Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Monster of the Week

 I'm feeling conflicted about my process. Sometimes, I think I may not be doing these books a favor by reading similar ones back-to-back. Monster of the Week, by Michael Sands, is the fourth Powered by the Apocalypse game I've read in the past six weeks and I think perhaps the system has lost its power to surprise and delight me.

Don't get me wrong, Monster of the Week is a fine game. It is a solid implementation of a solid ruleset, and probably the most diverse PbtA experience since Urban Shadows, but it failed to excite me.

I'm sure that a significant part of this is just that I've had a busy couple of weeks. Played the new Saints Row game for about 60 hours, went to the dentist, miscellaneous stress. However, I also expect that the game's genre might also be a factor. Monster of the Week seeks to replicate the feel of supernatural procedural mysteries like The X-Files, Buffy, or Supernatural, but, specifically, the, um, "monster of the week" episodes. And me, I'm a myth arc guy, all the way.

To be fair, there is an entire chapter on Arcs, and there's no reason to assume that a long-running Monster of the Week campaign can't eventually become as convoluted as X-Files or Lost, but at the same time, PbtA's "play to find out what happens" philosophy practically guarantees that your arcs will turn out as coherent as, well, X-Files or Lost. Score one for genre emulation, I guess.

It does feel like I'm unfairly singling out Monster of the Week, though. Really, it merely had the misfortune of being last. What reading so many Powered by the Apocalypse games in such a short period of time has wound up teaching me is that genre probably isn't enough. All the best rpgs play with genre and it's subtly noticeable when a genre thesis is missing (for example, Planescape, despite its elaborate worldbuilding, never really articulated a distinct commentary on the fantasy worlds it bridged, and thus wound up often feeling superfluous), but I don't think you can really have genre in potentia. The "monster of the week" is a format and while the convenience with which it fit into the reality of making an episodic television series has made it iconic in its own way, you don't really watch Angel to see what weird creatures the writers can come up with, you watch it to see Angel. The creatures are largely an excuse, an opportunity to see him do something interesting for forty minutes.

But this is not a failing exclusive to Monster of the Week. It goes all the way back to the original Apocalypse World. Turns out, after some reflection, that it matters to me how the apocalypse happened. An out-of-control bioweapon and a civ-killer meteor demand two different thematic approaches. They're both, broadly, the "post-apocalypse" genre, but the nuances are important. You can't simply swap out The Stand and Fallout. There's this notion in rpg circles that lore is just a GM indulgence, that too much concern for it indicates a frustrated novelist, rather than honest roleplaying, but I you can't really dispense with it, and I'm not sure any PbtA game has successfully made the case that you can simply improvise it either. Genre is intrinsically abstract, and it's the lore that brings that abstraction into the realm of the concrete. There is no pure genre work, they are all tainted by off-genre specifics.

On-balance, having a plan will make those specifics more satisfying to engage with. That some people overdo it is no reason to write off the entire practice. Luckily, every PbtA game I've read so far, including this one, is flexible enough that you can simply tuck that part of the "GM Agenda" into the "soft maybe" pile. As good as their improvisational style can be, they'd probably be better if you did the work to bring a compelling world to the table.

And despite my grousing, Monster of the Week does have some unique strengths. Its collection of playbooks is one of the strongest I've seen, running the whole gamut of types from its inspirational media - you can play a Chosen, like Buffy, a Flake, like Fox Mulder, or a Spell-slinger like Harry Dresden, plus another nine types that are all instantly recognizable. For all that I talk about not entirely trusting improv, the well-defined character niches will go a long way to establishing a party chemistry.

Overall, my verdict is that this game works. You want its specific type of feel, you will get pretty close by following the rules. I'm not sure that I'm sold on its strongly episodic format or default antagonistic approach to the urban fantasy genre, but I can acknowledge that not everything is meant for me. 

Ukss Contribution: Let's end this post on an up-note, with something I liked about the book. One of the richest veins of setting was in the Spell-slinger's list of spells. I thought the necromantic wall, which drained the life of anyone passing through it, was properly spooky. Who should we really be hunting, huh guys?

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