Masks/Eureka

This blog is pretty unapologetically about D&D (which, for the purposes of this article, is synonymous with Pathfinder). There’s a reason it’s called “DMing with Charisma” and not “GMing with Rapport” or “Storytelling with Manipulation”. That’s not necessarily because it’s the best system but because it’s a system that does most of what I want it to do and does it well, and it’s one in which I have a lot of experience. There’s a lot more I can discuss in a system where I’ve run a dozen campaigns than a system where I’ve played in one.

That said, I do try to cover advice that’s not particular to D&D. Most of the Laws are system-agnostic, though they aren’t all as paramount in other games; Law #4 is kicked to the curb in Paranoia and Law #3 is less relevant in a system like GURPS that claims to have rules for everything. Cooperative session design is so core to Fate there’s a mechanic for it. My character creation steps are appropriate for any system where you get to create a character, terms like “rolling stats” and “feats” aside. In each article that isn’t explicitly about D&D like a book review or some critique on 5th Edition, I try to comment in some way on gaming in general in the context of D&D.

But the point is that I focus on D&D, so I haven’t historically had a lot of need to review information from other systems. Only relatively recently have I started to gleam techniques and knowledge from other systems, play styles, GMs, and sources to see what they have to say, what’s worth repeating, and how (or whether) I can translate it to D&D. Articles like those on Gnome Stew and Left Oblique give me an insight I didn’t have before, and there are a lot of really neat ideas out there that don’t necessarily come from Seattle or Redmond.

So when I saw that Gnome Stew was publishing books, I got real interested in what system-agnostic advice they could fit into five hundred pages. I wasn’t too interested in their guide to campaign management or their guide to session preparation (though, more on the latter next post). But I was pretty excited about their book with a thousand NPCs or their more recent book with five hundred adventure plots, and only more excited when I read through the previews available on their website. Recently I was able to acquire these books (patronized with money!) and give them a more thorough read. It’s not an exaggeration to say that they’re everything I wanted and more.

Masks is the book on NPCs. Though it’s easy to regard a book like this as “ten city guards with different weapons, ten innkeepers with different hairstyles, etc.” the authors apparently picked a number of personality traits, good and bad, and distributed all of them to each author to ensure each was creating a wide array of personalities. They’re arranged in chapters for fantasy, sci-fi, and modern settings, and each chapter contains about eighty villains, eighty allies, and twice as many neutrals that can swing one way or the other. Each NPC is further tagged, and with the indexes in the back of the book you can look up only criminals, or only scientists, or only famous people, and so on.

There’s a lot to like in Masks. Each NPC feels like an actual person, with background and motivation and personality that can be slotted into just about any setting. Each has a quick quote, some of which are wonderful. I feel like there was a conscious effort to make each NPC memorable for players and do it as quickly as possible, but there’s still room for most to grow at the table. Through the magic of reskinning a member of the space patrol can be a traveling paladin in seconds, and since no stats are provided there’s no worrying about converting from one system to another (in fact, trusting a DM to build stat blocks for the NPCs encourages creativity more than limits it).

I do take some umbrage at what appears to be a false distinction among allies, enemies, and neutrals. I was able to find two reporters, a villain who looked for secrets wherever they were and a neutral who outed their own sources and burned as many bridges as necessary for a big story. These seem to be like they should be swapped, and there’s plenty of room for either to be an ally. This is one of many examples where I thought an ally, enemy, or neutral was in the wrong section entirely and had much greater potential elsewhere. I know that the sorting within a section is as good as random, but I think I would have preferred if “villainous” was a tag rather than a chapter section that only sort of works.

Eureka is the book on plots. It’s based on providing adventures for The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations in fantasy, sci-fi, and horror settings (because NPCs can be modern, but plots must be horrific, I suppose). There are four plots in each of the three settings for each of the thirty-six situations, plus sixty-nine more for those readers who are doing the math in their heads. The adventures include setup, background, encounter ideas, and possible resolutions, which makes it easy to see how a party can run from one set piece to the next. They also avoid mentioning NPCs by name where possible, which gets past that niggling quirk game designers have about making DMs run the plots exactly as the designer envisioned.

The plots have great ideas with wide variance and I could immediately see slotting almost all of them into at least one of the campaigns I’ve run. Once I started to understand the situations I was able to draw on themes, and since Eureka has a tag system similar to Masks it soon became easy to find something like what I wanted almost no matter what it was (the Sortable Excel plot matrix is a big time-saver here). The plots aren’t the same sessions whitewashed by the inclusion of a different author; they’re all unique, and I haven’t found one yet that looks outright boring. Even the worst plot I read, something about a cave system that the party finds because the guard at the entrance goes wandering and attacks them for no discernible reason, had some fantastic encounter ideas.

At times the book does get a little too specific in how an adventure progresses. My last post was about how no plan survives contact with the players, and building an adventure around “One PC will fall in love with the NPC witch, but the party will then go to the woods where they discover the bodies under her house” is pretty presumptuous. Plots also have a tendency to be overwrought. I expect this is because a DM doesn’t need help with something simple like “pirates are drunk and have cannons”, but there are a lot of layers necessary to the story that I can see my players skipping through ignorance or happenstance. The express lack of NPC names doesn’t help much; describing full-blown courtly intrigue is hard enough without referring to everybody as “the king”, “the retainer”, or “the other duke” over and over again. Combined this sometimes looks like a plot taking place regardless of PC influence, which while simulationist is about the worst possible goal for which a plot can strive. Though it’s nit-picking, the language also occasionally leaves something to be desired; I want to get my PDF copy of the books just so I can see how many times the phrase “the crux of the adventure” is used. (Edit: it turns out “the crux of the adventure” is only used twice in the entire book. But those two times happen to be on the same page. C’mon, man!)

I think I like Masks more than Eureka, probably because I’m used to running sessions with no idea which way is forward and only a vague idea of which way is up. It’s much easier to grab an NPC and slot them somewhere than it is to grab an entire plotline. But both books have a lot of great ideas in them and they’re a fun way to get ideas if you’re stuck or shake things up even if you’re not. It’s like having a mentor or muse to offer an idea that you hadn’t thought of or give you some seed to expand into a character or adventure of your own. Just as with reading advice or information about a different system, you can take the things you like and ignore or change the things you don’t.

The books aren’t tools for lazy DMs to get out of doing work, because the content in each still requires effort to put into a campaign, not to mention run it. They’re tools for busy DMs who need something fast, or for patient DMs who can take the time to think about the best thing they can run, or for new DMs who want a prompt, or for experienced DMs looking for a new take on what they can run. In short, they’re books for DMs, all of them, for any reason a DM could want.

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