Sunday, 19 November 2017

Not Quite Review Corner: City of Mist (Son of Oak)

City of Mist, a detective RPG with mythic elements, is a 2017 Kickstarter release from Son of Oak, lead designer and producer Amit Moshe's brainchild. Fans flocked to give Son of Oak over $100,000 when the studio went seeking crowdfunding, and now the legend has become reality, with print and PDF release. I didn't back the Kickstarter but I was intrigued by the concept, so I bought the PDF version.

Those of you already familiar with Apocalypse World and FATE will find much that's familiar here. The system is blessedly simple. At its very core is a dice mechanic: 2D6, 10+ is a definite success, 7-9 is a messy success, anything else is a fail. Modifiers can be added which affect success or the potential outcome, depending on a character's mythos or course of action - is the character affected by a Status modifier, Facing Danger, Hitting It With All She's Got? - and these modifiers vary to such a degree that it's almost impossible to describe them in one review. A Bastion Mythos, for example, means protection - but protection can mean unshakeable will, a magic shield, immunity from the law, fire resistance, or something else again. Regardless, they each affect the dice mechanic in the same way: 7-9 is a messy success, 10+ a success, anything else a fail, and what actually happens depends on the situation, taking all applicable modifiers into account.

However for the folks going 'hey, that sounds a lot like [fill in blank - Cthulhu Confidential was what I was reminded of]' yes, it does sound a lot like, because it is a lot like. The game's very player-facing, so only the players will ever roll dice, and the players will decide which modifiers apply as well, for the most part. The Master of Ceremonies - City's name for the GM, DM, Keeper, Director, etc - sets the scene and decides the plot, but rarely touches dice or gets directly involved in the mechanics of any scene.

The players are Rifts, or the Awakened. They might look like ordinary people, but at their core they have a touch, or more than a touch, of the uncanny about them. On these mean streets the myths and legends of old are new again; King Arthur might be flipping burgers in a Downtown diner, but he's still King Arthur at heart, and that means he can draw on his Mythos to get things done, if he has to. Exactly what that means is determined by the player during character creation, and is left largely up to the player. Whether this player prefers the Medieval version or something closer to Marion Zimmer Bradley, or something entirely different, is where this King may differ from all the others.

Each character balances Mythos against Logos, or the Legend against mundane Reality. Those fully in the grip of Reality are Sleepers, and have no idea that myths and legends walk the streets. Those with just a little myth about them are Touched, but mostly normal. Those with fifty-fifty myth versus reality are Borderline, while those mostly myth are Legendary. If they go one step further than Legendary, the story overtakes the person it inhabits, and the affected shell then becomes an Avatar.

Becoming an Avatar is a lot like completely blowing a Sanity check in Call of Cthulhu, or one of its many variants, except without the whole, y'know, going insane bit. Well, maybe a little bit insane. See, at that point you become the Mythos and start fulfilling your True Destiny, except now all humanity has been burnt away and you have Godlike powers. You may accomplish spectacular things - so long as the power lasts. However once you burn through your time as Avatar, that godlike power vanishes, and probably takes the character with it, though there's always a chance she might return later.

The Mythos can be almost anything. King Arthur is an obvious choice, but a player could as easily decide to base their character on Excalibur, Don Quixote, Jack the Ripper, a Poltergeist, or pretty much anything else. Any character, item or location from religion, fiction, fable, folklore or otherwise is up for grabs.

Your Mythos helps determine your powers, in a very loose way. The player determines exactly which powers apply, and presumably is guided by the core concept of the character. So someone who takes Don Quixote as a character idea then determines which themes, story tags and other add-ons apply, based on the core idea of Don Quixote. But since Don Quixote embodies many possible add-ons, and since this is ultimately player's choice, one Don Quixote may be very unlike another. Which, to be fair, fits the core concept of the setting nicely - the Mythos is always struggling to break free, and this can manifest in many different ways, thus creating many different potential Avatars.

You'll note that word 'presumably.' Because this game is so very player-facing, I can foresee situations in which a player's idea doesn't really match the story tags chosen for the character. There's enough flexibility here that this shouldn't matter, but that ultimately will depend on who's sitting at the table on the day.

As a side note, the MC should prepare for some friction if the player's chosen concept doesn't mesh with the other players. One player might find a beer-drinking trucker Jesus - after all, religion's on the table, don't forget - hilarious, while the person sitting next to Jesus might go into meltdown at the very idea. Know your players well enough before you start play that you may avoid these situations, is my advice to you.

So why doesn't anyone notice these legendary characters roaming the streets, making beanstalks grow up to the clouds and causing magical mayhem? That's thanks to the Mist, a reality-shaping McGuffin that prevents people from noticing the strangeness all around them. It permeates every element of the City, from the least sewer to the highest skyscraper. A clash between titans could appear, to Mist-addled Sleepers, like a gun battle. It's still a fight, and blood is shed, but it's a fight they understand. Or perhaps they get a very brief glimpse, and then their minds rewrite their recollection of events so everything's explained, or ignored.

Say some hideous event blows a hole in the City, drowning whole neighborhoods beneath a lake. To the Sleepers, that lake's always been there. The ruins in that lake are archaeological discoveries, not evidence of a recent disaster. The people that died when the City blew up didn't die in an explosion; they had heart attacks, or moved away, or never existed in the first place. Only those with a touch of Mythos about them suspect the truth, and even they don't know the half of it.

It's a detective game, but unlike Gumshoe there are no point pools to manage. Instead it's all handled by dice. A dice roll determines how many Clues you obtain, and exactly how you get those clues will depend on the means by which you went looking for them. Did you investigate a crime scene, gossip with the cops, perform some kind of magical ritual, something else? Whatever it may be, you then trade those Clues for answers, and each Clue gets you a guaranteed truthful answer from the MC to one question.

Say you accumulate 3 Clues after scoping out a graveyard. You might then ask, is there anyone in that graveyard who looks suspicious? The MC answers yes, there is; there's a lone figure in a trenchcoat who seems to be lying in wait. The next question is, does that person pose a threat? The MC answers yes, you can see the telltale bulge of a shotgun hidden underneath that trenchcoat. That leaves one Clue unspent, and one question yet to be answered.

Much like GUMSHOE, action is divided into Scenes. There's slightly less structure to the setup here than GUMSHOE fans are familiar with; there's no attempt to divide things up into a particular narrative, or organize things along a spine. Instead the game uses an Iceberg illustrative mechanic to describe story building. Those who see an iceberg know they're only looking at the very smallest part of it, the exposed tip - or, in a murder investigation, the dead body. But go deeper, and who knows what you'll find?

I rather like the Iceberg concept, though I suspect it's in part because it reminds me of a reverse Conspyramid from Night's Black Agents. Rather that build up to a tip, you sink down to a conclusion - but the base idea is the same.

OK, so all that's what the game is. Next question: how does it feel? And does it work?

It feels a little tricky, to be honest. There are some games that anyone can play, and there are some that depend very much on like-minded people with similar skill sets deciding to play. Dungeons and Dragons, for example, is a game everyone can get behind, regardless of experience or ability. The quiet player who doesn't like to roleplay and the exuberant talker can each have as much fun as the other, because the game has ways in which both can access the fun. Whereas Wraith is a game that, by virtue of its mechanics and setting, is only ever going to appeal to a certain kind of player. If not everyone at the table is into it, that will make things awkward for everyone. Which is not to say that Wraith is a bad game - it's one of my favorites - but I have to bear in mind that not every gaming group I'm in is going to be happy playing Wraith.

City of Mists is in the latter category. The quiet player is probably going to be intimidated by the setting and the core mechanic, since it requires such a heavy player investment, and relies on roleplay to really sing. Whereas the exuberant talker will leap on this with cries of joy, because the game actively rewards talking and roleplay. As MC, you need to bear in mind that not everyone at the table will be happy with City of Mist, and that may determine whether you decide to play at all.

The other big issue I have is that, as far as the setting's concerned, there's not a lot of there, there. With a concept as strong as this - new Legends rising from old stories - you'd expect the City to be as compelling, but a lot of the nitty-gritty is actually left up to the players and MC. I suppose this is unavoidable; anything this player-facing will depend heavily on player input, so the designers have to leave a lot unsaid. Plus it allows the MC to base the campaign's city on pretty much anything, from Prohibition era Chicago to modern day Monaco, Victorian Paris or anything in between. But it didn't light my imagination afire when it described the City in a series of Tropes like The Run-Down Apartment, The Public Park, The Ruin, or The Historic Residence.

I suppose my disappointment is partly down to the noir problem. I convinced myself this was a way of telling noir stories with a Mythic edge. I even convinced myself noir was in the title, or the subtitle, of the main book - which, of course, it isn't. Noir is mentioned in the Kickstarter pitch and it comes up a couple times in the main book, but there isn't, say, a chapter dedicated to film noir or any real exploration of what that style of storytelling might mean to the campaign.

See, if you aim for a noir style, then the City plays a major role. The setting - the situation - is larger than any of the characters. If the characters fail - and they frequently fail - then, more often than not, they are crushed and beaten by the situation. There's a reason why one of the most famous and oft-quoted lines in cinema is  'Forget it, Jake - it's Chinatown.' At that point Polanski bows to the central tenet of noir: the good guys don't triumph in the final reel, and anything resembling victory is spattered with blood.

But with City of Mist the setting can never be larger than the characters. By definition the characters are larger than life, in every possible sense. Moreover as embodiments of Mythos working towards Avatar status, failure seems remote. It can be a tragedy in the same sense that Macbeth is a tragedy, but Macbeth crushes dynasties and lays waste to everything around him, whereas Robert Mitchum, say, maybe punches a few goons before being gunned down. The scale's all wrong for noir. It's like trying to reshoot Casablanca with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead, and a few extra car chases and explosions.

There is a Campaign Book, and that may solve some of the issues I've mentioned, but as I've not seen it I can't comment. I would say that, if I was picking this up on a whim - which is exactly what I have done - I'd expect the main book to solve pretty much all my problems, and the add-on to give me even more stuff. I wouldn't want to go spending another $50-ish in the hope that the add-on fills holes found in the main book.

I feel as if I've spent a lot of time griping, so let's talk about the good stuff.

The interior layout is very good. I could have lived without quite so many 'coffee stains' on the pages, and I couldn't help but be reminded of a comment made by a blind gamer a while ago at YSDC, that these non-essential images may look great, but they play hell with PDF readers used by the sight-impaired. The artwork and imagery really helps sell the core idea, which is a plus.

The core idea is gorgeous. It reminds me very much of Vertigo back in the day, with the Sandman, Lucifer and the rest. For those going Fables, Fables, Fables, yes, I can see where you're coming from, but I was never that fond of Fables. It never clicked with me.

The designers are very generous with their content. There are two scenarios and plenty of downloads available, for free, on their site - no doubt thanks to cash-handy Kickstarter backers, but still, it's a welcome addition.

I said before that this is a game that will appeal to a particular group of people, but I'll also say this: if you happen to be in that group, this will become your favorite game. The concept and rules are so simple that anyone can understand them with minimal explanation, and once you're there, it's easy to fall in love with this big, bad City. It's also a pretty decent choice for someone's first tabletop RPG, in that the rules are so simple they won't intimidate novices, and the concept's so strong that everyone will have an idea of what they want to do five minutes after the MC explains the setting.

It's also not a bad choice for someone's first time behind the MC's screen. A lot of would-be Keepers, Dungeon Masters and world-builders charge in bull-headed looking for something unique, something they can make totally their own. They want to be master of all they survey, and it's just not good enough if all they survey is a couple of hamlets and some hapless hobbits. They want a grand canvas, worlds to save - or damn - and the highest possible stakes, for the greatest heroes ever known. City of Mist provides that grand canvas, with a system and setting robust enough for any idea to flourish. Whereas if that same neophyte decided Dungeons and Dragons, say, was the way to go, they'd have to become expert in a relatively complex system, and then decide what kind of story to tell within that system, and then decide whether they need any of the many extra mechanics Dungeons and Dragons supplies to make that story work, and then become masters of those extra mechanics ... and so on. It's a lot of effort, is what I'm getting at, and the great thing about City is, you, as MC, don't need to kill yourself with work to have a good time. The players will be doing a lot of that for you.

Do I recommend City of Mist? Yes, though not without reservations. Will I play it? Oh, yes. In fact there's a one-off I should be designing for some folks who are down for Christmas, and I think City is an excellent choice for them.

Is it for everyone? No - but if it's for you, then it's going to become a permanent part of your RPG landscape.


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