Masks: A New Generation
This one was, admittedly, a bit of an impulse buy that I wasn’t sure about. Superhero game? I’ve tried those. They’re usually a bit of a mess because…well, superheroes are a somewhat unique genre, and they take a unique kind of system to be playable. There’s a reason that superhero video games are so hit or miss.
Masks is an interesting game, one that takes the concept of storytelling and creates a basic, flexible system to allow it to work.
Grab your cape and don that domino mask: let’s take a look at Masks.
New Kids on the Block
The setting of Masks is Halcyon, a bustling metropolis. Over 10 million people, lots of neighborhoods with towering skyscrapers, bustling streets, nice parks, and diverse populations.
And it’s always the target of alien invasions, dimensional incursions, and paranormal activity.
As a result, superheroes have been a thing in the city. These are divided into four generations. The gold generation are the first of these superheroes, coming out of the depression and World War II. Then came the Silver generation, where superpowers became more powerful, with higher stakes than simple costumed thrives and occasional giant monsters. Teams became important. Then the Bronze generation happened, and a darker turn occurred. This generation was focused on making themselves new, trying to find better (often permanent) solutions to the issues that faced them.
The modern generation, then, is where you come in, a new generation of heroes, set to decide what they will become.
The setting is a somewhat secondary feature. Comic buffs will note the nod to comic book ages, with a lot of the tropes and concepts working their way into the actual history of the setting. It’s a nice touch, and gives some of the setting a unique flavor. Rather than deny any part of the history of comics, the setting tries to work it all as a history.
The characters, then, are the driving force. The setting is, ultimately, what the players choose to make it. They could become a dark band of anti-heroes, but more trend toward ambiguity. The setting encourages the characters to be a reconstruction of superheroes, taking into account all that came before, to make something new.
With that, let’s get into the heroes themselves.
Hero in Training
The main cues for the characters come from what are called Playbooks. You can think of Playbooks like classes…but honestly, that’s something of a disservice. Playbooks are something more akin to character and narrative archetypes. For example, one Playbook is called the Protege. A Protege is defined by a student/mentor relationship between them and an older hero. The Protege has similar skills and powers to their mentor, but ultimately has a narrative centered on where they will go with their own identity. The best example would be Dick Greyson. As Robin, he was defined by how his training was similar to Batman. They were hero and sidekick, really the best example. As Greyson grew up, though, he changed, eventually stepping out of the shadow of Batman to pursue his own goals his own way as Nightwing. While the student and mentor have similar talent (experts in hand to hand combat, detective work, and stealth), there are notable differences (Nightwing relies far more on charisma than fear, and his acrobatic skills are more pronounced).
Playbooks, then, become what role you take in the narrative, how you progress, and also what kind of powers you will (or will not) have. They also define particular struggles and questions your character will face. A Legacy character must contend with the weight that inheriting a title will bring, while a Doomed has a…well, doom, that cannot be avoided, but might, with time, be faced and overcome.
When one is making a character, teambuilding is important. First off, people can’t double up on playbooks, at least not at first (more on that later). Second, there is a system called influence that determines who’s opinion your characters cares about, and different playbooks allow different teammates to have influence over you. Finally, each playbook has background bits to fill in with other team members. For example, the Protege has the question of why the team stuck together after and how they kept in contact. They also have to choose a teammate they worked with before the rest came together and someone their mentor doesn’t trust.
Playbooks are, honestly, a unique system, and I mean this in a very good way. Each playbook has a different style, but also a different set of mechanics that force certain narrative considerations. A Nova, who’s powers are vast but difficult to control, is going to have to contend with collateral damage while a Janus is mostly concerned with keeping their dual identities separate. It’s a fun way of bringing diverse genres together.
The other aspects of your character to note are Labels and Conditions. Labels are…kinda stats…I say ‘kinda’ because they’re much more fluid than most stats and may change repeatedly even in a single session. Labels usually provide a bonus (or penalty) to various actions. Labels are how a character views themselves and, by proxy, how others tend to view them as a result of their actions. So, Danger represents a character viewing themselves as a dangerous person to contend with, while Mundane is a measure of how human a character would view themselves. Again, very much a narrative concept.
Conditions are issues your character can face. These range from Angry to Hopeless. They impose penalties on certain actions. These aren’t things your character necessarily wants, and there are ways to clear them.
Two more stats of importance that come up in play are Moment of Truth and Team Moves.
A Moment of Truth is when a character gets to seize the narrative. This is when the Legacy fully takes on the mantle of the family or the Protege defines their path. Basically, while you can’t control others, you do exactly what you want. These are the “big hero” moments. The “world of cardboard” speech from Justice League would be a great example for Superman.
Team Moves are ways to clear conditions when you’re with your teammates. These are usually moments of triumph (so usually after conflict recovery) or moments of weakness (usually when things are looking hopeless). Each playbook has certain sets, so it helps to know when they kick in.
Playing the game is pretty simple with regard to system, at least. Roll 2d6, add modifiers (usually a label), then check to see if you got 7 or higher. If you do, you get a ‘hit.’ Ten or more is generally a better success.
The game itself only has a certain number of actions one takes. These are called Moves. They are broad and encourage a more narrative style of play. For example, Directly Engage a Threat can be done numerous ways, but always involves moving in and trading blows. If you’re a raging invulnerable juggernaut, you may do so just by wading in and exchanging blow for blow. A more agile character might move in and fight while deftly dodging and using their weapons. A magic user might move in to strike with an arcanely charged fist. It all is dependent on characters. There are Moves specific to Playbooks, and they range a bit, but can be extremely useful to the character type.
Character advancement is done through the playbook, and each one advances a little differently. However, all share a stat called Potential. Potential gets filled every time you roll a miss (yes, really: you get XP by failing) and in some other scenarios dictated by playbooks. When you get 5, you gain an advancement. Advancements are, again, specific to playbooks, but set some interesting mechanics. You can, for example, take more moves from you playbook, cause someone to lose Influence over you, or lock a label, making sure no one can ever alter it again.
Eventually, you can start taking more…advanced…advancements…god, that’s clumsy. These are opened after you’ve gotten some more advancements under your belt, and are far, far more radical in their application. For example, a character might change playbooks to one that someone is not currently playing. Alternatively, a character can take “adult moves.” No, these are not XXX rated, just moves which require a bit more finesse to pull off. They’re generally more powerful, but can come with some repercussions as well.
Eventually, a character might decide to retire via advancement or become a Paragon of the city, joining the ranks of the adult heroes. This lets a person start a brand new character and, essentially, game on as long as they wish.
Overall, Masks is a fantastic game for team based superheroes. It has a unique narrative flair that draws out the uniqueness of the genre. If you want to run a team of teenage supers, check the game out. It’s still a new one, and new supplements are coming out. Here’s to hoping it keeps going strong.