Disclaimer: I love City of Mist. I have backed both Kickstarters and have two piles of stat and character cards. It is one of my favorite games to play face-to-face. But, from a hacking and online play perspective, I cannot make the game work for me.
Hello there. I am starting this series of articles as a look into how Gauntlet Spaces can be useful for design. I hope my experiences with public design, as well as the benefits of collaboration, feedback and playtesting are useful for those looking from outside the community.
Hacking is a well-tested design model. I have been dabbling in it for twenty years with different degrees of success. One of the games which has presented some quite unique challenges to me has been City of Mist.
City of Mist is a game of superhero noir, of living incarnated myth in a city of intrigue, mystery and forgetfulness. It is also a beautiful chunky book that can be pretty hard to follow. I tried my hand at hacking City of Mist before; it did not go far.
Within Gauntlet design spaces, Luiz Paulo Ferraz created an excellent, streamlined, World of Dungeons style take on City of Mist. It and the related conversation about what made City of Mist tick - and what did not work so well - offered a sharp blueprint.
After all, it is easier to kill someone else's darlings than your own.
I started working on my hack, an Antiquity version of City of Mist. A City, not of Mist, but of Myth, where legends walk in the open and struggle with themselves and for their community. I named it Fabulae Urbe.
I knew from the get-go that I wanted Fabulae Urbe to do:
- Have a single resolution move.
- Have player-facing scene creation.
- Be centered around community-building and development.
- Have constant conflict between the mortal being and the divine spark within.
One of the best features of City of Mist is the duality within every character. To preserve the conflict between their mortal and mythic nature, I introduced two natures: the Infernal (mortal, theluric, material); and the Celestial (platonic, abstract, supernal). Each PC has four points called “Names”, which they must divide among Infernal/Celestial at a 2/2, 3/1 or 1/3 ratio. Names serve one extra function: each Name gives you two tags. So, a starting PC has 4 Names and 8 Tags. Tags are an important part of City of Mist. I wanted them to be a resource, stress/health track and a constant part of fictional positioning.
Some of the most attractive points of City of Mist are the Mysteries and Identities of each character. Player characters are supposed to clash against each other and trigger relevant narrative moves for each player--at least once per session. But that is rarely the case: what works great on paper is pretty difficult to setup. Personal mystery and conflict are pretty unusual and can go entire sessions without boiling up to the surface. Still, that idea was part of what I loved of City of Mist. I want to make it work.
Many games have promised similar experiences; some even deliver. One in particular, has been developed within Gauntlet spaces: Lowell Francis’ and Agatha Cheng’s Hearts of Wulin.
The consistent, organic and dramatic conflicts created by Hearts of Wulin inspired me. Characters of Fabulae Urbe should also have their own tangled web of conflicts and incompatible desires.
As such, each character has a couple of Imbroglios:
- they pick one mystery they seek to answer related to their myth: their Triumph
- they pick a core identity of themselves and their place in the world: their Momento Mori
And… that is a Fabulae Urbe PC. Enough depth to get them into trouble and give them an inner and outer life. A fundamental level of complexity.
I had quite a lot of trouble deciding on a general resolution move. Many alternatives offered themselves, but which one would fit better? I tried a World of Dungeons style move first, but could not make it work with Tags in an organic matter. I tried a Forged in the Dark style move, but it was so complex that it would be better to make the entire thing FitD from the start. I tried a very conservative PbtA move, closer to City of Mist’s own, but it was not as player facing as I expected the game to be. The answer came to me when reading old Codex zines.
What if I made the game’s core move a version of Jason Cordovosa`s Labyrinth Move?
This is how this version came to be:
Descend Into The Underworld
When you face the legends of the city, roll +Celestial or +Infernal. If tags help you, roll with advantage; if tags hinder you, roll with disadvantage. A single player rolls for the whole group; all relevant character and story tags apply.
On a hit (7+), gain hold 1.
On a critical (12+), gain hold 2.
On a miss (6-), mark a tag or remove yourself from the scene. Mark experience.
On a 7-9, ask a question and declare what you seek to achieve. The GM will answer you and tell how your course of actions drives you deeper into the Urbe’s intrigue.
On a 10+, you are fortunate in your investigation. You make significant progress on your goal or events in the Urbe play in an helpful way.
Hold from this move is cumulative and tracked for the entire party. You may spend hold to:
- Spend 1 to 1 to mark any story or character tag.
- Spend 1 to 1 to ask a question from the GM.
- Spend 1 to start a scene involving a neutral party.
- Spend 2 to start a scene involving an antagonist.
- Spend 3 to start a scene involving a major power of the Urbe.
This move pulls a lot of weight. It allows one to ask questions, and remove obstacles and enemies--by marking their tags. It also lets the players move around town, using their hold to get access to all manner of characters and events. It may be overambitious, but on paper, it seems to capture the feel of recurring encounters and situations.
City of Mists has a lot of moves. The most important are the narrative moves, which offer a lot of value to games.
The Montage move is perfect to give players a breather or control the pacing of the game. You can give players a montage to let them commune with their myth, pay attention to their mortal life or a bump to their narrative control.
Whenever your character has some downtime, choose one:
Connect with your mortal life. Narrate what happens. Mark experience.
Commune with your divine legend. Narrate what happens. Mark experience.
Prepare for a confrontation. Narrate how you prepare. Recover a marked tag or get hold 3.
Flashback is one of my favorite moves of City of Mists. I love the ability to bring it back, but name it Darling Most Likely To Be Killed. Letting players flashback details into a scene by spending hold is nice, but it is the idea of having “nested” scenes as flashback that gets me excited. Yet, I can already see so many problems and reasons why players will not use/forget about it… But for now, it is still in the game.
During a scene, spend 1 hold. Then, choose between:
Establish a true fact about the current scene.
Spend extra 1-3 hold and run a scene as a flashback as if you had spent it for Descend Into the Underworld.
Now, Make a Hard Choice. This is the one; this is the move that is supposed to make or break City of Mist. This is where the Triumph and Momento Mori have to play out a role. This move should be used as often as Descend Into The Underworld. My proposed move draws much from the original move design intentions, but little from its mechanics. Instead, I draw inspiration from both Blades in the Dark and Hearts of Wulin and mechanics that achieve similar goals. Thanks for Lowell Francis for teaching me how Hard Choices are created.
Make a Hard Choice
When you come face to face with your imbroglios, mark experience. Then roll your choice of +Celestial or +Infernal.
On a 10+, you manage to keep yourself together.
On a 7-9+, players will suggest a disquieting truth about your Triumph or Memento Mori. If you refuse, leave the scene. If you accept that truth, lower the stat used and increase the other. If that would lower it below one, you must mark two tags instead.
On a 6-, choose one:
Lose control of your character.
Lose something dear to you. Lose a tag.
It takes all you got. Mark all your tags.
I also have an end of session/advancement move, but what can I say? Currently it is very crude, direction-less and will change a lot.
Lessons Learned And The Future
Playtest, the game demands it. Only then can further changes be implemented. Fortunately, this is something Gauntlet Spaces excel at. Expect further articles on the future of this game.
Fabulae Urbe: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1MugReflBllJ-LJFj_2uv95bRhnasDW1M