Masks at PAX: Interview with Brendan Conway and Scion Playtest

In case that is wasn’t obvious from our Reviews, Adventure Logs, and Table Fiction, many of the writers here at Cannibal Halfling gaming are huge fans of the products from Magpie Games, Masks: A New Generation in particular. Seamus previously had the opportunity to interview the developer, Brendan Conway back in 2017, but since then Magpie has released several new supplements that fleshed out the universe, added new playbooks for players, and even offered new storylines to match different genres. With all these changes, we wanted to know more about what went into them, and what fans might see in the future. As luck would have it, Brendon was attending PAX Unplugged to help promote the newest expansion, Masks: Unbound, and he was gracious enough to take some time to speak with me.

Aki: “Our writing group is a huge fan of Masks, and we’ve read a lot of the supplements since then. We wanted to pick your brain about it.”

Brendan Conway: “Awesome.”

A: “The original story is a lot about general high school life meeting normal human life meeting at an intersection with super heroes. And yet we’ve seen some expansion  a little bit more branching out, such as The Soldier which is a little less of a teen character. What kind of was behind the choice in direction for you guy branching out in some of your supplements?”

BC: “Part of it is that superheroes as a genre, kind of isn’t actually a genre because it’s so infinitely huge and encompasses… Scifi space adventure, and encompasses fantasy, and it encompasses crime. And there are so many subgenres built within the superhero genre that the core the heart of Masks, the young superhero piece of it, was still so flexible it could hit other genres.”

So hitting playbooks like the Soldier was a move to try to shift Masks a bit and see how Masks actually works in different spaces. In the newest Masks supplement we have a place that called the Spiderweb. The Spiderweb is basically Marvel’s Hell’s Kitchen. There’s Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones level superheroes and they’re mostly just vying against a crime lord and they’re defending the people in their own neighborhood more than anything else.

So it completely changes the scale of Masks, where I like to describe the core game and say “You punch a robot dinosaur in the face!” and in Spiderweb you’re not. That is not the level at which you play. And yet it’s still recognizably Masks, it still works, we just needed to shift the framework, provide a few more tools to support that specific subgenre of superheroes.”

A: “I think I also did a little reading, some of that is that some of the other books don’t fit quite as well and that, like the Nova is super powered causes tons of collateral damage-”

BC: “Yes!”

A: “-might not fit in well with street level campaign.”

BC: “Yeah. Most of these play sets have some degree of variability of exactly which playbooks make the most sense. And it’s always very different. In Spiderweb it’s pretty clear that several of these playbooks just don’t make any sense. The Nova does not fit in the Spiderweb. But for instance in another one of the playsets, the Apocalypse Sonata:  Crazy space adventure, road trip and we’re hunting the pieces of the Apocalypse Sonata (which I swear to God are not Infinity Gems!).

That one we need to give you advice on how to integrate some of the different playbooks because some of them are less obvious and how they immediately fit into this crazy cosmic adventure. But…it’s more friendly to the wider scope of them because the nature of cosmic superhero stories is psychotic, and open and there are so many different kinds of characters in it. But, across the board the point here is to support everything that already exists and to allow it all to be integrated and played with and used. People can pick in different parts out of the different playsets that we provide. They can adjust Masks to create the particular flavor of superhero they want for their own game.”

A: “Has any new media that’s come out can influence a little bit more of Masks? I think around the time Mask’s release, Spider-Man Homecoming was coming out. And it was a very close match in terms [of the tone of] The Janus. I’ve heard it described as the person who keeps life in both worlds.”

BC: “Oh you mean “Masks the movie?” Oh yeah. Okay yeah yeah. No, I know that one. Yes.

I mean Spider-Man Homecoming really did feel like, “Aha! I know what playbook that one is! I know what playbook that one is, and they know what Move he just missed on… and great, okay, cool. I know exactly how this movie plays out.”

So that one I love, but really, if I wanted to sell someone on Masks and you didn’t have enough time to watch all of Young Justice I would show you Spider-Man Homecoming and I would say “This game… will play that.”

I think some of the other pieces of media that sort of pull Masks in the new directions have been things like the other Marvel movies. I mean obviously I just referenced Infinity War. It would be crazy to say that didn’t have some level of impact on things I want to play with in Masks in general.

But like even comic book series [I was] reading, I think was Miss America? No it’s just America…the America Chavez  [character name] comic book, which is fairly different from her appearance in Young Avengers. But it still is a Masks story, it just requires a different set of lenses to make it make sense.  Or the Hawkeye series that involves Keith Bishop specifically in L.A.. Again, a different kind of series that’s still could be be Masks.It just requires a different lens. So keeping up with these superhero stories has been a matter of figuring out which lenses we like, which ones we want to keep supporting, what we want to bring into the next Masks products.

At some level now, for me, I have been holding off so far, but I’m going to go and binge watch the entire [Teen] Titans series and then I’m gonna flow right into that into the new season of Young Justice Outsiders, which to me up I think real soon [Premiere date January 4, 2019]. And suddenly I’m gonna be like, “I have all these new ideas for Masks!” and suddenly it’s going to explode [and] we’re gonna have eight new books. [Author’s note: We can only hope!]

A: “Ok, out of curiosity, what is your favorite Masks story that you’ve heard of some people’s campaigns?”

BC: “Oh my goodness. This one’s tough. At some level it’s tough because like I love hearing about the characters themselves and just what superheroes you come up with. Like, I’ve heard about a superhero who I think her name was Cricket. And so she was supposed to be a Spider-Man like character but her powers had nothing to do with cricket. She just really liked crickets so she called herself Cricket not because she had anything that connected at all and it made me so happy. That version of what I think I was Janus.

I love hearing about like there was a kid who basically became a superhero because he was real smart and in the middle of a superhero attack he managed to scrounge together supplies from the janitorial closet to essentially create his own armor. In that moment. And meanwhile he’s alongside the kid who’s basically tagged on to Bruce Wayne, who has all the money in the world. So you’ve got this kid wearing like the pail but also he has successfully jury-rigged.effective pieces of tech out of nothing, next to…Batman. And it was just this perfect juxtaposition that I absolutely loved, and they had a great repartee.

So much of it for me is actually just hearing about these awesome characters people come up with. I love it when I get to see the art that people put together for these characters, and it’s to be like: “I would read a comic about that one! Also that one, and that one…maybe all of them together! Yeah, ok, I’m in.” I just love it so much.”

It was an enlightening experience to hear more about what had gone into Masks: Unbound. After that, I thought that my experience with Masks would be finished for the weekend. I had other things I wanted to check out, as I had allocated Friday night and Saturday as my interview and exploration time, and there was a lot more to see.  As excited as I was about the new expansion, the site already had a workup and review available for our readers. As enlightening as it was to have more background information as to what has been driving Masks over the past year or so, I didn’t expect to do anything with that for a while.

But the Dice Gods, fickle beings as they are, had other plans in store for me. On Sunday, (the day I had allocated to getting my gaming fix in) I had been planning to sign up for a session of FFG Star Wars. However, as I mentioned in my overview of the con, demand for the planned modules was through the roof. Despite getting in line at 8:30 for signup (where the doors opened at 8 for  9 am registration) I found myself shut out of my planned encounter. A little surprised and unprepared for a backup I scoured the list of events in the time block and saw that a session of Masks was open.

Maybe it was the comments about a “different lens” for different stories to tell, but an idea formed in my mind. As the player of Morgan in our High Impact Heroics campaign, one of the core motivations for the character had been a difficult relationship with a supervillain as a father. In Masks: Unbound Magpie introduced the Scion playbook, where this relationship and proximity to a supervillain isn’t just backstory, it is an intrinsic mechanic of gameplay. While I loved, and continue to love the character I was playing, what would it have been like to take that aspect and put it through a different lens? The GM running my table was open to alternate playbooks, so long as I could name one, and I settled in with one other experienced player, and three brand new ones.

In retrospect, The Scion perhaps wasn’t the best character for a one-shot. Its core mechanic is the Respect feature: trying to get influence on figures throughout the setting. This was a bit harder to work into a mostly prepackaged setting that the GM was running, and this is definitely suited for a longer game where the player can have the chance to work in these extra relationships. With that said, there really is a potential gold mine for players who enjoy a roleplaying with NPCs. The “Respect” feature has a baked in mechanic, where rolling Savior will get you into contact with the figure of your choice…but they might not always be happy to see you. There is an abundant chance for the GM to make it a real fight to impress someone, and there is a real opportunity that you just fail: maybe your father’s greatest victim simply wants nothing to do with you.

Because almost off the playbook’s moves key off of Savior or Danger (the only modified stats you start with) there is also a side effect that I had not anticipated: the GM altering the style of play based on the adult influence mechanic. With a bit of table chat, he whipped up a hero whose partner had been killed by my Scion’s father, and was positive that I was the same way. I had been intending to play my character as a straight Savior, but I failed to resist this adult’s influence and I found myself with my Danger increased and Savior decreased: the exact opposite that I thought that adults in the setting would go. This wasn’t a bad thing. Instead, it made my character buckle down and go “I’ll show you who’s dangerous” and I found myself pushing the moves that relied on Danger over Savior: my teammates took more hits, but I managed to convince a bunch of mooks that I had been sent by my father, and gloriously messed their plan up (Changed Sides) and armed my squad with a cache of villain gear that I knew was around the city (All the Best Stuff).

Had I wanted to really push to being a more noble hero, I could have, but a simple nudge of characterization pushed my character onto a different track, and that led to some fun character development, all in the space of a one-shot. I can only imagine that this only increases in long term play, and I could really see this as a new character to try, or maybe to advance Morgan to at one point.

All in all, I had a blast with Masks at PAX (unabashed title drop), and what I learned is absolutely going to help me at the table. Maybe it’s with thinking of other ways to frame characters, or thinking of new arcs to throw our current party into, or getting excited at the prospect of eight new supplements (it’s ok Brendan, we are patient!) my experience helped me enjoy the game more, and it has helped me explain the game better to people who might be interested! I hope it helps you too.

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