The Book of Hanz
In Defense of Monster of the Week
Okay, so this has been on my mind for a bit. It's a little bit less about grokking the system, and a bit more practical in terms of running sessions. Weird, huh?
("Monster of the week" doesn't necessarily mean a monster, of course just any one-shot episode not related to the primary story).
Monster of the week episodes on TV get a bad rap, and they can also get a bad rap in game sessions. The usual idea is that they're filler content that takes little creativity and has nothing to do with the overall plot that's occurring. And they can be all of those things. But they can be so much more.
Monster of the week sessions are great trial balloons. They're ways of throwing elements at the players and seeing what the players like. If they like something, it's easy to bring it back, or something like it. But if they don't like an element, it's a lot easier to just forget about it and move on with the game, as opposed to bringing in a new NPC that's more integrated with the overall game.
Especially at the beginning of a campaign, MotW sessions are great for helping to get a feel for the overall tone of the game, and figuring out what the group, as a whole, responds to. It's a great way to figure out what elements players will want to deal with, and to take those and start integrating them into the bigger picture.
And those are all valid points in favor of MotW sessions.
But there's a huge misconception about MotW sessions/episodes. And that's the idea that they're not relevant because they're not part of the overall plot. But they're very, very relevant. Because a monster of the week episode/session ain't about the monster.
It's about the characters.
Look at the first season of Buffy, for instance. Witch cheerleader mom? Totally unrelated to the overall plot. Monster of the week. Pointless, right? Nope. Because the episode wasn't about the witch. It was about Buffy wanting to live a normal life, and about how she can't because of what she is. Mantis teacher? Pointless, right? Nope. It was about Xander being unlucky (and a bit desperate) in love.
Hyena gang? That's a double-whammy, being both about Xander's desire to fit in, but mostly about how much Willow cares about Xander.
Computer demon? Another double-whammy, hitting up Willow's unluckiness in love as well as Giles' love of books/discomfort of technology.
The point of these episodes isn't to advance the plot. It's to highlight and flesh out the characters that are involved. And that's the key.
So if you're doing a monster of the week, great! Good for you! But do it right. Make it about the characters. Don't start with a monster idea. Start with the aspects of the characters, and then make up a 'monster' that reflects that aspect, or shows the weakness, or drives that conflict home.