The Powered by the Apocalypse system, Vince Baker’s revolutionary game design paradigm originally showcased in Apocalypse World, has become a big of a mixed blessing: while it inspired games like Monsterhearts (which is incredibly important to me as it massively changed how I play and think about roleplaying games), it seems like lots of people are trying to make PbtA games without really thinking about what that means. The virtue of PbtA is that is can emulate a specific combination of genre, emotional intensity and surprising twists like no other system that currently exists. At the same time, it just doesn’t work for everything. It shouldn’t – it’s not a generic system. It’s pretty much the opposite of that. There are some great places to look for systems that can be hacked into whatever shape you like: Fate if you want high-action, minimal changes; Cortex for something more tailored to genre emulation; Hillfolk for high-drama big-picture plots.
So when I hear ‘it’s x done in PbtA’, my heart sinks a little. Will it disappoint me? My ears prick up. Will it have mechanics I really want to get my teeth into?
Masks: A New Generation is perhaps an unlikely direction for the system normally associated with grim and gritty ‘mature themes’, I have not been disappointed. Masks allows you to play superheroes in a different way from many other games in the same broad genre. For a start, it’s focused on teen superheroes, wrestling with issues of identity, power vs. control, external influences vs. self-definition, mundane vs. super and the very individual arcs of different kinds of superhero. And yet it’s also a game of over-the-top action, where everything is brightly-coloured and the bad guys are high camp. In the same scene, you can sucker punch a supersoldier and disappoint your parental figure, all the while having too many feelings about the team, your powers and responsibilities, and the constant angst that comes from trying to live two lives.
As with Monsterhearts Skins, I’m impressed by how the Masks playbooks drill down into the emotional core of different kinds of heroes. It doesn’t have quite the level of insight into teen angst that Monsterhearts does, but it’s also about balancing internal and external threats a lot more. Unlike the characters in Monsterhearts, Masks characters are more about their sense of connection than their sense of isolation. While Masks might still handle complex and difficult issues, it’s unlikely to be the endless (and glorious) cavalcade of emotional trauma of a really good Monsterhearts campaign.
However, unlike most superhero characters in games, your character isn’t defined by their powers: in fact, their powers are almost incidental, another way of flavouring the narrative. Instead of being about how the Hulk is super strong and resilient, or how Batman has a bat gadget for every situation (Shark Repellent Bat Spray!), it’s about how Bruce Banner fights his own bitterness and anger every day that he becomes ‘the other guy’, or how Bruce Wayne refuses to accept that there are times when he can’t keep up with Superman. The characters in Masks are teenagers trying to be heroes, and even when they fail, seeing them try is what makes us care.
So, having waxed lyrical about the concepts behind the system, what about the system itself? What makes it different from other Powered by the Apocalypse games? Is this just Monsterhearts with a different (haha) skin? Well, it is definitively neither Apocalypse World nor Monsterhearts. Masks draws heavily on Monster of the Week and Urban Shadows, which take the concepts of PbtA and make them more accessible, with a similar arc system for creating coherent external threats that continue even when offscreen.
However, Masks also has some really awesome unique features. For a start, instead of the attributes that most other PbtA systems have, it has a set of Labels from -2 to +3: Freak, Danger, Saviour, Superior, Mundane. By default these shift during play, though there are opportunities to lock Labels while advancing, but the intention is that your character’s approach to situations and ability to deal with them shifts as their self-image and the way they are defined by others changes.
This melds beautifully into this game’s version of Hx or Strings, Influence. Influence is a binary state where you either got it or you don’t. PCs or NPCs gain benefits for having Influence over people, and can ‘spend’ their Influence to try and force a change in someone else’s Labels. So, maybe your character’s alien parent tells them they are proud of them for their powers (shifting Superior up but Mundane down), an enemy tries to convince them that they are a danger to everyone they love and can’t protect them (shift Danger up and Saviour down), or a team-mate and fellow PC comforts them and tells them they can live a normal life after all (shift Freak down and Mundane up). Your character can attempt to resist this shift and redefine themselves instead (they get to shift their own Labels), or they can let someone else tell them who they are. Since Labels represent the intersection of self-definition and external definition, this doesn’t compromise how you as a player play the character – your golden boy heroic Legacy might just have to prove to everyone that he’s the hero he’s expected to be to move his Saviour Label back up! Or let someone else comfort or support him.
Moves are very different in this, as well. It’s less about looking cool like Apocalypse World or imposing your particular will on the people around you like Monsterhearts but more about big ridiculous four-colour comic-strip action. At the same time, those big action scenes tie right into the characters’ feelings. After a fight, the team might need to Comfort or Support each other, and instead of Intimacy Moves, there are Team Moves, activated when you share triumphant celebrations or moments of vulnerability.
Conditions are the catch-all way of measuring how fit for the fight your character is, signalling emotional states (afraid, guilty, etc.), inflicting penalties on basic moves and providing a hit point counter for both heroes and villains. That does mean that you need to affect a Villain’s emotional state before you can defeat them, rather than just punching them out, and ultimately their ‘defeat’ could be giving up, running away or breaking down and admitting their pain. However, since PbtA threats are heavily reactionary, when they take a Condition, they also get to make a move, which seems like it would keep the fight flowing well. And, of course, you have to deal with the emotional fallout of the Conditions PCs have once the fight is over.
There’s some great behind-the-scenes stuff, as well. The arcs system is excellent for developing villains, making sure they have things to do offscreen and helping you firm up their big diabolical plan, plus a Villain deck in case you need to throw a bad guy in off the cuff. The GM develops hooks for each PC – they choose two labels that will come into conflict for that character (e.g. Freak and Mundane) and anchors NPCs to those hooks, who will represent the two sides of the conflict and pull the character in different directions, modifying their Labels where possible to define them.
Masks is, generally, very good indeed. I’m really excited about the idea of running it. Then we get to the but. I think I’ve been spoiled by Monsterhearts (which is not perfect but is the most elegant iteration of PbtA that I’ve seen). Masks sometimes lacks a little mechanical crunch. The Moves are really cool, but the actual mechanical outcome is often highly interpretative – which has always been the case for PbtA, but usually only for moves that change the narrative rather than interact with the mechanics. If you compare Engage a Threat Directly with Lash Out Physically (from Monsterhearts), Monsterhearts tells you exactly what happens mechanically except whereas Masks gives you a broad idea of the outcome but leaves it up to, presumably, GM decision-making and negotiation. ‘Trade blows’ is vague, and while the core book expands on it, keeping things moving in a fight often requires simple definition rather than narrative interpretation. The same is sometimes true of villain moves and the actual outcome of hooks resolving: where something has a mechanical impact, I prefer that impact to be more clearly defined, or at least to have a series of distinct mechanical options to choose from e.g. take Influence, inflict a Condition. That said, I haven’t yet run the game, and so maybe the whole thing will flow better in actual play.
At times the explanations of mechanics are a little vague as well – it’s a short book, already longer than many other PbtA games, so they presumably wanted to keep things streamlined, but I have had to take my best guess here and there with rules interpretations. And I’d perhaps like a little bit more mechanical oomph to mark the end of one set of hooks and the start of another – maybe the player decides which hook their character embraced and takes Influence over the NPC attached to that hook or something. But these are all tiny little things that over all don’t reduce my enthusiasm for the game one jot and can easily be fixed by a good GM.
Oh, hey, and since this is published by Magpie Games, who are doing some excellent stuff with diversity in games, it’s pretty great for representation, from the character options (as traditional with PbtA games, gender goes so far beyond the binary) to the artwork and sample characters.
In short: even if you are feeling a little fatigued by Powered by the Apocalypse, or have been disappointed by other iterations, this game is well worth your time. Don’t expect it to have the jagged edges of Apocalypse World or the feral desperation of Monsterhearts, but for a sweet game about SUPERHEROES and FEELINGS and the power of FRIENDSHIP, I would highly recommend Masks: A New Generation.
G+ community (like other PbtA games, has a lot of user-generated content and rules discussion)
Fan-made Villains app to create and share your Villains, approved by the Publisher