The Few, The Proud, The Steves
What do you get when you cross Apocalypse World with Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Monster of the Week (henceforth MotW), the RPG!
MotW emulates a now-popular television serial with a team of (wisecracking yet angst-ridden) do-gooders hunting monsters in a modern world largely oblivious to their existence. In it, you’ll play a larger-than-life character exploring the paranormal, weird, and unexplained – and it will probably have some hideous beast waiting for a smackdown at the end. (It has nothing to do with 1950s B-movies of monster invasions, which is probably a good thing – even though that’s what “Monster of the Week” means to me.) It’s everything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Hellboy to The X-Files – a genre that seems to be growing in both geek and mainstream appeal every year.
So just how good is the game? Read on!
Warning: I haven’t yet played this game – only read it thoroughly.
MotW is most easily available as a 201-page pdf, with pages scaled for digest size. The presentation is bare-bones: a smattering of small balck-and-white art (a piece for each of the character types) and no fancy sidebars or tables. The game also comes with nine (!) playbooks for characters (see below).
However, it is very clearly written, and the author has clearly spent a great deal of time thinking about how to communicate the ideas behind the game. The text steps players and Keepers (the game’s name for the GM) through their first sessions and future sessions. It offers lots of bulleted lists for defining cases and summarizing key points as well as worked examples, and it is not afraid to go back over points to emphasize them.
My only real quibble is the lack of chapter headings, which would make things easier to find as reference. Also, I’m not sure how well the organization (written mostly as a tutorial) will hold up as a reference during play, but the game also includes some handy reference sheets so that’s not a real big deal. There’s also an index, a good table of contents, and the pdf is fully bookmarked.
The System: Monsterpocalypse!
MotW is a hack of the fabulous indie darling, Apocalypse World, meaning that it takes the underlying system behind that game and redirects it toward this new genre: episodic monster-hunting in the vein of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Supernatural. This is a popular thing to do – see Apocalypse World Engine for some other recent examples – and there’s even another hack that may at first sound similar, Monsterhearts, though on closer inspection they are very different games. (MotW simulates the kick-the-monster’s-ass part of Buffy, while Monsterhearts simulates the angsty teen drama part.)
Gameplay proceeds through a series of moves, which represent discrete elements of the action. Players make moves when they try something difficult or risky – such as read a bad situation or kick some ass. Moves always work in a simple way: roll 2d6, add a statistic, and compare the total to the move’s consequences. A total of 7-9 is a partial success: the PC gets what they want but will suffer a consequence. A total of 10 or higher is a much stronger success. Moves influence the fiction, and they also have mechanical effects. They can inflict (or heal) harm – basically hit points or health (there’s a little more crunch to combat than this, with some equipment and death spiral rules, but not much). They can allow the player to ask questions to the Keeper (and expect honest answers). Or they can provide bonuses to future rolls.
Moves are also written very broadly; kick some ass represents any kind of combat, while act under pressure represents any action made more difficult by the situation (like a vampire charging you while you try to close the Hellgate). There are eight basic moves, and each character has a few more drawn from their playbook that are highly situational. The breadth of these moves means the action should flow pretty quickly without a lot of worrying about what move to use in a given situation.
The Keeper also has moves, though these function very differently. First, the Keeper never rolls dice: their moves simply happen. The point of the Keeper’s moves is to focus the story on what’s relevant to monster-hunting and the source material. They can be general (like separate them) or follow from a monster (Dracula can mesmerize) or even a location (the maze can confuse, or the teenage hunter’s parents could force them to make excuses). The point is that each move advances the story in some interesting way: the list of moves provides a rich set of tools to help the Keeper improvise as the players drive the action forward.
To further focus the game, the Keeper is provided with two higher levels of instructions: the agenda and the principles. I don’t find the former particularly useful, as they are too general, but the principles can be an excellent guide to designing stories and in choosing amongst all those Keeper moves during the game.
And make no mistake, this is a game that rewards improvisation: the Keeper’s agenda includes play to see what happens! Merely placing all the dice in the hands of the players encourages that, but the Keeper’s principles also demand he or she ask questions and build on the answers. And the breadth of the moves allows players great freedom of action in how they pursue the mysteries.
For me, the two most difficult aspects of the Apocalypse World engine are those where it is least defined:
There is no action sequence; rather, you just flow with the fiction. That makes for a good story but requires the Keeper remain on top of that action and well aware of how all the PCs are slotting into the story. Furthermore, the moves aren’t built so that consequences immediately follow the actions. For example the help out move gives someone a +1 to their roll – and can be used after the roll is made, if you can justify it. These kind of interrupts mean that players need to be very engaged in play to keep up. That’s a good thing, but I expect it will be difficult for those new to the system (I know it will be for me).
The second difficult aspect is pacing. Because the GM doesn’t ever roll, and because the Keeper moves could essentially decimate the characters at will if used to the full potential, it’s difficult for someone new to the system to see how the moves that inflict actual damage on the PCs (so-called hard moves) should be used. The book explains that soft moves should be used to set up their harder cousins, providing a chance for PCs to react and address the threat before it hits them hard, which is sensible. In “traditional” gaming terms, MotW doesn’t provide any firm balancing tools to the Keeper, while handing him or her a great deal of power. I think it will take some practice to figure out how to pace the game to reach a satisfying climax at the appropriate juncture.
So far as I can tell, the two most important differences from the baseline Apocalypse World system are:
Magic! Obviously the genre requires some facility with magic. There are three provisions for this. First, some of the playbooks contain specific “magical” moves. These are clearly constrained and easy to use. Second, there is the basic move use magic. This is, like all moves, very broad, but there is also a clear menu of effects and side effects from which each spell is built. This is meant for quick magic, perhaps in the heat of combat or a tense situation. The third is “Big Magic,” which is anything else and is handled in a much more narrative fashion. I think these options nail the genre (and by “genre” I mean Buffy here) and still support the quick, narrative play at the game’s heart.
MotW also gives the hunters a Luck statistic, which is a finite resource that can be traded to cancel an attack or get a free exceptional success. This mechanic goes a long way toward turning the gritty desolation of Apocalypse World into the more super-heroic, action-TV genre of monster hunters. But it also provides a narrative tool, because once a hunter’s luck runs out, the Keeper can pretty much have their way with them.
One of the basic character playbooks: the Monstrous! Image credit: Steve Dubya
Characters are defined by their playbook, which is essentially a “class” in a traditional game. The playbook guides the player through creating the character – including menus for looks, attributes, gear, etc. The mechanical centerpiece of each is the selection of special moves, of which each hunter will get three or so. These provide both the flavor of the archetype and its mechanical heft – they are really elegant things! The base game includes nine options:
The Chosen: destined for battle (Buffy)
The Expert: an experienced leader (Giles)
The Flake: a conspiracy theorist
The Initiate: a monster-fighting cultist
The Mundane: a normal person (Xander)
The Monstrous: a monster fighting with the good guys (Angel, Oz, Spike…)
The Professional: works for an organization (Riley)
The Spooky: a magician with a dark secret (Willow)
The Wronged: formerly the hunted, now the hunter
Supporters of the Indiegogo campaign also got up to four limited edition playbooks (the Divine, Hard Case, Snoop, and Summoned), and another one is already available (the book helpfully provides advice on writing new ones).
During character creation, the hunters are linked through questions that are also set out in their playbooks: each hunter will have two connections to each other one by the end of the process. It’s a nice exercise in team-building that can also provide fuel for the Keeper’s storyline. I like the mix of leading questions and cooperation this provides a lot (They came to you for advice, and your advice got them out of trouble. Ask them what the trouble was.)
Hunters will advance rather quickly, probably once or twice per session according to the rules. Each gets two highlighted statistics for each session (one selected by another player, and one by the Keeper): each roll involving that stat gives experience (whether or not it is successful), and there are quite a few other in-game triggers to earn it. (Unlike Apocalypse World, there are no bonds here: the game is more about hunting monsters than the interpersonal dynamics of the team, although the latter is not ignored.) Often it is offered as a carrot for players to listen to each other (and occasionally not to!) The playbooks give advancement options (usually increasing a stat or adding a new move), and once they “level up” five times, hunters get access to a new set of advanced moves that offer quite a step up in power – even improving the basic moves quite a bit.
I am very impressed by the advice for Keepers. My other experience with the Apocalypse World engine comes from Dungeon World Basic Roleplaying Game, and I found this a much clearer presentation of the Keeper’s job in play, partly thanks to lots of worked examples. There’s still a good deal of fuzziness on the issues I identified above (sequence and pacing), but it’s fair that every game requires some practice to see how the pieces fit together.
What makes this book stand out is the advice on constructing mysteries and arcs. Keep in mind that the game is meant to duplicate episodic TV series, and it provides an excellent tool chest for generating just those kinds of episodes. There are formulae for building the key monsters and their minions, a host of suggestions for incorporating interesting locations, and even advice on pacing the story. But all this is built in such a way that it’s clearly a framework for the hunters’ investigation, not a railroad: just enough preparation is suggested to get the story started and (probably) provide a nice climactic battle, but it feels like a set of tools rather than a script.
Even more impressively, the book provides advice on building arcs that basically give the season-long stories on these shows (think the Master or Glory on Buffy) and on incorporating those long-term stories into the episodic structure. I’m a bit fuzzy on how one builds the big evil into a climax in an RPG (where, at least in most games, the players generally succeed along the way – but you can’t let them succeed enough to stop everything in its tracks), but this is still great advice that I’ll take away for any campaign-style RPG.
There’s also solid advice on designing monsters, but honestly that seems pretty easy – the moves system is so flexible that all you need to do is think of a couple of cool hooks for their powers and identify their weakness (in keeping with the genre, monsters can’t be killed unless you know their weakness!).
Finally, the Keeper gets some miscellaneous advice on adapting the game to one-shots (the Luck mechanic has a built-in time that makes it best suited for campaign play) and a great section on using leading questions and custom moves to fill in the gaps for players who’ve missed an episode or two. I’m definitely stealing this for other games.
The Bottom Line
I like this game a lot: it’s a much clearer presentation of the Apocalypse World system than Dungeon World Basic Roleplaying Game (my only previous experience) and it provides a fantastic framework for playing quite a bit of fun geek culture – obviously, Buffy is what excites me, but there are all sorts of other shows you could do, from X-Files to Scooby Doo.
Moreover, the GM advice is solid gold: even if I never get to play MotW, I will not regret supporting this game if only for that reason! It provides some great tools for campaign construction, and the discussion of the Keeper’s agenda, principles, and moves could easily transfer over to many other games.
I must also say how impressed I am at the flexibility of the Apocalypse World Engine system. The original game is hard-edged and focused to a large extent on the soap opera between the characters (this is the angle that Monsterhearts emphasizes). MotW has a lighter tone, with significantly more heroic characters, and a focus on what the team can accomplish together rather than friction between them. That’s mostly driven by the introduction of Luck and the removal of Bonds from the experience system – minor tweaks that nonetheless easily change the focus of play.
If the modern narrative RPG style appeals to you, and games set in the modern world suit your group, then grab your wooden stake, silver bullets, and demon-possessed sword and pile into the Scoobymobile for some monster-hunting!
Note: This is my 55th entry in the Iron Reviewer series.
I know where you live, and I've seen where you sleep. I swear to everything holy that your mothers will CRY when they see what I've done to you.
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I knew of MotW before this, but I have to say that your review pretty much convinced me that it could work for my purposes. Well done!