The line between homage and rip-off is perilously thin, and in an industry where fandom often drives creativity it can be a challenge to resist the urge to merely pantomime your favorite properties when trying to create original works.
My first impression of Canadian developer Jason Pitre’s Sig: Manual of the Primes was that this setting sounds quite a lot like Sigil, the hub of D&D’s storied Planescape universe. Indeed Pitre acknowledges this in the “Sources and Secrets” appendix at the end of the book where he lists his inspirations, saying Planescape was “the biggest inspiration for Sig, by a wide margin. In some ways, this setting is the reason why I got into game design.”
As I read the small, beautiful hardcover rulebook for Sig, however, I was struck by the ways in which--like the möbius strip on which the city is built--the setting twists and bends in unique, beguiling ways. In addition to simply using a dramatically different (mercifully THAC0-free) system to underpin the whole thing, there are numerous points of inflection that Pitre uses to weave a unique setting.
The elevator pitch for Sig is that it’s a “Cosmopolitan Planar Fantasy Roleplaying Game,” a game that focuses on how an impossible city that sits at a planar hub with hidden doorways to every imaginable universe would produce a cosmopolitan variety of cultures, ideologies, religions, and attitudes.
Manual of the Primes is an updated edition of the 2015 release, more polished and with some intriguing extensions that deal with the eponymous primes--planes of mere mortals like us, but comprising every conceivable, multidimensional reality. I found it at GenCon this week, being sold by the always-lovely Independent Game Developers’ Network store which masterfully curates a wide variety of indie offerings ranging from zine-like affairs to fully bound, glossy texts with bookmark ribbons like Sig. It’s a kaleidoscope of roleplayable wonders.
Sig grows out of its “Spark” system, also a creation of Pitre, which sees you develop characters defined by three core Beliefs. Challenging those Beliefs, perhaps even refuting and changing them, is at the heart of gameplay. Many of these beliefs can be tied to the various Eternal Planes that form rings around Sig. There are fifteen planes, five in each of three distinct categories: Elemental, Ideological, and Conceptual. But in a thoughtful twist, only three planes can be tethered to Sig at any one time, and those that are tethered influence the city directly, through migration, magic, and intrigue--thus shaping the character of the campaign.
The campaign itself sees your character affiliate herself with one of the numerous factions that populate Sig, each affiliated with one of the fifteen planes, as well as a related planar Power--a deity-like figure who embodies essential characteristics of their plane. This, in turn, gives some shape and force to the player’s Beliefs, and a cast of characters (or chess pieces, if you like) for rich planar intrigue. Combat on an individual level, while possible, is not a focus here. Instead, you’re meant to shape events at this crossroad city, pull strings and play a role in the agendas of Sig’s competing powers. And this is why Beliefs take center stage; the testing of your character’s deeply-held convictions in the raging furnace of Sig’s cosmopolitanism is what wins you “Influence,” which can in turn be used to do things like win a battle that the dice say you should lose, or change the Beliefs of another person.
"It’s a game about discourse, in a sense, but one that uses dialogue about belief to tell a story of planar intrigue, focused on relationships."
It’s a game about discourse, in a sense, but one that uses dialogue about belief to tell a story of planar intrigue, focused on relationships.
It’s this last bit that really intrigued me. During character creation you must also develop clear and concrete relationships for your character with NPCs called Faces. Then the group works together on the Focus, someone deeply connected to every PC. Then:
“The first Scene of the game involves the death or disappearance of the Focus. Rip up the card in front of the group, and announce the character’s demise. Give everyone three Influence and get started.”
From the word ‘go’ your focus is on the ties that bind your characters to this city, with personal bonds wending their way through a morass of belief, faith, intrigue, and contest.
The text of Sig is at its weakest when its homages to Planescape are laid on thick--its version of planar cant is but a distant echo--but when the game glories in its premise, it truly shines. Its emphasis on personality, for instance, makes for quickly rendered but complex characters who express the city in all its myriad facets, from a xenophobic preacher to an almost-fallen paladin to a Goddess of bureaucracy who sees only the duties and obligations that bind people to each other, there’s so much to love in the elegant way Pitre populates his world. You want to reach in and touch it.
For a few hours at a gaming table, at least, you can.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.