It was almost a year ago when I had the chance to review Engine Publishing’s debut product: Eureka. Back then I called it “the most useful tool a gamemaster could probably have”. And now it seems Martin Ralya and his coauthors have managed to add another vital component to the GM’s toolbox.
Masks is a 338-paged book which contains thousand unique NPCs for your game. There are 334 fantasy characters, 333 sci-fi characters and 333 characters meant for a modern setting. These genre divisions are of course only meant as guidelines, so you might actually use a fantasy character in your sci-fi game with just a few minor tweaks. Aside from being divided into genres the NPCs also fall in three general roles: villain, neutral and allies. Since the most people in any given campaign world are more or less neutral to the players this group makes up 50%, while villains and allies are 25% each.
But of course Masks contains more than just descriptions of thousand NPCs. The first chapter not only gives a few guidelines about how to use the book you also get some great tips on how to make your characters really memorable. The book provides the GM with several examples on how qualities like attitude, style, depth, etc. can help to turn a random NPC into someone the players will talk about for years to come. But the advice doesn’t stop there.
The book gives a lot of tips on how to fill your NPCs with live. My favorite advice is that even if you think you might look like an idiot when you act out a NPC you should do it anyway. Too many GMs fail to breathe life into their NPCs because they play them as if they were reading a random section from the newspaper. Booooring! Another great advice that you should avoid falling in love with your NPCs. NPCs are the support cast of the game, but they should never steal the limelight from your players. All in all the advice given is sound and in some cases even an old GM may learn a few new tricks.
But of course the bulk of the book is taken up by the thousand character descriptions. Each NPC has a unique name, a capsule description like “Possessed Cleric”, “Unlucky Captain” or “Post-Apocalyptic Preacher”, a quote, a number for easy reference, a decryption of their Appearance, Roleplaying tips, an overview of their Personality, a Motivation, Background, Traits (like humorous, political and pilot).
Of course I haven’t read all the character descriptions yet, but the ones I’ve checked out were original, well-designed and definitely memorable. In some cases the description is accompanied by a skeptch of that character. Speaking of the artwork. While the interior of the artwork is black & white its of a high quality. I also like the layout and fonts used. The book has a very strong style without overdoing it.
One of the highlights of the book are definitely the indexes. Especially for a book like Masks which is not only during preparation but also at a reference tool at the table a good organized index is vital. Luckily the book comes with multiple indexes. The Indexes list the NPCs by Trait, Name, Author and Groups (like Academic Organization, Holy Warriors, or Tavern Staff for example)! The book concludes with the short bios of the contributing authors.
One question remains: is this book useful? Hell yeah, it is! Coming up with a good NPC can sometimes be very hard, especially when you are constantly as bad prepared as I am. In a lot of cases my character have silly names and you have the nagging feeling, you met that guy already in a bar somewhere. In the future, when my improvisation skills fail me, I can just open Masks and pick one of the NPCs there that loosely fits what I just needed.
A lot of the NPCs can also be used as inspiration for a whole adventure. Especially some of the villains are extremely cool. I can’t wait to put some of those to good use. Masks is definitely a book that should not be missing from any GM’s bookshelf!
Please note that this review was based on the PDF version of Masks that has been provided by Engine Publishing for the purpose of this review. By the time this post goes live the preorder for Masks should already be open at the official Engine Publishing site. So what are you waiting for? Head there and reserve your copy of the book now! It’s well worth its price of $39.95!
Thank you for taking the time to review Masks, Michael — and I’m glad you liked the book! I’m especially glad you dug the indexes; our indexer, Matt Neagley, put a lot of work into them, and they’re one of my favorite aspects of the book as well.
(One small note: Masks is $39.95 for the hardcover + PDF, not $33.95.)
Oops, I will fix that typo ASAP.
The book sounds like a lot of fun… But It is one of those books I love to read but rarely crack open at the game. Not a slam on the book mind you it sounds excellent. It’s just that for my style of GMing one of the things I love is coming up with the NPCs… That may sound too conceited, sorry! I do keep lists of hundred of NPCs from my games. Best of luck with Masks.