Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Nuts & Bolts #142 - First Impressions: Unmasked


It's here at last. The final release from the Worlds of the Cypher System Kickstarter. Hot(ish) on the heels of Predation this past summer Unmasked brings us a game that feels weirdly prescient and also very current. It was announced before we knew what Stranger Things was but feels like it is taking its advantage of the chance to fall into that particular groove of nostalgia within the current pop culture.

Either way we have a game that I think will find instant appeal in a certain sub-set of the Cypher System fandom, and potentially fly over the heads of others. Its setting is the 80s, and much of the way the game functions both from a perspective of characters as well as rules is anchored to a time when our world was substantially less instant, and substantially less digital. It's not nostalgia for the sake of mining a current fad, because while this game could work in a different era it just wouldn't work as well. The 80s were a turning point and the story of these teens with phenomenal powers is something that dovetails into that era in a way that just feels right.

The setting for the game is very much 1986. It's also, at least ideally I think, small town America. It's game of big things happening to some of the kids in this mid '80s small town. Sound like Stranger Things? It should, but again, this was announced prior so I don't know that this a a copy-cat so much as parallel development. The setting may well be one of the most familiar and easy to run for you, or it'll be something that requires research because you didn't grow up in that time or place. Either way there are easy touchstones for inspiration out there. There are a multitude of "classic" 80's films to draw ideas from, Stranger Things may well be a direct inspiration, and for gamers who were of the right age in the 80s they can also draw directly from memory. All this doesn't mean that there isn't setting resources within the book. There are tons including both a minorly fleshed out town used as examples of how to build one's own setting, and a fully fleshed out setting for Boundary Bay, New York (*cough* Montauk *cough*).

Similarly the game is about teens with superpowers. Kinda. Teens who can become people with superpowers is probably a more accurate description The titular masks allow the empowered teens to become another person, another personality with a different damage track, and fantastical abilities. This is not X-men because the teens do not have these powers directly.

Which isn't a bad thing, it allows for a different look at the concept of teens with power, and further allows for the powered version to have wildly different personality from the teen beneath. A player could have a nerdy introvert who becomes a loudmouthed extrovert with their mask. This also means that a character who gets bullied may be tempted to recruit their braver mask to fight back for them. It's a different enough take on super-teens that it feels new and fresh. It also means that the teen and the mask can be at odds, opening further room for roleplay.

Mechanically speaking Unmasked shakes things up for the Cypher System. Much in the same way that Predation and Gods of the Fall were willing to pull bits of the base code apart and re-write them Unmasked changes fundamental aspects of your character.

Firstly is the way that the Teen persona works. Teen would feel weird if they had a ton of skills or crazy abilities, and they don't in Unmasked. Instead a teen gets a stripped down set of pools, befitting an adolescent who is not yet fully matured, and a descriptor. The descriptors are an open option from just about any of those you have access to, so long as they are not overtly supernatural or powered. E.g. the Mystical descriptor wouldn't fit for a Teen. That's it. Your teen is a barely formed and unmatured person, and the rules support this. It's simple and I love it (and not just because I used this idea previously!)

There's more though. The Mask persona gets a full character sentence; they are a blank blank who blanks. They are in every way a fully realized Cypher Character. They also have to share their recovery rolls with the teen who wears the mask. Let me repeat that as is it hugely important for Unmasked GMs: the teens and their masks share the same recovery rolls. This means that a teen who takes a 1 turn recovery after a run in with the school bully is depriving their mask of that 1 turn recovery later that day when something happens. Or maybe it's the other way around and the teen can't compete during the big football game because his mask used up his 1 turn and 10 minute recovery rolls.

There's also some interesting ideas around power shifts (more that enough for a whole different article about that specifically), and how the teens and their masks interact with others and with cyphers. Specifically how teens and their masks are the only ones who can normally identify a cypher, called mementos in Unmasked, and make use of their power. This presents a different approach than the prior settings where cyphers were things of value to any person in the setting.

There's also the fact that mementos double down on the weirdness of cyphers by providing not only a useful ability but also a strong emotion, often with very specific context. Given that the protagonists and likely some of the antagonists are teenagers I could spin a talek specifically about a character who abuses mementos not for their abilities but to capture those feels that they feel unable to attain "in real life" as it were. Instead of the "I cut myself so I can feel" trop the character is constantly looking for cyphers because mementos are the only way they can feel. Pair that with a setting tweak where using mementos has some direct or indirect cost and things could get interesting very quickly.

I've not yet played Unmasked, but I can already see where the rules choices and setting structures can be pulled apart and put back together to not only tell the story I want within the context of this setting, but also for other settings. As the third (but hopefully not final) World of the Cypher System I feel like this game dives into the deep end of the possibility of the Cypher System in general. As a follow up to Gods of the Fall and Predation (and Numenera and The Strange before them), Unmasked is more than worthy, and a triumphant piece of nostalgia gaming that still feels innovative and very much like it's own thing.