bigfoot walking in the woods

This Week On...

28 Nov 2020
Image Credit Ryan McGuire from Pixabay

Dear D&D, We’ve Grown Apart…

I’ve been playing Dungeons and Dragons for almost 20 years, through 4.5 versions, and I may be a little burned out. It’s rare that I actually get to play, and even when I do, the mechanics are underwhelming at best. I don’t derive a lot of joy from min/maxing, though I have absolutely no argument with or judgement for those who do, and all that really keeps me at the table are the DMs I play with and their stories.

The only other system I’d ever really looked at was Vampire the Masquerade, way back in high school, and Pathfinder, which seemed like 3.5 for masochists (I haven’t tried Pathfinder 2 yet, though I hear it’s better). I hand’t tried anything with less crunch; up until recently I didn’t even know what ‘crunch’ is.

Then I found Monster of the Week.

Back in the ‘before times’, when going to a bar to play TTRPGs wasn’t a health risk, I was looking at different systems for my Guild. I played with a couple of one-page games, including the works of Grant Howitt which are tremendous, and after some recommendations from my friends I tried Monster of the Week.


Rules-light, focused on collaborative storytelling, and full of excellent flavor, Monster of the Week is a great system. Since it can be hard jumping into something brand new, I’d like to present some of my experiences and realizations for others to use, or not, as they see fit. I am not an expert in Apocalypse World settings in general or Monster of the Week in particular, so take what I say with a grain of salt.

The Basics

I’m going to give a brief summary of the rules to set up the basics of what I’m going ot talk about in a bit. I’m glossing over a lot of nuance, so don’t take this as gospel.

Monster of the Week pits monster hunters against monsters. The players each create a hunter that is the epitome of some hunter archetype. Those archetypes are represented as playbooks, roughly analogous to D&D classes, and follow the classic tropes: the Spell-Slinger, the Monstrous, the Chosen. Hunters interact with the world through moves, which are broad representations of common actions. Some classes have unique moves, or features they can use without rolling.

Any time you need to make a move, you roll 2d6, add relevant ability and conditional modifiers, and determine success from the result. Success is measured in three grades. A score of 1-6 is a failure: something bad happens. A score of 7-9 is a mixed success: something good happens, but at a cost. A score of 10+ is a success: you rock!

The Keeper of Mysteries (game master) has moves too, though they do not roll for them. Reflect on that for a second: they don’t roll. At all. The Keeper is tasked with setting the stage, presenting clues, and moving the story forward. They can use moves (though they will never describe the moves by their names) to split the party up, take someone hostage, reveal an important clue, or move an NPC into an interesting place. The critical thing is that the Keeper isn’t the antagonist, just the director of the particular episode they hunters are playing.

Make sense?

A Fan Without a Plan

The last part of that summary is my favorite part. The sourcebook makes a point of giving the Keeper a pretty simple agenda, and on of the three core tenets is that you are a fan of the hunters. You’re there to help the hunters succeed and look cool, and in order to do that you have to help them build a compelling story, guide them, and to introduce horror, surprise, and intrigue into the game. The moves the Keeper makes can be ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ in game terms. Hard would be a monster kidnapping a hunter in the woods. Soft would be a cultist stumbling into one of the hunters on a busy street. These moves let you move the hunters closer to the end of the mystery without things getting stagnant.

If this sounds like railroading, you’re thinking the way I did at the outset. Arbitrarily declaring an action that affects a player is a risky move in any D&D game. Do it once too often and you’ll end up alienating your players. Here it’s the default move, and on the surface that seems like a bad experience.

The problem here is that I was not thinking about how to run a Monster of the Week game. In this setting, planning the story is actively discouraged and the session format is inherently episodic.

If we accept that we should not have a plan going in to each session, then we also accept that the inflection points we rely on in D&D sessions (e.g. encounters and traps) aren’t available to us. A Keeper’s hard moves fill that void and allow us to move the story in a way that we would otherwise need a marauding band of goblins to accomplish.

It’s also true that Monster of the Week is geared towards an episodic format, which makes sense given the namesake trope. A hard move helps us condense the story and move things forward so that we can fit that format. A Monster of the Week session does not have to be a single, self contained episode, but it’s certainly designed to accomodate that.

When I started looking for ways to change up my D&D sessions I found Sly Flourish’s The Lazy Dungeon Master, which helped me condense my preparation for an adventure. It was a great improvement for me, and the spirit of minimal preparation is one of the reasons I am so fond of Monster of the Week. Your responsibility beforehand is to determine the monster, the clues, the locations and the hook, and then make the rest up from there. It is built for those who like running without a plan, and I am certainly among them.

Make Traps, Not War

One of the parts of the system that grabbed me right off the bat was the Kick Some Ass move. When you want your hunter to go toe-to-toe and attack something, you use the Kick Some Ass move. No matter how well you roll, you will always take damage. Combat is not the core mechanic, and if you end up going toe-to-toe with the Big Bad unprepared, the ass-kicking is not going to be one-sided.

At first that seems a little daunting, but it tracks with the themes at the core of the game. Your investigation should lead to a strategy which you execute. things can go wrong and surprises can crop up, but you shouldn’t be facing down the monster without at least some clue of how to get it down and keep it down.

I think it’s fair to extrapolate that combat isn’t the only way to fight in Monster of the Week. When you and your group are cornered by the vampire’s pet wolves, kicking ass is only one among a great many options. The Keeper’s job is to encourage the players to find and engineer novel ways to approach the situation, and to use their unique abilities to their advantage. Storytelling is the key.

Turn That Frown Upside Down

This is the last, and perhaps coolest, point: failure is a good thing. Even if you roll snake eyes while trying to jump from one moving car to another and end up road pizza, that failure is going to give your character an experience point… if you survive. Every failed roll brings you one step closer to your next level. That is cool, and simple enough, but there’s something this implies that is important to me: the Keeper’s job is to make failure another constructive step in the story.

A friend of mine plays a fox shapeshifter in a game I run, and in our last session she tried to rip a magical pendant off of the big bad werewolf they were fighting. She described it, rolled for the move Act Under Pressure, and came up with a total of 7. When a hunter rolls a mixed success on Act Under Pressure, the choose from one of three generic optoins: a hard choice, a worse outcome, or a price to pay. The Keeper then resolves what that actually turns out to be in the story. She chose a price to pay, and while the simple answer would be to have her take a penalty or some damage, I chose instead to have the magic in that pendant influence her.

This is emblematic of my experience as a Keeper so far: there are opportunities at every juncture to create something new from the situation. In particular, failure presents options to drive the story forward rather than punishing the players.

Next Time, On…

I’d encourage you to try your hand at Monster of the Week. I run sessions regularly for Emerald City Game Masters Guild and you can find GMs running games all the time at The ECGMG Players Collective.

Published on 28 Nov 2020 Find me on Twitter!