Golly does it feel good to be in the gamemaster’s chair again. It’s been roughly a year since the last time I took the helm of an RPG with a group of friends, and this time I’m very excited for a lot of reasons. I’m playing this game with a close group of friends from college, many of whom were a part of my very first tabletop RPG experience. They were also there the first time I ran a game, and have participated in many campaigns that I captained since then. I’m also excited because we are playing the brand new indie RPG City of Mist, which just came out at the tail end of last year.
With our first session well on its way, I’ve been thinking a lot about the preparations for the game. As the Master of Cities (referred to as MC for the rest of this article), it’s my responsibility to take the series concept and the characters that my players have designed and to create an interesting backdrop in which they can cause chaos. Specifically, they need NPCs to interact with that will put pressure on their themes, giving them opportunities to Make Hard Choices and improve some themes while losing others, which leads to character growth both fictionally and mechanically.
With all of this preparation foremost in my brain, it’s been hard to think of articles to write for Adventure Rules this week. Then it hit me: why not just do this prep out loud for you all, adventurers? If you’re interested in City of Mist, seeing me put some of these details together might help you in running your own game. You might even be able to make some really strong suggestions that I haven’t even thought of yet! So let’s start off by talking a little bit about the setting and characters my players have created for this campaign.
At the beginning of any City of Mist game, the group decides together on a Series Concept. This gives everyone at the table an idea of the type of cases they will typically be working, as well as what ties the crew together. My group spent nearly an hour discussing the series concept together, narrowing down to either The Pros (a group of hired professionals who execute heists or killings against powerful corporations for a benefactor) or The Event (a single dramatic event happens that involves all of the players, who then investigate the reason behind the event and try to prevent it from happening again or undo its effects). We ultimately decided on The Pros, as we felt it sounded more fun and that it didn’t feel as hackneyed and stereotypical as The Event.
totally not jokingly suggested that we could play this series concept as an 80’s inspired cyberpunk story, we had already discussed in advance wanting to set this in a classic noir setting, in the mid-to-late forties just after the second World War. Our game is set in a black-and-white New York City, with all the classic trappings of film noir like the interplay between light and shadow, and cigarettes – lots and lots of cigarettes. Not for the players, of course, because we are responsible and don’t smoke. And you shouldn’t either, kids! No kids, seriously, don’t smoke, because if you live in my state and the police catch you, you’re gonna end up in my office and I will absolutely tell you that I told you so.
Right now four of my five players have their character concepts down, which gives me plenty of room to work with as far as preparing details of my campaign. The four characters I have to work with right now are Qui Di Si, a member of the Chinese mafia whose Mythos is one of the four dragons that became the rivers of China; Jason Popov, a Russian immigrant, war hero, and Rift of King Arthur who became a professional con man for the Italian mob; Ethel Lindsay, a private eye whose Mythos Leucitius is a split personality with uncontrollable bloodlust; and Sylvia Torres, a teenage immigrant from Catalan and Rift of Peter Pan who survives on the streets using the power to imagine things to life.
These characters are each chosen for their unique skillset by an as-yet-undefined benefactor, who hires them to complete heists in order to take down the corrupt and powerful. Because most of these characters are minorities during a time when racism ran unchecked, and because they live in poverty, they are driven to fight for change and willing to work with the criminal underworld to get it done. Of course, the true criminals are the corrupt elite of the world who take advantage of their power to bleed the disenfranchised citizens of the City dry.
At this point in the article I’m going to start talking about my ideas for the first session and beyond, so if you’re one of the players in my group and you’re reading this article, you probably want to stop here because spoilers. Of course, since most of the people in my group don’t read the blog, this spoiler warning is *almost* unnecessary. But I like to keep my bases covered!
One of the key pieces of planning City of Mist is to ask burning questions about the game. Not predetermine answers to those questions, mind you – simply ask them so you can play to find out what happens. This is a key part of most Powered by the Apocalypse games and so it is one I am pretty familiar with. Once I learned a bit more about my characters, coming up with these questions wasn’t hard. Let’s talk about some examples.
Sylvia Torres, Rift of Peter Pan, was kicked out of her home by her mother during her teenage years. Forced to live on the street, Sylvia awakened to her Mythos and gained the ability to fly and to create illusions. She put these abilities to good use and began working as a thief for hire, distracting guards with illusions and flying past security measures to steal valuables. Because of this, she has a strong sense of self-reliance summed up by one of her Identity statements, “I can survive on my own.” This to me is a very easy theme to put pressure on – Sylvia will be working with a crew, after all. In difficult situations will she allow herself to rely on her newfound coworkers? Or will she put herself in danger because she trusts only herself? I’ve included the question “will Sylvia rely on the crew or abandon them?” as one of my burning questions as a result.
Q’s life is tied up intricately in the Chinese mafia. He works security jobs for them alongside his three brothers, and when they aren’t beating up goons they work at a legitimate business that nevertheless serves as a front for the gang’s operations. Q’s only family left are his brothers, so he is close to them and considers them first priority in his life, more so than his spiritual beliefs or physical well-being. One of his Mythos mysteries even questions what could happen to Q when he is separated from them. So naturally, I want to yank those brothers away. A lot of interesting plot points for Q are tied up with them. My burning question for Q is “what would cause Q to betray his brothers?” If the answer to that question is nothing, then so be it – that’s a pretty great answer, and every time Q chooses his brothers over something else I’m putting pressure on his other themes and asking him to make difficult and meaningful choices. Either way, the narrative wins.
Ethel, the private eye, lives a pretty complicated life. Her human persona is a detective motivated not by finances but by the truth. She leaves no stone unturned and no secret hidden. Meanwhile, her Mythos persona is one of seven Celtic war gods connected to the Roman god of war, Mars. Leucitius has relentless bloodlust and is driven to find its counterparts and begin the end of the world. When her Mythos takes over, Ethel ends up slaughtering criminals and she has brought an end to multiple gang wars by defeating both sides in battle. This mass murderer of criminals is known to the police and the general public as The Angel of Death. I’m definitely curious about Leucitius and its apocalypse, but at the same time it seems like Ethel might be motivated to stop her own Mythos from succeeding, so my burning question for Ethel is: “will Ethel prevent or cause the apocalypse?”
Jason returned from the war and found himself facing a lot of financial difficulty. His best friend Richard – one of his most stalwart companions in the military – offered him some work with his uncle. That uncle? He’s under the leader of the Italian mob. Jason is a smooth talker whose kingly charisma helps him con his way in or out of almost any situation; his silver tongue and Richard’s sharp mind make them the perfect mercenary team. Jason and Richard also do some work for the City’s mayor, who was their commanding officer during the war. What Jason doesn’t know is that the mayor is in cahoots with the Italian mob, and Richard knows all about the shady alliance between them. This sets up Richard to potentially be someone that Jason can’t trust, but for now Jason considers him his best friend. Playing off of the Mythos of King Arthur, I decided my burning question for Jason would be: “is Richard his Merlin – or his Morgana?” I’ll leave Richard as a mysterious character until the answer to this question arises organically during play.
In addition to thinking about each character on their own terms, I’ve been trying to draw connections and see how their stories could interrelate. The clearest connection to me is the presence of two different mobs in the same part of the City – the Italians and the Chinese. These two gangs are probably vying for control of the same district, which could create some pressure between Q and Jason, particularly if their benefactor hires them to do work that aides one side either directly or indirectly. But on top of that, we know how Ethel’s Mythos reacts when a gang war is brewing – if the battle between the Italians and the Chinese comes to a head, Leucitius might take over Ethel and raise its mighty axe to strike both gangs down. Is this the start of the apocalypse? Beats me. But I sure want to find out, so I’ll make this concept part of my burning questions. “Will the crew instill the gangs into war?” “Will a gang war usher in the apocalypse?”
Now that I have some burning questions worked out, I need to think about the dangers the players might face. In my mind we already have some clear characters established. Richard may be friend or foe, but the Italian mob boss his uncle works for is probably going to be bad news. The mayor is very likely corrupt – this is a noir game, after all. And of course we have the leader of the Chinese mob to contend with as well.
For Sylvia, I’d like to include some characters who would be connected to the Peter Pan Mythos. Rather than jumping immediately to Captain Hook, I think a Tinkerbell Rift – maybe with the force of the Lost Boys behind him/her – would be a lot more interesting. Tinkerbell is an ally to Peter Pan but her fierce jealousy also makes her problematic at times – a character who is so attached to Sylvia that they wish to control her exclusively could be pretty problematic for her. The Lost Boys could put some pressure on Sylvia’s mystery “How can I get home?” by offering her a place she could consider her home in exchange, perhaps, for something tied to one of her other themes. If going home means relying on other people, will Sylvia even want to go there? Hey look, another burning question!
For Q, his Mythos is tied heavily to a particularly epic Mythos from Chinese tradition, the Jade Emperor. Now my own knowledge of the Jade Emperor is based primarily on the movie The Forbidden Kingdom, and the legend of the Four Dragons which serves as Q’s Mythos. These stories portray the Jade Emperor as a cruel, tyrannical sort of ruler, but my research is showing that this was not the case in much of Chinese culture. It appears that the Jade Emperor is the ruler of Heaven, a powerful god who leads other gods in maintaining the order of the world. This to me makes the Jade Emperor a great potential Mythos for the leader of the Chinese mob, someone driven to bring order to the chaos of the poorer sections of the City and eventually, to the rest of the City as well.
I want to structure the Italian mob based on commedia del’arte, a tradition of traveling theater that served as one of the inspirations of modern-day improvisational theater. Commedia del’arte features a cast of stock characters, meaning that no matter which troupe came to town, fans knew they would recognize the characters they saw portrayed during the performance. I imagine using these stock characters as Mythoi for the various members of the Italian mob. Pantolone, the miserly leader; Dottore, the bloated and incompetent physician; Columbina, the beautiful and cunning underling; and Richard as Arlechinno, the servant of two masters. Get it, because he works for the mayor and for Pantalone? Yeah…
Finally, no story about a group of criminals conducting a series of elaborate heists would be complete without the righteous lawman who is always on their tail. Of course, this is the 1940’s, so the persistent gumshoe on the case of the player characters is a hard drinking, chain smoking, trenchcoat wearing disaster of a man named Edgar Lorde (Edgelord – my pun game is on point, adventurers). Detective Lorde won’t just be on the case of the crew as a whole – I imagine him investigating the crimes of the individual characters within the group as well, and I envision a scenario where he hires Ethel as the private eye to serve as his consultant on the case of the Angel of Death, placing her in a position where her human identity is investigating the crimes committed by her Mythos. I haven’t figured out a Mythos for Edgelord yet, but maybe he doesn’t need one – maybe he’s simply a very competent Sleeper who is tailing the case accurately despite his inability to see the supernatural aspects of the crimes. Of course, if exposed to Mythos powers during his interactions with the player characters, he may very well awaken as a Rift. Another burning question? I certainly think so!
Well adventurers, I think I am going to rest on those concepts for the time being. I don’t want to plan out specific story beats, after all – instead I want to create the set pieces with which my players can interact and inevitably destroy. My next step will be to take these concepts and to attach specific game mechanics to them, establishing some of these villainous characters as Dangers for the players to face during the campaign. I appreciate you taking the time to read this article today, and I hope that this is helpful to you if you decide to run a City of Mist game of your own!