Tuesday, 3 February 2015


Urban fantasy is a genre that I keep coming back to, sometimes against my will, but always with a certain delight. It probably goes hand-in-hand with my love of comic books and superheroes, which delight in touching the ordinary with the fantastic (or, as Coleridge might have it, finding the ordinary in the fantastic). I was an early adopter of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and passed that affection on to my wife (who has not just embraced it but obsessed over it, sharing it with everyone with eyeballs to watch and ears to delight in the sharp dialogue). I've played a lot of games that drew from that well, and got a lot of mileage out of the Eden Studios Buffy and Angel games when I ran things like my formative HTHD game AMERICAN NIGHTMARE and my Victorian Slayer game SUNSET EMPIRE.

If I were going to run an AMERICAN NIGHTMARE game now, I'd run it with Evil Hat Productions' new take on the Apocalypse World engine, MONSTER OF THE WEEK.

The colourful cover is representative of terrific art throughout.

MotW has been out for a few years as a digital product and through Lulu. (My understanding is that this revised edition comes out of the Evil Hat guys being fans of the original game, and proposing a new edition that would be available to a wider audience.) Whatever the reasons, this is a terrific game that's sure to delight a lot of people who like Buffy or Supernatural style gaming, produced with Evil Hat's usual high quality.

I always feel like an indication of how good an AW variant might be is the quality of the playbooks, and this was a case where almost every one felt like something I wanted to play. There are 12 monster hunter playbooks included in the corebook (and more available online), each with enough "dials" on it that you could play it several different ways without exhausting the possibilities. Some are magical or freaky, such as The Monstrous, The Spell-Slinger, and The Spooky, and some are more mundane, but all of them can be tuned just the way you like them.

There are a few new tweaks to the basic playbook format here that make MotW a real high-action version of the AW machinery, which tends toward the grittier end of the spectrum. Each character has a stat called Luck that they can use to shrug off hits or change a roll to a '12'. That's pretty powerful stuff, apocalyptically speaking, but it comes with a hefty price tag. When you expend all your luck, you're Doomed -- and the Keeper (the MC) can make a hard move against you whenever they like. Ouch.

For readers who might not know the Apocalypse Engine's basics already, it involves players (and only players) rolling 2d6 plus a bonus. A high roll of 10+ generally gets you exactly what you wanted, and sometimes a little more. A middling roll of 7-9 gets you success, but with strings attached; this is the meat of the system, providing tasty complications that make things oh so unpredictable and entertaining. Rolling 6 or less means the GM gets to make a Move against you, and to paraphrase Vincent Baker, you're not going to like it.

The moves (and pretty much everything else here) are laser-focused on delivering the experience of the title: investigating a "mystery" that focuses around defeating the titular monster. There is a lot of support for helping the Keeper develop mysteries quickly, including rules for building your own monsters. I felt like there were kind of a lot of layers of Moves for the Keeper to deal with, but that's really a minor quibble -- the Keeper would always have lots of options of stuff they could do to the players.

Something else I really liked here was the way the game models magic. One of the basic Moves is Use Magic, so you don't have to be a specialist (like the Spell-Slinger) to cast a spell. That's important, because monsters often can't be killed without using something they're vulnerable to, and magic is often effective. Use Magic can give you a variety of small-scale effects, and if you roll a Miss, it might Glitch on you. The GM can require one or several ingredients to make the desired effect happen. Everything that isn't on that list of effects is Big Magic, and has to be done as a ritual of some significance. This does a pretty effective job portraying magic as it works in The Whedonverse and most genre shows or movies, and makes it interesting in play.
The Spooky, for those of you who've always wanted to play Carrie, or Charlie from Firestarter.
For AW veterans, here's the bottom line on this game. It's not MONSTERHEARTS. If anything, it's the same genre as MH seen through a high-action lens. Where MH foregrounded the relationship stuff of Buffy and faded the action into the background, MotW switches that around so that the main thing is the adventure. I've always felt that there are a wide variety of gamers who would find MH to be a bit intimidating for its subject matter -- it's kind of being thrown into the deep end of HTHD play, which is both a good and bad thing. This game is more meat-and-potatoes stuff, sure to appeal to a wide range of players. It's not as innovative or groundbreaking as MH, but it's a good fit for players that like the Apocalypse Engine style who like their gaming a little lighter. DUNGEON WORLD fans will eat it up.

As a newcomer to the Apocalypse World engine, I think a reader would find MotW very accessible, because the game does a good job of explaining its mechanics and is finely-tuned to support its play style very, very well. For a gamer looking for a fun game that leverages the AW mechanics, this is a great bet either for one-shot play or as an ongoing game.

For anyone looking to run a game based on Buffy, Angel, Supernatural, The X-Files or Fringe, look no further. Michael Sands and Evil Hat have you covered.

Footnote: I bought MotW from my Friendly Local Game Store, and then picked up the PDF (at no cost) from Evil Hat. This is part of the Bits and Mortar initiative, which I think is a tremendous idea. Gamers can support their local business and still have access to the convenience of an electronic copy of the game. If you haven't taken advantage of this clever and innovative program, I encourage you to do so, and send kudos to Evil Hat and the other participating companies. Gaming needs more ideas like this. 

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