Monthly Archives: July 2019

Fishbreath Plays: Masks: A New Generation Review

In Tuesday’s post, I promised a review of Masks: A New Generation, and ended up talking roleplaying game1 history instead. Today, there are fewer distracting topics to soak up a thousand words, so I have high hopes that this post will, in fact, be what the headline says.

Masks is a superhero RPG. It is not, however, an RPG about heroes at the height of their powers. Rather, it’s a game about teenage heroes, in the vein of Teen Titans or the Young Avengers.

This is a brilliant move. Superhero stories are fundamentally about human drama, and what’s more dramatic than a bunch of teenagers2? A game focusing on fully-realized adult heroes leaves a lot of storytelling potential on the table, because the story of growing up is one which resonates with just about every human on the planet, and is one which just about every human on the planet is equipped to tell themselves. Not only does Masks pick good subject matter, it has mechanics which help to push the story it’s trying to tell along. We’ll come back to that.

The rules system is the Powered by the Apocalypse engine, one of the first rulesets in the modern narrative tradition, whose terminology is something of a modern standard.

So, the combination of your character class and character sheet is called your playbook, and it contains just about everything you need to play the game, provided you have a reference for basic moves. Moves, by the way, are the things your character can do. They’re little snippets of game mechanics triggered by fictional events. Do the thing in the fiction, and the mechanics happen. It plays naturally. As a player, you narrate, and your narration makes things happen in the rules. In terms of dice, you roll 2d6 and add a modifier, succeeding partially on 7-9 and fully on 10 or more.

To this winning formula3, Masks adds its own wrinkles, as you do. The most important variations are Labels and Influence.

Masks calls your stats Labels. This is not a mere cosmetic difference. Labels don’t represent physical traits. Rather, they represent how a character sees herself, and how the world sees her. Your Danger, say, is how much you perceive yourself to be a bloody-knuckled bruiser, always ready to charge into a fight, and how much the world sees you as a destructive menace. When you trigger the move ‘directly engage a threat’, you roll plus your Danger. Is it strange that your self-conception changes how effective you are in a straight fight? At first blush, yes, but on reflection, it makes a lot of sense. How many superhero stories are there where the hero loses when he faces the villain the first time, gets his head in the right place, and wins the next battle?

Which brings me to my next point. Because Labels represent a character’s self-conception, they move. A lot. When you’re young, what people think about you matters. Masks models this mechanically. Other player characters and NPCs can have Influence over your character, which indicates that your character cares what they think of him. When a character has Influence over yours, they can shift your Labels (one up, one down) if they tell you what you are or how the world works. Part of character advancement (which, in the game’s fiction, represents growing up, or at least growing into your image of yourself) is learning to shut out what other people tell you and to know who you are, which is represented by casting off other peoples’ Influence and by locking your Labels so that they can no longer be shifted.

As is common in narrative games, there is no separate combat mode, just more narration and an emphasis on different moves off of the master list. Conditions come into play more in combat, as well, where they are a possible consequence of taking a hit. (They’re also possible consequences a number of other places throughout the system.) Conditions are negative emotions, rather than physical drawbacks—you might be Angry, say, or Hopeless. Again, this seems strange at first blush, but makes perfect sense given the fiction. Superheroes get back up after they take hits. The way to knock them out isn’t to beat them senseless, it’s to beat them hopeless. And, of course, we’re talking teenagers here. Emotions running wild is the name of the game4.

Character creation deserves some mention too. Masks leans heavily into its nature as a story game, so when you choose a playbook, you aren’t choosing a power set, but a character arc. The Beacon and the Delinquent playbooks are both relatively low-powered, street-level heroes, but they tell different stories: the Beacon as the hopeful kid who has to fight off allegations that he doesn’t belong, the Delinquent as, well, the delinquent, disrespectful of authority at the same time as she plays the trickster or causes trouble to attract its attention. The Nova and the Legacy are high-powered heroes, but one deals with internal conflict over the destructive nature of her own powers, and the other deals with external conflict between himself and those who went before him.

The rules suggest what modern games call a ‘session zero’, where you go through character creation together. By design, the core Masks rulebook doesn’t provide very much information on its setting, Halcyon City. The players get to fill in some of the blanks. At the end of character creation, the gamemaster asks each player a question, found on the back of his playbook, about the incident which brought the player characters together into a team. This does a few things: it gives the PCs a reason to be together, lets every player put her stamp on the world, and elides the origin story somewhat to get the game rolling faster.

Masks does this a lot, using its rules to incentivize forming bonds between characters. Working as a team has advantages. One of the easiest ways to clear conditions requires two characters to have a heart-to-heart conversation—and the other easy way requires a character to act badly with respect to his team, which is a great source of future drama. At the end of each session, each player gets a free move by which they can trade revealing some of their character’s hidden depths for various positive effects.

All of this makes Masks a joy to run. Even with characters thrown together on the spur of the moment5, the systems sing, driving interesting character interactions with very little effort. The section on advice for gamemasters is useful, too, in particular in two places. ‘Ask questions’ is good advice for gamemasters in any system, but it’s especially good here. Players don’t have to rigorously define their characters’ powers or backstories ahead of time, so asking questions helps to clarify and crystallize. It also keeps the focus on the players and their characters, and pushes the game in the action-packed direction you would expect from comic books.

Even better is the advice to narrate not merely according to comic book tropes, but even as though you’re describing a comic book itself. I started my first session by talking about the cover of the issue. I finished it with a full-page, divided-in-three panel showing a slice of life for each of our characters6. In both cases, it rooted the world in its comic book heritage, helped keep the players focused on the same, and finally, gave them a moment in the spotlight to shine and to reveal a bit more about their characters.

There are some downsides, which I’ll hit on quickly here.

First: like all narrative games, it takes a gamemaster with a penchant for rapid improvisation. There’s very little theme written down ahead of time, so you have to be familiar with what your players come up with and quick to build plot hooks. Happily, there’s advice for gamemasters on improvising.

Second: because the game focuses so heavily on relationship mechanics, you all but need three player characters, or at the very least, two characters and a robust cast of near-permanent NPCs. Four or five players is better.

Third: as in most narrative-heavy games, the players have both great power over the world and great responsibility to it7. It’s not the kind of game that stands up well to people trying to win it. Collaboration is key, along with players willing to limit themselves for the sake of drama8.

Fourth: it’s not as open-ended as, say, D&D. If you play for a long time, eventually your characters will advance to the point where they’re left with the choice of retiring from the masked life and going back to being a normal citizen, or turning into a paragon of the city and joining the ranks of Halcyon’s leading heroes. In both cases they turn into NPCs. It’s not the kind of game where you can play the same character forever. The flip side of each playbook having a clearly defined character arc is that character arcs eventually draw to a close.

In the final reckoning, I think it’s obvious that I give Masks the thumbs-up. It does exactly what it says on the tin: generates engaging stories about a team of young superheroes, with clearly-defined beginnings, middles, and ends9. It makes playing out inter-character drama mechanically rewarding, captures the essence of coming-of-age stories, and remains a playable, entertaining RPG.

If you don’t like teenagers, if crunchy combat is more your speed, or if you don’t like what I’ve said in this post and Tuesday’s about narrative games, you might want to give it a pass. Otherwise, I say it’s worth your time.


  1. Over on Discord, Kilo Sierra pointed out that ‘RPG’, in the context of the Soapbox, generally means something else. 
  2. I would apologize to our teenage readers if, according to our analytics, we had any. 
  3. At least, industry awards and player happiness suggests it’s winning. 
  4. I recognize you may be skeptical—I was, too. Playing the game disabused me of my skepticism. I won’t go any further out of my way to convince you to change your mind, but I will at least say it’s worth your time to try a session even if you doubt it’ll work. 
  5. An Incredibles knock-off, a guy who wants to kiss the Stanley Cup before his impending doom arrives, and someone ripped from the pages of a piece of fiction I’m working on. My wife and I were visiting family, and we played with my brother-in-law for two and a half hours one afternoon. You will note there were only three people involved and yet there were also three characters. I ran one as a GM PC, because Masks is iffy with only two players, for reasons I’ll get into later in the review. 
  6. In the upper left: Sam Skipper, a.k.a. the Shadow, my masked darkness-controller, wearing a big smile and asking asking an off-panel customer, “Do you want fries with that?” at his day job. In the upper right: John Zigel, my brother-in-law’s doomed memory-manipulator, brooding on his couch watching hockey. (He’s the one who wants to kiss the Cup.) In the bottom: Jill-Jill Parr, my wife’s acrobatic short-range-teleporting type, ignoring a stack of homework while she works on her original manga and ponders putting a streak of orange in her hair with an illicit bottle of hair dye. 
  7. You didn’t think you were getting out of here without something like this, did you? 
  8. If you want a game of a similar character (but a very different theme) which can better stand up to players who want to win, have a look at Blades in the Dark. It’s similar to Masks in terms of play style and ethos, but has tighter constraints for the players and leaves more power in the gamemaster’s hands. 
  9. Like a lot of games in this genre, it falls down if you push it too far outside its comfort zone. Masks would not make a very good game about adult superheroes, because adults aren’t as malleable as youngsters are. 

Wednesday What We’re Reading (Jul. 10, 2019)

Since the long-form articles this week are both on the subject of a superhero roleplaying game, I’ve helpfully separated out the articles for today’s post which are thinly-disguised supervillain plots.

Defense (Other)

Defense (Supervillain Plots)

Science and Technology

  • The sinkhole that saved the Internet – A sinkhole, in this usage, is a server which sucks up traffic that would otherwise be bound for a worm’s command and control servers. In this case, the ransomware known as WannaCry had a killswitch—if it could reach a particular web address, it deactivated itself. A security researcher set up a server there, and prevented something like tens of millions of infections from going active.
  • Einstein and symmetry: the man and the idea behind modern physics – A Quanta article, so have your coffee first and block off ten minutes to read it and half an hour to think between paragraphs.
  • Raspberry Pi 4 has an incorrectly-wired USB-C port – Maybe it’s because I’m not a hardware engineer by trade, but if a datasheet gives me a reference circuit design, you can bet I’m going to copy it wholesale.

Guns

  • Ruger continues the competition push with a custom shop SR1911 – This isn’t new new, having been announced in April, but it’s the first I’m hearing of it. $2499 for a gun suited for USPSA Single Stack. Your choice of Major or Minor—it comes in 9mm or .45, with 10-round and 8-round magazines, respectively.

Grab Bag

  • China 2050: in the throes of demographic decline – The one- and two-child policies in China put its native population growth below the replacement rate. China’s closed nature and impossible language mean it doesn’t get very much immigration. In the middle of the 21st century, it could very well be looking at the same problems Japan is looking at today.
  • The oyster poachers of Connemara – Shared because I quite liked Connemara on my trip to Ireland, and because ‘oyster’ and ‘poaching’ would not have been my first guess in either case if you gave me one word and asked me to guess the other.

  1. to stan: to be an overzealous or obsessive fan of a particular celebrity, or, in this case, branch of the armed services or aircraft. Evidently it comes from an Eminem song. Since I’m using Twitter lingo already here, don’t at me. 
  2. The only reason to end a headline with a question mark is because libel law requires you to answer it with ‘no’. Otherwise, you just make the headline a statement. Modern journalists ignore this rule, but modern journalists are also, in large part, comically bad at their jobs. 

Fishbreath Plays: The History of Narrative RPGs

But first, a report Fishbreath the Web Lackey: there are some problems with the VPS on which Many Words runs, one of the symptoms of which is intermittent kernel panics on heavy network traffic. Not a great problem for a web server to be having, right? We are, by which I mean I am, working on it. If you notice any instability, blame the kernel grognards. And now, we return you to Fishbreath the Correspondent for today’s article.

You may know us primarily as defense affairs nerds, gun nerds, and occasionally video game nerds, but really, we’re multirole nerds. Full spectrum nerds. Joint nerds. So, on those grounds, and on the grounds that parvusimperator hasn’t scheduled anything for today and therefore has no basis for complaint, herein I will briefly review Masks: A New Generation, a tabletop roleplaying game from Magpie Games (n.b. affiliate link).

Except I’m now about a thousand words into this post and haven’t made it to actually reviewing the game, so we’ll make it a two-parter instead.

Masks belongs to the narrative game genre. To understand what that means, we’ll have to take a little trip through the history of the hobby, and of the tradition that narrative games are distancing themselves from. That’s what we’ll do this time out.

The year is 1974. For some time now, miniatures wargames have been popular. Some enterprising nerds asked themselves, how can we raise the stakes? First among these nerds was Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons and Dragons1. The answer was simple: what if, instead of controlling a small army of guys with very little detail, you controlled instead a single guy with lots of detail?

D&D was the first tabletop roleplaying game. It was played very differently then than it is now: the older you go in the D&D tradition, the more lethal fighting is, and the less there is to do outside of what is today referred to as the loot treadmill2. There are islands of civilization. You venture outside those islands into a vast, dark sea of uncaring wildnerness filled with vicious monsters, whack the monsters until they yield their stashes of loot, and return to civilization to sell it all, enjoy your wealth, and prepare for another trip. Many of the early D&D adventures don’t make very much sense outside of this framework.

By being first, D&D cemented its place at the center of the RPG ecosystem. Settings grew more varied and left more room for intrigue, the degree of combat-centeredness in the rules ebbed and flowed (and ebbed and flowed), and modern live-play podcasts and web video series pushed the storytelling aspects of tabletop roleplaying to center stage3, but at its core, D&D’s DNA never changed. It’s a miniatures wargame4 with a dash of improvisational theater.

The two aspects, however, don’t always play well together. Oral storytelling has a rhythm to it which is easy to interrupt. Questions like, “How much taller can I make myself with Disguise Self?” or “Am I able to cast Teleport from here, or do I need to be in a teleportation circle?” slow you down at the least desirable time: moments of high drama. If that’s bad, combat is worse. Effectively, it’s a second mode of play, where the roleplaying largely cuts out and the focus switches to fight tactics5.

That’s the tradition narrative games aim to break away from. If D&D and its family tree are miniatures wargames with improv theater shoehorned in, why not write games as improv theater with rules shoehorned in?

Narrative games are in vogue at the moment, but they aren’t a recent trend. Apocalypse World, one of the major English-language trend-setters, was released in 2010. Ryuutama, a Japanese storytelling RPG with many of the genre’s common features (gamemasters with intentionally limited power, for one), came out in 2007. You can even make an argument that old versions of Paranoia belong more nearly to the narrative tradition than to the classic RPG tradition6.

So, what’s the difference? Narrative games are, not to put too fine a point on it, all about narration. Apocalypse World and its rules engine Powered by the Apocalypse are the archetypal examples. On your character sheet is a list of moves. These moves have fictional triggers. When (and only when) the ongoing narration matches the trigger, the move happens7.

Other features you might find include a collaborative worldbuilding process, a ‘session zero’ plan which involves building up the party and its history, and gamemaster moves which limit (or at least indicate the intended boundaries of) GM power.

What’s the upshot? Less staring at character sheets trying to figure out what to do next, more storytelling; less mode-switching to rules-heavy contexts, more natural interplay between story and rules.

Masks in particular does a few things very well. It also illustrates some of the shortcomings of narrative games better than I could describe them. I’ll cover both topics next time.


  1. Trademarked ampersand intentionally left out. 
  2. This image isn’t a perfect fit, but eventually you get to the point where the world itself trembles before you. 
  3. To the point that it’s entirely feasible to play a long and satisfying campaign of Dungeons and Dragons without encountering either dungeons or dragons. 
  4. Whose complexity has varied over the years. You could probably play a fighter-rogue-wizard party in 5e solo. It would be much more difficult in 4e, and you probably wouldn’t even make it past character creation in 3.5. 
  5. Don’t read this to mean that I think crunch or tactical combat are bad. In fact, I enjoy them for what they are, and my own game system, RPJ, uses moderately crunchy rules and combat. 
  6. It’s easy to miss this with Paranoia 2e, because it predates the modern narrative trend by three decades and therefore doesn’t use the same language, but it fits on several counts. Super-simple combat rules which the game more or less encourages you to ignore? Check. A focus on ruling consistently and fairly, within the constraints of the setting where the gamemaster is mostly playing an insane computer, rather than in perfect alignment with a Most Holy Rulebook? Check. (Put another way, it fails gracefully.) Ingenious use of in-character incentives to drive player behavior? Check. (Attempting to rules-lawyer out of character is taken as some expression of treason in-character, and traitors deserve the same treatment as mutants and commies.) It’s not a perfect match, but it’s closer to a modern narrative game than it is to D&D in a lot of ways, 20-sided dice notwithstanding. 
  7. There are variations on the theme. Blades in the Dark, another very popular entry in the genre, gives players a list of broad action ratings (Consort, Prowl, Skirmish…) rather than moves (‘engage a dangerous threat’, ‘assess the situation’…), and gives players more agency both in choosing which action rating they’d like to use and in shaping scenes to make a given action rating fit. 

Parvusimperator Reviews Suicide Squad

Yes, I know it’s old. But I wondered to myself, “Self, how could they screw this up? There are a ton of Dirty Dozen ripoffs out there. This one has Will Smith, Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, and The Joker. This should be easy to at least get to mediocre.” Well, here at the Soapbox sometimes I watch awful movies so you don’t have to.

And it is just as bad as the critics say. Sometimes they get it right. This is trash. And it’s sad, because this should be lots of fun. Dirty Dozen with comic book villains is a great premise. I’d greenlight that for production. And it’s not like DC doesn’t have any cool villains. So what went wrong? All kinds of stuff.

This movie had a lame plot. Of course, I don’t exactly expect anything wonderful from this sort of movie. The problems run deeper though. The structure is bad. It seemed like the writers couldn’t figure out what tone they wanted, and kept changing the serious/cheesy balance. And they felt the need to put in a lot of badly-structured backstory. It just didn’t work, and it was hard to follow. And it’s unnecessary. This is a superhero movie with relatively well-known villains as protagonists. Give everyone a quick establishing bit with a touch of voiceover and call it good. Honestly, you could probably run the script through a bunch of rewrites and eventually get something good. But you’d have to redo the whole script. I’m told this movie had some reshot sections in order to fix things, but that didn’t help anything.

I want to make note of a few things regarding casting and dialogue. Will Smith seemed kinda wooden and decidedly unfunny, which usually takes some effort. Plus, Deadshot’s fight work hasn’t aged well. We still have lots of jump cuts, and John Wick is just better in every way. On the decidedly positive side is Margot Robbie, who did a great job as Harley Quinn. Really, she’s one of the few who looked like she was having fun in this awful movie.

Wednesday What We’re Reading (Jul. 3, 2019)

A little patriotic overture to start the post seems fitting.

Defense

Defense: Czech IFV Requirements

A Very Special Section – Since it requires some translation, which Parvusimperator provided. (I assume he found it somewhere, since unless he’s holding out on me, he doesn’t speak Czech.)

  • Number of vehicles: 210
  • Crew: 3 + 6 soldiers + 2 specialists
  • 7 variants: IFV, command, recon, engineering, ambulance, artillery recon, recovery
  • Lifetime 30 years (min. 10 000 km to general rebuild)
  • Programmable ammo for the 30 mm canon
  • Coaxial MG 7.62 mm
  • ATGM (2 in container, 1 in the vehicle)
  • Smoke grenade launchers covering 360°
  • Sights with min. 4000/3500 m range day/night
  • Ballistic protection (base vehicle min. K2 + addon min. K5) i.e. STANAG 4569 II/V
  • APS
  • Protection against IED (jammer)
  • Surveillance systems: day CCD camera, night IR camera, laser rangefinder
  • Top speed on the road 65 km/h, in terrain 40 km/h
  • Range min. 500 km
  • Air-transportable
  • Intercom + VKV/UKV radios voice/data (GPS, TACSAT and cypher connection)

Science and Technology

Grab Bag

A little choral patriotic music to wrap up the post seems fitting.


  1. I shouldn’t complain too hard; as I understand it, American anime-watchers have had this problem forever. 

RIA VR80: Open Shotgun for a Reasonable Price?

Previously when I’ve talked about Open Shotguns, I’ve mentioned the gold standard that is a Vepr 12 worked over by Dissident Arms. They’re feature packed and work great, but come at a hefty price of $2,200 for the base competition model and $3,400 for the KL-12, one with all the bells and whistles. Alternative designs haven’t really caught on, often because they’re unreliable. An unreliable, cheap gun isn’t all that useful. The RIA VR80, a rebranded Derya Mk12, is a new option. Let’s see how it shakes out.

VR80: $699 (MSRP)
The VR80 comes out of the box with a couple of small magazines (thanks ATF), a charging handle that can be swapped to the left or right side, and threads for chokes. It also, of course, comes with a few chokes to get you started. A stock Vepr 12 comes with neither of these features out of the box, and both are only available on the fully tricked out KL-12 from Dissident. Early reports say that the VR80 is a pretty reliable weapon after a break-in with higher velocity shells. We’ll see what shakes out.

Long compensator: $99.99
Open shotgun demands a comp. So far, we just have one from Advanced Tactical, RIA’s importer. Done.

Taccom Buffer: $49.95
Taccom has a buffer which is supposed to improve the recoil feel. It’s not that expensive, and probably worth a try. Taccom makes good stuff.

Magwell: $39.99
I’m not sure how necessary this part is, but open guns should have magwells. Also, both Dissident guns feature a magwell. It’s a cheap enough addition.

Magpul ACS stock: $85.45
I picked this stock because I like it, the price is reasonable, and it comes with compartments in case I want to add weight to get the balance where I want it. The VR80 comes with a lame thumbhole-type stock, probably for import reasons.

New pistol grip: ~$25.00
Pick one you like.

Fix that trigger: ?? (budget $200 based on fancy AR triggers)
There are apparently a few differences that make this not a standard AR-10 style lower, so we’re waiting on a nice trigger to be made. I’m using AR trigger prices as a ballpark here.

There are other parts forthcoming. Hayes Custom Guns is working on a mid-barrel comp and alternative handguards are also in progress. The big question is how well will it work? Dissident’s guns come already tuned and ready to rock out of the box, and that’s not nothing. I’m quite happy with that aspect of my open pistol.