Masks: A New Generation
By Brendan Conway and Magpie Games
“I have no powers and not nearly enough training but I’m doing this anyway. Being a superhero is amazing, everyone should try it.” – Young Avengers Vol 2, #1
Masks is a game about young superheroes, so it had my attention from the start. I’ve loved the X-Men since I was five, but it was the 90’s when I got really into comics. That’s when Generation X was around. They were the young X-Men, newer than the New Mutants, filled with good intentions and no real skill. Later on I got into Gen13 (don’t judge, it was the 90’s), Impulse, the Legion of Super-Heroes, Ultimate Spider-Man and so on. Even now with the Runaways, the Champions and the Young Avengers, there’s something about heroes starting out in their careers which strikes me as fun. They’re not jaded like Batman, self-assured like Superman, if they’re a team then they aren’t cohesive like the Fantastic Four or Civil Warring all the time like the Avengers and the Justice League.
Masks is a Powered by the Apocalypse game which uses its mechanics to blend both the superheroics of young heroes with the uncertainty of being a youth and discovering who you are as you go. In Masks, once you know enough about yourself to be a superhero then your character ‘retires’ from the game as they’re done with this life and have graduated.
The character types are based around broad themes, so it’s good to go in with not much of an idea of what you’re doing first. Or at least not an incredibly specific one, without looking at the playbooks. In the core Masks book you get:
The Beacon – The quote from Young Avengers at the start of this article typifies the Beacon. They’re filled with boundless enthusiasm, they want to experience everything and their powersets are generally gear-based, like a Hawkeye or Arrowette might be. They have a checklist of experiences they want to have and get mechanical bonuses from.
The Bull – The brooding antihero, The Bull is a wrecking ball of a character, able to smash through anything. Deep down though, they’re crushing hard on one character and hating hard on another. They get bonuses to interact with either of them. So this is the Wolverine.
The Delinquent – The Quentin Quires and Chase Steins, these bad boys want to rebel but most of all they want to be seen rebelling, otherwise it’s worthless.
The Doomed – A class of character who’s more mystical and strange. They’re able to perform great feats, but each one brings them closer to dying, turning evil or turning into a monster. Tragic and angsty.
The Janus – The Blue Beetle and Ultimate Spider-Man playbook, the Janus’ mask defines who they are as a hero and their real life can get in the way more than the other heroes.
The Legacy – Part of a lineage of heroes, The Legacy’s predecessor left some big boots to fill and they need to try to live up to them. Captain Marvel Jr, Kid Flash and any number of Green Lanterns have been in this place.
The Nova – An endless font of energy, but also destruction. The Nova gets a wide array of powers with all kinds of opportunities to build them up. The problem is that this can all go too far. The more narrative hits they’ve taken, the more powerful they get, making them a glass cannon. Jean Grey was definitely one of these, as was Burnout.
The Outsider – They’re not from here, with a ton of tech and knowledge to help out. Sometimes their ways can be confusing and sometimes humans can confuse them. Starfire’s definitely an Outsider, as are Slobo, Kid Gladiator and Warlock.
The Protégé – Unlike the Legacy, the Protégé is ambitious and aiming to become the sidekick to a hero, maybe even to surpass them in time. This is the ‘Robin’ playbook, with an active mentor to get advice from and rebel against.
The Transformed – They started out as a person and has a person’s heart, emotions and intellect, but something bad happened and a lot of people can’t see past the monstrous exterior. This could be the Beast, Cyborg or my boy Glob Herman.
There are other sourcebooks which add roles like: a super-scientist who made some awful things, a reformed ex-villain, a Maria Hill type soldier, the naïve younger time travelling version of a villain/failed superhero, a newly-created entity and so on. All of these playbooks perfectly fit the themes and character concepts built by shows like Young Justice and comics like Runaways.
Being a PbtA game, the characters have a set of stats themed around the genre. In this case it’s something a little special. Your stats are Labels, basically referring to how your character thinks of themselves. And this means they can change. If you think of them as having, “I am” in front of them, then that pretty much hits it right. Your character can be a Danger, a Freak, a Saviour, Superior or simply Mundane.
The basic moves are what you can do by default by being a character in the game. You can Pierce the Mask to look behind heroes or villains to see the person beneath. You can Unleash your Powers upon the world, but you can’t control them yet. This means you can break everything apart, you can lash out wildly, but finesse isn’t quite there yet. You can Defend Someone, because you’re a hero, damn it. You can Assess a Situation, where you find out a bit more about the world around you. Provoking Someone can make them do what you say or stumble in avoiding it. Comfort or Support is the closest you get to healing people for reasons you’ll see shortly. It also grants you Influence over people. You can Directly Engage a Threat which gives you and your target some damage unless you roll well enough to choose not to take harm. If you do, that’s fine.
Harm in this game is handled by things called Conditions. Every player character has the same suite and villains have a certain amount of them depending on how hard a threat they are. They are: Afraid, Angry, Guilty, Hopeless and Insecure. These Conditions reflect how your character is feeling and impact their moved unless they take certain actions. If you’re Afraid, you’re worse at Directly Engaging. You can get rid of this by running away from a threat. This means that by doing something negative to reflect your emotional state, you get it over with and will be calmer by the scene’s end. If all of your Conditions are marked, you’re taken out of action. This also reflects how you can play a massive bruiser of a character like Superboy alongside Robin. They can all suffer these states and invulnerability will simply give good narrative positioning to not get hit.
One of my favourite examples of this was the Delinquent in a group I played in during the Masks beta. He was attacked by Pillbug Pete, a woodlouse-themed villain, marked Afraid and realised he’d be terrible in fights now. He ran out of the mall everyone was fighting in, got rid of the Condition and because of his nature, refused to come back otherwise people would think he’d run away. He pretended he was too good to fight a giant metal woodlouse and had a smoke in the car park instead. Such fragile egos, those Delinquents.
The other fun mechanic unique to this game is Influence. Some PbtA games have similar systems, like Apocalypse World’s Hx and Monsterhearts’ Strings, but this friendship-based currency is a bit different. First of all, every adult automatically has Influence over you. They’re adults, after all. At the start of a game you’ll give some Influence to each other and you’ll be giving, taking and losing Influence through the game. You get a bonus to help or hinder anyone you have Influence over, for starters. In addition to that, you can burn Influence to take certain actions like moving their labels or getting a bigger bonus to help or hinder them. As Influence is a binary state (you have it or don’t), this makes it great to have and fun to burn.
There’s a resource called Team, which players can use to give each other bonuses. This is the equivalent of someone trying to assist you in other games, but here you narrate what you do and spend a point of Team. These are built up by taking other moves during play. They can also be used selfishly by people to shift their own stats, instead of helping a buddy out. This is a great way of reflecting how you are able to work together in the game.
Villains are incredibly easy to make, being mostly a set of moves, some descriptions of powers, a drive (their motivation, for when you Pierce the Mask) and which Conditions they have. Like Dungeon World, this was a game where I could make a villain on a post-it note (pictured below) on the way to the game and have a whole session pretty much figured out from there.
The world’s tone is really nice, with the world being bright and filled with tons of heroes & villains. The art by Michael Lunsford pops beautifully and presents exactly the tone the rules go for here. It also presents a wide range of gender, race and body types for the characters. Halcyon City is a place which has seen a lot of superheroes, grading them into ‘ages’ much like the standard ones from comics. Golden Age heroes were the originals, simplistic and iconic. Silver Age heroes had more weirdness and nuance. Bronze Age heroes tended to be more street-level and gritty. You play Modern Age heroes and have to work out what that actually means. As the players in the group, you define it however you want. I couldn’t find any mention of safety tools (e.g. the X-Card, Script Change) but the tone is very much all-ages and I have run this game very successfully with children in the group.
There are a fair few resources which can be used for Masks. You’ll need a couple of six-sided dice to play (ideally two for each player) as well as tokens to represent Team and copies of the playbooks. Those are the ‘must haves’. In addition there are some great GM pages to help run the game. I always find it essential to have a list of the GM’s Agenda, Principles and Moves just to centre what I can and should be doing. There are two decks which have been released for Masks as well. The Deck of Villains provides a great wealth of premade villains to try out if you’re looking for some quick action. There’s also a Deck of Influence which has Influence cards in different colours for each player to hand out to one another. It also has small decks of different Conditions with reminders about what they do and how to get rid of them. These details are on your playbooks, but it’s really nice to have a physical object as a reminder.
There are a few different books which have been released for Masks, each including a lot of world details, playbooks, plots, villains and extra moves which might happen:
Halcyon City Herald is a collection of news articles and plots which could be used to inspire sessions of Masks. Secrets of AEGIS looks into the SHIELD equivalent, including villains, extra rules for being a team who have an AEGIS handler and a plot for a shadowy infiltration of AEGIS from an evil organisation. Masks Unbound goes into alternate settings for the game including an academy for superheroes, an apocalypse and a cosmic New Gods style setting. They’re all really nice companions to the main book and with those releases, the products made from the Kickstarter are complete. I don’t know what’s going to happen next with Masks but I hope there’s more on the way.
So far I’ve run a one-shot using the beta rules, ten sessions of a regular campaign and a one-shot for Free RPG Day. I adore this system and am imminently starting season two of my Masks game. It creates episodic play really nicely as well as the ongoing soap opera which superhero comics of this level often default to.
Because of the massive campaign I ran, including the heroes and villains involved, I’ve actually written a second Masks article comprising of my experiences during the campaign, rather than recount them here. It also includes some of the maps (crudely-drawn, admittedly) and the stats for the campaign’s villains, in case you want to use people like Haunted Gun or The Attacksidermist for yourself.
There was a discussion about superhero RPGs on The Jank Cast [LINK>>> http://jankcast.com/archives/3389] which hit home what makes Masks different as far as superhero RPGs go. There have been a ton of superhero RPGs over the years, but far too often they get stuck in the minutiae of who would hit harder, of how many levels of fire powers Firestar would have compared to Human Torch. They try to fit superheroes who are almost never written consistently into a consistent set of statistics and balances. You can’t play Young Justice with Robin and Superboy as no matter how many levels of Wealth you take for Tim Drake, Connor Kent’s going to be able to punch him into goo pretty easily.
Masks allows these inconsistencies. It thrives upon them because of the use of the moves it has. The powers are narrative tags. If you have ‘quantum blasts’ then that’s fine, you can Unleash your Powers or Directly Engage a Threat by describing how you’re using them or how they work. If you’re Kid Cyclops you can Unleash Your Powers with your eye blasts to punch through a wall, while other people might Unleash their Powers to suddenly take control of a hostile crowd. It’s all about narrative positioning, followed up by how you roll, the impact of the move and anything the GM does as a reaction to them. It flows beautifully and allows the game to be about replicating the feeling of being in a superhero comic or TV show instead of crunching the numbers to try and be a perfectly balanced machine.
As you can probably tell, I love Masks. It’s my favourite superhero RPG and I’ve played a ton of them. It’s dynamic, thematic and messy in all the right places. It’s something I can see myself coming back to again and again and get excited to hear how people use it to accomplish all kinds of acts of heroism without necessarily the competence required to be a hero.
If you like Spider-Man Homecoming, Teen Titans, Invincible or any one of the many, many teams of young X-Men, this is definitely the right RPG for you.
You can pick up Masks at Magpie’s website