Monday, January 24, 2011

Tommy's Take on MasterBook

I actually had no prior experience with Masterbook, so color me interested when Precis Intermedia Games saved it from death and obscurity after the complete collapse of West End Games.

Masterbook is a toolkit system designed to use a series of cards to alter and affect gameplay...honestly, it's right up my alley, at least in concept.

This review is of the PDF version, which is a 262 page PDF, fully bookmarked and searchable and all that...and, it is worth noting, including both a complete set of printable black and white MasterDeck cards, and a complete set of color ones. For those who don't want to print their own, Precis Intermedia just announced that the MasterDeck is back in print.


This is pretty much what it sounds like, an introductory chapter explaining roleplaying games (complete with the Cops and Robbers "I shot you! No you didn't!" explanation), as well as explaining what MasterBook is (a generic setting designed to be played in multiple genres).

There's not a lot here that you haven't seen before, and I don't know if any of this was off the well beaten path even in 1994, but honestly, you just kind of expect to see that sort of thing in RPGs anymore.


Counting a two page character sheet and a full page piece of art, this clocks in at about 16 pages or so and, honestly, I think an experience GM could almost run the game off of those pages, believe it or not.


Characters have eight Attributes: Agility, Dexterity, Strength, Endurance, Intellect, Mind, Charisma and Confidence, and 68 points to spend. The scale, oddly, runs from the normal minimum of 5 to the human peak of 13...although the benchmarks chart curiously drops from 5 to -5. I started playing RPGs around 1994, and I don't think I would have questioned the scale back then, but it's just a bit odd now.

Once that is completed, you get Derived Attributes, like Toughness and Movement Rates. While Skills aren't TECHNICALLY Derived, you do get your skill points from your Intellect and Mind. There are a number of rules governing the spending of skill points, and while Specializations are present, they are annoyingly on a half point system...that is, each level (or "add") of a specialization is half a point. As a rule, I don't like bean counting in my games, and half points are more tedious than I like to deal with.

It is also worth noting that skills do not run on the same scale as Attributes, starting at 1 (if they are trained at all, of course) up past 16.


Here we get a lot of common background questions to flesh the character out, but we also get Advantages and Compensations. Now this, I really like. Rather than assigning point values to the Advantages and Compensations, they are placed in Columns, with the effects being more and more extreme, the higher you go. Every Advantage that you take requires taking a Compensation from a corresponding Column. There is an optional rule for mixing across Columns...such as trading in a Column III selection for Column I selections...this requires taking a Column III Compensation still.

Five genres (High Fantasy, Low Fantasy, Real World, Science Fiction and Pulp) are provided, with recommended Column selections.

Column I Advantages are pretty basic: A snitch you can call on, an extra skill point, etc. Around Column III, you start getting into things like having a Danger Sense, while Column IV gives you options like Godlike Contacts and Natural Weapons.

Every Advantage is detailed, with notable restrictions and notes spelled out.

The Compensation Columns start off fairly light: Owing a small debt or having a minor enemy, and scale up to Employed - meaning you don't have a lot of autonomy - or being a victim of Prejudice, to having a powerful Enemy hunting you, or being so Infamous that you are doggedly pursued. There are no Column IV that point, the player and GM get to work something out that is suitable.

You can get rid of Compensations, just as you can lose Advantages, and they are often linked.

Guidelines are also given for making new races and species for your games, generally by mixing and matching Advantages and Compensations.


The core mechanic of the game involves rolling 2d10 and comparing them to a Bonus Chart, giving you a number that you add (or subtract) from your relevant skill to gain a total for your action. And yes, I did say subtract: If you roll below a 9, your "Bonus" is a penalty. Most people are familiar with the concept of Exploding Dice, but Masterbook has a very interesting variant: You can reroll and keep your 10s rolled - but ONLY if you have adds in the relevant skills or specializations. It is thus IMPOSSIBLE for a completely unskilled, lucky shot to explode and blow out someone gifted at a given action.

Well...normally. There are exceptions, through the use of the MasterDeck and the expenditure of Life Points (kind of like Fate Points/Action Points/Bennies/whatever).

If you beat the Target Number for the action, subtract your total from the Target Number, compare to the Success Chart, and see precisely what the effect of the action is.

Damage is handled under a Wound system that goes from Lightly to Moderately to Heavily to Incapacitated to Mortally to Dead. You can also gain "K"s and "O"s...if you have a K AND an O, you're knocked out.

A little sidebar I love is descriptive elements for the Wound types, such as Lightly Wounded being a bruise, while Incapacitated being a heavy concussion.

With the basics of combat out of the way, Combat Options such as Hit Locations (providing more or less damage, depending on the targeted spot) are given, plus options like capping melee damage based off of Strength, and providing different bonuses and penalties for different tricks and tactics with a gun.

Damage options are also given, if you want to incorporate bits such as bleeding out.

Rules and guidelines are given for Interactions as well, with these being old standards such as Intimidation, Taunts and Tricks, Con, Persuasion and Interrogation.

There are two sets of Initiative Rules, one using the MasterDeck and one using standard die rolls. In the former, you essentially draw a MasterDeck card and it tells you who gets to go when.

Pretty much most of the rules staples you would expect round out the chapter, such as Falling damage, multiple actions, dealing with gang-ups and so on. A Value Chart is also given, reminding me a bit of the benchmarks from the old Mayfair Games DC Heroes RPG.


The skill list is kinda huge, though not every one will even be available in every game: For instance, in a 1930s Mob War setting, Energy Weapons probably won't be needed.

Some skills require specific foci, such as Faith or Beast Riding, and specializations are given for each skill. while I generally like smaller skill lists, at least there is nothing that just drives me nuts here, like Beautician. Every skill is tied to an Attribute, because some skills can be used untrained (defaulting to the attribute), though others cannot...and being a skill based system, it is much cheaper to raise skills than to improve attributes.


The MasterDeck is 108 cards, and the number of cards given out is dependent on the number of PCs in the game...(one PC gets way more for their own use than a group of 5 gets, individually speakning).

There are three types of cards:

Enhancements generally provide some manner of specified bonus, such as Breakthrough allowing a PC to roll a skill as if they are trained, and add +3 to their roll, but only if they otherwise have no adds in it. Haste gives an immediate extra action, and so on.

Subplots are in-game effects that come into play over the course of the adventure, like Martyr (which can let your hero go out in a blaze of glory...if you choose), or Mistaken Identity - which means that you have been confused for someone else. The Campaign card is used to make a temporary subplot permanent, perhaps gaining you an enemy for life!

There are four Picture cards (Wild, Interloper, Disaster and Opportunity) that each also have their own very specific effects if they come into play.

Oh, and there are blank cards, if you want to make your own.

Card based initiative is given more detail here, showing you just how to read the cards for initiative. For instance, certain conditions may come into play, such as Flurry, which may allow all PCs an extra attack that round, or Up, which means that side gets to automatically reroll all dice as if they had rolled 10s.

The initiative card also has "approved" actions...if the PC succeeds at those, they get an extra card from the MasterDeck for their use.

Lastly, cards are also used for Critical Skill Resolution, which are multi-step crisis situations, like defusing bombs or freeing someone from a trap without killing them. A few pages of examples follow, using cards in each type of situation.


Magic, Miracles, Psionics and Super-Science mainly.

Rather than provide a laundry list of abilities and forcing you to shove everything into those, MasterBook devotes a chapter to making your effects piece by piece (with a few examples).

In fact, the book constructs a magical Fireball spell, piece by piece, to show you how it works, and includes a worksheet that you can use to track your FX construction. Be warned, special effects run the risk of harming PCs! They have a Feedback Value that can be reduced by high rolls when casting the FX. You don't necessarily FAIL if you get may just take out yourself and your opponent.

The plus side is, it's versatile. The downside is, other than that fireball, you don't start off with many FX written up, so there's some work ahead for you and your players in that first few go arounds.


This is pretty much an equipment chapter. Most modern weapons are given static damage ratings (handguns, etc), while most melee weapons and muscle-powered missile weapons are given "STR+" damage.

Armor is handled in a pretty straight forward manner, adding to Toughness.

Certainly not the greatest equipment chapter I have ever read, but it gets all of the necessary information across.


This section gives a very broad overview of World Creation, emphasizing the five genres that it pointed out earlier in the book. There's some good, if not great, advice in here. A beginning GM without a setting book would probably be fairly lost, while a moderately experienced GM could probably suss it out.

A pair of character templates are included, one for fantasy and one for sci-fi, to show you what a couple of completed characters look like.


As mentioned above, the MasterDeck is included as printable pages (fronts and backs, both color and black and white), for those who want to get rolling right now. Some very helpful instructions and tips are included up front (such as recommended paper stock).


Honestly, a character sheet would have been nice, but the accomodations in the PDF for the MasterDeck were GREAT.

The system itself is almost 20 years old, and it shows in some places. I'm not a huge fan of skill-based systems, but that is a personal preference and not a knock on the quality of the system. I do really like the Advantages/Compensation system, and I think the MasterDeck is pretty neat.

I hope it gets some support setting-wise, whether in the form of reprints or new material, because it feels a bit hollow right now...I mean, for a fantasy game or the like, at least some kind of examples to eyeball for a bestiary would be gold.

I don't see enough here to have me clamoring to ditch Savage Worlds as my go-to "generic" game, but I certainly wouldn't be opposed to taking it for a spin in a game or two.


  1. I consider the original West End edition of this one of the greatest disasters in gaming history. The card system works quite nicely, but they utterly destroyed several games that could have been fantastic by forcing it in to the original system's messy game style. IMO the gameplay falls apart fast.

  2. Ouch...good to know.

    What were some of the issues you saw?

  3. Thanks. The character sheet is on PDF pages 24 and 25, plus you can download a remastered sheet from the Precis Intermedia web site. MasterBook Companion is next up, followed by the Bloodshadows Worldbook and its multitude of supplements. Also, in the works is an Open Supplement License to let others produce worldbooks royalty-free.

  4. *Facepalm*

    Not sure how I missed the character sheet.

    I'm just used to it being at the back of the book, I guess.

    I was actually going to ask you about a license for it, so that's good info. Very glad to hear more is coming, because the game certainly seems like it would be very cool.

  5. It is a very cool game in my opinion. I don't believe it ever got the credit it deserved. I actually know a lot of people who played it and didn't want to try other systems because it just clicked for them. Once you get it going, it plays really well and the cards take it further. Some people don't like it - there seems to be a lot of hate for it for some reason. It's almost like the 3E vs 4E hate (often MasterBook vs Torg, which is its predecessor and very similar). A hint about the license:

  6. I'd heard a lot about Torg, too, and never got to give it a try.

    I know some people are going to be put off by things like cards in RPGs, I'm cool with that, though. My BIGGEST gripe from reading the book is that the scale for the attributes isn't the most intuitive...if I had picked this up in 1994, I wouldn't have noticed kind of throws me now, but it's far from a dealbreaker.

  7. While the attribute scale does appear odd, it makes sense if you look at it in the grand scheme, from weaker creatures to tougher ones.

  8. I picked up a copy of 'The world of Indiana Jones' with cards and original Masterbook + 2 expansions from Oxfam. Planning to give it a go with my group, but I am being put off by the combat system. The other half and I gave it a go, he got the first punch in, and I spent the next three rounds falling over repeatedly. Not all that rewarding.

  9. ...

    Yeah, that does sound less than fun.

  10. We actually played the hell out of the system. Loved it, and it worked nicely once it's understood. The cards add that little extra to push it to the next level.

    Never got good sticking power though, which I find funny since TORG was the first version of the game and it seems to be a favorite of a lot of people.