Monday, November 27, 2017

Gorgon Archer - Masks - Character Advancement

Advancement, or development, in Masks is interesting. One the one hand the most obvious method of development functions pretty much identically to how Advancement works in Monster of the Week. On a roll of 6 or less, you gain experience, referred to as Potential, in addition, some moves well allow you to gain Potential in other ways. After gaining five Potential you reset your Potential to zero and then take an improvement from your Playbooks list. Except for the fact that changing a playbook does not refresh the advanced improvements you unlock (only the basic improvements for each playbook unlock), this is similar to Monster of the Week.

When you are told to shift your Labels or someone is attempting to shift them on you, one of your Labels will gain a +1 while another will gain a -1. In this way the overall total of your scores remains the same but it means that your character might now find themselves much more competent in some moves than were and less competent in ones they had been confident in. Some playbooks, especially The Janus, make heavy mechanical use of shifting Labels around.

I have mentioned that your Labels shift around frequently in the character creation analysis but I don't think I've made clear how often that happens. From the games I've played and the actual plays I've watched, characters might end up seeing anywhere from zero to five Label shifts in every session with an average of about two to three per session. This is meant to represent the highly malleable self-image of those in their teens and early twenties and it does a very excellent job at it.

Each playbook generally is built to make heavy use of one Label, encouraging them to keep that high, but some of the Label shifts you experience will come at the hands of the other players or the NPCs. Also, Label shifts have to make sense with the way the shift was made. If someone is trying to comfort you and convince you that your physical mutations don't change the fact you're a person, then it makes sense that Freak will be reduced while Mundane is increased.

The shifts of Labels lead into the fact that you can Lock labels so that that aspect of your personality will no longer change. This comes through two sources. There is a basic improvement option in every playbook to lock a single Label and other improvements allow you to open a Moment of Truth, the use of which will lock a Label. This gives you the ability to eventually lock three of your Labels, leaving the last two to shift back and forth themselves.

Locking a Label should be considered seriously. Yes, it does give you some security in the way your character functions, but the ability to alter your Labels can give you a lot of versatility in the sort of roles you take on out of the group. When you lock a Label you will lose some of that flexibility. This also is something to consider when you are determining whether or not to use a Moment of Truth.

A Moment of Truth is a very powerful effect that gives the character momentary control of everything that happens. The GM gives you control and asks you to describe exactly how you solve the problem in front of you. Afterwards, you lock one of your labels and then the GM starts describing the consequences that will come to as a result of the actions you took. To take The Transformed's Moment of Truth as an example:

"It's easy to remember that you're not your body, and you're not the voice in your head - you're both. Be the monster, and save them anyway. Smash walls, and speak softly. Because when you embrace, you can do anything. Of course, putting on a display like this is sure to rile up those who only see the monster when they look at you..."

You can unlock this Moment once from the basic improvements and once from the advanced improvements but only after you've used the first one. You only get these two Moments, remember that your improvements do not refresh when you change playbooks either, so if you use both Moments before shifting playbooks those are your two Moments used up for this character. 

Some other improvements that are common across all of your playbooks are the ability to rearrange your labels however you want followed by gaining a +1 without having to shift anything down. This does not seem to be considered a shift, so I'm not entirely certain whether or not you're allowed to alter Labels that you have locked. You also get the chance to permanently deny influence to one person so that they can no longer manipulate you as easily. It is generally advisable to direct that toward an adult and especially an antagonist as having Influence over you makes it easier for other players to use helpful moves on you as well as manipulate you. Also, as with MotW, manipulating someone is one way that you can help them gain Potential. There is also the option to change playbooks but the fact that improvements do not refresh when you change playbooks means that you can only change playbooks once.

Another situation I need to look at for this character development system are the Team moves. Every playbook has two, one for when you share a celebration of triumph with one of your team members, and one for when you share a vulnerability or weakness with them. Each of these two team moves will provide one of two benefits depending on how the other character responds to the shared moment. For example, when The Transformed shares a moment of triumph with someone, they clear one condition if the other person treats them like a normal person but marks Potential when the other person praises The Transformed's powers.

Lastly, at the end of every session each player chooses one of three circumstances for their character:
  • Grow closer to the team: Explain who made you feel welcome; give influence to that character and either clear a Condition or mark Potential. 
  • Grow into your image of yourself. Explain how you see yourself and why; shift one Label up and one Label down.
  • Grow away from the team. Explain why you feel detached. Take Influence over you away from another character.
I am going to assume eighteen sessions with 2d4-2 (minimum 0) Label Shifts and Potential per session.  This should account for all the various ways that Shifts and Potential can occur including the end of session moves. I'll settle on some details for each group for color, for one thing, every session of Masks is supposed to start in the middle of a fight (I'm considering going back and adding in session notes for some of the earlier simulations). As a side note, my first impression after rolling these was that my d4s have gotten warped with age. However, This speed of improvement is quite a bit slower than what occurred during my two-player MotW campaign which had similar rules for earning Experience and often had characters gaining two improvements in a session. Given the simulation is assuming three players, with a fourth added later on, this rate of advancement seems more reasonable than at first glimpse.

Starting Skills


Session 1 - The characters open with a battle with a villain by the name of Pepper Spark. During the course of the fight, the gorgon steps in to protect a news crew, taking a blow to do so. This ends up getting her noted for the heroic act. 1 Label Shifts, 2 Potential

Shift Savior +1, Freak +2

Session 2 - The session opens with battling armed thugs in the streets led by a martial artist villain calling himself Goblin Shark. Afterwards, the gorgon let's herself draw attention in order to protect Eilonwy's secret identity from discovery by some students from their college. Circe afterwards praises her ability to stay calm and suffer the slings and arrows. 2 Label Shifts, 2 Potential

Shifts: Freak +3, Mundane -2; Superior +1, Danger +0

Session 3 - Grimm's nemesis, Cauldron, makes an appearance and tries to take control of Eilonwy through the necromantic power they share. After barely managing to keep her soul her own and drive off Cauldron, they are harassed by the news media. 4 Label Shifts, 1 Potential (Improvement)

Improvement - Take another move from your playbook: Wish I could be
Shifts - Savior +0, Danger +1 ; Mundane -1, Superior +0; Freak +2, Savior +1; Mundane -2, Danger +2

Session 4 - A heavily armed warrior attacks the team and pursues them relentlessly. They don't seem to have any powers and never talk, but seem impossible to bring down. By the end of the fight the warrior seems to be killed in a building's collapse. The mayor's secretary identifies this as The Revenant, an assassin for hire of unknown identity. Their opponent makes the gorgon feel useless and stupid at several points. 2 Label Shifts, 5 Potential (Improvement)

Improvement - Mutate further and reveal another two abilities (chosen from any playbook): Radical shapeshifting, Venom
Shifts: Danger +1, Savior +2; Mundane -1, Superior -1

Session 5 - A person by the name of Vermin attacks the businessman that they angered in their first battle. They manage to protect him but they get away by becoming a swarm of rats, this results in the businessman publicly speaking out against metahumans. They proceed to track Vermin and find her facing off against Revenant. Vermin revealed as a new player who had been relaying actions via text message, they are The Bull whose combat powers come from the fact they're a sentient nanite swarm. 1 Label Shift, 4 Potential

Shifts: Freak +3, Savior +1

Session 6 - The team, including Vermin, face off against Revenant and are able to capture the mercenary. Revenant is revealed to be a woman in what seems to be an unbreakable trance. The Revenant's gear starts to break down and they are just barely able to stop the nanite-formed gear from killing her. Vermin reveals themself as a former Revenant that survived when their gear was decommissioned and their mind replacing the nanite programming as the body was being consumed, 2 Label Shifts, 5 Potential (Improvement)

Improvement - The businessman permanently loses Influence over the gorgon. The gorgon gains +1 to Superior
Shifts: Savior +0, Danger +2; Mundane -2, Superior +1

Session 7 - Zombies and other undead attack the City and the team is one of several superhero groups fighting the wave off. Eilonwy, as an undead, feels a drawing pulse urging her to follow. Between her and Grimm, the team tracks down Cauldron performing a ritual. 4 Label Shifts, 5 Potential (Improvement)

Improvement - Unlock moment of Truth
Shifts: Savior +1, Danger +1; Danger +0, Savior +2; Freak +2, Superior +2

Session 8 - The Team has a major battle with Cauldron. In the course of matters, Eilonwy's secret identity is revealed. (Eilonwy changes to being The Nova as her banshee abilities start growing stronger). Her family and boyfriend react poorly and Mariah interrupts their argument to defend Ellen/Eilonwy. This results in her being reminded of her humanity. Circe later discusses matters with her, re-affirming her status as not human. Similarly, news footage of the battle reminds her of how dangerous she can be. 6 Label Shifts, 2 Potential (Improvement)

Improvement: Take an Adult Move - Stand Up For Something
Shifts: Superior +1, Savior +3; Mundane -1, Freak +1; Danger -1, Mundane +0; Superior +0, Freak +2; Savior +2, Danger +0; Mundane -1, Danger +1

Session 9 - The captured Revenant tries to escape displaying similar powers to Vermin but less stable and still not showing any sign of recovered personality. The woman's face makes it to television and she is identified as a result. A new Revenant later arrives to kill her and Vermin. 0 Label Shifts, 0 Potential

Session 10 - The new Revenant is joined by two others giving the team a lot of trouble. The businessman pushes to have Vermin arrested in the wake of matters but they are able to provide proof exposing the businessman's human experimentation and the kidnapping of people to brainwash them as expendable super-assassins. Circe reveals herself as the Circe of myth publicly and identifies Mariah as a fellow immortal.  2 Label Shifts, 4 Potential (Improvement)

Improvement - Change playbooks to The Outsider: Belong in two worlds, The Best of them, Alien ways. Loses "Wish I could be" since she now has her own people and does not envy as much.
Shifts: Mundane -2, Freak +3; Danger +0, Superior +1

Session 11 - A new fight with Pepper Spark and Goblin Shark speeds up the clock on Grimm's doom and they start rushing about to research how they can finally prevent him from falling to the same corruption to made Cauldron evil. This leads them to travel into the underworld with Mariah's help to reach the Celtic gods of Death, Morrigan sets them a trial. 3 Label Shifts, 5 Potential (Improvement)

Improvement - Rearrange your Labels as you choose and add +1 to a Label. Danger +0, Freak +3, Savior +2, Superior +1, Mundane -1
Shifts: Cancelled by the Rearrangement

Session 12 - The team takes on Morrigan's trial and prove themselves worthy. The Morrigan tells them what Grimm will need to do to escape his fate. The hint is rather abstract but they figure out eventually that he will have to return his power to Cauldron, causing him to shift to The Beacon. Unfortunately this leaves the team facing a more powerful Cauldron. 5 Label Shifts, 4 Potential

Shifts: Danger +1, Mundane -2; Superior +0, Savior +3; Savior +2, Danger +2; Freak would have shifted up, takes a consequence instead because Freak at maximum already; Mundane would have shifted down, takes a consequence instead because Mundane is at minimum already

Session 13 - Mariah uses her Moment of Truth as an Outsider, calling an army of various minor gods and spirits to the aid of the team in shutting down Cauldron. This draws the attention of Hera who insists that Mariah should not remain on Earth any longer. The team argues for her position in the world, pointing out the supernatural threats they've faced already and how she's protected people.  3 Label Shifts, 0 Potential

Shifts: Freak is locked at +3 by Moment of Truth, Savior +1, Superior +1; Danger +1, Savior +2, Mundane would have shifted, takes a consequence instead.

Session 14 - A woman calling herself the Revenant Queen leads a team of Revenant converted men and women to rescue the businessman from jail. The team manage to prevent a lot of collateral damage and capture a few Revenants but the businessman and the Queen escape making the quip that however strong they are, the lot of them are still just college kids. 1 Label Shift, 2 Potential (Improvement)

Improvement - Lock a Label and add a +1 to a Label of your choice. Savior is Locked at +2
Shift: Superior +3, Danger +0; Superior +2, Mundane -1

Session 15 - Someone calling themselves Seraph attempts to kill Grimm, Eilonwy, and Mariah claiming they're unholy creatures. Seraph claims to be a legitimate angel and leads a cult, but later is proven to be simply a powerful psionic. Vermin accidentally admits to having feelings for Mariah.  3 Label Shifts, 4 Potential (Improvement)

Improvement - Adult Move - Wield your powers
Shifts: Danger +1, Mundane -2; Superior +1, Mundane -1; Danger +2, Superior +0

Session 16 - The city is attacked by Revenants with the businessman now calling himself the Revenant King and broadcasting from somewhere in secret. After capturing the initial attacks, they begin tracking the King to his hideout. They discover that the Queen has developed a way to spread nanites through the city, enslaving everybody and race against the clock to stop this.  2 Label Shifts, 5 Potential (Improvement)

Improvement - Another playbook's move: Never give up, never surrender
Shifts: Danger +1, Superior +1; Mundane -2, Danger +2

Session 17 - Eilonwy engages with the Revenant Queen as Mariah tries to capture the Revenants without either killing them or triggering their nanite-gear to consume them. Grimm seeks the machines around the city to shut them down and Vermin goes ahead to confront the Revenant King. It's a no holds barred, knockdown brawl.  2 Label Shifts, 6 Potential (Improvement)

Improvement - Unlock Moment of Truth a second time
Shifts: Danger +1, Superior +2; Danger +0, Mundane -1

Session 18 - Several prominent heroes and villains attack the team among other supernatural metas and are eventually proven to be mind-controlled by Seraph. Each member of the team uses a Moment of Truth to bring the matter to a conclusion. Hera once again insists on Mariah coming to Olympus. Instead a compromise is reached and Mariah becomes an emissary to Earth for the Olympians. Eilonwy marries her boyfriend and retires from active heroics to begin a job teaching young metahumans. Grimm mixes some Revenant-tech with his magics and becomes a paragon as well and Vermin continues to accompany Mariah on her duties. 5 Label Shifts, 4 Potential (Improvement)

Improvement - Become a Paragon of the city (removed as an active character)
Shifts: Several shifts that are canceled by Locked Labels; Danger +1, Mundane -2; Superior Locked by Moment of Truth. Alien Ways lost because Superior is now locked and that move is inoperable as a result.

Gorgon Archer - The Transformed The Outsider

Mariah the Gorgon
Look: Woman, Mediterranean, Strange eyes, Scaled flesh, serpent hair.
Abilities: Archery, Petrifying Gaze, Radical Shapeshifting, Venom

Danger +1
Freak +3 (Lock)
Savior +2 (Lock)
Superior +2 (Lock)
Mundane -2

What were you before? A normal young woman, just graduated high school.
When did you change? What caused it? Emotional trauma and danger awakened my gorgon heritage.
Who, outside of the team, is helping you understand your new body? A woman named Circe who she thinks might be the mythical Circe herself.
Why don't you just try to hide yourself away? I found friends I cling to.
Why do you care about the team? They accept me for who I am.

Grimm (Tom Wenschel) The Doomed comforted you when you were at your lowest.
Eilonwy (Ellen Kinsey) The Janus knew you before you changed.
Is marked as Vermin's Love, Circe is Vermin's Rival

Vermin, The Bull - Influence over her / Influence given to her
Grimm, The Beacon - Influence over him
Eilonwy, The Nova - Influence give to her

Transformed Move: Be the Monster: When you frighten, intimidate, or cow others with your monstrous form, roll +Freak. On a hit, they are thrown off and make themselves vulnerable to you or they flee. On a 10+ choose one. On a 7-9 Choose two:
  • You frighten others you had not intended to scare.
  • You hurt someone or break something you shouldn't have.
  • You feel like more of a monster afterward, mark a condition of the GM's choice. 
Transformed Move: Not human enough: When you directly engage a threat in a terrifying fashion, mark a condition to choose an additional option, even on a miss.

Transformed Move: I am not my body: When you take a powerful physical blow you may roll as if you had two fewer conditions marked. If you do, on a 10+ you must choose to lose control of yourself in a terrible way.

Outsider Move: Belong in Two Worlds: You have the resources that come with your station. Whenever you contact your people roll +Superior. On a 10+ hold 3. On a 7-9 hold 2. On a miss, hold 1 but your people make an uncomfortable demand of you. Spend your hold to:
  • Receive a useful piece of alien technology (Olympian magic) that will allow you to use any ability from another playbook once (choose the ability when you spend the hold)
  • Consult your people's knowledge to ask the GM a question about the current situation
  • Clear a condition through the comfort of contact with your home.
Outsider Move: The Best of Them: When you comfort or support someone by telling them how they exemplify the best parts of Earth, roll +Freak instead of +Mundane.

Legacy Move: Never give up, never surrender: When you take a powerful blow from someone with far greater power than you, use this move instead of the basic move. Roll +Savior. On a hit, you stand strong and choose one. On a 7-9 mark a condition.
  • You get an opportunity or opening against your attacker.
  • You rally from the hit and it inspires the team, add 1 Team to the pool.
  • You keep your attacker's attention.
Adult Move - Stand up for Something: When you stand up for something, roll +Savior. On a 10+, choose two. On a 7-9, choose one:
  • Listeners can't keep doing what they're doing.
  • Listeners can't flee without addressing you.
  • Listeners can't attack you without losing status or position.
Adult Move - Wield your Powers: When you wield your powers with precision or grace, roll +Freak. On a hit, choose one. On a 10+ choose two:
  • Take hold of something valuable to you.
  • Create something useful from your environment.
  • Neutralize an opponent or threat, at least for now.

Further Notes

In the end, I took the improvement that retires the character from play. That move can go one of two ways, either the character retires from the life or becomes an established paragon of the city. The first of these would have implied her going to the realm of the Olympian gods and spirits. Given that she's a gorgon and allied with Circe, I didn't see that as likely and opted for the emissary role instead. This is especially interesting in the way that this means the character is still an active hero, but they are now firmly adults and recognized heroes of the city which is somewhat beyond the normal scope of the Masks game.

One thing that I really like about the Powered by the Apocalypse games is how interconnected all the characters are with mechanics reinforcing the narrative heavily. I did not go into the Team resource, which is a pool of points determined at the beginning of each fight and depends very much on how the team trusts the current leader of the situation. Throughout the game you are constantly going to be using Team either selfishly or for the benefit of the group (each use has different benefits). You are also going to see Influence change hands frequently. This also comes together with the aforementioned Team Moves.

I remain of two-minds with the idea that you do not refresh the advanced improvements. On the one hand, I can see why they would do that. On the other hand, this puts a set end-state on the character as you cannot change playbooks more than once. Some of my MotW character plans involve the idea of changing playbooks twice so this is a particular issue with me. That said, the point of the game isn't to play through the character's entire career but just through the period where they are finding their footing. This makes having a defined end-state fairly appropriate.

There is also a lack of an option for making a new character as an improvement. That said, it does mention making a new character for when your character retires or moves on. However, I prefer the idea of setting up the character as part of the team before the first character finally retires. Having the second character as an improvement option allows for a passing of the torch period lasting until the old character gets the last improvement needed to retire or advance to being a paragon.

These are, in the long run, minor concerns that are matters of preferred style rather than being flaws. You can always do house-ruling to alter matters and while I doubt I would change the rule about not refreshing advanced improvements because of the already mentioned narrative matters, I would likely play with the ability to take a second character as an improvement. I have found that option added a significant amount of story complexity to my Monster of the Week campaign with one new character having been planned to be introduced from the very start of the campaign and the other adding some interesting flavors to the late campaign.

The way Labels change so frequently is amazing and moderately difficult to keep track of at times. Having taught high schoolers, I find it incredibly apropos to the real world behavior of that age group. It is hard to understand exactly how fragile and malleable the self-image of teenagers and those in their early twenties is until you watch it from the outside but this game does a fairly good job of modeling that real world character development. For anybody interested in other superhero teen discussions, Hero System and Mutants and Masterminds both also have exceptional supplements on this, with Hero System being quite thoroughly researched. The setting and non-mechanical aspects of that supplement is worth the cost even if you don't play Hero System. I believe the title is Hero High for the Hero System book, but it is from an earlier edition and may be out of print.

Edit: The Hero System book is Teen Champions, the M&M book is Hero High. There seems to be a 6th edition compatible version of Teen Champions out now.

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