Review – Halcyon City Herald Collection (Masks RPG)

The Halcyon City Herald Collection was the first supplement from Magpie Games for Masks: A New Generation, the roleplaying game of teenage superhero teams. The bulk of the content of the HCHC is presented in the form of newspaper articles from over the decades. And, of course, five new playbooks representing new, more complex hero archetypes.

The pitch on the back of HCHC as providing more detail on Halcyon City (the default location of a game of Masks), and I suppose that it does. But ultimately that’s not why I would recommend the book – there isn’t any further information on the ‘iconic’ playbook characters, which are the main thing I’d care about Halcyon City in particular for. Rather, to me they were more relevant as concepts. Whether or not I care about Sehkmet, there’s an interesting conceptual point introduced. Does a metahuman with healing abilities have some sort of obligation to use them on as many people as possible? How do they decide who to help (or who to help first)? Can they ethically start charging their ‘patients’ for treatment? Are the answers to those questions any different for a metahuman than a normal human who happens to be a good doctor?

Some of the topics covered include:

  • Gossipy or other trash opinion columns covering heroes;
  • Whether the omnipresence of superheroes takes agency away from normal humans;
  • To what lengths should – or must – a precognitive character go based on their foreknowledge;
  • What does a villain have to do in order to achieve redemption, and does that have to involve the same sort of trip through the criminal justice system that it might for an ordinary citizen; and
  • The practical fallout of things like alternate versions of ordinary people coming from other dimensions.

I think that a lot of these concepts would resonate the most if the character in question isn’t an NPC at all, but rather one of the player characters (some of them really do only work as an NPC, such as the article on when its time for an aging superhero to hang up the cape). But each of these concepts is introduced in the form of a particular NPC. So, regardless of whether there’s any particular draw to the insight into Halcyon City, there is a ready-made NPC to drop into the game.

There’s also a mechanical hook for these characters/issues, in the form of a new move. Some of the moves are more conceptual (‘when you refuse to speak to the media about an incident that was caught on camera’), while others are character-specific (‘imbibe some of Echidna’s gene-serum’). At first blush, the broader ones might seem more useful (although most of the character-specific ones could readily be changed to be broader, or to fit another character). However, I’m inclined to think that this is a case of more not always being better. I would, in general, probably only want to have these moves deployed in specific, somewhat pre-designed situations – as much a ‘move’ of a specific NPC/location/event as of the PC. Part of what makes Masks great is that there aren’t many rules, and the rules there are really serve to enhance the sort of story the game is aiming for. Having a dozen other moves to keep track of all the time would get in the way of that. So rather than having, say, a general move for opening an interdimensional portal, I think I would just cabin the specialty move to the one portal-related NPC/organization that features in a particular issue of the game.

Of course, while a player might draw inspiration from one of the above concepts when creating a character, the biggest draw for many players is new character options – and in this case, that means five new playbooks. As is standard for Masks playbooks from outside the core book, the five here are significantly more complex to manage – there’s a reason why they recommend only allowing one non-core playbook in a game.

  • The Innocent is a time traveler from the past, the younger version of a modern-day super-villain (so basically Cyclops from All-New X-Men). Unsurprisingly, The Innocent needs to interact a lot with the story of their present-day self, and collaborating on creating this story and maintaining that interaction puts an extra load on the GM. The Innocent is on a clock as much as the Doomed – the longer they go on, the greater the chance that their cumulative experiences will include too many similarities to their present-day villain self, thus locking them on that path. The ‘successful’ innocent will need to take an off-ramp advancement before that (changing playbooks, going back in time). Note that there is a thematically-related playbook in Masks Unbound, the Harbinger, who is a character traveling from the future to prevent themself from becoming a villain (even further in the future).
  • The Joined is paired with and based off of one of the other characters. The Wonder Twins are the obvious comparison (“powers, activate!” is one of the abilities), but the playbook repeatedly requires definition of what’s the same and what’s different, so a pair like Cloak & Dagger can work as well. This playbook requires the cooperation of another player, and will intertwine that character in the ‘two-of-a-kind’ story as much as the Joined – plus they effectively have to share their playbook. This makes the Joined different from the other new playbooks in that it doesn’t put much of an extra burden on the GM, once there’s another player who’s up for it. The arc of the Joined can go in two directions, with the two characters ultimately embracing their togetherness, or striking out on their own.
  • The Newborn is a (very recently) created being. They’re reminiscent of the Outsider playbook in the way that they’re experiencing life in Halcyon City for the first time. But while the Outsider already has their own perspective, the Newborn does not. Rather, the Newborn must learn (and re-learn) ‘lessons’ – what they are, what a superhero should be, something they should always do, and something they should never do. Sometimes the Newborn’s player will write these lessons, and sometimes others will. Really getting the full ‘Newborn experience’ requires leaning in to these lessons, even when the current version of a ‘lesson’ is loud wrong or is leading the Newborn somewhere bad (or, even worse, embarrassing).
  • The Reformed used to be a supervillain (none of this minor troublemaking stuff either; this isn’t the Delinquent), but has seen the light. The Reformed has to balance being a hero with their perspective and friendships from the ‘other side.’ The Reformed plays a little bit with being able to call out other heroes for their own misdeeds, or give some insight into the bad guys, but the biggest push is in the Reformed’s own past (there is a tension in the Reformed, in that they need to have enough of a supervillain past to be able to frequently make up new bad and relevant things they did, while at the same time needing to be a teenager like the rest of the team). This can mean big consequences for the Reformed, including the possibility of criminal prosecution or other heroes who don’t think the Reformed should be given a free pass just because they’ve switched sides.
  • The Star is a superhero, but also an attention hog. They want to save the day, yes, but they also want to be loved for saving the day. Like Booster Gold, or maybe (pre-Civil War) Speedball. The Star’s extra is an audience. The Star gets free rein to decide the general nature of that audience and why it likes them (although the size of the audience is, by default, fairly small). They get to enhance it in a couple ways, making it more devoted, bigger, lucrative, etc. It’s also demanding in a couple of way – they want the star to get along well with their teammates, they want drama between the teammates, they demand constant updates, etc. That audience then effectively becomes a very important NPC for the Star. The Star is definitely my favorite playbook from the HCHC. Not super-important, but I think it puts less of an extra load on the GM as compared to the Innocent, Newborn, or Reformed. More importantly, it’s an extremely relatable concept. The Star could basically be anyone with tights and an Instagram account. And I hear that dealing with and managing public perception is pretty on-point topic for teenagers these days. Or gaming writers. Have I mentioned that you can follow Strange Assembly on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram?

The Halcyon City Herald Collection provides a set of NPCs and related situations that should be a valuable tool for Masks GMs looking for inspiration (or just looking for NPCs to drop into their game). These people, places, and things come with new moves to give “mechanical weight” to them, but these new moves are probably best used as bespoke tools unique to that event, even when they’re more broadly phrased. HCHC closes out with five new playbooks. The Star is definitely my favorite, adding a timely archetype that doesn’t put as much added weight on the GM as some of the other limited edition playbooks.

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