What is Monster of the Week?

By Chris Sipsma

Let’s set the scene. It’s dark; the moon hangs low in the sky. In the background, we see a cornfield, and a barn a bit closer, one light at the corner attracting a swarm of moths.

In the foreground, perfectly illuminated by that light, we find our hero. Let’s call her a Hunter; a young woman in a flannel shirt. Her hair is pulled back in a rough ponytail, errant strands hanging loose over her dirt-streaked face. Her eyes wild, she’s breathing heavily.

Blood drips down her fingers and it looks as if she has a broken arm, yet the Hunter brandishes a pitchfork. There is a slight fear in her eyes, but she stands strong – unwavering – against an unnatural foe.

This Hunter is silhouetted by the looming shadow of a Monster, some sort of animated scarecrow, complete with jack o’ lantern head. The gleaming teeth are bloody, the things’ hands are gnarled wooden claws.

The Monster is wearing a similar flannel shirt.

Our Hunter grits her teeth, sets her shoulders, and despite the obvious pain it causes her, hoists the pitchfork to rush the thing. There’s going to be an Ass-Kicking here, but whose ass?

As our Hunter attacks, we pause and go up a level to see the meta (sort of the Greek gods on Mt. Olympus view), where we have a collection of people playing a game, telling a story about Hunters and Monsters.

The player who is in control of the young woman throws a pair of six-sided dice on the table, and all the players catch their breath as they tumble, clattering their way to revealing her fate. The player controlling this Hunter will add her Tough stat to the result and then…?

– A high enough result and the young woman may be victorious, the Monster defeated.

– A low result may see her die.

– Something in the middle may see the fight continue after both sides take their licks.

Hi everybody! I’m Chris, the Friendly Neighbourhood Keeper for Untitled Dice Game’s Department of Deliverance arc. We make an actual play podcast of a game called Monster of the Week, which was written by Michael Sands and released by Evil Hat Games.

the cover of Monster of the Week

Monster of the Week (MotW) is a role-playing game based on another that uses the same mechanical system called Apocalypse World and as such, is referred to as ‘Powered by the Apocalypse’ (PbtA).

Every role-playing game is a conversation. We hang out and we talk about what is happening in the story. The reason that I like PbtA games so much is that the rules are designed with more focus on guiding that conversation towards compelling stories than they are designed to simulate any sort of ‘reality’.

Avery Adler wrote a wonderful PbtA game about the messy lives of teenage monsters called Monsterhearts, and in which, she included the sentiment, “the rules are there to keep the story feral”. This remains one of my favourite descriptions of how a role-playing game should go. The story should be feral, a wild thing beyond any one person’s control. It should be an emergent beast forged as the Keeper and the other Players use fiction, rules, and the whims of two six-sided dice to make some magic.

As the person playing the role of Keeper, it is my responsibility to explain what is going on in the world at large. This requires a relatively consistent story, but would be no fun without the wild and crazy ideas players have for their Hunters to try. Therefore, the better the rule set, the easier it is to find that sweet balance that makes a game worth playing (or listening to *ehem*).

A good rule set will help guide the group of players as they work out the stories they want to tell. Oftentimes, unexpected events are caused by these rules, and the story becomes something greater than any of the players (Keeper included) could have expected. These little surprises end up making the most memorable scenes.

Monster of the Week not only has a great set of rules, but like many PbtA games, it also comes with a set of Agendas: one for the Players, one for the Keeper. In MotW, these agendas are included on the handy play guides that everyone gets.

As Hunters, your Agenda is:

  • Act like you’re the hero in this story (because you are).
  • Make your own destiny.
  • Find the damn monsters and stop them.
  • Play your hunter like they’re a real person.

I’m ever so very fond of the fact that agenda-wise, the reality of your Hunter’s actions is listed below both heroism and finding and stopping the damn monsters.

As Keeper, your agenda is:

  • Make the world seem real.
  • Play to see what happens.
  • Make the hunters’ lives dangerous and scary.

“Play to see what happens” is indicative of the PbtA style, though all of the Keepers agendas are an important part of making the game go on.

This really is improvisational theatre guided by dice and rules. If that sounds a little intimidating, understand that rules for MotW do a great job of providing you with ways to engage with the story and explore what your Hunter is doing at the moment. This is one of my favourite games to use for folks who have never played a role-playing game before. The premise is so clear – Hunters vs. Monsters – and the world is essentially the world as we see it, both of which make it a simple task to get a narrative going. In my experience, people end up engaging with the story and wind up pleasantly surprised by how quickly they slip into playing the role of a Hunter.

Now that you have a feel for the game, let’s get back to the Hunter we met in the beginning. She’s still in that moment; the dice are still tumbling on the table and we don’t know what will happen next. She’s got her pitchfork, and she’s got her mission. With a good set of people and a decent set of rules, this moment matters. Not in any grand sense, but it matters to the people playing the game and that is magic enough.

I very much hope that some of the characters that the Untitled Dice Game crew are creating as we play this game wind up mattering to you as well.

If you are looking to learn more about Monster of the Week, take a visit to Evil Hat’s website, where you can buy the rulebook and get an idea of some of the playbooks and rules. And you can follow along as I lead Untitled Dice Game through a series of mysteries in, The Department of Deliverance.

Thanks for stopping by and happy hunting!

Album cover for The Department of Deliverance

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