I'm studying the rules for MOTW for the first time and I think I'd like to run a round soon.

I'm getting a little confused reading the rules for the agenda where it says "play to see what happens". I understand that as far as not preparing scenes and preparing dialogues with NPCs if necessary.

If I understand it correctly, I prepare one monster/mystery/location/bystander per session which has a motivation and also acts when the players don't act.

Sometimes, however, I imagine stories and twists that I would like to implement. A BBEG who can time travel or an old vampire who has been acting for centuries, build up an agency in advance that might not work for the good side.

What can I prepare for the role-playing game "Monster of the week"?


2 Answers 2


You may prepare as much as you like, but the larger the thing you prepare, the more loosely you will have to hold it.

All my page cites come from the recently released hardcover edition (MotW: Hardcover). Whatever edition you have, you should probably be able to find the material organized in about the same way.

In order to begin a game of Monster of the Week, you will have to prepare:

  • a setting or series concept, which the game calls a "team concept", fleshed out at least to the extent of the game changes that your players will need to know about; if you're just playing the game "out of the box", this can be very light indeed
  • a functional initial mystery, which your hunters will contend with and, hopefully, resolve in the first session: if you currently have an idea for a mystery story that you think could play out in one session's time, you can use it as your mystery countdown, a necessary but not sufficient part of a functional mystery

As you continue to play, you will be called on to prepare:

  • additional functional mysteries, so that at least one is always in play
  • connective arcs, if you want to guide the way elements of the setting change over time

Each of these has its own subcomponents and concerns which I'll detail below, especially mysteries, which are the ones you should probably be putting the most effort into preparing.

Team Concept: What Brings Us Together Today

If you have a team concept in mind, you should present it to your players as completely as possible.

It's good to work out why the hunters formed their team. You may have decided this already. If not, have a quick discussion and see if you come up with an idea -- even if it's just a vague one.

-- "Team Concepts", MotW: Hardcover, p.22

You could also call this a "series concept", since most monster-of-the-week supernatural series can be thought of in terms of their teams. You don't need to have a very involved one - your hunters are going to be using backstory questions to establish various relationships among themselves, so all you really need is a rough geographical location and a reason why your hunters would turn to each other in time of trouble instead of turning somewhere else.

But, at the same time, having a neat series idea can help your players flesh out their hunters as they play into it. The same playbook could have a very different backstory depending on the series it appears in. Consider the following:

  • You're a grunge band (and maybe a couple diehard hangers-on) touring logging country in the Pacific Northwest. Most of your online fans just think your lyricist is sweet on all the local folklore, but it's real, it's out there, and half your planned stops and all your unplanned ones are about when it gets too real for most people to stand.
  • You're the heirs, related or not, to a once-palatial resort home on the coast, now gone to seed along with the marginally less faded tourist town nearby. But as you settle in and repair the manor, more and more powerful supernatural phenomena seem to be drawn in from every direction. What's causing this, and exactly how close is it to your what's-the-one-after-king-size bed?
  • You're employees of a classified government agency headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, a city whose occult significance is so obvious it will go unstated. Your mission: keep the uneasy peace between the resident supernaturals and the ignorant masses, and defuse the machinations of the massive shadowy conspiracies out to claim the whole thing for themselves.
  • As above, but you also have this sinking feeling that you're working for the most massive and shadowy conspiracy of them all.

If the team concept means that certain playbooks will be banned, required, or somehow altered, you should let your players know what that will mean before they choose playbooks. For example, in a game about everyone working for a classified government agency, no one is The Professional because you all are, at least a little bit. The team concept can also mean that your players have access to certain moves or assets as a team, which you'll also define in advance. (The recently released Codex of Worlds has about a dozen fleshed-out team concepts with their own shared features, in addition to its topline feature of entire alternate settings.)

However, the more detailed your team concept is, the more restrictive it is to the range of possible characters. Not everybody is willing or able to hem themselves into just any old set of restrictions, especially if they're not as excited about it as you are.

There's another caution as well. You may have an idea, inspired by a supernatural series, of a story that starts out one way and then with a mid-episode or mid-season switch completely turns the tables on its participants, and from there think that you should present players one team concept and then switch it out from under them several sessions in.

This is a terrible idea and the game will fight you. It isn't only that players have powerful information-gathering moves that might present you with awkward questions earlier than you're ready for. Every supernatural series that's pulled off that sort of switcheroo has had its switch written and acted long, long before the twist actually hits the audience, but the game you're about to play has your fellow players being the authors, actors, and audience all together. What kind of script is an author going to write if they're only told about a pivotal part of it minutes before? If you have a switch in mind, see if it's one where you can start the game after the switch has happened and embed the prior material in backstory questions.

Functional Mysteries: Make Your Plot Go

In order to give your hunters a common course of action to collectively pursue, you should have at least one functional mystery active at any given time.

A mystery is made up of six basic elements. You can create them in any order[...]:

  • A basic concept for the mystery
  • The hook that got the hunters' attention
  • The monster
  • The minions, bystanders, and locations that are involved
  • The mystery countdown
  • Optionally: custom moves for special aspects of the mystery

-- "Creating Your First Mystery", MotW: Hardcover, p.144

That last one is optional and advanced; you don't need to do it, but you'll need to do at least some of all the rest, so:

The Basic Mystery Concept

This is not something with any game-facing elements; rather, all of the other elements you'll put together are expressing that concept in various ways. If you worry you're making something unnecessary, think back to your basic concept and ask if you've gone too far.

The Hook

This is the interesting part of the mystery that's already happened. It should have obvious and compelling effects that the hunters will want to investigate, or indicate a developing threat that the hunters will want to contain. When you present the facts of the hook and ask the hunters what they're doing next, they should be able to come up with a plan.

The Threats

This is the collective body of the monster, minions, bystanders, and locations involved in the mystery. You should be create enough in advance to express the mystery as you've envisioned it. You could come up with more, but chances are they'll just go unused or when you're tempted to use them they'll just distract the hunters instead of, say, helping develop the setting. The unifying factor of all the threats is that they have a motivation, and that motivation puts them in conflict with the hunters. Armor, harm, and attacks are things that some threats can have if you expect to involve them in violence, but they're more about game-mechanical decisions than about story ones, so I won't discuss them much here. I will discuss:

The Monster, as in THE Monster. Just the one, at least to start. That's the conceit behind all the series this is trying to live up to, isn't it? One week, one monster. At the very least there should be one single active will. It has a big, transformative motivation and can pursue it with sufficient force to change the world. You might could have multiple monsters with the same motivation if you wanted to make the hunters split up, but you can get that just as easily by throwing in some minions. If your mystery suggests the existence of multiple monsters, each with their own different motivations, maybe what you actually have is two or more mysteries that just happen to take place at about the same time, and that's some advanced topics there.

The Monster's Motivation is best thought of as the reason for the monster to want things. We'll be charitable to the monster and assume it is not Buridan's Ass and can decide on the thing that it wants the most, but the hunters are also capable of stopping the monster from getting the thing that it wants the most. In that case your impulse should not necessarily be to force the monster to get it anyway, but rather to honor the effects the hunters have had on the world and use the monster's motivation to decide the thing that it wants the next most. At the same time, if the hunters don't try to stop the monster entirely, well, keeping things away from a monster needs time and effort and realistically there's only so much of those the hunters have. Ultimately if the hunters know they have things the monster wants, it should not feel like an unfair surprise when the monster tries to get them.

Stopping the Monster does not mean just trading harm until its harm track is full. Often, if the hunters have not found its weakness, that may not be enough to stop the monster forever. But play the monster in keeping with its motivation; if the hunters understand the monster's motivation and can give it everything it wants, if they for example change the world in a way that a vengeful ghost wants but cannot achieve on its own, then they don't need to fill the monster's harm track on top of that. The monster's motivation is gone, and so now it can stop on its own.

The Monster's Powers and Weaknesses should be thought of in terms of the sorts of Keeper Moves they'll let you make, the scenarios you present your hunters with so they can take action. A pending threat that the hunters can try to stop, or an unfortunate obstacle that the hunters can try to overcome. In this sense, unconditional time travel is not a very good power for a monster to have because then things come up like "kill your grandfather so you were never born", and how can the hunters perceive that as a threat and stop it? How can they register it as an obstacle and overcome it? I mean, unless they also have access to time travel, but now the subject of temporal mechanics has been broached and my sparing intellect is assuming the most ingratiating posture of surrender imaginable.

Minions have lesser desires than the monster; usually their motivations revolve around the monster's in some way, helping it or stalling its opponents. They'll usually have armor, harm, and attacks, and if they have powers and weaknesses they're often lesser versions compared to the monster's, not as dramatic. It's usually okay for the hunters to try and get them out of the way just by exchanging harm. Minion motivations are also less absolute than the monster's and it's entirely possible for the hunters to present them with things they may want more, such as "no more broken jaws". Minions are something you can go lightly on preparing unless the mystery concept suggests they should be there; alternately if there's a monster that's not going to be at home to direct physical confrontation for most of the mystery, it can help to think up some minions that will be, just to let your hunters achieve some things with their weapons and their harm track, which are resources just like anything else they have. It can often happen when you're running the story that you decide it makes sense if there were a minion taking some action, even if you didn't plan one out specifically; in the moment, jotting down a motivation, and armor harm and attacks if you'll need them, is usually not too much effort.

Bystanders have motivations that the hunters would rather they didn't, but don't usually wind up with armor harm and attacks and the hunters shouldn't be trying to point violence at them to get what they want. They can be suspicious or obstinate and oppose the hunters' actions more directly, or they can just want to do things that the hunters will want to stop, like taking risks and attracting attention. If your mystery concept includes named people with certain professions, they're probably all bystanders of one type or another. Bystanders can exist any place it makes sense for a person to be, but you should probably limit your prep to only the ones directly involved with the mystery. If the hunters go somewhere you don't expect, it's not hard to put a name and motivation down in the moment as you need them.

Locations are not just specific places of note in your setting, though it helps to build a reference list of specific places of note in your setting as you go anyway. The thing that makes a location a location is that it's a place with a different character to your setting at large, such that the difference can be expressed as a location motivation. Think about, say, a small town with an outsized museum of natural history, some old magnate's tax writeoff that still sees attention and care in the present day. There are plenty of places in the small town - the police station, the diner out by the freeway, schools, houses, vacant lots - but if the same sorts of things could happen equally well in all of them, then for game purposes "the small town" is just one location. If there are things that can only happen in the museum of natural history, then that's enough for it to be its own location. Locations can be dangerous and you might want to model that as attacks, but they generally don't have armor or harm: if you're lost in the woods you can't just pull out a shotgun and start blasting until you stop being lost.

Location Motivations don't mean that the location has some sort of will of its own, though they can often stand in for other threats in the mystery acting in ways the characters can't stop or understand. They are, in their least, a way for you to characterize any old thing that makes sense to happen in the environment. If you say it starts drizzling and the horizon looks like heavy rain, Keeper, then it doesn't mean that the small town is somehow trying to wash away the physical evidence of the monster. It just means that's what's going to happen unless the hunters take action to stop it.

The Mystery Countdown

The mystery countdown is all of the things that are going to happen if the hunters can't or won't stop them. If you have "a mystery story" in mind, then it's likely you can express a significant part of that story as a mystery countdown. And you should! The mystery countdown is your guide to how the mystery will progress, what threats you should be presenting and how they will change the world. It gives you the next hook to drop in front of the hunters, to keep them motivated when they haven't stopped the mystery yet.

A mystery is a functional mystery when some threat in that mystery can take actions to advance the mystery countdown. That's almost always going to include the monster as long as it's motivated, but it can include other threats too. Usually when hunters solve a mystery, when it "becomes nonfunctional" because nobody wants to advance the countdown anymore, the mystery's gone for good and not going to just start up halfway while the hunters are taking care of something else across the state. Elements of the mystery can return, but often as a new mystery in their own right.

The elements of a mystery countdown should be obvious and definite when they happen, and each one should be more undesirable than the last. Note that "definite" doesn't mean "permanent". You can write "Widow Browne is abducted into the dark wood" in your mystery countdown and it doesn't mean when your countdown hits that step she's gone forever. Rather, the hunters have lost their agency as regards her safety: they can't stay in the relative calm of the town standing guard and building barricades to get it back, they have to brave the dangers of the dark wood.

The elements of a mystery countdown are not the things that must happen, but only the most likely. Hunters can successfully confront threats and stop the mystery countdown at any point, with enough effort and possibly luck, and you should honor that, because it's not like you're going to run out of mysteries. Contrariwise, if the hunters only act to halt the countdown but don't try to contend with the mystery, look at the motivations the threats have and try to figure out a different way the countdown might proceed, to present your hunters with a reason to act.

A mystery countdown is not, by itself, sufficient preparation to run a mystery. You likely already have a mystery concept though you haven't explicitly written it down as such. You'll need a hook to start giving the hunters a reason to act. And you'll need to note down the major threats and their motivations so you know why the countdown keeps running and how to react to the things the hunters do to try and stop it, including, of course, the monster of the week.

Your Next Mysteries: Another Opening, Another Show

Fundamentally, the structure of a followup mystery isn't too much different from your first mystery. The one difference is that you've already sat down and made a bunch of stuff in the session before, and you can probably reuse it in the next mystery. Stuff like the hunters, or most of them I hope? If your team concept is one that isn't inclined to do lots and lots of traveling, a lot of your bystanders and locations could potentially show up again. Even your minions and monster might return. But something that it's very important to keep in mind is that the role a threat has in any new mystery is not necessarily locked to the role you originally gave it. You should always consider your current mystery's concept first and foremost when you're assigning threat types and motivations.

You can often get by just fine exploring the system, taking each new mystery as it comes, and only letting the new mystery concept guide the way the stuff you already made changes from session to session. But eventually you might find yourself wanting to plan bigger structures, and when that time comes you'll bring out

Arcs: And It Also Has Some Pretty Decent Foreshadowing For Jingleberry

Arcs work fine without being fully detailed at first. Sometimes you'll have only a few ideas about what's going on. That's fine: just note the details you have now, and fill in others as you think of them. Events in play will suggest further elements to be added on later.

-- "Building Arcs", MotW: Hardcover, p.240

Fundamentally, an arc is a mystery where each step in its countdown is worthy of being its own this-is-going-to-stand-up-as-its-own-session-of-play mystery. And, just as in a mystery, the countdown steps are not the only things that participate in the arc, but only the steps that obviously and definitely make things worse. Arc threats are the motivators behind the entire arc but they don't have to appear in every mystery the arc touches, any more than the monster of your current mystery needs to be there in every scene. You can even have multiple arc countdowns going in parallel, similarly to how you might have multiple mysteries running in parallel when you've got enough practice that you can handle that beefy a threat palette with aplomb.

Some kind of structured progression is almost an inevitability, especially if your players have picked up The Chosen and they're all the time getting prophecies or The Professional and their agency's demands and reputation are shifting. You can even have arc elements cameo in a mystery that might or might not be related to them, and unlike other unrelated elements your hunters will know why the arc elements are there. You can pressure the hunters and make them prioritize between stopping the mystery countdown in front of them or trying to slow down the progression of the arc.

But I would highly caution you against just sitting down and planning out arcs and their future mysteries in detail. The reason why is simple: every definite step in a countdown is something that will happen if your hunters can't or won't stop it. Making arcs and detailing the future before you know what your players are interested in is, well. You want your players to have fun when they show up to play the game, right? If your players don't care about werewolf politics, and you want them to participate in werewolf politics and have fun doing it, then you probably shouldn't just hit them over the head with increasingly aggrieved werewolf political fallout whenever they don't care enough about werewolf politics, savvy?

Detail at most the next step in the arc countdown, and don't put more effort into the rest than an outline sketch. Anything that's more than one mystery in the future might be changed, and in a more fun and engaging way, by whatever happens as your hunters try and address the mystery in front of them. Be ready to respond to that change.

The larger the thing you prepare, the more loosely you will have to hold it.


Playing to find out what happens isn't about improvisation, it's about not plotting out fronts/mysteries.

In Monster of the Week, it's your responsibility to generate a mystery. See p80 of core.

First, before each game you need to spend a few minutes inventing a mystery: a monster and a situation for the hunters to investigate and sort out. Second, when you sit down to play, you are responsible for portraying the hunters' world: describing the places, people and monsters that they meet, and how those things react to the hunters' actions.

A group of hunters that might be evil, a time traveling monster, or a scary super monster are all fun things that you could include in the hunter's world, the mythology. You just need to make sure they don't interfere with the monster of the week. In other PBTA the sort of thing you are making is called a front.

It's basically an organization or concept that is actively changing the world in an interesting way. But, the main plot is meant to be monsters you investigate so how do you balance that?

In my own games I've come up with several rules to make them work.

  1. The big bads need to mostly interact with the world via monsters. The Time Traveling monster might release historic monsters on the modern era. The agency might lose trapped monsters or antagonize otherwise peaceful monsters. The vampire might scheme with underground supernatural forces to unleash monsters. Regardless, their function is to release monsters, not to be personal plot driving threats, unless the players make them the main threat. This fits in with the Keeper Principle "Build up a coherent mythology of the world as you play"

  2. They need to be expendable. I can't plan them as a BBEG or a final boss. It's very possible they'll get killed or weakened. You seem to be doing this, which is denying your players agency, as they may kill them early. This fits in with the Keeper Principle "Nothing is safe. Kill bystanders and minions, burn down buildings, let monsters be slain"

  3. The monsters can't be so overt they distort the setting. They can't be so powerful they are utterly dominant and prevent anyone from being normal. One of the key principles as a Keeper is "Name everyone they meet, make them seem like normal folks." which doesn't work if a supernatural monster is so powerful they make everything abnormal.

Following those three principles you can make monsters freely.

Remember the mechanical underpinnings that tend to make PBTA more chaotic.

Players have a lot of agency in choices, and can disrupt your choices. Don't resist this.

RNG makes it so that players and monsters are vulnerable to the consequences of a roll.

Moves often prompt you to make hard choices as a GM.

Your larger mysteries/ fronts shouldn't try to violate those mechanical principles. Let players have agency to kill or disrupt those mysteries.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I haven't tried MotW, but other PbtA games definitely are less intensive for GM planning. I"ll ut together a setting and some characters, but then what happens next is really dependent on what the players do. Setup is a bit easier as GM than other systems, but improvising at the table is where it's at for what happens. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Commented Aug 16, 2023 at 16:59
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ You can improvise, but Dungeon World or many other PBTA games do offer you extensive tools to prepare monsters and setting stuff ahead of time so you don't need to improvise in game. You can improvise yes, but the rule itself isn't about that. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nepene Nep
    Commented Aug 16, 2023 at 23:02

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