Our Dark Parallel – A Review of Sigil & Shadow

Sigil & Shadow

Author: R. E. Davis
Publisher: Osprey Games
Page Count: 209
Available Formats: PDF & Print
PDF – $24.50
Print (Hardcover) – $35.00

Urban fantasy and occult horror are not new genres in tabletop roleplaying. To one degree or another, their individuals roots date back decades. Occasionally these two genres are married in games like CJ Carella’s WitchCraft, Chaosium’s Nephilim, Paul Mitchener’s Liminal, and much of the World of Darkness series of games. Like those before him, R. E. Davis has also blended these genres in his new game, Sigil & Shadow.

Note: Osprey Games provided a review copy to Rolling Boxcars for this article. If you have an item you’d like Rolling Boxcars to review, please visit our Product Review Request page.

Sigil & Shadow is a modern-day, urban fantasy occult horror roleplaying game in which player characters battling against supernatural forces or those changed by it. The world of Sigil & Shadow is a mirror of our present-day world with slight changes that facilitate the game’s themes.

Characters

Characters in Sigil & Shadow are everyday people who have had some experience with the occult. The type of character or, Casting, a player chooses will be is based on the story the Guide presents. Characters fall into one of two Castings—Illuminated or Shadowed. The Illuminated are those who seek to protect others from the occult or to safeguard the mysteries. Shadowed characters are those that embraced the darker side of the occult, seeking to grow in power or perhaps cause mischief. Within each Casting are four Callings. Callings define a character, provide additional details, skills, and benefits—think of it as a class/sub-class. Players randomly roll or choose a background and oddity for their character. Backgrounds provide a Lifestyle rating (a narrative measure of wealth) and a Perk (special bonuses). Oddities are unique narrative elements about a character that have in-game uses.

Once the Casting, Calling, Background, and Oddity are chosen, it’s time to work out the character’s statistics—this is surprisingly straightforward. There are four Abilities—Strength, Dexterity, Logic, and Willpower. Each starts at 40%, and players then distribute ten (10) advances (each worth +5%) however they wish to these four Abilities. Every character begins the game with at least two trained Skills and may receive more through their Background or by spending Bones. (Bones are described in detail below, in the Mechanics section) Skills are broad categories of knowledge and training. The ten available Skills are—Arcana, Combat, Education, Investigation, Larceny, Medicine, Mysticism, Social, Survival, and Technical. Trained Skills have ratings in levels 1-5; each level conveys a +10% when determining the Success Value. Because Skills are rather broad in their scope, some require players to selected “Focused Fields,” which represent more narrowly defined areas of knowledge.

All characters have Special Features, some more than others. Every character starts with either a Perk, a Gift if training in Mysticism, or Manifestation if a Shadowed character. They also receive Descriptors. Descriptors are small phrases that describe details, detriments, or aspect of the character that isn’t covered elsewhere. Players write one positive and one negative Descriptor. These established character facts have in-game effects—examples are provided. Descriptors provide three in-game modifiers. Those tied to the action receive a +/-10% to the Success Value. If it’s intrinsically connected to the action, a player may spend a Bone to gain an Advantage on the roll. If a Descriptor is deemed a hindrance, the Guide may impose a Disadvantage.

Rounding out character creation is derived statistics and equipping characters, so they are ready to face the world for better or worse.

Character advancement is a little fast and loose. It’s based on reaching milestones, but there are no clear rules about when the Guide should award milestones. In part, this is due to the author’s assertion that a campaign should last no longer than twenty adventures—after which characters retire or meet their ultimate fate. When enough milestones are reached, characters’ Rank (they start at Rank 1) increases and earn advancements. For every advancement earned and spent, players choose from one of the nine available rewards. The rewards range from gaining a new Skill to increasing an Ability score by +5%, adding +1 Bone to the pile, gaining a new Manifestation (if Shadowed). Players may take these rewards multiple times, but not the same one consecutively.

Mechanics

Sigil & Shadow is powered by a straightforward D100 percentile system that some will find familiar, at least parts of it. When rolling to determine if an action is successful or not, the roll must be equal to or less than the Success Value (SV). Success Value is the percentile rate of a character’s ability score, adjusted by their skill training and other modifiers. In some situations, players choose which order the dice are read based on if they have an Advantage or Disadvantage.

The last important dice mechanic of note is rolling doubles. Rolling doubles indicates “Double Success” or “Double Failure,” depending on the roll’s outcome. Rolling doubles when dealing damage, players can opt to either double the damage dealt or inflict an injury such as a broken arm or gouged eye.

For most tasks, this is all that is required to determine success. However, in the case of Extended Tasks or Contested Tasks, players will want to roll as close to their Success Value. The author says, “Think of it as a hand of Blackjack – you want to aim high without going bust!”

Bones are a meta-currency integral to the game’s form and function. They are similar to Fate points, bennies, inspiration, etc., used in other games. During character creation, every character gets five Bones. Any Bone not permanently spent during character creation is available to them in-game for: re-rolling dice, activating Shadowed Manifestations, or even twisting the narrative in the character’s favor. As meta-currency, those spent during gameplay are regained when characters play to their Drive. Drives come from a character’s Casting; it’s what motivates or drives them to keep working towards their goals.

The last few mechanical elements of note are Extended Tasks and Combat. Extended Tasks are actions that longer than simple actions and might include things like hacking into a computer, hotwiring a car, invocation spells, etc. These tasks are tracked to completion on a percentage scale starting at 0%. For every successful action that’s part of an Extended Task, the value of the roll is added to the tracked percentile. Thus, as noted previously, succeeding and getting closer to the SV means the task is completed that much sooner. Conversely, depending on the skill’s level, characters may only fail a certain number of times before their efforts are ruined.

When combat breaks out, the narrative shifts to rounds as characters interact in a narrowly focused scene. During their turn, players may perform one or more actions. Those opting for two or more actions are subjected to a “Multi-Action Penalty,” imparting a cumulative -20% penalty to each action beyond the first. Characters affected by any number of Conditions are also subject to the effects they impose on Abilities, Skills, or Actions.

I have highlighted some of the main mechanical elements of Sigil & Shadow; there are other moving pieces that, when all put together, make it all work. Mechanically (magic aside), it’s moderately simple once you have worked through some of the mechanics a few times. If you’re familiar with other D100 systems, some elements may feel familiar to you and lessen the learning curve.

Esoterica

What occult game would be complete without magic and mysticism? Needless to say, mysticism is a rather important element of this game; about 1/3 of the book is dedicated to discussing various aspects of it. Mysticism is not only the ability to gain insight through metaphysical means, but it’s also the thing in which characters develop through play.

After awakening their sixth sense, those that continue to train, develop, and attune to it discover new abilities within themselves called Gifts. Gifts are natural inward abilities akin to spells. Some Gifts are “fire and forget,” while others require the Mystic to maintain concentration to keep up the effects. There are fourteen Gifts that may be awakened.

Shadowed characters are not bestowed  Gifts because “they have been transformed by both the umbral energies of the paranormal as well as changed in ways that reflect the Shadow within them. Embracing one’s darkness can be a terrifying ordeal – but when coming out the other side of it, they may discover a strength they had never known before.” Instead, these characters have Manifestations and Burdens, to which they can tap.

Manifestations are paranormal abilities Shadowed characters acquire; supernatural talents bestowed on them as they succumb to umbral forces. At character creation, each Shadowed character starts with two Manifestations at level 1 and one Burden. Manifestations are similar to skills in that they are measured in levels (1-5), each providing a passive talent or enhancement that is always available. However, some have special features activated by spending Bones. There are twenty Manifestations to choose from. A Burden is “the price paid” for embracing one’s Shadowed self. There are ten Burdens from which to choose; each is interesting and has varying degrees of impact on roleplaying and narrative.

Now we come to the casting of magic. Where the Gifts, Manifestations, and Burdens were relatively straightforward in their in-game effects and application, magic, sorcery, metaphysics is a whole different creature. Being more free-form, it only loosely conforms to any of the rules presented earlier in the book. The following quotes from page 112 sum it nicely.

To put it bluntly: modern magic in Sigil & Shadow isn’t about memorising a catalogue of spells and agonising over choices. Instead, it’s a mixture of imagination, problem solving, narration and roleplaying topped off with dice rolling. Performing magic is primarily a conversation between the caster’s player and the Guide, adjudicating mechanics as it suits the need of the game.

Being a relatively fluid mechanical element of the game, the author goes on to include a disclaimer for those coming from more traditional fantasy games.

DISCLAIMER: DON’T OVER THINK IT!
Fans of more traditional fantasy game systems may find the freeform and impromptu nature of spells to be daunting. The various components, keywords and steps can feel like a lot to take in – just know they’re there as an aid and not as rigid laws or a dogmatic system to master! If the keywords get in the way, just express what you’re trying to achieve and how you imagine your caster achieving it. The Guide can then work out the rest of the details with you. Trust in the process and enjoy the ride.

Sorcery, or Arcana, are lumped in thematic groups like “Fundamentals,” which are the Platonic Elements—air, water, fire, earth, the primal essence that is Life, and the undoing that is Shadow. Each Arcana includes an aspect, foci, and narrative text that puts it into a worldly context. The worldly context is a tool for the player to weave its use into the narrative. When casting any Aracana, once all the narrative and physical aspects are met or achieved, a roll is made (WIL + Arcanum + modifiers). Rules and guidelines for more formal rituals, summoning, and other similar actions that players may wish to engage in are also given.

I find the magic system, as a whole, not to my liking. Although there are some sample spells provided, the heavy reliance on the player and Guide working out all of the particulars seems to slow down and break the game’s flow far too much for me.

Behind the Curtain

The book’s final section is a Guide’s toolbox. In it are several useful tools for creating memorable stories. There is a nice variety of sample creatures, critters, and cryptids to throw at the characters. These samples also double as templates for creating your own adversaries. Minor and Major NPC templates are slightly different, but the premise is relatively the same. Guidance is provided for creating Visage—powerful patrons or NPCs to bring into a game. The creation method involves using a tarot deck and includes their interpretations. There is an entire chapter dedicated to creating and developing an immersive setting. This includes several quick and dirty tools to help flesh out various aspects of the setting or larger campaign world.

The Guide’s section does what it sets out to do, prepare the Guide for running games of Sigil & Shadow. It provides several basic templates and generalities, giving the Guide lots of latitudes with their creativity. However, because of the form it takes, it lacks the laser-focused guidance many readers might be accustomed to seeing in a “Gamemaster’s Section” of a book.

Form & Function

Although I was only able to evaluate the PDF, there are several things I’d like to point out, some of which will carry over into the physical book:

  • The book is digest size which I am a huge fan of. It’s just a great size for reading.
  • The book has a very clean layout consistent with other Osprey Games titles.
  • Superb color illustrations; used to good effect throughout.
  • Many glaring editing errors throughout the book. These are not the odd things that an editor such as myself would pick up on. These are blatantly obvious and impact the reading experience.
  • The PDF is very well bookmarked and includes a hyperlinked Table of Contents and Index. All of which makes navigating the document that much easier.

Conclusion

I am attracted to occult-themed games like a moth to a flame. Sigil & Shadow attracted me at first, but I’m having a hard time summing up my final impression of the game because there are parts I like and parts I dislike.

What I dislike:

  • The Magic system is too free-form and can impact the game’s flow
  • No beginner scenario is included
  • The prolific editing errors

What I like:

  • The basic D100 mechanics are simple to comprehend
  • The individuality of the Castings and uniqueness of the Callings
  • The resources available in the Guide’s section are useful, despite a lack of focus

The two things pushing me away are the lack of an introductory scenario and the editing errors. Osprey Publishing has been in business for decades, and readers should not expect to find these types of editing mistakes from a proper publishing house. The lack of a scenario or two is unacceptable; I will note, however, that some of their other published roleplaying games include one or more scenarios. There is no better way to learn and internalize the rules than to transition from reading the book to playing an included scenario. They also serve to give a frame of reference to any advice provided within the book.

If you enjoy occult-themed games, and you’re willing to do the heavy lifting of creating your first scenario from scratch with little to base it on while overlooking the editing issues, this might be a game for you. It feels like there is a good game in here, but the mix of traditional mechanics and free-form creativity just doesn’t sit right with me. Perhaps it will feel right for you.

~ Modoc

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