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.