This spring, when we went to PAX East, I planned on seeking out the tables that were showing off and / or selling indie RPGs instead of looking for board games to add to the collection. I was not disappointed and found a great number of games to choose from. Some I had eyed before and others I had never heard of. Of those I had already heard of, Monster of the Week jumped out as not just one I wanted to play, but one I knew Untamed Scribe would be great as GM for. After a few texts I circled back and bought it (along with Cats, Wield, and Our Last Best Hope).
This month we finally tried it out. You may have caught some of my tweets and I have certainly mentioned it on here before. Not to worry, you guys will get to listen to it soon enough. Well, as soon as we can get the last session in. This review is different from my Death House review and from most reviews I will do because, fair warning, I have no GM-side knowledge. I know only what I have experienced in those two sessions and what little I have seen online. As such, this review is a player review.
Monster of the Week is based on the Apocalypse World RPG system and published by Evil Hat. You can find it over here
. The idea behind the system is a fantastic and classic one and it is the source of the game’s name. In television many shows are written so that you can see one self contained episode each week. Sometimes you get a double-episode thrown at you with a to be continued. Essentially you are looking at similar stories as can be found within the X-Files, Buffy, Scooby-do, and Supernatural. Thus has been born the monster of the week trope.
Monster of the Week manages to do this all in spades. It is a very simple system based around rolling 2d6 and adding a simple bonus. Regardless of action being attempted, you can come to know exactly what to expect from your roll. Low enough and you botch but gain very precious XP, higher and you might succeed at a cost, even higher and you succeed, or get a 12 and you go beyond even your own hopes. To figure out the results of rolls it is as simple as rolling and adding somewhere between +0 and +3 and that is it! From there is is just a matter of understanding the workings of how a monster of the week runs.
For me, this was both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of the game. You see, running a game the same way in which any of the previously mentioned shows, or other similar ones, requires you to act within the expectations of such entertainment. You have a group of characters that inevitably get split up and run into problems. By design the game seems to seek out the same thing. In a show these things are fairly easy. We can be so caught up in a scene that we don’t even wonder where the hell the others are until that moment when things change and the tension is released just as the others show up. Great timing guys…
That is much easier to do on TV though. In the game things can naturally flow that way, especially in a smaller group, but don’t always. For us it did in the first session where we split into two pairs each covering half of a situation. Well, I am sure there were other options, but you get my point. The more people added to such a game the harder it becomes and the more important it is for the GM to split teams and keep them split for dramatically appropriate times. The problems I mention in Tuesdays article are the same problems that TV shows tend not to see because, well, TV shows that are monster of the week tend to have only 2-3 major characters (PCs) in an episode.
However, if you have a group that gets into the game and the genre and, in some ways, hams it up then you have a fantastic thing going. Monster of the Week excels at hamming it up and making that work for your group. It feels just like you are playing a character in an episode of your favorite show in the genre and you can do anything. Not only that but the characters are incredibly diverse. First there are many “classes” to choose from. Second, each one has a number of choices that they can be built to make each new character unique. Third the game limits you to one character of each type while also making sure you have interlaced backstories. Because of this, your group will be diverse, different each time, and everyone will feel that they had a stake in the creation of the group as a while.
The problems of Monster of the Week, however, reveal themselves when you have a group used to something a lot more rigid and initiative based rather than something scene based. Time is incredibly fluid when it comes to a monster of the week show, especially when you consider time-tight dramatic sequences. It almost like that one character was just sitting there waiting for the worst moment to jump in, right? In games like D&D you all go on an initiative and splitting the party is a death sentence. In Monster of the Week it is not only common but just the way things work out. Without care scenes can become entangles and complicated to run and play in. As a player that was the most frustrating aspect and one not easily solvable without going through those tribulations yourself.
The other problem with Monster of the Week is the difference between a success and a total success. In the short, a success grants you a question or two from a list depending on what was happening and what skill you were using. A very specific list. A roll of 12 or higher is what gets you access to ANY question asked. At least in rules as written. My problem with this is, rather than there being a fine line between rules as written and rules as intended, there is a rather large leap. During the course of the game you may want to investigate and a question may not quite fit the criteria presented as choices. In fact it probably won’t. For example I was investigating a library on fire and looking for people to help. The questions presented were not really fitting to such an occurrence, and I had to word them properly even though the GM (Untamed Scribe) was willingly flexible in this regard. That ambiguous grey area of reality was a wall that needed addressing and consistent watching to keep the game running smoothly because it was a cornerstone of how the mechanic work. When does my question leave the confines of a certain tier roll and become the next? What is asking too much? Am I not asking enough?
All in all, though, Monster of the Week is an incredible game. It takes story archetype (monster of the week) and turns it into a game, one which can be played in a variety of genres. It gives you a simple, flexible rule system from which to run the game and allows you to run it in a variety of eras and genres. The replay-ability seems endless. The way it runs is akin to those television shows and feels great. You are not just allowed to draw on great tropes and occasionally over the top events, but encouraged to do so. Press your luck, doom your character, save the world for another day!
The problems I saw in the game could come from anywhere. Not having read the book I can’t tell you where specifically. It is most likely a combination of a few factors: being used to D&D, being new to the game, etc. None of the problems I saw are things which cannot be overcome. However, they are something which should be addressed in the book. I hope they are, or that they are in future editions. I look forward to playing this again and urge you to try it. I do warn you, however, to put yourself in the mindset of a TV show character first and treat the game as if your watching what happens on TV. Time does not work as you might expect.
This is one of my first forays into a smaller, tighter, more narrative game and it was fun. I have learned a lot from playing it and love the style. Don’t be afraid to try new things, and if you want to run a game in the vein of Supernatural, Buffy, Scooby-do, Doctor Who, X-Files, or anything similar then I would definitely point you towards Evil Hat’s Monster of the Week!