(Editor’s note: responses edited slightly for clarity.)
Check out SIGMATA: This Signal Kills Fascists here.
Unless you’ve literally been living under a rock, you’ll have noticed that politics have been a bit, well, we’ll call it “touchy” this year. And while our hobby can be an escape from the trying times in which we live, it can also be a big release to deal with our anxieties about rising authoritarianism through gaming and roleplaying. I chatted with Chad Walker about his fascist punching (and shooting, stabbing, etc) game, SIGMATA: This Signal Kills Fascists.
1) Let’s start at the beginning. How did fascists take over America in your dystopia?
Without giving too much away, the alternate American history of SIGMATA begins in 1954. Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy would not be censured for his outrageous witch hunt against alleged Soviet sympathizers and supposedly blackmail-prone homosexuals that had infiltrated the State Department and other branches of government. Instead, he would go on to win a primary battle against Richard Nixon, defeat John F. Kennedy in the general election, and become the President of the United States in 1960. He wins by normalizing the concept of the “Interior Threat,” the notion that America’s failures in industry and military adventure were not due to ineffective policy, failed diplomacy, nor a refusal to adapt to evolving markets, but rather, due to an international conspiracy of Soviets, homosexuals, immigrants, ungrateful minorities, and effete globalists committed to destroying the American way of life from the inside. Between 1954 and SIGMATA's 1986, that ideology has had two solid decades to materialize, mechanize, and mobilize.
2) One of the first things that struck me about the world you have created is the diversity of groups which make up the Resistance, especially since some seem antithetical to each other. How did you decide to include the radical left, libertarian militias, Evangelical Christians, and the wealthiest Americans as the opponents of fascism?
If it feels totally wrong, you're my target audience. As part of the game's exploration of how tyrannies defeat people movements, I thought it would be fun and instructive to create an imaginary popular front so disorienting and discomforting to players in real life that their biases would bleed into the gaming fiction. Divide and conquer is Tyranny 101. Even though it's not a secret, we all fall for it. Some folks seriously stopped reading as soon as they read the line about factions, only to race to Twitter and concern troll about it. The militias, evangelicals, and business people would support fascism, they'd insist. Yes, certainly some would. Maybe even a lot of them. Thing is, it's pretty natural to think of these groups as monolithic blocks when it comes to politics... "the" Evangelicals, for example, or "the" radical Left. But these groups are, themselves, extraordinarily diverse. We can quote statistics all day to reinforce our biases (e.g. 80% of [insert group] voted for [insert candidate]). But there's another way of looking at those statistics: *only* 80%? You mean 1 out of every 5 of them is a Resistance sympathizer who is on the inside already, primed to counter-recruit and/or sabotage at the Resistance's behest? Why wouldn't you break bread with these folks? I mean, other than you want to lose. Westerners often look at the very messy struggles happening all over the world, aghast that sectarianism continues to serve the interests of the some of the most brutal and vile regimes in history. Then they go high-five each other while posting memes alienating the very men and women who could very well be their brothers and sisters in arms if push came to shove.
3) This is a very political game, during a very politically divisive time. Have you received any blowback from unsympathetic gamers?
Yes, though none of it was a surprise. I've seen some Nazis and forum trolls hating on the game, but Nazis are gonna Nazi. I've also seen some *intense* hand-wringing from some leftists, mostly concerned by the ahistoricism of a temporary Left/Right popular front against fascism in a game about FM radio-powered cyborg revolutionaries.
I'll let that sink in for a moment.
I've also been accused of promoting fascism, McCarthyism, or generally being to the right of Timothy McVeigh (may he burn in Hell). I'm not complaining... when you do anything explicitly political, you're going to ruffle a few feathers. There's also the challenge of being unable to articulate the rationale of very, very intentional design choices in the marketing blurb, so it's reasonable that folks might hit a snag on some of the hyperbole or strong language. I gotta say, though, that one of the best things about 80s film and television shows is that despite that decade's extraordinary racism, sexism, and jingoism, kicking Nazi ass was an unambiguous, equally-opportunity public good. You didn't have to check in with the gatekeepers of party purity or be told to calm down by pearl-clutchers.
4) What can you tell us about The Signal? Where did the idea of it come from? How much can you tell us of its in-game origins? How closely is it tied to the cybernetics in the game? Are members of the Regime able to make use of it?
I get a lot of questions about the Signal. I'm not gonna go into the specifics of the Signal that are represented in the game's fiction. In part, because it is a surprise, but mostly because the fiction of the Signal is not nearly as interesting as the real life historical event that inspired it. As a security professional, I try to influence the design of resilient, redundant systems that can survive and thrive even in the face of disaster or massive attack. All of us witnessed one of the most gorgeous and cyberpunk-as-fuck examples of this during the Egyptian Arab Spring in 2011. The Muburak regime killed the Internet in an attempt to disrupt the uprising in two ways: 1) make it harder to organize, and 2) make it harder to beacon out to the international community to apply external pressure on a tyrant. To defeat this censor, the Egyptians went low tech. They smuggled in satellite phones, communicated over HAM radio, and even busted out their dial-up modems to hit a prehistoric BBS in Sweden. Anything and everything to keep beaconing out to the world, to keep Repeating the Signal, simultaneously a technical signal while also being an international message of defiance and legitimacy. That incredible lesson in revolutionary organizing using low tech means was something I sort of stowed away for safekeeping. 2016's terrifying resurgence of fascism in the West made me dust it off. There's more lessons of the Arab Spring that aren't as jubilant, like how the Signal can be smothered or distorted by effective counter-insurgent techniques. Assad is still in power because he figured this out (may he also burn in Hell).
Anyways, there you have it. That's the real secret to the Signal. In the game, the Signal is the key to victory. The Receivers' subroutines (superpowers) and blades (cybernetic modules) are absolutely tied to the strength of the Signal, which is, in turn, determined by how well the Resistance is doing in taking over FM radio towers, spinning up pirate radio stations, strategically placing repeaters throughout rural areas, and distributed the Signal in data-form over BBS networks. As to your last question, can the Regime make use of the Signal? I guess I'll answer that with another question: do you think super-powered clashes between nigh-invincible cybernetic commandos would make for some good gaming sessions?
5) All of the stretch goals sound rad. Which was your favorite to write up?
You mean which of my children do I love the best? Seriously, that's a really hard question. I think it's safe to say that tonally, they all hit different spots. I know there are backers out there who are more excited about these alternate settings than they are the core SIGMATA setting. And that's exactly why I reached out to these folks. I'll reserve judgement of my favorite until I see them completed. Me and the various stretch goal authors have only generally agreed on the surface level elements of their setting. I anticipate being surprised and delighted.
6) You’ve mentioned in the risks and challenges section that you are in the risk management field and that you’ve prepared for the worst, even though this is your first Kickstarter. Can you give specific examples of how your day job has helped you through the process?
It's pretty simple. Identify single points of failure and have a backup for each. If person X gets hit by a bus, what is the plan? Who will carry on their work, and what does that mean for the product? Have all the requisite account passwords (KS, bank accounts, email, etc.) been securely distributed to "break the glass" locations? There's also the idea of learning from other Kickstarters that have run into unanticipated problems, and taking actions to avoid the same fate. Yes, I could have opted for an off-set print, outsourced order fulfillment, and crossed my fingers that everything worked out OK. But I've seen that go haywire, too, creating major headaches for backers and the unfortunate, well-meaning creators who have to manage their outrage. I'm not an expert in finances or shipping logistics, so I offloaded these tasks to DriveThruRPG, to ensure it's done right. Does it impact the project's margins? Sure. But people are gonna' get their stuff no matter what, and that's really all that matters.
7) Finally, what are your plans to support SIGMATA in the future?
It's really up to the backer community, the subsequent community who buys it after the KS campaign, and how SIGMATA is received by players. I'd love to spend a few years really developing this game... diving deep into iconic 80s settings like Miami or Detroit, developing "instant adventure" kits for GMs, and extending the idea into different genres (e.g. horror, science-fiction, fantasy). There's a ton of exciting stories buried in this really simple idea.
Check out SIGMATA: This Signal Kills Fascists here.
Phil Pepin is a history-reading, science-loving, head-banging, river-running nerd, who would like nothing more than to cuddle with his pups and wife.
Picture Reference: Artist rendition of the hardcover edition.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.