Campaign Report – Monster of the Week

In July I finished my first non-d20 campaign. Having played in and more or less enjoyed campaigns in Fate, Icons, and a Powered by the Apocalypse system, I wanted to apply that sort of narrative, rules-light feel to a campaign in the Eight Arms universe and see how it mapped to somewhat stereotypical D&D. We’d already been giving the rules a bit of a light touch in Pathfinder and I thought running in a system that actually supported it was the next logical step. I settled on Monster of the Week as the system because it matched the feel and the presentation I wanted; most PbtA systems I see are about settings more than anything else, and finding a system that worked in multiple settings was an unexpected boon. Our group applied one of the ideas we’d had while faffing about one week, of a group of low-level folks who begrudgingly dealt with a high-magic world, and gave it a whirl.

It didn’t go great. To put it pithily, the campaign ended more than a month ago and I’ve only recently separated myself from it enough to have a logical opinion on what happened. It was not a crushing failure, but it wasn’t a rousing success either. I went through several rounds of blaming myself, blaming the players, and blaming the system, in that order, until I think I’ve come to a point where I can look at what we did, what went wrong, and how to handle it in the future, all without burying any of the people who decide whether my characters live or die next week. My general takeaway is that while the campaign might have had its good points, this confluence of GM, player group, and play style was not a good match and I’m probably not going to do it again.

This gaming group has been together for more than ten years now. Our system of choice these days is Pathfinder, which is gamist first, simulationist a distant second. Our first campaign as a group was D&D 3.5E, which is simulationist first but has gamism right on its heels. We all met in a campaign using Mage: the Awakening, which is a gamist system that thinks it’s narrativist. So we have a lot of background in finding problems and solving them with dice rolling and headbutts. We’re not pure gamists; we try to balance a sensible world with what keeps the game interesting, we will make bad decisions if they fit our characters, and we don’t have a problem with puzzles, role-playing interactions, or losing as long as it’s fun. But for the most part, real narrativist play isn’t really what we do, and that showed throughout the campaign.

Consider the difference between Pathfinder and Monster of the Week (MotW). In Pathfinder, the DM is the arbiter of what rolls happen when and what they mean, usually by following constraints in the rules. The player may or may not know what his threshold is before they make a roll, and the DM decides what’s a success and what’s a failure. In MotW, players know what their success thresholds are at all times. It’s hard-coded in the books that rolling a 6 or lower is bad, rolling 7 through 9 is alright, and rolling 10 or higher is good. The consequences of each result for each action are laid out in the rulebook. Some of my players knew this and responded appropriately when they succeeded or failed, keeping the game moving. Some did not.

In Pathfinder, the DM pretty much decides what success and failure look like too. A player can decide what she says in her botched Intimidate check or suggest that killing a creature with a critical hit should behead it, but ultimately the DM makes those decisions. In MotW, there’s an expectation that the player will participate in their failures. On a failed magic roll, the player typically decides how the magic goes wrong, and there’s ample room for players to give input on how they get themselves in trouble when they come to the aid of their ally but only make things worse. Some of my players took this as an opportunity to keep things interesting, making bad decisions for dramatic purposes and rolling with the consequences. Some did not.

In Pathfinder, there’s a reasonably constrained set of actions you can take. Technically you can do anything, but it boils down to a set of skills or abilities you have. In combat specifically those actions are usually attacking a creature, casting a spell, or doing something to help a character attack or cast a spell. In MotW all player actions come down to eight types of rolls depending largely on the player’s intention. Instead of constraining player choice this actually expands it. There’s no “attack with a sword”, there’s “attack with the intent to deal damage”, “attack with the intent to distract”, “attack with the intent to set the monster up for the ally’s action”, and so on. Some of my players leveraged this to take unusual, suboptimal actions that fit with their characters, aided their allies, and opened themselves up for great reward or great failure. Some did not.

I want to point out that I didn’t have a single bad player in this campaign. There was nobody who adamantly refused to engage with the system in the way it was intended and no player who dragged us down by himself or herself. Rather, it’s more that some players worked with the shift from gamist play to narrativist play more quickly and more completely than others, and each player made that shift to different degrees at different times for different aspects of the system. But it meant that we never really had a cohesive narrativist campaign. The point of narrativist gaming is “play to see what happens”, and we ran it as “play so the GM says we win”, which is kind of the opposite.

Of course, I’m not blameless. To introduce everybody to narrative play, I tried to shift the focus of the campaign over time from a simple “there are monsters, kill they” to something that required a little more subtlety, engagement, and personal jeopardy. What I actually did was set the stage in early sessions for the wrong sort of campaign and fail make the transition to another type sufficiently clear. I intended to narrate the results of player actions early in the campaign to set up the players to narrate them later, but instead I got the players used to letting me narrate. I intended to use a free-form “X hasn’t done anything in a while” initiative system to get players into saying when they wanted to take actions in combat, but instead I got them used to waiting until I called on them for their turns. In several places I mismanaged the style shift so badly it basically didn’t happen, and the end of the campaign felt much like the beginning.

That’s kind of the root of my dissatisfaction with the campaign: it felt like we were playing Pathfinder, which was the exact thing I tried to avoid. I wanted to specifically do something where combat wasn’t about playing rocket tag, where the sense of dread was palpable, where character growth and mechanics went hand-in-hand, where players could take any suboptimal action they wanted and survive on logic, sacrifice, and the Rule of Cool. Monster of the Week does all that. We didn’t manage it. We played like we play when we game together, it was a poor fit for the system, and I’m not happy with the result.

I’m not soured on MotW. It’s still a fine system that does the thing it set out to do. I also know I’m not a bad DM, and I know I don’t have bad players. Maybe one of our other DMs will pick up MotW sometime and handle it better than I. Maybe I’ll try it with my other gaming group, with players who have a bit more experience in narrativist systems. Options exist. But I’m definitely not going to try forcing this round peg into this square hole again.

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