The Introduction speaks of how often 'traditional' fantasy games have elements of the heroic, and so morphing a fantasy ruleset directly into a superhero game makes logical sense - more a case of swapping out sword and spellbook for a spandex costume than a major seachange of approach or style. Pathfinder, it argues, is a particularly heroic ruleset, and so all the more reason for this adaptation.
Chapter 1: Character Creation launches straight in to the task of how to generate a superhero character Pathfinder style. It begins with the sheer scope of super-powered characters as presented in comics and movies, and makes the wise observation that the best heroes are not a mere collection of fantastic powers but have underlying personality and background, the potential to become a believeable individual (provided, that is, that you are prepared to believe that someone can have superpowers!). Many of the changes made are more cosmetic than systemic, based on the view of Pathfinder as a heroic game with a fantasy setting, and so the process of character creation and indeed gameplay mirrors regular Pathfinder, people used to playing it will find much that is familiar.
The character creation process starts with the all-important stage of discussing what you'd fancy playing with the GM. The best characters are those that fit in with the game setting and style that the GM has in mind. It's also wise to talk with the other players, so that you end up with a rounded group of characters. In place of character races, we have Origin - human, enhanced human, mutant or 'strange visitor' - which determines background and something about the source of the superpowers that you choose to have. Next you select a Class, which reflects the sort of superpowers that your character will have. You then pick the actual powers, as well as skills and feats. You may also choose Favours and Flaws, as well as equipping the character... and then you are good to go.
The chapter ends by examining the various Origins in greater detail. Humans are 'ordinary' people who undertake rigorous training or use advanced technology (such as powered armour) to take up the mantle of superheroes. Enhanced Humans started off normal, but have been endowed with superpowers artificially - perhaps by being bitten by a radioactive spider! Or they can be willing or unwilling subjects of exotic experiments designed to enhance their capabilities. Then there are Mutants who were born as something other than normal humans, and finally there are the strange visitors, the aliens among us. Each has advantages and disadvantages, all face the need to 'fit in' with normal people and face greater or lesser problems in doing so depending on the way in which they go about it. Consider the details here, the better you know not only what your character can do but how his powers came to be and how he copes with them, the more potent he will be in role-playing terms. There are examples and suggestions a-plenty to help you decide.
Next Chapter 2: Core Classes surveys the main strands of power types that you can choose. They are Acrobat, Brick (the strong brawling specialist), Combat Expert (who fights with honed skills rather than the brute force of the Brick), Dectective, Energy Manipulator, and Super Human (with a range of different powers including the ability to fly). Each comes with an array of class abilities that enable you to tailor the broad strokes of the core class into the specific character that you have in mind.
Chapter 3: Skills and Feats then looks at the skills and feats available for you to choose. All existing Pathfinder skills are available, some with tweaks to make them more suitable for superpower role-playing, and a few new ones have been added such as Drive and Knowledge (Supers) which allows you to recognise both superpowers and know about the people who wield them. There's also a Power Activation skill that you need to succeed in every time you want to use a superpower. I feel this may become too much of a hinderance and it's a likely candidate to be house-ruled out at many tables!
Feats likewise are closely based on the Pathfinder ones, but here some are listed as being unavailable - mostly magic-based ones. Now, if your concept of a super-heroic world includes magic, you may choose to amend this. New feats include Blindsense and Oversize Throw (which enables the hurling of massive items), along with that useful thing for any superhero, a Lair to retreat to! Oh and Utility Belt - not so much an accessory, but the ability to switch equipment at will. There are quite a few gun combat feats as well, should you have firearms-toting superheroes - or supervillains, if you decide that guns are not really heroic weapons.
Next, Chapter 4: Powers gets to the real heart of the game: those superpowers that your hero will wield to great effect. This is the key difference between Heroes Wear Masks and Pathfinder. In place of a magic system, each character (not just certain classes) has access to various powers which may, unless specified otherwise, be used whenever the character wishes without need for gestures or incantations. As a character gains levels, he can spend 'power points' to gain new powers or enhance existing ones. There is quite a good comparison of Pathfinder magic and Heroes Wear Masks powers, showing how the authors have remained true to the original Pathfinder approach yet come up with a system completely suited to the superhero genre. This is followed by a comprehensive list of powers, each with all the necessary rules for use. An interesting inclusion is the power Arcane, which confers the ability to use magic along with a collection of spells that a character with this power may cast. The Armour power is another interesting one, as it does not distinguish between natural armour and the sort that is worn as a suit, but merely deals with power levels and protection against specific threats (cold, radiation, blunt force and so on...). Beast Control covers not just speaking with animals or being able to influence them, but also allows the character to display attributes of his chosen animal type - frog legs, perhaps, or the claws of a tiger. This one power offers a vast range of possibilities, and this is the case for most of them. Once chosen, powers can then be tailored to create a unique and distinctive mix for each and every character, both by options within that power and by the application of more generic power templates which can be used to generate a coherent package of powers all based around, say, electricty or cold. This game is well suited to players who enjoy devising their own superhero characters, although if you prefer to recreate your favourite heroes from comics or films it ought not to be too hard to do so.
Chapter 5: Resource Points then looks at the way in which wealth is handled within the game. The average superhero is not motivated by stacks of money (and indeed superhero literature is littered with ones who are very well off indeed but still go out righting wrongs just because they want to do so). However, it can become necessary to work out just what a character can or cannot obtain in terms of equipment for personal use or to equip their lair or signature vehicle. The game is not designed to be 'stuff oriented' but sufficient items are listed to give the idea of the sort of items that your average neighbourhood superhero might require. The Favours and Flaws system mentioned earlier is covered here as well. Each character gets a Favour for free when generated, Flaws are optional but as well as adding flavour they also grant the character an additional Favour per Flaw (up to a total of 3 Flaws).
Characters generated and outfitted, on to Chapter 6: Expanded Game Rules - starting, naturally enough, with combat. Here the main differences between these rules and mainstream Pathfinder are detailed, it will be helpful to have a copy of Pathfinder to hand, or at least a good understanding of the ruleset, to make the most of the game mechanics discussed here. One feature is the necessary rules to deal with super-strength and the amazing feats possible to a superhero whose powers are based on strength. The chapter ends with some Advanced Classes and NPC Classes, most of these will be of interest to GMs rather than players.
Then comes Chapter 7: Super Heroes and RPGs, which opens with a discussion on what actually makes someone a hero. If your interest in playing a superhero has more depth than imagining a costumed character beating up bad guys in equally outlandish costumes, you are likely to find this thoughprovoking as it explores motivations and personal qualities before moving on to an exploration of what superheroes actually do. This is followed by equally detailed analysis on what makes a supervillain and what sort of things they do and why... remembering too that most people don't see themselves as 'evil' whatever the rest of the world might think about them! This rounds off with a look at anti-heroes and other grey areas. The discussion moves on to building memorable characters - possibly too memorable, as in a rare typesetting flaw in an otherwise well-proofed work the same column of text appears twice on the same page! There are good ideas on building motivations based on personal history, tying that in to the chosen powers and even on selecting an effective and distinctive costume. Goals and ambitions help too, most people have aims in life and superheroes are no different. There are a few thoughts on drawing inspiration from existing published superheroes, although if your aim is to recreate a classic superhero entire you may find it easier to choose one of the superhero games written with that in mind.
The discussion moves on to narration, how to get that epic wide-screen feel that superheroes have, especially during combat. It's now moving into GM territory, as much of the narration will have to come from the GM, setting the scene and then describing what happens. Mention is made of the classic locations where the action can take place, involving innocent bystanders and much more to help you create a vivid scene. There's more: about getting superheroes involved, about running investigations, about creating dilemmas and dramatic tension... and even about how to run a game where the characters are supervillains rather than superheroes. Ways to help characters establish secret identities - and then how to involve their personal lives as well as their costumed activities in the game... there's masses here to help even a novice GM run a good if not great game from the outset. Notes on building memorable encounters, adventures and whole campaigns are followed by an explanation of different types of superhero games, based around the classic comic book eras - the Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age, then through to the Modern Era... and if you do not happen to know what these are, you will be well-informed by the time you have read this section! Then there's the setting you want - historical, contemporary, alternate-history... possibilities are endless. There's so much here, and it all repays careful study as you plan your game.
Next comes Chapter 8: Heroes INC. This provides several ready-made groups of superheroes to be allies for your characters, or who you could play if you are pressed for time and want to get straight into the action. Each hero is provided with full statistics, background and some plot hooks to get things going. There are also individual supervillains and even groups, although they tend not to team up as well as heroes... Finally, Chapter 9: Brown Out provides a complete adventure to get you started.
If you like superhero role-playing, especially if you like to come up with your own original heroes rather than play ones from the literature, then this is worth a look, especially if you already know your way around Pathfinder. It's a good adaptation of that ruleset, giving evidence of sound knowledge of both it and the superhero genre, clearly one loved by the authors. Get your spandex and cape out and enjoy!
Return to Heroes Wear Masks Corebook page.
Reviewed: 16 June 2012