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Wednesday, December 6, 2017

UNMASKED: A REVIEW OF THE NEW CYPHER SYSTEM SUPERHERO SETTING

Some are satin, some are steel
Some are silk and some are leather
They're the faces of the stranger
But we love to try them on...
-Billy Joel, "The Stranger"



1986...

It's the year the Challenger exploded, the year Chernobyl blew.  It's the year Halley's Comet revisited us, and the first PC virus, Brain, made its debut. Thatcher is in London.  Reagan's in Washington.  Gorbachev is in Moscow. "Money for Nothing" and "Addicted to Love" are the two hottest things on MTV.  And your life, the life that you have been living, is about to change.


Just a few weeks before your first day of high school, you wake up different. You somehow are able to see. All around you, all around town, random little objects now pulse, shimmer, with power. A soupspoon. A broken shard of glass. A bird feather. The hands of a clock. Somehow you can see which objects have been imbued and which haven't...and if you touch these objects, you somehow know what they can do. Each one of them has a trick, a spell, a power. Use the power once and its gone.

But wait...

...some of these random little things call out to you, whisper in your brain. Not many; just a select few. Somehow you just know which ones you need to collect. Somehow you just know what they want you to do. You collect these charms and they teach you, they show you how to make it.

Your Mask.

When you put that Mask on you are not you anymore. You are something more powerful. Something greater. Something more than human...something superhuman.

And this is how it all begins...



Origin Stories

Unmasked (192 pages, $44.99 hardcover, $17.99 pdf) is the latest offering from Monte Cook Games.  Unlike Ravendesk's Vurt, this is not a stand-alone game powered by the Cypher System, but a setting and sourcebook for the Cypher System Rulebook itself.  You'll need that book to use it.

Unmasked is the welcome return of veteran game designer Dennis Detwiller to the superhero genre. Part of the team that brought the world "Cthulhu meets X-Files" classic Delta Green, Detwiller was later the driving force behind Godlike, a 2001 RPG that married superheroes to the gritty, "war is hell" setting of WWII.  Godlike was very well received as a fresh take on what was already a bit of a warn-out RPG genre.  It's protagonists, called "Talents," eschewed the costumes and the masks for a much more grounded, realistic take than we had seen before.  This is a bit ironic, because Unmasked is literally all about the masks.

Funny things, masks.  They seem to embody the very concepts of transformation and mystery.  Their earliest uses in the murky origins of human society seem to be shamanic; in putting on the mask, the wearer channels or even becomes a god or spirit.  Even the word itself, "mask," is problematic.  We have no clear idea where it comes from or what it really means.  It might derive from a proto Indo-European word meaning "black, obscure," the Spanish más que la cara ("more than the face"), or even the Arabic masakha, meaning "transformed."  All of this feeds quite nicely into the mythology Detwiller is creating here, marrying the mythic, almost religious mask traditions with the concept of the "masked man" or masked hero.  The result is a game about perfectly normally teenagers compelled to create and wear Masks that transform then, body, mind, and perhaps even soul.

That is something critical to understand here.  This is not a game about super beings who put on a mask (or pair of glasses) to conceal their identities.  The Teen and the Mask are two different entities.  A Mask might be a different race, a different gender, a different species from the Teen that crafted it.  It might have very different drives and agendas.  The protagonists in this game are more like Billy Batson than Peter Parker.  This is where the game's much promoted "horror" elements come in.  The Mask isn't you...or is it?




We Could Be Heroes

Because this is a Cypher System Rulebook supplement, from here on it we will assume you know that game.  If not, following the link above for any of what follows to make sense to you.

Mechanically, Unmasked builds on the rules Monte Cook gave us in the core game.  Characters are once again defined by being "An (Adjective) (Noun) that (Verbs)."  This time, however, there is a twist.  The character sheet is split into the Teen and the Mask.  The Teen is defined only by a Descriptor and some appropriate skills.  He or she might be a "Tough Teen," or a "Naive Teen," a "Driven Teen" or a "Weird Teen." The Teen then gets his or her own Stat Pools (each starts at 6, with two additional points to assign).  This is the unmasked character.

The game calls its protagonists "Prodigies," and as hinted at above, they are normal young men and women who wake up in a world that has suddenly changed, but only they can see it.  Some event--and the nature of that event is very much up the the GM--has littered the world with cyphers (in this setting, called "Mementos").  As in other Cypher games, these are one use objects each containing a single special power.  Prodigies are the only people who know a Memento when they see it, and when they touch it they know what it can do.  Likewise, they are also able to identify each other.  What transformed these teens and these objects?  That is part of the story, and Detwiller gives the GM specific rules to decide the nature of the changes (Psychic? Mutation?  Mystical?) and guidelines on how to reveal the answers over the ongoing campaign.  However, the Prodigies are haunted by dreams of a nightmarish figure, the monstrous Prester John, who seems to be hunting Prodigies the way the First was hunting potential Slayers in the final season of Buffy.

Some Mementos call to Prodigies more powerfully than others, compelling the Teen to assemble them and use them to create a Mask.  Each Mask is unique.  When the Teen puts the Mask on, he or she becomes a completely new character, this time with its own Descriptor, Type, and Focus.  These Masks also have their own Stat pools and skills.  Most importantly, perhaps, they have "Power Shifts" (Cypher System, p. 270).  These shifts automatically lower difficulty levels by one step each.  So a Mask with 4 shifts in "Feats of Strength" would automatically lower any difficulty of that type by four, even before effort or other assets are applied.  This is part of what makes them truly superhuman.

Descriptors:  Given the nature of the game and the genre, any Descriptor from the Cypher System Rulebook or even Numenera or The Strange might be acceptable with GM approval.  While the game introduces new Teen Descriptors (Metal Head, New Wave, Punk, and Show-off) there are none that are Mask specific.

Types: The four standard Types have been reworked a bit here into the Smasher (Warrior), Thinker (Adept), Mover (Explorer) and Changer (Speaker).  They Type determines your initial stat pools (still a total of 34 points, but with the base values altered a bit), suggests where you put your Power Shifts and what Focus you chose, and gives you additional Power Shifts and abilities as you rise through the tiers.  

Foci:  Surprisingly, Unmasked introduces relatively few new Foci; Flies by Night, Lives on the Dark Side, Travels back from the Future, and Wants to be Adored are the only new entries.  Groups will need to really on the core rulebook (and possibly Expanded Worlds) for these power suites, and given the nature of the genre, any applicable Foci from Numenera or The Strange as well.

What emerges is a superhero form that is an entirely different entity from the Teen character.  This recalls heroes like Shazam, Thor (in the old days), and the Hulk, and introduces all sorts of role-play contradictions.  The Teen and the Mask share memories, but do they share goals?  Values?  Agendas? Are they operating in concert or at odds?  These are character design questions each player will need to consider as they craft their Masks.

Once a Mask is made it forms an almost supernatural bond with its Teen.  It cannot be "lost," and will always somehow return to the Teen who made it.  It cannot be destroyed by anything other than another Mask.  If a normal human tries to destroy it, the Mask will miraculously survive.  Even for other Masks, it is a level 15 difficulty challenge to destroy a Mask; doing so unleashes an "explosion" of power only other Masks can sense, and creates a half dozen or so new Mementos (cyphers) in the area.  Removing a Mask from another Mask is also an epic task, with a difficulty of 10.  Note this means Unmasked follows the Superhero genre conventions in Cypher by expanding difficulties from 1 to 10 to 1 to 15.  Since normal humans lack Power Shifts, tasks beyond 7 remain nearly impossible.

Two other points need to be made about Masks.

First, a Mask cannot be killed.  It has a separate damage track from the Teen wearing it, and when its Pools are depleted, the Mask simply falls off.  It cannot be worn again until a recovery role is made, and though the Mask and the Teen have discrete damage tracks, they share their recovery rolls.  This could easily result in an exhausted and beaten Mask falling off of a Teen and leaving them vulnerable in the midst of battle.  Teens can be killed.

Second, the Mask advances using XP, not the Teen.  Despite this, the Teen can gain XP for the Mask by (for example) doing their homework and fitting in at school, keeping their connection to the Mask a secret, and keeping the whole Mask phenomenon under wraps.




Who Watches the Watchmen?

Unmasked is very concerned with its setting, with the world the Masks inhabit and bringing it to life. More than half the book is devoted to this.

In broad strokes, this is a world in which Teens have gained impossible powers and are drawn into a secret war.  The game focuses on the 1980s as the backdrop, but other eras, such as the Roaring 20s, the 1960s, or even our own could be selected instead.  A modern campaign probably provides the biggest thematic challenges; how can we believe in a secret war in an age when everyone has cameras and the Internet?

Detailed rules are given to walk GMs through creating the town the Teens inhabit and the high schools they attend; rural like Smallville?  Suburban like Buffy?  Urban like Spider-man Homecoming?  Something else?  There is ample support in the book to craft these key elements of the setting however you like.  

Also to be considered is the nature of what is going on.  Where do these Masks come from?  Who is the villainous Prester John?  Are their evil Masks to fight?  What do the police know?  What does the government know?  Unmasked walks you through all of this, and your choices will make each campaign unique.  Your game could be a supernatural one like Buffy, connected to alien technology like Smallville, extra-dimensional like Stranger Things, or a half dozen other options.  

Unmasked offers guidelines for making these choices and then structuring the campaign around them, Tier by Tier, to build a satisfying arc.  To my mind, this is where Unmasked shines the brightest.  It painstakingly details how to guide the players through becoming Masks, mastering their powers, encountering their first threats, dealing with the Big Picture, and confronting the final foe.  Several model campaign arcs are outlined, as well as a complete example campaign setting.  Since the rules are already covered in the core rulebook, Unmasked devotes its bulk to actually using those rules to create a vibrant campaign.  It is a page count well-spent.

If you have been itching to play superheroes in Cypher, this is the perfect opportunity to do it.  Dennis Detwiller has proved the old adage wrong by making lighting strike twice.  While Godlike and Unmasked are light years apart in many ways, both are stories of ordinary young people dragged into massive and monstrous conflicts by powers they struggle to understand and control.  They are both extraordinary tales of superhumans (and come to think of it, Unmasked would work very well in Godlike's WWII setting as well).  I highly recommend Unmasked to lovers of the Cypher system and lovers of the supers genre.  It doesn't disappoint.

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