Masks RPG: Some Thoughts


By JiB

 “So, you’re at the homecoming dance, and Zoey and Zeke have just won the impromptu dance off and as a result been named homecoming king and queen. That certainly won’t present a problem with the people who supposedly won the voting for homecoming king and queen.”

“Hey, they rigged the voting and stuffed the ballot box,” Zoey pointed out, “We have the proof.”

“True,” the gm observed, “but you have bigger problems just now, because as you stand there basking in the adoration of your fellow students of James Howlett High, the floor buckles and the gratings fly up from all the drains as a familiar oily sludge erupts from the floor and coalesces into the form of … the Sludge, tables and chairs overturning as students, teachers, and parents scramble out of the way.”

“I dive behind the nearest table and as I’m doing so change, coming out the other side combat ready,” the player for James/Mr. Clean stated hurriedly.

“I do a spin building up my kinetic energy and in the blur change as well,” the player for Zoey/Boom Boom added.

“Is anybody watching me?” Tess/Derby Girl’s player asked.

“No, everyone is focused on either getting out of the way or trying to grab their phones to take pictures of the Sludge.”

“Then I’m going to change right where I am and throw up a shield over the people to protect them,” Derby Girl checked the move sheet.

“And you Zeke?” looking at Zeke/Z3r0’s player with a question.

“Snapping my helmet into place I change as well, and send Lucky up to the rafters over the Sludge,” Z3r0 confirmed.

“Good, you all do that, but Derby, about that shield,” the gm turned back to Derby Girl, “Are you trying to protect the people or change the environment in the gym?”

Author’s Note: The above is excerpted and badly paraphrased from an episode of our Masks AP. My apologies to the players if I have in any way misrepresented what actually happened.

So, what is this, “Masks,” thing anyway? Masks: A New Generation by Brendan Conway is a Powered by the Apocalypse game in which players take on the roles of teenage super heroes in Halcyon City, or in any place you like for that matter. The inside cover puts it thusly, “Masks: A New Generation is a super hero roleplaying game in which a team of young heroes fights villains, saves lives, and tries to figure out who they are- noble paragons? Dark avengers? Or regular kids? All against the backdrop of Halcyon City, the greatest city in the world.” Fundamentally, Masks is about the difficulties of being a teenager, and one with super powers to boot.

Masks uses the Apocalypse World rules engine, and bears the same open elegant resolution. To do anything, roll 2 six-sided dice and add something to it. On a 10+ you do it, no problems, on a 7-9 you do it but there’s some complication, on a 6- things get interesting.

There are some fundamental truths about characters in Masks that frames the nature of the game and what it’s about. “You all choose to be here.” You might have been pressured, and you might feel guilt, you might gripe about the team, but ultimately, for whatever reason, you choose to be part of the team and for the most part remain part of the team. You aren’t killers. You’re a young team, and may have made some mistakes, but you don’t resort to killing people to solve problems. Killing people has far reaching ramifications. You aren’t illegal, or openly hunted … yet. The team might be illegal, or it might not. People might be looking for you, or they might not. In any case, the authorities aren’t after you directly, not so far anyway. By the same token you aren’t loved, the city doesn’t know who you are and you do not have renown. What sort of renown you will make is up to you.

The characters are teenagers, between 13 and 19 and as such have all of the emotional and personal baggage that goes with being a teenager. Adults tell you who you are and how you fit into the universe … Whether you agree or not is another story. Everything is bigger and more melodramatic and more immediate and important than anything else. Influence is a big deal in Masks, have influence over someone else and it’s a help when you need to do things, but when they have influence over you, well the boot is definitely on the other foot at that point. Being teenagers you always make good productive decisions, don’t you?

There are ten playbooks in Masks. (Ok, there are actually a few more but they aren’t in the core book and were designed later.)

  • The Beacon – “You don’t have to do this. You could probably have a safe, decent, simple life. It’d be nice, but … come on. Superpowers! Aliens! Wizards! Time travel! You’re out of your depth but who cares? This is awesome. Everybody should try it.”
  • The Bull – “You’re big, strong, and tough. You know what fighting really is, and you’re good at it. Sure … you’ve got a soft side, too. But you only show that to the people you care about most. Everybody else? They can eat your fist.”
  • The Delinquent – “You’ve got these cool powers. But everyone keeps telling you how to use ‘em. You know what they need? Someone to give them trouble, to make sure they don’t always get their way. And hey! You’re the perfect hero to do it.”
  • The Doomed – “Something about your powers dooms you. It’s just a matter of time before your doom comes for you. Until then, though…you’ve got a nemsis who needs fighting and a world that needs saving. After all, it’s better to burn out than fade away.”
  • The Janus – “Wake up. Breakfast. Schoo. Work. Homework. Sleep. Repeat. It burns you up, being stuck in this life, unable to make a real difference. That is until you put on the mask. And then, you can be someone else: a hero.”
  • The Legacy – “You’re the latest in a storied heroic lineage, a family that shares a name and a cause. Now, everybody is watching and waiting to see if you’ve got what it takes to uphold that tradition. No pressure, right?”
  • The Nova – “You’re a font of power. Channel it, and you can remake the world into exactly what you want. Unleash it, and you can do miracles. It’s wonderful…and terrifying. Lose control for even a second, and other people get hurt.”
  • The Outsider – “You’re not from here. Your home is an amazing place, full of beauty and wonder. But there’s something to this place, something special that you’re missing back home something … human. So yeah, you’ll be hanging around. At least for now.”
  • The Protégé – “You proved yourself to an experienced hero. They think you’ve got what it takes. They’ve been training you for a while, and now you have to decide…do you want to be them? Or will you find your own path?”
  • The Transformed – “You can recall a time not too long ago when you looked…normal. When you didn’t feel their stares. When you didn’t hear their gasps. When no one thought of you as a monster. Those were the days, huh.”

Each of the playbooks typifies a unique kind of hero with unique abilities and issues. The real power of Masks is the constant struggle between key elements of the playbook. The Bull is immensely strong and very good in a fight, but at the same time has someone that they love and that love is as defining for them as their strength. It is this kind of internal conflict that makes Masks such a special game.

Running Masks is philosophically much like running any other powered by the apocalypse game. The gm has agendas and principals that guide them to make the game what it’s designed to be. The gm’s agendas are overarching goals for running the game, these describe WHAT the gm focuses their attention on.

  • Make Halcyon City feel like a comic book. This framing is very important because it is the most important direction for how to characterize things and frame events that happen in the game.
  • Make the player characters’ lives superheroic. This is what the gm’s does to bring external conflict to the game and that feeds on and feeds into the characters’ internal conflicts.
  • Play to find out what changes. You don’t know what will happen, what will change in the game. Don’t bring assumptions about where things are going, let the play lead the way.

If the gm’s agendas are WHAT you as the gm do, the principals are how you do them. There are lots of agendas, and they have a lot in common with other powered by the apocalypse games. The key thing to remember as a gm is that these are your guideposts, your tools for running Masks. The gm’s principals are immutable, do not break them, they matter.  The agendas and principals are important, they frame and guide you the gm to run Masks and make it exciting for the players. Brendan has done a wonderful job of providing this guidance.

My spin

Masks has become one of my very favorite games both to play and to run. I recently had the chance to run a 12-session campaign of Masks which is available on the Happy Jacks RPG Podcast Actual Play Feed. (link) It ranks as one of my very favorite campaigns that I have ever been involved in. The playbooks are well thought out, descriptive, and every one has built in conflict to make them interesting.

If you play only one new game this year, you owe it to yourself to make it Masks.


193258You can find Masks and a host of other fun games at Magpie Games (link)

170x170bbYou can find our AP of Masks called, “Just Us #Heroes” at the Happy Jacks RPG Podcast AP Feed on iTunes (link)