The more time I spend playing TTRPGs and trying new ones, the more interest I have in genre-specific games.
It makes a lot of sense for how most people I know play these games: we think of a cool basis for a story and then figure out how to play it afterward.
So if a game says right up front, “here’s the kind of story I’m designed for,” that makes our lives easy (and makes game marketing a hell of a lot easier, I’m sure).
This works best for me when the setting has a clear idea of genre and so do the characters. As much as I’m a fan of D&D 5e, the classes are clearly about what the characters do, not who they are.
That’s not a bad philosophy, and I get a lot of enjoyment from characters who don’t fit the stereotypes of their abilities. But on the other hand, there’s something so fun (especially for new players) about being able to choose a character trope to play, pursuing the fantasy of stepping into a recognizable role from fiction.
Some of you can see where this is going: I’m a big fan of Powered by the Apocalypse games for all of these reasons more than the actual mechanics of the system.
I could go on, but we’re still in the introduction.
I’d like to make a case study of one game which has some of the most specific genre branding of games I’ve seen.
Monster of the Week, in summary
Monster of the Week has become a pretty well-known system in the world of TTRPG enjoyers, I believe in part due to being played on the Adventure Zone podcast’s third season (Editor’s Note: It even got mentioned in our interview with Zentreya yesterday).
It clearly wears its genre on its face: the “monster of the week” style TV shows are a staple of multiple generations of viewers. My touchstones for the genre are “Supernatural” and “The X-Files” as well as my personal favorite, “Torchwood.” (You know, popular series “Torchwood,” that everyone has totally seen.)
In a world where many TTRPG campaigns have much longer, more dramatic story arcs, MOTW stands out.
It can feel like a series of one-shots with recurring characters, but mechanical growth over time encourages a character trajectory across sessions – just like a good monster of the week TV show should have.
You can expect two “phases” to the game: investigating the monster and dealing with the monster.
Investigation should be the bulk of the game, though creative ways to manage monsters are absolutely on the table. Characters are equipped to face threats face-on, and are considered to be “monster hunters,” but combat should be pretty brief and snappy with typical PbtA rules.
In my opinion, expanding mysteries a bit to take more like two sessions is preferable to allow time for character growth and roleplay, but that depends on how you like your games and how savvy players are to different kinds of monsters.
“Monster of the Week: Tome of Mysteries” is an additional book with 29 pre-made mysteries. There are a good variety and most are pretty cool, so it’s a good resource if you’re interested in the game but coming up with a new mystery every session seems exhausting. So far, I can recommend “Attack of the Rapid Moss” and “Big Haunt on Campus” as good ones to try.
“Hunter types” are based on tropes of the genre like “the Expert” who uses knowledge of monsters to hunt or “the Wronged” who uses brute force to hunt in retribution for some tragedy. Others are more magical, like “the Divine,” sent from on high, or “the Monstrous,” a monster with morals. Some split the difference between mundane and magical in fun ways, like “the Chosen,” a normal human who has learned they have a special destiny, or “the Initiate” who is part of a mysterious Sect for fighting monsters.
Unfortunately, the thread gets kind of lost on some sheets, creating weaker character concepts. “The Spooktacular” is my least favorite, as “carnival hand gone monster hunter” doesn’t feel like it needs its own hunter type. This issue is more prevalent in the extra playbooks that aren’t in the original book.
What some of these additional character types seem to be missing is an understanding of the point of this type of game. If you want to play a character who used to work in a circus, have at it – but the hunter types are designed to tell you and the other players who you are in the group and who you are in this kind of story.
“The Mundane” is a good example for this: you play as a normal person who has been caught up in monster hunting. Your main abilities actually revolve around how unprepared you are, offering benefits to others for coming to your rescue.
This is a huge break from what you’d usually expect from RPG characters, who are all about the fantasy of being the coolest guy and doing the raddest thing. The Mundane is more about your role in the story overall.
Along with character creation, Monster of the Week includes some inspiration for team concepts, like government agents, YouTubers with a ghost investigation channel or members of a secret sect of monster hunters.
The team concept pulls a lot of weight in clarifying what kind of game you’re playing. It’s what distinguishes your “Buffy” from, say, a fictionalized “Buzzfeed Unsolved.”
This is something I’d like to see in more games. It provides an immediate understanding of who you are and how much influence you have on the world, as well as your motivation for working as a group.
Throwing players headlong into a world that they only partly understand from their GM’s explanation (we’re being realistic here) can work out fine, but communication is the first ingredient for a successful game. Talking ahead of time about things like desired character arcs and group dynamics will make the story more satisfying as you work through it together.
The game master in MOTW is called the “Keeper,” short for “Keeper of Monsters and Mysteries.” (Do we have to come up with a new title for GM in every game?) The book actually features helpful, actionable advice for that role instead of just more rules – very exciting.
Session prep is broken down into hook, threat, minions, bystanders and locations. Each of those things will maybe require a couple of bullet points plus some attacks and damage counters in the Keeper’s notes to be able to run an entire session.
It also includes directions to make a “countdown timer” with six bad things that would happen if the player characters never intervened. As the mystery wears on, this provides a hat of tricks to pull from to increase urgency. It ramps up as the threat grows, starting with something like “the vampires learn to daywalk” and ending with something like “the vampires turn or kill the whole town and begin spreading across the countryside.”
So… does it work?
MOTW should clarify what I mean by a “genre game.” Everything is laser focused around telling a specific type of story.
This particular game does this spectacularly well, I think, especially standing out against many other systems which could achieve the same genre. Even your classic example of a D&D game, where you run into different encounters each session in the pursuit of an overall story arc, smacks of “monster of the week” energy.
Where MOTW stands out is highlighting the types of characters we see in icons of the genre, as well as creating a guide for GMs to limit mysteries to bite-size but still exciting.
A lot of games try to do everything. As much as I love “City of Mist,” it wants to be a fantasy superhero world where players could have detective stories AND action films AND play out ancient stories from other media. It works because of the overlap but ends up being massively confusing for new players (and the book is long as hell).
I’m basic, so Dungeons & Dragons is my favorite game, but it tries to cover any kind of fantasy you could want. It works for me because of my familiarity and enjoyment of the rules, not because it actually lends itself to every kind of story.
Some PbtA games, like “Monsterhearts,” are cool because they introduce a story concept that I don’t have a lot of other examples for. The story you tell will immediately be unique due to that basis.
Monster of the Week is something you recognize, and that facilitates player understanding and teamwork. This isn’t a video game, we’re not trying to beat our way through monsters with the strongest characters, we’re trying to tell a story together; agreement on genre is a great place to start.