As you may know from Twitter, we have been spending our random free game nights playing Masks by Magpie Games and loving every minute of it. While I would prefer to get reviews out to you readers along with podcasts for you to listen to, you already know we are behind on the audio. So, instead, this review is coming to you right now and sometime in the future we will share some Masks episodes for you to listen to.
It is probably better to start here, rather than the rules. At least, then, you know a bit about the game if you haven’t heard of it before. Masks is a game that sets you as a group of super-powered teens / young adults. Think Teen Titans or Young Justice. Magpie Games has taken the time to develop a unique, although generic, world for you to explore. The city of Halcyon is a bit more than your average Metropolis. It features numerous heroes and villains, as well as a history of super powered folk. The game is set up for the young heroes to be just the latest generation in the city’s history. While some may balk at the cliched setting, I find it to be exactly what you want, especially for the genre. If you are going to play a supers game you know what you are getting into and have some expectations. Magpie Games delivers on those expectations, providing a great scaffolding from which to tell your stories and ensuring that the players know that they are building their Halcyon at the table and it can be whatever they want it to be.
Masks runs of the Powered by the Apocalypse system. I have said numerous times how much I enjoy the system, and I have complained about some of the system’s shortcomings in the Monster of the Week review. Instead, let us focus on the additions and changes made by Magpie for the Masks game. While I don’t have a gigantic breadth of PbtA experience yet, I found that Masks appears to be fundamentally different from other games. In other games (of any system really) you have attributes of some kind that define your character’s abilities. In Masks, these are deemed “labels” and they defer in that the characters label themselves. When you begin a character, the playbook decides the labels, based on that archetype’s general view of themselves. For example, novas often see themselves as Freaks because of their power and this gives them a high Freak stat.
What is magnificent about this system is that these label can change. As usual, “leveling up” as it exists in PbtA can allow you to increase a label. However, over the course of a Masks campaign these labels can move up and down as your self-view changes. Now this isn’t simply done by deciding you want to role play differently, though that comes out of it. The other thing about Masks, is that characters (and NPCs) have influence over each other. This means that one character cares about what another thinks. Much like those young super teams of tv and comics, the group dynamic and drama are very important to the game. Magpie Games has done an elegant job of putting this in the hands of the players through influence mechanic and giving them a variety of benefits to keeping that dynamic and making sure it also fluctuates. Characters are manipulated by NPCs and each other, and this encourages a lot of role playing.
What about the powers though? Like other PbtA games, playbooks have special moves and the setting itself has a set of moves. Masks, again, takes the approach of keeping it open and encouraging lots of role play and description. Moves are simple such as defending, comforting, unleashing powers, or something more related to your playbook. It doesn’t give you specific ways to use your powers. Instead you have a power source (arrows, psychic abilities, fire, etc.) and you have a desired outcome that you describe. Then the GM decides if this is comforting, defending, etc. You can utilize your powers in whatever way is appropriate and fits their source. Masks encourages GMs not to have Unleash Powers rolled unless the desired effect is extreme, which is good because most players seem to gravitate towards that since it has “powers” in the move title. The thing is you can use powers in more than big, showy attacks. An awesome move is Take A Powerful Blow. This is the one move you want to roll low on. It threatens to throw your character out of a scene and is a risk heroes take in their actions.
Finally, I want to mention conditions. These are common, if temporary, effects that adjust the character’s abilities negatively. They come when the heroes fail in a task or the villain does something significant. These are crucial tools for the GM to create drama and difficulty. What is great about them is they are things like Angry or Guilty. They project the high emotions that occur in a battle, especially for such young, new heroes. While time may get rid of them, each has a specific method to rid yourself of them. These are risky though. For example overcoming fright is done by running away. Do you run at a crucial moment in battle or do you fight through it and hope you still succeed?
The design of the Masks book is simple. It is a smaller book, which comes in soft and hard cover versions. The font is very easy to read and different types of text are denoted through color changes and boxing. This keeps everything easily read, but highlights examples, hypothetical game text, important bullet points, and more. All of this makes the book incredibly legible as well as a good reference. Something else I always look at in these books is the glossary / index and the table of contents. Most of these small books disappoint me, but Masks has one of the best layouts and a table of contents to match. Anything you may need to reference has a spot on that table and can easily be looked up. Pieces of information that go together are found within the same chapter, intuitively, and that is something I truly appreciate. I hate when I flip to a chapter expecting to find the information only to find it hides in a different one for some reason. This was not the case with Masks.
The only complaint I have for the presentation of Masks is one that appears to be true for all of the PbtA games. Playbooks are represented much better in their “character sheet” form, which is not in the book. These are very well done, but for those of you GMing I suggest having extras. This allows you to reference playbook specifics without combing through the book entry and without stealing the player’s sheet. Luckily Magpie Games, like other PbtA publishers, provides a number of PDFs on their site for just such needs.
Masks is one of my favorite games yet. We have had a ton of fun playing it. The rules, setting, and way things work take some getting used to, of course. Especially training yourself to not just try and turn everything into Unleash Your Powers. The game lends itself to running an interesting, dramatic story. Choosing to become frightened or guilty due to a failed outcome becomes natural, not just for the GM trying to adjudicate the story, but for the characters themselves. It is, perhaps, the most RP intuitive set of mechanics I have played with yet. Magpie did well in designing it and it flows so smoothly.
Long story, short: if you want to play the supers genre, get this game. It is super easy to pick up and play with little planning if you are at all familiar with comics or the super hero genre. The game is well designed and the book well produced. While there are some games that I find ways to suggest improvements, workarounds, or how to understand something confusing, Masks is one game I have to force myself not to lavish with too many good words.