The Independents: Masks

There’s a mad scientist robbing a bank with a swarm of psychically controlled bees. Turns out that your best friend wants to be something more, but thinks your teammate is competition. The Red Dragon’s dad is calling and complaining about him not ‘upholding our legacy’, while Spitfire can’t go outside out of costume without being hunted by nefarious forces or endangering her family. The Lawman just called you in to A.E.G.I.S. HQ to lecture you about the property damage the team caused last night. Did we mention that there’s a AP Calculus test on Monday? Life as a superhero is always a messy affair, but doubly so when you’re a teenager and everyone has ideas about what you should be doing. This is Masks: A New Generation!

Masks: A New Generation is a superhero tabletop RPG created by Brendan G. Conway and published by Magpie Games, wherein you play the titular teenage New Generation of superheroes in Halcyon City. The City has a long history of super-powered individuals, from the colorful and supposedly straightforward Gold Generation to the powerful and well-established Silver Generation to the more introspective and cynical Bronze Generation. Now it’s your star that’s rising, but it’s going to be a tough journey. Everyone in the city is watching you to see what kind of superheroes you’re going to be, they’re all going to be ‘offering’ their opinions, and you’re going to have to figure it all out yourself as you grow up and grow into your own legend.

Masks is not the only ‘supers’ RPG in the marketplace, of course. There’s Mutants and Masterminds, for instance, or the unfortunately-out-of-print Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. There’s also a lot of potential source material; Masks itself namedrops Teen Titans, Young Justice, and Young Avengers on the back of the book, and every playbook lists a number of young comic book superheroes that a player could use as inspiration. With an apparently crowded niche, I wondered if Brendan had run into any trouble establishing Masks’s own unique identity. Luckily Brendan was kind enough to talk to me about the game over Skype, and when I brought this up he had this to say:

“The origins of Masks in many ways were the classic game design story of ‘I wanted to play a thing and there was no game out there that specifically did the thing I wanted to play’ . . . there are games that could do that [let you play Young Avengers/Teen Titans/etc], you could sort of move into that space, or with a setting book you could push into that space, but none of them were specifically designed to do that from the ground up.

So since Masks started off from this position of ‘I’m trying to fill a niche that I didn’t feel was already filled’, it sort of from the get-go differentiated itself slightly from those other games, and in no small part because it was so hyper-focused. Masks isn’t all that great if you want to play straight-up The Avengers. It won’t really do you well. It’ll do you well if you want to run Young Avengers.”

The game is Powered by the Apocalypse, and like all such games it runs on a 2d6 + Stat system with misses, partial successes, and full successes. The ‘Stats’ in this particular case are actually referred to as Labels, and they’re as much of a roleplaying tool as a mechanical aspect (a common design choice for the game as a whole). The Labels of Danger, Freak, Savior, Superior, and Mundane aren’t just numbers: they represent how a hero thinks of themselves, and will often change through play as our young heroes reexamine themselves or are changed by the story.

I was a little curious as to why Brendan decided to go with PbtA over other system types, and given that Magpie Games has worked with the PbtA system before part of the answer wasn’t too surprising:

“Between my own personal familiarity with it, where at that point I had been playing a ton of Apocalypse World and derivative games for a while, running them for a while, and I was working with Magpie Games and helping [to rules edit] Urban Shadows . . . I knew it inside and out and felt comfortable working with it. But even past that there was the fact that, for me, that framework puts the emphasis on the things that I wanted to see out of the game.

Like, for instance, the emphasis on not necessarily having a pre-determined scenario, but playing to find out what actually happens. And the emphasis on these mechanics that were quick one-and-done rolls where the GM also never rolled anything, and it’s always about the PCs’ actions, where they are the centerpiece, these protagonists, and the story more than anything else is about them.”

Another one of the altered PbtA features is the relationship mechanic, here going by the name of Influence. Influence can be thought of as something of a resource: if someone has Influence over you, the opinion of that someone matters to your character in some way. By default every adult NPC has Influence over the PCs, and PCs will give their fellow PCs Influence as part of character creation, determined by the playbook they’ve chosen. Influence can also be given to someone voluntarily, at any point that makes sense for the story. Those possessing Influence can use it to try and convince those they have it over to change how they’re thinking or acting, possibly adjusting the result of rolls or changing their Label values. I asked Brendan to elaborate a little on how the Influence mechanic came to be and what he wanted it to do.

“Influence took a while to get quite right for any number of reasons. Like the amount of Influence around changed tremendously over the course of the game’s development, and exactly what you could do with it or what it was for changed tremendously over the course of development.

So in the end the key pieces of it became that adults always, by default, have Influence over the player characters because that meant suddenly I didn’t need to worry about tracking it for the vast majority of NPCs, and it fit the fiction! And then on the PCs’ side, since we knew that it wouldn’t have that same effect, it isn’t necessarily true that every other person of your age or other PCs would have that same effect over you, the question became exactly how to manage that. And in a similar sort of way, where [it was decided that all adults had it by default], for this it was a similar situation of ‘Oh, with Influence what matters is that it’s hard to take away, because it’s hard to resist once someone does have that hold over you, so that’s the meaningful moment, that’s what I’m interested in and what I want to zoom in on.’

But the moment of ‘you do matter to me’, that regularly happens. You do something cool, or you give a great speech, and suddenly your words matter to me, and I wanted to facilitate that simplicity and that ease of granting Influence so that you could always make sense of ‘my character would care about what you think’. You can always just say that, because you’re in your character’s head the most.”

A third mechanic that got changed was the system’s way of tracking health, in that it doesn’t. Rather, characters have Conditions: Angry, Afraid, Insecure, Hopeless, and Guilty. Every time a character would take a hit, or whenever a Move tells them to, they mark a Condition, making that Condition a mental effect that is now part of the story. If all Conditions are marked (all 5 for a player character, 1-5 for an NPC depending on power level) the character is taken out of the scene. This is yet another example of a mechanical feature also being used as roleplaying tool, because characters have to roleplay their condition and can clear their own Conditions by acting according to their new mental state, usually in a way that makes things more difficult (read: interesting). Again I asked for a peak behind the curtain to see how Conditions came to replace Hit Points and/or the PbtA’s usual ‘clock’ system.

“Whenever I get this I always have to start off with what I feel is faintly a confession: I’m a Hawkeye fan. I love Clint Barton and Kate Bishop, but Kate Bishop is my favorite Hawkeye. As a result it’s always in my head that they’re my favorite, so I want to make sure they can exist in this game, I want to make sure you can actually play them. And at a certain point when I was thinking about a way to represent harm, or stress, or something like that . . . I was thinking about how, first of all, about how harm, etc., would make no sense because you would have Hulk, with like 9,000 HP, and Hawkeye with 5. The disparity would make it impossible to have them coexist meaningfully.

What I looked at instead, in the source material, is what actually happens in comics and in the TV shows like Young Justice when people get punched, what is the actual effect of it . . . they’ll get hit all the time and get back up and keep fighting. But the part that seemed to stick was how it changed their mental state in that moment. It made them angry, or it made them afraid, they got hit way harder than they expected, or they’ve taken so many hits they feel hopeless. That was the part that actually seemed to move forward and influence things. As an example in The Avengers there’s that moment when Cap lifts up his shield and gets blasted out the window . . . you get the sensation that he’s exhausted, and tired, and he doesn’t think they can win . . . that was the key thing I centered in on. To say what matters when you get hit is how it effects your mental state, because that puts the Hulk and Hawkeye on a similar stage.”

Everyone, myself included, is always saying to never judge a book by the cover. In this particular case, though, we’re all wrong. The cover is what drew my eye while I was browsing at PAX East ’17, because it and the interior art is done by Michael Lee Lunsford and is outright amazing. I was already familiar with Lunsford’s work on Supernormal Step and the Desert Bus for Hope posters, and in a book which already has a nice clean layout his art frankly makes the pages just a delight to look through. I can’t maintain a reviewer’s impartiality about it, it’s just awesome, and Brendan had much the same to say when I asked him about it.

“Marissa Kelly, our art director, she was the primary person in charge for making sure the art came through, creating the art spec, working with Mike. But I did manage to have conversations with him and throw in my own input and I did get to watch the whole thing come together, and I was delighted and amazed! The whole thing started because Marissa said to me, ‘So, what kind of art do you want? Can you find any examples?’ And I went and I found some pieces Mike had done for what I think were alternate costumes for DC superheroes . . . these are great! I would love to get an art style that matches this. So [Marissa] was like why don’t we try to get this? I didn’t really realize that was an option! But Marissa very wisely made us go contact Mike, he was interested, it worked out, and it was awesome!”

Now, I did have one issue with the book. Most PbtA games have the actual playbooks in the book for reference. They’re basically always also available as free PDFs for download and printing, because nobody is really going to mark up their book or make every player buy a copy, but they’re usually there. In Masks they’re not. It’s not the only PbtA game to do this (The Veil comes to mind), but it is in the minority. It’s a nitpicky little detail, but I did spend some time scouring the book for them, so I brought it up with Brendan.

“[Page count] was part of it. It was an actual and intentional decision on our part. Part of it was an experiment. Part of it was us thinking about our own personal usage. We can’t play the game without printing the playbooks anyway . . . looking at some of the other books that do put the full playbooks in and realizing that a lot of what’s in the book is sort of dead space or stuff that felt less important. I’m thinking specifically of the stat lines might not be particularly valuable because you’re picking those on your character sheet anyway. You’re not going to mark up the book.

What we have come to realize, after having done it and after we received criticism about the playbooks not being in the book, and really thinking about it, there are things that we wish were in the book simplistically. Specifically that’s the Moves and the special rules for each playbook. Those are the big ones where we’re like, ah, yeah, for reference those would be super helpful to have those in the book. I get why, I grok the desire to have those parts of the playbooks in the book.

The only other hesitation for me is that we wanted the book to have this sleek profile, we wanted it to look not intimidating. And adding the playbooks is the equivalent to adding 40 pages at minimum. It would change the way the book looked, make it look meatier and potentially less inviting.

In the end . . . it was an interesting experiment. For a number of reasons it didn’t work out the way we thought, and moving forward for the next book we’re doing, the Halcyon City Herald collection, we made a point of putting the new limited edition playbooks back into the book.”

There are references to future Masks supplements throughout the book, so I of course had to try and get more information from Brendan about what Masks fans can expect in the future. He listed off a few.

“Halcyon City Heralds collection is going to come out first, and that one is really right there, we need to get it actually printed, but it’s fully laid out and we shared it with backers [for whom Brendan extended his thanks for finding things that needed fixing]. A collection of fictional news articles taken from myriad publications throughout the Masks universe. Plot hooks, characters, special moves, including five new playbooks.

After that we’re doing Secrets of A.E.G.I.S., all about the organization A.E.G.I.S., our equivalent of SHIELD, the metahuman peacekeeping operation. That one is going to have a couple new playbooks as well, a bunch of A.E.G.I.S. reports taken from their files, and a couple of playsets where the hope is they’ll actually give you a new way to play Masks with their own new independent systems. For example one of them is about playing agents of A.E.G.I.S.

Finally we have Masks Unbound, which is going to be four new playsets, taking it in all kinds of crazy directions. From space to a Red Dawn-style post-apocalyptic kind of thing, giving you lots of new ways to play Masks.”

For my last question, I decided to throw a curveball: if I were a new Masks GM, with zero experience in running this type of game, what would be the single biggest piece of advice Brendan would give me?

“Well I can’t just say read the book, that would be cheating . . . I think if I had to say one core thing to keep in mind that’s going to be a guiding light throughout the entire point of the game . . . this principle is in the book, but it’s to me, I think, crucial: the principle of being a fan of the player characters. The point of this game when you are running it, is yeah you’re helping to write this awesome comic/TV series, but also you’re an audience member. You are getting to partake of the story at the same time that you’re helping to write it. The protagonists, the main characters of the story, you’re not in control of them, so in a weird way you’re actually positioned the best to enjoy this story you’re creating because you get to watch the main characters react and make decisions and feel deep, conflicted emotions. Everything you do [as a GM] is about that, where they are the main characters and they’re the ones the spotlight shines on . . . the more you can get into that place of being like ‘I’m super excited to watch these PCs be awesome’, the more smoothly things will go period.”

Final words?

“Go watch Spiderman: Homecoming because it’s Masks the Movie?”

Which is hilarious, personally, because I ran a session of Masks over the course of a recent gaming marathon (the details of which were used for the opening paragraph above), and shortly thereafter one of the players went to go see Homecoming and immediately messaged me to go see it because it would be perfect for staying in the Masks mindset.

My final opinion on Masks: A New Generation? Well, I’m running a regular campaign for the group from that gaming marathon, but decided to run a Masks one-shot that weekend instead of the usual fare. No less than three people, during character creation, started to ask about playing Masks more in the future. I advised that we actually play the game first, just in case it didn’t work out. A few hours later and every player was basically in open revolt, calling for more Masks.

It is the single best ‘problem’ I’ve ever had as a GM.

Want to delve into the action and drama of teenaged superheroes? Want to try a game where practically every mechanic has a narrative purpose, and every bit of narrative can have a mechanical impact? Want to play what is just really a darn good game? Then put on your super suit and give Masks: A New Generation a try!

Thanks to Mark D. Truman and Sarah Richardson for getting me in touch with Brendan, and Sarah for providing all the art featured in the article. And many thanks, of course, to Brendan G. Conway for taking the time to talk with me! You can find Masks in PDF form at DriveThruRPG, and in PDF and dead tree format at Magpie Games (along with supplementary materials, free-to-download playbooks, and more)!

 

4 thoughts on “The Independents: Masks”

  1. As I made clear both in my post on Drama-Driven games and in a personal post about my Masks character that went live yesterday, I was one of the players in open revolt. Beyond all the great things about the game mechanically, something about ‘teen supers’ clicked for our group in a way that let people around our table throw off a lot of their default character creation behaviors like old coats and feel more comfortable making some really interesting characters with really interesting problems.

    I also want to mirror something Brendan said in the interview, because “be a fan of the characters” is my favorite PbtA GM principle, and one that shows up in almost every PbtA game. Both when playing in Seamus’s Masks game and when GMing Apocalypse World, I had these moments, typically at the end of scenes or sessions, where I found myself thinking “oh man, how are they going to get out of this”. Being a fan of the characters is so important both as a GM and as a player, because it lets you approach messing with their lives in the right way. Thanks to Vincent Baker, we know how to verbalize the GM’s role of providing challenge while not being adversarial: “Respond with Fuckery” but “Be a fan of the characters”. I’m looking forward to continuing with investigating character-centric games…as you’ll all see in next week’s Level One Wonk, there are games out there outside of the PbtA ruleset that are written in this same play space.

    Liked by 1 person

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