Right now is one of the biggest moments for the 1980s, and I’m very much including the actual 80s. Between Stranger Things, the Ghostbusters remake, 80s-inspired bands, the recent Terminator sequel, the upcoming Top Gun sequel, and (of course) the sequel Star Wars trilogy, there’s plenty to make you take a look back at the 1980s (even if you never lived through them). You can add to that list the most recent Cypher System sourcebook Unmasked.
Like Tales From the Loop, the setting for Unmasked is not as simple as the 1980s but with secret super powers. This version of the 80s starts off with the history we know but with a mysterious force that is slowly advancing across the United States. In the wake of its passage, this hooded figure leaves young people who are changed with fantastical powers and dangerous secrets. In a time before smartphone cameras and the internet, news spreads very slowly but by the late 80s the public at large knows that something is up.
The exact timeline of your campaign is up to the GM but sometime in the first half of the decade the teenaged PCs heard the call of this mysterious something, having dreams that compel them to make a particular mask with a strange design. When they complete and put on these masks, however, they discover that they are not just art projects. They are conduits for some mystical force that gives them amazing superpowers. As the world starts getting weirder and weirder, these teens are the only thing standing in the way of total anarchy. Plus they’ve got school and curfews and stuff so the situation is, like, really messed up.
At this point, it should come as no surprise to fans of Arc Dream Games that the author of this game is Dennis Detwiller who has worked on many different games but most relevantly for this discussion, the WWII supers game Godlike and the super-80s Lovecraftian military game Delta Green. More than anything, Detwiller’s involvement in the game made me excited for it and his experience certainly shines through.
The bulk of the questions I had about Unmasked before reading it, and so maybe the bulk of your questions as well, is how superheroes are actually made in this setting mechanics-wise. Superhero RPGs are one of those subgenres that seems to be in the Top 5 of everyone’s list for both popularity and difficulty. Whether you’re talking about an intricate system like Mutants and Masterminds or Wild Talents, a narrative-based system like Daring Comics or Masks, or even something designed specifically for a comic book world like Marvel Heroic Roleplaying… any direction you go there are great examples (like those listed) and those that fall short.
For Unmasked, superheroics are achieved through the same process as other Cypher characters: through a descriptor, type, and focus. The divide between teen and mask in this game makes this a little trickier, of course, but basically your character’s descriptor is their teen-self and everything else comes from the mask. The exact details of everything is below.
Your teen’s mundane self, who they were before they made their mask and started living a double life, basically comes down entirely to their descriptor. As usual, skills are picked through the descriptor but you also pick three skills that aren’t limited to any particular sort of skill. The game encourages you to pick skills that are a little less useful and more what a teenager might have. A list of examples including “comic books,” “insults,” “school bureaucracy,” and “telling them what they want to hear” give you an idea of what you might be able to do.
Unmasked comes with four really-teenaged and really-80s descriptors. Metal Head is a hardcore and threatening descriptor; New Wave is an intellectual and artistic descriptor; Punk is a reactive and resourceful descriptor; and Show-Off is an active and daring descriptor. You can also pick anything from the Cypher System Rulebook and Expanded Worlds (except for obviously magical ones like Mystical) but that’s everything for your teen’s powers. You have a teen set of Stats that are decent but really just placeholders. The last thing you pick with your descriptor is your general background (not with your type as usual) and the book has a table of one hundred(!) different possibilities to get your mind working.
As soon as you put on your mask you gain a new descriptor (among other things). Your teen descriptor is put aside and you have something new instead that grants you all sorts of awesome powers. Conceivably any descriptor from the Cypher System Rulebook could work (or something from The Strange, Numenera, Gods of the Fall, and Predation if you like) since the masks’ abilities are pretty open-ended. This can really be anything from those books since masks can give you crazy powers… but there’s a weird lack of detail on this. I guess it doesn’t need too much elaboration but with everything else in this book… oh well.
You also gain a type with the mask, following the warrior/mage/rogue system established in Numenera. Like the Cypher Systems Rulebook, though, the rogue type is divided into a fast type and a tricky type. As with the types in Predation and Gods of the Fall, most of this is just remapping the types to what’s found in the Rulebook. The smasher (borrowing from the warrior) is a powerhouse that punches their way out of trouble, as is the American way. The thinker (borrowing from the adept) is less straightforward and is billed as a clever problem-solver but really just turns out to be a mage. The mover (borrowing from the explorer) is a fast and resourceful type with lots of movement and defense powers. Lastly, the changer (borrowing from the speaker) isn’t a morpher as you might expect but someone who changes… minds I guess?
Mechanically, this is solid and works really well but flavor-wise it connects the least with the theme of the game. Why not have types mix up powers more and go for stronger references to the comic book genre (like the archetypes found in Masks)? If you’re not going to do that, why not just reuse the types from Cypher System Rulebook? This seems like space that could have been used for mask descriptors instead without losing a lot of detail.
One thing that is added here, however, are the general “mask-form abilities” that can be substituted for a type ability if you don’t like what you’d get. Ranging from detected other masked individuals to summoning weapons out of nowhere to healing at a faster rate. You can always pick these in the same way there are options for subbing out focus abilities to customize. Players are also encouraged to rename abilities to match catch phrases and the like, which sound pretty fun to me.
Foci for Unmasked work just like foci in other Cypher games, except that it only applies to your mask form. Any foci from the Cypher System Rulebook would work (as well as whatever other Cypher products you have) but there are also some new ones for your crime-fighting pleasure.
Flies by Night is a shadow-mancer power set that allows you to manipulate darkness, even summoning shadow minions. Lives on the Dark Side is… a weird one, basically a way to get Darth Vader’s powers. Seriously, the first power lets you draw ranged attacks to your upraised palm and others let you sense emotions or have visions of the future. Seems gratuitous. Travels Back From the Future is in a similar boat since it references a classic 80s movie but it’s a little more unique with time-doubles jumping back in time to help and/or warn you. Wants to Be Adored seems to be just a collection of speaker abilities that a non-speaker could take, I guess. Not super-impressive.
The last step in creating a character for Unmasked is adding power shifts to your superhero character. This is a reuse of the information on pages 270-271 of the Cypher System Rulebook (with the same artwork even!) but with some expanded details that really help. There is plenty of advice on creating run and useful power shifts (a Detwiller staple when it comes to superhero RPGs) and some more ideas beyond the eight found in the core rulebook. Removing artwork this probably is the same amount of space dedicated to the same idea but it’s really useful and well-written. Definitely pull this for all your high-powered Cypher games.
The default setting provided for Unmasked is Boundary Bay, New York, a small town on northern Long Island which comes fully fleshed-out for your game. As the book says you can alter to your taste, but the secrets and the NPC networks in this little town are pretty great.
Beyond Boundary Bay there is plenty of advice for GMs, both in running a game set in the 80s and running one focused on superheroes. If you’re interested in running either halves of this formula, in or out of Cypher, you can mine a lot from this section. If you’re running a Cypher superheroes game the resources are even greater since you can make use of the ready-made power sets (six different masks ready to go), the Quick Adventure Generator, and the premade scenario “Mister Monster.” You can also make use of mementos (cyphers that only the masked can use) to sprinkle in your Cypher game.