06: Monster of the Week, Michael Sands

Monster of the Week is the system that powers The Adventure Zone and Critshow. The game’s creator, Michael Sands, joined me all the way from New Zealand to show you his cinematic, player-first approach to creating monster and mysteries. And we meet Marilynn, the improbable fairy creature who nearly derailed an entire playtest campaign.

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Michael Sands: As you’re sitting at the table and you’re finishing your cup of tea with Marilyn, your neighbor from down the road, who’s just kindly brought you some food to introduce you to the neighborhood. And your companion across the table has just made this offer that if Marilyn reveals a secret, then, he can make whatever she most wants come true, which may be a surprise to you, that’s a thing that could happen, but Marilyn seems taken with the idea. She says, “That’s a very interesting proposition you’ve got here. Yeah. So just a secret you say, and then my desire will come true?” And, your companion nods. And she says, “Oh, in that case, the thing is I’m not Marilyn at all.” And with that, her form like kind of drops away and sitting there in place is a thin, green grassy-haired creature, with really long pointy ears. and it says, “I’m a fairy who wants to live in this house, and, thank you, I think now I do!” And with that, it scampers away opens a door in the dining room that you hadn’t noticed was there before and disappears into a passage, closing it behind it. You can hear it cackling as it runs down the secret tunnel through your wall. What do you do now?

Lucas: Welcome to Making a Monster, the show that invites a tabletop RPG designer every week to share their favorite monster, how it works, why it works, and what it means. I’m Lucas Zellers. From the beginning of this project, I’ve had a few guests in mind to prove you could take Making a Monster seriously.

Michael Sands: Hi, I’m Michael Sands, I’m the designer of Monster of the Week.

Lucas: I hope you appreciate the Herculean effort I undertook, as the guy with a weekly show about monsters, not to devolve into a total star-struck mess interviewing the man who created the role-playing game Monster of the Week. I do this for you.

How Monster of the Week Reverse-Engineered an Entire TV Genre

Monster of the Week is an Apocalypse World game built for serial monster hunting shows from the 90s and early 2000s.

Michael Sands: I actually managed to finish Monster of the Week in about 2011 and crowd fund it, and print it on demand and that kind of sold okay for a while. And until, and then that got picked up by evil hat when Fred Hicks played it and enjoyed himself and he got in touch to partner up to try and get into wider distribution. And from then it’s just steadily gone along, until in the last couple of years, when The Adventure Zone played it, Critshow played it, and it suddenly burst up into quite much wider knowledge. So it’s been doing pretty well since then.

What is “Powered by the Apocalypse”?

What it grew out of was, I was a fan of Buffy from back when it first came out. and then, Supernatural when that started, and I sat down and thought, I wanted a game like that. I wanted a role-playing game that kind of captured those vibes. And although there were a few out there that did that modern monster hunting. genre none of them were quite what I was after. I worked on for a couple of years leading up to when Vincent Baker released the first edition of Apocalypse World. Hearing some of the talk about that I got interested and pre-ordered that, and ended up playing a couple of games pretty quickly, just cause I liked the style of it so much. So I was MCing one game for my regular Monday night gaming group who we’ve been playing together for kind of 25 years now. Not exactly the same people, all 25 years, but continuous at least.

I got an invitation to another game with some other friends who I hadn’t played so regularly with, with someone else to take an MC role there. So I kinda got both sides of that and both of those games were really great. And, as I was playing them, I realized like, Many of the problems I’ve been struggling with my existing attempts at Monster of the Week were solved by this approach to the game. So I quickly threw together a draft of it that took all these ideas from Apocalypse World and mushed them together with the ones I’d had. on my own and that’s where Monster of the Week came from pretty much.

Lucas: And I’ve heard the phrase for this game and games like it as being “Powered by the Apocalypse.”

Michael Sands: yeah. Yeah. That’s just, yeah, that’s the term, I think Baker suggested for, games that use that design approach that he had in Apocalypse World, which is very much knowing what style of fiction in the game you want to have and making the rules push you in that direction. so everything’s about maintaining that style for those genres or themes that you want in the game.

Lucas: What is the system like?

Michael Sands: For me, the key things are the system of moves, which is, rather than most games that will have your attributes and skills and things, which you roll, see if you succeed or not. Powered by the Apocalypse tends to use a thing called a move, which has a much more specific and guided way to resolve things. so like in Monster of the Week, there’s an investigate mysteries move. When you roll it, it’ll give you specific sorts of things. You can figure out as your monster hunter is investigating what’s going on.

And the reason there is so that we can make the shape of each mystery, and how the adventure plays out, fit the genre they’re aiming for,

I feel like the dice you roll is not very important. it is quite a key factor that most of them have the idea of you fail, you succeed at a cost or you succeed completely. But, I don’t think the exact dice you roll are relevant to how it works – it’s that idea of how it plays.

Monster of the Week doesn’t have a Monster Manual

I’ve always resisted having a Monster Manual with a big list of here’s what all the monsters are. And here’s what exactly what they’re like. I feel like it’s a game where every time you’re creating a mystery and the monster that’s behind it, you want to tailor it to the group and, make sure that it’s exactly, keyed into how your group has played and the history. of that game, it’s, the opposite of the idea that you just look up a monster, grab it and fit an adventure around it. I like it to be the other way where you think I want the mystery to be about this. And so what’s a monster that would fit in

Now in terms of what that illustrates, I think that’s, getting all to my ideal of each monster should look at the game you’re playing and where you’ve been, and like try and build on that, you know, give challenges to the hunters so we can figure out like, what matters to them? what are they going to do? Where are they going to push? what ethical choices will they make?

Lucas: so this is one of just many situations that Monster of the Week can give you. And you’re kind of working backwards, where I thought, we have the monster and then we have to tease out what it means.

Michael Sands: Um, no, one of the things about Monster of the Week and the Powered by Apocalypse games, in general, is the idea that you play to find out what happens. So you don’t come into it with a preconceived idea of where it’s going to go, but instead set up a situation and see what happens. And honestly, I’ve always liked running games that way, when I’m in the GM role, I’m much more comfortable. And I, I enjoy myself more when it’s more of an open situation where I say, here are the things that are happening. And maybe here’s something that you want to do and then just let it play out however it wants. And Monster of the Week in particular does that, where, when you’re creating an adventure, you don’t create, what’s going to happen.

You create a countdown of the things that will happen. If the hunters don’t stop it and it’s up to the hunters to figure out what’s going on, prevent all these disastrous things happening and the countdown should escalate. So if it gets to the very end, it will be very bad. Indeed. so yeah, that’s the shape of a mystery in Monster of the Week.

Lucas: by the way, does Monster of the Week have a different name for its game master?

Michael Sands: In Monster of the Week it’s, keeper of mysteries and monsters, but either way you just shortened it to Keeper.

Lucas: Love it. Get that on a brass plaque on my desk.

How to Make a Monster in Monster of the Week

Michael Sands: I wondered if it might be worth going through the process of how you do make a monster in Monster of the Week for people who are not familiar with it, because that might be quite interesting too. like I say, I’ve talked about how the mystery is you set up the situation. so normally I come into it with an idea for the. Situation and the monster and you pick them on motivation for the monster. Like I said, what’s it trying to do?

There are some classifications in the book that you pick one from, but then you normally elaborate it, because they’re quite generic – things like it’s a devourer that wants to eat people. So you might want to be more specific and what exactly it wants to eat and why, or so on. And then you don’t have many stats in Monster of the Week for it. So you basically give it a list of powers, define what attacks it has and how much damage it does if they get into a fight with it.

And finally, the main thing is a weakness. And the idea is this is a particular thing that you can’t defeat the monster until you deal with the weakness. So in a traditional way, it might be the werewolves and silver, but I’ve also played games where the weakness is, like for a ghost, properly burying its remains or dealing with unresolved business that needed to be fixed before it could rest. So it can be anything from the straightforward – it’s vulnerable to a particular kind of attack – through to a special thing you need to do or ritual, you need to take place. And if you don’t do that, the monster can come back, which is a kind of drives the, how the investigations run because the hunters need to figure that out before they can do it. And once you’ve got those aspects of the monster that’s ready to go. It’s intentionally quite a simple system so that you can prep quickly. as many of us, I have quite a busy life. So being able to get ready for a game in 20 or 30 minutes is pretty important.

Michael Sands: I think actually with Monster of the Week, I can do it in less now, but I probably, there are a few people who’ve played more of that game or know it better than me.

Michael Sands: I typically play a game session about two and a half or three hours.

Lucas: Usually I’m able to ask this particular question of the monster itself, but maybe this is a question more for the system. and please take this as a jumping-off point. what does that teach us about the world that we live in now?

Michael Sands: I’m not sure. I mean, I guess there’s a sense, like, you know, we don’t get to plan things out in advance. it feels like it’s more natural that we’ve got situations and we don’t really know where they’re going to go, although I guess there’s also the idea because all the pieces you put in place for the mystery get defined by motivation.

So the Monster’s going to have a motivation, what it’s trying to do. you’ll also define any like minions it has and what their motivation is. bystanders, who the hunters meet, who they’ll be presumably talking to as witnesses or trying to save. They’ll all have their own motivations. And even the places you visit will have a motivation in the sort of things that tend to happen there.

So I think the idea that, there are all these different conflicting things that people want people and monsters and places in this case. and the hunters have to navigate that and find a solution is, well I feel it reflects the world. if not, perhaps telling us more about it.

Lucas: That’s beautiful, man. I just want to park in that for a second. that’s going to be it, man. That’s the episode in a nutshell, that’s the thing. That’s the thing that I wanted. My guest is veteran game designer and the quiet, creative New Zealander behind Monster of the Week. He was a genuine pleasure to interview, and Michael, if you’re listening, thanks for taking a chance on the show so early.

Here’s how to get a copy of Monster of the Week:

A tentacled beast battles monster hunters on the cover of Monster of the Week.Michael Sands: if you would like a physical copy, you can get it from, many friendly local game stores. Or if that doesn’t work, the Evil Hat productions website have got a mail order. So I to the mayor, so you can order them there. if you want PDF, that also through Evil Hat, you can get it on itch.io or DriveThru RPG.

I’ve got my own website, genericgames.co.nz, which, has like the supplementary, but some pieces I’ve released on my own. they’re mainly PDF things like extra hundred classes play and that sort of thing. So if people are interested in those, general games website is the place

Lucas: Thanks for listening to Making a Monster. If you like what you’ve heard and you want to support the show, the best way to do that right now is to share with the people you play games with. The show is available on 15 podcast platforms and counting, now including Amazon Music, so there’s an app or a smart speaker for everyone. Your recommendation will go a long way toward helping people trust me with their time and attention, and it’s a real gift to me and the creators I feature.

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Next Episode: Dagon, the Demon Prince of Shadowsea

Ezmerelda the sorceress from D&D's Curse of Strahd adventure stands surrounded by werewolves on the cover of Ezmerelda's Encyclopedia of EvilThe Obyrith were ancient aberrations bridging the gap between the Forgotten Realms and the Cthulhu mythos. DM’s Guild designer Alex Clippinger brought H.P. Lovecraft’s first published monster, Dagon, to 5th edition D&D. We track how monsters become “dungeon and dragons-ed”, and explore how game mechanics imitate the experience and intent of the cosmic horror genre.

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