Book Review: Masks: 1,000 Memorable NPCs for Any Roleplaying Game from Gnome Stew and Engine Publishing

When I was GM or DM regularly, I was always on the lookout for supplements that would not only spark my players’ imaginations, but supplements that would spark mine. Many of those resources were flavored towards a particular setting or rules system, which wasn’t quite what I was looking for. That said, true system-neutral books were much harder to find back then and I think I stopped looking after a while.

Fast forward more than 20 years forward. Now we have smaller publishers and bloggers putting amazing system-independent materials out. And at the top of the heap are the guys at Gnome Stew. I wouldn’t think that gnome would be all that tasty – but there must be some special ingredients adding to their creativity quotients!

Last year I had an opportunity to check out Eureka, which offers 501 plots of a wide variety of choices to inspire adventures. Gamemasters in just about any genre (horror, science fiction, fantasy, or whatever) can point at a page at random and come up with the nugget of an encounter, an adventure, or even the seeds of a campaign. That book is one of a handful that will stay in my GM toolbox for years to come simply because I doubt I’d ever have an opportunity to use every last plot between those covers.

Not content to sit on their laurels, the Gnomes are back at it again. This time it’s another one of those topics every GM runs into problems with eventually… NPCs. I know from my own experience, I have no problem creating world after world, but I run into issues when I try to populate it and make it seem alive. City streets are nothing without people. Whether I need a shop keeper, a thug, a guard, or a thief, I never have enough NPCs pre-created and I stutter step a bit as I come up with a name, a personality, a raison d’être…

With Masks: 1,000 Memorable NPCs for Any Roleplaying Game, that problem goes away or at least becomes much more manageable. If I have a general need or an idea I want to generate a NPC around or if I have a specific goal in mind to fill a particular role – both angles are covered. And if I just want to randomly poke at a page to see what I get – I can do that as well.

Let me cover a few different ways I can envision using this book… First, there’s the random poke. It’s a little more difficult with a PDF viewer on an eReader like my iPad than when you have a printed copy, but I found a way with GoodReader – just slide the page slider to a random page and run with it. Easy as pie.

For instance, sliding to page 66, I found NPC #140 – Burnell Dunn, Stingy Farmer. This guy can be found working on his farm and expects everyone else hanging around to pull their weight as well. He’s the product of watching parents with unrealistic goals squander everything and he’s spent his life bettering himself from the ground up – literally…

I can see a few scenarios for this guy. Maybe the PCs are tracking creature through a bunch of farms and are looking for clues or maybe they’re running from something (or someone) and looking for a place to lay low for a while. Good ol’ Mr. Dunn could be a thorn in the side of just about any NPCs if I worked at it a bit, but I think he’d be quite useful to drop in the middle of a campaign… And there are 1000 of these guys and gals just waiting to plop into any game.

Sundanese masks

Image via Wikipedia

At the bottom of page 66 is a line of names – Istan, Izzy, Jacad, Jack, Jai, Jane, and Janorra. This thread of names is woven through every page of the book and offers some options if you’re looking for a random name or just want to change the name of the NPCs on the page. Maybe Mr. Dunn has some kids and a wife – Jack and Jane would be great names for the kids and Janorra would work for the wife (though I’d probably flip a bit further to find something that doesn’t start with “J”).

But what really makes this book shine beyond the sheer number of NPCs is the collection of indices at the end. The Gnomes manage to slice and dice this content just about every way you can think of – it’s almost like a paper database…

Let’s say you want to look for someone by trait. Looking for someone Ancient, Beautiful, or Mysterious?

Or maybe you’re just looking for someone by name. There’s a simple A-Z index of all 1000 NPCs.

Perhaps you have a favorite Gnome whose work you want to see? They’re grouped by author – Don Mappin, John Arcadian, Kurt Schneider, Matthew Neagley, Martin Ralya, Patrick Benson, Phil Vecchione, Scott Martin, Troy Taylor, or Walt Ciechanowski. (I think they need Gnomish baseball cards so we can keep track of them all…)

And lastly, maybe you’re looking for someone who fills a particular role or belongs to a particular group. The NPC Groups index is divided into Fantasy, Sci Fi, and Modern NPCs – then further subdivided into named groups like City Watch, Iconic Townsfolk, Terrorists, or Time Travelers.

The only way these NPCs might be easier to find is if the whole book was indexed by word. Oh wait – if you have the book as a PDF you can already search by any word you want! Never mind…

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the layout and artwork in Masks. The cover from artist Christopher Reach hints at the cast of hundreds included in the tome. The layout is simple and doesn’t get in the way of accessing the information in the book. Really the layout fades into the background until you start noticing all of the little things like the name strip at the bottom, the fact that all of the NPCs are numbered, the many terms used to describe each of them, and so on. I suspect that I will see different things each time I look at any one of the NPCs described.


Image via Wikipedia

And the art is stunning… Whether the art covers a full page, a half page, or a quarter page, the details really pop out of each portrait. Interior artists Avery Liell-Kok, Andrew McIntosh, Matt Morrow, and Christopher Reach did an amazing job. Some are simple line drawings, while others are more elaborate paintings in grayscale. From the portrait of Najir Matrell (NPC #11) by Matt Morrow to the vampire Jason Briggs (NPC #979) by Christopher Reach, it’s an incredible array of beings ready to pop into any world.

Lastly, I can’t let the last page of the book slip by without notice. I’m a big fan of puns. To me they represent the best and the worst of what the English language has to offer. And goofy names like Magnome P.I. and Gnomber 5 just make me smile ear to ear. I’m no artist, but I would love to see what some of the artists who worked on the book would come up with for each of these names!

Honestly I don’t know how the Gnomes do it. They, like the Kobolds, manage to pump out tons of great content on their website at an incredible rate – but they also find time to put together books that will be useful to GMs who play in any game. They must cast Haste on a regular basis – that’s the only explanation I can come up with…

Pick up a pdf of Masks from or pdf
or printed copies from the Engine Publishing site
. I know this one will sit nicely on my personal electronic shelf next to Eureka for a long, long time to come…

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6 comments to Book Review: Masks: 1,000 Memorable NPCs for Any Roleplaying Game from Gnome Stew and Engine Publishing

  • Thank you very much for reviewing Masks! You’re the first reviewer to mention the “sketch your own gnome page” — I love that you got a kick out of that!

    • Fitz

      @Martin Ralya – You’re very welcome. You guys at Gnome Stew and Engine Publishing keep putting out amazing books with a lot of character – plus I really do love punny names. 🙂 Keep up the great work!

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