I've previously reviewed Engine Publishing's Eureka: 501 Adventure Plots, so when I was asked if I would review the latest and greatest from the gents at Gnome Stew, I was definitely on board with doing so.
If Eureka was Engine Publishing's rookie entry in the field of GM's aid supplements, Masks: 1,000 Memorable NPCs is where they show what they've learned. It would be a disservice to simply call this a big book of Non-Player Characters. Masks is a system-neutral, well-organized treasury of memorable, easy-to-use NPCs that will add to any Game Master's arsenal.
First things first, though: my review copy was a pdf, and came in at 338 total pages in a 17MB file. The entire product is bookmarked, as any commercial RPG product probably should be these days. It's a nice cover, with some good, evocative art by Christopher Reach.
Too many GM products simply aren't well-organized; again, the creators of Masks show they understand the importance of accessing information quickly by category. After a short foreword by Wolfgang Baur and some general GMing advice, we get right into how to use this book. And that's really a strength of Engine products over their first two books; if this were just a thrown-together list of NPCs, that's one thing. Instead, each entry is classified by genre, and whether they are potential villains, allies, or neutral parties for the campaign.
The NPC entries are split into thirds between fantasy, science fiction, and modern types. Each NPC entry has a title, a brief descriptor and quote to give you an overall idea of the character, and then goes into the finer details. Appearance, Roleplaying Tips, Personality, Motivation, and Traits are all listed. I really like how the entries give you so much to go on in as few words as possible. The editors should be proud, because they really excelled in doing as much as they could in a reasonable amount of space.
Masks also give you advice on "re-skinning" these characters to fit in any genre, as well as a cool look behind the scenes at some "keywords" used in making the NPCs. It's the sort of tool that really extends the potential usability and inspiration this work can bring.
One of the built-in features of Masks that might be overlooked at first glance is the running ribbon of different potential NPC names running from start to finish. If you're stumped for a name, you can basically jump to a random page and put your finger on a good name to use. It's a small thing, but very handy nonetheless.
As far as layout goes, I again want to reiterate it seems that everything has gone into making this book as easy to use as possible. The design is well-organized, with a good table of contents, index, and a nifty appendix in the back linking certain NPCs into usable organizations such as "Bandit Group" or "Noble With Retainers". The art seems to be always fitting, but never in the way or overdone. Not every NPC is illustrated, but you wouldn't expect it, with 1,000 of them to be done.
In summation, Masks is a great second outing from Engine Publishing and the lads at Gnome Stew. The preorder price is $39.95 for hardcover/pdf or $19.95 for pdf. The hardcover will only be available through Engine Publishing and at Gen Con; game stores will see a softcover edition through distribution. Either way, I believe Game Masters will be well-served in picking this up. Engine Publishing is quickly showing they know just how to compile and publish great resources for GMs. Masks is a great book that's already seeing use at my table, and I'm sure it's got a good chance to be just as useful at yours.