City of Mist Review One – Reading the Book
By Son of Oak Game Studio and Amít Moshe
Last May I was given a review copy of City of Mist’s Core Rulebook. It was in the middle of a mini-convention, so I accepted the copy and forgot about it for a week. Then over the next few months I would dip into reading it and the book kicked my arse. I got the quickstart guide and the starter guide, a friend donated me some Modiphius credit (thanks Ben!) and I bought a bunch of CoM supplements. I did this to try and skip ahead, to get a rough understanding before diving back into the book. Then, the book kicked my arse again.
Over Christmas, I was left alone for two days and decided to get this done.
In case you aren’t already aware, City of Mist is a ‘superhero noir’ game, like Jessica Jones or Powers, but with a mystical edge. The city’s unnamed and full of strange people called Rifts (no relation to the old RPG). The Rifts contain elements of myths and legends, adding a bit of Fables or Grimm to the mix.
There was a starter set version of the rules, followed by the 510 page core book I was given a pdf of. Then there was a quickstart and a version of the core book split into a player’s and MC’s guide. Recently a Kickstarter for another starter set. So it’s gone through a lot already.
Having read the core book, I’m going to deviate from my current style of reviews. I’m going to write about the contents and how it reads in this review, then cover my time MCing it, then I’ll also bring up both the expansions and alternatives to CoM in my third part. If you want the quick version of what I think of this book, I think that it reads like a book that’s needed three versions of starter rules and two versions of the core rules in the last four years.
I emailed Modiphius to ask what the differences were between the core book I received and the newer version split between two volumes. Apparently there wasn’t much of a difference aside from dividing the chapters between the two in a slightly different order from the original. As I’m going chapter by chapter, I’ll point out where they go in the newer editions from what I can see online.
Before I go into the chapter breakdown I should mention the art and design as it’s all over the book and it’s incredible. There are short comics between each chapter, showing some of the iconic cast members who also act as the pregenerated characters in the starter. The main colours in the book are the black of shadowed streets, the pink of neon and the purple of the mists themselves. The colour’s used to split between the mundane and mysterious sides when the book needs to divide between those modes. All other criticisms aside this is a pretty book, as are the other products.
This is the quick rundown about the city, the heroes and some terms. Players are Rifts, as I said before. They are split between Mythos (weird stuff) and Logos (normal world stuff). These are represented by four themes which have to be some split between the two. The themes give out tags which power (and sometimes weaken) actions. There are Sleepers, who don’t have these powers, Avatars who are completely taken over by the Mythos and you are able to become one or the other as you play. The person running is known as the Master of Ceremonies or MC.
In this chapter, the game clarifies its’ pronoun usage throughout the text. It doesn’t mention any kind of safety mechanics in the version I’ve got. The starter and the quickstart also don’t mention it. The two-volume version hopefully adds this. There is a small box just saying to be mindful about your players and the mysteries do add content warnings at the start, making this a mixed bag for recommendations in this field.
The Lowdown (in the Player book in the split edition)
This is where I got stuck the first few times. I like setting material, but there’s a lot. This loads you up with a lot of information about the Mist, Sleepers, Mythoi (a term covering Rifts, Avatars and possibly more). The Mist keeps people in the city, although they don’t necessarily realise this. It hides the supernatural, so you can use your powers and people will often logic them away. If you become a Sleeper, you’ll do the same.
There’s a breakdown of several city districts, example Rifts, Sleepers and plot hooks which would be great for building a campaign or flavouring one of the premade mysteries. These might just be in the MC book in the split edition as there is a “Word on the Street” chapter which is described basically as this section. The districts in the book are:
- Downtown – The busy city centre, a hub of consumerism and home to the financial district.
- Blue Collar Residential – Apartments, closed down buildings, docks and diners.
- Old Quarter – The old museum, some older buildings and historical estates.
- Industrial Zone – Smog, machines and neglect
- Other Districts – References here include the Ethnic Boroughs, Beach Front, Crime-Ridden Slums and places outside of town. Some of these are in purchasable expansions, but I’ll get to those later.
I used to devour the setting information in World of Darkness books many years ago and this feels evocative of that. Even if you’re not using the information as it’s presented, they’re good guidelines for making your own areas and plots.
Who Are You? (in the Player book in the split edition)
Here’s the next chapter that defeated me, mainly as I didn’t have a notepad near me and wasn’t able to get a handle on what to expect. The rules themselves already start to show themselves as a combination of Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) and Fate. I mentioned Themes and Tags. Here we get the character creation and a bit more about them.
The first step is to establish the crew and the series’ concept, which is fine. It’s good to know whether you’re doing something closer to low-level detectives, some kind of vigilante group, a mystic order and so on. That’s all nice and easy, including a list of different group types and a card to fill in.
Character creation is the main thing here. You need to come into the game with a concept, otherwise you’re going to get stuck. The concept needs to embody something from myths, fairytales and so on. So for instance you could pick, “Cheshire Cat” as your myth and have your concept be, “Shady Information Broker”.
From your concept, you need to pick four themes, split between 1-3 Mythos and 1-3 Logos. For Mythos these are broad power sets like, “Divination” and “Subversion”. For Logos they’re more related to your background and normal life, “Defining Relationship” and “Mission” for instance. Each of these themes have their own Theme Book, with multiple choice questions about how the theme works for you. The answers you write down get turned into Tags, which you’ll be using for your rolls. At least in the combined core book and The Yellow Pages PDFs, there is no printer friendly version of the Theme Books and you will want physical copies of them so everyone can make characters at the same time without waiting on each other. This can be overwhelming. At least one of my players will not be able to do this without a ton of coaching. There are some sample packages to help with these players who might get paralysed by the wealth of options.
For each of these Themes, you’ll need three tags, a weakness and you can get a fourth tag for another weakness. You’ll also get a Mystery (for Mythos) or Identity (for Logos) which provide potential for plot hooks. This means that you could have, “Will I lose my sense of self?” Under your shapeshifting Theme, for instance. These Themes have ‘crack’ and ‘fade’ spots for Logos and Mythos, respectively. Once those are full for your Theme, you need to pick a new one of the opposite side, threatening to make you a Sleeper or Avatar.
The Crew get their own theme with all the same elements as the individual Themes. You add relationships from one of your Theme Books to other players around the take to add ‘Help’ or ‘Hurt’ to them. It then suggests running through a day in the life of the characters, to help add more potential hooks and questions for the MC to prepare for later.
Working the Case (in the Player book in the split edition)
Like any PbtA game, this book mentions that role-playing games are a conversation. If a player wants to do something, they do something, triggering moves where necessary. This game is a bit more blatant about calling out what you do, compared to some PbtA games which get coy with it, “That sounds like you want to hack & slash”, for instance. The moves here are numerous and have a lot of different uses, so it suggests you say, “I want to Go Toe to Toe”.
You describe your action, name the move and then roll 2d6 plus an amount of tags you feel are relevant to the action. You can pick any amount, which will work as your ‘power’ to modify the roll and determine effect. Here’s where the mix of Fate and PbtA starts to come in.
On a 10+ you get what you want, on a 7-9 you get a compromised success and on a 6 or under then you fail, provoking a move from the MC. At the same time, the power of your roll (minimum 1, if you add nothing) will do things like apply a status of that value to a situation. As an example, you might hit someone with two power and confer a status of “2-concussed” to your foe. You can burn a tag to count as having rolled a 10+ without needing to use the dice, but you can’t use your tag again until you get it restored.
Statuses are another thing. Anything can get a status or have a status. These are different from tags. Similar statuses simply add or removed from each other, amending the name possibly as it goes. So ‘2-concussed’ might become ‘3-stunned’ and eventually ‘5-KO’d’. You might, however get ‘3-stunned’ and ‘1-bloody nose’ as separate statuses. There are status cards which you can use, with little icons to represent ‘Clue’, ‘Juice’, ‘Story Tag’ and ‘Status’.
Oh god, Clues and Juice. I’d forgotten about those.
Clues are a kind of narrative currency. There’s a method or source for them, based on the action you’re taking and they act as ‘Hold’ if you’re already versed in PbtA games. You get to spend them to ask any question in relation to the mystery. The question has to relate to the method or source and the MC has to give an honest answer. You can get answers just through talking or usual methods, but this way you can skip any of that by going into your mind palace and putting everything together.
Juice is another kind of narrative currency. This allows you to create and remove story tags, or give a status to people. The Help & Hurt points count as a kind of Juice. Like Clues these are banked and need to be spent in similar ways to how they were gained.
The cross-section of the scaling successes with moves, the use of tags, the use of statuses, power, and the two narrative currencies are weird and confusing. As at the time of writing this, I’m a day away from running the game and I desperately hope that it runs easier than it reads. My ten A4 pages of notes needed to happen to me to start working out the gameplay loop and how these things interact.
I’ll get into the moves briefly:
Investigate – Uncovers Clues which you can use to ask questions
Convince – Get someone to do something
Face Danger – Avoiding harm or influence
Hit With All You’ve Got – Inflicts a status on people by taking advantage of a clear shot
Go Toe to Toe – Overcoming someone in a physical or mental struggle
Change the Game – Use abilities to give folks an advantage, generating Juice
Sneak Around – Being stealthy or deceptive
Take the Risk – Using abilities to do something daring or risky
Photomontage [Downtime] – You get one action to do in the downtime
Go Your Own Way – Acting against the crew, changing a crew tag
Look Beyond the Mist – Feeling things out using your Mythos
Make a Hard Choice – There will be times where you need to decide between your Mythos or Logos, so this ‘cracks’ or ‘fades’ one of them a bit
Stop. Holding. Back – Using your powers in a new way. This is a big thing which changes your themes up.
Geek Out During Credits [Session End] – Check in with how characters and crew were affected by the session.
Phew, that was a lot. As I said, I’m running this tomorrow, so I used this to revise and write out how all these things work.
This chapter’s a bit easier to deal with than the last. I think all of them are, really. This one’s all about character growth and change.
I’ve told you a lot about how the system works, but all those Themes are going to be in flux a lot. Your character will be made out of one card which is your character concept and then four other cards for your Themes. These cards will change as you play.
You can mark tags for bonuses in rolls, but also for penalties. Why do that? Well, you get to mark Attention. Downtime does the same, as does answering Mysteries and Identities. When Attention is full, you get to choose new power tags, add, remove or rewrite weaknesses or reset crack/fade. The crew’s Theme has their own, too.
The fade and crack might max out, at which point you replace the Theme with one of the opposite side from Mythos and Logos, possibly becoming an Avatar (full Mythos) or Sleeper (full Logos). These states are a little like Monsterhearts’ Darkest Selves, with end states when it feels relevant. You then switch one Theme again, making yourself a mix of the two elements. I have a more complex page of notes with arrows about all this, but I’ve pretty much run through it here.
Behind the Scenes (in the MC book in the split edition)
There’s a little bit of MC only information here, less than I thought there would be. I don’t know how much of this is being kept for later modules or if it’s just light so you can make your own answers, but I’d err on the latter. I won’t break the secrecy here, as it’s something interesting to the overall world but not essential to all stories you’ll be making (or potentially any for a campaign).
There are some standard RPG details about what the MC does, handling sharing of the spotlight for characters.
There are lists of the hard moves (when a player rolls a six or less) and soft moves (to add casually) which are a little basic and systemy, compared to PbtA versions of them. They’re things like ‘give a status’, ‘reduce/remove a status’, ‘burn a tag’ and so on. Unlike PbtA games, this one has kind of merged the MC’s Agenda and the MC’s Principles into one list. That’s fine, I guess. I’ll have them on hand to run and see if it makes any difference.
There are challenge levels which encounters and groups have, which affect how impactful a status enemies or problems can bestow. This way you know that a bunch of ‘Unruly Bystanders’ with one challenge level are likely to only give a one-point status like ‘1-stressed’ when they’ve been getting rowdy and irritating you.
Guidelines for writing a case are written down, using an ‘iceberg method’ of starting with the obvious clues, leading further down to the answer. This is something I’ll be referencing a bit more in my next article.
This was definitely the easiest chapter to go through, and I admit I skimmed a bit. This shows several types of tags, moves and dangers. There are examples of how statuses move up in the same spectrum and several pre-built dangers, including ways to customise them.
There are several Avatars, who are arc-length bad guys to deal with. These are people representing the big dogs, like Hades. They also have their own icebergs to use alongside the mystery icebergs.
Finally there are a couple of indices which look like they’ll be pretty useful to reference things in a pinch, especially in a book this big.
And that’s it for the core rulebook.
That was exhausting. The good news is that the book looks gorgeous. There are highlighted words to emphasise the keywords when you need them. The moves list out all the different ways they can be triggered. The visual style between the Mythos and Logos-based sections are interestingly distinctive. The artwork is all comic-based and shadowy, giving a good sense of tone.
The system feels weird, like someone wanted to make more of a traditional-style game with bits of PbtA and Fate mixed in. Some of the currencies like Juice and Clues are just ‘hold’, but specifically called out and clarified outside of the moves which get them. The scaled successes of moves and the scaled use of how much power you put in feel decoupled from each other so a partial hit on a roll with 3 power is going to cause as much damage as a full hit, but the reactions have to come from elsewhere. There creation of mysteries feels more fixed than say, Monster of the Week or Tremulus, despite having PbtA style methods of changing the fiction up.
I mentioned earlier that this book reads like a book which has had a couple of editions and three starter books since 2016. That’s still very much true. It feels like it probably plays far better than it reads and its one of the prettiest big RPG books I’ve read. I can’t recommend it just from this read-through alone. If you feel like the system isn’t as messily complex as I do from what you’ve heard or just want to see this really cool-looking world for yourself, then you can pick up the books at City of Mist’s own website at https://www.cityofmist.co/
Tune in next time for my actual play report for the City of Mist mystery, V is for Vector!