Powered By The Apocalypse has come on strong as an influential rule set over the last decade plus. It frames every game as a conversation with certain things happening based on the fiction. The discussion of moves, agendas and the like can throw some people off even though much of the game is putting new terminology on old techniques. What really helps people get these games is playing them in a genre they understand. For many folks, that happened with Dungeon World. For me, it was Monster of the Week. Evil Hat Productions sent me a review copy of their new hardback edition, so I decided it was a good time to look back at what I like about this game as well as what changes have been made to this edition.
Monster of the Week was originally published by Michael Sands in 2012. Evil Hat produced a hard copy edition in 2015 that compiled a lot of information, tidied up the rules and mixed in another playbook or two. The premise of the game is straightforward. This is a modern day monster hunting game where the players choose a classic style of hunter, customize it with a few choices and head out into the world to kick ass and chew bubblegum. The game takes a lot of cues from shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Supernatural and The X-Files. The playbooks offer a mix of mortal and strange characters, though part of creating characters is defining how everybody’s stuff works. There’s a joy to be had in building a new secret history but it also seems like players agreeing to set this game in an established world could be just as easy. (My favorite campaign was one I modeled on the old Friday the 13th syndicated show where the players had o hunt down cursed artifacts) If I wanted to run, for example a Buffy: The Next Generation game, I would most likely use this system because the characters feel on equal footing. Even if someone has big narrative powers, they also have big drawbacks that the GM can use when a player fails and it’s time to make a hard move.
Magic is a perfect example of this set up. Everyone can use magic, though there are a few playbooks that do it more efficiently. It mirrors the shows where anyone can find an ancient grimoire and give a spell a shot, from desperate heroes to naive civilians. The player chooses what they want to do from a list then rolls their Weird score. On a strong hit they get what they want. On a weak hit they get it but also choose a glitch that complicates the success. On a miss, they lose control of the spell and the Master of Ceremonies (aka the GM) uses that as a prompt for more drama or problems. Big magic, like raising the dead or time travel, becomes a negotiation between the player and the MC. The player states what they want the spell to do, the MC says what price they have to satisfy. This is stuff I’ve been doing for years with my players and to see it written out was refreshing.
The game also includes excellent advice on designing monsters and cases. The game breaks up monsters into specific types with elements that plug in for different effects. One of the key parts of the advice is designing good weaknesses and ways for the hunters to find them. The monster must be stopped before the end of the next episode, so taking time to figure out what will do it is important. The monster may rise again but there should be some thought given on how it can be killed, trapped, put to rest or otherwise dealt with by the hunters at the end of the story.
The game also built in a pacing mechanism it calls countdowns. Not only does the MC figure out the monster’s motivation and goals, it plots out the monster’s progress via the countdown. These are the steps the monster would take to win if the hunters never show up. Each step offers a prompt for how the story moves forward regardless of what the players do. Sometimes it will be in reaction to the player doing something, other times it might be a sudden move to bring the focus onto the main plot. By building a countdown, the MC doesn't have to wonder what happens next.
This edition mixes in a few elements that were originally online exclusives and a few bits from the Tome of Mysteries expansion.If you already have those, you are mostly covered (though you should get ready for the next expansion coming soon). There are two new playbooks: the Snoop which covers everything from social media influencers to hard nosed reporters like Carl Kolchak and the Spooktacular which ads a little bit of showbiz to the game (likely inspired by The Lady Flame from The Adventure Zone’s actual play). Each playbook also comes with a custom luck move that exacts a narrative price for spending luck points to stay in the hunt a bit longer. There are also now expanded weird moves that allow tables to customize the rules of their supernatural world. Are there aliens? Psychics? Extradimensional fringe phenomena? These options expand the types of stories that the game can tell.
Monster of the Week is a game I commonly recommend to people trying to learn PbtA games and to people trying to get their friends into RPGs. The implementation of PbtA rules are very straightforward and easy to explain, thanks to being in a genre that has a lot of representation in film and TV. Fantasy is more common these days, but nearly everyone has one of these shows that they loved at some point in their lives. That’s what makes it a good choice for new players, too. It’s a simple system set in a world that’s a half step into the shadow of our own. New players recognize playbooks that mirror their favorite characters and enjoy bringing them to life.
Monster of the Week gets my highest recommendation.