In Tuesday’s post, I promised a review of Masks: A New Generation, and ended up talking roleplaying game 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 teenagers? 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 formula, 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 game.
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 moment, 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 characters. 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 it. 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 drama.
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 ends. 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.