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Off TopicOct 9, 2019 2:00 pm CT

Off Topic: The Masks RPG is one of the most fun superhero RPGs I’ve ever seen

There have been a lot of really great superhero RPGs in the history of the genre. There’s Superworld, one of the first and a classic loved by many old school gamers, even ones way older than me. Yes, that’s possible. Heck, Superworld is the game that George R.R. Martin and a lot of his writer friends played when they created the campaign that eventually inspired the Wild Cards novels, so in a way you can thank Superworld for the Game of Thrones phenomenon — or blame it, if that’s your deal. There’s Champions, which beat Superworld into print and which is still out there, spawning an MMO and everything. There’s Villains and Vigilantes and Mutants and Masterminds and Silver Age Sentinels and even more than I’m forgetting or just omitting for space purposes.

There are a lot of great superhero RPGs out there.

But Magpie Games’ Masks is one of the most fun, easiest to pick up and most narratively focused of such games that I have ever seen, and I love it. I love the heck out of it. Except replace the c and the k in heck with two l’s back to back, because that’s just how much I love it. I love it enough for two hockey sticks. At the time of this writing, I’ve spent more time just thinking about my new hero and the adventures she’s going to have than most people devote to staying alive, and I’ve enjoyed every second of the story of Avalanche, daughter of a world famous super criminal who loves her mom and her younger sister (who has super powers too, but who can’t use them safely yet) and it’s just everything. It’s just so much fun.

Young Heroes, We Were Once Like You

Masks uses the Powered by the Apocalypse rule system from the Apocalypse World RPG. What Magpie Games has done is taken that rule set and used it to tell stories that are absolutely dripping with what’s fun about comic books — the completely over the top drama, the big flashy superhero antics, fight scenes and more — and focused that all on what it’s like to be a new hero in a world that’s had superheroes for decades. This isn’t the MCU, where Iron Man was the first public hero since Captain America went in the cooler and Captain Marvel saved the world and then didn’t hang around to let many on it know she existed until 2018. This is the world of the comics, the best of them, distilled down and set in the wild and wonderful Halcyon City. You don’t have to use Halcyon City — the game I’m in has instead chosen Lake City, a thinly veiled Superhero version of Chicago — but the idea of Halcyon City, a bustling metropolis where any and all superheroic tropes can play out is central to Masks.

I’d never played a Powered by the Apocalypse game before this one, so I’m only speaking of how it works, but the character creation portion of the game is inspired. Part of it you do by yourself, but in a very real way the game sets up a collaborative effort to determine how your various characters ended up on a team together, with each players answering questions and fleshing out the backstory. In Masks, you play a young hero just starting out — think Young Justice or the Teen Titans here. There are various archetypes called Playbooks, and these let you home in on a character concept. Do you want to play the sidekick to an established adult hero, finally starting to head out and fight crime on their own? Or maybe you’re living a double life, hiding your powers and true identity from everyone around you? Or, you could be an escaped victim of a sinister experiment who gained superhuman abilities and uses them to fight for others?  Masks lets you do it, and with aplomb.

Making Your Way In The World Today

There are ten playbooks in the starting Masks, ranging from the latest inheritor of a family Legacy of being a superhero to a poor unfortunate soul twisted into something unrecognizable — perhaps a cyborg, or a big green monster, or a muck encrusted mockery of a man — and beyond, with more playbooks in different releases for the game. I’m playing a Scion — someone who has a famous superhuman parent like the Legacy or Protege might, but my parent is a supervillain, not a superhero, and I’m trying to move out of their shadow and become a hero.

The game mechanics are fun, they’re based on Moves and they’re flexible and open to interpretation, with only a few dice rolls needed to adjudicate. The game is easily playable with two simple six sided dice. You roll them, add any statistical modifiers you might have ranging from +3 to -2, and any result you get over a 6 is a hit, a success in Masks. You can Miss, Hit, or go beyond a Hit, achieving a more complete success. That usually requires a 10 or higher on 2d6, so it doesn’t happen too often. You can get a fairly complete look at the game’s systems here, it’s a two page PDF that handles most of the basics.

Love and friendship in the time of Cyborg Robot Geese

What I love about Masks is how flexible it is. There’s a Game Master, but they’re there to help the group tell an exciting story, and there’s just as much emphasis on interpersonal storytelling with the other members of your group of young heroes and the adult heroes who don’t really understand why kids are out there being superheroes in the first place. Your powers are just defined enough for storytelling purposes — for example, both the Legacy and my Scion have superhuman strength, she gets it from her Legacy inheritance while my Scion has Impressive Martial Prowess, which I chose to define as being superhumanly strong. I could have also said I was a Ninja, or that I have an assortment of fighting styles I downloaded, or that I can turn into rock or metal. As long as it fits the game, it works.

I think I knew I was going to love Masks when we sat down for our before the game session and defined how our team got together. The team Doomed wove the origin of their character into it, saying that we were all at a party where she tried reading from a magical tome for Instagram and ended up actually possessed by an eldritch horror, which the rest of us allied to defeat. Our team’s Protege and Legacy explained how we actually helped a lot of people but did a lot of property damage, and I contributed that I annoyed one of the city’s established heroes by having shown up in a suit of her old armor that my mom had stolen and was keeping as a trophy. (I needed a Halloween costume.) Now the adults don’t trust us, especially me. Going around the table coming up with these things as a group was tremendous fun, and it definitely made me want to play more of Masks.

If you want a fast, easy to play and focused game that’s relatable to any comic book fan, especially in the era of Young Justice, definitely pick up Masks. It’s honestly one of the most fun RPGs I’ve played.

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