Monster of the Week: Tome of Mysteries Review

Has your monster killing gotten into a rut? Oh sure, it was exciting the first time that the vampire raided the school dance, or when an accident with a magical artifact would summon a new type of creature each week to terrorize the town (though, strangely enough, it would always seem to stop between May and early-September). But when it’s happened week after week after week, the monsters themselves might get a little…stale. Maybe it’s time to stop the pure slayage, and chase some mysteries. After all, not every problem can be solved by hitting hard until dead: there are strange events possibly caused by innocent or well-intentioned mundane actions, or perhaps you are getting the first glimpse of a conspiracy, one that would take nine months or so to wrap up. It’s just the thing to brighten up events around the school library, FBI headquarters, or MIT lab. 

I am speaking, of course, of Monster of the Week, the glowing love letter to modern supernatural and science fiction, and more specifically their recent supplement: Tome of Mysteries. I had previously covered the core system last August, and in general I thought it was a very successful game in its own right, while still channeling the vibe of some of my favorite TV shows and books. Tome of Mysteries, rather than a complete overhaul, tinkers with a few rule mechanics, introduces a few new character playbooks ( for those uninitiated with the Powered by the Apocalypse model, effectively the character class), and offers some very practical advice and examples for GMs looking to run.

The first rule tweak that I noticed was that they offer a way to prevent “dump statting”. MotW has “Weird” as one of the core attributes, but the only skill attached to this was “Use Magic”. And while this is fantastic for players who are looking to play someone empowered by Divine Forces (The Divine), or a type of magician (The Spellslinger or The Spooky), it would likely be a lot less useful for players who are normal humans are punching above their weight class. While this might spur the question of “well, why would anyone play a character like that”, the core had a rather nice and balanced trend that helped with viability: the more that a character reaches out into the universe, the more it sucks you in. Characters with grand destinies or with bosses metaphysically upstairs (or downstairs) have these things interfering in their lives, and a clever GM can use this to great effect to complicate the lives of the characters. 

Complications make for great storytelling, and rather than nerfing other characters, Tome of Mysteries offers the chance to give Weird based abilities to all character types as well, with every character allowed to pick a Weird based move of their own. For some characters, nothing will change: Use Magic will still work exactly as before. For others, there is a chance to make themselves a little…weirder. Even people who want to play normal humans can have a little something special with the Moves “Trust Your Gut” (heightened instinct, and knowing where to go or what to do next) or “No Limits”, where the characters surging adrenaline pushes them to the boundaries of the human body’s abilities. For people who want to investigate weirdness using their wits, but don’t want to push into being a magician,  there’s “Weird Science”. People with just a touch of the supernatural can take “Empath” or Telepath” for a slight wrinkle, but one very neat one is “Past Lives” where a previous reincarnation (or another spirit stuck in your body) can chime in helpful hints. These moves are all powered by Weird, making it something useful no matter what the character type a player chooses.

The second tweak though, is my favorite, adding on some beautiful wrinkles to the Luck mechanic. As a reminder, or for people learning about the system for the first time, Luck acts as a mechanic to fuel the character’s “Season One plot armor”, the thing that rescues them when the situation turns riskier than you would like. Luck can be spent to change the results of the dice as if you had rolled 12 (the highest possible roll) or reduce any incoming damage to zero. The appeal is obvious: it can offer a critical, session ending strike to resolve the mystery, or can save a character from sure death. However, once a box is ticked off on the Luck tracker, it can only be returned by spending XP on an advancement on your playbook…and not all playbooks have that particular option. While it’s an excellent balancing mechanic (mundane playbooks tend to have that option more than highly supernatural creatures), using the Luck itself was a little plain. 

Tome of Mysteries offers a neat wrinkle to this mechanical feature to get the story more involved. Each playbook has been given a consequence for using that Luck that reflects their background. For a Spooky, a magic user with dark urges, this means that their Dark Side grows louder and hungrier. The Wronged, a hunter who is chasing after a creature that took something from him, gets a lead on his target but in nonideal circumstances. One playbook, The Summoned, kicks off the Apocalypse if they have used up all of their Luck. These changes help move the decision to spend a point away from abstract “how many points will I have later” to immediate changes in game that drive the story further.

There are new playbooks as well for players to peruse. One, the Gumshoe, ties in immediately with the “mystery” theme as a flask toting, internal monologue spouting detective with a Code. The Code, in particular, is a promise that the player binds the character to, dictating how they would behave in certain situations: “Uncover the truth, no matter the cost” or “Always kill the monster” are great examples of things the character would try to live by, and might come into conflict with if a monstrous being is simply trying to get by, or if exposing the truth comes at a high political cost. The Hex is another magician, but one who is constantly tempted by using it for ill purposes but manages to gain knowledge of a few specific spells. Players modify a bit of magic (something they see themselves using a lot), so that it is simply more powerful and the consequences of failure lesser. However, a mandatory Move in the playbooks means that whenever a Use Magic roll misses, the backlash always hits someone else: ally, random civilian, an important component, even a different enemy, which makes their powerful magic come with some serious complications for the party at large. 

The Pararomantic is a normal person, who just so happens to have been drawn into the world of the supernatural by falling in love with the wrong person slash monster. This bond allows the Pararomantic to roll Charm in place of Weird, but they need to take time to try to maintain that relationship…which is hard, because it is purposely set up to be doomed or forbidden from the start. If they push too hard, the relationship breaks apart and the bond is severed. The Searcher is like Mulder from the X-Files: someone who had a critical contact with the supernatural and was forever changed by it, leading them to be an expert in situations that apply to it. It’s a bit less potent than some of the other classes, but again, it’s balanced out by great general skills and the ability to buy back Luck points.

While the mechanical additions are nice, I think some of the best finds in the pages of the Tome of Mysteries are the advice and insight they offer. The Foreword itself tells the story of the long and harried road that Monster of the Week took from an idea to the finished product, and offers practical tips on how to bring your own game design into fruition. As our esteemed editor and developer of Transit knows, quite a lot goes into the process, so having reliable steps, tips, and advice can go a long way.

The aptly named “Advice” section is divided up among multiple authors, and each provides a short tract on how to run a game under specific circumstances. Sometimes, it’s to fit into very specific time slots, such as lunchtime at the office or at a convention. The obvious problem of a convention run game is that, typically, people are all showing up at the same time, often without a character ready and a limited time to resolve the story, which should be completed and not left hanging. The author provides a sample timeline for a four hour slot, keeping benchmarks and general times to stop, reassess, and lay more track to keep everyone involved in the story. The story of running the game during lunch hour works the opposite way: keep things casual, expect people to come and go, and feel free to leave things at appropriate cliffhangers for the end of an hour, possibly creating the Lost of lunchtime entertainment.

Furthermore, there are some really helpful notes as to how to create a certain feel for some of your mysteries. Often the inspiration for Monster of the Week, especially the settings in the Tome of Mysteries, are about Cosmic Horror: a vastness to the terror, whether it’s the bleeding of dimensions, or a hell portal spewing out demons, or an alien invasion that is slowly assimilating mankind. This is what you’d typically see in X-Files, or Fringe. On the other hand, Gothic Horror is more…personal. Gothic horror is closer to what you saw in the early seasons of Supernatural: past crimes and tragedies that have been fomenting for decades, or centuries bubbling due to the injustice. Sam Winchester’s personal secret about his visions haunt him, and summon up the spirit of Bloody Mary. The sins of the father are revisited on the sons. While cosmic can lend itself to more action, Gothic horror can ratchet up the tension, and the chapter offers tips on how to create that foreboding mystery and tension that can bring out more from the character background and personalities, while keeping the game a monster killing session.

Finally, Tome of Mysteries offers a buttload of sample mysteries to run. Even if you are a GM who prefers to write their sessions from scratch, the sheer number and variety is fantastic for providing structure to the challenge. As I have learned, expecting players to follow a linear track almost never works, and as a GM you are often better served by creating a contained set of events, populating it with things, and then planning on how they would react to how the players are acting. These mysteries an excellent template for the prospective GM to design their own (hopefully in ways that drag in the PCs personal problems) or to roll with a quick session if they haven’t prepared anything and find themselves next GM up in the group!

Overall, while Tome of Mysteries doesn’t change the core stylings of its original Monster of the Week, it is a phenomenal tool for GMs to flesh out their games, and to have a better chance of planning it. Before, I really liked the game and the concept, but I didn’t think that I would ever get the chance to play it. Now, I have a feeling that I might actually want to run MotW at some point, and if there is a better sales pitch for picking up Tome of Mysteries I can’t think of it.

For those interested, Tome of Mysteries can be found on the Evil Hat website or DriveThruRPGLike what Cannibal Halfling Gaming is doing and want to help us bring games and gamers together? First, you can tell your friends about us! You can say hello on our Discord channel!  Finally, you can support us directly on Patreon, which lets us cover costs, pay our contributors, and save up for projects. Thanks for reading!

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