Last year, when I backed the Worlds of the Cypher System Kickstarter, I was intrigued by the idea of the Cypher System as a stand-alone system that could be used for multiple genres. All I really picked up on from Unmasked was that it was going to be a superhero themed setting that also delved into some psychology about how a person’s powers would manifest.
As it turns out, Unmasked is only “sort of” a superhero setting. Its set in the 80s, and revolves around teenagers that gain the ability to take on a mask form that has superpowers. Unlike a game like Masks, the crux of the story isn’t about being superheroes, as much as it is exploring what it would be like to give teenagers superhero like powers, and if they use their powers for the greater good, or just to indulge in some power fantasies. It also features some government conspiracy elements and weirdness that might seem to dovetail a bit with the “kids on bikes” genre, except that the game explicitly is geared towards teenagers, not just young kids in general. The tagline is “Superpowers and Horror in a Dark Eighties.”
Unmasked is a 192-page supplement filled with full-color artwork. My review had the benefit of being informed by both the PDF of the product and the physical product. The book is solid and well made, with the same construction as the rest of the books in the Cypher System line.
The art is formatted and designed to use colors and forms that call back to the 1980s. That means lots of pink, green, and orange triangles. While the setting touches on a lot of supers elements, the mask forms depicted are often very over the top and wild compared to more standard superhero fare. A few pieces are repeated in multiple places in the book, although the repeated sections generally make sense, such as one of the pieces of art for the chapter detailing schools in the 80s being used in the sample adventure later on.
One other note–there are a few recycled pieces of art from the supers section of the Cypher System rulebook, and they actually don’t align as well with the tone of the book, since they often show very noticeable battles in the middle of cities.
The book has all the normal sidebar page references and quick stat notations of other Cypher System books. It has a page of Kickstarter contributors and playtesters, a two-page sample character sheet, and a one-page index.
Part 1: Origins
The first part of the book is comprised of two chapters, The World of Unmasked and Unmasked Overview. This section of the book explains the media that informs the book, the high-level pitch for the setting, and what the game concepts in the Cypher System look like in this specific setting.
There is a sidebar about adapting the setting to other eras, with the most important note being that the setting will have a harder time working in eras where telecommunication is more ubiquitous. The arc of the story is that mask forms go largely unnoticed by the larger world, which becomes more difficult the closer the story gets to the modern day.
One part of this section that I wanted to draw special attention to is that not only does it give suggestions for inspirational viewing (as many settings do), but it also gives you a list of inspirational listening, to get in the right musical mindset for the setting.
Part 2: Prodigies
Prodigies are the term used for individuals that have been granted superpowers in the setting. This section is composed of the chapters Creating a Character in Unmasked, GMing Prodigies, Creating the Teen–Teen Descriptor, Creating the Mask–Mask -Form Descriptor and Type, Creating the Mask–Mask-Form Focus, and Creating the Mask–Mask-Form Power Shifts.
Prodigies can see the hidden power in items and in other people that have the potential to become prodigies. They can use mementos (the settings version of cyphers), and they can gather items to create a mask, which allows them to create a mask form, which is the teen’s super-powered alter-ego.
Mask-forms don’t usually think that they are the teen that they are bound to, and regardless of the secrets of the setting, they may believe they have an origin that they do not actually possess (for example, a mask-form may think they are an alien being bonded to their teen, even if aliens have nothing to do with the origin of where superpowers come from, and aren’t established to exist in the setting).
The personality traits of the mask form often reveal something about the personality of the teen. A teen that has very low self-esteem may have a mask form that either tries to bolster their self-worth, or that actively disdains the teen from which they spring. A shy teen may have a mask form good at stealth and going unnoticed, or they may have an outgoing and boisterous mask form.
Mechanically, the teen form and the mask form track their damage separately, and if a mask form is moved down the damage track, it will appear with that amount of damage if not given time to rebuild its reserve energies.
Teens have their own ability pools, separate from the mask form, and they only have a descriptor. Mask forms have the full bells and whistles of a Cypher System character, and in addition, they get power shifts, and alternate rule from the Cypher System rulebook that is also used in the Gods of the Fall setting. This means certain tasks are much easier for mask forms, and may automatically succeed, where such tasks would be nearly impossible for a normal human.
The standard character types from the Cypher System Rulebook are represented here by Smashers, Thinkers, Movers, and Changers. As with the other Worlds of the Cypher System setting books, you will need to flip back and forth from this book and the main book to see how the modified version of the character types is changed from the core rules’ assumptions.
There are some great hooks for roleplaying when it comes to exactly how different types must activate their powers. For example, before a Smasher uses one of their abilities from their type, they must somehow announce that they are about to use the ability out loud. These hooks immediately play to some tropes, and give the game some personality, but they may wear thin in a longer campaign or with repeated play.
As with just about every other Cypher System book, the setting includes some new foci that can be used for the setting, but might be useful in other Cypher System games. Flies by Night, Lives on the Dark Side, Travels Back from the Future, and Wants to Be Adored all have elements that would be useful in other settings, and given that the mask form can have all kinds of nonsensical ideas about their own origins, a wide range of foci from other settings can be justified.
The three pages of explanation for power shifts feel more informative than the treatment the alternate rule received in the core Cypher System book or in Gods of the Fall, where the topic only warranted a page and a half or a page. The rule itself is simple, but the guidance on how to conceive of the narrative boundaries of what that power shift can do in this book is greatly appreciated.
Part 3: Welcome to 1986
This section of the book is broken into chapters on The Eighties, The Town, The School, The Threat, and The Big Picture. It is essentially a sourcebook for running campaigns in the United States in the 1980s, with a lot of time put into explaining how towns were commonly organized, how schools usually worked, etc.
As someone that lived through this time, none of this was revelatory, but at the same time, it did a really good job of summarizing some daily elements of 80s life that my modern self had forgotten. The material focuses heavily on “less than a big city” settings, in part because that means that the mask forms are less likely to be discovered, and because it is better for strange, out of the way plot creepiness to happen.
This section contains alternate ideas for where exactly superpowers come from, and what the weird thing stalking the super-powered individuals might be. There are notes on the subtle differences between a campaign where powers come from genetics, psychic phenomenon, or supernatural sources.
For each of the origins, there is the outline of a sample campaign laid out, showing what kinds of things might happen at the beginning, middle, and end of a school year in an ongoing plot, and what kinds of threats might face characters at the different character tiers.
I like this presentation for sample campaigns quite a bit. Not only does it illustrate what the designers were thinking when they came up with the setting, but it gives you a template to follow, or a baseline to deviate from, without leaving you wondering how to use all the tools presented.
Part 4: Welcome to Boundary Bay, New York
In addition to the broad 1986 primer in the last section, and the general power origins and suggested campaign arcs, the next part of the book introduces a more directly fleshed out setting for the game. Boundary Bay is given specific businesses, NPCs, a specific origin for the PCs powers, a new government agency, and a specific supernatural boogeyman that might be hunting them.
After touching on many NPCs in the town, there is another section of cool kids and outcasts, with various story hooks related to that NPC presented. There are also some existing mask forms that have been haunting the town that is detailed in this section. My personal favorite is Captain Meat, a mask form that appears to be a powerfully built human being with no skin.
For anyone familiar with other Cypher System books, the traditional NPC/threat write up format is only used for the main villain of this campaign, Prester John, a character that borrows from a few 80s era horror tropes from sources like A Nightmare on Elm Street or perhaps a bit from IT.
I was a little surprised that not only did we get three sample origins for powers, and three sample campaigns, but then we also get a more fleshed out campaign setting with its own hooks in addition to what appeared in the previous chapter. I also like that the military organization, The Circus (with a great origin for that name), is portrayed as dangerous, but not overtly evil or sinister. They are in over their head, and may make some bad decisions about suppressing a threat, but they avoid full villain status.
The NPC students are repeated in the section on classmates, and given explicit hooks, and while I appreciate that, I wish there was a matrix showing the prodigies in the school and what their mask forms are, so that it might be easier to decide on introducing the classmate first or the mask form. While it works, it’s an ongoing thing in Cypher System books that translating player facing abilities, like power shifts, to NPCs, who use different rules to express them, feels a little awkward.
Part 5: GM’s Toolbox
This section is comprised of the chapters Running Unmasked, Rule Options, Origins, and Big Secrets, Mementos, Masks, Quick Adventure Generator, and Mister Monster. Much of this section presents ways to dial rules up or down to enforce a certain tone, and ready-made hooks to insert into a game, as well as a sample adventure that utilizes the Boundary Bay setting presented in the last section.
There are some solid suggestions on what a typical game session should look like, as well as the kind of 80s teen problems you should insert into a game. There are some rules suggestions on adding in more power shifts to dial up the superhero side of things, and on how to make “normals” more fragile if you want the game to have a grittier feel and higher stakes regarding bystanders.
All the Cypher System games have their own explanation for what cyphers are, and ways to enforce the limit on the number of cyphers a character can carry. In Unmasked, mementos hold reserves of whatever power allowed the prodigies to gain their powers, and if too many of them gather in one place, they start to cause bad luck, reflected in the person carrying them increasing the difficulty of tasks they are attempting.
There are some great 80s-themed mementos, including fruit rollups, guitar picks, and old 8-track tapes. I especially love the “we’re not calling it a He-Man action figure” memento whose power is triggered when you pop off one of its arms. Mementos give a vague feeling that calls back to a very teen-centric memory when they are handled, such as giving the holder the feeling of sneaking out of the house after curfew or the feeling of getting a driver’s license.
There is a section of sample masks and mask forms that can be dropped into a game, and assigned to existing NPCs in the setting, but none of the sample mask forms are assigned any teen form in this section. The sample adventure generator has tables for determining Who, What, Why, and Special, which might result in an adventure outline such as “authority figure discovers drugs (special: corruption),” which you could then interpret how you wish.
The sample adventure is structured so that events will happen progressively, and if the worst possible outcome isn’t subverted earlier, it will end with one prodigy being driven to unleash their mask form in public, with the PCs, hopefully, helping to stop the rampage. Events are broken down by what happens on what day, and what complications might happen, but while there are suggestions on how those events might get more complicated, there isn’t as much discussion on defusing the situation early, just keeping it from escalating even further.
There are a lot of tools for reinforcing a teen drama theme, and for dialing the tone of a campaign from a more “grounded” feel to a more superheroic theme, but I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more in the toolbox section on facilitating the horror aspect of the setting.
Part 6: Back Matter
This section contains the Kickstarter contributors and playtesters, a character sheet, and an index. Of note is that the character sheet is formatted so that it’s obvious where the teen information goes as opposed to the mask form information, and it appears to be well suited toward making it easy to see what you should use for each form.
I really like the number of tools this book provides you for running a game based on super-powered weirdness in the 80s. The era material is helpful, the sample campaigns are great, and there are a ton of hooks and examples to draw from. The book also does a good job of using some of the modified rules touched upon in other Cypher System products and making them work for this concept. I don’t know if this was the case, but the setting feels like it was developed first, and then the rules were addressed to reinforce the setting, rather than starting from a base of saying “can we get Cypher to do superheroes” and working backward from that concept.
While there are horror elements in the settings, I feel as if the horror aspect of the setting is a bit underserved by the tools presented. It may be a little nit-picky, but I would have liked another summary of where NPCs are located and if they have a mask form or are one of the faceless summarized in the setting material.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
Unmasked surprised me. I wasn’t sure what it was going to be, but it does an exceptional job of expressing just what kind of niche it wants to carve out. It’s a recommended purchase for Cypher System gamers, not just because of the setting, but because it is a good example of how to utilize some of the optional rules that dovetail with other settings. Even beyond Cypher System gamers, there is some solid advice on running 80s games, especially those centered around creepy conspiracies and high schools. It manages to live in a similar space as games like Tales from the Loop, but also touches on territory covered by games like Masks. While being adjacent to both of those games, it still manages to have its own personality and quirks that make it unique.
What do you think of Unmasked? Gaming in an 80s setting? Have any thoughts about the review, the setting, or what you would like to see me cover? Please let me know–I’m looking forward to it!