Losing the Tether: First thoughts on Sig City of Blades

Sig: City of Blades is based on Sig: Manual of the Primes and Blades in the Dark

Sig: City of Blades, released earlier this year by Genesis of Legend Publishing, is a Forged in the Dark game of cosmopolitan planar fantasy. The overlap of these two genres (that is, ‘Forged in the Dark’ and ‘cosmopolitan planar fantasy’) is Sig‘s main selling point, and it’s a good one. Each of the genres is fun and interesting in its own right, yet they feel like they fit together so perfectly that they were almost designed for each other. And yet Sig: City of Blades is the first game that combines them.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been digesting the Sig: City of Blades rulebook with the intention of running a campaign for my friends. I’ve also been re-reading its direct antecedents in its genres, Blades in the Dark and Sig: Manual of the Primes, for background, context and inspiration. The tone of Sig: City of Blades suits my personal style (less grim than other Forged in the Dark games I’ve played) and the art and production design is gorgeous, so I started the process with very high hopes.

However, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a game I will probably never run. There are too many little things that bug me, that are inconsistent or confusing. None of them make the game unplayable, but there are so many that my mantra while playing would be “Just don’t think about it too much”, and that’s not a very satisfying mindset to have as a GM (especially when many previous games in its genres have rewarded deeper understanding).

What I’m going to do in this blog is share some of my little concerns, as well as any ideas I’ve had on changes that could address them. There will be some overlap with things that Paul Beakley brought up in his excellent deep dive into Sig, which I recommend reading, but I feel I have a sufficiently different perspective even when we raise the same points. (I come from a background of planar fantasy while Paul doesn’t, but Paul also ran the game whereas my impressions are from reading the book only.)

There’s a lot of promise in Sig: City of Blades, and a lot of excellent pieces that I feel ultimately don’t all fit together. I still hope that one day we’ll get a game that perfectly blends Forged in the Dark design with cosmopolitan planar fantasy, but whether that game will be Sig: City of Blades or something else I’m not sure.

Freebooters, Factions and Factotums

The player characters and their role in the game are described inconsistently in different parts of the rulebook. Throughout the book, they are called ‘Freebooters’ and described (like the underdog scoundrels from Blades in the Dark) as taking dangerous jobs for money and longing for a comfortable retirement from their harsh life. The term ‘Freebooter’ was used in Sig: Manual of the Primes and The Planarch Codex (a Dungeon World planar fantasy hack by J Walton), in which the term referred to independent brigands who use the city of Sig (or Dis in The Planarch Codex) as a staging ground to launch raids on other planes and worlds throughout the multiverse.

And yet, the rules make clear that the player characters all work exclusively for a single faction, and work to support that faction’s interests within the city. The crew isn’t just a team of criminals that the faction has hired, but an organisation with a storied history connected with the faction. For example, the Glimmer Knights (a crew connected to the Performers Guild) are “an ancient Polari chivalric order”; the Order of Ashen Keys (connected to the Sage Collegium) are “a secretive group of mercenary warcasters” who have preserved forbidden lore for “generations upon generations”.

To fix this, a GM just needs to modify their language. Don’t call the player characters ‘Freebooters’ (but the term is still ok when referring to multiversal raiders), and don’t treat them as mercenaries or scoundrels trying to make a buck. Instead, lean more heavily on the concept of the players as faction representatives, and call them ‘Factotums’ (or, in common parlance perhaps, ‘Troubleshooters’).

The word ‘Factotum’ also has a history in planar fantasy, being used in the Planescape campaign setting (the originator of the cosmopolitan planar fantasy genre) as a low-ranking faction member. However, my use of it is closer to the actual definition of the word, and would refer to faction associates who operate outside the faction’s normal hierarchy and who do anything and everything the faction requires, even outside the usual purview of faction members. For factions down on their luck, reduced to a single Claim in the whole of the city (as the player characters start the game), Factotums are responsible for doing whatever is needed to get the faction back on top.

Factotums, in this model, for a sort of faction-within-a-faction. They act independently, doing things that the supposed leadership of the faction isn’t cut out for. (This justifies and incorporates the Sig: City of Blades errata that was released following Paul Beakley’s deep dive, which claimed that the player characters are the leadership of the faction, which is not supported by the text as it stands.)

This model then opens new possibilities in the game. Surely every faction has its own group of Factotums, who are the ones most likely to operate against you. If every faction and Factotum crew has been around forever, and the players’ crew is merely fallen on hard times, what does that say about the characters’ reasons for joining up? What does it say about their faction’s long-term prospects for success, when the never-ending tug-of-war means that any given faction will rise and fall and rise again ad infinitum? And having separated the factions from freebooters, perhaps the factions would take a very dim view to actual freebooters as anything other than hired goons. If a crew of actual freebooters ever tried to take a Claim in the city of Sig, they’d probably soon find the force of every faction turned against them. (All factions agree that Claims in Sig are for factions only.)

Maps and Möbius strips

The city of Sig is described as “a Möbius strip, floating through the void”. There’s a map of the city (based on one from Sig: Manual of the Primes), which is rectangular but identifies the left side of the map with the right side of the map but upside down (as you can tell by the fact that the landmark called the Bronze Tether is half in the top left of the map and half in the bottom right).

There are a few issues with the map. For example, why is the garden district (top right) adjacent to the tannery (bottom left)? Which way does the river flow? What happens to the city at the top and bottom edges of the map?

Perhaps most frustratingly for a maths graduate like me: it is impossible to turn the map of Sig as currently designed into a Möbius strip in 3D space.

There are several ways to fix it, and I’m honestly not sure which I’d go for:

  1. Assume that the map uses the standard top-down perspective for maps, and that walking once around the loop means that the entire city (including everyone and everything in the city) will appear to flip left to right when you return to your starting point. This could be interesting, making the concepts of ‘left’ and ‘right’ meaningless. To project this onto a Möbius strip in 3D space, you assume that everything in the city appears in two places, as if the Möbius strip itself (the ground or bedrock of the city) was a mirror. It would be impossible to pass through the Möbius strip mirror from one ‘side’ to the other, and it might be interesting to consider how deep the city goes before it becomes impassable. It would also be impossible to travel or even look from inside the city to outside (or vice versa), both because the duplication would need to be resolved and because the directions into and out of the city would not be properly defined.
  2. Assume that it is possible to pass through the Möbius strip from one ‘side’ to its local ‘underside’ (terms are imprecise, sorry; I know that Möbius strips only have one side when taken as a whole), and that the Claim boundaries on the map also go all the way through. In this model, the city isn’t built up from a solid base, it’s a free-floating scaffold-like structure that supports buildings within it. There’s no ‘ground’ (and no ‘underground’ structures like cellars) and the streets and buildings will all be on different levels, so gaming groups now need to consider verticality a lot more. You’d also need to work out how gravity works. For example, does it flip at a certain level in the middle or is there an interior Escher-like region where people can walk on any surface no matter its orientation? Also, what do the undersides of structures like the Tethers look like? And does the river divide the city entirely (i.e. where it appears on the map, it’s water all the way through), or does it flow ‘up’ and ‘down’ as well as side-to-side (i.e. the map shows where the river is, but from any given vantage point it might go ‘underneath’ certain structures)?
  3. Chuck it all in and redesign the map. Because I’m a fool, I actually gave this one a try (see below). To be something that can be printed and twisted into a Möbius strip in 3D space, a map should be rectangular such that the left side of the map is identified with the right side (the same way up) and much longer left-to-right than top-to-bottom (say a ratio of 20:1 to be practical, but it could be shorter). Then cut the map down the middle (so each bit is now roughly 10:1 aspect), and stick them back-to-back so that they are top-to-bottom. Then bend the map, twist once, and attach opposite ends together. (This is the only solution that means the gardens no longer share air with the tannery, fyi.)
An example new map of Sig that can be twisted into a Mobius strip. Rough draft created by Stephen Morffew, imitating the style from Sig: City of Blades that colour-codes the city's districts.
My rough attempt at a new map of Sig. Happy to talk through my convoluted process if anyone is interested…

Crew stats: Coin, Infamy and the Faction Game

Blades in the Dark (BitD) is about scrappy criminal gangs trying to make money and gain status in a cutthroat criminal underworld, and it reinforces this through the use of certain stats that are managed by the entire crew of player characters: Coin, Rep, Heat, and Status (with each faction in the game).

Sig: City of Blades also uses crew stats to reinforce its core premise. Its main crew stats are Coin, Infamy, and Status (with each other faction in the game). By and large, these are equivalent to the stats in Blades in the Dark, but with Rep and Heat combined into Infamy.

In BitD, Rep is a beneficial stat that crews want to accumulate so they can improve and advance. It reflects the crew’s reputation among their fellow criminals. Heat is a negative stat that crews want to keep as low as possible, because it reflects how much attention they’re receiving from the corrupt and brutal authorities of the city, and how many problems they may suffer as a result of their criminal activities.

In Sig: City of Blades, Infamy tries to do both of these things, and (as noted in Paul Beakley’s deep dive) crews end up wanting to keep Infamy low except when they want to level up, at which point they need it to be very high. As such, crews are sometimes encouraged to be as loud and destructive in their missions as possible, in a rhythm set by the abstract mechanics of the game. If this tension and the sudden bursts of violence reflected something in the setting, I could understand it, but I’m honestly not sure what the intention is.

It works, but I find it uncomfortable, so I’ve been poking at these systems with my hacking hat on.

I understand why Heat is not a stat on its own any more. There is no corrupt and brutal authority in Sig except for the factions themselves with whom you are always and inevitably in conflict. To me, that sounds as though the purpose of Heat should have been combined into faction Status, not Rep. Perhaps you’d extend the Status beyond -3 to +3, and the way the crew handles a mission against another faction (from ‘Smooth and Quiet’ to ‘Epic and Terrifying’) affects Status with that faction (and others) instead of gaining Infamy. Status can also change according to events in the fiction (particularly if prominent factions see your crew becoming too big for your boots). And for Fallout, perhaps you could roll a number of dice equal to the number of factions that are hostile to you (plus an extra one if you’re at war, perhaps), and then as in the current version of the game the GM will inflict a number of Fallout conditions equal to 6 minus the highest dice result from the roll.

That leaves you with the remaining beneficial parts of Infamy, which are used to grow and advance the faction. To me, this would make more sense as Influence (which is actually a stat in Sig: Manual of the Primes). This Influence would represent your faction’s ability to influence public opinion in the city, and to spread your beliefs around… which is something that appears a lot in planar fantasy (including Sig: Manual of the Primes) but is largely missing from Sig: City of Blades right now. High Influence would make it easier to take over a Claim, because the people from that area of the city might actually switch allegiance from another faction to yours.

Ok, so what about Coin? Coin is basically fine. It works largely the same as in Blades in the Dark, and it does the job. I mean, the section for Coin starts with “Coin is an abstract measure of cash and liquid assets” (the exact same wording from Blades in the Dark), only to later explain that it’s actually measured against units of Sig’s local currency (the Coin, which is gold and torus-shaped and hums). This isn’t quite as neat as the way BitD does it (should I remove the word ‘abstract’ entirely? why can’t I make money equal to one and a half Coins if it’s a concrete measurement rather than an abstraction? why is 1 Coin worth one small purse of silver but 2 Coin is several full purses of silver?), but it’s… basically fine. Now, since we’re hacking the resource stats anyway, we could go even further and muck about with Coin. I’m tempted to combine it with Influence. After all, a common feature of planar fantasy (particularly Planescape but also covered a little in Sig: Manual of the Primes) is that the ability to sway other people’s beliefs is often more valuable than hard currency. But admittedly I haven’t really thought this one all the way through.

And the little things

Hank Scorpio from The Simpsons, saying "You can't argue with the little things, it's the little things that make up life."

My other concerns don’t require the level of context or explanation that the ones mentioned above do, so I’m just going to list them out quite briefly:

  • Instead of playbooks, characters have three archetypes based on Lineage, Culture and Devotion. Options available in the book are a subset of options from Sig: Manual of the Primes, and the most glaring omission is that Sig: City of Blades doesn’t let you play a human (or anyone from one of the prime worlds), a demographic that Manual of the Primes suggests is about as common in Sig as all the others put together.
  • Sig: City of Blades doesn’t really give motivations for each of the factions, and the motivations from Manual of the Primes don’t really lend themselves to the sort of conflict presented in City of Blades. In Planescape, the factions all wanted to impose their mutually incompatible ideas about how the city and multiverse worked, but there’s nothing like that here. Leaning more on Factotums (above) as factions-within-factions who act more like gangs than the factions themselves might solve the problem.
  • Tying Claims explicitly to territory on the map makes Sig feel smaller than it should. It seems to state that, even in such a vast and diverse city, there are only 48 things that a crew would consider worth owning, and no more than 1 thing in any given district.
  • In the errata released following Paul Beakley’s deep dive, it says that negative clocks like the Peril Clock can be advanced as a normal consequence, “1 segment for minor clocks, 2 for moderate clocks, or 3 for major clocks”. That means it takes fewer consequences to fill major (8-segment) clocks, used when Peril is not an immediate concern, than it does to fill minor (4-segment) clocks, used when Peril is imminent. Consequences should advance clocks a fixed number of segments that doesn’t depend on the size of the clocks.
  • If your crew has a cohort, they can be given tasks in downtime. One of these tasks is defending your Claims during war or hostility with another faction. Another of them is to gain +1 status with a faction… which would immediately end a war with them (which happens at -3 status), and might also remove hostility (-1 or -2 status). I feel that would need to be limited to factions who aren’t at war with you (at the very least), and possibly who aren’t hostile towards you either.
  • Your crew’s claims can become vulnerable to other factions in war and as a result of Fallout in downtime. However, to make the city feel vibrant and alive, there should be a way of modelling conflicts between factions that don’t involve you. Each downtime, the GM adjusts the map to show which factions have gone up, which have gone down. The faction relationships become a more interesting and interconnected tapestry that the players can get involved in, or take advantage of.

And that’s about it for substantive points. I don’t know if this will be helpful to anyone but me, but this game has been in my head for weeks and I needed to get these thoughts out and on a page. Now perhaps I can start thinking about other games again.

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