I ran my first game of Monster of the Week! It was a little different than your typical MotW session.
My take on Monster of the Week
There’s a few things that always spoke to me in typical Monster of the Week shows, mostly of the Whedon variety (Buffy and Angel). I wanted to put those things front and center.
People have a real life with obligations – they have to fight evil, pass their S.A.T’s and not mess up their date. It’s one thing to be a hero, it’s another to be a hero *and* get the kids to football practice in time. Their lives aren’t perfect. They may have super powers but in a real life situation, they’re often just as helpless and awkward as we are.
The Monster of the Week comes and goes, but the monster leaves a momentary emotional impact on the character. A typical Monster of the Week scenario might be:
- Buffy has trouble asking this guy out
- A monster pushes her weak spot, her courage
- Buffy defeats the Monster, discovering a courage she didn’t know she had.
- Buffy now has what it takes to ask this guy out!
It’s an unsophisticated example, but you get the idea. For me (and for Joss Whedon), it’s also quite important that there’s an emotional resonance between the Monster and the real life issue. It won’t change the world, it won’t be the overarching plot of the season. Next episode might ignore the small bit of character development completely – but it was there, it had a small impact.
I love that shit.
So, for the one-off, I asked my players three questions:
- What is your day job?
- What is going well in your mundane life?
- What isn’t going so well in your mundane life?
I figured their answers would be enough to pick an emotional theme for each of them. I didn’t anticipate that their answers would be far better than my own ideas! So I quickly ditched the scenario I had prepared, and just ran with everything they came up with. Which I should have done in the first place.
One player played the Divine, and mentioned that she was exiled for “upsetting the balance of fate, by bringing two lovers together”. Clearly, love would be at the center of this game.
I thought it would be neat if, because of some bureaucratic snafu, the descendants of those lovers would only be ‘dealt with’ now, centuries later (or, if the Divine ruled her intervention was recent, they’d be estranged family). Thus four people in this town died without any apparent cause – their hearts just stopped. And those four spirits would be lost, and cling to, bond to the first person they would see. Getting those spirits to move on would become an intensely personal affair for our players. The key would be love or desire, but it would get a different interpretation each time.
I ran the player through four fairly scripted scenes to attach them to their ghosts.
Rufus The Beat (40s) was described in an early draft as ‘desperate for a love life’. He went to check out a potential homicide, called in by very confused medical doctor. As he was examining her, the victim opened her eyes and started screaming. He quickly found out he was talking to a ghost and explained to her she was dead. She asked his name and when he said “Rufus”, she looked at him, repeated his name, and disappeared.
Karael The Divine (appearing as 25ish) was still new to this world, and had a lot of issues with the hateful way religion had interpreted the ways of God. She worked in a hospice and watched as her favorite patient was visited by a priest telling her she was sinful, and she had to confess all of her sins to be worthy of God’s forgiveness. They suppress their argument to see their patient off to the other side. Then the priest’s body drops to the ground while his spirit stays upright – shocked. He blames the Divine and then disappears.
At this point, players got the structure of their scenes. The House MD effect was kicking in, and people were actively wondering who would die.
Penny The Hex (50s) was running a magic shop and having some family trouble. Her daughter had finished law school and moved her family back in town, and she was keen for Penny and her estranged husband to get back into some kind of relationship. As she was having coffee with her daughter and her ex-husband, and conversation was haltingly awkward, a little ghost girl came to grab her hand and explain she was lost. Penny managed to not look totally insane in front of her family as she quickly excused herself, but the ghost girl was worried that the people were upset. As they left the shop, the girl disappeared.
The Snoop (27) had recently gotten dumped by his girlfriend for spending too much time on his paranormal YouTube channel. He was working on a wedding report video for his day job. It was very boring, until a waiter collapsed in the kitchen in a big crash of glassware. The Snoop quickly figured out he could still hear the guy in his headphones and tried to interview him for some good footage. The guy saw a light and wanted to go to it as the Snoop tried to get him to stop and make time for an exclusive! But the light turned out to be the Snoop’s camera and after a short conversation, the ghost disappeared from his viewscreen.
After the setup, everyone met in the magic shop to share their experiences and to investigate the mystery. The investigation went a bit slow, and I felt like I hadn’t given my players enough concrete clues of what to go for. I had thought that the Investigate A Mystery move would fix that, it seemed fairly overpowered on paper, but I should have been far more liberal with clues. In hindsight, I think even Monster of the Week adheres to the Three Clue Rule. Will do that next time.
Of course, my players also didn’t know what kind of game I was running, so they may have been confused about what lines of investigation to go for. I’m so used to running improv that I always feel bad when they have a good idea that I want to run with, but can’t.
But the slower pace did give plenty of time for the ghosts to come back out and bond with their PCs. The ghosts could hear everything, but only talk with their PC. I thought they would probably quickly cast a spell to allow everyone to talk to everyone, but by that time they had already formed relationships with their ghosts, and some were enjoying the opportunity to talk privately. Once they found out the key was love, they were ready to try and help their ghosts move on.
Karael‘s ghost was Pedro, an older priest who was not at all pleased with being stuck in ‘purgatory’. He blamed Karael for it. Karael in her turn didn’t have any love for the ghost, who was judgemental and a little bigoted. When hints surfaced that she actually was responsible for his predicament (the oujia board that spelled out ‘balance of fate restored’ was a big clue), she initially tried to ignore it because she wanted to keep her true nature hidden from her friends. But when the evidence piled up, she eventually ‘confessed her sins and showed regret’. This appeased him quite a bit.
They tried to find out if he had romantic relationships, loved relatives, or unrequited loves, but Pedro only loved god and couldn’t understand why he was deprived of Heaven. Karael outed herself as an Angel in her full glory and used her Lay on Hands move on the ghost – thus displaying the full glory of Heaven to everyone in the room. Pedro whispered “It’s beautiful” and moved on.
Rufus‘s ghost Josie had bonded with Rufus’ gun. She quite liked the look of Rufus and made no effort to hide it. She was as harsh and cynical as him, but with a little more love for life. Rufus, however, was very weirded out by having his gun flirt with him. He didn’t want to become one of those cops. Besides, he’d been nurturing a crush on Penny for a few years now, and always hoped they’d be together one day. So helping Josie move on was becoming quite a tense situation.
Finally, it was Penny who cast a spell that made Josie corporeal for a short time, and who encouraged Rufus to take her out. Rufus reluctantly agreed to take Josie out to the shooting range (her suggestion). Right as they were about to leave, Penny’s ex-husband came back to the store. That put a dent in Rufus’ romantic exclusivity and he and the ghost connected in the car. They laughed about the situation, and Josie asked if he would name his gun after her after she was gone. At the shooting range, she explained her mid-west parents would take her shooting all the time, and challenged him to a shooting match. By that time, she couldn’t lift up the gun anymore, so he had to help hold the gun. His shot was perfect, hers even more so. She claimed her prize: a kiss. When Rufus opened his eyes she was gone.
Andrew‘s ghost Jason was a college kid. I had a plan for him, but that didn’t work out because Andrew spent all of his time drooling over our Divine Karael. Andrew’s ghost initially claimed Karael was out of his league but she was actually interested. More so: she was itching to try out all the possibilities a corporeal body has to offer! Jason then became Andrew’s wingman of a sort, providing him with plenty of encouragement.
They already had a sinking feeling about this situation, but tried very hard to find someone that Jason loved – ex-girlfriends, future girlfriends, the one that got away? Anyone? Jason wouldn’t have any of it. “Don’t worry about me, dude, you have your own cat to bag. I’m with you, dude. It’ll put it stronger than that, your goal is my goal. Bros before hos, dude!”
Sniggers all round as people realise this is the weirdest way to exorcise a ghost ever. They hopefully kiss, but that just makes Jason hoot. Fortunately, they are so entranced with each other, they find it almost easy to forget about the camera that they take home to Andrew’s flat. There, they end up making me regret Monster of the Week doesn’t have sex moves. To compensate, I get to ask “What does your orgasm look like?” and the answer is surely enough to make Andrew believe in god. They don’t check to see if Jason’s disappeared until days later (and he has).
Penny‘s ghost was Marjorie, a little girl who bonded to her instantly, and really only wanted a family. They tried to reunite her with her own family, but she didn’t want that as ‘It would make them sad’. They visited Marjorie’s dad anyway and bothered him with lots of strange questions that did give them the final clue (the genealogy of Karael’s star-crossed lovers), but that still left poor Marjorie alone. She wanted to be part of Penny’s family, but Penny was having enough upheaval in that that department. Both Marjorie and Penny’s own grown daughter Jenn wanted them to be a family again, but Penny didn’t want to make the same mistake twice.
The breakthrough came when daughter Jenn came to visit with the kids. They played in the store for a while, and Penny found one of the her grandkids playing with ghostly Marjorie! Penny explained to her grandchild that they’ll have to keep this a secret from Jenn, but that she’ll tell him all about ghosts later. He wants Marjorie to come to the aquarium with them, and Marjorie looks up at Penny. “Will you be my mommy?”. “Yes, I’ll be your mommy,” Penny says. Marjorie gives her a big hug, and then disappears. For a moment it’s real quiet in the magic shop. Then Penny, her grandkids and her daughter head out for a family day.
Andrew and Karael only emerge days later. Rufus comes back to the magic shop the next day and finally has the courage to ask Penny to dinner. Penny accepts, but makes it clear that her family is her biggest priority right now. The end!
So, I hit all my key points for a Jules/Whedon-style Monster of the Week story. I’m pretty happy about that. It was fun to show people an entirely different take on the game. I’m not sure if you can keep this structure up and improvise as much as I like to, but I think so. Especially when everyone on the table knows what you’re aiming for and is helping you get there.
This was my first game that contained an investigation, and I would like to improve more in this department. I don’t mind my games being slow, but I don’t like lulls where people don’t know what to do, and felt that I couldn’t give direction or ran with the investigation lines people wanted to pursue. Relying less on a scenario will also fix that, as will more familiarity with the moves. So I can also push people into the right moves (“You know, there’s a spell for that!”). I really missed a Gaze into the Abyss or Open your brain move that I could use to just slip random hints in!
We also have the game on youtube, but sadly I seem to have muted my boyfriend Jan (who is playing the Snoop) in the recording :(