Masks: Unbound Review

An alien invasion that’s taken all the adult superheroes out of the picture, leaving the new generation to fend for themselves. A re-written world where heroes are only now beginning to discover their powers, where crime rules the streets with an iron fist. An academy of learning, where prospective heroes learn history, math, and how to punch a supervillain across the gym while trying to navigate a high school social life. A cosmic roadtrip that takes the heroes across worlds, time, and dimensions  in pursuit of the notes of a universe-ending song. A warning from the future, a cosmic wanderer, and a child of evil. Such are the new worlds and new heroes to be found in Unbound, the third and latest supplement for teenage superhero roleplaying game Masks: A New Generation from Magpie Games!

When Brendan G. Conway and Magpie Games Kickstarted Masks: A New Generation back in 2015, over the course of the project three supplements were promised and built out of the stretch goals that were reached. First we got the Halcyon City Herald Collection, which came with tons of in-universe writing, new Move ideas, and a slew of new playbooks. Next came the Secrets of A.E.G.I.S., revealing the files of the agency, two ‘playsets’ that serve as campaign seed/structure, and two more playbooks. Now we’ve got the third and final (of the promised supplements, anyways): Unbound. This addition to Masks is going to be quite the curveball: we’ve got four playsets this time, and each is decidedly different from the Halcyon City you may have come to know, care for, and defend. Don your costume, and let’s see what we’ve got!

Iron Red Soldiers

The Tangee came from the stars to Halcyon City looking to save the universe; future-viewing technology told them that a devastating timequake would originate there, caused by a super of some variety. Trying to discover the actual source of the quake, they tried stealthy observation. They tried diplomacy. They tried asking for every super in the city to be handed over to them. When that didn’t work, they invaded. Supervillains were broken out and put to work for the Tangee, and the superheroes of Halcyon City . . . fell. Dead, captured, or forced into the shadows. A.E.G.I.S. was unable to hold the line themselves, and so Halcyon City has been occupied. The supervillains are still on the loose, with A.E.G.I.S. now struggling on their own to fight them. The Tangee are putting on a friendly face, but they’re still searching for the true source of the timequake. Resistance groups like the intel-gathering CLOAKSS and the safehouse-establishing DAGGR are trying to do what they can to help the superheroes in hiding. And A New Generation is trying to come into their own . . . with no Gold, Silver, or Bronze to help them.

Iron Red Soldiers is a playset that pits our young heroes against a literal armada of alien occupiers, with limited support. The first mechanical change to the game has to do with that support: CLOAKSS, DAGGR, and even A.E.G.I.S. (who help when they can) each have a more traditional PbtA Clock. Each time a group takes a bad hit or expends a large amount of their limited resources to help the players, a segment of their clock gets filled. If the clock fills completely, the group gets taken out of play, either literally wiped out or ‘just’ rendered incapable of helping any further. The heroes can work to un-fill segments on those clocks by rescuing people, gathering resources, etc., but once a clock is filled there’s no turning it back.

The playset also introduces a mission mechanic; since the team of young heroes are essentially on their own, they have to come up with their own plans. It starts off pretty simple: when the players want to do something, they pick their main objective such as “To Free Champion” or “To defeat K’toth of the Razor Cloud’. Once that’s done the GM tells them the requirements for the mission, which could range from knowing where the target is to a diversion to a piece of specialized tech. Then it’s onto the players to fulfill those requirements before beginning the mission (this is one spot where CLOAKSS, DAGGR, and A.E.G.I.S. might provide assistance, depending on what’s needed). The team might not be able to fulfill all the requirements for the mission ahead of time, and that’s fine. They can still attempt the mission, but for every unfulfilled requirement they’ll be walking into a worse situation, potentially even an outright trap custom designed for them.

For a final mechanical twist, there’s the state of the Tangee themselves. The aliens hit Halcyon City with overwhelming force and crushed its defenders . . . but the struggle against resistance fighters drags on, the Tangee still haven’t found the actual source of the timequake, and the different castes don’t agree on how to solve their mutual problems. So, they get a clock of their own, with six segments. Every time the Tangee suffer a substantial loss, a segment gets filled; the more filled segments there are the more desperate the Tangee become. At 0-filled they’re still trying to pass themselves off as benevolent and talons-off. By the time all six segments are filled, they’ve broken out the world-ending solutions, like planting implosion bombs everywhere. The Tangee aren’t defeated at segment six, they’ve simply lost control of the situation and are willing to do anything to try and turn it around. The team will have to defeat the Tangee outright in play, hopefully with all the help and resources they’ve gathered up to that point.

The GM Agendas, Principles, and Moves for Iron Red Soldiers are, unsurprisingly, focused on making the players feel like they’re in way over their heads. They have to take action without getting caught, be cautious without giving up. Every choice they make might help their cause if they pick the right option, but every success makes their enemies more desperate. Even while fighting the Tangee, ‘normal’ supervillains continue to act, and the only assistance the team has is living on borrowed time.

Overall, Iron Red Soldiers is the most backs-to-the-wall and restrictive of the playsets in Unbound, but it offers players a chance to really overcome the odds in their struggle to be heroes.

The Spiderweb

Sometimes a drastic action intended to fix everything simply creates an entirely new breed of problem. Enter one Brass Brilliant, one of the oldest active ‘human’ supers, gifted with strength, intelligence, and apparent immortality thanks to his own Titan Elixir. Brass looked at Halcyon City after a century of life, and wondered . . . would things be better if superheroes and supervillains had never begun to fight it out in the streets? Brass wouldn’t tell you how he did it, even if he could with his memories scrambled the way they are, but he was able to accomplish a Shift. The timeline changed, everyone’s memories were altered, and the superpowered history of Halcyon City simply . . . vanished. Which left the Spider plenty of room to spin his web.

There are no Exemplars in this timeline, no A.E.G.I.S., and by extension the supervillains that they fought against also never materialized. Instead the Spiderweb, a vast criminal organization, rules most of the streets, choking the life out of the city and wounding it in struggles against its few rivals. Superpowers and heroes are starting to emerge anew, however, and that’s where our young heroes step in. The Spiderweb is a street level campaign: the Masks equivalent to The MCU’s Defenders compared to the Young Avengers-esque basic Masks. Everything about this playset is intended to be grittier and lower-powered compared to a normal game, a status quo enforced by some of the more explosive playbooks like the Nova being removed from the available options.

There are a couple narrative and mechanical tweaks (aside from removed playbooks) made to carry that feeling across. First, our young heroes are all from the same neighborhood, and they should keep themselves focused on protecting their homes, families, and neighbors from the violence of the Spiderweb. An additional backstory question about who or what the characters have lost to the Spiderweb has been added. When you take a powerful blow is altered so that instead of your powers going wild you become injured and need medical attention. The team gets to design their neighborhood to give it character, including its name, a virtue and a vice typical of the community, the factions fighting over it, and a few anchor NPCs to act as its face. The GM in turn gets to design Gangs, each of which answers to one of the big bads (perhaps the Spider himself) and can have a number of varieties, some unique Moves (such as Drive off civilians and law enforcement), and conditions (including a new one, Confused, which has them scrambling when they’ve run across the superpowered resistance of the young heroes). If one of the big bad’s Gangs gets taken out, the big bad marks a Condition . . . and gets to make a Move of their own.

Running the Spiderweb is all about reminding the heroes that they live in a terminally corrupt society, and that they’re trying to change that in what is probably an endless battle. Ordinary citizens, including the neighbors our heroes want to protect, struggle to get by. Bad people fight the Spider for bad reasons, and good people do terrible things for the right ones. Everything has a price, and this Haclyon City’s bullets are much deadlier.

The Spiderweb isn’t a nice place to live by any means, but while the stakes are smaller that actually seems to make them matter more, as they are much more personal for our heroes. This playset can be a nice break from the more . . . over the top style of superheroes. And, if you’re still looking for something ‘big’ to do instead of just fighting criminals, there is the fact that this timeline Is Not Supposed To Exist, and Brass Brilliant is still out there trying to fix it . . .

Phoenix Academy

You didn’t think Halcyon City would lets its young superheroes go uneducated, did you? Enter Phoenix Academy, a special institution founded to guide heroes into adulthood and true heroism. Originally the Future Academy founded by the Infi-Knight and Sister Salem, the school occupying an island in the bay of Halcyon City was laid to ruin by a demonic hunter named Hellbinder . . . who returned many years later, redeemed by the original founders after he had pursued them across the cosmos, and vowed to rebuild the school as Phoenix Academy. The school has thrived under Headmaster Hellbinder, and your characters are in attendance.

While high school can be a part of any Masks game, Phoenix Academy puts it center stage and mixes the superheroics right into the curriculum. You’re not trying to hide your secret identity from your English teacher, because you’ll be flying through the air and sparring with them during your study hour. A couple of the basic assumptions for a Masks game must thus be changed. First, the adult superheroes are going to be in regular contact with your characters pretty much all the time; it’s literally their job to do so. Second, there are teenage superheroic social cliques and clubs to be concerned about; take the social ladder of high school that you remember and throw the ability to chuck buses at people or spit lighting or turn invisible, and you’re on the right track.

The Academy comes with a few narrative and mechanical innovations to build and maintain the setting. First, the Faculty are obviously going to be an important part of your time at the school, so during character creation but before you find out how your team came together you get to answer questions about the teachers. Every player gets a chance to pick a question and answer it, such as which teacher does the young hero have a secret crush on, or which teacher is always getting on the hero’s case. There’s a new Move, When you put an ear out for school gossip, that rolls off of Mundane and lets the player try and find the rumors about a topic of their interest; just don’t get a miss, or the rumors will be about you! “When our team first came together…” functions largely the same as in a basic game, with an added caveat: are you an informal Clique, joined by choice, or a registered Club with official support from the school . . . and official responsibilities? Finally there’s the Academic Move, for when the characters are literally tested, rolling of each of the Labels depending on the subject matter/nature of the test. Try not to fail out.

You even get a third option of the Retire/Paragon advancement: have you thought of being a Student Teacher next semester?

Running Phoenix Academy takes a few extra tricks. The Faculty need to believe in letting the students struggle on their own to stay hands off, since the adults are going to be around more than their counterparts in a basic game. You’ve also got the pattern of a school year – tests, social events, vacations, exchange students – to work with. The Agendas, Moves, and Principles of the playset are centered around the multiple responsibilities the players are going to have to juggle – academic, social, heroic, extracurriculars, that sort of thing. Because those pesky teachers are always around, they’ve got more authority over the youngsters than usual: they can take away responsibilities you’ve earned but fumbled, or cut off chances for teenage fun because you haven’t been shaping up. There are rites of passage to navigate, and chances to rebel like a proper teenager.

Masks has proven to be a game that does teenage drama and superheroism very well. I think Phoenix Academy doubles down on that idea, bringing the two facets of the game together and blending them even more.

The Apocalypse Sonata

There’s this little ditty, you see, that was there at the beginning and might just be the end. The last time the entire Apocalypse Sonata was played the universe was created, and if it were to ever play again so would another universe – written right over this one, wiping the slate clean. So, of course, there’s an intergalactic jerk by the name of Ominus that wants to play it so he can remake reality in his image. Fortunately for the universe a Guardian scattered the Sonata’s notes. Unfortunately she’s no longer in the picture, having died of wounds inflicted by Ominus. Back on the fortunately side, she was buried on a little planet called Earth . . . along with some notes of the Sonata that will get our heroes involved.

The playset opens with our young heroes attending a concert by The Musician – insert character of your choice and/or creation here – who has accidentally managed to incorporate part of the Sonata into a new song that’s become very popular. The music gets interrupted when Dredful and his Worldbreaker robots, part of Ominus’s host, attack the concert to kidnap The Musician. This is where our young heroes jump into action, of course. However this first battle ends, followers of the deceased Guardian appear after the smoke clears and, impressed, offer the kids two things: a device to detect pieces of the Sonata, and a teleportation device that can send them anywhere in time or space. The players are going to be heading out on a cosmic road trip to beat Ominus to the Apocalypse Sonata and prevent the end of the entire universe.

On the playing side of things, there are pretty much no mechanical changes to be made – no restricted playbooks, no new moves, no unique mechanics. The changes that players need to make to enjoy the Apcolaypse Sonata are of the narrative bent, considerations they should be making as their quest takes them away from Halcyon City. As an example, the Transformed is often put apart from humanity by the way they look . . . but might they find someplace out in the cosmos where they fit in? Or might they not fit in out there either, and how does that affect them?

On the GMing side you have character sheets for Ominus and his subordinates. You have some structures to create entirely new worlds for our wandering heroes to visit, including Themes, Complications, and associated Labels. Finally, you get to the Agendas/Principles/Moves. This is a cosmic story, so it is only fitting that the works of Jack Kirby are invoked; the term ‘Kirbyesque’ is used frequently, creating that level of wonder is the only new Agenda, and every Principle and Move involves making things over the top, wondrous, or strange. Not too surprising, then, that Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok are called out as good examples to draw inspiration from.

The Sonata is probably the easiest of the new playsets to play and run, requiring little alteration from a basic Masks game aside from turning most of the dials to 11 and a willingness to get a little silly now and again (Space!Romans are given as an example). This one looks like a wacky good time, and notably is also the easiest  (maybe the only) of Unbound’s playsets to simply tack on to an existing game.

The Playbooks

Unbound brings three more types of young hero for your games. They include the Harbinger, who was originally supposed to be in Secrets of A.E.G.I.S., joined by the Nomad and the Scion. So what kind of stories and mechanics can this time traveler, wanderer, and descendant of villainy bring to your Masks game?

The Harbinger is coming from the opposite direction of the timestream from the Halcyon City Herald Collection’s Innocent. Where the Innocent comes from the past to discover that their present self has turned to evil, the Harbinger comes from a ruined future and is in the present to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it.

That’s the thing, though: traveling through time has jumbled the Harbinger’s memories of their past and our present, which leaves them Connecting the Dots, the playbook’’s unique mechanics. When the Harbinger pushes themselves to remember the version of someone from their dark future, they mark a Condition and roll using Memories, a stat that starts off as -1. On a hit you remember them having played a role in the future: the Monster, the Traitor, the Corruptor, the Martyr, the Architect, or the Leader; a 10+ lets you ask a follow-up question. A miss? They either play a different role than you expected, GM’s choice, or don’t exist in the future. For every role you manage to assign someone to, your Memories score increases (max +3).

So unsurprisingly the Harbinger’s Moves have to do with levering their knowledge of the future, such as 21st century studies letting you ask “What does the future know about this moment?” even when you miss on assess the situation, or You haven’t learned you can do that yet that lets you spend a Team to let a teammate use a new power or trick and roll your Superior for it. As a result the Harbinger is primarily a Savior and Superior build, starting with +2 in both. Finally, instead of retiring or becoming a paragon it’s back into the time stream, either returning to the future to live with it or diving further into the past to keep trying to fix things.

The Nomad is a cosmic traveler who has wandered through space, time, and realities but has returned to Earth and settled down . . . for now. They’re more independent than other young heroes, less likely to care about what others think of them, and they can do things nobody else can . . . but their truest struggle will actually be letting other people into their life.

The Nomad’s unique mechanic, Putting Down Roots, takes what you’re used to about the Influence mechanic and turns it all on its head. Adults don’t have Influence over the Nomad; in fact, at character creation nobody has Influence over them. Nobody can take Influence over them during play (instead they mark potential or inflict a condition on the Nomad), and aside from the end of session move the Nomad can only give out Influence by revealing a vulnerability or weakness, and even then can only give it out to six characters. Once Influence is given, the Nomad is particularly susceptible to it, and there are a few other quirks (if you’ve given no Influence you can’t comfort or support anyone, for instance). Finally, though, the more Influence the Nomad has given out the more benefits they receive, starting with getting to ignore certain Conditions when interacting with someone who has Influence over you and culminating in accepting the words of those characters letting the Nomad mark potential/clear a condition/take +1 forward.

Being so widely traveled and having seen so many strange things, the Nomad naturally starts with a +2 each in Freak and Superior, which all of the Nomad Moves that add/change a way to roll dice feed off of. The Nomad’s Labels are particularly fluid; two of their Moves give you a chance to shift them at your whim. The rest of the Moves involve knowledge, allies, or experience from wandering the cosmos coming into play. No retire/paragon for the Nomad either; they simply depart for reaches unknown, never to return. The only way for a Nomad to settle down is to change playbooks.

The Scion differs from the Reformed from Secrets of A.E.G.I.S. in one very important way; rather than being a teenage villain who is trying to walk the heroic path, the Scion is descended from a long line of villains, the bad guy version of a Legacy if you will, and is trying to prove to others that they are not like their parents.

While everyone who tends to look at the Scion just sees their parent, the Scion craves the respect of those who would judge them that way, which leads right into the playbook’s unique mechanic: Respect. The Scion writes down at least two of the following: their parent’s greatest enemy, their parent’s greatest victim, the Scion’s personal idol, the city’s greatest leader, the city’s greatest hero, and the city’s greatest celebrity. The Scion can try and track these people down with a Savior check, but the meat of the mechanic is about trying to gain Influence over your chosen characters. Every time you do, you gain a point of Respect. If you can continue gaining Influence, you can get your relationship with that character to 4 Respect. The first time you do for each individual, you can take an advancement. While you’re at 4 Respect you can reject their Influence more easily, and take +1 to a Label of your choice.

With backdoor advancement methods and potentially six +1s to add to their Labels via Respect, the Scion’s starting stats are a little more . . . flat than their fellows’. +1 Danger and Savior, which most of the Scion Moves work off of, but +0 to everything else. Speaking of those Moves, many of them have to do with gaining Influence, such as I’ll show them letting you do so when you defend someone who doesn’t believe in you. The others involve the Scion taking advantage of their villainous ancestry or others’ misjudgment of them, such as Changed sides letting you mislead others into thinking you’ve turned or All the best stuff looting superpowered caches in the city. The Scion can retire or become a paragon as per usual, but does have a unique advancement all the same: gaining The Mask and a secret identity from the Janus playbook.

Conclusions

Unlike the Herald Collection and Secrets, Unbound is not a universally applicable supplement, aside from the three playbooks. The Collection and Secrets each had a lot of written-in-universe material that could be applied to any homebrew campaign story if you wanted; even though they were published mid-campaign, High Impact Heroics has been able to pull Moves, setting details, and character information from both books. Such is not the case with Unbound. While Secrets included playsets, Unbound is almost all playsets, and very unique ones at that which often change very basic assumptions of Masks (Iron Red Soldiers and the Spiderweb even advise against or outright forbid certain playbooks). If you’re not interested in actually playing (or adding to an existing game) a guerrilla war against alien invaders, a street level crime series, a superheroic school story, or an intergalactic road trip, then roughly 123 of its 144 pages aren’t going to be of much immediate use to you.

That being said.

It really is a well-written book. The playsets are very unique, which make them interesting reads. Even if one isn’t interested in running the playsets, you might still be able to pull inspiration from them (perhaps, rather than the Tangee invasion being in the past, they show up as the Villains of the Month). While most the playsets can’t really be dropped right into an ongoing campaign, if you’re running your Masks game in arcs perhaps you can start the next one as an Unbound playset (all of a sudden your heroes find themselves in the world of the Spiderweb, and while your characters don’t notice anything your players certainly know that something has gone wrong).

And, of course, there are the playbooks, which can find a home in any sort of campaign. The Scion and Nomad do very interesting things with the already excellent Influence mechanic, and the Harbinger introduces a cool time-traveling mystery element. They’re well designed and they look really fun to play, which is all you can ask for.

So, there you have it: Unbound won’t be able to contribute to every game of Masks, but it puts new spins on the game that really broaden what it can do, and it’s interesting enough to read cover to cover. Whether you’re surviving with CLOAKSS and DAGGR, caught in the Spiderweb, late for class with Hellbinder, or jamming to the Apocalypse Sonata, I’d say it’s a good thing to be Unbound.

So: what do you do, heroes?

Unbound: A Masks Supplement is available on DriveThruRPG. Our copy of Unbound was purchased using funds from our Affiliate Account with DTRPG: travel there using one of our fine and elegantly crafted links to make your purchases, and we get a cut that lets us get more games to review!

One thought on “Masks: Unbound Review”

  1. This looks neat.

    I hope that elements from this story get worked into your High-Impact Heroism campaign – if nothing else, I’d love to see a Harbinger enter your campaign. 😀

    Like

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