The thrill of victory. The agony of defeat. The teenage angst because Starsong pulled away when you tried to kiss her, your self-image is battered by negative press coverage, and those grown-up superheroes just don’t understand. It’s Masks: A New Generation, a Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) tabletop roleplaying game focused on the lives of a teen superhero team. And it’s great.
Masks, written by Brendan Conway and published by Magpie Games (who also published the excellent Bluebeard’s Bride, which I discussed in Part 3 of our Gen Con recap), draws on shows and comics like Young Justice, the Teen Titans, Young Avengers/Avengers Academy, and an assortment of X-teen groups (from the New Mutants to more recent entries like the Young X-Men/students from Wolverine and the X-Men). What sets this batch of superhero fare apart is that, while it has all of the usual superhero trapping – fighting villains, saving innocents, etc. – it also lets its young protagonists display all of the emotion and insecurity of youth. The characters in Masks don’t only battle evil, they also navigate intra-team relationships (romantic or otherwise) and seek to define themselves while the world (especially adult superheroes) tries to tell them who they are and who they should be.
As is usual for a Powered by the Apocalypse game, actions in Masks are defined by moves, with success or failure determined by a roll of 2d6 + an applicable statistic – 7-9 is generally a success at a cost, while 10+ is a relatively complete success. Also like many PbtA games, what the statistics and basic moves are says a lot about the game.
In Masks, the five statistics are referred to as Labels, and they represent how the characters think of themselves. These five Labels – Danger, Freak, Mundane, Savior, and Superior – will go up and down a lot, as the character’s self-image is shaped by their decisions and by the reactions of others.
The basic moves are:
- Directly engage a threat is the move you might expect to do damage, except there isn’t really such a thing as damage. Directly engaging a threat deals a blow to the enemy, but by default will also result in the PC taking a blow (more on that later). This action is much broader than that, however, letting the character generate effects like rescuing hostages, seizing the initiative, and impressing the opponent.
- Unleash your powers allows the character to employ their powers in a new or more powerful way, compared to what has come before. This is contrasted with a normal use of powers, which doesn’t require a roll – it’s assumed that a character is using their powers as applicable whenever they make a move.
- A character can defend someone from an immediate threat;
- Assessing the situation lets a character learn information like how to end the situation quickly or what could be used to achieve a stated goal;
- A character can provoke someone to get them to take a specified course of action. This might be provoking an enemy to focus on you in a fight. Or it might be provoking a teammate into storming off in a huff;
- Comforting or supporting someone might be used in a fight or back at base, but will probably most often be used by the PCs on each other – but the recipient of the comfort or support must truly open up in response to get any benefit;
- Piercing the mask is the social version of assessing the situation – it lets the character find out something about another character, such as their plans or how they might be influenced.
The final basic move is to take a powerful blow, which is never taken voluntarily. When a character takes a powerful blow, they might emerge unscathed. But they also might verbally lash out, lose control, run away, or take conditions. As noted above, there’s no ‘take damage’ on that list – you don’t win or lose fights in Masks by reducing an opponent’s health to zero. Instead, characters suffer from negative emotional conditions – being Afraid, Angry, Guilty, Hopeless, or Insecure. Having too many of these emotional conditions is what renders characters unable to go on. The basic way of clearing these conditions is to act on the emotion – smashing something important could clear Angry, while running away could clear Afraid.
Another key emotional mechanic is Influence. When a character has Influence over another, it means that the other cares what the character thinks. Influence within the team tracks emotional bonds and how close-knit the team is. And all adults have influence over the characters – whether they admit it or not, the opinions of the adults matter to the teens. Having influence can matter in a number of ways, but a significant one is that it lets one character shift another’s labels – if the hero’s mentor berates them for being too dangerous, then this may shift their Danger Label up (and another Label down) as the hero begins to think of themself in those terms. A character can attempt to reject the influence of another when used against them, but rejecting influence is itself a move – the character doesn’t stop caring what the influencer thinks just because they want to stop caring.
There are a couple of basic team moves, as well as team moves found within the characters’ playbooks. The basic team moves allow the characters to spend Team points, adding +1 to another character’s dice roll in a situation where the spending character could help out. The most basic way that Team is gained is entering battle against a dangerous foe as a team. How much team is gained, however, depends on the cohesiveness of the team. Are all of the characters pursuing the same goal? Does everyone trust the leader?
The playbook team moves are more specific. Each playbook has one move that triggers when the character shares a triumphant celebration with someone and one move that triggers when the character shares a vulnerability with another character. These moves are all tied in with the theme of the playbook.
Speaking of the playbooks, there are ten masks that each has its own playbook (there are more available in other products). Each playbook includes several “look” options (typically about the character’s costume, street clothes, and one other feature), what abilities they might have (these are used to guide description of actions, not generate moves), starting Labels, what relationships the character has to start with (someone you want to impress, someone you have fun with, etc.), ‘standard’ move options, usually some special feature, the team moves, and advancement. Each playbooks comes with several examples from comics and shows, although I’m just focusing on what I see as “the” exemplar of the mask.
- The Beacon: This one is Hawkeye (Kate Bishop, I guess, due to age, although Hawkguy was the one who actually spent significant time on a team) – no powers on a team with people who might have cosmic level powers. The Beacon is a superhero just because they want to be – they’re normal, they save people, and they’ve got some random goals just for kicks (outperform an adult, get a new hero name, defeat an enemy on their own, make out with a teammate, etc.). Suck it, Domitian.
- The Bull (in a china shop): Changed into a living weapon, the bull is also characterized by a soft spot for at least one teammate. Think X-23. The Bull’s moves are generally about smashing. The Bull’s special is about one teammate they love (does not have to be romantic, although it could be) and one they consider a rival. The Bull gets bonuses to impress their love and to frustrate their rival … although who the love and rival are can change on a whim.
- The Delinquent: The Delinquent thumbs their nose at authority, while also desperately caring what everyone thinks about them (see Quire, Quentin).
- The Doomed: The Doomed is on the clock – someone, or something, is coming for them. Maybe they’re able to defeat it. If not? They will die. This might be an external threat (such as Raven’s father), or it might be the character’s powers slowly killing them. Instead of normal moves, the Doomed has potent powers that fuel their own downfall.
- The Janus: The two-faced Janus might have a negative connotation, but here is refers to a character’s secret identity. This isn’t just any secret identity, but rather one that is really really secret and that places a burden on the character’s superhero life (or vice versa). Spider-Man is the most iconic example of this sort of hero – his webslinging is always causing problems as he tries to hold down a job, treat his Aunt May well, go to school, and maybe have a real date one of these days.
- The Legacy: The Legacy is part of a superhero dynasty, with its own rules and reputation to uphold. And by Grabthar’s Hammer, the Legacy will live up to it. The most obvious examples of this are some of the DC Universe sidekicks (although they can sometimes fall into the protégé category), but my favorite example is Lightspeed, formerly of the family team Power Pack, alter of Avengers Academy and dating Karolina from Runaways (also Alex Powers, if they every do something interesting with Zero-G again).
- The Nova: The Nova has lots of power. Maybe too much. Their moves are powerful but rely on burn, but they may soak conditions in an effort to build up that burn. Wiccan, with is ‘I can do anything’ powers, is perhaps the ultimate Nova (not to be confused with Ultimate Nova).
- The Outsider: Think waaaaay outside. Like from another star system outside. The Outsider’s challenge is adapting to life on earth, with which they are quite unfamiliar. The Outsider has flight, superhuman toughness, and possibly a potent array of other powers. Also, if Starfire and Warlock are anything to go by, they may possess an unusual understanding of the English language.
- The Protégé: The Protégé is defined by their relationship to a mentor, and how similar (or not) they are to that mentor. The Protégé is typically better trained than the other characters, and can most readily fall into a leadership role. So basically Robin.
- The Transformed: Most iconically exemplified by the Hulk, the Transformed was once a normal human, but is not very visibly something else. The Transformed is torn between their identity as the ‘monster’ and their underlying humanity.
Character advancement comes in the form of, well, advancements. Five potential equals an advancement. The primary way to earn potential is to mess up. Advancements grant more moves (from your playbook or from other playbooks), can increase a label (without having to shift another down), and can also earn adult moves (which are basically better versions of the basic moves).
Masks: A New Generation has a pretty extensive GM section as well. In addition to a lot of good advice, this includes a whole mess of ‘moves’ that the GM can make. Some of these are more standard sorts of moves – the equivalent of playbook moves for the villains. The others are more nebulous – in some ways as much suggestions on how to focus on what’s important to the different playbooks as they are distinctive mechanical effects. For example, one of the GM moves for the Transformed is to show them how they are feared and hated. These are accompanied and combined with generic GM moves like offering influence or a shift of labels.
The good advice focuses on making the most out of Masks, which is helpful because I think that Masks asks a lot of the GM and is very reliant on the GM. The GM has to be able to both offer up vivid fight scenes and keep the interpersonal drama going. The GM has to be able to do some amount of plotting out for the supervillain side of things, while also being very reactive and flowing on the interpersonal side. Masks gives advice on that, as well as a lot of tips on keeping the emotional content at a high pitch – tying NPCs into PCs, identifying the core Label struggles for the PCs, keeping everyone in the spotlight, and how to play the adults as they try to help and shape the PCs.
I said it at the top, but it bears repeating here – Masks is great. It does an excellent job embodying the genre, striking the right mix of moves and tone to push both sides of the intended roleplaying experience. The influence and Label mechanics, in particular, focus attention on the characters’ struggle for identity. I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in this blend of action and emotion.