By Michael Rote
So, you’ve been listening to UDG and you’ve been thinking, “Gee golly gosh, Nina is such a cool character and Mike is such a handsome devil. I’d love to play a Spell-Slinger just like he does!” No? Really? You just want to know more about the Spell-Slinger and you couldn’t care less about me or my character? Okay, a bit harsh but fair enough.
In case you haven’t been listening to the podcast, I’m Mike and I play Nina Kozlov, our group’s fiery, misfit Spell-Slinger. For this little guide, I’m going to explain my views on the dos and don’ts of the playbook, offer some tips to consider while creating your character, and explain some of the choices I made when creating Nina. Keep in mind that these are just my opinions and the only wrong way to play any playbook is to be a weasel.
What the Spell-Slinger Is and Is Not
I chose the Spell-Slinger for two reasons. First, I almost never play magical characters, so it was a nice departure for me. Second and more importantly, the name of the playbook and its accompanying tagline (fight fire with fire magic) instantly gave me a very clear idea of the playbook’s goals.
A lot of the other playbooks have vague, open-ended semi-explanations for how your character does what they do. Maybe you’re part of a shadowy organization which may or may not help you, or perhaps you’re on a mission foisted upon you by a benevolent patron or some dark desire.
Not the Spell-Slinger. For my money, the Spell-Slinger has the clearest MO of any of the playbooks in Monster of the Week: you are a magical badass who destroys monsters with magic, full stop. That’s all you need. Stop thinkin’ and start blastin’.
You’re starting to see how the concept for Nina was born, aren’t you?
That straightforward definition appealed to me for several reasons. I first made Nina for a one-shot game with total strangers, so I knew that any background stuff I came up with would never really be utilized, so the playbooks where you’re a cog in some pitiless organization or have a mysterious force behind you lost a lot of the shine. Also, as I mentioned above, I’m usually not one to choose the spellcaster, and since I was already going to be playing something outside my wheelhouse, the simplicity made that choice less daunting. Finally, that simplicity sparked the first salient personality trait for the character that would become Nina: first and foremost, this character exists to fight evil. Everything else is just noise. Note: Going all-in on one character aspect does have its dangers, which I’ll elaborate on later in this article.
Just as the name Spell-Slinger gives you an idea for what the playbook is, it should give you an idea of what it is not. Listen up, gang, because this is important: your character is not the magical expert, nor do they have the monopoly on all things magical or magic-related!
This may go right against everything you think of when you read the playbooks, but please, hear me out before you send me hate mail.
The playbook is called the Spell-Slinger. Not the Wizard, not the Sorcerer, or the Mage, or even the Spellcaster. Focus on that last part — Slinger. That word is used intentionally over all the others I just named or any other that Michael Sands, the brain behind the game, could have chosen.
To me, the Slinger suffix does not connote any kind of mastery over magic; quite the opposite. Calling the playbook the Spell-Slinger inherently lends the playbook a certain recklessness or lack of control that wouldn’t be present using other terms. You don’t have to be quite the magical idiot that Nina is, but be wary of becoming the person everyone expects to pipe up when there’s anything remotely magical afoot. Remember that Use Magic is a basic move everyone has access to, whether their playbook has anything to do with magic or not. The Spell-Slinger isn’t the only one out there casting magic, they’re just the only one using it to explicitly kick some ass.
GMs: If you find that your table is relying on the Spell-Slinger to deal with everything magical or the Spell-Slinger is hogging all the spotlight when it comes to magic, find ways to involve the other characters in the weirdness instead of just having them roll help out.
Players: Don’t let the Spell-Slinger have all the magical fun! PbtA games aren’t about defining roles; after all, they’re called playbooks, not standard operating procedures. Even if you have a -1 in Weird, go for it. Worst case scenario, you get some XP and something interesting happens. Failing is part of the fun!
Now, about that caveat I mentioned. As I played Nina, I started feeling as though I wrote myself into a corner. In situations where there wasn’t anything explicitly related to monsters or magic, I found I really didn’t know what to have her do. That occurred because everything related to Nina’s past and present had to do with slaying monsters with magic. While that allowed me to get deep into Nina’s headspace quickly, it did limit my options as far as other situations go. Just as you avoid bogarting all the magical spotlight, find ways to allow your character to function without their magic. As you’ll see in the show, I took an extreme route to solving that problem for Nina (she isn’t one for half measures), but you don’t have to fall into that trap if you build non-magical methods of problem-solving into your character.
Shaping Your Spell-Slinger: Traits and Additional Improvements
Monster of the Week’s character creation starts you off picking your ratings, and I feel that’s always the best place to begin. Your Spell-Slinger’s MO is using Combat Magic, which allows your character to roll Weird when you kick some ass. Unless you’re particularly masochistic, you’ll want to put your +2 in Weird. That will allow you to get a moderate success when you roll a 5 or more. That should be no great feat unless your character’s name happens to be Nina Kozlov. A +2 in Weird will also give you greater successes on general purpose use magic rolls or the equivalent skill if you’ve replaced that move with one of the New Weird Moves from the Tome of Mysteries. Additionally, several of Spell-Slinger’s improvement options deal with Weird through use magic. All in all, a pumped Weird stat is going to mean good things for your Spell-Slinger and bad things for the monsters. (Note: the choices you make for Combat Magic are pretty straightforward, so I won’t lengthen this post any more by going over them. If you want opinions, tweet us!).
For me, a character’s stats help me determine their personality, and as a people-loving extrovert, the first place I look to determine my character’s personality is the social equivalent of whatever the system I’m playing — in this case, Charm. As far as basic moves go, Charm is only used to manipulate someone, while most other traits have two basic moves attached to them. The Spell-Slinger’s only Charm-related improvement choice is Arcane Reputation, which gives you +1 forward when you manipulate someone who’s related to one of the arcane institutions you choose. This can affect monsters, as well! I slept on this move due to Nina’s background, but it can be very useful, especially if you choose to go with a low Charm score. Don’t let all that affect your choices too much, though. Go with the idea you have for your character and let that guide the stat decision.
One thing to keep in mind is that your character’s Charm doesn’t necessarily determine their sociability. Again, Nina’s a good example. She’s an extrovert and actually likes people, but in the case of the Department of Deliverance, her -1 Charm reflects the fact that she’s a very poor fit for the agency. Nina abhors secrecy and doesn’t do too well with authority. In another case, Nina might have a +0 or +1 in Charm (but let’s be honest here, she’s too much of a hothead to ever be a +2, no matter the circumstances).
What I’m getting at is, don’t let your Charm score dictate whether your character is an introvert, extrovert, or ambivert (yes, ambiverts, people do know you exist!). A low Charm score can be indicative of just about anything, like bad personal hygiene, a head in the clouds, or even just a general off-vibe about them, even if they’re sunny and fun. In the same manner, a high Charm doesn’t mean your character is a people person. Think of the people you know that you find charming even if they’re not lovable, adorable extroverts like myself. Small things such as infectious laughter can justify a character’s high Charm score; our very own Dora can attest to that.
With Weird and Charm settled, you’re left with Sharp, Cool, and Tough. One of my personal gripes about Monster of the Week is how Sharp dictates two of the most commonly-used moves in the system: Investigate a mystery and read a bad situation. This makes a positive Sharp score very desirable, and it’s easy to feel as though that’s a requirement to participate in the investigation side of the system, which in my experience encompasses a fair amount of game time. The optional improvements Forensic Divination and Third Eye buff investigate a mystery and read a bad situation, respectively. In my opinion, +1 in Sharp is your friend, but you do you, fellow Spell-Slinger boo.
Cool dictates help out and act under pressure, both of which come up in our game pretty often. Using help out is your Hunter’s way of getting involved with their friends, and it’s easy to see otherworldly monsters being a bit of a high-pressure situation. If you choose the Incantations requirement for using Combat Magic, you’ll need to act under pressure if you have to cast without speaking. Not My Fault will help you out when your spellcasting goes awry. If you listen to the podcast, you will note that Nina specifically does not have this improvement. Unfortunately this playbook doesn’t have any way to natively improve help out, but you can always take options from other playbooks, as well.
Cool is another good place to let your character’s fiction guide your choice. How good is your character at handling pressure? How likely are they to help another person out if it means they might suffer consequences as well? Let those answers guide you to your Cool score.
And we’re left with only Tough! When you want to protect someone or use means other than Combat Magic to kick some ass, you’ll use Tough. Choosing Shield Spell will allow you to prevent 2-harm towards yourself when you protect someone, although this doesn’t stack with other sources of armor. [Personal note: I find it a bit odd that an improvement called Shield Spell doesn’t let you use Weird to protect someone, but hey, there it is.] It’s tempting to think that any ass-kicking you’ll do will only be with Combat Magic, but remember you get a weapon when you choose Gear. Not every problem can be solved with Combat Magic (although Nina would disagree with me there), so something other than a -1 in Tough might be for you. With Nina, I wanted to avoid the “physically weak mage” and “glass cannon” stereotypes, so I went with a +0 in Tough, and I chose Shield Spell because Nina is secretly afraid of losing more people.
The only two improvement options that don’t affect a basic move are pretty straightforward. Advanced Arcane Training allows you to cross off another Combat Magic requirement while Enchanted Clothing is the Spell-Slinger’s only option for armor. Nina has both of these — the former is representative of the training her father gave her before his, erhm, death, while the latter (a stupid red half-cloak she uses to hide her revolver) shows a bit of her weirder side.
The Spell-Slinger offers a much-needed breath of fresh air to the traditional spellcaster “classes” most of us will be familiar with from mainstream TTRPGs. Rather than being the “play this guy if you want to be the magic expert!” playbook, the Spell-Slinger gives you just enough magical mastery to be dangerous… to yourself and others. Embrace the dangerous recklessness inherent in the playbook, don’t pigeonhole yourself into only focusing on the magical weirdness in the game, and don’t let the other Hunters get away with making you roll all the Weird responsibility. Most of all, have fun with it.
If none of this article meant anything to you because you don’t yet own the Monster of the Week rulebook – first of all, how have you got this far, you crazy devil – or if you do have at least a vague idea of the system but the latter is also true (more likely)…