The Independents: Monster of the Week

A dark shadow lurks at the edge of town. Bodies with strange markings have been found throughout the city. Strange omens appear in the skies. Who will face these grim threats? A blue collar warlock, pulling out his street smarts as much as his arcane knowledge? A girl once given a “gift” by a faerie godmother, that helps (and compels) her to action? The last member of a defunct Order, sworn to stop Nazi experiments of the same? The roaming hunter, traveling from town to town to find the creature who killed his brother? The government agent who has stumbled into something larger, and can’t look away? Together, they will find out…why all these different monsters always seem to arrive like clockwork on one day of the week. It’s uncanny. This is Monster of the Week!

Originally released independently by Michael Sands, Monster of the Week was acquired for publication by our good friends at Evil Hat Productions, and a revised edition was published in 2015, set to capture the spirit of creative works such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, X-Files, Fringe, Supernatural, Hellblazer and the Dresden Files. The phrase “Monster of the Week” was originally coined by the writers of The Outer Limits, but the general trope has become a fairly common formula for TV shows. The general idea is that some new threat arrives for the protagonists. They spend the episode investigating for clues as to what it is or how to stop it, and the episode ends with the creature defeated and something close to a status quo returned. While an overall plot arc can span multiple seasons, the general trend is that long term progress on that goal happens in the background or the weekly threat is a check off on the list before the heroes can go after the Big Bad.

It is this effect that the game goes for. Each session is set up as an individual episode of a TV show, and the GM notes are constructed to try to steer players over conflict arcs that resolves around the time that players hit a certain level on the experience tracker. The game is, by design, meant to be built in shorter arcs that discourages games that go too long without major changes to the plot. After all, most sci-fi shows don’t run for that long. There is, in fact, a mechanic in play that sets a timer for characters. There is more on that in a little bit.

Overall, the mechanics are standard Powered by the Apocalypse fare. It stays with the standard Player Facing system, where players make moves, and GMs react to them. They bring in the standard five Combat/Social/Mental/Magic/Cool stats from most PbtA settings, with available arrays of starting stats listed on a number of Playbooks for the players to choose from. Each playbook is designed to be an archetype seen in a number of Monster of the Week shows, and lists examples for which that archetype would apply (Castiel from Supernatural as “The Divine”, Gentleman Johnny Marcone from the Dresden Files as “The Crooked”) and each playbook comes with moves which allow you to use different stats in special situations, offer a new move, or build upon a preexisting one. One thing that they do especially well that is often difficult in an urban fantasy setting (which I know from the Dresden Files games) is balancing characters with supernatural powers with more standard mortals. It can be difficult to balance play when one character is the great chosen one of prophecy, or the reincarnation of an Asura, and the rest are clued-in investigators. The game does an excellent job in making other types of characters interesting and balanced to play, with a few distinct advantages. For the most part, this ties into the Luck mechanic. Every player starts the game with seven Luck boxes, and these can be spent to give players a result as if they rolled 12 on a die or reduce an incoming attack to 0-harm. When a player has completely filled in their track, they are considered Out of Luck, and you are unable to use the mechanic. For some playbooks, it is impossible to gain more, while the Mundane can spend 4 different advances to get the Luck back. In addition, for some playbooks, even spending Luck pushes you to further consequences. For The Chosen each point you spend drives you further to your Destiny, whatever that is. For The Spooky, where you have powers from something nefarious, spending a point amps up your darker desires. There are also a number of moves (some mandatory) which require you to take a roll at the start of the session, with negative consequences on a failure. The more you put a character out into the universe, the greater the potential that they become a cosmic plaything. All in all, there’s something nice in each of the playbooks, and while some might appeal to me more than others, I think I could enjoy playing as almost all of them.

The game provides some nice notes to the GM as to how to run the campaign. It wants to hew more to the feel of a TV series, and they provide a countdown arc for a few types of season finale worthy stages. The idea is that the party enters, stumbling across early signs of whatever catastrophe is looming, and challenges along the way build toward a timetable. The authors provide tips on running mysteries, and how to set challenges for players, but I think the most interesting idea is how they handle character arcs. It isn’t unusual for experience to be wildly scattered in a PtbA game, as failure and special abilities can cause some playbooks to “fail forward” if they are willing to take a lot of chances and keep missing (as our adventures in High Impact Heroics are testament to), and with the ability to reduce damage to zero using Lucky it is very possible for more reckless players to shoot ahead in early play. The narrative notes are very helpful in giving guides about how to transition those characters into their “moment” by resolving a critical character arc. In this case, the Luck mechanic has a similarity to the Corruption mechanic of Urban Shadows: it grants immediate gains, but by spending it, you are bringing your character deeper into Fate’s grasp, and it pulls you to a dramatic conclusion.

This isn’t to say that characters need be written out of the game, but as a character’s Luck dwindles and things become more dire, it makes sense to tie off certain aspects and move onto new playbooks or settle certain aspects. Perhaps the Spooky’s visions fade because they lose the link to whatever was empowering them, but what they recorded and can remember has them piercing together a web of conspiracy like the Flake. Maybe the Chosen has fulfilled their prophecy and the powers that be decide to revoke their powers, forcing the Chosen to take their skills somewhere else as the Professional. I would be very interested in seeing a legacy game, where each shorter campaign is a timeskip to a few years ahead, and you are forbidden from playing the same playbook as before, meaning that any recurring characters would have undergone some change.

My one quibble with the narrative notes is that they are pretty light on describing how everyone would have come together. The book essentially cuts and pastes the premise from Buffy, Fringe, and Supernatural and calls it a day. While there is plenty of source material, and plenty of rules for creative solutions as to why this disparate group gets called together, I would have liked to see more prompts.

Overall, Monster of the Week is a lot like the trope that it names: it isn’t the most innovative format, either in mechanics or in story, but it is very relatable and there is something very comfortable with the formula. It is great for quick, punchy, relatively rules-light gameplay, and just because there is a formula does not mean that creative and talented people are unable to get a fun, engaging and sometimes heartbreaking story out of it.

You can find the digital version of Monster of the Week, in multiple file formats, at DriveThruRPG for $12.00.

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