Monster of the Week Review: Mysteries and Urban Fantasy

Monster of the Week is an urban fantasy tabletop role playing game based on the Apocalypse World play rules and takes influence from modern, supernatural shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or X-files.  It’s easy to learn and offers some surprising tools for story creation that I found extremely helpful—even in writing other stories outside the game.

Players who would enjoy this style of gameplay would be the story-lovers and role players, as it functions with famous archetypes and story implements, as well as mystery or horror lovers who want to sharpen their fangs in creating those kinds of adventures.

Originally created as online project by Lulu, Evil Hat has expanded its reach with several high-quality releases in print.  Urban fantasy is a wildly popular genre (or blend of genres) and adds a different flavor to role playing games—mainly, it brings out mystery and horror elements.

The Mechanics of the Game

A mystery is created and run by the Keeper, otherwise known as the Game Master, with two or more Hunters playing the game.

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The players (Hunters) choose their characters based on archetype, as opposed to the more common class/race system.  Players can make creative choices for appearance and abilities within the character Playbooks.  With this method, the storytelling elements of the game become a focus and are connected with your abilities.

Ability rolls are made with two 6-sided dice, with a 10+ being a superior roll, 7-9 being average, and 6 and below a failure.  These rolls are made with ability modifiers, per normal RPG gameplay.  These modifiers include:

  • Charm (interpersonal skills)
  • Cool (think under pressure)
  • Sharp (overall brainpower)
  • Tough (fighting stuff)
  • Weird (magic stuff)

As you can tell, these are slightly different from the typical modifiers.  However, the actions they modify are straightforward.  For example, the move Kick Some (Butt) is clearly connected to the Tough stat.  Therefore, even if they reinvented the wheel a bit, it’s still an easy RPG to learn.

Also, the mechanics of the game include complex “moves”, such as the previously mentioned Kick Some Ass.  Other moves a Hunter could make are Investigate a Mystery, Read a Bad Situation, Use Magic, Act Under Pressure, Manipulate Someone and Protect Someone.  Solving mysteries is a little different than the typical dungeon crawl, though that element can definitely fit here as well.  These complex moves help create the mystery solving process for the story and Hunters.

Creating the Mystery and Story

Each mystery created has a hook, the inciting incident that brings our Hunters together to achieve a goal.  Sometimes that goal is simply to hunt—there’s a man-eating monster on the loose and it needs to die.  Other times, the mystery is to stop an oncoming apocalypse or disaster.  Magic, horror, science fiction and the supernatural are all fair game in the development of the story.

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The structure of the game pushes the story along, which is super helpful in running an engaging campaign.  The main tool used to do this is the mystery countdown, which sets off worse and worse events as the story progresses.  This structure is built as:

  • Day –the story begins
  • Shadows—the threat begins to escalate
  • Sunset—things are getting serious
  • Dusk—more people are being affected
  • Nightfall—seriously, get on with stopping this evil force
  • Midnight—it’s as bad as it gets

In this style of gameplay, the naming convention isn’t literal, so you don’t have to worry about actual times of day.  This is a method similar to the “minutes to midnight” nuclear threat scale, which makes sense.  However, we’re switching nukes with magic and monsters.

Being so straightforward means that mysteries can be developed and played relatively quickly.  On the other hand, you have the capability of drawing out a story into an epic.  Consider a series with a connecting storyline and episodic adventures thrown in.

 The Variety in Characters

Building characters from playbooks is a different kind of character creation, but it works well for this game.  Twelve (12) options are available right out of the gate in the original rule book, with 11 bonus playbooks found online—both fan-made and official.  You can even create your own character type, if you so feel inspired.

Classic character tropes such as The Chosen, The Professional, The Monstrous and The Weird are common across the best urban fantasy stories.  You could play as Buffy with The Chosen character. On the other hand, you could try Fox Mulder with The Professional.  All of the abilities and bonuses these characters can learn are in their respective playbooks, with plenty of room to customize.

Several playable characters were surprising to me.  Not because they didn’t make sense—because they made too much sense.  One of these character archetypes is called The Mundane.  This character is literally an average Joe or Susan.  They make goofy mistakes along the way, adding extra fun.  You know, the kind of character who accidentally solves the mystery or gets killed first.  It’s a good time.

Pros of Monster of the Week

Monster of the Week is a fantastic intro to role playing games.  The rules are easy to understand for new players, without an entire tome of rules to memorize.  These game developers found an efficient way to offer custom builds in easy-to-understand packages.

First, the countdown system adds a sense of immediacy to the quest at hand, which helps bring players into the game.  I would argue that this style is great for first time players.  Sometimes, new players are uncertain of how to start or what to do.  When players have stakes in the game, the excitement is much more palpable.

I can’t stress enough how effective this game is at teaching story-craft.  I actually feel like this can expand on role playing games with its focus on story.  Even seasoned gamers can improve their gaming skills when forced to focus on character development.  I think you might be surprised at how that could influence your typical d20 RPGs.

Cons of Monster of the Week

As focused as this game is on the story, the game can lack in the areas of combat customization.  Sure, the characters can focus on other ways of destroying their enemy, but the combat is less complex.  In fact, the players would likely have more fun finding unique ways to defeat their foe.

Power gamers may be disappointed in the lack of bonus attacks or advantage or adding extra modifiers to damage, but that’s not really the point of this game.  Monster of the Week makes these types of adventurers quickly and easily playable, which cuts out some of the customization aspects.

But, as I mentioned, this game is meant to be something different.  If you wanna play D&D, play D&D.  However, if you want something refreshing to improve your role playing, throw on your best detective hat and give this game a try.

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