Engine Publishing has just opened preorders for the new book from the authors of Gnome Stew, Masks: 1000 Memorable NPCs for Any Roleplaying Game. You’ll have to wait for a couple of months to get your hands on it, but in the meantime, read our review!
The tavern was filled with local drunkards, sailors and assorted scum. He noticed most of them while they were passing through the entrance and sitting down at their tables, ordering cheap swill. Two bells already rang from the town’s clock tower since he sat down at the Dragon’s Wing tavern to meet his contacts.
The smoke in the room started irritating Bryn’s right eye. He hated both waiting and tasks like this one that the old fart Strybor often assigned to him. Instead of wasting his time here, listening to bad rhymes of drunken songs, he could have been earning coin in the bedroom of some lonely noblewoman. On the other hand, he knew well that the revolution required sacrifice and that the tyrant’s head won’t adorn the pole at the town square without preparations and sacrifices like this one. He was already in too deep with the brotherhood to leave his comrades. He scratched the scar on his cheek and ordered another flagon of mead from the fat waitress instead.
In that moment, he heard the creak of doors opening. A cute noblewoman, a rat catcher and a northern berserker entered the tavern together. It was they he was waiting for.
One-Eyed Bryn, a ladies’ man and an actor in a traveling company whom we just met while he was waiting for the players in a fictional but possible scene of a fantasy adventure, is inspired by some of the many fine characters found in Masks: 1000 Memorable NPCs for Any Roleplaying Game. In this article, with a bit of help from our Bryn, we’ll show you what this book is all about.
Masks are a new title by the authors behind the gamemastering blog Gnome Stew. It’s a collection of characters ready to be used as written in your adventures and campaigns, or as inspiration for creating your own. Hardcover, this black-and-white 338-page book with an attractive cover by Christopher Reach and Darren Hardy would simply look gorgeous on your pimped-out RPG shelf. Inspired by an old article from a ’92 issue of the Dragon magazine, The 7 Sentence NPC, it is written with the intention to serve as a comprehensive manual and tool for game masters.
With an impressive exterior, the book’s contents are even juicier. It is the sacred duty of every game master to create a living, breathing and memorable world for his players, and in order to accomplish this, they are aided by the countless characters he (or she) invents and whose roles he (or she) plays. Relating this to the concept of a theater, RPG superstar Wolfgang Baur succinctly explains the book’s title in his foreword of Masks. Game masters are indeed actors and directors with a thousand faces. Then again, how many times have you witnessed (from either side of a GM screen) a new NPC, unexpectedly encountered in the adventure, having no name, no specific looks, or sounding exactly the same as all other characters encountered thus far? A rhetorical question, of course. In the defense of GMs everywhere, however, I’ll only say that those who never sat in their chair have no idea about the horrors of an encounter in which the party unexpectedly steps off the beaten path (a path beaten and prepared in advance by the GM, of course) for the first time.
Following the foreword is an introduction by the creative leader of our gnomish authors, the conceptual originator of this book and game master extraordinaire, Martin Ralya, in which he reveals to us the idea and guiding principles behind Masks. Just like their first title, Eureka, Masks too are a systemless offering intended to be useful to GMs no matter their style or experience running games. This time they raised the bar even further and scored a veritable critical hit. As befitting a quality handbook, the first chapter contains GMing advice covering topics like creating memorable characters and adapting generic roles to different genres (from fantasy to sci-fi, for example). New GMs will find this advice absolutely invaluable, and even the more experienced ones will find it a worthy read.
The largest and most important part of the book is taken up by 290 pages full of various NPCs divided into three genres: fantasy, modern and sci-fi. Each genre is additionally divided into three subcategories of characters based on their default intended relation to the PCs: villains, allies and neutrals, with the first two each comprising one quarter of the presented characters, and the last one comprising the remaining half. Even sexual parity is achieved, with an equal amount of male and female characters. Sex can easily be changed in most cases however, just like everything else. All of the characters are also described as human, although that too is pretty much a cosmetic detail which can be adapted as needed, with a minimal expenditure of time and effort.
Each NPC is presented within a framework that takes up a quarter of a page per character, but contains an amazing amount of useful info. The characters are introduced by their name, a short (mostly two-word) description and a characteristic quote, with the remaining part of the writeup containing bits such as appearance, roleplaying advice, personality, motivation and background.
The names are truly diverse and have a nice genre-appropriate feel to them. An interesting aid is included in the form of a strip at the bottom of each page containing names of all the characters ordered by alphabet and genre. Odd pages contain first names and nicknames, while even pages contain surnames and titles. The next time you need an ad hoc name for a random redshirt, you really shouldn’t have any problems coming up with one.
Short descriptions following the name of each character, mostly comprised of only two words, are an excellent tool for instantly recognizing a character’s role. It may sound a bit crazy, but such a concise description is all it takes to get a feel for a character and is enough to get your creative juices flowing in abundance. There is truly a plethora of vivid character concepts within Masks: evil alchemists, possessed clerics, fallen warriors, cunning planetary leaders, deranged psychics, alien rights activists, hardcore gamers, tragic starlets and so on. In the case of our One-Eyed Bryn, his description could probably be “promiscuous conspirator”. Quotes following this description are mostly comprised of only one sentence, but fully capture the essence of a character: “I would rather choose to fight my battles in some courtesan’s bedroom than in combat with the tyrant’s soldiers, but this oppression will not end if we don’t organize and strike back,” as some swear were the words coming right off of Bryn’s lips.
A couple of sentences describing the character’s looks are quite enough for on-the-fly usage in games (Bryn is a slim young man with a purple eyepatch over his left eye. Despite a scar on his cheek, his face is quite handsome). Roleplaying advice describes the character’s behavior, aiding the GM in taking on his role (Bryn is drawn to any attractive woman in the room. He will openly flirt, sparing no compliments and witty remarks). While these two sections are tied to what the players will experience from the outside, the section describing the character’s personality contains information that will be useful to the GM mainly for keeping the character’s act consistent (Bryn is a social idealist and talented actor with one flaw – women. He values freedom and friendship and will do anything to help a friend in need). Together with the part about motivation (He wishes to overthrow the tyranny or to die in the bed of some gorgeous noblewoman.), it makes up the core of a character’s inner workings, and is thus the key of vividly bringing the character to life.
Near the end of the writeup is a section about the character’s background which serves as a great foundation for hooking the character into the story and contriving further developments: Bryn is an actor of little renown who spent the last two years traveling with a theatrical troupe on the rise. Owing to his profession and lifestyle, he met people that suffered under the iron fist of a local tyrant, strongly influencing his sense of justice. Joining a brotherhood of likeminded individuals, he often helps adventurers and freedom fighters through his network of contacts.
Finally, the writeup ends with a collection of traits that are extremely useful while browsing for characters you already have a rough idea about. They include personality traits (aggressive, abhorrent, mysterious, etc.), skill sets (artist, leader, merchant, pilot) and affiliations with certain organizations or professions (police, military, etc.). A further point worth mentioning is the inclusion of a truly indispensable and well organized index. It lists the characters according to the aforementioned traits, groups they could belong to (e.g. cult leader and minions, space opera rivals or terrorist cell) and their authors.
Regarding interior illustrations, their authors and the editors did a pretty solid job. The drawings are clean, inspiring and don’t differ in quality, considering that they are a product of multiple illustrators. Sadly, every single character couldn’t get his own depiction because of physical constraints, but the 71 illustrations present in the book are more than enough.
With all that said, the final verdict is truly impressive. The authors of Masks definitively exceeded the expectations set by their previous offering, Eureka. The greatest strength of this book, however, is the simplicity of its use and effectiveness in the situation which is needed the most by any GM – when there’s no or little time for prep. Neatly laid out and with a terrific index, this handbook contains characters that can turn a dreary Friday night’s game into an unforgettable occasion that the PCs (and their players) will talk about for a long time. Although divided into three different genres, the characters are universal enough to allow for a quick and easy conversion into any style, era or setting. For example, our Bryn could exist as a singer with communist sympathies in the modern day, or an anarchistic porn star in some cyberpunk world.
We finish this article with an answer to the (rhetorical) question laid out in the beginning. Even though a GM’s skill in acting and improvisation can be improved after years of playing and running a multitude of adventures, and even though the number of masks in his repertoire can be increased, there comes a moment when even the best ones freeze in action. Masks: 1000 Memorable NPCs for Any Roleplaying Game are here exactly to make such occurrences few and far between and as painless as possible.