Masks: There Goes the Neighbourhood

[NB: I’m publishing this back-dated to avoid confusion with my recap, as I wrote it but did not get round to posting it before running the first episode of my campaign.]

My gaming group recently reached the end of a Monsterhearts campaign (sob!) and it’s been an experience that’s basically obsessed me for the last six months or so. I feel like it’s probably my turn for GMing duties, so I’m going to be running a Masks: A New Generation game that will hopefully last around the length of one season of Monsterhearts, but since I haven’t run a tabletop game beyond one shots or solo adventures for about five or six years, I’m a bit rusty on judging how long things will take in tabletop. Unfortunately, the sheer amount of live game running and playing I’ve been doing doesn’t help much with that!

This is the first time I’ll have run Masks (or that anyone has run it in my social circle) and the first time I’ve run a PbtA game for anyone but my fiance, with a group that has played Monsterhearts extensively and has high expectations. So it’s a bit nerve-wracking! My setup is that since our group has played so much school-based Monsterhearts, I wanted the heart of the game to be centred around something else, with a different focus. I chose to make it about a particular neighbourhood of Halcyon City, a place that used to be a thriving middle-class area but is now becoming less prosperous and falling by the wayside, as the city moves on and leaves it behind. As a result, the area is becoming a target for both criminal groups and unscrupulous developers looking to buy land cheaply. The characters all live in this neighbourhood – they know the hang-out spots, some of them have histories rooted in the locations and people here. And of course, the neighbourhood itself has its own secrets, possibly somewhat given away by the fact that there is a creepy abandoned private science facility down the road!

There is going to be more history established when the players make their characters but my starting points for commonly-known history are:

  • There was a scandalous Science thing that happened at the facility five years or so ago that was hushed up, but the locals have wild theories about what happened. The company funding it was investigated by AEGIS and closed down, and the facility was abandoned.
  • There was a high-profile villain in the neighbourhood’s history taken out by the local Legacy of heroes, though the villain’s actual fate or real identity are unknown, and their minions scattered. More details to be filled out if any of the players go for the Legacy playbook (one has indicated that she might, but I’m not counting on it till we get there).
  • The Dandy Gang used to be the biggest criminal outfit around and were kept down for many years by local hero Saviour and her sidekick Prodigy. The team defeated the leader of the Dandy Gang and put him in prison, but Prodigy and then Saviour quit the hero game for reasons unknown.
  • The current hero who has claimed responsibility for guarding the neighbourhood is the Crimson Cloak, but locally he’s known mainly for grandstanding for the media rather than doing actual good. I’m considering making him part of a Legacy, or maybe in the early days of forming a Legacy, but I don’t want to impinge on the game of the possible-Legacy player character.
  • There has been a lull in hero activity in this neighbourhood since Saviour and Prodigy quit, with the Crimson Cloak easily able to keep most of the petty crimes down. However, recently there was an incident where an unidentified teenager used obviously inhuman powers and caused some property damage. Local boy Officer Scott Hendry has been asking a lot of questions about it and has drafted a bunch of teenagers into a neighbourhood watch group to try and engage them productively. For some it’s mandated community service, while for others, they’re just doing their bit.
  • AEGIS has a presence in the area, though why is apparently ‘classified’, with Special Agent Marco Tate being noticeably not from around here.
  • A number of developers have been buying up property in the area cheaply. The most high-profile is Ezekiel Boone, of Aurum Investments Ltd. Some locals are staunchly refusing to sell up, like Kenneth Chandler, owner of a bookshop that is a relic of the neighbourhood’s past prosperity.
  • Another company, Apex Corp, has moved in as well, though details are sketchy.

I’m going to ask the players to come up with a location that means something to their character, to help flesh the neighbourhood out. I currently have the following locations:

  • The Police Station
  • The Bookshop
  • The Abandoned Science Facility
  • The Park

During the first session, my plan is to run character creation using the standard playbooks but (if the group is amenable) to assign Influence based on Monsterhearts-esque questions expanding on the relationship questions, since the standard starting Influence for most of the characters is pretty much just the rest of the Team, and I prefer slightly more fleshed out social/mechanical links. If you’re curious about the questions I developed for the Masks and my starting questions to help flesh out the characters and their peers, check out the Drive document here.

One important note is that I am not using the standard setup from the book that the Team is already together at the start of play – in my first Masks game, I’d really like to play through the team getting together and dealing with their initial clashes. However, I have been very open with my players about the fact that there will be an inciting incident right at the start of play that will give them motivation to unite against a bigger threat (and will also hopefully provide the ‘when our team got together’ stories).

For Influence, we’re just going to mark things down on sheets in the same manner as Strings or Hx (though obviously only in an on/off kind of way) since we play in an environment where we often have to game on sofas and there is a young child running around who likes to try and eat or tear up our gaming supplies – keeping track of cards or tokens in that situation is challenging. However, I am going to trial Condition cards (just printed out paper ones so they can be easily replaced) as I think those are potentially a useful way of helping people keep track of their Conditions early on and reminding them of the mechanics. I will also have a Team pool that has physical tokens – the tokens I’m using are Marvel Dice Masters dice as I have a bunch of spares and they have classic superhero symbols on them! I have a little tin that should hopefully keep them safe from being swallowed or lost, but if they do get lost, it doesn’t really matter as I have a bunch of them, and we already have to keep the table dice away from grabby hands at the risk of consumption. I do think there’s something important in the physical act of placing tokens in a shared pool and taking them out again. It reminds people to use this resource they’ve built up but also heightens the tension when they don’t have that pool to rely on. My fiance uses this when he runs D&D, with a pool you can spend points out of to add +2 to attacks, and it would have a lot less impact if we didn’t have the physical tokens. If any of these prove impractical, however, we can always just keep track on sheets.

The playbooks people have expressed an interest in so far are the Outsider (I’m pretty certain this one will happen), the Delinquent or the Nova, and the Legacy. I mentioned that I was wary of the Doomed and how to handle their story-warping Terrible Fate, but didn’t outlaw it completely. I’m also slightly nervous of the Legacy’s family and the Outsider’s contact with back home, but I’ll see how we get on. I can always play it by ear for the first session and then make more plans in the future.

Since I’m not really sure how long each arc will last and it’ll be very dependent on how the players follow things up, I’m starting with one external plot arc. I’m determined not to artificially slow it down – if the players blaze through it in a few sessions, that’s fine. Once I have more of an idea of the characters, I want to run a mini-arc for each of them relating to their Mask and backstory. Plus inevitably other things will come up in play. I also have another couple of plotlines for two more arcs if I need them, or if I run more of this campaign in the future.

I’ve been wavering a lot on how much to plan and how much to adapt the ruleset. I’ve shifted my ideas several times and at one point it looked like the original predictions of Delinquent and Legacy, which I had some plans to hang plot progress from, might not be happening – in the end, though, the players basically swapped which Masks they were most interested in! I’m running this in two days, so I’m going to take some time to streamline my notes back down and put some useful work in for improvising during the first session and later. I am torn about the Villain Moves. On the one hand, I really love how Monsterhearts has custom moves for Threats and NPCs that really reflect that character’s impact on the game world, and we’ve had some incredible fun with them in the Monsterhearts games I’ve played (one Threat made anyone who failed a roll near my overly-dramatic Cupid character fall in love with him, which was utterly perfect). It made the Threats feel responsive, and when one NPC had powers that incentivised us to give him lots of Strings (which he could have used to devastating effect if we’d angered him), we all jumped fully into that. At the same time, I don’t know whether that would improve Masks or not because it doesn’t have as much of a stable of options for responsive moves (and the NPC moves have to be responsive). I might give myself the option of either and decide at the time. Certainly for thugs and minor NPCs there’s nothing wrong with just having a single-line descriptor move rather than a balanced and mechanically-varied one. I just want my villains to do…you know, a bit more, even if that’s just how they feel to me.

My plan is to do a brief recap of how each game goes and my ongoing thoughts on the mechanics, plus any changes I’m making to the system as I go. I’m going to keep it spoiler-free in case my players read this, but I will put things up once they are no longer spoilers.

So…wish me luck, I guess!

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