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Running Masks for the first time

SaneCharlie

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So I’m soon to be the GM for a group playing Masks. I haven’t played or run it before, and nobody in the group has played it either so although I’ve run some other RPGs before, I’m a little uncertain. Specifically, I know this system is very character-driven, and I’ve seen before how those sorts of games can sometimes get a bit bogged down.
Those who have played or run Masks before, do you have any recommendations or suggestions for what I should keep in mind as I run it?
 

CarpeGuitarrem

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Sure! I've been running a Masks campaign for...I guess it's somewhere around the 20 session range now? And I've played in a few sessions myself. Although I've had a lot of experience and comfort with that style of game before.

1: ask players questions, ask them loads of questions! The rule of thumb I follow is that if someone has a playbook, you should treat that player like the expert in that area. The Outsider player is your alien expert, the Janus player is your expert on civilian life, the Doomed player is your expert on their Nemesis and everything related to them. If you're not sure about something, feel free to defer it to the players and ask "hmm, what do you think X is like?" Ask them about people, about different little details, because that all invests them in Halcyon City (or if you choose to set it somewhere else) and takes a bit of the load off of you.

2: make sure to read the GM section of the book! It's incredibly comprehensive and has a lot of actual discussion on how to run the game. Very good advice, and it walks you through a ton of stuff.

3: your biggest philosophy is always "play to find out what happens". I've got plot arcs prepped, as in I know what the villains are going to be trying to do, the moves they're making, but that doesn't mean I know how things will end. I advance their schemes as players do or don't do stuff, basically juggling different plates and changing focus from one to the other. It's great for pacing.

4: the game is character-driven, but that doesn't mean you sit around and wait for characters to do stuff. Instead, the game is focused around dropping GM Moves into the scene that the players want to respond to. If a GM Move can be justified within the fiction of the game, you are well within your rights to make it! Just remember the agenda to "be a fan of the players". It'll feel a little weird to be able to just do stuff without rolling dice; embrace that. Whether it's throwing a condition at them, kidnapping one of their friends, dropping a mecha dinosaur on top of the bank...if it makes sense within the story as established, have at it! Constantly be provoking and prodding at the players. "Hey X, what do you think of that? Hey Y, yeah, the villain is definitely shifting your Labels. What are you going to do about that?" Once you start things going, that starts a snowball effect that keeps the game rolling.

That's what I can think of off the top of my head, but I've got a lot of thoughts I could spill on, if you want more specifics. What are some of the particular things you're worried about happening/examples of when they happened before?
 

Mister Gridlock

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IME, if you have players coming in as a more or less blank slate, you'll have far fewer problems than if they're coming in from other systems where player contributions are less frequent (if even encouraged). I know some players who struggled with "being put on the spot" when a GM asked them to fill in details and come up with some plot elements. The "play to find out what happens" notion, from one player's perspective, was just an excuse for lazy GMing. That just had not been their experience, in the same way when I played a game of Mutants & Masterminds after coming off some Fate games, and I expressed the idea to the GM that maybe I could "self-compel" one of my Complications and the GM accused me of "grubbing for Hero Points." It just hadn't been something players had done before and he was used to having the control over those things.

So watch out for preconceived notions and make sure to emphasize the fun of the superhero genre (even if things are tough for the characters in the moment). Watch some Young Justice if you have access to it, especially the first season! To me, that's the kind of character interaction that exemplifies Masks roleplaying. Lots of character drama and fights that aren't grounded in simulationist SHRPG mechanics. Play up the conditions (not the "damage"): you take an injury and you're not down in HP/Toughness/etc. but Angry or Afraid.

With the right group, it can be an amazing time.
 
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CarpeGuitarrem

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I'll also heavily recommend mining the recent Spider-Man movies, particularly if you have a Janus in the group. They're like, peak Masks.
 

Zaleramancer

Social Justice Warlock
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I have some general advice and also some stuff specifically about how Masks treats superpowers.

In general: Moves should come up when there's an interest in their success or failure, or when it's tense. Look at your Agendas, Principles and Moves when deciding on what to do- Agendas and Principles help set the tone of the game and are as an important part of the mechanics as the player/GM moves. Whenever you set a scene, try to have something you want to get out of it- like bringing the Janus's conflicted identity to a boil, or highlighting the alienation of the Transformed, or setting up that prom is tomorrow. Don't be afraid to set scenes aggressively and in media res- tell the players they're fighting a giant spider robot, describe it's rampage and ask one of them what they do.

The Masks playbooks are about conflicts they suffer more than just their powers and aesthetics- try to make sure player expectations align with the conflicts their playbooks are going to create. My first Masks character was a big viking space princess who really should have been a Bull rather than an Outsider.

Sometimes people have difficulty adjusting to how Masks treats superpowers if they have experience with other systems that focus on superhero games.

In Masks, powers are resolved through the conversation- you should definitely sit down with your players and discuss what their powers do so that everyone is on the same page. While none of the moves really change depending on your superpowers, the context of what they can accomplish can change a lot. If your Bull or Transformed is someone with hulk-like strength, it changes what sorts of things they can effectively directly engage. Someone with telepathic powers may not be able to fight a giant robot at all, but be able to do mind-battle with some astrally projecting wizard.

Unleashing your Powers often comes up when the player-character is pushing the boundaries of what they can do, or if they've never tried something before- you wouldn't ask Robin to Unleash his Powers to scale a building, or ask Superboy to do so to lift a car. But you might ask Robin to roll if he tries to use kung-fu techniques he's never used before, or if Superboy is trying to tap into his heat vision.

Different characters may be vastly stronger or weaker than the others, but this won't generally prevent them from having spotlight or story importance. The Beacon is definitionally vastly weaker than the Nova, but their advice and support may mean all the difference.

Oh! Also there are clear conditions for all of the conditions- it's hard to keep them in mind; it's okay if you ignore them for a session or two while everyone gets used to things, but they can create so much drama. I mention this because it's very easy to forget.
 

CarpeGuitarrem

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Yeah, aggressive scene framing is super important. The harder you focus a scene, the more "pop" you'll get out of it.
 

SaneCharlie

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Thanks, that’s all really helpful advice! I especially love the excuse to rewatch Young Justice haha - I’ve actually been binging a heap of Miraculous Ladybug recently, which might also be part of why I wanted to run Masks. Superheroes and teen drama is a mix that just speaks to me!
I’m definitely going to keep the GM cheat sheet close, both for the bits about how to move with each playbook and the things like the ‘clear conditions’ moves. That’s really something I love about the system, that it encourages roleplaying in that way. Teens do stupid things when they feel insecure, after all. (Of course, so do grownups)
 

CarpeGuitarrem

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Another thing I want to emphasize is that the GM cheat sheet may be comprehensive, but it's a tool for you. Don't get overwhelmed by all the GM Moves, just glance at them here and there when you need reminders of what to do in the situation. Stuff like "wait, this would be the perfect time to bring an NPC to a rash decision!"
 

DannyK

One Shot Man
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Listen to or watch the "Future Shock" actual play by the Theater of the Mind Players, featuring a pretty excellent Masks campaign run by Rob Wieland, who takes the time to call out which Moves he is using and sometimes even reads the text of the Moves out. It vastly improved my Masks GM'ing and it's also quite fun.

Otherwise, the main thing is not to plot everything ahead, that very much breaks the game. At the same time, it's not a no-prep game, it's perfectly all right to make some notes on the setting and NPC's, but don't do that until after the character generation session since the players will create a whole bunch of backstory and NPCs for you.

Oh, the other thing Masks has that I haven't seen in most other games is specific GM'ing advice for each playbook. So once you know which playbooks are going to be used, you can read through those and find both good general advice and pithy ideas for how to poke the characters, like having somebody from the Outsider's home planet show up and start bossing them around. Those ideas? They are PURE GOLD.
 

Civil Savage

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Masks is a really well designed game, so if you can just help your players see how it all works together, you're in good shape. When the get Conditions, they won't like it because of the roll penalty - so show them how they can get rid of the condition either by acting it out (which leads to good teen drama) or by getting someone to Comfort/Support them (which leads to good character interaction).

And never, never, never stop having people telling them what to do or who to be and shifting their labels around. In my view, that really is the core of the game (at least in early phases).
 
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