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Masks Unbound - first impressions

I got the Masks Unbound release (as of 10/11) and read through it a bit. Here's some early thoughts, with emphasis on our campaign. What is this?  It's basically Fiasco-style playsets for Masks, framing the game in different ways. There's four frames: Iron Red Soldiers, The Spiderweb, Phoenix Academy, and The Apocalypse Sonata. What is... Iron Red Soldiers?  If you saw "Red Dawn" and wanted aliens instead of Soviets as the bad guys, or want Spider-Man and Shuri fighting in a world where the Chitauri won the Battle of New York in the MCU, this is your thing. Fewer adults, more guerilla warfare, and a dark tone. What is... The Spiderweb?  This is a straight-up Marvel Noir, with an origin story a little like House of M or 1602 (time-traveling shenanigans lead to alternate universe). This is your street-level game, with more emphasis on local issues. Of all the frames, it feels the least suitable for what Masks is good at. What is... Phoenix Academy?  This is Xavier's School dialed up to 11. Fans of GURPS IOU will recognize this as the high-school version of that crazy college (and if you're not an IOU fan but like Phil Foglio, follow that link). School life is crazy enough that it would come to dominate a whole game - our Gardner feels like it's the right level of super-teen activity for me personally. What is... the Apocalypse Sonata?  This is Guardians of the Galaxy/Darkseid cosmic level gaming, built in a road-trip style. The Sonata is another of those cosmos-altering MacGuffins. I'm personally interested in the musical framing, given Leo's metaphor of the mind as music, and would find it most interesting if it were something closer to the Moment from Doctor Who - a sentient artifact itself, capable of interacting with its proposed wielder. What about Playbooks? Aside from the new playbooks - Harbinger, Nomad, and Scion - each of the frames makes suggestions for changing the existing playbooks to make them more suitable. For example, the Doomed, Nova, Legacy, and Outsider playbooks simply disappear from The Spiderweb. The Harbinger and Nomad in particular feel like PCs who'd introduce existing characters to a new frame - "in the near future, aliens conquer Earth". What's good? The supplement does a good job (in my opinion) of identifying frames with difficult subject matter (e.g. teen sexuality at Phoenix Academy, or the bleak tones of Iron Red Soldiers and Apocalypse Sonata), and references community tools like the X-Card. For Mask-specific content, the frames feel like the designers have thought about the whole system: changes to agendas, principles, playbooks, and moves are all considered. It's not just a set of places to go have the same adventures, but places where the feeling ought to be a little (or a lot) different. What's bad?  Aside from the Spiderweb (which is deliberately low-key) and Iron Red Soldiers (which reins PCs in via other ways), a lot of the elements feel comic-book-y and over-the-top as you'd expect, but some of it feels like it verges into the gratuitous. This is a matter of taste, but I'm writing this so it's my taste. :) What could be useful to us?  If we're going to focus on the teen-hero situation in Halcyon, it might be interesting to look at the neighborhood and gang text in "The Spiderweb". It might not be necessary to drill down into that level of detail, but the idea that each teen hero team has "turf" would put that situation front and center. Phoenix Academy includes a "school gossip" move that's easy to pull in and use for us. There's other new or updated moves, including the new Take a Powerful Blow that Dave referenced awhile back, and some of those might bear examination.
Some specific things that specific people might enjoy: Front and center for Apocalypse Sonata is this new agenda item: CREATE A KIRBYESQUE SENSE OF WONDER. There's two full pages explaining what this means. The ally groups for Iron Red Soldiers, aside from the remnant of AEGIS, are CLOAKSS and DAGGR. Jesus, really? "Project Clean Slate allows supervillains incarcerated by A.E.G.I.S. to teach at Phoenix Academy in exchange for time off their sentences." So as it turns out, plea agreements from AEGIS are canonical. Go us. This principle from Phoenix Academy: TURN RITES OF PASSAGE INTO MASSIVE CLIFFHANGERS. A little on point there, guys.
Very cool -- thanks for the review of the material there. I see no problem with CLOAKSS and DAGGR (in fact, kudos for coming up with acronyms that are both recognizable and not quite spelled properly). Given Marvel's SHIELD and then SWORD (and I think at least one more related), or hell, the STIR and SHAKEN security protocols, I think that's relatively innocuous. :-) Hopefully nobody will ask Alycia to teach, except for maybe self-defense class ("Okay, now you've disabled your attacker ... here's what to do to them next ...")
Compared the Scion playbook to the previous prototype.  Very, very close. Biggest difference is that the White Lies  power specifies "When you comfort or support someone by telling them lies they want to hear" instead of "... telling them how they are your role model as a hero."  Since I'm not taking that Savior-based power any time soon, not a big deal. But, oh, hey, there are the play notes for the Scion in the main rulebook. Okay, let's check that out ...
Having quickly skimmed through my copy during lunch, I think the Apocalypse Sonata playset is my new favorite thing.  Equal parts Guardians of the Galaxy , Voltron , and college road trip.  While I have been a fan of MLL's artwork in the core book, this one had a quirky, cartoony art style that I think really fit the ApocSonata section really well.  I'll have to look up the artist's other work when I get a chance.  I particularly enjoyed how it was the same group of characters (including a Bull/Joined pair of characters from my best estimate) in the different playsets with some cosmetic changes.
So the Scion play notes aren't any significant surprise, and I've already talked with Doyce about a number of them when we discussed the playbook retcon, so I don't expect any major changes except for more parental horror, directly or indirectly, landing on my doorstep. Hopefully not literally on my doorstep. I just planted pansies there.
Doyce T.
Sheet Author
I finally got a chance to at least skim the book. Apocalypse Sonata is, like... 80% my jam, which is remarkably high for any published setup, honestly. It's one of those things I wish I'd had lurking in the back of my mind since the beginning of the campaign, since it's really meant to be rolled into part of an ongoing campaign, and it's just not got enough foreshadowing to make sense, plopped into our game.  Taking the structure and swapping in a more relevant macguffin would work, but I feel like the 'isolated bottle in space' problem is something to kind of beware of, there. Spiderweb.  If we were playing shorter-arc campaigns, in which we explored all the varient Halcyon's created when we shattered the timelines to hide some key macguffin from Doctor Infinity, I'd be all over a Netflix's Luke Cage kind of Spiderweb thing. I do like the altered Take a Powerful Blow.  For a GotG game, I could actually see just adding the injury thing TO the normal list of 10+ options. Anyway. I feel like there's a version of how our game ends up where the next game is Iron Red Soldiers, with an occupying Concordance force as the alien baddies. Phoenix High - man I wish I'd thought of the Academic testing move in there. That would have been useful.  Might still use it at the end of the year...
Doyce T.
Sheet Author
Also I think the book mentioned an option in there for not doing end of game moves until you hit waypoints in the story, instead of the end of every session. If I'd thought of that, I'd have done that with our game. Would definitely do it in the next one. Every couple-three sessions is more than enough, I think. Anyway.
Doyce T. said: Also I think the book mentioned an option in there for not doing end of game moves until you hit waypoints in the story, instead of the end of every session. If I'd thought of that, I'd have done that with our game. Would definitely do it in the next one. Every couple-three sessions is more than enough, I think. Anyway. That would definitely make it a more meaningful statement. Sometimes I've sort of scrambled to figure something out, and if I didn't feel strongly about anything I was sort of stuck with "image of myself." Part of that (for good or for ill) would be a reduction in Potential bumps (thus character progression) and Condition clearing; the latter might encourage more of the "Clearing Conditions" mechanic, which I feel like we've underused.
So just reading the intros to each setting ... Iron Red Soldiers : Could absolutely be part of a Concordance takeover of Earth (perhaps because of all our Keynomes ("for your own good, and the safety of the galaxy")), esp. if they used affiliated planets to do the actual occupation. Grimmer than our standard campaign, feeling a bit more like the AltFuture. Could be set up with some strong family / neighborhood ties, and if done as a near-future could still incorporate the Next Generation. The Spiderweb : Probably the least interesting to me on some level; not sure why, since I so dig the Netflix MCU. I could certainly be convinced. Phoenix Academy : If this creates a structure around school, I could seriously get behind this. Yes, we've done some stuff with high school hi-jinx, but mostly unstructured (as far as academics goes), and also a bit scattered as far as how it impacted some of the characters. There's also nothing to say that this couldn't be set elsewhere in this world (to get away from the Halcyon setting without removing the rest of what's been done from it all). Apocalypse Sonata : Yes, I tend to agree with what Doyce spoke of about community. Still, the adjectives here -- crazy, outlandish, cosmic, psychedelic -- sound like fun regardless. Yes, I should read the rest of the book, but just my initial thoughts.
Iron Red Soldiers :   Okay, interesting setting. Also interesting that, all things considered, the Menagerie game has largely existed without adults / older heroes. AEGIS has been there, and Harry's had his family. But the HHL haven't ever really given us much grief.  The clock mechanics are interesting ones, and would theoretically provide some limitations on how long the scene goes on. There's definitely room for "community" here, for the sake of the story (and potential allies, opponents, or hostages). But it is very much focused on the Mission of the Week; downtime episodes seem less likely. Net-net : It sounds like an interesting thing, and I could imagine playing it, but it feels a bit more constrained than the relative freewheeling we've been doing. Maybe that would provide some worthy focus. Maybe that would feel less fun.
*** Dave H. said: Also interesting that, all things considered, the Menagerie game has largely existed without adults / older heroes. AEGIS has been there, and Harry's had his family. But the HHL haven't ever really given us much grief. I think part of that was the characters involved.  Only Harry and Adam really had parents in the picture and they played a fairly important supporting role.  Same for Leo/Waters and Alycia/Parker.  Holo Dad was sort of that with Jason, but it's hard to have same sort of interaction with someone who knows you're a simulation and can just turn you off when they want to.  Only Charlotte seemed to not have any strong adult interaction (other than the occasional talk with Lucius) but I think part of that was that Charlotte was always sort of a young adult more than a teenager.  Though that could easily be attributed to her upbringing and the society she was used to.
Oh, it makes complete sense with the characters, and I don't see it as a problem. Put another way, the Menagerie as a team has existed largely without serious grup involvement. Indirectly with individual characters, and, yeah, AEGIS (as individuals and as a group) has been keeping an eye. But what seems like the classic Masks sitch -- adults order around and try to shape the youth; youth resent the adults but have to go to them for help when things get hairy -- never really applied. It's not a good thing or bad thing, it's just a thing. And it means, which was what I was getting to, that the "you don't have the Exemplars to bail you out" aspect of Iron Red Soldiers wouldn't play as much as a difference for us. We've never felt like we could run to AEGIS or the HHL to fix things that were too big, or that we should or that we needed to.
The Spiderweb Seems eminently doable. This doesn't have to be alt!Halcyon, but just LA or Phoenix or Chicago. Come up with a reason why the big money / big power supers don't come into town, and why AEGIS doesn't get involved, and much of the rest of it works. Lots of great neighborhood mechanics to build story and community around..  Definitely more serious, but not necessarily without humor. Definitely less "fantastic," but still room for super-heroics. Net-net : I'd do this.
Phoenix Academy Yeah, we've kind of done this. But only kinda. Gardner (et al.) has been more of a set piece, a place for us to meet, some socializing, vs being a rela focus and structure of what we're doing and why. Really, aside from the awesomeness of the Dance, school has impacted us not all that much. True, we done some of the teen relationship thing, but that's going to come into play in any setting, really.  Fun (if not unexpected) gossip mechanic. I like the academic moves and how all that works. We couldn't backfill it into the Menagerie, but it could easily fit into our Halcyon (as a Next Generation), or, again, work in some other city in the US (real or made up); either would also let the current cast guest star or play a role (guest lecturer, combat coach, merit scholarship granter, etc.) Net-net : I'd be happy to do this.
The Apocalypse Sonata Even if you scrub off the framing quest, the mechanics here for a GotG/Kirbyquest setup across time and space are certainly worthwhile. I agree with the concerns about running without a supporting community besides each other. The playbook notes seem to think it's possible (or at least still maintain the relationships that drive some of the playbooks), but it seems like a more difficult row to hoe unless you have a lot of characters with connections to what's out there. That said, for a short campaign (5-10 eps), why not? Net-net : For a limited campaign, 'twould be fun!