Review – Unbound (Masks RPG)

One of the best new RPGs of the last few years, Masks: A New Generation is a roleplaying game of teenage superheroes. Taking its cues from comics and cartoons like Young Justice, Teen Titans, Young Avengers, and the New Mutants, Masks features both comic-style heroic action and the characters’ efforts to figure out who they are and who they will be. You can read my full review of the base game here.

But this review covers the just-released Unbound supplement. While the default Masks setting is the fairly unspecified Halcyon City, Unbound focuses on four specific playsets with new rules to support specific game styles and more detailed world/NPC information for the particular alternate reality that shows off that game style (although you could keep the concepts while modifying the specific, if that was your preference). The four playsets are:

  • Iron Red Soldiers (aka Young Justice Season 2): A playset about the resistance to an alien invasion. This playset largely removes adult heroes from the game, which is a significant shift in dynamics from the base Masks game. The heroes instead have several clandestine organizations the can turn to for support, although they must also replenish the resources of those organizations from time to time or see them broken by the invaders. Iron Red Soldiers also sees a shift in dynamics in that it is much more mission-based, with guidance for GMs on crafting specific objectives.
  • Spiderweb: A street-level game, the world of Spiderweb eliminates Halcyon City’s history of superheroics. Rather, the characters are some of the first superheroes, and the threats that face are mostly rampant gangs and crime lords who have taken control in the absence of heroes. The Spiderweb will zoom the action down to a single neighborhood, which the characters will inhabit and have to deal with on an ongoing basis. I’m reminded of the Netflix version of the Defenders in Hell’s Kitchen, or a lot of Ms. Marvel stories.
  • Phoenix Academy: The Phoenix Academy playset moves the characters into a super hero high school, with all of the rules, schedules, teachers, and tests that implies.
  • Apocalypse Sonata: Road trip! This playset sends the characters on a quest through space and time for cosmic McGuffins. There is, of course, a cosmic bad guy also seeking said McGuffins. The Apocalyse Sonata challenges the GM to come up with a string (short or long) of different worlds for the characters to encounter.

Note that, other than the Apocalypse Sonata, all of these playsets effectively require a fresh campaign – the foundations are too different to be able to swerve an existing campaign into them. All of the playsets also have advice on the role of the various playbooks in that playset, including any playbooks that will not work (for example, the Legacy doesn’t work in the Spiderweb because there are no past heroes).

Speaking of playsets, Unbound adds three new ones: the Harbinger, the Nomad, and the Scion. The book says issues a caution about using more than one of these in a campaign, and I’d agree – each requires some significant adjustment in the game. Too many may tax the GM (due to added mechanics) or disrupt the feel of the game (because these archetypes care less about the central growing up/who are you theme).

The Harbinger is a time traveler who came to their past in order to stop their future. Except they no longer know exactly what it is they needed to stop, or how to stop it. Many of the Harbinger’s moves relate to their knowledge of the future – remembering what the history books say, telling teammates about moves they haven’t figured out yet, or telling them about the future (truthfully or not). However, it’s the “connecting the dots” extra that makes the Harbinger a bit more work, as it requires tracking various specific NPCs into certain ‘roles’ for the future. Iron Lad from Young Avengers immediately comes to mind when I think of this playbook (because he fits the teenage team angle as well), although X-Men characters like Bishop and Rachel Summers more directly aim at the Harbinger’s inability to know exactly what they need to do because they come from alternate futures.

The Nomad is a cosmic wanderer who is maybe staying on Earth for a while, maybe longer if they do. No one (not even adults) has influence over the Nomad at character creation, and the Nomad throws the existing influence mechanic out the window, replacing it with an alternative power system. My favorite example of a Nomad from the book, although I would not have thought of it, is The Doctor, although I don’t know if that’s really the best example.

The Scion is sort-of an inverse Legacy – they are the child of a super-villain, seeking to prove that they are their own person. Although that is not a straightforward question of proving that they’re a hero. Playing this out involves the Respect extra, which has the character seeking to gain the respect of specific individuals – their parent’s greatest enemy, a leader of the city, and such. This alters the usual influence system for those characters. 

Ultimately, all of the playsets and playbooks in Unbound will significantly shift a game of Masks away from some core element of the game – but that’s kind of the point. Unbound is a book for running a different type of Masks campaign, not a book for adding a few new options to an existing campaign (an Apocalyse Sonata interlude is about the only thing that would work well on that front). If you’re looking for that sort of change of pace, each of the elements in Unbound provides a well thought-out and helpful guide for those changes.

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