Monster Of The Week Retro Review

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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.
 
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Rob Wieland

Rob Wieland

payn

Legend
Our Monster of the Week sessions felt more like Fargo than some of the above suggestions . Of course my MN accent likely helped make that a reality along with the GMs quirky sense of humor. I too recommend MotW.
 

Great review. A librarian at the college where I work just mentioned that they're aiming to run this. This review helped me get a picture of what to expect play-wise. Fun! I'd like to be able to dip into the PbtA system this way.
 

zooey

Explorer
I've been thinking of buying this game for a while now, especially since our group recently played, and liked, Blades in the Dark. It's nice that it will be in hardcover now, but i wish that the old cover was still an option.
 


Whizbang Dustyboots

100% that gnome
Spooktacular which ads a little bit of showbiz to the game (likely inspired by The Lady Flame from The Adventure Zone’s actual play)

Or the 10 million people on SyFy and YouTube doing "ghost hunting" shows.

EDIT: Sorry, no, that was the Snoop. The Spooktacular is a bit of an odd duck (traveling carnie fighting monsters), but I'd use it to make David Tennant's version of Peter Vincent in the excellent 2011 version of Fright Night, which was basically, "what if Chriss Angel's whole act was built around fighting vampires?"
 
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Von Ether

Legend
Enjoyed our two campaigns of this! Dungeon World didn't click with me, MotW did.

The only "flaw" was that our GM was locked into everything having a stiff price (there's just so many times you can drop your weapon on a mixed success) and if the dice didn't give you a clear win condition, then he would yo-yo you in and out of situation (At some point, repeatedly kicking said dropped weapon across the floor becomes Keystone Cops or soccer).
 

Faolyn

(she/her)
I can't wait to start running it, after our current game is over (we rotate GMs to prevent burnout). It's been a bit difficult getting used to the very different playstyle (I know I'm going to have a hard time saying "Ok, the guy shoots you from a distance so take 2-harm" without having to roll for it to "make it fair") and some of the terminology is strange (I suppose saying "hold 2" is faster than "pick two from the following list") but I imagine I'll get used to it in time.

I had, ages and ages ago, run a Buffy-verse game using a modified WEG's d6 system, and had a lot of fun with it, so I have high hopes for MotW.
 

Aldarc

Legend
I can't wait to start running it, after our current game is over (we rotate GMs to prevent burnout). It's been a bit difficult getting used to the very different playstyle (I know I'm going to have a hard time saying "Ok, the guy shoots you from a distance so take 2-harm" without having to roll for it to "make it fair") and some of the terminology is strange (I suppose saying "hold 2" is faster than "pick two from the following list") but I imagine I'll get used to it in time.

I had, ages and ages ago, run a Buffy-verse game using a modified WEG's d6 system, and had a lot of fun with it, so I have high hopes for MotW.
The nice thing is, however, that this vocabulary is pretty transferrable to other PbtA games, should you decide to check other PbtA games out. I do agree that terms like "hold" and "forward" tend to be awkward hurdles when learning these games. MotW is an older PbtA in the grand scheme of things (2012), so it tends to preserve a lot of the vocabulary from Apocalypse World (2010).

Enjoyed our two campaigns of this! Dungeon World didn't click with me, MotW did.

The only "flaw" was that our GM was locked into everything having a stiff price (there's just so many times you can drop your weapon on a mixed success) and if the dice didn't give you a clear win condition, then he would yo-yo you in and out of situation (At some point, repeatedly kicking said dropped weapon across the floor becomes Keystone Cops or soccer).
There are definitely issues I have with Dungeon World, though I think a lot of that also has to do with its D&Disms and how it tries to hew to an OSR aesthetic. I personally think that a Dungeon World that tried to embrace more contemporary flavors of D&D or the broader genre of fantasy adventure would fare better.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
I find MotW can trend a lot of different ways, feel-wise, than one might expect. They wrapped a lot of distinct genre moments up in one game. So it all depends on the pitch and player engagement.
 

Faolyn

(she/her)
The nice thing is, however, that this vocabulary is pretty transferrable to other PbtA games, should you decide to check other PbtA games out. I do agree that terms like "hold" and "forward" tend to be awkward hurdles when learning these games. MotW is an older PbtA in the grand scheme of things (2012), so it tends to preserve a lot of the vocabulary from Apocalypse World (2010).
Yeah, I think it was mostly the same in Root and Thirsty Sword Lesbians as well, although TSL also has "strings" which keeps giving me problems.

There are definitely issues I have with Dungeon World, though I think a lot of that also has to do with its D&Disms and how it tries to hew to an OSR aesthetic. I personally think that a Dungeon World that tried to embrace more contemporary flavors of D&D or the broader genre of fantasy adventure would fare better.
I'd like to see that as well. I don't own DW myself, but I wouldn't mind a proper medieval fantasy PbtA game.

The name did inspire me to come up with a setting that takes place entirely within an extradimensional dungeon, because I was annoyed that Dungeon World is not, in fact, a world of dungeons. Haven't done anything with the setting yet, though.
 

Aldarc

Legend
I'd like to see that as well. I don't own DW myself, but I wouldn't mind a proper medieval fantasy PbtA game.
I vaguely recall Sage LaTorra working on a "dark ages" fantasy PbtA game called A Storm Eternal. Not sure what happened.

The name did inspire me to come up with a setting that takes place entirely within an extradimensional dungeon, because I was annoyed that Dungeon World is not, in fact, a world of dungeons. Haven't done anything with the setting yet, though.
Obviously not. World of Dungeons by John Harper came a bit later. ;)

Though seriously, I would recommend picking up Freebooters on the Frontier* and Perlious Wilds (Revised) by Jason Lutes. There is a lot about creating dungeons and dungeon moves in there in addition to rules for exploration, expeditions, hirelings, etc.

* I heard rumblings of a second edition in the works.
 

Whizbang Dustyboots

100% that gnome
I had, ages and ages ago, run a Buffy-verse game using a modified WEG's d6 system, and had a lot of fun with it, so I have high hopes for MotW.
A Buffy style game would be very easy with this. I'm a little shocked that the new Codex of Worlds has so many strange settings like prehistoric times and two different fantasy worlds and no support setting emulating something like Sunnydale. (The Locke & Key analogue might be a good start, though.)
 

Whizbang Dustyboots

100% that gnome
I find MotW can trend a lot of different ways, feel-wise, than one might expect. They wrapped a lot of distinct genre moments up in one game. So it all depends on the pitch and player engagement.
I don't think anyone knows what the game will look like until you see what playbooks will be used. That's part of the fun for me, but it makes it harder to plan a "campaign" ahead of time.
 

I can't wait to start running it, after our current game is over (we rotate GMs to prevent burnout). It's been a bit difficult getting used to the very different playstyle (I know I'm going to have a hard time saying "Ok, the guy shoots you from a distance so take 2-harm" without having to roll for it to "make it fair") and some of the terminology is strange (I suppose saying "hold 2" is faster than "pick two from the following list") but I imagine I'll get used to it in time.

I had, ages and ages ago, run a Buffy-verse game using a modified WEG's d6 system, and had a lot of fun with it, so I have high hopes for MotW.

One of the things MotW taught me was how to use soft and hard moves to convey difficulty. Soft moves give the chance a players to react, while hard moves just hit them because the situation warrants it. A good example in the case of that shotgun blast might be if the players are sneaking around the creepy old farm without anyone knowing they are coming "You hear the rack of a shotgun from the porch and a 'Whose out there?' echo from the front door" and trying to sneak in to the farm because its the one place they can perform the ritual to send the demon back. "Your boot scraped on the wood of the porch a little too loudly. The shotgun blast tears through the door. Take 2-harm"

It also removes those sad moments where the bad guy has them dead to rights and your damage dice roll a 1.
 

Aldarc

Legend
A Buffy style game would be very easy with this. I'm a little shocked that the new Codex of Worlds has so many strange settings like prehistoric times and two different fantasy worlds and no support setting emulating something like Sunnydale. (The Locke & Key analogue might be a good start, though.)
Seems like MotW would work fine right of the box for Sunnydale. 🤷‍♂️
 

Whizbang Dustyboots

100% that gnome
Seems like MotW would work fine right of the box for Sunnydale. 🤷‍♂️
For some playbooks, certainly, but I'm not sure how many FBI agents, criminals, war-weary monster hunters, orders of monster slayers and monsters-turned-monster hunters a small town can normally accommodate. I think giving some examples that aren't Sunnydale to players would be useful than a lot of the stuff in Codex of Worlds. (The Codex also has plenty of clearly good stuff in it, to be clear.)
 

Faolyn

(she/her)
A Buffy style game would be very easy with this. I'm a little shocked that the new Codex of Worlds has so many strange settings like prehistoric times and two different fantasy worlds and no support setting emulating something like Sunnydale. (The Locke & Key analogue might be a good start, though.)
For some playbooks, certainly, but I'm not sure how many FBI agents, criminals, war-weary monster hunters, orders of monster slayers and monsters-turned-monster hunters a small town can normally accommodate. I think giving some examples that aren't Sunnydale to players would be useful than a lot of the stuff in Codex of Worlds. (The Codex also has plenty of clearly good stuff in it, to be clear.)
Depends on how they do it. I mean, Sunnydale had the Initiative right underneath the college, after all.

If it isn't to be a Weird Town like Sunnydale, or a small-to-medium city instead of a town, it could be a location that's directly in between several larger towns, a national park of some sort, and a large body of water. That way even if the town itself isn't, like, situated on ley lines or has a doorway to Faerie, it's still right in the middle of everything and there would be a justification for agents, criminals, hunters, and monsters and the like to be passing through on the regular.

...I may actually do that for my game. Now I just need to come up with some cities and stuff.
 

Whizbang Dustyboots

100% that gnome
Depends on how they do it. I mean, Sunnydale had the Initiative right underneath the college, after all.

If it isn't to be a Weird Town like Sunnydale, or a small-to-medium city instead of a town, it could be a location that's directly in between several larger towns, a national park of some sort, and a large body of water. That way even if the town itself isn't, like, situated on ley lines or has a doorway to Faerie, it's still right in the middle of everything and there would be a justification for agents, criminals, hunters, and monsters and the like to be passing through on the regular.

...I may actually do that for my game. Now I just need to come up with some cities and stuff.
You have largely described the Monster of the Week setting The Adventure Zone used.
 


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