Powered by the Apocalypse games have been a major force in the RPG hobby for years, but it took me a while to fully understand how they really worked. One of the first Powered by the Apocalypse games that helped me to understand the concept, as a whole, was Monster of the Week. Given that it was also a game about one of my favorite genres, the text of the game really spoke to me.
An interesting aspect of the product that I’m looking at today is that I saw various bits and pieces of it take shape in the Monster of the Week Roadhouse, a Google+ community for fans of the game. Monster of the Week Tome of Mysteries is a little bit of everything, and serves as a supplement to the core rules of the game. It contains new rules, playbooks, advice, and mysteries.
Now that we’ve scoped out the location, let’s find out what we’re dealing with.
The Tome Itself
This review is based on the PDF of the product, which is 278 pages long. The PDF has a full-color cover, with black and white artwork throughout. The formatting is the same single column setup of the core rules, with bolded headers in a different font than the regular text, making it easy to follow the information on each page. There are several full-page illustrations marking the individual sections of the book.
Often, the Foreword is just a brief set of comments that flow right into the introduction, but I wanted to specifically call out the foreword in this book, because in addition to reflecting on the history and creation of the game, it is written in a manner similar to the moves in the game, and is one of the most on-point forewords I have read in an RPG product.
The next section in the book contains new alternate rules that can be implemented in a Monster of the Week game. These include the following:
- Alternate Weird Basic Moves
- Phenomena Mysteries
- Special Moves
- More Flexible Investigations
Monster of the Week is based on tropes established by monster hunting television shows over the years, and in most of those shows, the heroes are capable of performing various rituals when the plot calls for it. Alternatively, they can tinker with super science to do what needs to be done in a more science fiction-based monster hunting story. These are represented in the current rules with the “Use Magic” move.
The alternate weird moves introduce a more granular approach to hunters and how they do that “something special.” A character that doesn’t take use magic as the thing that “makes them weird” can still perform magic, but it’s more difficult and has more consequences. In exchange, they get the ability to choose one of the following options:
- Empath (reading emotions)
- Illuminated (connected to a secret conspiracy)
- No limits (pushing beyond physical limits)
- Past lives (remembering past lives at convenient times)
- Sensitive (minor psychic abilities)
- Telekinesis (moving things with your mind)
- Trust your gut (getting hunches to act on without formal investigation)
- Use magic (the default from the core rules)
- Weird science (kind of like use magic, but explicitly with scientific trappings)
What is interesting about these moves is that they serve to “customize” playbooks in a way that goes beyond the options for the individual characters. You can have a wronged that will never think of touching magic but has trust your guts, and they will seem very different than one that gets flashes of past lives to guide them on their quest for vengeance. Although I have always loved how flexible the use magic rules are in the game, I’m really interested to see the freshness that some of these options may add to a playbook that has seen a lot of use over time.
Also in this section is a discussion of “phenomenon” mysteries, mysteries where the hunters aren’t trying to stop a specific kind of monster, but rather, they are trying to reverse some adverse supernatural effect plaguing an area. These call back to shows like Fringe that feel very much like a monster of the week style show, but the weirdness isn’t a monster, but a device or cross-dimensional rift. It also models television programs like Eureka or Warehouse 13. This section includes phenomenon types, threat moves, and modified questions for investigating a phenomenon.
Many of the playbooks in the game include a move that triggers when Luck is spent, and there is a section of the new rules dedicated to making sure that all of the playbooks (including some of the expanded playbooks available online, and the new ones included in this book) also have moves that trigger when Luck is used.
The section on more flexible investigations is one that I know some of my players would have appreciated. It is a discussion on making the investigate a mystery move results a little less rigid, for when players have questions they want to have answered that don’t fit into the assumed template.
Overall, I’m really interested to see everything in the section at play at the table.
The next section of the book introduces new playbooks to the game. The new hunters include:
- The Gumshoe (a regular private eye caught up in supernatural cases)
- The Hex (a general magical practitioner, more flexible than The Spooky or Spellslinger)
- The Pararomantic (a hunter with a romantic tie to a monster or supernatural creature)
- The Searcher (someone that has become a hunter after a brush with the unknown)
The Gumshoe draws on a lot of different private investigator tropes, even beyond the monster hunting genre, and revolves around following a specific code. The Hex is based around creating custom use magic moves and turning them into predictable rotes. The Pararomantic has a special track for determining the path of the relationship and the fate of the playbook’s significant other. The Searcher gets slightly different abilities based on the encounter that first introduced them to the supernatural (for example, if they saw Bigfoot, or if they were abducted by aliens).
It is interesting to see how some of these playbooks encompass an aspect of characters that served as the basis for other playbooks. For example, Harry Dresden is almost as much Gumshoe (at least early on) as he is Spellslinger, and Buffy is both The Chosen One and a Pararomantic in early seasons. Beyond playing the playbooks “straight,” it is interesting to see what kind of customization might come from taking advanced moves to access bits and pieces of these.
On their own, I like all of these, although the Hex feels the fuzziest. I think there is definitely a space for a dedicated spellcaster that isn’t as flashy as The Spellslinger or as touched with potential ruin as The Spooky, but I’m not as excited as I should be over customized use magic moves being the core conceit of the playbook.
The Advice section is a series of individual essays on various topics that touch on Monster of the Week specifically, and more broadly, on urban fantasy tropes and running games in different environments.
Some articles are more about topics like convention games, one-on-one gaming, sub-genres like gothic horror, less structured games, and the intersection between monster hunting and kids on bikes. Other articles are more specific to the game itself, introducing moves for things like spellbooks.
This section has some of the most specific language about safety in the book, which is not so much a separate section, as interspersed into discussions on other topics. The rules on spellbooks can be carved up rather than used whole, but the advice that really jumped out at me involved the advice on running at conventions, which has very detailed discussions on timelines and how to pace a game, and the detailed checklists of items to introduce at various stages of a mystery that appears in the article on less structured games.
There are almost thirty mysteries that are outlined in the final section of the book. These involve concepts, hooks, the countdown (the developments that will happen if the hunters don’t intervene), monsters, and in some cases, custom moves.
This section is a good resource, not only for mysteries to run, but to see how mysteries should be structured, how custom moves can play into them, and for monsters that can be cut and pasted into other mysteries. I am especially fond of The Circles, a mystery that puts a spin on crop circles and utilizes a classic monster in a way that really feels like an episode of the source material. The Curse-Speech is an attention grabber, utilizing a migrating evil language as one of the plot hooks. Everybody Get Psycho is another favorite, as it has a great twist on the classic trope of a cursed object and heavy metal music. The Quiet is a creepy, cult focused mystery with a great custom move and lots of atmosphere. By no means are these the only mysterious I would recommend checking out, but these are some of my favorites, that walk the line between calling back to great tropes while doing something fun and different with how the plot might advance.
Because the concept of “Monster of the Week” is very broad and can cover a wide range of stories, there is a great deal of variety in this section. Some, like the opening mystery, are a little bit too gonzo for me. Time travel and futuristic AIs push a little outside of my comfort zone for expected Monster of the Week stories. I also know that for my own tastes, homages that are a little too on the nose aren’t my favorites.
There is a wide variety of authors on these mysteries, so I don’t think this was a conscious design decision, but a few too many of the mysteries veered into very traditional roles for women in horror scenarios (vengeful spirits from relationships, witches tampering with powers beyond their control, etc.). No individual mystery is especially insensitive in how it utilizes these tropes, but similar tropes become a recurring factor. I also would have liked a content warning for the issues dealt with in the various mysteries at the beginning.
Those disclaimers in place, there is a ton of material to use, either for a quick night of play or to pull bits and pieces from to construct other mysteries. There is a lot of material here to use for resources.
Successful Hunt The material in this book is equally suited to add excitement and variety for veterans of the game, and to give someone brand new to the genre plenty of tools to work with.
The material in this book is equally suited to add excitement and variety for veterans of the game, and to give someone brand new to the genre plenty of tools to work with. While it’s a great resource for Monster of the Week, the material in this book is also a great resource for urban fantasy games in general, along with some really strong advice for convention games.
Out of Luck
The book is very strong, but if you aren’t a fan of gonzo or obvious pop culture references, some of the mysteries may not be as useful to you. A few too many mysteries lean heavily on some specific roles for women, and individually these are fine, but it is a bit of a recurring, if unintentional, theme. Safety, as well as appropriate topics for individual tables, is discussed, but not specifically called out in their own section of the book.
Recommended — If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
I think this is going to be a solid purchase, not only for anyone that is already interested in Monster of the Week, but for anyone that wants more material to build on for monster hunting and urban fantasy stories. There is a lot going on in this book, and so much of it provides a solid basis for telling stories at the table, as well as best practices for setting up those games.
Do you have a favorite monster hunting scenario that you have played through? A particularly fun twist that your group experienced? We want to hear from you in the comments below, so please let us know what you think.