Adventure Rules Reviews: City of Mist Starter Set

Edit: Since this review was posted, the full version of City of Mist has been released. I am currently preparing to play the full game in order to offer a review of the final product. For now, know that some of the concerns I mention in this Starter Set review were addressed in the final version of the game. I will share my detailed thoughts once I’ve actually played a few sessions at the table. – Ian, January 28th, 2018

It’s not too often that you get to experience a new tabletop game before playing the full version. At least, it’s not something that I have ever experienced. But recently on Twitter, I managed to find an opportunity to do just that. While looking at different titles in the Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) genre, I learned about a superhero-RPG going through its kickstarter phase. The game is called City of Mist, and every post I saw about it was praising the game’s innovative “tag” system. Wanting to see for myself what folks were tweeting about, I checked their page and that’s where I found the free Starter Set for anyone interested in trying out the game.

Intrigued by the concept, I got a group of friends together who were all excited to play a game together. While over the course of two or so weeks that we were preparing for this, the makeup of that group changed around, the table ended up consisting of six players and myself, all of whom have at least a few years of experience playing tabletops. Many had played Dungeon World with me in the past, but a couple (literally a couple, actually) had never played a PbtA game at all. I randomly assigned the characters to each player using a random matchup generator, explained the setting and rules of the game, and dove right in.

Today I’ll be presenting a review of the Starter Set based on the impressions of myself and my players. Since this game is not slated for a full release until August of this year, please keep in mind during the review that ultimately I am reviewing a beta-phase of the game. Some of the features I discuss here might change before the final game. But understanding what to expect from an RPG before you invest in it is critical, and Starter Sets ultimately exist to give you an idea of what to expect from the full game. So let’s see what City of Mist might hold for us!
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A quick overview of how I review games here. I look at five main categories and score them based on my impressions. The score range is as follows:
0 – Awful – There are no redeeming qualities about this aspect of the game
.5 – Poor – While not the worst, this aspect of the game certainly held it back
1 – Average – This aspect had pros and cons that made for an average experience
1.5 – Good – This feature of the game was positive, but could use some improvements
2 – Great – This aspect of the game was nearly perfect with only minor flaws
Each of the five categories is scored on this scale, and then the scores are added together for the game’s raw score, or the sum of its parts. At that point I may make a score adjustment based on my belief about certain aspects of the game needing to be weighed more heavily, or if something about the game that can’t be measured in one of the other categories should affect the score. The raw score and the score adjustment together create the final score.

One important aspect of a tabletop RPG is how it presents the game to you and whether the supplies it provides are user-friendly and attractive. Yeah, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but you probably will anyway. Solid artwork is important for grabbing the eye of your potential audience, and once they’re grabbed, the book needs to be easy to navigate and contain good information.

City of Mist definitely has compelling artwork. The character designs fit their characters for the most part and definitely establish an aesthetic for the game. The art in the book plays heavily on the Myst and is covered in misty backgrounds and page transitions. The book isn’t necessarily an art-heavy project, but what art there is looks good and catches the eye.

The information is presented well, too. Fonts are legible, headings and subheadings are utilized effectively, and sidebars present information in a way that’s easy to find and breaks up walls of text. My biggest problem with the layout of the book was how some sections seems like sidebars due to the coloration of the page, but turned out to be part of the main text. Still, this was a minor problem that took me almost no time to realize and get back on track.

While the book itself is pretty solid, the resources for the players are a bit less so. Not that they’re ugly – in fact, the character art looks great and my more artistic players enjoyed using them as coloring pages during sequences where the action was a bit less heavy. However, the art-filled character sheets and MC materials (Master of Ceremonies, the title for the dungeon master in this game) are NOT printer-friendly. Even in monochrome, the ink is so heavily applied that you’re going to be burning a lot of it to print this stuff. I used up 75% of a brand new ink cartridge printing out character sheets, move sheets, and status cards for seven players. And while the creepy purple mist adds an interesting splash of color to the rulebook, it serves little purpose on the actual game resources and looks pretty awful in black. I also found it difficult to print the characters sheets in the proper dimensions, and quite a few of my players lost text on their sheets because it wouldn’t fit a single page.

The game’s rulebook looks great and serves its purpose, but the supplies for the players themselves leave a little something to be desired in terms of being practical and user-friendly.

City of Mist 2.PNG
City of Mist is set in a city covered in a seemingly-constant mist. Whoa. The City can be a real place or a fictional one, existing in an established universe or otherwise just standing on its own. The City is a place where the supernatural forces of the world choose to manifest themselves in a constant struggle for control. These supernatural forces can be legends like those of Excalibur or the Kitsune, they can be concepts like “plague” or “holy faith;” regardless of what kind of supernatural force it is, it manifests through people, locations, or objects. These forces are called Mythoi (singular: Mythos) and the people/locations they use to enter the world are called Gateways. These Gateways are aware of each other and can support each other or enter into conflict. As for the rest of the City, they are unaware of all this supernatural force around them. This is thanks to the Myst, a literal and figurative phenomenon that keeps Sleepers (ordinary people) in a fog.

The player characters are Gateways whose mythical powers are precariously balanced with their real life. Different character types have a different balance of supernatural versus mundane: Touched characters are just discovering their abilities and seeing how they impact day-to-day life. Legends have had their powers for some time and are bound to reality by only one final aspect of their old identity. Borderliners are in-between, and their life could swing either way to favor their Mythos or the mundane. This aspect of the game – the balance between life as an expression of the supernatural and normal life – is the part of the game that appealed to me the most when I was reading the book.

Unfortunately, with the starter set this is the aspect of the game you get to experience the least. I think this is because ultimately you can’t focus all that much on character or world building in a single-play session. The role of a starter set is to give you an opportunity to experience the game mechanics and see if the game is something you want to buy for yourself. So having that session focus overly much on the mundane lives of the characters wouldn’t make it particularly interesting to play out. So while I wish reality could have been explored further, I understand why it has to work the way it does.

If anything, I think this shows that the folks at Son of Oak Games have really crafted a setting that is compelling. I WANTED to experience every part of it, so it must be engaging to some degree, right? I really love the lore that City of Mist presents. Myst, Gateways, Mythoi, and the noir setting all scratch a Lovecraftian itch and it’s awesome. Meanwhile, you’re still playing a game about superheroes and this really shows up in the game’s combat system. It all works together to create a setting that is really unique and compelling. As a game master, I ponder the worlds I could create in this setting and the stories I could tell. As a player, I wonder what sort of Gateway I would be, what my Mythos would be and how it would balance with my real life. City of Mist has a fascinating concept that inspires creativity, and that’s perfect for the world of tabletops.
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While in a normal tabletop RPG the characters are of your own design, in a starter set like this the simplest option to help folks jump in and play is to provide them with characters to use. City of Mist provides a cast of characters that vary between superhero archetypes and well-known legends. The characters consist primarily of Touched and Borderliner Gateways, with only one Legend character available to select.

Each character is clearly inspired by a specific Mythos and fits into a role within the team. Excalibur is the “sugar-mama” of the team (borrowing my players’ phrasing here), Post-Mortem is a skilled sniper, Mitosis the muscle, Salamander the face, Kitsune the magician, Flicker the hacker, and then Declan is good at a little bit of everything. Salamander and Excalibur are good characters for those who prefer charismatic characters, Kitsune and Post-Mortem are ideal for stealth, Mitosis is great for combat-lovers, Flicker for investigators, and Declan for anyone who just wants to be totally overpowered.

Character balance is definitely an issue we encountered while playing the game. The players of characters like Mitosis and Post-Mortem had a hard time staying engaged outside of combat – they really had to work to use their abilities during investigations and interactions. My wife played Salamander and she never found occasion to use many aspects of his character – water is a huge part of his overall theme and neither of the sessions that are included with the starter set feature water-heavy environments for Salamander to utilize. Conversely, characters like Excalibur and Declan stole the show with their abilities to apply useful power tags to pretty much any situation.
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Overall the game’s pre-generated characters were fun, but some clearly shine more than others. Since I was playing with a group of six people (at one point we had so many interested that there weren’t enough characters to go around), we didn’t have the luxury of leaving out the less compelling characters. While many of my players enjoyed their experience even when playing lackluster characters, you probably want to play this game with a small enough group that they can mainly choose from those who really bring interesting skills and abilities to the table.

When I requested the starter set from the City of Mist Kickstarter page, I got two potential scenarios for my players: Demons in Cross End and V is for Going Viral. The first was originally a “Kickstarter exclusive” that is now distributed to anyone requesting a starter set, and the second is the actual starter set scenario of the game.

Demons in Cross End starts off as either a murder investigation or a gallery robbery investigation. How are these stories connected? Both scenes point to a run-down church in the neighborhood of Cross End, a building that represents two opposing Mythoi whose conflict will reach a tipping point on Halloween night. This scenario deals heavily in the themes of abstract morality and can potentially end in player-versus-player combat.

V is for Going Viral starts off as a missing person’s case or a smuggling case. It involves a great number of missing children, some of whom self-identify as members of a group called the Infection Gang. Their leader is a popular and talented student at the school. Still, there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes, all related to the Mythos of Plagues.
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I found the Demons in Cross End scenario a lot more compelling and decided to run that with my players. It was a huge success – the “true believer” theme that runs through the session proved a really interesting mystery for the group. PvP did in fact erupt at the end of the game and the story was so back-and-forth that some players couldn’t bring themselves to choose a side and others even flopped sides! Everyone really liked the scenario. As a GM, I encountered one main problem: the clues in this scenario point too strongly to the location of the final showdown. It’s really easy for players to connect the dots and skip some of the content along the path. The layout of the clues lead my players to find the endgame “prematurely,” so I had to do some improv to keep the mystery alive. This was fine as I am somewhat experienced with running tabletops and very experienced in improvisation, but someone without those skills might have trouble running the scenario.

A note about why I did not choose V is for Going Viral. First of all, the themes here were not nearly as strong and didn’t create a scenario that I found particularly compelling. “A story about a virus at a school” is way less interesting than “a story about two powerful Mythoi struggling for control.” Additionally, the story hooks for the V is for Going Viral were a lot less strong. In particular, the smuggler hook isn’t even described in detail by the book, making it so that the MC has to come up with their own material in order to utilize it. Now while MCs are generally known for creating their own material, that kind of goes against the pick-up-and-play mentality of a starter set.

Overall, the starter set for City of Mist gives you one very compelling story and one very mediocre one. I highly recommend that you play Demons in Cross End, and if you’re running the game, be sure to fashion your clues so that the players don’t reach conclusions that you are not prepared for.
City of Mist RPG - Crew Themes.jpg
And here it is, the heart of any tabletop game: how you actually play it. City of Mist is a Powered by the Apocalypse game, which means it borrows its core mechanic from the game Apocalypse World. These are the defining traits of that system:
1.) It’s narrative-driven, not rules-driven; the tabletop is a story before it is a game, and all action comes from the story being told
2.) Characters act through moves, simple actions with triggered by behaviors in the fiction that then define how the action plays out, often requiring a roll of the dice
3.) Rolls are made with 2 six-sided dice (2d6); a 10+ is a successful move with little trouble, a 7-9 is a successful move with a lot of trouble, and a 6- is a failure that allows the MC to make a move
The PbtA system focuses on presenting tough choices to the characters and giving them an environment where they can shine in the face of adversity. The focus is on the story being told, and rules are not heavily emphasized, particularly in a way where they overshadow narrative.

In City of Mist, each character has four different themes, which are divided between Mythos themes (the supernatural and unknown) and Logos themes (the mundane and known). Each theme has a number of power tags that describe things the character can do within that theme, as well as a weakness that springs from that theme. As an example, Excalibur wears a bracelet that can become any weapon she imagines  and is both indestructible and inconspicuous in bracelet form. However, it is totally conspicuous in weapon form. Whenever Excalibur makes a move, every power tag that is relevant to the situation adds 1 to her roll, while her weakness could subtract 1 from her role if it applies.

The tag system works great and, when utilized properly, allows characters that are interesting in all sorts of situations. A clever player can take a seemingly one-dimensional tag and do a lot with it, and in this way the tag system really encourages you to roleplay the character to the fullest extent. My players loved finding creative uses for their tags and determining the proper time to use up their tags by “burning them” – more on that in a bit.
City of Mist 6Your characters four themes evolve throughout play by either growing more powerful through Attention or by totally Cracking or Fading. When you lose a theme, it is replaced by the opposite theme type: Mythos becomes Logos, or Logos becomes Mythos. As themes upgrade they get more power tags or lose weakness tags. These themes do not just define the character’s mechanical abilities, though; they also represent the most important aspects of that character. When circumstances force the character to act against their themes, there’s a price to pay and dice to roll. Sadly, by nature of being a one-off session, the starter set doesn’t explore this much and doesn’t have much potential for themes to grow or fade. If the book is anything to go by, though, the mechanics relating to themes will be a lot stronger in the core book.

Up to this point, I like the game mechanics and think they are pretty compelling and work well. Where things really start to falter are the moves themselves. A PbtA game is made or broken by the moves that drive it. These define how the characters interact with the world and how they interact with each other. And the moves in City of Mist is where the game really struggles.

Moves in this game pretty much all work the same way: you trigger the move, add your relevant power tags, roll, and then get an effect that is as potent as the number of tags you added. This can be really frustrating when you roll a great success with a low power – you get very little reward for the action despite being successful. The ability to add any and all relevant tags can give you ridiculously-high bonuses, which is bad in a game that breaks after a bonus of +3. Not only does that totally eliminate the chance for failure, it lowers the chance of having to make an interesting and challenging choice as the result of a 7-9 move.

Some moves are more problematic than others. For example, the Go Toe to Toe move represents a direct conflict for control between two people. It is comparable to the Single Combat move in Apocalypse World 2nd Edition, but doesn’t work nearly as smoothly. Two people in a blow-for-blow conflict should both come out scathed; however, this move allows for the player to avoid that. This makes the Hit with All You’ve Got Move – activated when hitting someone who can’t fight back – less relevant. The move Change the Game is a catch-all move that activates whenever you do something to assist another player. However, the trigger is WAY too broad and the benefits WAY too specific. Change the Game can be activated by things like flanking the opponent, healing an ally, putting a protective barrier over them, giving them a boost in strength or speed, assisting them to make their next attack more powerful – there are so many different effects that fall under Change the Game. Yet benefits of the move include things like creating/summoning allies to the battlefield (incredibly situational, particularly given the powers of the pre-generated characters) or burning a player character’s tag (only appropriate in a versus scenario) under normal circumstances. On a 10+ you get some more options, one of which is whatever you and the MC agree on, which should honestly be the only effect of this incredibly broad move. Change the Game is trying to be a healing move and a protecting move and a buffing move and a tactical move and and and – there’s too much happening here and the move is very frustrating to use.
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I have two more small points about game mechanics. First, there’s a game mechanic called “burning tags” that basically gives the player a guaranteed success with a power of 3. The cost of this is that you cannot apply that tag to any other moves until you rest up. This is supposed to be a last-ditch effort sort of thing, and my players used it exactly that way. However, having a mechanic that allows your players to overturn the final villain of your session without dice rolls is a pretty flawed premise. As an MC, you have to be prepared to give players detrimental statuses to prevent tag burning or otherwise make your villains immune to most of the players’ abilities, a cheeky and unsatisfying way of artificially increasing the difficulty of the game.

Second, for a game that allows PvP and even has a starter set session that encourages PvP, City of Mist does not handle it well. It lacks a move for Aiding and Interfering (present in Apocalypse World and even in other spin-offs like Dungeon World), which is a key component of PvP in a game with these mechanics. Without the ability to interfere with rolls, the defending player can do nothing as the attacking player applies a ton of tags to a move or even burns tags in order to get the better of another person at the table. Change the Game is the only move that has conditions specifically for PvP, and that’s the ability to burn someone else’s tag so they can’t use it against you. PvP in other PbtA is gritty and both players feel the hurt of it, because the Interfere move makes it very likely that 7-9 rolls will dominate the landscape. In this game, one good hit from the guy who hits first will wrap everything up, and the defending player feels a bit powerless to do anything about it.

I realize at this point that I’ve been saying a ton of negative things about the gameplay. One might think that my players and I didn’t enjoy the game. That was not the case. We had a lot of fun and despite running into these issues, everyone came away with a positive impression of the game mechanics. I feel strongly about my complaints, but I also feel that these suggestions would be making a good game better. The Apocalypse Engine is a solid system, and the tag and theme systems are great ways to change it up in a compelling way. I would love to see these aspects of the game fine-tuned in order to create something even more engaging.

STORY – 1.5

City of Mist is a compelling RPG that has a fascinating setting and some really cool ideas for changing up the PbtA system. Utilization of power tags is an interesting change to the typical stat system used in most RPGs. Tags and themes work together to create a game where roleplay is encouraged by implementation of the game mechanics. The game needs some serious polishing when it comes to the way certain moves work, and overall the Moves in this game are weaker design-wise compared to those in Apocalypse World and some of its other children. But that doesn’t stop the game from being fun to play, and it doesn’t stop me from anxiously awaiting the opportunity to play the full game and design my own characters and stories in this fantastic setting.

Edit: Since this review was posted, the full version of City of Mist has been released. I am currently preparing to play the full game in order to offer a review of the final product. For now, know that some of the concerns I mention in this Starter Set review were addressed in the final version of the game. I will share my detailed thoughts once I’ve actually played a few sessions at the table. – Ian, January 28th, 2018

If reading this review has inspired you to try out City of Mist for yourself, check out this link to download the FREE PDF of the starter set, cases, and character playbooks. This is an awesome opportunity to try out an RPG that hasn’t hit the market yet, and City of Mist is definitely worth your time. You should also follow their Twitter to talk to the creators and stay up-to-date with the game. You definitely don’t want to miss it when City of Mist hits store shelves! Thanks so much for reading, and feel free to comment with questions if there’s anything else you’d like to know about this upcoming RPG.

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