2018 is starting off as a pretty great year for me when it comes to tabletop games. It’s been nearly a year since the last time I was able to play a full tabletop campaign in person – instead, my usual group spent the last few months playing over Roll 20. Now if you don’t know about Roll 20, it’s a fantastic app that allows people to play tabletop RPGs online. It’s a great way to connect and play when you don’t have the ability or the schedule to do so in person. Our problem was that most of us don’t realistically have the equipment or the internet service to use it well. We had a lot of connection problems not because of Roll 20, but because most of us have a bare bones internet package that we share with a household of people.
This year, we managed to work it out where a number of us are going to meet up once a month to play two sessions of a campaign. While it will be an adjustment from having weekly games, we’ll still get a lot of play time in and there’s something special about having the RPG experience around an actual tabletop. In-person socializing is something we rarely enjoy as working adults, so these monthly get-togethers should be pretty special! The game we’ve chosen for our campaign is City of Mist, a pretty new tabletop RPG that tells stories of street-level superheroes in a noir setting.
As the one who will be running the game, I’ve been going over the rules and trying to grasp how the game is going to work. I certainly got some experience with the starter set, and I have a ton of ideas of what I want to do, but I need to back up those concepts with rule mastery. When it comes to the process of character creation (which takes place during what’s called the exposition session or session zero), I want to understand how to help my players acquire specific abilities that they want. I figure the best way to do that is to take existing characters and try to adapt them to this engine, so today I’m going to go step by step through City of Mist character creation to see if I can create an existing character using the mechanics of this game.
One interesting thing about City of Mist is that the mechanics can be used to create nuanced combat in more than just a physical sense. This game supports battles of wits and words just as effectively as it supports firefights and superpowered brawls. That (and the fact that I’ve been playing through Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney) gave me the idea of trying to create a character whose abilities are better sorted to the courtroom than the battlefield. And what better lawyer to bring to the game table than Phoenix Wright?
A City of Mist character is made up of four Themes, which are divided into two main types: Mythos and Logos. Mythos is the mysterious and unknown about that character, the touch of supernatural in his or her life. Logos is the mundane and known, the things that keep the character stable and bound to reality. So what are those elements in the life of Phoenix Wright?
Phoenix is an attorney, specifically a defense attorney. He chose this career because of a specific life event that inspired him to defend those who could not defend themselves. That event involved Miles Edgeworth, a person who is very significant to Phoenix not only because he inspired him to become a defense attorney, but because he himself became a prosecutor. This puts the two at odds in the courtroom, but despite their opposition Phoenix has strong emotions towards Edgeworth and they accomplish things together that neither one could do alone.
Of course, Edgeworth isn’t the only significant person in the life of Phoenix Wright. He also has his young assistant Maya Fey, a spirit medium who is the younger sister of Phoenix’s mentor in law. Maya connects Phoenix to all of the supernatural happenings in his life and in the setting of City of Mist, she’s probably a more “powerful” Rift than he is with a more present Mythos. When Phoenix is in particular trouble, Maya Fey can channel the spirit of her late sister Mia, who then provides Phoenix with the sage advice that he needs to keep going.
In the courtroom, Phoenix has two weapons in his arsenal: evidence and testimony. Evidence he gathers by investigating crime scenes (although he isn’t supposed to), and he uses evidence to back up his claims when he makes a ridiculous declaration in court. Phoenix kind of lucks into most of his discoveries – he doesn’t come into the courtroom with a plan but rather discoveries secrets as he works through the information mid-battle.
Perhaps his most important skill is cross-examination, identifying the contradictions spoken by the witnesses on the stands. Phoenix is excellent at pointing out tiny flaws in logic that then snowball into much bigger flaws in logic. When a contradiction doesn’t readily present itself, he presses the witness on just the right point so that they say something that causes them to trip up. Combining these techniques with the presentation of evidence, Phoenix is able to pick apart any testimony in order to uncover the truth.
Therein lies the purpose of all of Phoenix’s efforts – uncovering the truth. Phoenix rarely defends clients who are not innocent, but when he does he fights not to get them off the hook but in order to discover the truth of the situation. He and Edgeworth are the ultimate team where this is concerned – their constant back and forth, breaking down each other’s flawed logic and contradictions, leaves it so that only what is true can remain. They discover together what neither of them could accomplish alone.
So how do we narrow all of these aspects of Phoenix Wright into only four different themes? Which themes are most appropriate to accomplish our purposes? My first step here is to define what Phoenix’s Mythos would be, and my mind immediately goes to the concept of truth. Any supernatural abilities gained by Phoenix are for the purpose of unmaking lies and secrets in order to discover the truth, so this Mythos seems most appropriate. Now in the video game, Phoenix doesn’t have any powers himself, but he has a spiritual artifact given to him by Maya that has useful powers called the Magatama. I’ll use this as his first Mythos theme, a Relic.
Now when creating a theme, there’s a few things I have to come up with. The name of the theme, the Mystery or Identity associated with that theme, three power tags, and one weakness tag. The tags come from answering various questions provided in the City of Mist core book. The name of the theme and Mystery/Identity I come up with on my own. In this case, the name of the theme will simply be The Magatama, and the Mystery associated with it will be “who took the life of my mentor, Mia Fey?” This question will push Phoenix to seek out the truth and could possibly cause him to ignore some of his Logos themes.
For the power tags, I need to answer three questions about the Magatama. The answers become statements that I can then use to boost my moves during play. It’s good to think about what actions you want the tags to boost – for the Magatama, we want Phoenix to better be able to use the Investigate move as well as possibly the Go Toe to Toe move (using his knowledge that his opponent is keeping secrets in order to gain control of a situation). So now I’ll answer questions about the Magatama with the purpose of improving those actions.
The main feature of the Magatama is that it shows the locks on someone’s secrets. When someone makes a statement that is untruthful, the Magatama glows in the presence of secrets. Phoenix can then unlock their secrets by presenting the Magatama to the target and interrogating them like a witness on the stand. This allows me to use it for the moves I intended – I can Investigate by seeing if the Magatama glows in the presence of someone, and when that investigation reveals that they have secrets, I can have it show the locks so I can unlock them by Going Toe to Toe with the target. Finally, I need to establish a weakness tag. The biggest shortcoming of the Magatama is that it doesn’t catch half-truths, allowing people to make statements that are technically true (but stated with the intent of lying) without activating the relic’s power.
Now that we have one Mythos theme out of the way, we need to go ahead and establish at least one Logos theme for Phoenix. I think the most obvious choice here is a Defining Relationship with a significant individual, but who should I choose between Maya Fey and Miles Edgeworth? A question many shippers have also asked themselves, I’m sure. A character with a Defining Relationship theme could possibly have the named individual as a second character of sorts, which seems appropriate for Maya but not so for Edgeworth, of whom Phoenix would have no control and who often stands in opposition to Phoenix. Maya, then, is the easy answer while Edgeworth is the interesting one – having a Defining Relationship he can’t necessarily control but does at times benefit from is unique. I personally as the theoretical player of this character would rather explore the complex rivalry and uneasy alliance of Wright and Edgeworth, so I’ll choose the prosecutor as my Defining Relationship.
Interestingly enough, the first question for this theme is “why is this relationship so important to you?” I think the reason Edgeworth is important to Phoenix is because he pushes me to be my best, so we’ll go with that rather lengthy tag for the first one. When Phoenix is pitted against Edgeworth, he has to be ready for anything so he can improvise his defense against the prosecutor’s vicious attacks. This tag is pretty broad, so chances are that I’d have to work out a deal with my GM to use this tag first to Change the Game in order to create a situational tag that I could then use to improve my next move. This deal is perfectly allowed by the rules of the game, so I’ll accept it. And when Edgeworth is actually willing to share it, he has access to confidential info that could be beneficial to Phoenix’s cases. Of course, since Edgeworth works for the prosecution, sometimes he’ll be unwilling to share information or provide help to Phoenix. Again keeping things simple, we’ll call this theme Miles Edgeworth, Prosecutor, and the Identity here can be the appropriately melodramatic “I can never forgive Edgeworth for what he has become.”
We now have Phoenix’s Magatama and his relationship with Miles Edgeworth as two of his four themes. We need two more, and within those two themes we definitely need to capture the skills he utilizes in the courtroom as well as his investigative prowess. Choosing to focus on the courtroom knowledge first, I have two different ways I can approach this. I can give Phoenix a Routine theme focused on his job as a defense attorney, or I can give him a Training theme focused on the skillset he developed in law school. The book gives some guidance on how these two can overlap – if I want to focus on the day-to-day of Phoenix’s attorney lifestyle, I should choose routine. If I want to focus on him using his law skills but not necessarily within the context of his job, I should choose training. Because Phoenix often puts his cross-examination skills to use outside of the courtroom as well as inside, Training feels more appropriate here.
So let’s create a theme for Phoenix’s legal training. I definitely want to call it Objection!, and I think the identity here is something like “I will always fight my hardest for my client,” which is perfect bait for my GM to give me a client that’s guilty. The focus of this theme will be finding contradictions, which Phoenix can do by pressing the witness and backing it up with evidence. Of course, the weakness of this technique is that I’ll sometimes be forced to say whoops, wrong evidence, and that snarky Edgeworth will be quick to point out my flawed logic. We’ve now got three themes down, which means I only need to figure out one last thing!
Choosing this last theme is kind of tricky. Adding a second Defining Relationship for Maya could be an option, but repeating themes is pretty discouraged by the rules (though not impossible). I could do a Defining Event for the elementary school case that inspired Phoenix to be an attorney in the first place, or I could possibly choose a Mission for him to be motivated to complete. At this point, I’m going to look at those two themes and see which one feels like it could give me the power tags I want. I’d like to lean in to the investigative side of Phoenix, and also his mission to defend the innocent. I can also look at the special moves I would gain to see which ones appeal to me more from a mechanical perspective. Looking at the special moves provided by the Mission theme, they feel more correct – the Defining Event focuses so heavily on the event itself, and while Phoenix is to a degree still affected by the event that made him wish to be an attorney, there’s more than one event and the mission has become more of his own thing. So I decide to go with the mission theme here.
I name this theme Ace Attorney and decide that the identity should be “I will always defend those who cannot defend themselves,” which will definitely give me some opportunities for conflict with the Identity of the Training theme and even the Defining Relationship theme. Say, if Edgeworth were ever to be accused of a crime…anyway, let’s talk tags at this point. The first question is what Phoenix needs the most in order to carry out his mission, and that thing is probably solid evidence. To find that evidence, he’s learned to snoop around. Carrying out his mission has also given him total trust in his client, a valuable asset in his mission to defend. Of course, there’s a huge weakness of this mission best summed up by a quote from Apollo Justice: goodbye quid pro quo, hello pro bono.
Alright, so now we have four themes for Phoenix, one Mythos and three Logos. This makes Phoenix a “Touched” character, someone who is just unlocking his Mythos and is still heavily grounded in the mundane. If he explores his Mythos more, aspects of his life as an attorney will begin to fall apart – if he rejects his Mythos, he’ll lose his power entirely and become a Sleeper, ignorant of the supernatural in the world around him. An interesting and somewhat conventional starting point for City of Mist.
So using the digital character sheet provided on the City of Mist website – can we just take a second to appreciate how awesome they are for providing an official fillable PDF for their game? – I have taken everything I just did and put it together so you can see what the final character looks like. I made some last-minute changes to the names of the themes and had to cut down my lengthy tag names a bit, but here’s Phoenix Wright in all of his City of Mist glory:
Doesn’t look like much when you see it this way, huh? The beauty of City of Mist is that this barebones sheet that consists mainly of some words can be used to create a dramatic range of effects. Because of the lack of numerical limitations, I have a lot of freedom to create what I want, and this character is just as viable in-game as a character that can shoot fire from her hands – they’re just built for different situations. Phoenix excels at investigating, particular when doing so by interrogating people, and his abilities are well suited to social combat situations in the courtroom. When it comes to actual combat, he’ll probably have to rely on other party members. But hey, that’s the fun of a game like this – one guy can be an attorney, another can be a cop, and both can perform their roles and have a good time doing it.
SO WHAT DID I LEARN?
I dove into this project to help me gain a better understanding of character creation so I could convey those ideas to my players. So how has this experience helped me? For one, I’ve learned that it’s kind of tough to take a really specific concept and find the right way to do it. I’ll want to be pretty familiar with the way the different themes work so that I can help my players find exactly what they are looking for. I think a key part of City of Mist character creation is understanding that there are multiple ways to get to the same thing – in those situations, you want to look at the nuances and the mechanical benefits to help you make decisions when the concept is broad enough to have multiple interpretations.
Another thing that this shows is that 12 power tags to start out really doesn’t feel like a lot. City of Mist describes its characters as “street level” and coming off of previous experience with Mutants and Masterminds, that totally makes sense. This character does not feel like he has access to as many abilities as my first characters in M&M did, but that feels like an intentional choice of the game. Phoenix will get more powerful as he pays attention to some themes and ignores others, and of course the most important thing is that characters are balanced not by physical power but by narrative power. Phoenix is as important to the story as anyone else, even if he isn’t capable of accomplishing as many cool things. And even then, cool is relative – it’ll probably feel pretty sweet when he busts out just the right piece of evidence to get a client off the hook.
This was an educational experience for me and I hope that if you are thinking about playing City of Mist that this can be helpful for you as well. I didn’t go too into detail about the specific questions that helped me create the power tags because I don’t want this to serve as a way to circumvent purchasing the rulebook (which you can find here), but perhaps just seeing the process in action will help you in taking a concept and getting it onto paper. I know it helps me to understand what my players will be going through, and I think I can help them more now than I could have if I didn’t try out the process for myself.
Thanks for reading, adventurers!