Jeff Sproul: Sigil Online Review

Just finished Jeff Sproul’s Sigil Online What did I think?

Tl;dr: It’s about 3 stars, higher if you really love power-based stories and superhero stories. The majority of the problems stem from the main character, his flat character arc, and some problems with the Superhero setup.  Where it shines is the powers, but make no mistake, this is a sequence of battles loosely strung together by a narrative thread.  The cliche but true advice of show, don’t tell applies to most of this story.

Long Review: Spoilers

The big problem is the protagonist and his relation to the World.

Storywise, when you die in-game, you lose your character and have to start from power level 0 and actual level 0.  Each person has the potential to gain two levels in their power.  This power is randomly assigned when you do something.  Then it goes up one more level when you do some other random thing.

At power level 2, you become a paragon. Paragons that die in-game are covered like media celebrities.  “Actual level” refers to your actual level in game, and what stats your character has.  What stats you need depends on your character’s powers.

The MC’s arc is that he used to be considered a dick because he wouldn’t group with low-level players when he was a high level player.

That arc never gets resolved because he’s still a low-level player at the end who groups with other players in his power-range. His actual arc in the game was learning to like his fellow teammates, but even that arc is not complete.  He liked one of his other teammates when he was a high-level player and even died saving her.

This also leads to some narratively clumsy scenes. I.e. we see God battles in broad daylight, explosions and fights, and we see people get murdered very casually throughout the day. But the protagonist seems really surprised by this, even though it seems to happen on a near daily basis.  It’s like a soldier being surprised that Afghanistan is a deadly place to get stationed.  Who knew?

Likewise, he doesn’t realize some people in his old group were PKers.  This is even though players can be identified via their powers and there are random streamers everywhere.

When the MC gets killed, he does it saving another player, which doesn’t really work narratively. He should have been killed after having the choice to save the other player, not in heroic sacrifice.

This weakens the narrative arc as essentially, the complaint against Riley boils down to, “He’s a high level player who plays with other high-level players.” Which is kind of what people do in every game.

This is the show, don’t tell rule, which gets broken here.  We’re always told Riley was a dick, but the one time we see him, he’s saving someone else, and the other people in his team are also dicks.  His only other problem was ignoring people when he was late to a meeting with his group.  It’s a very thin gruel to base your character arc around.

He’s also an Otaku character, which further weakens his use as a protagonist. The entire story takes place completely within the game, except when the character has to come out to pay bills.  But this doesn’t pay off in any way except for some minor hand wringing here and there.

What Jeff is doing here is trying to keep the protagonist from being bad, so he’s sheltering him with ignorance. This is a common, (but bad), strategy in writing, you can read my Why Hollywood Can’t Write Women article for a full explanation. Short version, a character needs to have a flaw to have an arc, but they aren’t overcoming any personal weakness if their flaw is just, “I didn’t know something.”


The protagonist should have been a fighter character who never partnered, a PK’er, and a streamer.  Starting the game two years ago, he has grown a fan base killing people while they’re fighting bosses, but he accidentally misses his target once and has to fight the boss, and without any support, dies.

Then he’s in game and gets killed repeatedly.  By random monsters, by boss battles, by World events, by PK’ers.  He learns that he’s been a complete dick this whole time.  He’s losing his money, losing his support network, and losing his fans.

At his lowest point, he finally meets people willing to help him, and he joins their group.  Then he becomes a support character and has to learn the difference between being a solo player vs. being a team player.

End script-doctoring

There’s also no Justice League or thereabouts equivalent to keep PKers in check or other monsters in check, which seems to be a missing storyline in a hero driven Universe.

The best part are the powers and power-based elements. That’s what drives the story forward. There’s some hand-waving that goes along with this, as powers can be granted rather easily in some cases, which diminishes the paragon status. It also seems to be very unbalanced, a bit like the X-Men.

  • “I can turn into an invulnerable adamantium man.”
  • “I can shoot sparkles from my fingers.”

There’s also a lack of specific uses for items. They take up a big part of the story in terms of word count, but rarely have anything to do with the actual story, which is based on powers. The only exceptions to that are gaining power levels, but the amount of time spent talking about loot vs. actually seeing anything done with the loot is lopsided.

That focus on stats is something we are told about constantly throughout the book, but we rarely actually see it payoff. We have special items you can eat for stat boosts, places you can stay at where you receive buffs for being in the area, etc., but none of that really comes through in the story.

This is sort of the double-edged curse of using such an open power/gaming system. By not locking down the power, we have Sanderson’s law of magic coming into play. Our ability to care about stat increases is correlated to how much we know about how those stats will affect the game, and it seems like they mostly don’t matter. We can’t really tell how much of this is strategic planning vs. luck because of how randomized the stats are.

This is also a problem for a permadeath game, since we can’t see different outcomes based on what the characters do differently, we can’t really know the effects of any strategy.

Also, Riley (the MC) was a support class, and becomes a support class again. This is a missed character arc, in addition to his role being boring in most combat situations, (lots of “Thanks Riley!” dialogue moments, akin to “Gee Goku” moments in Dragon Ball Z). These dialogues in the middle of battle diminish the violence of the situation and cuts down on the tension.

There’s also a really dumb series of scenes where they try to detective the villain.  None of these scenes payoff narratively, and it also makes everyone seems really stupid.  One of the main things that never gets addressed is that Riley is only killed because he tried to save someone.  He was not the target of the attack.  Yet he makes a bunch of conclusions based on the fact that he was killed in the battle, even though the story says this.

This is the other problem, Riley isn’t the only weak character.  Every character should be a reflection on the central conflict of the story.  In this case, it would basically be, “What are the ethics of a good gamer in this Universe?”  The extremes are always help everyone, (the character who embodies this dies), and always cheat everyone over.  Each of the support characters should embody a shade of that idea.  The idealist, the realist, the pragmatist, etc.  There’s no real shades of grey in this story, everyone is just a bad guy or a good guy.

The other way to go about this is to use characters that play off each other, which is what Harmon Cooper does in Fantasy Online with Feetwix and Hiccup the Goblin.  This can backfire horribly, (think Jar-Jar Binks), but done well, it can add more to a scene.

The end result is you just forget everyone, since they aren’t defined by who they are as people, but by what they can do with their powers.  I just read it and I can’t name a single other person besides Riley, and I had to look his name up again.

So the verdict:  Paper-thin characters, a weak storyline, pointless digressions, some interesting World-building that never pays off directly, and a lot of interesting powers.

6 thoughts on “Jeff Sproul: Sigil Online Review”

  1. To be clear, I really enjoy your reviews, and I think all your plot advice is solid and on point. I write that because I have a minor concern: character likeability.

    If I had a choice between a flat arc with a likeable protagonist and a well executed arc with an unlikeable one, I’d definitely choose the former. Ideally, I could find both positive attributes in a single book, but while the two are not mutually exclusive, it does seem that a lot of authors have difficulty with that balance.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.




    1. You don’t need a likable protagonist: “NightCrawler”, “Wolf of Wall-Street”, and “American Psycho” for example. I’ve talked about these examples in another article.

      Of course, there the unlikable characters are used to diagnose social ills, like how does someone so terrible thrive in society?

      For this particular book, the term is the “Redemption Arc”, such as Jamie Lannister, Spike and Angel from Buffy, Rurouni Kenshin, Apollo from Rocky, John Marston from Red Dead Redemption, etc.

      Those are all iconic characters.

      The book (Sigil Online) tries to undergo a Redemptive Arc, but never establishes anything the character needs to redeem himself from and more importantly *to anyone*.

      In all of the above cases, the former villain learns through a personal example that they’ve done wrong and make amends based upon that realization.

      In short, the book wants the emotional payoff without ever having the emotional setup necessary for that payoff.


  2. I watched Nightcrawler and enjoyed it. In movies, I can handle an unlikeable protagonist. In books, not so much …

    Seriously. Nowadays, if I start a story and don’t care for the main character, I’ll probably not finish it.

    I get that that is a personal preference, but I think it’s one that defines your audience.


    1. Put it this way, I would rather an an *initially* unlikeable protagonist who has real goals and motivations rather than a milquetoast bland protagonist who just wanders about randomly and has no real goals or motivations.

      House of Cards, Game of Thrones, House, Mr. Robot, Jessica Jones, most of the top shows have downright unlikable protagonists that people still follow religiously because we want to see what they’ll do next. Why do we want to see what they’ll do next? Because they want something and they’ll do whatever it takes to get it.

      That this doesn’t work in fiction writing is a bad argument, because Game of Thrones is a fictional book series, so is Wolf of Wall-Street, (well, a fictionalized version of real people), and American Psycho. Most of Chuck Palahniuk’s work also has unlikable protagonists, so does Suicide Squad (comics).

      It’s not important that a character is likeable or unlikeable, it’s that they have strong motivations and desires. That means we want to find out what they’ll do next.

      It’s always more important to analyze why something is rather than just know that something is, a distinction Brandon Sanderson called “Cook vs. Chef”.


  3. For authors overall, I agree that one can choose to make a protagonist likeable or unlikeable. Either way, you can find an audience. On the other hand, as with almost any choice you make about your story, you end up losing some readers because of that choice.

    Example: Decide to write a book -> Potential audience is everyone who has ever read anything. Next step: Narrow choice of genre to LitRPG -> Potential audience is people who read LitRPG and people who might be inclined to try your book despite not having read LitRPG, eliminate everyone who absolutely will not read any speculative fiction, LitRPG, etc. Next step: Narrow choice to a fantasy based LitRPG system -> Eliminate people who are looking for sci fi based LitRPG.

    While some segments of readers prefer unlikeable protagonists and others, like you apparently, just don’t care, there is a significant segment of the reading public, including myself, who absolutely will not read unlikeable protagonists. Period.

    Think of it this way – just as I don’t choose to spend time with real people I don’t like, I don’t choose to spend time with fictional people I don’t like. And there’s the additional aspect of the fact that, when I pick up a book, I’m (assuming the writing is any good at all) thrust into the head of the POV character. Why on Earth would I want to subject myself to being inside the head of someone I don’t like?

    A movie is completely different. I’m not nearly as immersed in the character’s head. I’m really on the outside looking in at this trainwreck of a person who is doing all these horrible things.

    I, too, value a lot of the characteristics that you do. Motivations, character arc, etc., are big parts of what make the difference between unreadable and good. It’s just that I elevate likeability to a level equal to, or maybe even above, those other characteristics.

    The bottom line is that, to me, it absolutely is important whether or not the character is likeable.


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