Unmasking the ad-hoc Villain (Masks Session 1)

This is a recording of a session of the game “Masks: A New Generation” I run in a friend’s twitch channel. It is in Spanish and the video can only been seen on Twitch. Once it gets uploaded to youtube, I’ll post the link so you can give a try to the automatic subtitles. In the mean time, here’s the basics of what happened in this session.

Relevant context: this session was a last-minute replacement for our usual campaign. The three players had at least some familiarity with other PbtA games, but are generally more familiar with games like D&D and World of Darkness.

I did some preparation before the session, but only very broad strokes. I mainly had the idea of starting the session with the player’s characters doing some kind of live interview in an internet show. Since the game has a “how we came together” procedure to create the origin of the group by coming up with their first mission, I though the interview would be about whatever happened during that. I also had a concept for a villain who would attack them mid-show with the objective to use the opportunity gain attention and fame.

First we did character creation, which took a fair bit since doing it online always takes longer. The character they created are:

– Fate: The Doomed
– Saturno: The Nova
– Bruselas Star: The Protege

After that we did the part where “the team came together”, in which each player answers a question about their first mission together. It turns out they had fight a big villain together called “La Aberracion”, who was attacking a school’s cafeteria. But in the process, Fate lost control of her powers and some kids died as well.

After that, we started to play.

They started the game in the backstage of a semi-professional twitch show dedicated to gossiping about superheroes. They had been invited due to what had happened with “La Aberracion”. Even before the show started, Fate and Saturno already were arguing and throwing blame around to each other while Bruselas tried to calm them down. In fact they practically started a fight, but were interrupted because the show was about to start. The host, a young woman called Tessa Hammer, introduced them all, let them sit in from of the audience and started asking questions clearly engineered to cause distension and polemic in the group. She succeeded. As, despise Brusela’s best attempts, Fate and Saturno kept accusing each other and exposing their personal grudges in public.

After things came to a close and Tessa decided it was time to wrap things up (presumably because there was no more tension among the heroes to exploit), she was interrupted by an explosion in the roof of the studio. As building started to collapse, Saturno reacted quickly and created a force field to stop the debris from crushing the audience. In mean time, Bruselas and Fate saw a figure standing in the border of the fissure and jumped to meet it. It appeared as a figure completely covered in a suit with the image of an old TV tuned to a dead channel. Before the session ended and we went to black, the new villain introduced themselves as “#TheI”.

After that we did the “stars and wishes” procedure, which is simply talking about the things you loved about the session and the things you’d like to see happen in the future. And one of the things that came up was that they wanted for the unmasking of #TheI to be some big revelation, with some big twist regarding their identity.

And that’s my problem. I had not planned any of that, nor was my intention with this villain. I don’t have any particular interest in pulling the rug under my player’s feet. But I realize now that, by putting the villain in a mask, I was setting myself up for this. Quoting Nolan’s Bane:

So as I see it, I have several options:

1. I ignore this and make the reveal something trivial, some random individual with a grudge with the players or some other interest
2. I come up with something myself, either before the next session or in the middle of it
3. I let the player who unmasks them decide, by saying something like “you already know the truth, so tell me who hides under this mask” and hope for the best.

I’m currently leaning towards option #3, but I’m open to suggestions and ideas.

Here’s the video of the session: https://www.twitch.tv/videos/316800290

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7 responses to “Unmasking the ad-hoc Villain (Masks Session 1)”

  1. The unamasking is a wish for

    The unamasking is a wish for the future, correct? I think the request is a signal from the player that they do want to have the rug pulled out from under them. You improvised the first session, but now you get to prep based on what happened. So you could work towards the unmasking being important. You don't have to, but it does give you a direction for preparing for future sesssions.

    You could take this as a chance to increase tension and have an ongoing mystery — the villain does not have to be defeated and unmasked immediately. Supervillains often get away.

    So you would need to know what  NPCs are important to the players and the world they are in. If you haven't already, get players to tell you about the NPCs that they are connected to. Then you can choose he villain from the NPCs and play up a couple other NPC's behavior to make them suspects.

    • The Crime Master, the Big Man

      The Crime Master, the Big Man, and the Green Goblin agree!

    • You are completely right, I

      You are completely right, I definitely missed the signal despise it being in front of my face. Although I don't know if I'll have the chance to really build mystery, since I don't even know if we'll continue playing after this session. So it'll probably have to be revealed soon. But I did get plenty of information about important NPCs and backstory, so I'll be using those as much as I can. Thanks a lot!

  2. Super thanks! …

    … for posting this. It is key to one of the most important features of superhero role-playing, and especially how the medium differs from all others.

    As usual I like to break it into variables, and I'll address just one in this comment: whether "the reveal" of an antagonist's identity is actually intended to be a revelation, which presumably means that it would also manage to be interesting and not entirely expected. Keep in mind that doing this is an option – it's perfectly OK for a story to reveal a villain's identity immediately or in due time without it needing to be a revelation.

    One variant for this variable works so well it's pretty much the way it always works: the audience gets the reveal before, i.e. nearly independently, of when the protagonist does. In that case, however briefly and sometimes not so briefly, the audience is watching a different story from the one the protagonist would think he or she is in.

    I suggest that the timing is a matter of structural preference or creative license rather than anything so locked down as a rule of function – in other words, across stories, it does not matter when the audience finds out. The timing works in any configuration: simultaneously, before the protagonist sees it, or after the protagonist sees it; and for the latter two, how long the lag is doesn't matter either. (I'm not saying all of these compared stories may be called the same, I'm saying there's no configuration of these components which doesn't potentially work.)

    Therefore the only tricky technique concerns making the protagonist and audience revelation into the same thing, because unlike every other configuration, it has a thereotical failure state. But I think failing to pull off complete simultaneity is tolerated by most people anyway, except for the dedicated genre audience who is pissed if they don't guess it beforehand and but also pissed if they do, so screw'em.

    Overall, then, I maintain the timing is far less important than the content. Does it matter who the antagonist is "under the mask?" (where "mask" can be literal or a web of misdirection or whatever it takes) If the anwer is no, well then, you're looking at a trope in the less interesting meaning of the word, just some empty bullshit that's filling in space in this particular story because, at most, it was better done and more fun in some other story or set of them. If the answer is yes, then obviously the primary creative questions are why, inside the fiction, and how this importance is established, in relation to the reader or viewer, meaning so that they are ready for the revelation by already caring.

    That's a simple and probably non-difficult point, except that it is a big deal in role-playing, which is often derogated even by its own practitioners as "automated fanfic using rules written by bigger fans who invented expys," thus a third-removed copy of whatever it was we thought was fun when we observed it in some other medium.

    In that context, here's the problem with why: the reveal is present only because, you know, these are superheroes, so here's a supervillain, and for some reason we can't quite remember and which doesn't apply at the moment anyway, it's supposed to be important not to know who they are, and then later, to know. We play it this way because "this is comics," and we know we're "doing comics" because we played it this way.

    Similarly, in that context, the problem with how should be clear: who figures it out, the players or the player-characters? Less obviously, who establishes the relevant content, and when? Ángel, you participated in the recent Monday Lab which is definitely relevant here, so I'll direct others that way if they want to discuss it here.

    And now I get to the point! About your current game. I shall speak forcefully.

    This is no time for any of your shared-creation, collaborative bullshit. The players are telling you very clearly that they are willing to engage in the necessary audience commitment to caring about the villain's secret identity. This is an incredible gift. It is also an important expectation, that you put in at least the minimum effort for both the why and the how, to return their trust and the dedication of their effort into upcoming play.

    Did you see my video about intuitive continuity vs. Bangs? It matters a lot. Don't be Gromit and lay track down just in front of whatever it is they say, expect, or are permitted to contribute. Make up the thing yourself, make it important to you on some personal resonant level, and play both its secrecy and implied vulnerability to discovery hard.

    For this game, for play as you've described it, for the rules that have apparently been invoked, anything else betrays the players.

    • Bearing in mind that I’ve

      Bearing in mind that I've only run it as a one shot I have what I hope are some helpful suggestions. Masks does offer a few tools so you aren't hopefully making up answer like this in a vacuum. Things you might want to think about when thinking who this mysterious masked entity may be include:

      Things established as part of "how we came together" or from the players answers to the backstory questions in their playbooks. All potentially things they would like to see in play and this isn't some TV show where you need to dribble stuff out over 6 seasons.

      Playbook specific things – is it connected to the Doomed's Nemesis? A former enemy of the Protoge's Mentor? Bear in mind some of the playbook move's can let them define these sort of things even if you haven't.

      Working backwards from possible hooks – does this villain pull the Doomed or the Nova towards danger and away from saviour for example? How / why? Maybe they want revenge on the heroes because of damage and destruction they caused before, so they want to show them as a danger to the world and themselves. So who would that be? This will give the villain something to say when you make the move you should always be making – tell them who they are and how the world works. And give them something to define themselves against if that's not who they want to be. Then a reveal might let you turn the screw a bit further,

      It kind of sounds like you just wanted to throw out a villain for them to fight and try out some of the moves on, which I would advise against as the moves really work best when theres more complex motivations. Then things like Pierce the Mask and Provoke really shine.

    • Ron, that was really helpful.

      Ron, that was really helpful. It helped me cut trhough my own bulshit and stop walking in circles around myself. It helped me a lot to see that this was not only the players showing interest and investment for the game, but also an opportunity for me to inject my passion and ideas into play in reciprocication. And yes, I've been following very closely the "continuity vs bangs" conversation, which definetely clarified a few ideas in my mind, and that I'll be taking in account when prepping for this game. Thanks a lot!

    • Ross, that’s really useful

      Ross, that's really useful advice. I definetely forgot to use some of the tools the system itself provides, so that was a really good reminder. Since I put this session together in a matter of days thinking it would be a one-time kind of thing, I didn't worry too much about those. But you are right in that I should be taking advantage of all of them, specially now that there's going to be a continuation. Thanks for your help.

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