Thursday, February 28, 2013

Monster of the Week Review

I've been doing a more-or-less-weekly open indie game series at the local store on Sundays. I post a schedule with a different game each week, and if there are enough interested people, we run it. If there aren't, we don't.

Monster of the Week was a bit over a week ago, and it was a lot of fun.

Monster of the Week (MotW) borrows Apocalypse World's "color-first" ruleset to simulate ensemble-cast monster-hunting TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X-Files, and Supernatural. The playbooks are very evocative (always a plus for this type of game) and cover most of the character archetypes from those shows pretty well. You can check them out for free at the Generic Games site.

The Book

I bought the PDF version, partly because the dead tree version ships from New Zealand and partly because I prefer PDFs. The art style is very unique and I like it a lot. The book is well organized and it's easy to find what you're looking for. It's not a hard read either - I managed to get through all 200 pages in only a few hours.

The copy editing is pretty good - there were few if any glaring errors in the text and the rules are quite consistent. I though the prose could have been a bit tighter and/or punchier (especially in flavor text sections) but you can tell the game is a labor of love and the rules themselves are excellent. This is one of those games that plays better than it reads1 - and it still reads pretty well.

The Rules

This is one of the places where Monster of the Week really shines. They've done a wonderful job of reducing the plot elements of one of these supernatural mystery/horror shows to a handful off basic moves. I'm going to highlight (if you'll pardon my pun) a couple to show why:

The investigate move is great for two reasons - first, it comes up a lot and helps me pace the mystery. Second, it comes up really, really naturally in scenes and players don't have to lobby for it. Actually, that's a strength of nearly all of the moves - it's obvious how they fit into the fiction, which is another huge plus in an Apocalypse World hack.

GM Advice

This is a really important part of any rulebook and MotW does not disappoint. The example mystery in the rulebook is great, and the outline for how to build your own was extremely helpful. It took me about an hour to research my monster (an obscure Amazonian spirit), give it moves, create minions and bystanders, and create the master countdown. Without that advice, I would have been completely lost. I didn't go into the arc-building section as deeply since this was a one-shot, but I'm sure it's just as useful.

In some ways, I found the advice on NPC motivation to be almost better than Vincent Baker's in Apocalypse World. Well, let me pull that back a bit - the ApoWo advice that is most useful to me is the "give each NPC a single, simple motivation" - and that applies to creating NPCs in any game. But the threat types and moves for NPCs in MotW are very, very useful. All I needed to do to figure out how to play an NPC was to look at the one-line threat summary I'd written for him or her. That was not always the case running ApoWo, where the threats are often a bit more abstract. Does that mean MotW NPCs aren't as deep as those in Apocalypse World? Maybe. Maybe it was just because it was a one-shot and most of the characters were throw-away.

Actual Play Experience

One thing this game does require is some GM prep. You've really got to bring something interesting every week (it's right there in the name!) and that means a little bit of research and a little bit of planning. I suppose if you're playing a campaign that doesn't move around a whole lot you might be able to re-use bystanders or even monsters, though. Like I said, prep took me about an hour, but I figure after a few sessions I might be able to shave it down to half that.

Character creation wasn't fast but everyone was kind of getting dinner while we did it and I had to explain the rules. There weren't a lot of questions from the players - everything was pretty self-evident (if not exactly well-organized) in the playbooks. The players were able to skim the books and find the characters that appealed to them, which was good. They were able to pick stats, moves, look, gear, etc. without much involvement from me.

Once the game was underway, the mystery took between 3 and 4 hours to resolve. If we had been a bit more focused or I had really pushed things we could have gotten through it in less. It does seem like the Keeper can compress or extend the game based on how liberal they are with clues and with investigate rolls. I tried to keep scenes short and cut back and forth between simultaneous action whenever I could (tricks I learned running ApoWo to keep things moving) but if the players wanted their PCs to interact I mostly let them. I wanted them to experience the characterization and role-play that comes with these types of games and not just the action.

I set the game on a college campus. The hook was two girls from the sorority rush turning up drowned in the river. The players were a Professional (a homicide detective who was effectively the "special cases" unit), an Expert (professor of Modern Mythology), and a Spooky (one of the prof's students). It was a good team that had all of the stats more or less covered. I reduced the XP to advance to 4 (always a good thing for one-shots and con games) and I think everyone dinged at least once.

Things started pretty naturally, with the campus police and the M.E. calling in the Professional and the Expert, respectively. The Spooky got involved when witnesses came forward after class - there was evidently strange guitar music coming from down by the river. The Spooky ran afoul of the Professional when they both decided to investigate on their own at the same time, in the same place. That set up a neat scene when the Spooky, sitting in the city jail, guarded by the Professional, suddenly got a premonition which the other two characters had to investigate (and which ultimately led to her exoneration).

All three proceeded to dig into the mystery, questioning some of the women involved in the rush activities when they discovered that something was fishy. They separated a troublesome NPC from one who was cooperative, got some of the information they needed, while the Spooky pretended to be a "legacy" to gain access to the sorority house that (it turns out) was in thrall to the monster.

It was around this time that the PCs discovered the monster was a Boto, a South American incubus-like creature that can transform into a river dolphin. It had been brought to the campus' marine biology lab after a trip which involved a faculty member and at least one woman from the sorority in question. However, the creature had evidently escaped and the faculty member had disappeared.

With the sorority the only remaining lead, the Spooky tried a mental link to the monster and discovered it was hiding in an indoor pool (which the sorority house conveniently had). She decided she'd infiltrate the party with the two other PCs as backup. She found the creature, resisted its hypnotizing music, and managed to call in reinforcements for the final fight, which involved a bunch of enthralled students and a very pregnant - and well-armed - marine biologist. The Spooky bound the professor with magic while the Professional and the Expert fought their way through the students. The Expert got their first and engaged the creature in a sword fight, but it took a well-placed headshot from the Professional to put the thing down. With no running fresh water to retreat to, it was killed and the students were freed from its power.

Conclusion

This game is definitely worth the money, in PDF or print. I highly recommend it for single sessions, maybe as a break from whatever your group normally plays. It seems like it would also be fun for a campaign of its own, though the "luck" mechanic does mean it is likely to take a dark and fatalistic turn as the character arcs tie up.

1 Best example of this: Icons. Terrible book, but decent game when you actually play it.

Posted by Dave at 11:35 PM | Tags: games, tabletop

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