My introduction to the world of tabletop games was an RPG known as Mutants and Masterminds. While I heard of Dungeons and Dragons first – in fact, I didn’t know any non-D&D games existed until I heard of M&M – it was something that I had written off as an experience I would simply never get to have. I didn’t figure I would ever meet anyone who could help me get started in roleplaying or who would be “nerdy enough” to want to try it. During my sophomore year of college, my roommate had been invited by one of his friends to participate in his first RPG, but I didn’t know everyone he was playing with and didn’t feel confident asking to participate. By the time my junior year rolled around, my roommate and I were much closer and I knew many of the other people he had tried to play with. While that first campaign fizzled out, we found a GM willing to run the same game – Mutants and Masterminds – and the rest as they say is history.
Because my first roleplaying experience focused on superheroes, roleplaying games about superhero fiction have a special place in my heart. It’s an unexpected turn of events because I never was an avid comic reader and didn’t even really watch superhero cartoons growing up. I enjoyed the Spiderman movies (yes, the Toby Maguire ones, it was the 00’s, and honestly those movies hold up thanks to their fantastic supporting casts) but outside of that I didn’t consider myself much of a superhero fan. Now by junior year of college I was pretty into Marvel – going to see those films together on discounted movie nights was a major social event – but outside of a few films I had little reference for what superheroes should be like and most of my inspiration for my character came from fantasy fiction.
These days I have a lot more inspiration, and my most recent explorations of the world of superheroes have actually been through anime. Shows like One Punch Man and My Hero Academia focus on superhero settings where individual heroes are a dime a dozen – it isn’t special to have powers. Hero work is such a part of the fabric of society that there are entire job markets dedicated to being a superhero or to dealing with the chaos caused by supervillains. My Hero in particular adds even more flavor by focusing specifically on heroes-in-training, and it was this sharp focus that led me to seek out an RPG which could recreate that kind of game effectively. My search for an RPG about superhero teens coming up in a world chock full of heroes led me to a game called Masks: A New Generation.
Masks is a superhero RPG I’ve heard mentioned in the past, usually referenced casually on other RPG shows as one of many Powered by the Apocalypse games that one or more of the players had experienced. For those who may not know, “powered by the apocalypse” (you may see this referred to as PbtA for short) refers to what is essentially a school of design in the world of tabletop games. Any RPG which takes its influence from Apocalypse World or one of its many children can claim this title, and those which hold most closely to the label have a few familiar design elements that are consistent from game to game. Masks is a PbtA game about superhero teenagers in a place called Halcyon City, a storied place currently on its fourth generation of superheroes. These kids are trying to become a superhero team in a world that already has plenty of good guys and bad guys to spare, and all of those existing supers have opinions about who these kids should be. The core struggle of Masks is finding your identity, and that strong focus is what helps to set it apart as unique in the genre of superhero games.
Conceptually Masks works about how you would expect. You create a superhero teen to play as in this world full of supers, selecting some powers and determining elements of your backstory before teaming up with some other teens to become a fledgling team. Together, you’ll fight villains to save the city again and again while your mentors, teachers, parents, and even the bad guys will all have something to say about how you’re doing it. As your characters grow up and have new experiences, certain aspects of their identity will shift and others will settle. They’ll form meaningful friendships and lose old connections. And maybe – just maybe – they’ll become a more important part of the fabric of the city’s superhero story.
Now there’s nothing stopping me from picking up Mutants and Masterminds and trying to tell that same story. What makes Masks special is the way in which its mechanics push the game towards this specific kind of story. You wouldn’t play Masks to run a game about adult superheroes, or a game about humanizing villainous evildoers. The rules make it so that Masks is tailored to run a very specific kind of game, but when running that game there are so many tools available to you to help it sing. Those tools include the basic moves, the character playbooks, and the Labels and Influence systems.
Basic moves and playbooks will be familiar elements to many who have played a PbtA game before. They are the element of most Apocalypse games which will give you the quickest indication of what the game is all about. The basic moves are the actions that any character can take, and they are the actions you take the most often; essentially, the game is about a group of people who do the things outlined in the basic moves. The playbooks add individuality to each character and highlight the specific kind of story that each character is intended to tell. A different combination of playbooks sets the tone for your individual campaign of Masks – more powerful, more hopeful, more bleak, more inhuman, etc.
Let’s talk basic moves first. Naturally fighting bad guys is a thing that happens in Masks, so you need moves for that. Directly engage a threat and defend someone are both actions tied to engaging villains; the former is more focused on taking the villain out while the latter is about preventing the catastrophe they would cause. Note that Masks doesn’t really focus on the physical damage caused to heroes or villains during combat – it is much more about the emotional tones of the battle. When you engage a threat and take a powerful blow, the damage is measured in the emotional condition you’re left with. Did taking the hit make you angry? Scared? Hopeless? How does that emotion impact your actions? Conversely, when you successfully defend someone you get an opportunity to clear one of those emotional conditions – taking the focus off of yourself and protecting another person gives you clarity and connection.
Sometimes you’ll be using your superpowers in ways that are not explicitly about offense or defense: that’s unleashing your powers. This isn’t about just using your flight power to casually float from school to your house – it’s about pushing it to see if you can rocket across the cargo bay fast enough to stop the villain from escaping with the Staff of Thunderrain. Unleash your powers is a sort of backup move for when you’re doing something with a superpower that doesn’t make sense as another action. Sure, maybe you’re using your quantum computer brain to scan the local area, but the fact that your intent is to assess the situation and take in the scene means that unleashing your powers isn’t the ideal move. Assessing gives you effects more specific to what you are trying to accomplish, and doing it successfully gives you bonuses to future moves.
Because the emotional state of the characters as well as finding strength in their identities is such a core part of the game, there are basic moves for navigating these situations. Pierce the mask allows you to see through another person’s bravado and really get to the core of what they want. This is useful if they are trying to provoke someone and push your buttons to get you to do something that they want you to do. Of course, if you recognize that they are hurting and need your friendship rather than your ire, you can comfort and support them in order to clear their emotional conditions or share insight that grows their potential. One thing I really like about the provoke move in this game is that it works on player characters by giving them a carrot, a stick, or both – you can’t force another player to do what you want but you can make it to where doing what you want is ultimately in their best interest.
So Masks is a superhero game where you directly engage threats and defend people from the harmful actions of villains. You’re encouraged to assess the situation or pierce masks in order to gather the information you need to make the best decisions. Character interaction is an important part of the game and you’ll regularly provoke others or comfort and support them in order to work towards your goals. Unleash your powers in key moments and just maybe you’ll win the day. How you’re impacted emotionally by those experiences is more important than how your physical body is left, and growing up is all about discovering your potential in moments of weakness.
These game elements define every character’s story to some degree, but the playbooks allow you to focus on a particular theme and really dig into it. When you choose a playbook you aren’t selecting a set of superpowers; you’re more selecting the type of superhero story that you specifically want to tell. The Beacon, for example, is a kid with unimpressive powers or no powers who is really in over their head with this whole hero business, but more than anyone they want to be there and prove themselves. Contrast this with The Doomed, a character whose mighty powers are intricately tied to a terrible force that will ultimately lead to their demise. It’s easy to see how having one or the other character in your game will set a very different tone for what that game is like.
For those interested in heavily engaging with the idea of previous hero generations, playbooks like the Protege or the Legacy are good choices. The protege is the mentee of an established hero and their relationship with their mentor is a key part of the playbook, with moves for specifically accepting or rejecting the concepts and moves that are important to your mentor. The Legacy comes from a long line of heroes and is expected to live up to their reputation – this character regularly encounters their elders and is told how to behave by them. If you want to play a character explicitly about pushing against authority, the Delinquent is someone who hates to be told what to do and struggles between their desire to be part of something greater while also wanting to be their own person.
Any game exploring identity through superheroes will of course deal with the humanity of those heroes. The Transformed has lost anything resembling a human form and is noticeably altered by their powers – how people react to that and what they expect the transformed to be like is key to that playbook. The Outsider is explicitly from a civilization “alien” to Halcyon City with different technology and philosophies – this character is great for telling stories about bumping up against the societal expectations of a different culture. Then there’s the Nova, a character whose power is so amazing that they often struggle to maintain control. Playing the nova means having big and powerful abilities but also means acknowledging how those abilities set you apart and make others suspicious of whether or not they are truly safe around you.
The basic moves and playbooks give you a pretty strong indication of the kinds of stories you’ll be telling in Masks, but what really helps to cement those stories in play are the mechanics unique to the game: Labels and Influence. Labels are your stats in Masks, but unlike Strength, Intelligence, and Charisma, they aren’t about your characters capabilities but rather their self-image. The Labels in Masks are Danger, Freak, Savior, Superior, and Mundane. If your character sees herself as a danger, she’s going to be more capable at directly engaging threats. A hero who is mundane and relatable will be better at comforting and supporting his companion. Because Labels are about how your character sees themselves, they can change, which alone makes Masks different than the majority of RPGs because your core statistics are not set in stone. Yesterday my character saw herself as a savior, but after causing some collateral damage in today’s fight she may feel like more of a freak.
A big part of what pushes your Labels in one direction or another is Influence. Influence is the mechanic which represents whether or not your character puts any stock into what another character says. If someone has influence on you, their impression of you matters and can define who you are to a degree. If Madcap is feeling like a cruddy hero because she couldn’t prevent Lockdown from escaping, some comforting words from an influential person could help her realize that while she didn’t stop the villain, she did save civilians from a collapsing building and that action was heroic too. This use of influence could push her Savior up higher, solidifying her perception of herself as a hero. Of course, influential villains can use this ability to make a hero less dangerous to them – your evil uncle Gyroscope bragging about how he outsmarted you and you fell right into his trap may lower your Superior, dulling your wits right when you needed them most.
Influence is something gained and lost over time. Adults have influence over your character by default – whether we like it or not, as kids we take adults seriously because of the power structures which position them over us. Those adults – and any peers who gain influence over you – can lose influence by abusing it. Once influence is weaponized against you to alter your rolls or emotionally manipulate you, it is lost and must be earned again. You can also get rid of someone’s influence by rejecting it, though this is certainly a challenging feat to accomplish. This process of exchanging influence back and forth and utilizing it to change a character’s perception of themselves helps to emphasize the struggle of the characters to find their identities.
I planned to spend some of this article talking about my own hopes for future Masks campaigns, but perhaps this is a good time to take a break, eh? Next week I’ll highlight my future Masks plans, but for now we’ll rest on the knowledge of my first impressions of the text. In the meantime if you’ve played Masks before and want to share some of your favorite experiences with the game, feel free to comment below with your stories!
Something I really liked about the sound of a Masks campaign described to me by a friend was that the superhero stuff was almost completely secondary. They were telling a story about a group of kids who had complex relationships with each other, with the adults in their lives, with their heroes, with everyone around them, and it just happened to also involve costumes and laser eyes and stuff.
(The WordPress mobile layout is really messing with me, I accidentally deleted your great comment! 😭)
This is an excellent point! The superhero aspect is so secondary that you don’t even really measure physical harm in conflict with the base rules. I like it not only because it sets the tone of the game but also because it effectively addresses the issue of mechanical balancing in a superhero setting. Normally it is really difficult to handle it when one player wants to be Daredevil and the other wants to be Superman – this gets around that issue by putting the emphasis on the identity and emotions of these kids instead of just their power levels. Really smart design!
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It sounds really impressive how it completely avoids having to worry about any sort of complicated comparisons about whose mathematical power level is higher, or whatever. It’s more about what’s appropriate to the narrative and the themes, as I understand it, and I like that.
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For sure! I’ve found in my experience that the roleplaying games I personally enjoy the most are skillfully designed to tell a particular kind of story, and consider their themes carefully throughout each mechanical element of the game. That’s probably why I have such a strong preference for the indie scene in tabletops.
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As a fairly experienced Masks GM, I can confirm that this is exactly the strength of the system. It doesn’t just tell stories about punching aliens; it tells stories about finding out who you are and what your life means. By punching aliens.
If anything Mr. Shepard is underselling it’s strength in this area; the more I GM it the more beautifully the basic system underscores this identity-discovery based storytelling. (Masks has become a firm favourite for convention one-shots, and I always get requests for it.)
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Thanks for your perspective as someone who has played the game! I unfortunately haven’t had a group interested in playing this one just yet, so I am looking forward to get the opportunity to get this one on the table and to experience those strengths for myself.
For those online gaming during the lockdown, I will note that the Roll20 community have put a pretty good Masks character sheet together, which handles all of the fiddly extras from the different playbooks.
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