Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Five or So Questions with Brendan Conway on Masks

Tell me a little about Masks. What has you excited about it?

Masks is my Powered by the Apocalypse game of young supers, figuring out who they are when the world keeps telling them different things. You'll play a young superhero type person, someone who's capable already, but not at the peak of their ability. Somebody who's still learning about who they are, and the world they live in, and trying to figure out where they fit, even as adults and peers are shouting at them constantly, trying to tell them exactly where that is. You'll be part of a team of others like yourself, who are of course also nothing like yourself, and who are all struggling to find their own places. And you'll be telling them who they are even as they do the same to you. Oh, yeah, and of course amid all this drama, tons of super-heroic action. Cars flying through the air, ice beams, absurd acrobatics, that kind of thing.

The key mechanical innovation that I'm playing with to get this tone across (and the one that has me most excited) is Labels. Instead of Stats, which are used in most Powered by the Apocalypse games, you have Labels. Stats are sort of objective measures of who you are. If you have a +3 Hard, then you're a hard guy. If you have -2 Volatile, then you wouldn't hurt a puppy. Stats are objective measurements of subjective qualities. Labels, on the other hand, are explicitly about how you see yourself. So they fluctuate a lot. As people tell you who you are, their words have impact on your self-image, and your Labels will change. As you decide who you are, your Labels will change. As a result, the things that you're good at and the things that you're bad at are never quite set in stone. The consequence of being a young person who doesn't quite know who they are yet.

Beyond the fact that I'm psyched to explore that game mechanic, and that I've had great fun testing it so far, and that I just get a thrill putting pen to paper and writing up more ideas for it...I'm super excited by the potential to create a system that consistently produces stories like ones I love. I am enamored of RPGs that set themselves up as story-engines, capable of consistently producing particular kinds of stories that you might find in movies, books, comics, whatever. For Masks, I wanted to create an engine that could produce stories like those in Young Avengers, Runaways, Avengers Academy, Teen Titans, and certain iterations of the X-Men. In particular, I've been watching Young Justice, and every time I think about how Masks could be the system that creates Young Justice style stories at your table, I get chills. That's what I want -- to be able to create my own Young Justice stories with friends. If Masks gets anywhere close to that goal, I'll be pretty happy.

How do Labels work, mechanically?

The caveat is that they're still in development, but here's how the Label mechanics look right now. There are six different Labels: Hero, Danger, Freak, Star, Radical, and Mundane. Each one is ranked just like normal Powered by the Apocalypse stats, from -3 to +3. Each one has a single basic move attached to it, and when you make that move, you'll roll 2d6 + the appropriate Label. All of this is par for the course in Powered by the Apocalypse games.

The difference comes with the seventh basic move, "Tell someone who they are." This move has you rolling+Influence, which is the amount of sway your words have over someone, to adjust that person's Labels. You'll have a different amount of Influence over each other Mask (PC). So if I'm playing Robin, I might have 0 Influence over Superboy because he doesn't really have anything staked on my opinions of him. I'll be rolling+0, then, when I tell Superboy that if he keeps acting the way he has been, he's going to get someone hurt! I'm telling Superboy that he's a Danger. If I get a hit, then my words have sunk in, and Superboy's Danger Label will go up by 1. As a consequence, though, another of Superboy's Labels will go down by 1. That'll be Superboy's player's choice. If, on the other hand, I tell Superboy that he's endangering people and heroes don't do that, then I might actually be telling Superboy that he is not a Hero. In that case, on a hit I can decrease Superboy's Hero Label by 1, and then Superboy's player can increase another Label by 1.

That's the basic idea, but then I've got a lot of other accouterments I'm hanging on it. For example, every playbook has six unique moves, one for each Label. When you are at +1 in a particular Label, you'll get access to that move automatically, but you'll lose access if you drop below +1 in that Label. As you advance, you'll gain the opportunity to permanently unlock those moves. Other advancement opportunities include the ability to add +1 to a Label -- no, you can't be guaranteed that it will stay higher, but it means that on the whole, your Labels ecosystem will add up to one point higher than before. I think of that as having developed a stronger sense of self on the whole -- you're still figuring out who you are, but you're growing in the sense that you are somebody. Another advancement opportunity is the ability to lock your Labels in place at the time you take the advance, to solidify your self-image. You can lock your Hero in at a +3, for instance, ensuring that no one can tell you that you aren't a Hero anymore -- you know that you are. Or, you could lock your Hero in when it's a -3 -- you're not a Hero, and you never will be, no matter what they tell you.

Tell me a little about the Paragons. How do they work and how do they help shape the game?

Paragons in Masks are folks like Magneto and Xavier. They are NPCs, the big, most important highlighted people in the world of these young Masks. They might be anything from teachers to idols to feared criminals to hated enemies, but one way or another they are critically important to shaping the world that the Masks live in.

At the start of play, you'll create three Paragons as a group. Each Paragon embodies one Label, denies another Label, and has a particular type. For example, you might wind up with a Paragon who embodies Radical (he thinks he knows how to change the world, himself), denies Danger (he would never harm anyone if he can possibly avoid it), and be of the Teacher type (with the move: Highlight inexperience). The exact details would be up to your group to fill in, with the GM asking questions about the Paragon until you all have a clear idea of that character. In this case, that Paragon might be Professor Charles Xavier.

After making the three Paragons, each Mask picks one to label as the most important to them. The idea here is to have the Masks with strong feelings already toward the iconic characters in their setting, the way that Young Justice characters like Robin, Artemis, and Superboy have strong feelings about Batman, Sportsmaster, and Superman. Or the way that the young X-Men have strong feelings about either Xavier or Magneto. The Paragons would then give the GM the equivalent of Fronts for Masks, as well as giving the GM a means by which to actually affect the Masks' Labels -- if you deeply care what Xavier thinks and then Xavier tells you you aren't ready to go out there and fight to save lives, you can rest assured it's going to affect your Labels.

The Paragons are there to be pillars, to be the major forces that you can deny, or accept, or join with, or run from. If young people define themselves in contrast to or similarity with the important people in their lives, then Paragons are those important people.

What is the biggest change, tonally, from other Powered by the Apocalypse games and Masks?

Tough question! I don't think that, tonally speaking, the Powered by the Apocalypse games can be easily lumped together. If I had to answer on the whole, the biggest thing I'd call out is the difference in one of the fundamental principles for Masks. While I still see Masks as a "Play to find out" kind of game, I also keep rephrasing it in my head as "Play to find out who the Masks are". Less of a focus on events and actions, per se -- more of a focus on identity and personality. To answer a bit better though, I need to call out some of those games individually.

Monsterhearts is a wonderful game about being a teenager where adolescence is depicted through the lens of being a monster, and it pretty much says whatever I could think to say about adolescence from that perspective. Masks is about being a teenager or a young adult, but with much more focus on figuring out who the heck you are and how the voices of everybody around you can affect you. So beyond just the obvious horror versus superhero fiction difference, I see the difference being between your internal struggle with yourself and with control and understanding and growing up, and your external struggle to hear what other people are telling you about yourself and internalize that helpfully and healthily, without losing yourself to other people's opinions. Or something.

Dungeon World is a wonderful game about fantasy fiction, particularly of the D&D vein. It pretty much does what Masks tries to do in functioning as an engine that will consistently produce stories of a particular variety. A key difference, though, is that I'm working to make sure that Masks has a heavily emotional component, something that produces what I have heard experts describe as "the feels". I don't think that DW is really all that worried about producing said "feels" in the same way, but that's appropriate to the type of fiction that DW is designed to emulate. DW is very heavily focused on action and awesome and cinematic coolness, while Masks is trying to have some of that action, along with its scenes of people yelling at each other while tears slide down their faces.

Apocalypse World is a wonderful game about scarcity and violence and human struggle and right and wrong. Perhaps the most important tonal difference here is about the badassitude of characters. In AW, you're the baddest asses around. You're really, really great at what you do, and NPCs are chumps. Chumps with guns, sure, but in general no NPC is ever really your equal. In Masks, though, you're young supers. You have enormous amounts of potential, and you can still do some pretty awesome things, but it's an explicit element of the game that you're not there yet. You're Robin, not Batman. Someday, you'll be in the big leagues if that's what you want (though who knows what side you'll be on), but right now? You're still learning.

There are a couple of supers Powered by the Apocalypse games that I can think of -- Worlds in Peril is one of the most prominent examples, having just finished a successful Kickstarter. I haven't really delved deeply into Worlds in Peril's rules, so I don't know for sure how exactly it works, but my impression of it is that it's focusing on superheroes generally, with a tone that reminds me more of the Avengers movie, or superhero comics in general. Masks is designed to delve deeply into a particular style of superhero story, not into superhero stories in general, so that alone is a substantial divide. I'm also noticing that Worlds in Peril has mechanics that are meant to reflect the physics of superhero stories, while Masks has mechanics that all feed into the fundamental idea of Labels and figuring out who you actually are. Of course, all that's a very superficial analysis.

Another superhuman Powered by the Apocalypse game is Mutanthearts, which last I'd heard was being worked on by some great people, and which I had the pleasure of playtesting. It deals with similar setting ideas to Masks, focusing on young mutants, and the issues facing them. It was great! I think that this is one of those interesting cases where Masks and Mutanthearts may be playing in very similar sandboxes, but they're not doing the exact same thing, and that means that they're elucidating different ideas about the genre. Mutanthearts, from my perspective at least, is way more about being a mutant and telling X-Men stories in all their glory, and it's GREAT at that. Masks is much more about just plain being a young super person, dealing with growing up and becoming a full adult super person. That has some X-Men elements in it, but not every X-Men story would fit Masks. Mutanthearts' focus on the drama of being a mutant teenager aims it at a different tonal target than Masks, so really what I'm saying is that if both games ever fully exist you should buy both.

Do you have a timeline for Masks, and if so, when can we expect to see it out in the wild?

Right now, I think I have a very strong core for Masks, a set of ideas and baseline rules that are solid. But I think I have a lot of additional work to do, along with a lot of playtesting, before I feel comfortable bringing it to a finished form. My goal, my hope of all hopes, would be that a year from now, I can put together a Kickstarter to make it a real thing. But in the mean time, I'll be playtesting it and working on it and talking about it.

But, y'know, it helps to have people asking me about when it will exist. Because then I feel more obligated to make that actually happen, and think about things like timelines.

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