Masks: Superheroes Have it Damned Tough ran this past weekend at RPI in Troy, NY. It’s one of the earlier weekend-long theater LARPs that I’ve played (my third, actually, after The Morning After and Nexus.) Back when Masks ran at Brandeis University, I played the role of Bounty Hunter. During a later run at RPI, after the LARP had been modified somewhat, I NPCed as a variety of small parts. And this past weekend, I NPCed again. (Which unfortunately means I missed the Clockwork Skies one day event, which I hear was muddy but a ton of fun.)
Most of my time in the most recent run of Masks was spent either temporarily roleplaying as a few of the parts that did not get cast (including Don Yo, the assistant hotel manager, and the Ninja, a mysterious hero based in Washington D.C.), or helping run the short mini-adventures, a later addition to the game that allows players to go off in small groups and fight various forms of comic book style crime, as represented by mini-games and puzzles.
If I’m not mistaken, this addition came about after GMs discovered how prone Masks is to what some LARPers call the “Primogen Council problem.” The Primogen Council problem refers to some event or possible action in a LARP (often a meeting of a select few characters) which isolates some fraction of the character population from the rest of the LARP, making them inaccessible to other characters. This commonly brings the LARP to a grinding halt for all of those outside the meeting (or whatever it is) while they hang around and wait for those characters to become available for interaction again.
In Masks, there is a Justice League-like organization of superheros which holds several meetings over the course of the weekend. If the organization decides to close the meetings and make them members-only, charactes who are not members get shut out and end up waiting around outside for the meetings to end before the plots can progress. Hence the addition of the crime-fighting mini-games. Allowing players to go off on short, standalone adventures ensures there’s always something to do, no matter how long the meetings go on.
Once again, I’m quite impressed with the RPI crowd (the GM team for this LARP, the Lime Shirts, in particular) and their ability to draw in new LARPers. There were a number of new faces, and also quite a few I’ve only seen once or twice, which is great. As far as I could tell, it looked like a lot of the players were having a great time, so I fully expect to see plenty of them at future events, like RPI’s weekends of short theater LARPs, Time Bubble and Dice Bubble.
Masks has a lot going for it, especially for fans of the superhero genre (like me.) There are a lot of bright, colorful characters with fun concepts and powers, many of which are referential to popular DC and Marvel characters (and so many LARPers relish a chance to play a character inspired by their favorite superheroes.) The LARP is quite action-packed, with an emphasis on extraordinary super powers and coming up with creative ways to use and combine them. And of course, if you like costuming, it’s chock-full of opportunities to have fun with capes and masks and boots.
That said, personally, I feel Masks also has a number of drawbacks. Most significantly, all super-power related actions must go through GMs, and combat and other contested actions is handled by having players describe what they’d like to do, followed by GMs describing the results. This makes Masks particularly prone to the dreaded “combat bubble” — events that would take seconds were they to actually happen (e.g. one superhero throws a punch and another attempts to dodge) can take ages to go through while the the players and the GMs work out the order of actions and what the results are. This results in a group of people getting stuck standing around and waiting their turn to interact through the GM.
On top of this, many characters have abilities that significantly alter the imaginary hotel in which the LARP takes place, but there’s no reliable way to ensure players consistently know what their characters ought to see. This requires a lot of repetition and immersion-breaking statements such as “you see a large hole in the ceiling” or “this room is now full of ice”. Admittedly, high-level immersion is not a goal of this LARP, and much of these environment descriptions don’t significantly alter the plot or inform character behavior, so missing the information doesn’t often cause massive incongruities.
Other drawbacks are more subject to personal opinion. For example, I find many of the characters to be too basic — largely based around superhero tropes with very little depth in their personal histories and backgrounds. But that’s a personal preference. Very basic characters have the advantage when introducing new people to LARP — people unfamiliar with LARPing tend to have a much easier time getting into basic characters, figuring out how their characters might behave, and acting accordingly. And introducing new people, I believe, was one of the primary purposes of this run. (It was certainly very successful in that regard.) Putting most of the action under the control of GMs is also beneficial for new LARPers, I think, because they aren’t required or expected to quickly pick up new mechanics right away.
One other major advantage of basic character concepts — it allows the LARP to deal with death in a flexible, friendly way. To wit, there are three options for what to do if one’s character is killed. One, they can play horde type characters under the direction of GMs — things like cops busting in to find out what is causing destruction. Two, players can come back as their character’s own sidekick — same information and power set (if somewhat weaker.) Or three, players can simply pick up a new character from those that went uncast. Having a number of characters that aren’t necessary to cast to run the LARP means the relationships between the characters, and the relationship between characters and various plots, is often fairly weak (otherwise they wouldn’t be able to easily switch around and substitute in for one another)… but it also means that death is not a massive drawback to a player’s enjoyment of the LARP.
As per usual, I must make at least a quick mention of the costuming for this run. This was a fairly relaxed atmosphere in terms of costuming (again, great for being welcoming to new LARPers), but a few players still put together some impressive outfits. S-Man (Masks‘ ersatz Superman) had a custom cape bearing his S logo, and Zip+4 (the speedster) looked liked she walked right off the pages of a comic book in her leotard, tights, boots, and opera-length gloves. Fruit Bat, known for his custom built mechanical bat wings, actually had a set of black wings that expanded when he raised his hands, made out of a black umbrella. There were a number of other excellent costumes and accessories; I wish I’d gotten pictures of some of the players.
I did grab a few shots of the blackboards in the various rooms. GMs wrote descriptions of the environment on the boards (most commonly seen: “this room is now 100 degrees” as one of the characters was constantly breaking A.C. units.) Players also made good use of the boards and wrote in-character, often humorous, sometimes anonymous, messages to one another.
The experience makes me wonder if other universities whose population of current students has dropped quite low (namely Brandeis and WPI) should try holding newbie-friendly LARP events and see if they can’t repeat RPI’s success. Maybe that’s something I can use my new position on the NEIL board to encourage?