I love bad guys. When I was studying theater my favorite roles to play were the villains of the show. Whether they were influential buffoons, cruel tyrants, or subtle manipulators, I enjoyed the thrill of portraying the guy that everybody loves to hate. Most of my family and friends felt that I excelled at villain roles more than I did at others that I played throughout my stage career. My love of villains is not exclusive to portraying them on stage, though. My favorite characters in many books, movies, or games are the antagonists. Bowser in the Mario series, Shadar in Ni no Kuni, Zaheer in The Legend of Korra, Fisk in Daredevil, Gollum in The Lord of the Rings – I could go on for quite some time.
Perhaps it is because of my love of villains that, in my mind, the tabletop campaigns that I have run in the past are effectively defined by the villains I created for them. They’re the parts that I remember the most and generally the ones that my players remember too. Because of this, the mechanisms for villain creation in a tabletop game are pretty significant for me. I want the game to give me tools to help me create the memorable bad guys that I crave, characters that my players can look back on and remember with fondness – or, you know, despair. Whichever.
Over the course of the last few months, I’ve been playing the RPG City of Mist with my tabletop group. In City of Mist, the forces that stand in opposition to the players are called Dangers, and the rules for creating them are pretty unique compared to the systems that are present in some of the other games I have played. As I prep for my next session I have been designing more dangers, and looking back on the sessions I’ve played so far I really enjoyed how the Danger mechanics enabled me to create the types of antagonists that I thought were fun and that left positive impressions on my players. So today I thought it would be fun to share exactly what it is that I like about the Danger mechanics and how they enable the MC to create capable and compelling villains.
Dangers only really have two defining characteristics: spectrums and moves. A danger’s spectrums are the anticipated ways for defeating that danger. So if you’re pretty sure that the street thugs can be killed or arrested in order to defeat them, as the MC you can go ahead and set the threshold for those statuses. If you want them to be simple thugs to take care of, maybe the tier of those spectrums is only 2 – one good hit will almost definitely take them out. Or perhaps these are the toughest thugs in the city and you need to inflict a tier-5 status in order to deal with them, an effort which will likely take multiple moves bolstered by power tags and statuses. You can also set each spectrum to a different level. So if the thugs are easier to arrest than they are to kill, they might have a hurt-5 spectrum but an arrest-2 spectrum.
Moves, meanwhile, are the special rules that apply to that danger. They’re basically the same MC moves that you use in any other situation, but predefined based on certain conditions for that specific danger. The MC can always give a status as a move, but a danger defines what status that might be very specifically. Of course, danger moves can also be custom moves that the MC designs specifically to represent a special quality of that danger. This could be something like “when Shadar enters the scene, add the story tag darkness to the scene” or “when Fisk takes a status on the hurt spectrum, reduce the tier of the status by 1.” These custom moves are, in my view, where City of Mist allows you to do some really interesting stuff to make dangers that are compelling and powerful.
The biggest tool that the game gives you for this is a section of predefined dangers and special danger moves. By studying how these dangers work and the way their custom moves interact, it helps you as the MC to discover how to make your own and how to combine them in unique and effective ways. For the newer MC who doesn’t feel confident creating their own dangers, the game has a ton of basic profiles for character types such as thugs, officers, and even attorneys that can then be edited with power profiles to quickly and easily make different character types. This baseline of pre-established, already-balanced danger moves helps you to explore some really creative options while still staying safely within the game rules until you develop your sea legs.
To help you see how these different moves can fit together and how they work in play, I’ll give you an example from my last session. I have a player in my crew whose character is named Ethel Lindsay. Ethel’s Mythos Leucitius is a god of war who is motivated by a fierce bloodlust. When Leucitius takes over, Ethel blacks out and doesn’t remember the god’s actions – her Mythos and Logos are literally dual personalities, more distinct than perhaps is intended for the typical City of Mist character. Oh, and her Logos? She’s a private detective, motivated by an unquenchable desire to discover the truth behind every crime. In order to pit her themes very literally against each other, I decided to bait the hook for a storyline where Ethel would investigate the murders that she committed as Leucitius. I wanted the character who introduced this storyline to be a police detective who has been unable to find any concrete leads and so finally resorts to hiring a private eye.
I had a pretty strong concept for what kind of person I wanted this police detective to be. I envisioned him as the classic noir hardboiled detective – gruff, drunk, edgy, and hyper-cool. I wanted to portray him as someone competent in spite of the fact that he never appeared on screen sober. And because I love names that are on-the-nose, I decided to call this character Detective Edgar Lorde – a pun on edgelord. With all of these ideas in mind, I started looking through the provided danger moves to see which ones fit with my concept.
The first move that jumped out to me was Starting Status, which is exactly what it sounds like – a status that the danger starts with. As soon as the danger enters the scene, it takes this status to represent some aspect of it. One of the given examples is a bodyguard that takes alert-2 whenever he enters the scene. In my case, though, I had a bit of a different vision for Detective Lorde – whenever he enters the scene, he has the status inebriated-1. This was to mechanize his consistently-buzzed state in a way that the players could use against him, but it also provides mechanical justification for another part of my concept: because Lorde is always a little drunk, the Mist allows him to see Mythos powers since he’ll just attribute it to his substance use later.
Visually, I imagine this character as an edgier Matt Mercer, with Detective Badd’s facial hair and awesome bullet-riddled trenchcoat.
The second move I wanted was one that would affect how players investigated when Detective Lorde was on the scene, forcing them to be more careful in his presence. The Hitman danger profile in the book has a move which require the players to spend two Clues (a game resource that players exchange for information) instead of one in order to investigate them – this gave me the idea of creating a move that made the use of Clues in a strange way. I decided that whenever a player spent a clue in Lorde’s presence, Detective Lorde would help them make their discovery and therefore would also learn whatever it was that they learned. This would complicate investigations with Lorde present because it would be impossible for the players to keep secrets from him.
Finally, while Detective Lorde is a Sleeper, I wanted him to be able to successfully investigate cases with Mythos involvement, particularly those cases that directly involve the player characters. I wanted him to be able to suspect the players even when the Mist would work in their favor, and to have mechanisms for acting on that suspicion. Multiple danger profiles in the book – the reporter and the detective, for example – have an ability which allows the MC to ask players questions and for the danger to learn the information in the answer inexplicably. For Lorde, I wanted to tie this very specifically to the Mythoi, so I gave him a move which gave him a suspicious-2 status whenever he witnessed someone using Mythos powers. I as the MC could then spend ranks of suspicious to ask my players questions which they’d have to answer honestly, and Lorde would know the answers through his powers of observation and detective skills.
With my danger moves defined I was ready to introduce Lorde in the next session. During a series of vignettes about each character, I had Detective Lorde show up at Ethel’s house and ask her to join him in investigating The Angel of Death (the nickname which authorities and the press had given Ethel’s alter-ego Leucitius). I made sure to play up his negative qualities during this scene – he frequently took swigs from a flask (to justify that inebriated-1 status), blew cigar smoke into Ethel’s face, belittled her verbally and even physically jostled her as he left the scene. All my players were groaning and dismissive of this guy as an idiot and a jerk. Even so, Ethel took the bait and went with Detective Lorde to the scene of a crime where she had murdered some thugs in the previous session.
Unable to discover anything by simply looking around for evidence, Ethel and Lorde managed to find a witness to interrogate. Ethel tried to be nice about it but was unable to convince the kid to tell her what she needed to know (having seen her murder his friends the night before, he was pretty frightened of her). Ethel chose to play on that fear and smashed a crate nearby to intimidate the young thug – in doing so, she revealed a bit of her Mythos power and thus gave Detective Lorde a status of suspicious-2.
Ethel’s player earned multiple clues which he then spent to learn information from the kid about the events of the previous night. This activated another custom move, so Lorde helped her to ask the right questions and learned everything that Ethel was learning in the process. While Ethel was technically learning things that her player knew out-of-character, Lorde didn’t know anything about what was going on, so revealing this information to him created a lot of problems for her and made her look more suspicious. This gave me justification to spend the points of the suspicious-2 status Lorde had taken in order to ask more direct questions of Ethel’s player. By the end of the investigation, Detective Lorde had gone from wanting Ethel’s help to suspecting her as the Angel of Death.
When the whole thing was over, my player looked at me and said “I’m surprised, but he’s actually a pretty good detective.” It was an awesome payoff – the moves I’d chosen for Detective Lorde helped me to portray him in exactly the way I’d intended, not just from a fictional standpoint but from a mechanical one as well. This wasn’t the only moment like it in the session, either – later on another danger’s moves played out exactly as I’d predicted in a way that was quite cinematic and fun. But Detective Lorde’s story is the strongest example from my play so far of how City of Mist gives the MC the perfect tools to craft interesting characters who can mechanically challenge the player characters. Sure, Ethel could just kill Lorde, but that’s not the kind of danger he is – his game is information, and the rules of City of Mist allowed me to spotlight that.
I’m enjoying a lot of things about City of Mist, but so far in my experience the aspect of the game that has impressed me the most are the simple but effective mechanisms for creating antagonists. The fact that I can create fun and memorable villains not just conceptually but also mechanically is something pretty unique compared to other tabletops that I have played. I’m excited to continue experimenting with these rules to create more dangers and to eventually learn to craft my own custom moves in order to make them even more unique to my players and our game.
Now I turn the conversation to you, adventurers. Have you tried out City of Mist? What do you think about the mechanisms for creating dangers? Have you played another game that gives you solid rules for creating antagonists? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!