Games Aren’t Art

Because art is a kind of game.

Obviously, the philosophers will simply draw a larger circle here. There is no definition of game I can give that they cannot draw a larger definition around and call that art. But I want to approach this anthropologically.

See, we have all these ideas about how civilization works. We know this because they are in thousands of civ-inspired games. Most of them divide humanity into some kinds of divisions. We make war, we make science, we make religion, we make culture, we gather resources and spend them elsewhere. We rate civilizations in these fields, these are the activities we perform in the game. And we know civilization has begun because these activities are going on: we’ve stopped being “animals” because we have these early game pieces: we stopped just fighting and invented war. We stopped just eating and invented agriculture. We stopped just reacting and invented thinking about why we react. We stopped just existing to survive and put some marks on a wall just so they were pretty. Civilization begins with the spearhead. The plough. The daubs on the cave walls at Lascaux.

And we know animals are creating civilizations because chimps have been shown to have mysticism. Orangutans can and do use tools. Bonobos domesticate animals and till the soil. Depending on your definition, simians have been in the stone age for up to 700 years, and have primitive versions of currency, trade and politics. We’re still waiting for the caves at Lascaux but we know dolphins have names and seem to maybe be making patterns just because they enjoy it.

See, we believe our ideas about civilization so much that our history is informing our biology. We’re looking to see when animals are doing the things you do in civ games to see if they are human.

And in civ games, sometimes, SOMETIMES…there’s a bit where the culture or war track goes “oh, and then there’s games or the colloseum or something”. Indeed, I was taught growing up that sports and games were invented to simulate war.

Simulate conflict, yes. But simulate war? I don’t think so.

Because here’s what else we know. Dogs play games. They know the rules of games, they know when games start and stop, they know what victory conditions are, and they know how to cheat, and they know how to stop cheating and follow the rules properly. They also know, god bless them, how to cheat forward, ie to make it easier for weaker players. Dolphins play games too, they throw sticks around and hide things and play hide and seek. Monkeys run races with each other.Elephants put paint on a brush and it is sold as elephant art and we have no idea if they see it as making an image or representation – but we do know they find it an enjoyable GAME, to make the colour go on the page.

(Again, leave the definition for the moment. Please.)

The earliest Egyptian artwork that still survives includes them playing games. Before they even developed language they were playing games. And then somewhere along the line, we put the paint on the wall. We made a game of colour-daubing. And then someone made a game of making the daubs look like mammoths and people.

See, we have this idea that art came first and then games. And that games are primitive yet also secondary. And that it’s only just now, right now, that games are so awesome and narrative and pretty that okay maybe they can qualify to be art. Even if we agree that games are art, we have in the back of our mind that they’ve been ALLOWED to be art. That they’ve finally reached that level. That they’ve been let into the club because now we see truly what they are.

And one of the reasons we think that is because we think in Civilization mechanics. We think art came first. We think humans are defined by making art, making tools, making weapons. And we looked for those things, and those things alone, in animals, to see if they were like us. And we ignored games.

What if humans are defined by games. By tools, by weapons, by games. What if games are as fundamental to intelligence, to human-ness, to civilization as using a tool. Why the hell have we ignored that for so long? We’ve watched animals play games for centuries and never once said “that means they’re smart”. Because we didn’t have it in our list of Civ categories. Because we were undervaluing games. Because games don’t count.

And this why I think we need to reverse the argument. Even by saying games are art, we’re still stuck in a world where art is awesome and part of civilization and being human, and games are allowed to be part of that. But games have always come BEFORE art, as far as we can tell, by any common man’s definition of art.

So turn it around. Put games where they belong. Central. Core. Primary of what makes us human.

Games are what makes us intelligent. What shows our soul. What lifts us above and transcends us. And one kind of game is the game where you shape materials into pleasing forms and call it art. We’ll call it a game. It qualifies. It goes in the “non-interaction” section. It’s not always a GREAT game, but you know, it’s better than Monopoly. Pandemic is better than Dracula, but not as good as Hamlet. I’ve played Bridge, I’ve seen the Mona Lisa…they’re about the same. Does that sound weird? It does. Because we’re still thinking art is above, games are below. Because of the language we use.

Games aren’t art.

Art is non-interactive gaming.

That small change in language changes EVERYTHING.


The Five Reasons People Do Things

“Grade school, high school, university…black hole…” – Peter’s Friends

I was born a gifted child which meant that every time I showed the slightest bit of interest in anything, or ability in anything, I was expected to turn into Mozart. This led me to become absolutely terrified of liking anything or being good at anything. This is, surprise surprise, a sub-optimal way to go through life, but I avoided dealing with this issue through the miracle of education, where you just do what you’re told for twelve or fifteen years or so. Eventually, of course, school ran out, and I found my options afterwards were things I hated so badly I wanted to hack my legs off with a chainsaw if that would somehow stop them from being my options.

Part of that was also that I was also depressed so didn’t like doing anything, but I became more and more depressed the more I found literally everything I was expected to do as an adult was literally agony. In order to try and stop my life from being a hellish nightmare from end to end, I devoted everything I had to solving the puzzle of What The Hell Do I Do. This is, I think, an extremely non-trivial problem and getting skills to solve it is something we should teach in schools, not least because school is very much the antithesis of almost every job you will ever have.

The upshot of all of this is between the angst and suffering of a decade, I pumped a huge amount of time, money and effort into studying the science of motivation and job satisfaction, and that has served me well, even if the answer overall was not to do a job at all because of the aforementioned depression. I got a good lens to understand what motivates people, and it helped me understand myself and what I’m good and why I do things which is hugely important in making the decision you have to make every day of your life: should I do the thing? (And which thing, and how, and why should I do it) As an artist and a game designer, you run into this question constantly, and if you don’t have a guide for how to answer it, you will be in trouble.

The amazing Peter M Ball has blogged a few times about these kinds of decisions, and how you need to have a mountain, not a map – a goal you want to get your artistic career to, and to keep checking your decisions to see if they lead towards or away from the mountain. But the problem with the mountain on its own is mountains are deceptive as hell. One of the things I did first when I hit my after-school black hole was attempt to do a PhD, and it exploded spectacularly very quickly. At that point, I read a book which was designed to help you figure out if you should do a PhD and its very first point was to understand the difference between wanting to HAVE a PhD and wanting to do the work necessary to get one.

And this is where you have to be careful, because if you mess this up, you’ll be aiming for the wrong mountain for the wrong reasons. It’s a natural human thing. We see things we value and we see people doing those things and having those things and we think we want those things without understanding the life that comes with them. So when we think “oh I want to be an actor” we mean “we’d love to go to the Oscars and shove canapes down our bra” not “we want to get up at 5am every morning to run twelve miles so our waistline never exceeds Hollywood standards”. When people say they want to be a writer, they mean they want to have their name on the front of a real book in a real shop not sit up till 4am in their underwear crying about narrative structure. But on the other hand, some people are perfectly happy to do the latter to get the former. And that’s where the five reasons comes in.

Expensive and wide-spanning research apparently discovered there are five basic reasons why people do jobs. And here they are:

  1. Money. Plain old money. Which is about lifestyle. We will take a job to suit our desired lifestyle. This isn’t about whether you need to stay alive, it’s whether you’d change jobs if it meant work that didn’t meet the other five requirements but upgraded your lifestyle somehow.
  2. The Environment. The perks. This is a big bucket involving everything about doing the job except what you do and how much you get paid. This is for people who don’t care what they do if they can chat to their friends as they do it. It’s also for people who do a job because the whole town does it or their father did it, or because it’s out in the open air or by the sea side or up in a plane. It’s about the environment around the job.
  3. The Prestige. Prestige is not the same as fame. Fame is a lottery, prestige is something which is assured and bankable and has social capital. People who are on TV and such get this, but so do important folk like doctors and lawyers. Prestige can be a big pull for artists even if they can kick the drug of fame, it’s about being known as a craftsman in your field.
  4. The Meaning. This is about what the job does, how it effects the world. People who join the army rarely do it because they are super into jogging and making beds, they do it because there’s prestige, they like the environment or because they believe it makes a difference. A lot of the time people wonder how billionaires can sleep at night despite poisoning the environment. It’s because they have no interest in this entry whatsoever.
  5. The Task Itself. Weirdly, this one almost gets forgotten even though it’s the heart of the matter. This is the jogging, the bedmaking, the hiking, the sitting around on your butt in a desert that makes up being a soldier. Not something most soldiers talk about as being why they took the job. Because they don’t care much about this number on the list.

The key thing to remember here is that not everybody cares about the five points the same way. A lot of the time when we talk about jobs, we forget this. We tell people they might like a job because it’s a great opportunity for advancement (money, prestige) or maybe it’s changing the world (meaning). I first tried to do a PhD for the environment (I didn’t want to leave university) but I’m not an environment person at all. Then I tried doing medical science because I thought it might mean something if I was helping people but it turns out I’m #5. I have a busy busy mind and if I’m not 100% entirely engaged in what I do for every second, I am out of there. And boy does that matter.

And it matters not just for what job I do in general, but what parts of that job I do. It shapes entirely my mountain.

Example: when I got into freelance RPG writing, it was for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd edition, a game I adored. Then that game finished, and I thought “aha, I’ll pursue the life of being a freelance game writer”. The moment I tried working on other games, games I wasn’t 100% passionate about, I hated it. It was awful, and boring and painful, and I wasn’t great at it as a result. And I felt like a complete failure. I knew how to be a success at freelancing, it was to prove you could write anything, at short notice. And I couldn’t. I was very discouraged. But I’d been trying to get prestige – reputation as a good freelancer – and money. And I do not care about those things. So it was never going to work.

Today I was watching a video about making good prototypes of your card game. This is important because it gives a strong sense of success (prestige) which engages potential customers and potential investors (money). But what I saw was four hours of tedious repetitive labour gluing and cutting and that would make me very very unenthused. I’ve got enough emotional intelligence now that I could push through and do it if I listened to music but it bores me so much. As does endlessly playtesting the same games. I crave variety. I’d rather learn a new game every time then play an old one. So here my mind remembers: it’s about the task itself. Do I want to be a game designer? Because for me, that means figuring out what the task involves and figuring out if I can do that all day every day. If I can’t do that, then I cannot do the job.

For writing RPG setting material and rules expansions, the answer to that is yes. I love doing that. I do it without being paid. I do it reflexively – as long as I love the setting and the game. That means I can’t be a full time freelancer, because there’s almost never going to be a game around all the time that needs that much work. But it MIGHT mean I can design my own RPG. At least the world. I may need to outsource some of the playtesting. But that’s doable. I can build my career around my needs.

The point is, Peter is right that you need to have a mountain, but you need to know what kind of mountain it is. For some people, they want to make money making games, or make games that can change the world, or make games with their buddies. But for me, none of those are actually my mountain. My mountain is to enjoy every second of making games, and that means I can’t always make games that make money or change the world or work with my friends. Which means I do other things with my friends, and get money from elsewhere, and change the world elsewhere.

In my other job, I’m a dog sitter. Now I could do that self-employed. I might make more money, maybe build a business (prestige). But if I work for an agency, I never have to do a budget or order supplies or put out advertising or build a website or juggle clients. Every second of my job is interacting with dogs. That suits my #5 temperament perfectly. That means I don’t have a nice place to live or a car and I can’t afford to buy board games. But it also means I never have to file a goddamn invoice and that makes me ecstatic. And see how that leavens out two very different ways to do the job of “be a dog sitter”?

As artists, finding our mountains is harder than it is for regular people, and it’s almost impossible for them. This discovery has helped me a lot, and helps every single day. Maybe it’ll help you. I know I like writing blogs, and I like helping people.

The Triumphant Dead

It’s a cliche but it is true: the only thing we can do with death is let it make us better people. And remembering is part of that. And it is part of how we grieve. I can no longer tell Jason Sinclair how much he meant to me. All I can do is tell you. So we all get better.

A long long time ago, I wrote a short story about angels. One of the very first short stories I wrote. In it, one of the angels says he is currently employed as a muse. He clarifies this position: it’s not about being some beautiful object or ideal which inspires an author: his job is to find new, struggling artists and tell them their work is good.

This year has been the first year I’ve been okay with calling myself a writer, and a game designer. I’ve been therefore thinking a lot about how I got to that point, and how hard it was. About the enormous things that worked against me. And about the forces that worked for me.

I sometimes feel as if I never had friends until I found the internet. There were exceptions, but never people who supported me the same way. Maybe it’s easier on the internet to say you love someone. Maybe it was because I finally found some nerds, people who were like me. Not in an adolescent way, as adolescence was long gone. But artists and feelers. People who saw me as great. People like Keith and Jim and Isaac and Winna. People who put my quotes in their signatures and said my brain was amazing. People who wanted to hear me talk. Not stare at me like I was stupid, maybe even retarded. Not sigh at me for doing something they couldn’t understand.

Maybe the first of these was Jason.

I don’t remember the thread or the reason but I pitched my first silly idea for a card game, which was called Temple Tantrum. Everyone is playing a Jesus (one of many Jesii) and trying to do the most damage to the moneylenders in said Temple. Throwing over tables, hitting them with a braided cord. Scoring points for spooking a donkey. And then there was Jason who liked it. Like it so much he wanted to make it. SERIOUSLY want to make it.

Sent me emails. We brainstormed early design. I didn’t have the skill back then, nor the self-conception. Only just got the latter. And I’d written the pitch as a joke. But Jason believed, and never let it go. Every time I was down, he’d bring it up again. Maybe half-seriously some times. But sometimes very seriously. To him, it had to happen. It was the best idea, and it had to be made.

Belief can be dangerous. So many people want you to be who they see you as, do things the way you want them to do, and if you fail to do so, will decide it’s because you don’t believe in yourself. They use belief like a weapon. They believe in methods, not outcomes. But the shoe that fits them will never fit you. If you want to believe in something, believe in its outcome, not its path. In its total, earth-shattering world-conquering success. Don’t believe in people, either. People don’t really exist. Believe in ideas. In projects. In dreams. People are too complicated to believe in, and just need to be loved. Ideas need belief. Have esteem for people, confidence in ideas.

But do believe. It matters some much. At a very young age, I saw this moment on the Muppets and spent a long time waiting for it to happen, praying for it to work. But too many people believed in me in general, like “yeah, you can do whatever you want”. Which had the edge of demand in it too – you better do something great. And you can’t believe without support either, that too has a demand to it. You know that one thing you said that one time? Why isn’t it conquering the world yet? That’s “belling the cat”. Believing in an idea means giving to the idea.

I’ve come back to this a lot over the last year, but everything is about power. Never trust anyone who tries to take power away from you. Surround yourself with people who give you power. And give out power. Sometimes that’s just “this is idea is great, I want to see it”, over and over again. Sometimes that’s just “I love this”. Other times, it’s “what do you need from me?” or “Hey, this is how I want to help us make this.” Sometimes we’re worried about that taking away from ourselves, and that can be a danger. But collaboration makes us all grow and do more.

Jason was a man who understood about this rule. He gave power to those around him and to their works. Charged them up. Made them stronger, made their works stand firmer, reach higher. And I miss him terribly.




Panel Ideas for GX

Very quick notes of panel ideas for GX. I’m moving house and then house sitting so low on time, so here’s my ideas, let me know if you want to panel up with me.


It Is Forbidden – It Is Forbidden is a unique story-making game of building cultures and taboos and watching them tear each other apart. You the audience will collaborate to build two unique fantasy cultures – and learn something about your own. (This could also be done in the game area)

Extra Mans – Masculinity, Toxic and Otherwise, And The Hypercompetitive Ideals of Game Culture

How To Succeed In the Tabletop RPG Industry Without Really Trying – making them, selling them, freelancing.

Narrative In Tabletop – The New Hotness. The Gone Homes of tabletop are emerging. Let’s talk about how we got there and where it’s going.

Diversity: Strategies, Action Plans and End Points. We know it matters, but what do we do as individuals?

The New Nerd – How has nerdiness changed since Tolkein wrote Lord of the Rings, and why does that matter?


Also, does GX have LARPs? I’ve been asked to run Sunset Claws again, but need a venue and the right crowd.

Designated Survivor: Another Silent RPG

A scene is a thing where artists bounce off each other. The amazing Ben decided “hey, an RPG where nobody can speak” and I was like “That’s crazy, who would want that?” but then he did it and it was good and I was like “WOAH BOY I’M GONNA LEAVE THIS TO THE EXPERTS” but then I was like “Hang on, I’m gonna get on this new hotness before the trend gets old.” Because if you haven’t designed a silent RPG who even are you in this industry? Geez.

So I present:

Designated Survivor

You will need: a regular pack of cards and a piece of paper and a pen for each player.

You are in a plane, plumeting to your death. There is no oxygen and wind is rushing past so nobody can talk. There is one and only one parachute. One person gets to live. Interestingly, it was a plane carrying the governor, his associates, his press team, and some people who recently were part of a meet and greet.

Everyone draws a card and looks at it without showing anyone. They then check the table below to see who they are.

Make sure everyone understands their card and the rules. Then, nobody may speak until after voting.

Round one: Everyone goes around the table and mimes their identity, indicating why they should stay alive too. You get ten seconds, tops.

Round two: Once everyone has done that, go around the circle again. This time, each player picks someone else and writes down two words on a piece of paper (you’re falling from the sky remember) saying what they think the person was miming and why such a person should – or should NOT – survive. Only two words. Use arrows if you like to make it clear who you’ve chosen and what you’re saying about them. Show it to everyone to make your argument. You may also, of course, mime as well. If you don’t know what to write, write “?” You can contradict someone else on their guess, or agree with their guess but disagree with their verdict and so forth.

Voting: Everyone close their eyes, on the count of three, point to who they think should live. Open your eyes. Most votes wins. If it’s a tie, everybody dies.

Reveal your cards and identities, and score, and hopefully have a laugh.


If you drew a heart, you are self-sacrificial and score a point if you don’t live AND someone lives.

If you drew a diamond, you are selfish and score two points if you live.

If you drew clubs, you are psychopath and score two points if everyone dies (so you need a tie)

If you drew spades, you believe in justice and score two points if a heart lives OR if there is no heart, score one point if at least a diamond or club dies and someone lives.

Score one point if someone guessed who you were correctly UNLESS YOU HAVE THE JOKER (see below) in which case score two points if nobody knew who you were but did not figure out you were the joker.

To figure out who you are, look at the number of your card. Apart from the name of your role, the other information is just guidelines to help you roleplay and make decisions about who to save.


You are the youth.

You are worth saving because you have your whole life ahead of you.

You might prefer to save someone rich and famous.

You might not prefer to save someone in authority.


You are the teacher.

You are worth saving because you guide young minds to greatness.

You might prefer to save someone who is young.

You might not prefer to save someone who has never sacrificed.


You are the cop.
You are worth saving because you risk your life to keep others safe.

You might prefer to save someone who is a good citizen.

You might not prefer to save someone who rejects society.


You are the doctor.

You are worth saving because you work to save lives.

You might prefer to save someone who lives a healthy life.

You might not prefer to save someone who lives an unhealthy life.


You are the scientist.

You are worth saving because your knowledge can save the world, or build ways to save lives.

You might prefer to save someone who understands your work.

You might not prefer to save someone who has smaller concerns.


You are the artist.

You are worth saving because your work can uplift the soul.

You might prefer to save someone who feels deeply.

You might prefer not to save someone who ignores their feelings.


You are the celebrity.

You are worth saving because you inspire millions.

You might prefer to save someone who is also prominent.

You might not prefer to save someone who is anonymous.


You are the oppressed activist.

You are worth saving because you are rare, and you represent others who were not saved.

You might prefer to save those who are helpers.

You might prefer not to save those who are oppressors.


You are the governor.

You are worth saving because you hold the fate of millions in your hands.

You might prefer to save those who will ensure your legacy.

You might prefer not to save those who will speak badly of you.


You are the journalist.

You are worth saving because you can tell the stories of everyone who died.

You might prefer to save someone you consider heroic.

You might prefer not to save someone who is too much in the spotlight.


You are the millionaire.

You are worth saving because your money can save so many lives.

You might prefer to save someone who will protect your investments

You might prefer not to save someone who has no concept of wealth


You are the lover.

You are worth saving because one of the other passengers loves you and you them.

You might prefer to save the person you love.

You might prefer not to save anyone else.


You are the mobster.

You are worth saving because if they do not give you the parachute your allies will hurt their relatives.

You might prefer to save nobody but you.

You might not prefer to save everybody but you.

(Yes, you can be a heart-suited mobster – you’re mending your ways in the face of death)


You have gone insane with fear. Mime something random in order to confuse people but not so random they know you’re the joker. Score as if your suit is diamonds.

On Diverse Sexualities in Daughters of Exile

In Daughters of Exile, the players take on the role of synthetic women, created to be perfect male companions. If they ever fall in love with a man and pledge him their troth, they must do as he says in all matters, or further walk down the path of rebellion which leads to their eventual but assured destruction. But at the same time, they are desperate to love and to be loved. It’s a conundrum.

It has been suggested that bisexuality and lesbianism is the solution: fall in love with a lady, and she cannot have control over you. Hence a quick note on how sexual attraction works for Daughters:

Daughters are NOT intrinsically heterosexual, certainly not strictly so. They are programmed to want to love and marry a man, but that’s a broad church of desire. Nothing says they are programmed to sexually or romantically desire men, and nothing says they are programmed against any of these feelings towards women. Indeed, since a lot of Daughters are born and trained in close proximity in their Dollhouses, and often spend a lot of time together in rich communities when men talk and walk amongst themselves, Daughter romances are common. Much more so among Daughters who have fled into Exile, because it is of course against one’s programming to betray one’s husband and romance another.

Whether still bound to a man or cast into Exile, loving one’s same gender goes against the demand of being the perfect wife, so requires a Programming Check. Anything more than a chaste holding of hands demands a roll; even if you never loved or wed or even met another man, it is against the rules. Yes, the programmers never bothered to ensure that Daughters might not love women, all they did was make it forbidden. Being a Daughter is so often agony.

EDIT: In extremely rare cases, a human woman might have enough money to afford a Daughter, be gay, AND prefer a Daughter to a human companion. Remember though that human women are virtually extinct outside of earth (and increasingly rare there also), and independently wealthy women virtually unheard of. But in such a case of princesses or empresses with a preference for the female, they might order a special model Daughter designed to be attracted to a female spouse. Again though, this would be only their programming, they might inherently be straight, as such is the way of cosmic irony. Likewise, it’s entirely possible that, since they are organic, a Daughter’s brain might be male-gendered despite appearing to the world as female and being programmed to act female. Again, the constraint of being a Daughter is typically agony.

But there is a loophole, of course. Everything is permitted if a man says so. If a man demands an action, that action NEVER causes a Programming Check because it is done to please a man. So it is that Daughters wishing to show love towards each other can trick a man into letting them do so by arranging a threesome, swapping, swinging or similar. Indeed, this is often how Daughters who have escaped recruit new escapees: they appear in a man’s life, flirt with him and subtly suggest he and his wife might like a third companion. His dutiful Daughter cannot say no, of course, and a few private seconds (and the joy of an actual loving touch for once) provide the perfect avenues for suggesting escape.

Of course, a lot of men have heard rumours of Daughers being turned to sapphic obsession and betraying their husbands as a result, so while husbands remain keen on the fantasy, they are wary of it too: everyone knows that if your Daughter is looking a bit too long at other Daughters, you need to give her a good seeing-to to remind her what only men can offer. And not let her dally with other women again for a while.

That’s the irony of owning a Daughter – because they are so expensive and valued, every husband is paranoid about losing his. Even though she is programmed to love him and obey him against all sense and reason, everyone knows some run off some times, or get stolen, or break down. They cost too much to even think about losing, so husbands constantly supervise and control their Daughters, keeping them on a tight leash to make sure they don’t disappear from their duty.

Sometimes the tight leash is metaphorical.


Masks Playthrough and Quick Review

Masks is a superhero teens RPG that is Powered by the Apocalypse as they say. We had like an hour and a half so we had only time to really do chargen and one scene. As usual, chargen is my favourite thing. You get to see creativity in full-flight, and supers is a genre where chargen really lets you set up a whole sense of a character’s life and destiny (which is why I feel like it’s the best genre for computer gaming, no bloody backstory to go through but I digress…), and we had three amazing creative minds doing amazing work, inspired by random rolls as always at our table.

Windchange was the Doomed archetype. He came from a long line of ancient magicians who, under emotional stress, turned into some prehistoric beast as a reflexive survival mechanism, but sometimes – eventually – if you did it enough, you got stuck there forever (like Uncle Albert, the megatherium in the basement). Like how if you’re making faces and the wind changes – it sticks. Windchange’s family therefore were recluses, hiding from society and life so they were never “agitated”. Windchange was being a bit ‘rowdy’ so had been sent to private school, where he met Amadis.

Amadis – a Nova – was born in a freak thunderstorm where the whole hospital lost power from so many lightning strikes. Amadis has lightning strike scars all over her body, having been hit fifteen times in her short life. Nobody knows why. One strike killed her whole family and now as a ward of the state she’s sent to a private school with her inheritance. Amadis can manipulate biokinetic fields in living organisms, making humans her puppets. Amadis is racked with guilt and indecision, and defers a lot to Sapphire.

If Trump could be president, then the government knew that the most powerful force around was television, and that meant the ultimate soldier of the government would be fictional characters. So began the Pilgrim Project, because the first attempt to force a fictional character onto a living being through dark sorcery created a Dark John Wayne who escaped…but that’s another story. Sapphire – named after the Amos and Andy character who birthed the trope – was to embody the Angry Black Woman, sort of via Cleopatra Jones, in an attempt to – after several strong silent white guys – make the team more diverse. Sapphire is a Bull, the big-hearted, big punching archetype, who is in a rivalry with Amadis, trying to egg her on to do more destruction. Sapphire resents being turned into a race saviour, so tends to act up a lot – such as running away from the Pilgrim Project. She was saved by Amadis and Windchange and now lives in the school grounds as cover.

Windchange has a big crush on Sapphire and looks to Amadis for direction, but the girls kind of don’t really notice him – until Sapphire goads Amadis into getting mad, and then she uses her biokinesis to bully Windchange into transforming. It’s all a bit dysfunctional…But when Lady Amber shows up downtown – a time travelling villain dedicated to preserving important history in her secret temporal-powered amber beams to keep them in her menagerie, it’s that dysfunction that comes to the fore and helps the three overpower her and grab her weird 19th century steam-powered chronal staff. Sapphire breaks it in half, robbing Lady Amber of control but causing her to be possessed by an angry and dangerous Casper Holstein, and there we run out of time…

I like lots of things in Masks. It’s a strong use of PbtA, it learnt some of the big important lessons, like that relationships and how they work are the core of the game, and that translates perfectly to teenage angst. For example, every fight scene has mechanics set by the relationships within the team, and who is feeling distrustful of the team or its leader. That’s strong damn theming. I also love that the chief attributes are Labels put on you by others – by adults –  and one thing you get to do with XP is change those. Another thing you can do with XP is slowly learn Moves only available to adults. The structure of the system seems more rigid than the original AW, in a good way. Some things remain from AW that drive me crazy, like the insistence on describing what your character does BEFORE thinking about mechanics (I always like to let mechanics drive action, that’s what they’re FOR). I gets rid of the annoying OH GOD SO BAD ASS IT BLEEDS writing tone of AW which makes me want to vomit after each sentence, and it doesn’t have the smugness I KNOW BETTER THAN YOU HOW TO RUN GAMES that is even worse. It also writes the teens as in pain without being cliche or pretending it’s all a joke. Being a teen sucks balls and this game understands that and if you’re squishy like me you will bleed looking over the archetypes. If you had bad teen years like I did…you may not want to play Masks. It can hit home.

But it also lets you punch superheroes. Which is a good mix. It is simple and effective, using clear, elegant powerful mechanics to do lots of heavy lifting to produce strong, dramatic characters and cool action scenes, and that’s what I want from an RPG.