Like most milieus, the RPG scene is subject to the winds of fashion and one of the areas in which changes in fashion are most visual is the balance struck between what is colloquially known as crunch and fluff. For example, while original D&D may have had a setting that was implied both by the rules and by the inspirational source material, there was no ‘official’ setting in which D&D campaigns were supposed to take place and so people built their own dungeons, their own towns, and eventually their own worlds. Fast forward a few decades and the balance between crunch and fluff had shifted so radically that people in the 00s would often buy RPG books and read them like novels, knowing full well that the books would never translate into actual game sessions.
The movement between these two extremes of fashion and design philosophy is so pronounced that people entering the hobby at one point in its history can often be quite surprised by approaches taken in the past. For example, someone raised to expect a balance of fluff and crunch similar to that built into the World of Darkness games would most likely be appalled by the dryness of a GURPS manual while someone used to the focused design philosophies of 21st Century story games would probably be appalled by the amount of useless background and setting-cruft that filled the pages of RPG books from the late 1990s. Fashions change, people change, and perceptions of games change with them.
As someone who first encountered the scene in the early 1990s, I have come to expect a certain amount of fluff as a means of providing GMs with some sort of steer when it comes to the kinds of adventures they might want to run with a particular game. A game doesn’t need to do a lot but it does need to tell me what kind of stories it is intended to help me tell and provide a few setting details to help inspire me to write my own adventures.
While Sigil & Shadow was first published in 2021 by Osprey Games, the book’s acknowledgements make it clear that the game started life in 2014 as an attempt to create a contemporary occult RPG from the distillation of two distinct systems, one devoted to fantasy and the other devoted to espionage. I mention this as Sigil & Shadow is a book so dry that it feels like a weird hybrid of 1970s writing and 2020s desk-top publishing.
Sigil & Shadow looks, to all intents and purposes like a modern RPG: Despite needing a couple more passes with the editorial sponge, the book looks very professional with its digest size, its glossy pages, its hardback cover, and its evocative World of Darkness-style artwork. The problem is that when you look past the book’s material aesthetics, you find less a game and more an assemblage of rules.
Sigil & Shadow feels a lot like an attempt to blend Kult with the World of Darkness. Indeed, the first decision made in character creation is whether you want to play an illuminated character or a character who has succumbed to the shadow. While this may seem like a moral difference, in practice it tends to mean that you’re either playing a monster-hunter or some sort of magical entity like a vampire, a ghost, or a werewolf. These magical critters have additional powers but the powers come with additional demands and psychological pressures that will impact upon how the character comports itself in play. Having chosen your Casting, you determine a background (what you were before you became aware of magic), then your ability scores, then your skills, then your perks, then your powers, then your equipment, then your lifestyle, and so on and so forth.
The book is just over 200 pages-long and almost all of it is devoted to character creation as each new chapter brings another set of powers, another suite of character types, and another set of magical schools. In play, this is all supposed to be quite light and free-form but it is also a lot of information to keep at the forefront of one’s mind.
I mentioned earlier that Sigil & Shadow reads a lot like an amalgamation of Kult and the World of Darkness and I feel that this needs to be unpacked: While the World of Darkness was supposed to be a cohesive setting, all of the games used subtly different systems so if you wanted to run a campaign featuring a vampire, a werewolf and a wizard, you were basically shit out of luck despite them all existing in the same campaign world. Sigil & Shadow feels like an attempt to overcome this kind of problem by providing a set of mechanics that allow you to play everything from vampires to monster hunters without having to juggle incompatible systems. This contemporary fantasy toolbox is why you would buy this game; it is what it does best, it is what it is intended to do.
The problem with the idea of a contemporary fantasy toolbox is that while RPG fashions have swung away from the lore-heavy days of the early 2000s, we have not yet reached the point where you can just drop a load of dry-arsed mechanics on the marketplace and expect people to buy them. Mechanics need a context and what context this game provides seems to come primarily from Kult including the dark imagery, the darkly psychological metaphysics about stuff slithering out from beneath the veil of mundanity, and (most importantly) the idea that Sigil & Shadow games are primarily a question of investigation rather than blowing shit up with magical powers.
The problem with Sigil & Shadow is that while some attempt is made to make a mechanical toolbox feel like a complete game, the book comes with no starting adventures and minimal setting details beyond a list of proper names that are basically just abstract concepts whose first letters have been capitalised. The book also concludes with some actually pretty decent guidelines for coming up with a campaign setting for a contemporary fantasy game (find the map of a town, litter it with places of power, come up with a list of five factions that all fighting over the sites of power) but the point is that they’re generic guidelines… they’re invitations to go out and do your own work when maybe you want the book you just bought to do some of the work for you.
Looking back over this review, it occurs to me that I’ve not really engaged very much with the rules and that is definitely a fair criticism of a product that is first and foremost about the rules. To be fair, the rules strike me as perfectly fine on a mechanical level; it’s just that the book does absolutely nothing to inspire me to use them to run a game.
In some ways, Sigil & Shadow is a bit like those old GURPS World of Darkness books in that they provide you with a set of rules allowing you to have all the various WOD critters in the same campaign, but the appeal of that kind of product lies in its ability to solve a very specific and very narrow mechanical problem. With no context, no setting, and no adventures of its own, Sigil & Shadow has nothing to offer beyond its ability to solve that one very narrow mechanical problem. It’s a bit like when people used to produce Fantasy RPGs that were D&D except that they had health levels rather than hit points: This is a game that provides a great solution to a very specific problem but if you don’t have that problem then the game offers nothing that might make you want to stick around and take a look; which is a real crying shame.