A Deep Dive into Sig: City of Blades

Now that Blades in the Dark is several years old, we’re starting to see new games push the Forged in the Dark (FitD) envelope, not only in terms of the “scrappy heroes with a shared enterprise” premise but the underlying transaction of play. Off Guard Games’ Band of Blades was the first major departure from the model. Genesis of Legend/Jason Pitre‘s Sig: City of Blades (SCoB) is probably the farthest-out hack/adaptation yet. Certainly the farthest-out I’ve personally played.

I just wrapped up a six session run at SCoB with some lovely folks online. Here’s what we found.

TL;DR if your time is short

  • If you love D&D’s Planescape, or the idea of madcap fantasy-gaming trope mashups, this is an earnest love letter that delivers that experience
  • The rules have a lot of problems, a combination of matching the model to the premise, and pushing the design in so many new directions
  • If you already know FitD games and are not doctrinaire about your rules, you can get a lot of fun out of this. But if you want rules that work out of the box, you’re in for a rough time
I used Miro to run Sig online. New-to-me technique was to import PDFs into the workspace and run it all in one place: no Character Keepers, no online dice rollers. I liked everything about it except for clocks getting relegated to a corner. At a live table, making/marking clocks is central to the stagecraft.

So… “Planar Fantasy?”

Confession: I knew nothing about Planescape when I started digging into Sig: City of Blades. D&D is a blind spot for me after the early ‘90s, but I’ve seen lots of art and read stuff from folks who still love the Planescape setting and aesthetics. And I was charmed by Jason Pitre’s previous game in this setting, Sig: Manual of the Primes, built on his Sparks engine.

First session or so, someone tossed out the phrase “planar fantasy” and all my players nodded like they knew what that meant. I can’t find a firm definition online. But my take, after debriefing with a Planescape superfan who signed up, is that it’s a combination of high-fantasy mashup and mundane city/real life. So: the cops are armed lizard men who love donuts. There’s a gigantic, terrifying dragon who’s an accountant in the city’s biggest firm. The gods (“Powers” in Sig) rely on the power of worship and will serve you cease and desist orders if you interfere with that.

So that’s Sig. It’s inspired by Planescape’s Sigil, a city floating in “planar space” with literal physical tethers to three planes of existence. There are elemental planes, ideological planes, and conceptual planes. There are also portals in Sig that take you to any fantasy world you could dream up, so it’s a fun premise for dipping into different settings at a whim.

In SCoB, Sig is a generation into semi-functional anarchy, ruled by a network of Factions in the absence of the Silent Regent. I’m told by Planescape fans that she maps to a character called the “Lady of Pain.” I’d imagine the absence of the Lady of Pain’s benevolent dictatorship is Sig’s greatest departure.

The premise of SCoB is that the characters are a Crew of freebooters, who serve as the outreach/ activist/ adventuring arm of a Faction. But also the Faction’s leadership, allegedly, but that’s less obvious in the text. They’re scrappy up and comers but the Crews and Factions are described in, shall we say, aspirational language.

This doesn’t have to be a contradiction. Probably because of playing lots of Blades in the Dark and Scum and Villainy, it was a fight to reconcile ourselves to this idea. We started by clarifying that Factions aren’t the same as city functions. So, like, there will always be a vast bureaucracy running Sig but the Paper Guard, a Faction, are currently in control of it. Should the Paper Guard be taken out in the course of the faction war at the heart of the game, the city bureaucracy will endure.

Our players took the Order of Ashen Keys, described as “mercenary warcasters” in service to the Sage Collegium. Basically they’re a magical militia working for very aggressive librarians. They’re also in charge of the Faction that runs the city’s libraries. In our game, they went to war straight away with the Dustkeepers, who run the city’s museums. Basically a magical nerd fight.

Epic battle between librarians and docents

It’s fine, it works, but it took work to get out of the Blades mode of “scrappy up and comers” in a living city where factions are functions: the Bluecoats are the cops of Duskvol and will always be the cops, for example.

A breakdown of Sig’s essential city functions would have helped. There’s an elaborate map of Sig composed of 48 Claims. The whole game is about seizing those Claims, but there are never more or less of them. A Faction’s Tier is limited to the Claims they hold, so if you’re Tier 2 and both your Claims are taken, you’re no longer a Faction. In any case, the map strongly implies the city’s functions, but it took some homework on my part to figure out what all’s actually happening.

I still have no idea how the setting “works” as a realistic setting. The game doesn’t care, either, and that’s fine. It’s an “urban fantasy mashup” aesthetic, and its themes drive more toward conflicts between communities and power-hungry factions than pursuing one’s ambitions within a hostile sandbox setting (like Blades and Scum).

The Rules: Ambitious, Broken, Redeemable

We played six sessions, and every session featured a goodly stretch of talk about how to make the rules work.

Some of this is due to the ambition of changing both the default holding environment, and a lot of changes to the FitD model of play. Some of those changes are super interesting, while others left us wondering what motivated the changes beyond novelty.

The best and most interesting change to baseline FitD is in character creation. Rather than set playbooks, there are ten each cultures, lineages, and devotions. Every character has one of each, which grants stat ranks as well as possible abilities. This is all done for tabletop play via this extremely clever character PDF with invisible layers for each choice. Set your chosen culture, lineage and devotion layers to “visible” and bang, a bespoke character sheet. Very cool.

To be sure, SCoB innovates typical FitD in lots of other ways. Player-facing stuff that jumped out at me, for those of you who already know Blades in the Dark or something similar:

  • Loadout impacts the engagement roll: if you go light, you grant another die to that roll. I like the push-your-luck tradeoff. The downside is that your Crew’s equipment list features a tag system that isn’t explained in the text, and at least in our game the choices were frequently interchangeable. Loadout didn’t feel like an especially hard choice.
  • There is no longer a “position/effect” element to actions. Effect level aggregates from a list of stuff like Tier difference, “controlled position” (a GM call), suitable/quality equipment, and how many 6es you rolled.
  • Consequence level — minor, moderate, major — is a function of your current Stress, which accumulates in the usual ways (giving yourself dice, helping someone, resistance rolls). The rule, formally, is that the next level of consequence becomes available to the GM to inflict. That worked okay, but it just meant an ever-growing list to check against, and the GM having to take responsibility for the amount of pain inflicted. I kind of hate having to shoulder that responsibility. I tended to look at the lower end of the scale when things weren’t crucial, and the upper end of the scale when things were at their most tense.
  • Devil’s Bargains are Planar Bargains in Sig, and allow you to reroll all your dice in return for taking a consequence. That didn’t work great for us, given how effect level is calculated. We drifted this a bit with “reroll any dice you want.” Also, rather than pulling from a set of smaller consequences like conventional Devil’s Bargains, consequences on offer for a Planar Bargain scale with the character’s Stress (like all consequences). Obviously you don’t want to make a consequence too steep if you want players to take it, but these Bargains did feel more punitive.
  • There’s a Harm track that mirrors the Stress track, with effect level reduction being the penalty for running the track to “wounded” and then also 2 Stress to do anything when you’re “incapacitated.” When it’s filled, the character is eliminated.
  • Factions accumulate Infamy rather than Heat, which is earned in similar ways to OG Heat (quiet to messy to catastrophic), but also when you seize a Claim. This landed weird for us, given you can definitely seize Claims very quietly. More to the point, the Faction needs Infamy to level up, either gaining a new ability or leveling up their Tier. I feel like the actual noise generated needed to be one source of Infamy, and Claim seizing needed to be separate from that. But that’s intuitive, based on watching the characters do two Missions with an eye toward deliberately generating tons of Infamy so they could quickly claw their way to Tier 2.
  • Character advancement comes from missed (3-) rolls, Dungeon World style, on both action and resistance rolls. Each of a character’s three starting choices — lineage, culture, devotion — also come with a built-in Drive. In theory you can earn XP off your Drive when it “causes trouble,” but given the tight economies of the Mission phase, that just meant nobody bothered with their Drive XP except during downtime and non-mission roleplay. I drifted this to include “when your Drive sends the action in an interesting new direction,” and that brought Drives back into play during Missions.
  • You can also mark XP for developing or ruining a relationship. There’s no guidance as to what that looks like. I’d guess developing a relationship could be a personal project clock during downtime, and ruining would be obvious in the fiction. Every character starts with two Relationships with NPCs keyed to their gang, resulting in good triangles right out of the gate.

On the GM side, the changes were more profound:

  • Every mission is strictly about seizing a Claim in Sig. The city map has precisely 48 Claims, so it’s a zero-sum game. And a faction’s Tier is limited to the number of Claims they hold, so to claw your way up you need to drag someone down. It’s an ugly crab bucket, uglier than even Blades.
  • Missions have three clocks: Politics, Profit, and Peril.
    • The Politics clock is chosen by the players during their mission planning, 4, 6 or 8 segments. If they complete the clock, they get 1, 2 or 3 dice to roll after the mission to seize the Claim. It struck me as kind of a marshmallow test for the players: they could totally do 4-segment missions, face far less wear and tear (mostly only addressable during the downtime phase), if they’re willing to accept 50/50 odds each time. The faster downtime cycle seems like it’d be a better bet, but my players were impatient and went for 6 and then 8 Politics segments.
    • The players also choose the size of the Profit clock, which will earn them 4, 6 or 8 Coin if they complete the clock by the end of the mission. And if they don’t complete the clock, they still get 1, 2 or 3 Coin. Yes, that means calling for an 8-clock and then giving up on it still gets you nearly as much Coin as busting your ass to fill that 4-Clock. And when you’re ticking a Profit clock you’re probably not ticking the Politics clock: Profit is stuff you’re doing that’s going to earn you Coin: robbery, extorting or blackmailing folks, all that.
    • The Peril clock replaces the conventional engagement roll. The GM rolls fortune dice, one plus one more for each freebooter with a “light” loadout (smart!). You get a 4, 6 or 8 segment clock representing a major tilt in the action. You still set up other clocks the normal way in the game both for things you’re trying to accomplish as well as looming dangers, but the Peril clock is supposed to represent a big shift in the mission’s focus. It didn’t really work out, but it’s the compromise for giving up “position” in the transaction.
  • The regions of the city containing the Claims don’t have any of the material you might expect from first-gen FitD games: no fortune die ranking of safety/wealth/crime/occult, no sample “notables.” Very broadly the city is broken into four social classes — rich and powerful, merchant class, working class (the tethers to the planes kind of standing in for harbors), and the poor underclass. Other than that, all you’ve got to go by is the Tier rating of the Faction that holds the Claim you’re going after. I didn’t have a lot to go on other than a bit of color text from the book, but that also meant there was room to improvise without messing with canonical setting stuff.
  • The Planar Bargain thing is supposed to be tied to the three tethers (themes) hooked into Sig, but lordy was that hard. I’d let the players cook up some kind of thematic color explaining how their reroll was justified via Stone (strength and size), Shadow (imagination and craft) or Order (patterns and bureaucracy). This might be a practice thing. I wanted this to generate a few more interesting hooks for play but we couldn’t get there.
  • There’s an explicit “Drama Phase,” that is, unstructured non-mission roleplaying time. It’s a small thing but it addresses a common FitD critique that there’s not enough room for roleplaying to breathe. The text also says you don’t have to be super strict about progressing between phases. We put that to use on several occasions, moving between downtime options (healing, personal project clocks, indulging in vices to reduce stress) and drama play. Honestly, I could even see bouncing between Drama and Mission, if everyone’s clear when they’re actively pursuing Mission clocks. It’s good, it’s an easy small change, and I could see using it in other FitD games. Mechanically, the only difference between Drama and Mission phases is that you can’t make resistance rolls during Drama play.

Rules Problems: The Premise

In actual play, we ran into trouble for one of two reasons: reconciling the rules to the premise, or interpreting text that pointed to earlier versions of rules.

On the first one, reconciling the rules to the premise, we had a hard time with the aspirational language of the Crew chosen by the players versus the Tier system representing scrappy up-and-comers. When I asked Pitre about this, he explained that the Crew are also considered the leadership of the Faction. Honestly that doesn’t make sense either, and undercuts the freebooter vibe laid out in the text itself. There’s just a lot of ambiguity in the text, as written, about the difference between a faction and a crew of freebooters working for that faction, and whether they’re actually in charge.

Sounds like they’re a scrappy crew working for a Faction, yeah?

The Infamy rules were also tough for us to wrap our heads around. As I mentioned above, seizing a Claim gets you Infamy under the “epic and terrifying” category. But what if you were “smooth and quiet” while you seized the Claim? This is why I thought we should earn Infamy for both how they handled the mission, and what they accomplished. “Epic and terrifying” also includes eliminating an important individual. I do like that Infamy provokes a marshmallow test for the Freebooters, because they also risk less fallout from taking a lot of Infamy at once: you gain 6 fallout results minus the highest die, and you roll as many dice as empty Infamy slots. So you really do want to hit hard and early, rather than letting the clock fill up slowly and exposing yourself to many more rolls.

Just like every other FitD game I’ve played, these various tools exist to let the GM calibrate tempo and tension. Clock creation, in particular, is still good tech. But it’s also all smoke and mirrors, and it only matters as long as the players agree it matters. There’s a real table benefit to smoke and mirrors, though: I wanted to speed up advancement for both the characters and the gang, so I threw down far fewer and smaller clocks than I would have in other FitD games. You could say SCoB just makes it more obvious that there’s not really much objective mechanical tension behind its systems.

Rules Problems: The Text

The other issue, when the text points to what I can only guess is earlier rules ideas, is harder to work with without being very charitable in your reading and interpretation.

The Claim roll, for example, is written like you’re nibbling away at a Claim. So you’d take a smaller Politics clock if you wanted only a small nibble, and a larger for a big chomp. But in actual play, the Claim roll at the end of the mission is all-or-nothing. The rule works fine but the text describes something quite different.

The three mission clocks, Politics, Profit and Peril, also feel like they started with one rules draft and ended up in another. In all cases, clocks advance based on effect but also on fiction. The GM watching the fiction to advance clocks is far more important in SCoB than it reads to me in Blades in the Dark. The importance of fictional clock advancement became apparent when I ran across the rules about how one progresses the mission clocks. Specifically, a simple (non-Clock) roll only ever adds one tick to a mission clock, regardless of effect level. To get more effect at once, you need to start a sub-clock for some bit of the Politics or Profit mission. In actual play it felt like inventing work for the purpose of the work, not in service to the fiction.

There’s other stuff like that throughout the text. Pitre, to his credit, has released errata addressing what we ran into. Hopefully the print edition will incorporate as much of this as possible too.

The Play: Freewheeling, Improvisational, Strange

The best part of Sig, for me, is that it’s filled with provocative gaps. Very few “facts” but lots of hooks to grab onto. Character abilities, for example, are frequently open to interesting interpretations, which might make you crazy if you want tight rules text. Take this ability, from the devotion to Magdak, the will of the city of Sig itself:

Pattern Sight: Your service to Magdak forges links to the Divine Pattern of the Plane of Order. On a successful Reveal roll you can establish the connections between people, things, or events.”

So…is that descriptive or prescriptive? Does “establish” mean “GM tells me” or does that mean “I tell the GM?” We went with the latter, and it was marvelous and weird. Super wide-open Sherlock-y connection-making with an occult touch, inviting the player to surprise me with how things are connected. Marvelous.

Everyone took the fantasy + mundane mashup thing and ran with it, which was great fun. The flashback mechanism, which remains untouched from Blades, is especially well matched for this kind of play too: “I broke in before the mission and placed stun sigils everywhere” fits just as well as “I gossiped with the dragon accountant’s secretary at the bar.”

My method for maximizing my fantasy palette was to open up fantasynamegenerators.com to its “fantasy races” tab, and then generate a few names to grab as necessary. Given there aren’t meaningfully deep cultures at play in Sig, I could open my brain up to free association and let the listed races prompt the fiction.

This whole style — and I assume “planar fantasy” in general — needs early and eager player buy-in. I don’t think it’d sit well with the folks who want deep, consistent cultural development underpinning the city’s workings, or a more serious style. It’s mood-board play, which normally I’m not into, but Sig: City of Blades helped me accomplish a fun time with that style.

We played the game for several sessions, so the game can work. But we needed to be flexible and charitable about reading the text, and frequently apply previous FitD experience. If you know how a typical Blades in the Dark job’s tempo should feel, it’s pretty easy to map back over to Sig’s clocks and Stress countdown. SCoB’s novel takes on old systems resulted in a less-different play experience than I expected. Mostly things just felt a bit looser and easier for the characters, and then suddenly much worse as Stress imposed spiraling consequences that demanded resistance, and therefore more Stress.

Last Thoughts

You know what Sig/Sigil reminded me most of, once I started really digging in? Invisible Sun of all things. I mean it makes perfect sense if you know Monte Cook was responsible for both Invisible Sun and a huge swath of Planescape, especially Faction War, the final book of the Planescape setting. Both settings feature a sprawling surreal city filled with incomprehensible strangeness, ruled by Factions with inscrutable plans and methods. It’s a free association exercise underpinned by an aesthetic that welcomes mash-ups and contradictions. Themes of living in a strange city in a blend of strange cultures, everyone having arrived in the city from elsewhere (I’m not sure anyone is “from” Sig so much as having arrived from another plane or prime world), and an occult thread running through everything and subject to occasional upheavals (the Path of Suns in Invisible Sun, the tethered planes in Sig).

Sig: City of Blades is in an interesting design space between PbtA style games that provide no/little setting other than what the players come up with in Session 0, and FitD style games with extensively developed setting materials ready to push back against the players. It feels lore-intensive — planes and primes and tethers and powers and factions — but when you get there, there’s no there there. The game offers tons of affordances to grab onto and improvise around, but the players need to know the affordances exist. It feels like a sandbox environment with the promise of interesting exploration, but the players find they’re responsible for their own discoveries.

As a love letter to Planescape, I think the game succeeds. As an evolution of the FitD framework, I think it’s ambitious but decidedly mixed. Hopefully future FitD-inspired designs will keep pushing the envelope.

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