So a Sunday or two ago, I had a decent amount of my family gathered together, so I offered to run a game of Masks. I’m not sure if I properly stated that this was a practice run for me, but we gave it a go. I learned A LOT in our, what, 2 hour session? It worked a lot better than book learning and I figured out crucial things in how to present the information in the future.
First, got to say, loved it. It was a lot of fun, even though I was barely treading water. I really like the way the game encourages players to take the world into their own hands. We have some crazy lore in our superhero world, although I need to ask a few questions that didn’t come up the first time.
It’s not a game for large parties, though. I had 6 players or so, and that was too much for us being new. A more experienced group, ones with practice sharing and holding the Spotlight, could accommodate a large group, but I think a smaller group will be a bit easier to manage.
I had trouble teaching the game, in part because of my unfamiliarity, but the fact that each playbook is so different didn’t help at all. Handing the players the playbooks and saying “go, do” did not give great results. My script for a new game looks so good, even unfinished. My next session will be much better.
Playbooks are not classes
Probably the biggest swing in my understanding of Masks is in the playbooks. They look like “Classes,” and yeah, there might be some similarities, but that’s not what they really are. They are actually story archetypes. Sure, the Doomed story has them gaining powers from their doom, but they can have any powers. This is not a game of mechanics and specific powers, it’s about telling the story. If you’re the Legacy, the story is about you continuing the legacy. If you’re the Janus, it’s about the duality of the mask. Each choice of hero highlights a different story that you represent.
This is poorly explained, both in the book, on the playbooks, and so on. It’s a crucial piece of information and one of those things that makes this game unique. Altering my script to take advantage of this changes the presentation a lot. You’ll probably have the basic idea of your character before you choose a playbook.
Also, it’s super important for the GM to know what they need to know from the playbooks. My dad made a Doomed and it wasn’t until I was reviewing the sheets afterward that I realized how much I needed to know and ask questions about this character. (I don’t recommend the Doomed until you’re experienced with the game, or have time to commit to it.)
Abilities as potential, not limitations
When I was talking last week about Mechanics, did I mention that some games don’t care what your powers are and what the exactly do? Masks is one of those. You can write down any ability on your sheet, as long as it makes sense in the narrative. You want to fly? Sure. How are you doing it? Because knowing that your powers are gravity control and you fly by falling upwards is more important to your GM than the fact that when we imagine this scene, your character is hovering over the battlefield, close enough to punch bad guys, but not touching the floor.
There might be times when the fact that you fly matters, but, as GM, I can negate that advantage any time I want. The Catapilla Crew has equipped all 8 of their goons with jet packs, perhaps, or Dr. Foresight’s latest creation attacks foes from the top down. Flight is a minor thing.
Now, if you want something powerful, like rewriting reality, well, there are layers of that. Changing a door from locked to unlocked, or causing someone’s shoelaces to be tied together, small stuff. Try to rewrite a villain into a hero? That’s Unleashing Your Powers, and I have some nasty Moves available if you get less than a Superior Hit. (I might do some Soft Moving anyway.)
But, get this, if you want to rewrite reality? That’s a thing you could do in this game.
What is a hit?
The exact definition of a hit is important to this game. It’s apparently easy to get terminology confused, so I submit this chart
In general higher numbers are better. And you can go above and below these numbers by a bit.
There’s no commentary about this, except that Take a Powerful Blow inverts the numbers, and makes it so the players want a low number. I don’t know if there’s anything to be done about it. I’ll check some other PbtA and see if they have any similar backwards Moves.
Actually, on reading through part of their supposed “Actual Play,” the idea that you mark potential when you miss with a Move makes the orientation of Power flow makes some sense. Idk, still strange.
The Combat Conversation
Wrapping my head around how combat was supposed to function was not easy. I still don’t know that I’ve grasped it. The problem is that the book doesn’t want to limit your options by saying “Do it this way” (because some people treat those types of examples as “Don’t NOT do it this way”) so there are no examples. But I always feel super nervous about stepping into brand new ground. I try to take those steps slowly, which isn’t possible in the middle of combat.
Villain building aside, Masks looks like it wants to use a concept called the Spotlight, which is that a character is in the main focus and takes turns until a good break point or something worthy of a transition happens. Which is a really cool idea, but if you haven’t explained it, trying to get that feel to work right can be tricky, especially if your players are used to order.
Around this point, I shelved this article for a few days and ran a second session as I wasn’t prepared to run D&D. 2/3rds of my group were able to attend.
Character creation still wasn’t quite right. I’m not sure what it is. I think I want CC to end up like a writer’s room, where everyone is interacting and tying their stories together. Instead, for the first half, the players were hunched over their character sheets filling things out silently except for where I was calling for details.
I dunno. Maybe this is a forlorn hope of mine. Maybe I didn’t give people enough warning time and they were too busy trying to understand Mask’s sheets. It could be the players, the group, the game, me, I don’t know. It could be my head cold, even.
There were other parts of the game that weren’t great. I probably said yes in places I should have said no, but I think I did the combat much better, this time around.
The Combat Conversation Part 2
Knowing what I know now about the Spotlight, it was easier to tell the players about, and to run with. I don’t think it’d be usable for large tables (aka, my bread and butter) but for a smaller table, I think it worked very well.
I’m still shaky on a lot of how I’m supposed to do things in combat. I did move someone’s labels, and I responded to misses with moves of my own, but it still wasn’t natural. I think I would have to run it a lot to make it feel natural. It’s tough going from a game I’m transcending to one I’m barely ascending. I wish I could instantly transcend this system and run a game without thinking, but I can’t. That’s not how learning a new system works.
I think I did a great job of keeping the action going on my second run through. I was more considerate of the fact that every attack deals some “damage”, and I even took an opportunity to shift someone’s labels.
I think the key behind combat in Masks, (maybe the whole PbtA? Who knows?) is to describe the action as if it was a comic book, then use the rules to describe what that means. Essentially, the rule system is an interface layer between The Fiction and the Players. Which is probably true for any game, really, Although as I think of it, in D&D probably spend more time in the Interface than I do in the Fiction. I’m not sure if that bothers me or not, but it’s something I’ll be watching out for.
Two Mechanics Remaining
There are a lot of mechanics that I’m probably misusing in Masks, but Influence and Team are high among them.
Team isn’t a mechanic under my control, mostly. It’s a well, team mechanic, and it’s their version of the aid mechanic. I think in a long term game, Team may be a valuable resource and a crafty GM will find ways to drain and fill that pool repeatedly.
Team is a dumb name, however. In my family game, we called it Unity and that worked really well (except where we hadn’t renamed it in all the playbooks). That worked okay.
The thing about the game is that Masks has built a system that allows more direct helping than any other game I have EVER seen. The Defend Move means that you can jump in the way of any attack, even one instigated by your ally’s careless offensive. This is a HUGE game changer, and yet, I haven’t seen anybody use it.
Influence is also pretty big, but only if you’re using it right. I think I haven’t grokked it to the point where I can explain it well to my players. I think if used right it’d be an amazing way to represent teen angst and the pushing and pulling of emotion, but I don’t know how to convey the concept to the players.
Matt Makes a Conclusion
I think I know what I need to do for Masks. I need to split the game into 2 parts.
The first is the Long Game. This is for players who commit with me to have a game that lasts for months. Sessions long, at least. Character creation is done as per any RPG, with people making complex characters, with relations and connections. Probably bring in my Flawed system, to insure a proper connection to the world.
The other half of the project would be to create the Short Game, a version of Masks that has the character creation stripped until it is barebones and easy enough to play in just a few minutes of explanation.
Character Creation is probably the part of the game that rankles me the most. I’m fine with spending time on a game that will take a long time to play out, but when I’m running something small and introductory, I want to be able to introduce the unique properties of games like Masks without having to spend forever on the rules, explaining differences as they come up to the people who manage to read them first.
So what are the core elements of a Masks character? The basic moves, first of all, that all characters share. After that, it goes to the Labels, and the Conditions. I’ll need the Potential and the Advancements, but I’m probably going to have to go through the list of Advancements and pare it down away from the ones that acknowledge playbooks.
Abilities will get a change, because I’m not happy with how they’re presented. They feel like limitations and I think they hamper creativity, instead of bolster it. I would change the abilities section to four questions:
- How do you normally attack?
- How do you normally protect yourself?
- How do you use your abilities outside of combat?
- How do you use your abilities to assist your team?
These 4 categories, Offense, Defense, Utility, and Teamwork should build a good picture of what you do.
In addition to the Playbook specific stuff, I might scrap Influence. I don’t know how much of the remaining material mentions it. Ideally, if I could pare down the game so the player’s page was a single page, it would make this a game well worth having in my back pocket to run in emergencies.
After running 2 sessions of Masks, I can safely say it’s a good game. I think my main problem comes from trying to teach players. If you have a group of friends willing to commit and learn together, I think this might be a great game for you. It’s a bit unwieldy for an Instant RPG showcase game, but if I make the Abridged Edition, that might fix that.
My focus is going back D&D for a bit, while I tinker with Masks Abridged behind the scenes. Having messed with some Powered by the Apocalypse, I’m curious about other games with the system. Maybe I’ll do more with those (I did buy Monster of the Week before Masks, and I haven’t played it yet…).
Anyway, that’s it for this game for now.