Monday, November 20, 2017

Gorgon Archer - City of Mist - Character Advancement

Character Creation and the Gorgon Archer

One of the first things that City of Mist's rulebook points out when you get to the section on character advancement is that the advancement of the game is largely player-driven. On the one hand, point buy games have been doing this for three decades and descriptive character creation games like Fate and other Powered by the Apocalypse games have similarly been granting players control of the trajectory of their character. So this is not actually terribly unique, but City of Mist has very interesting mechanics in play that cause the development of a character's narrative to dovetail with the development of their character mechanics that are unique.


One of several things I like about this system is that City of Mist refers to it as character development and that is a much more accurate way of describing what's going on in City of Mist than simple advancement. There are three mechanics in play for developing characters. There is Attention, which leads toward gaining improvements and power tags for your Themes. There is Crack or Fade, thematic names for the same mechanic as applied to Logos and Mythos respectively, which can cause you to lose a Theme and have it replaced with another of the opposite variety. Then there is Build Up which lead to what are called Moments of Evolution which are permanent modifications to the character themselves. These three mechanics are interwoven very intricately.

Every Theme card has a place to mark Attention. You gain Attention in one of three ways. The first way is through the invocation of your Weakness tags. Whenever a Weakness tag comes into play, you mark Attention on the corresponding Theme that has that Weakness. It doesn't matter who brings up the Weakness, either yourself or someone else. However, the Weakness has to have an appropriate impact on the situation and you can only invoke your own Weakness once per session. My gorgon's weakness A Scattering of Scales might be relevant when trying to clean up the scene of a fight so there's no evidence left behind, but it is not going to be relevant during the actual fight unless an opponent uses it to track her to a hiding place.

The second way you gain Attention is during Downtime, also called the Montage move. There sometimes comes a time during a case where your characters have a couple of hours to prepare or do something between each dramatic scene. Each player states one thing that they will want to do and describe a small scene of them performing that action. There's no roll involved here, this just happens. Once all the players have described their mini-scene the GM is free to build off one of those sequences for a full dramatic scene. The options the characters have to choose from are the following:
  • Give Attention to a Logos Theme.
  • Explore one of your Mystery Themes.
  • Work the Case.
  • Prepare for the next scene.
  • Recover from consequences gained earlier.
In a lot of cases, the active case you're following is going to be troubling enough that you'll want the extra resources from either working the case or preparing for the next scene, or you might want to recover from that gunshot or emotional trauma. However, sometimes you may feel that you or your crew have everything under control, so might decide to take your hour researching Lamashtu or watching home movies featuring your dead spouse. In this case you mark Attention on the related Theme.

The third way you mark Attention comes up organically in play. If your character sacrifices something they want in favor of maintaining one of their Identities or Logos Themes, then that Theme marks Attention. Likewise, if you gain some answers to one of your Mysteries then you mark Attention on the associated Mythos theme. It is generally up to the players and GM as to when this happens, but it should usually be quite obvious and not simply a casual matter of "oh, I wanted to go to McDonalds but I decided to go to work instead" for maintaining a Routine Theme unless you were going to McDonalds to meet some informant or something. A more appropriate example would be the choice between being on time for a date with your significant other (a Defining Relationship) or being on hand to watch a meeting between two major criminals. In this case, if you go on the date you would mark Attention to that Theme.

Once you've marked three Attention, you reset your Attention to zero and choose one of the following improvements for that Theme:
  • Choose a new Power Tag.
  • Add, Remove, or Rewrite a Weakness Tag.
  • Choose a Theme specific improvement.
  • Reset Crack or Fade.
Adding new Power Tags creates new options for your character to draw on in investigations and conflicts while the Theme-specific improvements alter the way the mechanics work in specific ways. Some Theme-specific Improvements actually make it easier to gain Attention for that Theme. Removing Weaknesses can seem appealing, but one should be careful that you have at least one Weakness on each Theme or else it becomes a little more difficult to gain Attention on that theme. It also is prone to making the character a little more boring. The last option causes Fade/Crack to reset to zero so that you cut off the risk of having that Theme vanish.

The book notes that you can take each option as many times as you want, though I'd note that there are a finite number of Power Tag questions, Theme-specific improvements, and Weakness questions for each Theme. That said, you are unlikely to ever have a Theme last long enough to get every Power Tag and Weakness. This brings us to the Crack/Fade mechanic.

As with Attention, there is a place to mark Crack or Fade on your Theme cards. Logos Themes Crack while Mythos Themes Fade. These different words are entirely a matter of narrative description and they function in the same way. That said, I normally don't like it when different terms are used for fundamentally the same thing (said the man who had a different name for each species' Life-Force in Divine Blood) but the narrative differences in how Themes break warrants the different names here.

In any case, where as you gain Attention by focusing on the Theme in question, you mark Crack or Fade by ignoring it. Repeating the example above, if you missed the date with your Defining Relationship in favor of doing the stakeout, then you would mark Crack instead of Attention. But it has to be a definite choice again. If you call your significant other and they are totally on board with you fighting crime over your date, that's not going to cause you to mark Crack unless you've been doing this a lot and never make time for them.

Another way you might acquire Crack or Fade is through the Stop. Holding. Back. move which is where you unleash your full power to accomplish something amazing. Depending on the extent of the task you want to accomplish, you might find yourself marking Crack or Fade on a Theme or else even replacing the Theme entirely. For some major efforts, you might even find your character ends up killing themselves or something worse. The choice of which Theme is Cracked/Faded/Replaced is up to you but it must make sense. For example, if your Defining Relationship witnesses you going full tilt and it scares them, that might be justification for them Cracking or even outright leaving. Alternatively, that outpouring of power might leave that part of your myth burned out.

As you gain Crack or Fade, it is generally encouraged for the GM to note details related to that. For example, if you are wielding your magic laser sword against an enemy and miss a roll the GM might normally describe it as the enemy nimbly dodging or resisting with their own power, but if your laser sword Theme is starting to Fade, they might instead describe the miss as related to a failure of your own power instead.

Once you have three Crack or Fade, the relevant Theme is replaced with one of the opposite type. Your are encouraged to have thought ahead for what the Theme will become but you are not beholden to those earlier plans. The new Theme will not be fully formed yet, but will be a Nascent Theme. You will start with a single Power Tag, answering Question A on the list, and a Weakness. The first time you mark Attention at all you gain a second Power Tag and when you've marked your first three Attention on this Nascent Theme, it gains its third Power Tag and becomes a full normal Theme.

You will also gain a Nemesis when a Theme is replaced. A Nemesis is a consistent problem in your life that will keep popping up to trouble you. This Nemesis is not necessarily a person, but that is often the most likely. You cannot permanently remove a Nemesis from play to start. Even if you kill the person that is the Nemesis they will either come back from the dead or else some other character will step in to take their place. The ability to resolve Nemeses permanently is a Moment of Evolution you can only gain through accumulating Build Up.

It might sound like losing a Theme is a bad thing as you will lose all the improvements and work you put into and have to start again. To some degree this is true, but this is also where Build Up comes into play. When a Theme is replaced, you count up all the Improvements it had. For every Power Tag over the basic three and for every Theme-specific improvement you had marked, you mark one Build-Up on your character. Once you have five Build-up, you reset the counter and mark a Moment of Evolution.

The possible Moments of Evolution are:
  • Choose another broad Power Tag
  • Gain an Ally Theme
  • Gain a Base of Operations Theme
  • Gain a Ride Theme
  • Get closure from your Nemeses
  • Go through a transformation
  • Leave the City (you can come back)
  • Make one Core Move permanently Dynamite! (capable of critical success)
    • This one can be taken three times.
  • See through the Mist
These are permanent changes to your character and do not go away when other Themes Crack or Fade. As such, it is to your long term benefit to have the character replace Themes since those are the experiences that fuel your Build-Up.

I'm starting to work into commentary I usually reserve for the further notes, so I am only going to note two more things before summarizing my advancement approach. When you gain all the answers to a Mystery, you don't lose that Mythos Theme. Instead you change the Mystery to represent the questions that are opened up by the answers you just got. On the other hand, if you resolve a Logos theme so that you have completely internalized it or otherwise have gotten past it in a non-traumatic manner then you can change it out for a new Logos Theme. By default rules, this new Theme should be of the same type but I can see where it might make more sense to have it be replaced by a different Theme at times. For example, if you get over the trauma of a Defining Event with help from a new friend, that seems to make sense that it would turn into a Defining Relationship instead of a new Event but that is a slight house rule.

As to the Advancement. I am going to do eight cases. I am going to roll 1d4+1 for each case to determine Weakness invocations on the idea that the player would invoke themselves at least once and the GM and other players would do so less reliably but at least once per session. I will determine the Theme for each Attention randomly. I am similarly going to assume four Montages per case, but they won't usually be directed toward Attention. I am going to roll 1d3-1 for determining whether or not there are any Hard Choices in a case and decide at random what the Hard Choices are between.  For the Stop-Holding-Back move I will have one occur on a roll of 10 on 1d10 with a +1 to the roll for every case since the last time the move was used, not including the session immediately following its use. I will then randomly determine the severity of the move's use.


Advancement

Case 1 - An apple a day - The crew investigates a suspicious death where the manager at a local diner suddenly started choking and died while eating her lunch. Another suspicious death occurs when the manager's nephew, a college athlete, also dies. Investigation shows that the manager had apples in her lunch and the college athlete died of alcohol poisoning from moonshine apple cider. Both deaths were connected to a young college student by the name Rose White. While investigating, Yuli discovers a lead in explaining her sister's suicide but following it up requires dropping her normal scheduled time training with her bow. She chooses to do so. This results in Harry Lee tracking her down later to challenge her to a impromptu contest, which he would have done if she hadn't played hooky on her own training. Later, during a fight with some thugs, Pythas makes a pithy comment about Harry's "superior skills" which affects her concentration. After they learn that the perpetrator is Rose White's stepmother Regia, the rift of the Evil Queen. Before the end of the case, Yuli is approached by a strange woman offering her a place that she belongs, but Yuli chooses to prepare for the battle instead, missing the woman's offered meeting time. Regia White turns out to be acting to protect her stepdaughter as the manager and the athlete had been pressuring Rose into an abusive relationship. The crew chooses to not push things on the condition that Regia turns to them before choosing murder next time.

Attention - Gold-Medal Archer x3, A Gorgon's Sorrow
Crack - Gold-Medal Archer
Fade - Serpentine Grace
Improvement - Gold-Medal Archer - Getting Good At This: Hit them with all you've got.

Case 2 - Free-Falling - A number of suicides by falling have taken place recently. Yuli is distracted by thoughts of her own sister's suicide and has difficulty staying focused on the case, being distracted with comforting the bereaved families. She spends some time going through her sister's diary and blog, looking for any sign of what was coming that she missed. Her distraction causes her to lose power over her gaze and accidentally cause bystanders to become stone. Fortunately, Kana is able to restore them with her powers. Harry Lee calls her out to come to a public competition and pit herself against him officially, but she bows off when the strange woman from before offers to speak to her again. The suicides end up being the result of self-help guru using powers to convince people they can fly in order to conceal how she's stealing their money. The self-help guru ends up being a rift of Wendy Darling much to Peter's dismay. She escapes.

Attention - A Gorgon's Sorrow x2, A Sister's Loss x2, Gold-Medal Archer x2, Serpentine Grace
Crack - Gold-Medal Archer
Improvement - A Gorgon's Sorrow - Mythos Mastery

Case 3 - Half-Dead - Rumors of zombies call the characters into action and they end up encountering a number of the walking dead and facing off against them. In the course of one long fight, Yuli gets stuck in her serpentine form due to overdoing her effort. During one Montage, Yuli spends a lot of time training her skill with the bow. The crew tracks down the zombies as the work of Keira Loksen, a young-girl in a wheelchair. Ursula recognizes her as the rift of Hel and tries to attack her. At the last moment, Yuli recognizes that Keira is trying to commit suicide by hero and takes the blow. Urusla tries to convince Yuli that she's just seeing her sister in everything, but eventual stands down when the others point out that none of the zombies have actually hurt anyone.

Attention - Serpentine Grace, A Sister's Loss x2, Gold-Medal Archer
Improvement - A Sister's Loss - Question I - How do people treat you because of your defining event? - Don't coddle me.
Improvement - Gold-Medal Archer, - Question J - What unusual new application of your training are you exploring? Poisoned arrows.

Case 4 - Too Many Suns - Someone is killing rifts related to the sun. It quickly becomes apparent that Harry Lee has become an Avatar of Hou Yi and is engaging in his legend's story of slaying the ten suns. They manage to prevent him from killing the rifts of Amaterasu and Apollo. During the battle, Yuli loses control of her powers and turns Harry's husband to stone who is then accidentally smashed by the rampaging Harry. This snaps him out of his Avatar state. Bitter at his lover's death, Harry vows revenge. During the fight, Yuli's bow breaks and she replaces it with a bow formed from the snakes of her hair.

Attention - A Gorgon's Sorrow x2, Serpentine Grace
Crack - Gold-Medal Archer
Improvement - Serpentine Grace - Do Try to Keep Up
Replaced Theme - Gold-Medal Archer
Nemesis - Harry Lee
Nascent Theme - A Venomous Bow - Relic - Question A - What is the main useful feature or part of your relic? - Arrows of Many Poisons
Weakness Question D - What in you has changed for the worst due to the relic? Poison in my Mind
Build Up - 2

Case 5 - Vengeance of the Djinn - The strange woman from before finally gives her name as Stephanie Howell to Yuli and continues to offer her a place where she belongs and find her true sisters. The offer is tempting but then Regia comes to the crew for help and says that she and her step-daughter are being stalked. When the characters begin to protect her, they are quickly faced with the minions of the Avatar of the Djinn, the grandfather of the college athlete who Regia had killed earlier. During the case, While  The characters against all odds manage to force the Djinn into open battle. Yuli unleashes the full strength of her petrifying gaze to bring the Djinn to an end at the cost of burning it out at least temporarily. In the wake of the battle, Yuli starts a job at the high school where Kana is a Guidance Counselor. The Djinn's mortal family swear revenge.

Attention: A Gorgon's Sorrow, Serpentine Grace x2, A Venomous Bow x2
Crack: A Sister's Loss
Fade: Serpentine Grace
Improvement: A Gorgon's Sorrow - On Fire
Improvement: A Venomous Bow - Question E - What other feature, part, or item does your relic include? Arrows become Snakes
Stop. Holding. Back. - Ultimate, Result 12 - Theme Replaced
Replaced Theme - A Gorgon's Sorrow
Nemesis - The Family of the Djinn
Nascent Theme - Routine - The Next Generation - Question A - What do you do with your time? High School Coach
Weakness Question B - What are the mundane limits or downsides of your routine? Children in the line of fire
Build Up - 2

Case 6 - Impatient for the Journey - Travis Kallan, a colleague of Kana's comes to the high school to give a motivational speech. Yuli's vicious attitude since the creation of her bow causes her problems with her new coworkers. The speech turns into a riot when he turns out to be an Avatar of Tripitaka trying to force her into avatar state so they can start the Journey. Yuli spends most of the battle trying to keep the kids out of harms way while Kana tries to reason with Travis. Pythas and Peter also help guide kids out while Ursula protects Kana. In rushing about, Yuli leaves a trail of scales all over the school which are hard to explain later.

Attention: Serpentine Grace, The Next Generation x2, A Venomous Bow
Improvement: Serpentine Grace - Question H - What allows you to move others? Ride on my back!
Improvement: Venomous Bow - Question C - What essential useful quality lies at the core of your relic? My passions manifest
Improvement: The Next Generation - Question G - What trick have you picked up doing what you? Kids like a badass

Case 7 - Division - Pythas's software company is attacked by a virus created by an ex-partner of his, Aura Bells, the rift of Ouroboros. She wants revenge against him for cutting her out of the business. The attack at his company is just the declaration of duel as she starts targeting every company and business in the City that has used his firm. While they're dealing with Aura, Stephanie appears again trying to get Yuli to drop everything and come with her, but when one of Aura's cyber-attacks threatens the life of some of Yuli's students, she chooses to address that over answering Stephanie. Attempts to get Stephanie to replan the meeting are initially marred by Yuli's harsh and poisonous attitude due to her bow but she eventually pushes it aside.

Attention: A Venomous Bow x2, Serpentine Grace, The Next Generation
Fade: A Venomous Bow
Improvement: The Next Generation - Question F - What specific activity do you engage in as part of your main occupation? Archery Team

Case 8 - Sisters - Stephanie insists on Yuli coming with her and reveals that she is the rift of Stheno and that she, as the rift of Euryale, should be with her. She states that she has found their sister, Medusa, and only needs Yuli's help to convince her to come with her. Stheno encourages her to forget her mortal sister and to come be with her true sisters and Yuli is tempted, considering that she has mourned her sister long enough. She does let on to the team that she is looking into this meeting and they follow to keep things secure. It turns out that the rift of Medusa is one Michael Kane married to one Persia Kane, the rift of Perseus. Stephanie is shocked and flies into a rage upon discovering this. Yuli feels the last vestiges of her sorrow fade away as she stirs into action. In that moment she pierces the mist is able to see the manner of a rift's awakening. This allows her to see that Stephanie has been engineering the awakening of herself through her sister's suicide, Persia through a sexual assault, and Michael, by placing his mother in jeopardy. However, something went with wrong with Perseus and Medusa who attached themselves to the "wrong" people. The crew along with Persia and Michael barely manage to fight Stephanie off.

Attention: A Venomous Bow, Serpentine Grace x2, The Next Generation x2, A Gorgon's Rebirth
Crack: A Sister's Loss x2
Improvement: Serpentine Grace - Reset Fade
Improvement: A Gorgon's Rebirth - Question B - What narrow group of effects within your Mythos' domain have you mastered? Look of Stone
Improvement: A Venomous Bow - Rewrite Weakness - Question B - What can interfere with the powers of your relic? Serpents can be Commanded
Replaced Theme: A Sister's Loss
Nascent Theme: Adaptation - A Gorgon's Rebirth - Question A - What Mythos Power allows you to respond differently to every situation? Goddess of Death and Rebirth
Weakness Question C - What hinders your Mythos or limits its possibilities? Dangerous Duality
Nemesis: Stephanie Howell
Build-Up: 1
Moment of Evolution: See through the Mist - See the cause of a Rift's awakening

Gorgon Archer


Yuli Ayer
Mythos - Rift of Euryale
Logos - High-School Archery Coach

Themes: Expression, Mobility, Defining Event, Training

Routine - Attention: 2, Crack: 0
Title - The Next Generation
Identity - "There're other lives than mine."
Power Tags: High School Coach, Kids like a badass, Archery Team
Weakness: Children in the Line of Fire

Mobility - Attention: 0, Fade: 0
Title - Serpentine Grace
Mystery - "Who is my true family?" 
Power Tags: Speed and Grace, Naga-like transformation, Double-Jointed Skeleton, Constricting coils, Ride on My Back!
Weakness: Can't change back, A scattering of scales
Theme Improvement: Do Try to Keep Up - Once per session when you or someone else rolls a 6 or less and the GM makes a move, you can make a single (additional) move before the GM's move takes place. Your move is considered to precede the GM's move and can affect or even nullify it.

Adaptation - Attention: 1, Fade: 0
Title - A Gorgon's Rebirth
Identity - "What is a gorgon's true nature?" 
Power Tags: Goddess of Death and Rebirth, Look of Stone
Weakness: Dangerous Duality

Relic - Attention: 1, Fade: 1
Title - A Venomous Bow
Identity - "Is poison my nature?"
Power Tags: Arrows of Many Poisons, My Passions Made Manifest, Arrows become Snakes
Weaknesses: Serpents can be commanded


See through the Mist - She can always tell how a rift was awakened as soon as she recognizes them as a rift.

Nemeses:
Harry Lee - Rift of Hou Yi
Stephanie Howell - Avatar of Stheno
The Ahrazad Family - Related to the rift of the Djinn

Further Notes


Barring in mind the limits of a simulation of this nature, the character development does perform quite well within my expectations. I'll have a clearly sign of this as we get into the campaign I am now part of. The generation of Nemeses fits in very well with the superhero aspects of the setting and can quickly create a small rogue's gallery of personal villains for each of the characters. As different Themes accumulate Attention and Crack or Fade, you begin making concessions when it comes time to do a Montage. Maybe you'll forgo some investigation in favor of a bit of introspection and getting the last Attention you need to get another improvement. On the other hand, if it is a Theme that you are still very much interested in, then you move to protect it.

You're also encouraged to explore even the Themes you don't have much investment in as that will result in getting them improvements so that they fuel build-up. This somewhat prevents the creation of basically throw-away Themes which are meant to just be Cracked or Faded ASAP so that you can get back to what you had before. The time and investment that you are likely to want before allowing a Theme to be replaced means that it is counter-productive to create Themes that you have absolutely no interest in playing.

There three things that are not shown in this simulation. One is the advancement of the Crew Theme and the accumulation of Help and Hurt with your crewmates. The other two relate to what happens when you lose your last Logos or last Mythos. When you lose your last Logos you don't gain a fourth Mythos but instead become an Avatar, a nigh unstoppable juggernaut of raw power trying to live out its story through your body. Once the Avatar state ends, you revert to being a Touched, losing all but one of your Mythos Themes and adding three Logos Themes. The reverse of this happens when you lose your last Mythos. You become a sleeper with three Logos Themes and forget all the supernatural things that went on before. Or else you convince yourself that they were exaggerated. Both the Avatar and Sleeper states have some advantages, but they are largely meant to be a short lived state in player characters.

Another thing I like here is the ability to remove a weakness that becomes cumbersome, as being burdened with a venomous personality due to the relic that happened here. Being able to make other sorts of changes is also rather flexible as you can see in the change to the Serpentine Grace's Mystery. Note that at this point the character has replaced every one of her Themes except that Serpentine Grace. Also note that when I brought back the petrifying look that it came as a side element to an Adaptation rather than as an Expression. As a further note, the loss of her Expression did not mean that she suddenly lost the serpents for hair but rather only that they no longer had any significant impact on her abilities following the effort to turn the djinn into stone.

The next thing I'm going to note is more of a function of the chosen setting than the mechanics but I'll note it regardless.  Having the characters tied to a story creates a lot of easy ideas for creating a storyline, whether it's as generic as "fairy" or as specific as "Tinkerbell". The fact that the story is not a direct rehash but is filtered through the individual it has chosen as rift also helps. For example, the Evil Queen in this simulation turned out to be acting in protection of her step-daughter rather than to harm her. This might very well change if her legend overwhelms her and she becomes an Avatar, but until then it's the case. Also note where I made Perseus's and Medusa's rifts gender-swapped and married, another deliberate choice to show how the situation can be twisted. The rift of Wendy Darling being an evil self-help guru convincing people that they can fly was appealing. Coming up with a counter to Pythas as the rift of Mathematics was challenging but I eventually settled on the idea of dividing by zero. Ouroboros isn't exactly zero, but the matter was interesting.

Something to note is that the book and rules actively encourage you to think ahead to what is likely to happen with your character. Usually with Powered by the Apocalypse you have the idea that you play to find out, meaning that you engage in only minimal planning and mostly improvise the story as you move along. There are some players of the systems that think any sort of plan you have for future developments is an inherently off-target way of playing. This attitude isn't terribly common, thankfully, but it is still nice to see a Powered by the Apocalypse game that suggests you have some plans for what happens next with your character.

That said, these plans are best as broad-strokes which can be tweaked or abandoned with ease rather than rigidly specific lock-steps that are difficult drop. That is something I have found true of character development in general rather than this system in specific, but it bares stating. In these kind of narrative games where much of the world's setting and even function are made up as you go along, it is useful to have a sort of trajectory in mind but it is harmful turn that intended trajectory an inevitable destination. Could you play that way and have fun? Certainly, but there are other systems that handle that method of play much better and it undercuts a lot of the assumptions that this system hinges upon. Is that method of play inferior to the "play to find out" method of PbtA? No, not at all. It is different and if you want a different playstyle it's generally best to go with the rules best suited to that playstyle.

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