Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Five Or So Questions MORE with Brendan Conway on Masks!

Today I have an interview with Brendan Conway on his game Masks, currently on Kickstarter and smashing through stretch goals! Full disclosure, I am writing for one of the stretch goals if it gets hit (and it might by the time this is posted!). I interviewed Brendan about Masks last July, and he had a lot to say about it - and he has plenty to say today! Settle in, because one thing Brendan is definitely good at is words - and as we'll see soon, superheroic teen tragedy.

What's new with Masks since we talked about it last year? What's the most exciting thing?
Masks has been changed, revised, edited, modified, and changed again. The core pieces are the same---shifting Labels, young superheroes, influence---but the specifics and the exact forms have changed heavily. The list of labels is down to five, and the basic moves have been refined and strengthened through lots of playtesting. Some mechanics didn't make the cut, and I added other new mechanics. I'm proud of how the game does an even better job of hitting the sweet spot that I wanted, but with much tighter pieces and parts. A lot of the unnecessary kruft was scraped off through experimentation and play. As an example, when I read the old interview we did and I see what I typed about Influence, I cringe. Influence is much simpler now---it's a binary thing now, where either you hold Influence over someone, or you don't. If someone holds Influence over you, it means that you care about what they say and think. It has some mechanical effects, and it's a signal to everybody involved that you care about their words---which matters a great deal when we're looking at the fiction and figuring out if their words could change your labels, or could provoke you into doing something not-so-good.

But the change I'm most excited about is actually the solidification of a setting. Early on, I was extremely hesitant to actually push for a defined setting---I like Metropolis, I like Gotham, I like Marvel's New York, and I wanted to let players make their own decision about which one to play in, instead of forcing them into one or the other. But Marissa Kelly and Mark Diaz Truman really pushed me on that point, and ultimately they were right. Not having any kind of definition to the setting made it harder for folks to dive on in, to have a strong starting point and focus on what the game's really about.

So now, Masks is set in Halcyon City. It's a big city, like New York, with plenty of superheroes and supervillains. It's been the epicenter of the super-powered world for a while now. And most importantly, Halcyon City has seen three relatively well-defined generations of superheroes before now:
- The Golden Generation, the first full generation of superheroes to publically exist, lower-powered, fought in the war, largely black and white morality, many rough spots and dark parts that weren't openly talked about at the time, but undeniably influential on everything that came after, with their statues littering the city. Many of them are dead or retired, now, but their influence still fills the city.
- The Silver Generation, much more powerful than the Golds, the first real cosmic superheroes, and the first superheroes to be much more devoted to fighting supervillains and strange monsters than crime or enemy combatants. They still carried on the black and white morality of the Golds, though. The Silvers are still largely around, and in positions of power and authority throughout Halcyon. When you see someone rocketing through the air to the scene of a giant monster attack, it's probably a Silver.
- The Bronze Generation, children of the Silvers. They never quite got a foothold in the superhero community at large, because the Silvers were so prominent, taking up too much space at the top. The Bronzes filled in spaces where they could find them, becoming extradimensional explorers, street-level vigilantes, and government agents.They were the first cynical generation of supers, the first generation to really question the entire concept of superheroes and the morality of their parents.

When you meet any given adult in Masks, they're going to be a part of one of the three generations. Different generations will act differently, hold different values and believes, make different moves. All of which is especially important to the PCs because they're the next generation---the fourth generation of supers. Not yet defined, but with three prior generations bearing down on them, trying to tell them who to be and what to do.

Exact details of Halcyon City are left up to your group to decide, sure---I'm not interested in telling you where, exactly, city hall is located. But this setting has been plenty to give Masks a real flavor all its own, and to get everyone into the action much more quickly and easily. Plus, it means I get to doodle in my notebooks about supers from the different generations, which is really my ulterior motive.

Let's talk a little about Labels. How do they work now?

There are five labels in the game---Danger, Freak, Mundane, Savior, and Superior. Each one can range from -2 to +3. The higher it is, the more it means that you see yourself in that light, and the more it will help you on its connected moves. For example, when you see yourself as a Danger (with a rating of +2), you're going to be generally better at directly engaging threats than somebody who doesn't see their self as dangerous at all.

Every label is still meant to be double-edged. Freak, for instance, is both about being unique, special, and powerful, and about being strange, weird, and abnormal. Savior is about being noble, protective, and defensive, and about being overly demanding, overprotective, stupidly noble.

That's important because your labels shift when people with Influence over you tell you about the world or yourself. Someone saying that what you can do is amazing and incredible might actually raise your Freak, just as much as someone saying that you're a bizarre mutant might raise your Freak.

Can you talk about a few examples of the major generational heroes?
Sure! I'll have a few examples in the book, and we're going to have a Deck of Villainy with a whole bunch of sample villains for use during play, but I also expect players to make up a bunch on the fly at their tables. Here are some examples of what I'm envisioning, though:

- Torpedo, the Explosive Man! A Golden generation hero with the ability to hurtle through the air at high speeds and slam into his targets with explosive force. Not very nuanced in his abilities, but he didn't have to be in his time---he just pointed himself at "the bad guys," and fired himself. One of the strange side effects of his power turned to be longevity---he wasn't affected by the high speeds and explosions of his power because of some constancy in his body, and that makes him resistant to aging. So he's actually still around and active to some extent, even though at this point, he really is not well-suited to the world around him.

- Starbright, a Silver generation heroine with cosmic powers from the stars themselves! She did some amazing things in her time, from fending off alien invasions to defeating giant monsters. She's still active today, one of the leading heroes of the city and a major member of the Exemplars, one of Halcyon City's oldest and leading superhero teams. She has strong feelings about what makes a hero, though, and has plenty of doubts about the kids she sees getting powers today.

- Mr. Everywhere, a Bronze generation "hero" (kinda). He's got multiplication powers, so he can make copies of himself, and they're all connected as part of a single mind. He turned that power, though, to secret agency activities. He singlehandedly can man an entire spy agency, and with copies of him undercover, he can learn information instantaneously. He's risen to the top of an important organization in the metahuman world, FLAG, and while he's still ultimately trying to act for the good, he's most likely to interfere subtly, or by manipulating more direct players. They call him Mr. Everywhere because at this point, some think his copies are everywhere, spread out in every major city in the world.

- Perfection, a young Modern heroine who might be a bit too effective for her own good. Perfection, in her superhero guise, looks like an all gold metallic figure with no real identifying features. Her eyes burn blue, and her body is completely smooth. She's tough and strong, capable of flight and even some forms of energy absorption, and she's good at being a hero. Good enough to earn a lot of praise quickly. That means it's gone to her head, though, and she hasn't yet found her limits; it's only a matter of time before she pushes herself too far, or butts heads with other young heroes.

And here are some villains:

- The Scarlet Songbird, a Golden generation roguish rascal of a villain. He was always all about theft, not about hurting anybody. He wore red and yellow, and carried his magic guitar. He'd play notes that could break walls, or put people to sleep, and he's always have a catchy line or a wink for a pretty bystander. He was young for his generation, and he never went totally out of the action, but he was also never that big in the city. He tried retirement, but he got bored. So now he's back out there with his guitar, trying one last time to earn a real reputation, even while he's aged and out of date.

- Dr. Infinity, a Silver generation villain, considered such only because that's when she first appeared in historical records. Dr. Infinity is an incredibly powerful time-traveling android, and she travels to dangerous time periods, hoping to cauterize what she calls "time-wounds." She rarely spends the time to explain, considering those around her to be of lower intelligence, and she seems to keep returning to Halcyon City in these time periods---something in this time must make it particularly unstable in her eyes.

- The Spider, a Bronze generation villain. He exists, but he's mostly rumors. Few have ever seen him. He's known as the Spider for sitting at the center of a massive web of criminal enterprise that spans throughout Halcyon City. He's one of the greatest crimelords Halcyon has ever seen, and no one even has his face on file---or if they do, they're not sharing. Tangling with the Spider is bad news. He doesn't fight like the other villains. He comes at you from an angle, where he can hurt you most.

- Cygnus, a Modern generation villain. She's concerned, first and foremost, with her image and her fame. She has an agent, someone who suggested to her that the name Cygnus would be a good brand to take on. She's gone through a phase of trying to be a hero, and now she's dipping into villainy, to see if it drives more attention her way.

How do you handle super-powered conflicts with villains and even between players?
The game is structured, like most Powered by the Apocalypse games, to work like a conversation, and conflicts are no different. Most of the moves that work when you're yelling at your teammates, or chilling at headquarters, will still work when you're in a fight. You can build up your teammate in the middle of a battle, just as you can when it's you and them alone with some pizza. You can defend a teammate from a terrible robot, just as you can when someone insults them.

The one move that is distinctly aimed at superheroic action conflicts is "directly engage". That lets you pummel threats, and gives them a shot back at you. Hitting and being hit most often manifests in dealing or marking conditions. There are five conditions in the game: Angry, Afraid, Guilty, Hopeless, and Insecure. Villains my have anywhere from one to all five of those conditions, depending upon how much of a threat they are. For PCs, marking a condition means that you're going to be at a disadvantage on certain moves. You can clear it by taking some action tied to the condition, like fleeing from something difficult to clear Afraid. For NPCs, when they mark a condition they make a move from a list of possible options. That means NPCs are never static, and inflicting "damage" on an NPC will always lead to some new thing happening in the fiction.

Villains definitely go out of the fight when they've marked all their conditions and need to mark another, but they can always give up before then---it's down to the GM to play the villains according to their drive, and to decide if it makes sense that they would give up. PCs go out of a fight when they've marked all their conditions and need to mark another, as well, but they might go out earlier as a result of the "take a powerful blow" move.

The one other move I'll flag for conflicts---the one that comes closest to saying "We're entering a battle now!"---is the team move. When your team enters battle together, the leader of your team rolls with some modifiers depending upon the situation. The move generates points of team for your team pool. PCs can use the team pool to help each other out during the fight, or to act selfishly and help themselves out. The key to this move, though, is that it signals, "Stuff is about to get serious!" It also means that the team has to tell you who their leader is, and that's always a great source of tension and interest.

What has been your favorite playtest moment?
Oh dear. A LOT to choose from. I'm going to give a couple, because I can't bring myself to choose just one. :)

- The team had found out that an evil giant warhammer was corrupting whoever was holding it, turning them into an enormous, brutish monster. They were desperate to take care of the situation by throwing the warhammer into a cement truck and solidifying the cement. One of their number, the Janus---a vigilante type---tried to do it, but rolled a miss, and it didn't look good. The hammer might have taken him over, driven him to attack his teammates even. Except then, every single teammate spent a team out of the pool to help, and altogether it turned the miss into a hit. The scene became one where the entire team, all together, lifted up the hammer and threw it into the concrete truck, and I could see it all on the comic book panel. It was perfect.

- In a different playtest, we were in the section where we were filling in what happened when the team first came together. It's one of the things you do during character creation, figuring out what the "Avengers moment" of the team was. And this group ultimately came up with a situation in which Dr. Noah---a villain they invented---had attacked a school with his Ark of Doom, a giant floating skyship. And he used his robotic Menagerie, a series of animal robots. Of course, they were in pairs. It was just...amazing. Creative, fun, delightful, and perfectly in keeping with the setting---not least because they talked a bit about how Dr. Noah was actually kind of washed-up, never taken seriously, and still desperately trying to get attention.

- In a third playtest, we had an epic confrontation with another kid, a bullied teen who had pulled out a summoning book and was about to bring a nightmarish creature into our reality. He thought it would help things, had convinced himself that this was the path to real heroism. They had to stop the summoning, and tried to do it by talking the teen down. It led to some great dramatic tension, yelling, and kind words, though ultimately he ran away in anger. In the process, they had to call upon the leading sorceress hero of Halcyon City, who did help them to stop the summoning...but afterward, she kidnapped one of the PCs who she deemed a danger, unable to control her powers. It was the perfect cliffhanger, leading into next issue. Loved it.

- Finally, it's tough to condense my ongoing over-a-year-long playtest into any one specific awesome moment, but one of my favorites had to be when the team got into one giant action scene with each of them in a different part, not quite intersecting, but not separate. One of them had agreed to help her ne'er-do-well thief friends to steal something from a building, and in the midst of the heist, a strange blue armored time traveler appeared and attacked her to erase her from existence---she was the Nova, and apparently a threat to time itself. Meanwhile, the Outsider, another time traveler from the far future, was investigating because the thieves were trying to steal a probe from the Outsider's own future. The Outsider was determined to stop it from happening. And then the Protege became involved when things got worse, ultimately engaging the blue-armored time traveler in battle and being thrown into a different future, where the world was destroyed. All the while, the Legacy was trying to free a family member from the Outsider's ship, which was trying to dissect her to send biological samples back to the future. It was complicated, a mess, full of drama, and wonderful.

Sorry...I could keep going! Every playtest has had a couple of these moments, and the wonderful characters I've seen players come up with have always been awesome to watch.

Thanks Brendan! Make sure to check out Masks on Kickstarter right now!

This post was supported by the community on patreon.com/briecs.

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