I jump at the chance to see any new superhero RPGs. If you count GAMMA WORLD as a superhero game (which being an early X-Men fan, I did and still do), then I’ve been playing supers RPGs only a few months less than D&D (Blue Box). I don’t play them nearly as much as I’d like; and every new one I look for the chance to recapture that original CHAMPIONS rpg feel (from the “typewriter” print days). After CHAMPIONS, I tried MARVEL SUPER HEROES (staring now at the A-Z Gamers Handbooks, plus updates); then VILLAINS AND VIGILANTES; then DC HEROES; then JUSTICE INC; then the original TMNT game; then GURPS SUPERS/WILD CARDS; followed in recent decades by BRAVE NEW WORLD, GODLIKE, MUTANTS & MASTERMINDS, White Wolf’s SCION and EXALTED, and last year a bargain buy of SILVER AGE SENTINELS.
This isn’t just to brag on my supers bona fides … more to say that CITY OF MISTS is unlike any of those things.
Just the thought of the noir setting for MISTS had me fondly recalling those JUSTICE INC campaigns, both implemented and not. But MISTS is far less bound to the Pulp heroes and Bogart movies than you’d think.
CITY OF MISTS is, essentially, a variant RPG for THE MATRIX … with a setting out of DARK CITY, and if you were playing one of those mythical exiles they hinted at in the sequels.
There are differences of course, but the analogy hit me as the best way to understand (or to my old mind “grok”) the game. Instead of there being a literal “Real World” and Matrix separated (if they even were in those films…), the Mists of the title are what hides the Mythos (fantastical world) from the Logos (mundane world).
And yeah, this may seem a “done” concept – wizards and muggles, vampires and masquerades, never-wheres, and armies unknown. But it succeeds because it embraces the non-specific archetypal norms that THE MATRIX used. The setting is just The City, not any specific city. Within The City, things are equally abstract … there is Downtown, The Theater Avenue, The Docks, and even “The Smoky Jazz Club”. And the world outside The City may as well not exist except for missions that might require going to The Mountains or The Woods or The Suburbs.
That “iconic name” theme is not to imply a lack of details or depth. There’s more than enough detail because the game runs on Themes and Tags. Now seems a good spot to explain those further
TAGS are the core mechanic. They are simple descriptor, like Quick Draw or Smooth Talker. When you try an action, you count the number of positive tags that might apply to that action (or at least that you can convince the GM do), and add that number to a roll of 2d6 – better than 6 succeeds, better than 10 is extra good.
There are also negative tags you can acquire that might reduce a roll.
Tags do not have to be just adjectives, they can be descriptive phrases like “Always lands on her feet” – and this could apply emotionally or financially as well as physically.
THEMES are related groups of Tags, up to 7. For instance, “Casanova” is better as a theme than a tag, as it encompasses the many qualities of a legendary lover, which could be enumerated as 7 tags (For example – Suave, Considerate, Tender, Handsome, Endurance, Passionate, and Seductive)
Citizens are categorized by the mechanics by how much their Mythos Themes and Tags (super side) or their Logos Themes and Tags (Mundane side) dominate. You only get 4 “Themes” between the two traits.
- Those with NO Mythos, all 4 Logos are called Sleepers (sound familiar?). They cannot see through The Mist until or unless directly touched by someone else’s Mythos.
- Those with any Mythos themes are called Rifts, and they can pierce the Mist – these are the Player Characters.
- One Mythos theme and Three Logos Themes are the Touched … sometimes hearing the call of their Mythos but still deeply rooted in mortal concerns
- Those with two and two are Borderliners, constantly balancing between their sides, their worlds
- Those with just one Logos left and three Mythos Themes are Legendaries, almost totally given to their own Mythos with just a small human touchstone left.
- Those who go full Mythos are Avatars, completely removed from human concerns
Did I mention you can have Themes change, depending on how events unfold? If you ever lose your last Mythos Theme, instant Sleeper status .. i.e. an NPC. Similarly, yes, Avatars are NPCs – not a goal unless you’re retiring the character for a while.
Everything in the game runs on variations of Themes and Tags, not just the PCs – locations, vehicles, Factions, the story itself, and even the PC group as a whole (The Crew) gets a theme or several.
Lest you think they leave you to essentially “make up” the game, there’s plenty of examples, lists, and what they call Themebooks to collate and facilitate a concept and available Tags. For example, in the Character Creation section there are seven Themebooks for Mythos and seven Themebooks for Logos.
Each doesn’t just list tags, instead they use targeted questions – 10 for positive or “power” tags, 4 or 5 for Weakness tags. Answer the questions, you get your tags! And it really is that simple in practice.
They even have some fun “Extra Tag” concepts like Mystery, Title, and Crew Role, again with guidelines how to choose them within a Theme.
All of that take up about 70 pages … plenty for any starting group to work with!
The next THREE HUNDRED (yes 300) pages are taken up with techniques for applying all those Themes and Tags, in sections from the game basics (“Working the Case”) to the Game Masters Storytelling structures (“Behind The Scenes”) to character development (remember, tags and Themes change through “Moments of Truth”) …and finally more world background and NPCs (“This is MY city!”).
If all of this sounds a bit complex, that’s because it is. Even with being abstract and iconic, the permutations and combinations to unlock are staggeringly vast.
I’ve been trying to decide if this is a game best for ultra-experienced role-players, what with all the demand on imagination and expression; or if it’s the perfect game for RPG newcomers with the way it explains and walks you through every decision in easy to understand terms and concepts.
Indeed, the answer I fear, is BOTH.
I hope by now you’ve seen the potential to completely tell a story set in THE MATRIX, and if I ever use this game, that’s what it will be for. But please do not get the impression the Noir or Supers sides are neglected – the pages are PACKED with concepts of the pulp genre. So much so that even if you’ve never even seen a noir or hero film, you should be okay as player or GM.
I won’t get further into mechanics, but suffice to say that if you’re a tables and stats gamer, and weary of extensive imagination demands, this may not be for you. Neither is it hyper abstract like Amber Diceless system, or similar systems that might use a Tag style mechanic. The closest analog I can conjure is THE DRESDEN FILES RPG, with a little less structure to conform to one book series, but a little tighter backfill to avoid confusing players with endless options. I definitely prefer it over DRESDEN.
If you’re a fan of imaginative gaming, descriptive role-playing, and any setting on the scales of noir and super-heroes, at least give the system a look. I can’t really explain it much more, for like The Matrix, you cannot be told what it is – you must see it for yourself.