I started reading Stephen King at 11, Charles de Lint at 12 or 13, and started playing White Wolf games at 14. The modern supernatural horror/fantasy genre has been a fascination of mine for almost 30 years and with good reason! It’s a compelling concept, that of a shadow world alongside ours, populated by monsters, wizards, and spirits, all of whom attempt to keep their existence secret while engaging in their internal machinations. It’s the world I think of when I see the crowds in the City at night, take a pull off a bottle of cheap beer in a dive bar, or pull my hood up to vainly keep off the rain while I walk my way through winding streets, full of people with strange and unique stories. In all honesty, if there is one genre of game I feel comfortable running at the drop of a hat, it’s this one.
It seems that no matter how many modern horror/fantasy games I read or acquire, I always want to see how the next one does it: every White Wolf game, every Onyx Path Chronicles of Darkness game, Scion, Witchcraft, Buffy/Angel, Kult, Unknown Armies, Dreaming Cities, Dresden Files, Mortal Coil, Delta Green, Call of Cthulhu, After the Vampire Wars, Liminal, and the list goes on. It’s not that I’m ever unsatisfied with any of them – I just want to see how the next game does things! I want to see how they weave their story alongside our history, how their metaphysics inform the interaction of the natural and supernatural, and how I can trade bits of each around and reinterpret them through a different lens.
Sigil & Shadow, by R.E. Davis, published by Osprey Games, is a welcome addition to the genre. It uses a straightforward percentile system with a flexible magic framework to allow all sorts of modern horror/fantasy stories to be told – everything from monster hunters, to X-Files games, to the trials and tribulations of vampire societies.
Like all the Osprey Games line, it’s a beautifully illustrated book, well-layed out with single column pages (meaning I can more easily reference the PDF on my phone.) It’s easy to read and reference without the need to do a lot of hunting to find rules or concepts.
Character creation is a breeze. You choose if your character is Illuminated (a human awakened to the hidden world) or Shadowed (someone afflicted with a supernatural element – your vampires and werewolves, ghosts and revenants, faerie or cultists.) The “Esoterica” section does a great job fleshing out the character types and showing the various ways these Castings can manifest. Sigil & Shadow has its own cosmology but it’s general enough that you can adapt all sorts of settings and stories to it. One could run Vampire: The Masquerade, Supernatural, Twin Peaks, Hack/Slash, or Hellblazer games all using this system. It doesn’t make it generic, rather universal – these are features that put it on par with many of the games I listed above (including the very setting-specific games, as they can be replicated with the S&S rules.) I want to make note of one of my favorite character options, the Shadowed known as “The Host.” This is a character type where two psyches inhabit the same body. This could be a demon-possessed human, one guided by its imaginary friend, or its transcended consciousness – the example given is a Jekyll and Hyde-type character. It’s a pretty uncommon inclusion and one that I think would be a lot of fun to play.
Characters are made up of four Abilities (statistics) that govern their innate capabilities; Skills, which add 10% per level to a relevant Ability on an applicable roll; and Perks, which are special features that enhance a character outside the previous two factors. Shadowed receive Manifestations (their spooky powers) and characters can draw on Gifts (other paranormal abilities.) S&S makes good use of modern narrative conceits through the inclusion of Descriptors, character facts which round out their statistics and provide context. “Experienced Pilot” or “Dashing Good Looks” can be invoked to gain a bonus on a roll or, through the use of the meta-currency “Bones” allow a player to gain Advantage/Disadvantage on a roll – allowing you to rearrange the d10s in your percentile roll in your favor or forcing them out of your favor.
The system itself is, as mentioned, percentile (so mostly d100s.) The basic functions are simple enough to set out on one page with combat and circumstantial/environmental effects taking up a few more. Most situations are covered by spot rules – I couldn’t think of one that was blatantly missing – and combat seems suitably deadly for a modern game. Damage notation indicates a number of d10s to roll and total, which should whittle away Health Points at a speedy rate. I do like that specific injuries can be caused, manifesting as Descriptors until healed.
I always like percentile-based systems, as I find them easy to learn and teach, and I appreciate that S&S is only slightly gamey (through the use of Bones.) I like gamey (I’m a huge 2d20 fan) but also really enjoy what-you-see-is-what-you-get games as I can really wrap my head around the capabilities of the system in a different way.
There isn’t much in the way of physical world setting in S&S, but the Esoterica section fleshes out the cosmology and the shadow world. In the same vein as the rest of the book though, it gives you clear details that are still vague enough to allow you to decide how they present and to build basically any cosmology with the presented one as a template. There are other dimensions, gateways (intentional, permanent, accidental, temporary) between them, and a swathe of supernatural critters – the Shadowed being the PC option. You can build most any supernatural entity with the presented rules and I’ve already seen someone in the Osprey Discord mention running Vampire: The Masquerade with the S&S rules. The Sorcery system is freeform (with guidelines) and allows you to build your spells by going through a few basic steps and determining Effect, Method, the Form, and the Catalyst (the final component, gesture, symbol, etc.) While some of the realms of influence (Arcana) evoke western occult symbolism (the four elements, for example), others are more modern and transgressive (fleshcrafting, drugs, music, etc.) It creates a nice blend and gives plenty of options. One of the things I especially like about this chapter is it discusses magic “in a post-truth world.” Not quite the postmodern magick of Unknown Armies, it takes a hard look at what it’s like to be a practitioner in a world with Facebook, questionable media outlets, and shifty authority figures. It’s a nice inclusion for sure.
The gamemaster’s section succinctly and thoroughly discusses the most critical element of horror games: safety tools. Right off the bat it takes a couple of pages to cover the various ways you can run a shit-your-pants scary game without traumatizing anyone or ruining their night. It goes without saying that it’s wonderful how widespread this has become amongst horror games and it’s a good reminder for GMs, both old and new. The game-specific tools are excellent. Besides a quick and dirty bestiary, there are solid guidelines on how to apply the various elements of S&S into the creation of the setting (how do the Illuminated/Shadowed fit in, how prevalent is the supernatural, etc.), a number of random location and faction tables, and two great inclusions: “Five Factions Feuding” – a tool to help determine the relationships between the power players in your setting, and the adventure framework generator – a guideline covering the key elements of building a story in a modern horror setting emphasizing mystery and “timelines, not railroads.” It presents an excellent structure for stories and is something I’m going to use no matter what game I’m running.
Sigil & Shadow is a great game for those who love modern occult/horror and want a straightforward and simple system with the flexibility to allow groups to fully design their own setting. It has excellent character options, clear rules, and solid GM tools to help facilitate the mood of this style of game.
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