd, but overall, the book is very attractive in it's presentation.

Chapter 1--The Rules of Play

This chapter has a section that explains the expected flow of story when running a game, and then enters into what is expected of the GM versus what is expected of the players. While the GM is handling the traditional aspect afforded that role--the GM runs the Faces of the city and decides if conflicts occur when players state their goals--the role is much more reactive than proactive, since players may be the ones framing scenes and deciding what forces are moving forward their agendas.

Because players have so much agency, and because a lot of character creation and advancement has to do with adopting and challenging strong and controversial opinions, there is also a section detailing the X-Card and how it should be employed in the game.

The next part of this chapter explains the sequence of play and how scenes unfold. Essentially players and the GM are having a discussion about what the objective of the scene should be, and when the GM decides that what the players are doing isn't going to succeed unopposed, a conflict happens. Unlike combat in other games, this is resolved with one roll, although the player and the GM may spend their Influence to modify the results. Characters can also take harm to gain a bonus to their roll, and in this system harm can represent physical harm or the mental or emotional toll a conflict takes on the player. Players and Faces (important NPCs) have three levels of skills--generally speaking broad, narrow, and very specific in scope. These also get added to the roll.

If the GM is relying on faceless NPCs or general environmental factors, or if the players are portraying circumstance as helping them out, or NPC allies being the prime movers on their side, they are rolling their Smoke attribute, representing the "spirit" of the setting, and if a Face or the player's character is the primary force acting in a scene, they use their Spark attribute. For players this means that you can play a character that relies on friends, allies, and luck quite a bit, rather than directly getting their hands dirty.

Characters can sit out of a scene entirely, or spend two influence and trigger an interlude, and this will allow them to recover harm.

In long term play, the GM and the players all roll their Smoke attribute to see who gets to narrate a faction making a major move forward in their goals, another faction taking a major setback, and to detail an NPC stuck between conflicting factions.

This is all very intriguing, especially if you are interested in games that give the players a lot of narrative agency. The mechanics are very simple, but I have to admit, I had to reread this section multiple times before I felt like I fully understood the flow of how Influence worked. The sequence of framing scenes and resolving them is also very important, and I felt like I had to go through that section more than once as well.

Chapter 2--Character Creation

Chapter two is all about character creation. There isn't a lot mechanically, but there is an important sequence. Oddly, the first section of character creation is to determine what planes are tethered to Sig at the moment. I understand the importance of knowing what the tone of the campaign is and the forces moving the story elements, but it does feel a bit odd to lump this in with character creation at this point.

Next, the player selects a name and title, family and heritage (which might mean picking a planar "race," but this doesn't have a lot of mechanical weight to it, other than just informing some of your later decisions), choosing profession (where you pick your various broad or specific skills), a faction in the city to ally with (or declaring independence from any of the factions), pick a Power to be devoted to (or declare independence from any Powers), determine Spark and Smoke attributes (do you act directly or through others), and establish connections with other players and NPCs in the game.

There are several references to other sections of the book for example factions, Powers, and professions. There is also a section on default "starting tethers" for the city that imply a specific style of campaign based on the combination of planar influences.

Characters also need to pick their beliefs. When these are challenged in a scene, people gain Influence. When they are confirmed or rejected, characters advance. Since there are three beliefs that a players is choosing, these line up with family and heritage, Faction, and Power, which means that they can be descriptive principles that explain a character's relation to each of these.

When players make characters, they place index cards between each other. Players make an NPC that their characters have in common based on one aspect of one character and another aspect of another character. Additionally, there is an NPC placed in the center of all of the players create by contributing an "aspect" of their characters to help define. After creating this common NPC, the story starts with that character's death.

I really love the character connections in this section, and it's easily portable to other games. It does feel odd that the default mode of the game is to always have a character connected to all of the characters that starts off dead to kick off the game. It feels as if it might get a bit repetitive after multiple story arcs.

Chapter 3--The Eternal Planes

This section details the big conceptual planes that connect to Sig and alter the narrative of what goes on in the city. There are Ideological, Elemental, and Conceptual planes that cover big ticket things like Fire, Death, or Justice. Each plane has some quick locations sketched out, an example Power, and a faction associated with it. Powers also have rituals that their followers can perform, which allow for a narrative "absolute" when performed, but if the cost of the ritual isn't paid, the ritual has a downside, usually taking the narrative boon to an extreme.

Each plane also has an ancestry associated with it, and that also has some example skills for use when a GM is running characters of that ancestry or to give player's an idea of what a "typical" member of that ancestry might be.

The end of the chapter has "rarities," lesser planes that sometimes take up one of the planar tethers, lesser planar ancestries, and minor factions that don't have quite as much pull as the others mentioned in this section. I'll be honest, while this section is a fun read, I think I like the "rarities" a little bit more than the major planes, factions, and Powers presented.

Chapter 4--Sig, The City Between

This chapter details Sig and it's various neighborhoods. Example locations are given in each neighborhood as quick bullet points, and sample NPCs are provided as the main example of that part of the city.

This section is done in very much the style I like these days. There are quick descriptions, bullet points, and NPCs with practical use.

Chapter 5--The Infinite Primes

I am so torn on this chapter. Individually, I love all of the Primes presented. Conceptually, I'm having a hard time reconciling how these Primes appear versus my assumptions about what the Primes should be.

The Primes are the worlds that all of the people from the Eternal Planes want to control because of resources and the wellspring of faith that can come from the inhabitants of the Primes. I had pictured the Primes as being, well, alternate Earths of varying types. In practice, they are much more obviously combinations of elements from multiple Ideological, Elemental, and Conceptual planes.

My concept of the Primes was that there would be so many elements and beliefs and concepts that they would be a really complex tapestry where those influences are hard to separate out. In practice, those elements are narrowed down and much more obvious. In game terms, I understand that this makes them easier to work the way other elements in the game do, with identifiable plot elements to manipulate. It just doesn't feel right to me.

There is also a procedure for creating one's own Primes that involves finding various elements in media, and distilling singular aspects from those things as defining elements of the newly created Prime. It's interesting, but feels a little sparse on details.

All of the above aside, the Primes presented are amazingly imaginative. They would make great, exotic planes to visit, and are all entertaining and useful for any kind of narrative game with fantastical elements. I guess I just wanted more of a "solid ground" with all of the other ephemeral aspects of the game, and instead, Primes are the things where multiple dreams intersect, rather than being the waking world. The wonder is great, but with everything being full on fantastic, Sig itself becomes the most "solid" thing in the setting, and its almost emotionally exhausting to contemplate running this to me.

Chapter 6--What Remains

This final chapter has a sample adventure, an example of play, and a list of influences on the game and setting.

The adventure is odd, because the way play is outlined elsewhere in the game, a predetermined adventure, even a flexible one, seems to go against the spirit of the GMs and players advancing plot elements and playing out what happens. While the adventure structure can still work with everyone on board, it feels a little forced, and there isn't much in the way of explaining how to reconcile this predetermined set of circumstances with the assumed play style.

The adventure itself doesn't actually have a resolution, which is in keeping with the assumed play structure. The adventure also introduces an interesting Shard plane, a new power, a new faction, and planar ancestry. All of these are really interesting, although the section on how the planar Shard is affecting the various Primes introduced in the previous section doesn't seem to add all that much to the scenario.

The example of play makes some of the previous sections flow a bit more logically, although it is a bit odd to put the example so far removed from where the mechanics are originally introduced.

The Plane of Life

There is a lot of creativity in this book. The planar descriptions are vivid and weird in the best way. Many of the cultures are alien in a way that authors struggle to portray. Game play forces you to actually play the character elements you choose for your character in order to advance.

The Plane of Destruction

The concepts of the game are so broad and ephemeral that it may be hard to narrow down a good play space for a campaign. For really simple mechanics, sometimes its very confusing to get the right sequence of how things like Influence or scene framing work.

The Plane of Shadows

The game's greatest strengths are probably it's greatest weaknesses as well. More than even aspects in Fate, beliefs are going to be tricky to get right, so that they are playable and compelling. That's a lot of player buy in, especially since players need to help propel the setting forward when determining factions that advance or fail in their objectives at the beginning of sessions.

I've also run into a lot of player resistance to "spending advancement" in other games, and Influence is an example of that kind of mechanic. In order to advance, a character needs to get 12 Influence, but Influence is important in adding to contested rolls, creating Interludes, and paying the cost of victory.

Speaking of Influence and advancement, on one hand, it's interesting that planar tethers change based on players resolving their beliefs, but I can't help but thing that, since planes also have beliefs associated with them, it might have made more sense for the GM to have a means to track Influence associated with the plane's beliefs in order to trigger a shift in the tether.

With challenging belief and high concepts always being on the forefront of the game, even when dealing with the primes, it feels as if the game could get very emotionally exhausting. As explained, even going to a plane that is hedonistic and relaxing is, in game mechanics, is a place to push boundaries.

In the end, this game is worth reading through if you have any love of planar adventuring and the concept of faith and devotion having a tangible effect on reality. The mechanics are worth checking out as an example of using "zoomed out" mechanics to tell stories in broader chunks. I'm just not sure that a wide range of gaming tables are going to be able to get completely comfortable in the game, and I wish that some of the flow of the game felt a bit more intuitive, given how simple the mechanics are.

*** (out of 5)

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