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In the multitudes of item design, one particular item set is often overlooked: masks.
If you’ve played D&D or any TTRPG long enough, you’ve undoubtedly come across an enchanted version of just about everything: armour (and painstaking amounts of individual armour bits), weapons, shields, accessories, etc., but how often has your GM provided masks? How many times have you as a GM leveraged masks? Chances are, not very often, and if you have seen them in a campaign, how high was your desire to obtain/wear them?
Despite being like any other wearable/equippable item that could live in your campaigns, the dynamics of masks are different. They’re not just an empty slot on which to drop a +1 or enchantment. In both function and presentation, masks are unique. Or, rather, when successful they are.
The reasons for this shift in optics may or may not be obvious, so I think they’re important to dive into in order to better design and utilize. Creating masks in our campaigns that will delight players do so by allowing them to assert more agency over the game, offer unique and interesting challenges, and provide a chance to unravel some of the lore of their world, all with a single, but complex piece of loot.
Let’s take a step back, though, and discuss one of the first things players will do when they start a new campaign: create a character.
Whether they’re playing just for the night, or about to embark on a years-long campaign, character generation is the first real place that players get to leave their mark on the world. It’s the first flag they stick in the ground and claim as their own. It’s deeply personal, and almost all of the decisions are made by the player. They will customize not just race, class, gender, and background, but how they feel, act, what they’ve done to the world, and especially what the world has done to them. All of this is generally reflected in their appearance, and the gear that they wear. From hair colour to the choice of scale mail, its shade, and what animal it might have been freed from. Generally players will personalize every little detail, so as to get their character exactly right (oftentimes without awareness of doing so). It’s not just the first exercise in player agency, it’s also the most intimate.
Sadly, it’s that intimacy in player agency that masks fundamentally disrupt. Players often wear their personality, desires, and history in their appearance. Masks, by their very nature, obcure that. That might be fine for a single quest, or an exciting adventure, say, attending a masked ball, or infiltrating a prison to liberate a character with a vital piece of information. It’s purpose driven, and once that purpose is accomplished, the mask is removed and the player returns to the character they designed, and the impact that player chose to have on the world.
It is another thing entirely to ask a player to don a mask in order to gain a permanent +1 to Acrobatics checks, cast Spider Climb as a cantrip, or any other ability, no matter the usefulness. Essentially it is asking the player to sacrifice their most personal choices for a suggestion from the GM. The GM has created this item, and allowed the players to find it because of an inherent usefulness—even if the item is cursed, it is still useful from a storytelling standpoint—and therefore a player must weigh their own desires—the physical representation of their entire personality—against the GM’s insistence that the gear is meaningful. While ultimately, a TTRPG is a series of these call and response challenges, that challenge can usually be settled with “how does my character respond—using agency and identity—to this event?” When that shifts to “is my personality, history, and appearance less valuable than this GM-suggested benefit?” It no longer becomes rooted in the player-character’s choice, but in their loss.
Even if the metagame behind this transaction isn’t understood by player or GM, it is invariably there, and will consistently present that dynamic of loss, rather than gain.
How a mask differs from any other starting equipment is important to understand, too. Most players love loot, and in a lot of games, the promise that they’ll discover loot by questing is inherently implied. When better (or sometimes just different) gear such as weapons and armor are found, players will be willing to trade their starting equipment for the shiny new stuff.
So, why is that less of a negative exchange than donning a mask when essentially it’s still just swapping equipment for statistical benefit at the cost of player uniqueness? While ultimately that’s true, the difference is the fact that all other equipment is always promised to have a mechanical benefit. Players are always promised that starting equipment is just that, and better loot is a mechanical expectation of character progression. We can debate whether that’s good or not, but, unless your campaign specifically states it, no player has the expectation that they’ll get a progressively better face. In short, most gear inherently impacts the statistical metagame, whereas the only thing that a face impacts in-game is player agency and the story they’ve set out to tell.
Understanding the difference in impact between masks and other starting equipment, is is important to know the consequence of ignoring that impact. With this is mind, I think it’s important to talk about ways to properly include masks in a game, because I do think they’re cool, interesting, and should be celebrated, not discarded.
First and foremost, explain the above metagame to your table, and make them aware of the potential sacrifice. They might be cool with it! It might give them an idea for taking characters in other directions that would be exciting for them to explore. Give them the agency to decide, and what that will mean. This eliminates the inherent loss in the transaction.
Along those lines, let an individual player design or redesign the appearance of the mask so that it reflects their character, again, restoring that agency. Sure, you might have thought the backstory you came up with for Brundle’s Mask of Flies was awesome, and were really into its cotton candy colours and insect wings for eyebrows, but, unless your rogue is a pastel goth, it might fly—pun intended—in the face of her personality. Between games, work with your rogue to create a backstory and appearance that excites them, and give them the chance to assert their agency over the item.
Another option is to not treat masks as just another slot in which to stick a magical item. Make the impact of the boon/bane resonate beyond its benefit to the character sheet. Attach to it an interesting backstory, mystery or quest that the player character gets to take part in, or discover.
Finding the fabled Ludcanezzar’s Helm involves the player far less than finding an interesting helm, and through a series of travels, quests and shrewd deductions, slowly learning that it is the Helm of Ludcanezzar, a great warrior never felled in battle. That way, even if the design of the mask wasn’t left to the player, the discovery of its importance was; a reward for an adventure they undertook.
You can also create masks to serve a very specific use, and then put challenges in front of players that are best solved with that specific use.
Allow them to become desirable situationally, not statistically.
One of the best examples of this I can think of—and one of my favourite games/dungeons—is Stone Tower Temple from Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.
In a game that had its entire plot revolve around masks, their mechanical changes to gameplay, and transformations, this final dungeon was absolutely brilliant. It acted not only as a final culmination of all the masks that the player had acquired, but each was necessary to solve puzzles, challenges, and to defeat enemies as they worked through the dungeon. Not only that, but in this dungeon, players were treated to gameplay and experiences that was fundamentally different from the core game and not in a confusing or challenging way, but in a rewarding way.
How one might borrow that lesson, and apply it to their games? Perhaps the players learn of a villainous hag deep within a dungeon with a very sinister and terrifying power: if she can recall your face, she can steal your soul. Now masks are not only beneficial, but essential. Let the players outfit themselves with whatever masks have been provided (or do the Majora’s Mask thing and provide a handy mask vendor), and approach the dungeon. Once inside, reward the party with puzzles, traps, and enemies that require the use of each of their individual masks in order to progress, including the inevitable showdown with the hag.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with statistical desirability! The key to doing so successfully, though, is to reward the player situationally while doing so. What I mean by that is rather than a +1 sword, which is only a benefit in the numbers game, make the player weigh the outcomes, wager its desirability against its downsides, or their own play style, creating a microcosm of player agency. An example of this would be creating a mask with both statistical benefit and hindrance. Instead of statistical permanence, give the mask the ability to alter its statistical merit; impose use limits or durations, especially in the roleplay.
This might seem counterproductive. Wouldn’t the benefit alone be superior to both a benefit and hinderance? Only if you’re considering numerical superiority. Remember, swords and armour are promised to exist primarily in the numbers game, so, pure advantage is superior. The character’s appearance is almost entirely considered in the roleplaying aspect of the game, and there for my giving the something the player must consider, they are in essence choosing to take on the roleplaying challenge in trade for the numerical benefit.
Lastly, an interesting way to think of masks is to deploy them when the player’s desired affect is actually to hide away or lessen their impact on the world. What if a player just did something uncharacteristic and it ended in a result that is painful, tough to live down? What if during an encounter, an obvious weakness, or perhaps a strength was exploited? Offer them respite with a mask that overcomes these newly uncovered obstacles, and watch them wrestle with the implications of agreeing. This deliberation is healthy because the desire arose from gameplay derived from their actions, and ultimately, whether they choose to take the mask or not, is earned by their agency.
Perhaps you’ve decided that you want to explore masks in your campaign, or just like goodies! Below are the masks highlighted through the article.
The Madrox Affair
An unassuming green-velvet bowler hat, with a yellow quail’s feather.
When worn, the player’s face is magically contorted and reshaped into that of a cartoonish male with a well-articulated mustache, locked into a wide smile and a wink.
Once per day, upon donning the cap, the player must roll a d20. The result is the amount of charges the bowler has for the day.
For each daily charge, every time the wearer is struck, the attacker must roll a DC14 Sleight of Hand check. On a success, nothing happens. On a failure, the attacker’s face is contorted identically to that of the wearer—bowler and all—for one hour. After which, their face slowly returns to normal, muscle-by-muscle.
Willing creatures can choose to fail the Sleight of Hand check.
A mask with ugly matted fur and verminous ears, vaguely in the shape of a rat head that sits over the wearer’s upper face.
This mask grants Advantage on saving throws against being poisoned, and resistance against poison damage. If the wearer has eaten cheese since their last long rest, they get advantage on all checks to perceive and defeat traps.
Every child has heard the stories of the infamous thief, Ratman Willard! Over a span on three years, Naelswick’s cheesemakers were held in peril by the infamous thief. He made nightly raids for their delectable treats, often carting away whole stores in a single night! No one could ever figure out how he got away with these dairy-ing heists, but some believe he escaped via the sewers. He was never caught, and never even identified, but after three years the raids stopped and the town’s cheese providers all breathed a sigh of relief. This mask is made of unknown fabrics, but it definitely isn’t made from rats nor cheese!
The Cult of Purrsonality
A full-face cat mask painted black, with eerie greenish eyes.
This mask grants the wearer the ability to understand and have conversations with all cats, and should the wearer fall in combat, once per day it automatically gives them 1hp. It also gives advantage on Performance checks.
Emperor Miranda III of Nelandris was said to have a cat—Tellus Moriarty—that was the most entertaining cat in the history of the world. Not only was it the royal pet, but also the court jester and he would keep the royals and their friends entertained for hours on end. This mask was constructed with one of Tellus’ whiskers!
An ombre mask of rouges, blushes, and cerises; its bottom half made of a wide pink mesh that exposes the wearer’s lower face while the upper half is solid, without visible eye sockets, with frills that wrap around the skull made from lollipops. It smalls faintly of candy.
While the player is wearing Gullible Sucker, they are +5 to any and all Charisma checks, but -5 to any and all Intelligence or Wisdom checks.
The inside of this mask is a clingy mess, and is terribly difficult to remove, requiring a long rest’s worth of effort to gently pry away.
Rough white fabric woven and hewn into countless pods reminiscent of eyes, with small little holes as pupils that cover the entirety of the wearer’s face.
Each set of eyes imbues the wearer with a different ability. When the player first puts on Panoclops, they may choose between any of the following options: Darkvision, Tremorsense, Alert feat, See Invisibility, Detect Magic, Detect Poision and Disease, Detect Evil and Good, or Find Traps. Whichever sight is chosen, the effect lasts eight hours, as it takes considerable effort for humanoid eyes to recalibrate to the shift in vision.
Players may however roll a DC16 Perception check at any time to quickly adjust to a different sight, and switch types on a success. Anything less than DC16 on the Perception check, and the wearer and mask go cross-eyed, rendering the mask useless for eight hours, and the wearer takes the Stunned condition until they can succeed the Perception check.
Art by Jericho Vilar and BLACKPUDDING