This past weekend, I had a chance to run Monsters and Other Childish Things for some friends as I felt it would be something appropriate to run for Halloween, and it was my first chance to experiment with the One Roll Engine (ORE). My thoughts here are not a full-fledged review nor a session report, so I feel a blog post is more fitting.
I feel like I need to discuss the setting and the game mechanics separately. Even though they feel integrated, my impressions of each were quite different.
For those of you who don't know, Monsters is a setting where the characters are children who have horrible monstrous companions who love them dearly. Think of them like imaginary friends if the imaginary friends were actually real and the friends were bloodthirsty killers. We used pre-generated characters, whose monsters included a giant flying cephalopod, a vaguely humanoid pile of trash and an inky blackness from the depths of time and space.
The setting is amazingly inventive and is instantly appealing to anyone who was marginalized as a child. The idea of having a horrible monster to do your bidding and possibly swallow your enemies and teachers is a real crowd-pleaser. I used the adventure that was in the book, which was set in junior high. Most of the players thought that the game would have worked better set in elementary school.
Perhaps my unfamiliarity with the system as a GM showed, but I don't feel like I pushed enough with the monsters. Although the monsters are loyal, they do have a mind of their own, and I rarely had them disobey the children. Still, you cannot deny that everything about this game is simultaneously both charming and deeply disturbing: a tough combination to pull off.
A quick primer on the one-roll engine: you build a dice pool out of d10s using your ability score and relevant skill and then possibly throw in extra dice based on your relationships. When rolling you're looking for matches. So on four dice, getting 1,1,1,1 is better than 7,8,9,10 (though four tens is better than four ones). The number of matching dice is the width and the matching number is the height. So, three sixes would have a width of 3 and a height of 6, written as 3x6 for short. In this system, width represents speed and damage (in combat) while height represents finesse/accuracy and hit location (in combat).
The unique aspect of the one-roll engine is that in that one roll, everything is determined: initiative, whether or not you hit, how much damage you deal to what location. In fact, all players as well as the Game Master can roll simultaneously.
The great thing about the one-roll engine is that it's fairly intuitive even though it's quite different than any other system I've seen. Once we got the hang of it, everything was resolved quickly and we moved on to the next round of actions.
However, sometimes I felt as though so much depended on that one roll. In the system, if you take damage then you lose a die off your best matching set. So, since both damage and initiative are based on width, a width of two rarely resolved.
Are monsters better?
This topic touches on both the setting and the game mechanics, but I wonder if the children were overshadowed by the monsters. In combat, the answer was clearly yes. When I had the monsters disobey, it was frequently in combat and so at least the children could spend their actions trying to handle the monsters. But it seemed like a cop-out to do that every round. The children were no match for other monsters or any real threats and so their actions often seemed irrelevant.
In role-playing, I think the children worked better. The players really got into their roles, loosely based on archetypes from The Breakfast Club - in my game we had The Brain, The Narc and The Basket-Case. And the interplay between the children and monsters was probably the shining moment.
Yay, this post is finally over!
Most games where the characters are children don't interest me, but this is one system where it works. I also have to give major kudos to the book: the adventure was fantastic. Even an element that I was unsure about (an extremely creepy anti-drug dog character: think McGruff from your worst nightmares) turned out to be fun and memorable. It had a great plot and NPCs and really gave everyone a good sense of what the setting and game mechanics were all about. It even had some quick encounters towards the beginning, including being called to the principal's office, to give players a chance to get comfortable with the dice-rolling.
I will admit that one play is simply not enough to reach a final verdict on Monsters and Other Childish Things or the one-roll engine. I don't think I will run a game any time soon, but would definitely jump into a game at a con given the opportunity.