Cypher System (Unmasked)

Unmasked is not a complete game, it’s a campaign setting designed to be used with the setting-agnostic Cypher System, also by Monte Cook Games. You might want to read our previous review of the Cypher System Core Rulebook before reading the rest of this review, but it shouldn’t be the end of the world if you don’t. In Unmasked, it’s only 1986. So, the end of the world isn’t for a few more decades anyway.

One of the nice things about the setting books for the Cypher System is that while the overall organization of the book is fairly uniform, the writing is not. There’s a personality and energy that comes from having a single writer, that some game systems’ writing approach lacks. When you sit down to look through Predation and then Unmasked, as an example, the information is the same but how most of it is conveyed feels very different.

The world of 1986 is very different than the world we live in today. Depending on their age, different players are going to approach this setting from different angles. For the younger end of Generation X, this was their teenage life. For many, the world of Unmasked was their world. For Xennials, they will likely remember bits of this era. They were still young, no older than 10, so they won’t connect as closely with the time, but close enough to have a visceral understanding of it. As you cross into the Millenial, and later, generations their experience with the ’80s become increasingly based on academics and entertainment. Television and movies from that era are not common to find, and it has become a treasure trove for modern entertainment looking for a time just outside the digital age. Personally, I land very much in that Xennial demographic. So reading the first part which introduces the world of Unmasked, and just as importantly the real world behind it, was a fascinating combination of nostalgia and sober second thoughts at my own childhood. The third part digs even deeper into the world of the ’80s, and bounces between things that affected everyone at the time, and things that felt very America-centric. I don’t say that as a criticism. I say it as a point that this was a time when the cultural differences between America and Canada, an even more so between America and the World, were much more distinct.

The second section is all about creating a player’s character. Character creation in Unmasked works the same as in other Cypher System games, beginning with the statement “I am an [adjective] [noun] who [verb]s”. However, there is an extra step to get there. Players have, effectively, two characters. A large portion of the game they will be playing a completely normal (until recently) high school student. Their teen is, in fact, so normal that they only have a Descriptor. The Descriptor is the adjective in “I am an [adjective] [noun] who [verb]s”, and beyond that, they are just another teenager. While not specifically limited to the Descriptors created for Unmasked, it is highly suggested. Teens also have certain unique Skills, but they are not likely to be super useful (pun intended) in many situations.

Eventually, however, the teens are drawn to certain “Mementos” (Cyphers) that they use to create a mask. When they put on the mask, they become a “Mask Form” that is a fully realized character with a Descriptor, Type, and Focus. Mask Forms also get to select three Power Shifts that they can assign to specific actions and abilities, allowing them to do things that would be impossible for any regular person, even in comparison to other Cypher System games.

There are four Mask Form character types to choose from, that were built off of character types from the Core Rules, but designed to help players get the most out of Unmasked. Similarly, players can access any of the descriptors (the adjective), foci (the verb), and abilities from the Core Rules, or any other Cypher System setting, as well as the new ones for this setting. Because Mask Forms are very specifically NOT normal, there is rarely a need to put any restrictions on what or where players draw from.

Each of the Mask Form types is meant to represent a general point along the spectrum of superpowered beings. The Smasher is your typical big bruiser type, built off of the Warrior template of the Core Rules. Thinkers are built around the Adept template, and generally your intellectuals and psychics. Movers are derived from the Explorer template, and usually have movement related abilities. (shocking, right?). Changers are the Speakers of Unmasked. Their abilities often range from disguises to physically transforming things. Regardless of which abilities a player chooses for their Mask Form, they are encouraged to tweak them to give them a “feeling” for the setting.

Part 4 presents a completely created setting, the town of Boundary Bay, but between Parts 3 and 4 GMs are given all the framework to create their own setting within Unmasked.

The book closes with Parts 5 and 6, giving all the behind the scenes tables, examples, and ideas, a GM might need to keep the game running smoothly even if it takes an unexpected twist. It also includes “Mister Monster” a short introductory adventure framework.

I’ve never claimed to be a great GM, and I feel like running an Unmasked game might be a bit out of my depth. Although Monte Cook Games does have a handful of pre-created adventures for Unmasked that might change my mind about that. I could see a great Scooby-style mystery being a perfect starting point for a campaign that could rapidly escalate into an Edgar Cantero novel. The whole concept is just off the beaten path enough to make for pure gold in the right (or wrong) hands.

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