As my tabletop group nears the end of our current campaign, we’ve been having discussions about what kind of game we want to play next. It’s a tricky proposition to discuss – everyone has different interests and we’re fortunate enough to live in a time where there’s a decent tabletop out there for most interests. My wife, for example, mentioned that she might be interested in playing a tabletop about supernaturals – ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and the like. When she mentioned the idea, I decided to look and see what kind of stuff was out there. Lo and behold, there are three different supernatural tabletop RPGs just within the Powered by the Apocalypse engine alone!
For those unfamiliar with the terminology, Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) refers to a roleplaying game that utilizes similar mechanics or philosophies to Apocalypse World. PbtA games are narrative-driven, rely on a 2d6+STAT mechanic with three tiers of success or failure, and have codified rules for the GM down to the specific moves they should consider making. It’s a flexible system that the creators, Vincent and Meguey Baker, are very open about other folks using to create their own games. The other cool thing about them is that the playbooks (character types) and the basic moves (the most commonly-engaged rules of the game) are often resources that can be printed for free.
Thanks to this openness to the community and ease of access, it’s quite easy to get a strong vision of exactly what a PbtA game will play like without having to commit financially first. I want to learn everything I can about the three supernatural PbtA games simply by reading their playbooks and moves, then compare the three together to see their pros and cons as well as which one is most appropriate for which type of game. Based on the number of words and the length of time this first article took, I’ll be breaking the series into somewhere between seven and eight parts over the course of the next couple of months. So for this week, the game we’ll be discussing is:
MONSTER OF THE WEEK
Monster of the Week is a supernatural tabletop RPG developed by Evil Hat Official, who you may know for the popular FATE Core/FATE Accelerated systems. It’s a PbtA game inspired by the classic premise of many a supernatural television show: each week, you hunt a different monster. Our goal today is to see what kind of game that the core moves support. If you want to read these resources along with the article, they are available for free download from Evil Hat’s website: just follow this link!
By the way, a quick content warning: Adventure Rules is generally about as family-friendly as the game being discussed, and there’s a bit of course language built into Monster of the Week’s rules. If language bothers you or if you’re a parent deciding if your kid should read about this tabletop game, this might be one you want to skip.
In this article, we’re going to focus on the core moves that are available to any type of character in the game. For those following along via PDF, I’ll be looking at the Hunter Reference Sheet. The basic moves in a PbtA titles give you a strong vision of what types of actions you’ll be taking most often, and the tone of the game as those actions resolve. The interesting thing about the Monster of the Week is that this page starts off with the Hunter’s Agenda. Agenda is an element you can find in most (I won’t say all because I haven’t read them all) PbtA games – it tells the players and GM what their goals are. They’ll have different agendas based on their roles, so what is the agenda of a player in Monster of the Week?
The agenda here is broken down into four parts: act like the hero in this story (because you are); make your own destiny; find the damn monsters and stop them; play your hunter like they’re a real person. Those are the things that the player should always have in mind when playing this game, and the fact that the agenda is the first thing on the reference material shows that this agenda is considered very important to the game. It certainly sets the tone, doesn’t it? Act like the hero in this story establishes right off that even if you’re playing a problematic hero, your character is still ultimately the good guy. Make your own destiny emphasizes that nothing is predetermined and that the player has the ability to change their fate. Find the damn monsters and stop them is the most interesting of these to me because it makes a very strong statement about monsters – damn them, right? Even if stop them leaves things open enough that you don’t necessarily have to kill every monster, the game doesn’t realistically give you the option to have monsters as creatures which are sympathetic. This agenda states very clearly that hunters are good, and monsters are bad. It gives us a good idea of what kinds of games we do and don’t want to play in this system. Monsters can’t be nuanced or complicated – at the end of the day, those damn things are what you, the hero, are trying to stop.
Now we move past the agenda into the actual moves, and once again just the positioning of these things tells us so much about the tone of this game. The very first move shown is Kick Some Ass. Yeah, this game is definitely not about trying to help monsters by solving their problems. Notice, too, what this says about the type of action in the game and the type of character you are playing. The moves triggers “when you get into a fight and kick some ass.” You can’t not kick ass, or the move doesn’t even work. This puts your character into a much more powerful and competent position than say, City of Mist’s Go Toe to Toe or Apocalypse World’s Single Combat, even if the rules of the move work in essentially the same way (exchanging harm with some advantages or disadvantages depending on how you roll). We also see the first mention of a character stat here, Tough. So one of the types of characters you can play in this game is someone who is tough, a scrapper who kicks ass whenever they get into a fight.
Next we have Act Under Pressure, a move which is pretty vague about what exactly “pressure” is. This is normal – PbtA games tend to have a catch-all move for troublesome situations. Look at how the name sets the tone again, though – in Dungeon World this move is called Defy Danger. In Apocalypse World, it’s called Act Under Fire. Danger and fire are a lot more potent opposition than pressure, in my mind. We see the continuing trend of your character being this cool hero – added to by the fact that Cool is literally the name of the stat that you use to make this move. Just in the first two moves, we have tough, cool characters who kick ass and who are cool under pressure. Monster of the Week characters don’t get into danger, they don’t try to take actions while under fire – there’s just pressure.
Next comes Help Out, a move which simply allows one hunter to provide assistance to another. There’s no clear definition for how this assistance has to come but this is standard PbtA – there are lots of ways to help your allies, so the move is intentionally vague. What’s interesting here is that while another game might have a specific mechanic for the relationships between characters – bonds in Dungeon World or Hx in Apocalypse World – this game just uses the Cool stat. This implies (but doesn’t guarantee) that there’s no specific mechanisms for how the characters in the party relate to each other. If that’s true, then this game may not have much focus on the group as an entity. That style of play would also be supported by the hunter agenda of acting like the hero – you are the hero of the game, not you all.
Our next move is Investigate a Mystery, which tells us right off that mysteries will play a role in this game. This move rolls the Sharp stat – notice that sharp says something different about the method of the character’s investigation that something like Intellect or Wisdom. When you roll this move, you gain an amount of hold (a mechanical currency you can spend to do things) based on how well you roll. You then spend that hold to ask questions, and the types of questions that the game lets you ask says a lot about what mystery investigation looks like: what happened here? What sort of creature is it? What can it do? What can hurt it? Where did it go? What was it going to do? What is being concealed here?
Notice that most of these questions are focused on the monster – this tells us what we use the move for. Investigate a Mystery always leads to a monster – perhaps Investigate a Monster would be a better move name? On top of that, notice the scope of the questions asked. What sort of creature is it and what can hurt it seem like really significant information to just give away in one move like this, right? It’s worth noting, though, that this game is called Monster of the Week. If you’re looking at investigating, locating, and defeating a different monster every session, play has to move fast. If it takes two sessions just to find out the monster’s identity and weaknesses, another one to find it and one or two more to actually kill it, the game would be Monster of the Month instead. The investigation move hits hard and fast but it has to in order to maintain the vision of the game. Still, if you’re interested in dragging out mysteries for a longer period of time, Monster of the Week won’t support you in that.
Next is Manipulate Someone – guess any social interaction in this game is limited to trying to get something that you want, eh? The trigger is “once you have given them a reason, tell them something you want them to do,” so all manipulation is built on a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” kind of philosophy. The stat used to manipulate is Charm, which has a lot more specificity than Dungeon World’s Charisma and a very different tone than Apocalypse World’s Hot. Hunters in this game are smooth-talkers with charming personalities but don’t necessarily make every interaction inherently sexual.
This move is interesting too in that this is the first time we see different rules for how a non-player character is affected versus how a player is affected. Notice how it’s phrased, too: for a normal person vs for another hunter. Now we know that our characters are not, in fact, normal people. When a normal person is manipulated, they’ll accept your reasoning but it’s still possible that you asked for too much – this move doesn’t just let you brainwash NPCs. It also doesn’t let you brainwash player characters; instead, you offer them a carrot for doing what you want. A hunter who allows you to manipulate them gains experience and, on a particularly good roll, a bonus to their next action (granted, that action might be the one you just manipulated them in to, but whatever). Only when the move is advanced do players get the option of forcing a hunter to take action with a negative consequence – you catch more flies with honey and all that. This says something about the game too, though; only particularly skilled manipulators can get anywhere by threatening another hunter.
Our next move is Protect Someone, another move for Tough characters to use. Interestingly the trigger is “when you prevent harm to another character,” yet the actual results of rolling the move don’t involve total harm prevention unless you roll well and make specific choices. This move generally is going to result in both the original target and the protector getting hurt a bit, which is an interesting level of grit compared to moves like Kick Some Ass or Act Under Pressure. That feels pretty consistent with the fictional inspiration – how often in a show like Supernatural or Buffy do you see someone jumping in harm’s way for an ally and coming out of it clean?
The final move on the first page of the hunter sheet (this was all one page?!) is Read a Bad Situation. Again, this is something Sharp people do, and it once again generates hold to be spent on a specific set of questions. This move lets you ask: what’s my best way in? What’s my best way out? Are there any dangers we haven’t noticed? What’s the biggest threat? What’s most vulnerable to me? What’s the best way to protect the victims? When you act on the answers to these questions you get a +1 bonus to your roll, so there’s a practical, mechanical payoff for taking the time to gather this kind of information. Notice that compared to Investigate a Mystery, this move is much broader and can be applied to a larger variety of situations. I particularly like what’s the best way to protect the victims as this says a lot about exactly what kind of bad situations you’ll be using this move to read.
As we move to the second page of moves, the first one we see is Use Magic. Whoa whoa whoa – this is a basic move? Any hunter can just whip out some magic whenever they want? This move does a ton of worldbuilding simply by its presence in the game. Hunters are people who are capable of using magic, which certainly explains the distinction from normal people that we saw with Manipulate Someone. To cast spells, a hunter must tap into their Weird – the fact that the magic stat is Weird as opposed to something like Intellect or Wisdom also makes a strong statement about the nature of magic in this world. It’s not the result of study or spiritual power – it’s creepy, odd, unnatural. But what can it do?
Magic is made up of effects and glitches – most of the time when you use magic, the Keeper (that’s this game’s name for the GM) gives you a requirement such as the time the spell takes, the materials you need, or the fact that you can’t do it alone, and once you meet those requirements you get to choose an effect and probably a glitch too. The effects of magic are all over the place: inflict 1 harm; enchant a weapon; do one thing beyond human limitations; bar a place or portal to a specific type of person or creature; trap a specific person, minion, or monster; banish a spirit or curse from the person, object, or place it inhabits; summon a monster into the world; communicate with something you do not share a language with; observe another place or time; heal 1 harm, cure a disease, or neutralize a poison.
This is a big list of effects and they’re all over the place, but once again what’s interesting to me is that any character can theoretically do this. Magic isn’t the specific domain of only one character type, so it isn’t inherent to someone’s powers or abilities. This sets the tone of magic as being something occult – you just have to know the right weird rituals to get the effects you want. Notice that this move has specific conditions and while some are useful for specific actions, magic doesn’t have much potency as far as combat application – it only hurts or heals by 1. The thing is, our next move Big Magic allows a character to theoretically accomplish anything as long as they meet the long list of requirements established by the Keeper. So magic in this game is potentially limitless, but notice that the Keeper always has the final say in how difficult magic is and whether or not it has unintended consequences.
Now we move away from specific moves and into more general mechanics. The rest of the page focuses on how harm, healing, Luck, and EXP work in this game, as well as how to end a session of the game. Harm is taken whenever the character makes a move which instructs that harm happens to them such as Kick Some Ass or Protect Someone. Harm is on a scale from zero to eight, with 1-3 being low-impact harm that can be easily recovered with some rest while harm from 4-7 is unstable and will worsen over time. 8 or more harm kills a normal human, including a hunter (interesting after the distinction between the two previously). The Harm section also explains that monsters cannot be killed until their weakness is used against them, and that some minions also follow those rules. So in the lore of this game, all monsters have a weakness and they cannot be killed unless that weakness is used against them. There’s never going to be a story in Monster of the Week where you simply overcome a monster by punching or shooting it enough times.
Luck has a short but sweet description. It’s a currency you can spend on two very specific outcomes: reducing harm you take to zero or setting any roll you make to a 12. This is significant because for characters with advanced moves, luck can be used to trigger the advanced version of any move. We also see that luck operates on a timer – when a hunter runs out of luck, bad things will happen to them. This is an interesting mechanic because it allows players to evade consequences for a limited amount of time. In Apocalypse World, when Harm gets to a certain level players can avoid dying by taking a different penalty such as a stat decrease or changing their playbook. In this game, death is the only option, so you can spend luck to stave it off longer – but eventually, that tactic will no longer work.
Leveling Up and End of Session tell us about how to gain and use experience points. EXP is gained when a move tells you to mark experience (we saw an example of that with Manipulate Someone) and when you roll a 6 or less on the dice. Now for those unfamiliar with PbtA games, rolling a 6 or lower is the failure condition for an action. So this means that in Monster of the Week, you gain experience when you fail. This is a mechanic I am familiar with thanks to Dungeon World and I really enjoy it – it takes the edge off of failure and it establishes a world where the characters grow as a result of their mistakes. EXP is also gained at the end of the session if the players can answer “yes” to the following questions: did we conclude the current mystery? Did we save someone from certain death (or worse)? Did we learn something new and important about the world? Did we learn something new and important about one of the hunters?
The End of Session move is significant because it tells us what the game is really about. The moves are what the characters can do, the agenda is how the players should portray their characters, but the end of session move is what the players are tangibly rewarded for doing. They’re going to want to accomplish this every session. Notice, though, that because the answer to any of these questions could be no, it should be possible to not accomplish these things in a session, too. What I think is an interesting choice is that killing the monster is nowhere to be seen. In a game where Kick Some Ass is the first move we learn about, there’s no grand reward for accomplishing that. Instead, players are rewarded for solving mysteries (something they can accomplish in a single action with Investigate a Mystery), saving someone from certain death, and learning more about the world and characters. So while the name of this game is Monster of the Week and the language of the game refers to your characters as hunters and you’re supposed to be the hero who stops these damn monsters, the game isn’t necessarily about monster hunting in so many words. It’s an interesting contrast.
We’ve learned a lot about Monster of the Week just by looking at the game’s core moves, so next week we’ll focus on the character playbooks and see what specific character types players can choose for the game! If you’ve played Monster of the Week before, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the game in the comments, particularly if your experience contrasts any of the conclusions that I’ve reached by looking at the rules. It’s always fascinating to see the distinction between mechanisms in theory and mechanisms in practice!