I’ve talked a few times about the role-playing game Apocalypse World (Lumpley Games, 2010), especially here and here. This month, I get to playtest Generic Games’ hack of the AW system, Monster of the Week, in its most recent version. It’s a short turnaround playtest effort organized by Generic Games’ partner in the U.S., Evil Hat Productions; my understanding is that this new edition will be a chance to release a high-quality print version in the U.S. at reasonable cost, rather than have the choice between good printing but expensive shipping costs from New Zealand, or more affordable but lower quality print-on-demand copies from Lulu.It’s also a chance for author Michael Sands to fine-tune his game.
Like the popular AW hack Monsterhearts, Monster of the Week is meant to emulate urban horror series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Supernatural, The X Files, The Dresden Files, or Twenty Palaces. However, where Monsterhearts focuses on the teen angst aspects, MotW places the emphasis on action drama. This is much more to my taste, I like Scooby-Doo stuff for grown-ups.
The game provides a re-write and re-skin of the AW moves, completely different playbooks, a richer History phase that solidly ties the player characters (“Hunters”), and a new stat called Luck that provides resilience but also moves Hunters gradually towards the ultimate fate. Experience is changed from the first edition; while it originally followed the AW model with experience gained for using stats highlighted by other players each episode, it’s now earned for every failed roll instead like in Dungeon World (Sage Kobold Productions, 2012), an approach I like much better. Instead of your character growing for acting out other people’s choices, you now have an incentive to accept failure, which is very true to genre and easier to track.
Another change is that the GM (“Keeper”) uses “mysteries” instead of fronts to create the opposition. They’re mysteries in the most basic sense that they start with something unknown with an agenda, not in the sense of necessitating involved investigative skills like an Agatha Christie murder mystery. Each mystery includes at least one monster, one or more minions, some bystanders, and some locations. A starter mystery is provided, and Generic Games & Evil Hat Productions requested it be playtested, along with the Keeper advice for how to set up a first session. The mystery is called “Dream Away the Time” and is set in the cute New England town of Handfast. This review will contain spoilers, so I’ll place the rest after the cut.
The intro session was a lot of fun. I only wanted 3 players so each could get good spotlight time, so I invited my husband Edmund and a couple of our friends, Steve and Dorene. Edmund and Steve are avid gamers, and Edmund has played and run several AW-derived games, while Steve had only played it 2 or 3 times last year. Dorene would probably never have tried RPGs on her own but plays every once in a while if she likes the theme and players, and I knew she enjoyed the shows Buffy, Angel, and The X Files.
As part of my preparation, I created a list of places in Handfast I could either use as scenery or upgrade to full-fledged Locations (as defined in the MotW threat types) as needed. I also thought that listing some of them when describing the town might spark some ideas of things for the Hunters to do or places to investigate. They included things like a hardware store, barber shop, grocery market, tourist shops, orchards, the old fort dating to colonial years, a river, a golf course, city hall, etc.
Other than that and carefully reading the entire book, the only prep I did was to print the PDF (which is as expensive or more than buying a print copy!), freezing not one but two computers at FedEx Kinko’s in the process. In the end the nice people at the counter printed it for me… but instead of printing sequentially, two pages per sheet side, they printed booklet-style, two pages per sheet side. When I discovered this, we had to cut and reassemble the pages—which were not numbered. As a result, I felt I must look like a complete flake, but my friends must be used to it by now.
Despite this, character creation went very smoothly:
Edmund created a Spell-slinger, a fire mage called Titus Vulcan who looked and dressed like Ziggy Stardust or The Collector. (We had seen Guardians of the Galaxy that weekend…) Titus and Hester had been in the same shadowy occult Organization until it was disbanded; Titus felt they had abandoned him more than the other way around, while Hester had been the one to come back and find all the members mysteriously killed one day.
Steve designed an Expert, Hester Ludwig, an older woman based on Mrs. Frederic from Warehouse 13—who acted Titus’ reluctant conscience. Hester had a dark past and the secret nagging feeling that the Organization’s demise might somehow had been her fault.
Dorene created a Mundane called Brad (no last name yet), a stockbroker whose life Titus had once saved from a monster and who knew something of Hester’s swindling some funds from the Organization.
I set Hester’s Haven — and the mysterious disbanded Organization — straight in Handfast, giving me the opportunity to sketch many locations and plot elements that could be used later.
The foremost challenge as Keeper was to dole out answers at the right pace while remaining honest when answering the investigation questions. For example: as one of the odd events immediately preceding the attack, I described how all the food at the town market had spoiled overnight, even what had been frozen, pickled, or canned. (I was building on the mention of “food spoiling overnight” in the adventure as an indication of supernatural trouble in town, expanding it to make it note-worthy.) The Spell-slinger move Forensic Divination allowed Titus to ask what kind of magic had been used here; since it was early on, I didn’t want to just say “Faerie magic” so I said it was not ritual magic or a learned spell but a curse from something organically, inherently magical. I used the pacing of typical shows as my guideline, so the answers were less clear-cut than in AW. [Playtest recommendation: A little guidance on this and on how to adjust threat levels would be very useful for Keepers.]
Once they realized that Faeries were involved, the players put the picture together pretty well and pretty quickly, though they also expected conflict between the two Courts (this may still happen). When Hester used her Dark Past move, we learned that when she was very new to the Organization forty years ago, she had helped her mentor take a bag containing something to the grove, and carefully avoided asking questions… This turned out to have been at the recurring date of the children’s disappearance. I was very pleased with this.
Dark Past: You dabbled in the worst sort of mystical arts before you became one of the good guys. If you trawl through your memories for something relevant to the case at hand, roll +Weird. On a 10+ ask the Keeper two questions from the list below. On a 7-9 ask one. On a miss, you can ask a question anyway but that will mean you were personally complicit in creating the situation you are now dealing with.
- When I dealt with this creature (or one of its kind), what did I learn?
- What black magic do I know that could help here?
- Do I know anyone who might be behind this?
- Who do I know who can help us right now?
When the Hunters went out that night to investigate that location, part of the Handfast Nature Preserve, I placed a few couples making out in the parking lot as bystanders. Brad did a great job of distracting them and talking them to reason, then saving a girl from the Redcap; Brad was wielding his (cold) iron 7.
Because this might be a one-off, I asked little in the way of conditions for using magic, but since people now want to play again I told them there would be more hurdles in the future. We managed to get to a good stopping point: a fairly tense fight against Bonecrusher in which they destroyed his hat and killed him for good; an angry Violet promising retribution if they didn’t provide a child for her Master; Hester unilaterally cancelling Handfast’s ancient contract with the Fae; and Violet fleeing through the portal just as they realize she must be a changelling. When the Hunters returned to town in the wee hours of the night, the historic city hall building was burning after an unfortunate electrical short-circuit.
Player feedback was very positive. The three of us who had played AW agreed that the moves as described in MotW were easier to understand and use. Dorene, new to the whole thing and not fond of system crunch in general, was pleased with the ease of character creation and with the flexibility to play an effective character even when not designed as a combat monster. Everyone liked the history questions. [Playtest recommendation: In fact, this is where I’d like to see an initial round with a handful of history questions not about the Hunters, but about the team to help funnel its creation in the same way.]
As previously mentioned, a little guidance on scaling the initial opposition would also be useful. I did like that although I knew that Luck and access to an infirmary made the Hunters able to take quite a lot if abuse, they felt worried about the harm taken while still knowing they were effective against the threats.
I was pleased with the change from highlighted stats to failed rolls for generating experience. It provides a nice incentive to accept or even court failure and it’s easier to track.
I will definitely want a print copy for ease of reference. It worked reasonably well on my Kindle and I had the raggedy print copy, but a book would be better.
All in all, a big success at our table. Quote of the day:
TITUS very solemnly, after initial encounter with, and 1-pt harm from, the Redcap: “Very well, I will use your Neosporin and then go search for this creature again.”
HESTER: “Do you think that’s wise?”
BRAD: “It’s always wise to use Neosporin.”
Update: The final product is now available from Evil Hat Productions. The interior art is nice, though to be honest I’m not in love with the cover.