Awhile back, I posted my thoughts about Eureka, a system-neutral, plot-assistance book for Game Masters by the fine folks at Gnome Stew. I was pretty excited about the book, as it was the most useful book of its type I'd come across in 25 years of GMing. UPDATE: I still use it. I used it a couple weeks ago. No one's changed my opinion of its status as the best RPG plot book ever.
The same group is back with a system-neutral NPC book, and, given my adoration for Eureka, I couldn't resist digging in. I should disclose, unlike with Eureka, I received a PDF of the new book, Masks: 1,000 Memorable NPCs for Any Roleplaying Game, free of charge, for review purposes. Further, while my opinion has been solicited, it has in no way been guided.
Masks starts out on familiar ground. Like Eureka there's an explanation of why the book exists and how to use it. The why is obvious, I hope--make it easier for a GM to provide awesome NPCs to her players. The how is much more detailed.
The NPC's are broken down (nearly) equally into three broad genres: fantasy, sci-fi, and modern. They are further organized into enemies, allies, and neutrals. Each character takes up a quarter page. The design goal was to provide enough information without being too much, so the entries were kept to a tight word count budget. This goal was definitely met.
Each numbered, character entry is written sparsely, but manages to provide everything you need to know about the character in question, including everything but stats. The NPCs include an entry number, a name, a quote, and a two-word description, containing an adjective and a noun (the first entry is a "Possessed Cleric"). These are followed by tips on appearance, roleplaying, personality, and background. Like Eureka, each Masks entry includes traits, by which NPCs can be searched in the book.
The most important thing about the NPCs in the book is they're very well written. I haven't read all 1,000, but I can tell you I've read a lot of them. From the very start, the NPCs are interesting and thoughtfully designed, especially compared to what most GMs get when they truly have to make up an NPC on the fly. I found myself wanting to know more about these people--always a good sign.
One final thing about the uniformity of the NPC entries: the authors suggest the template they've created for these characters will help you write your own characters. I tend to agree. And I look forward to using the template myself.
The authors believe you can use these NPCs on-the-fly or with some planning, and I tend to agree. You can just grab a name; or the two-word descriptor and the traits maybe. You can read them all the way through if you have time. There is a simple list of names that starts at the beginning of the first NPC page and ends on the last. I'm terrible at taking notes during play, so I plan on grabbing a couple key words and jotting down the entry number so I can return later to flesh out my find.
On the advice front, there is a section on how to modify the NPCs to fit any roleplaying game, by giving a twist here or a quarter-turn there. For instance, all the NPCs are humans, as this is the easiest twist of all, since any race a game designer can create will have intrinsic human qualities. Simply focus in on those to find your race. A gruff carpenter? Dwarf. A beautiful sorceress? Elf. There are definitely more than 1,000 NPCs in this book when you consider these simple changes you can make.
The other advice in the Masks is a collection of excellent points on playing NPCs, from the GM's standpoint. This advice has been delivered elsewhere by many people, but I've never seen it all together in one convenient place in a book designed for roleplaying. Players should take note of this section, as it serves as a great set of tips for PCs as well.
Like Eureka, Masks is a super reference. There are indexes in the book to help you find characters by trait, by name, by author, and by group (think Tavern Staff or Bandit Gang), so as a GM, you have lots of ways to find what you're looking for. The pdf is superbly bookmarked. My only gripe is I believe the entry numbers should have been used in the bookmarks with the character names (yes, all 1,000 characters are bookmarked), as one more awesome way to reference this book.
I plan to have Masks close to me for every game I run, and if you're a GM, you should too.