This article is part of the Monster Hunters series that will appear in BroadSword Monthly. If you’d like a preview of additional content, be sure to check out the Monster Hunter material on my Patreon.
The Monster of the Week Format
A mysterious supernatural murder occurs. The main characters are called in–or possibly even there when it occurs–and have to figure out what’s going on. Sooner or later, they learn what they’re dealing with and devise a plan to stop the monster. The episode ends with the characters narrowly defeating the creature.
Sound familiar? This trope is known as “Monster of the Week.” And it’s nothing new. This style dates all the way back to pulp magazines and novels from the 1930s and probably earlier. You’ve seen it on shows like Doctor Who, Supernatural, and even The Flash.
Obviously, it’s all a formula, but it’s one that people can trust. And for Fifth Edition campaigns, it’s the perfect set-up for a series of self-contained adventures.
How to Create a Monster of the Week Campaign
If you’re interested in creating a series of campaign adventures that follow the Monster of the Week format, then use this checklist to put all the elements you need into play. This checklist is sometimes referred to as a “premise” or “series bible.”
Decide on the Formula
First, you need the basic idea behind your campaign. Think of it as an “elevator pitch”; create just a couple sentences that give the gist of what the characters will do each episode. Here are a few popular examples:
- Gothic Monster Hunters. The characters are monster hunters who work together to find malicious creatures from myth and folklore then exterminate them.
- Time Travelers. The characters move throughout time and space, offering help to those who need it.
- Mad Science. Something went horribly wrong with a science experiment, creating horrible monsters. Now, the characters work to stop these creatures.
Generally speaking, the Monster of the Week campaign setting is an open-ended one. The main characters keep performing the same job from week to week. There will always be a need for someone to perform this task, and for now, it’s the characters who do it.
Choose a Theme and Tone
No two Fifth Edition campaigns are the same, and that’s true, too, for Monster of the Week settings. The biggest elements that help differentiate campaign settings are theme and tone.
Theme is the central idea that the campaign explores. The theme can be expressed in many different ways. It can be a pair of opposed ideas (good vs evil), a statement (“it is my responsibility to help those in need”) or a question (“am I the one responsible for this disaster?”)
Meanwhile, the tone is the mood you want to establish. Is the campaign lighthearted romp (chock full of bad puns and inappropriate jokes) or is it a disturbing, psychological horror setting? Of course, plenty of shows flip-flop between multiple tones (see change-of-pace adventures below). Don’t be afraid to experiment.
Next, the Monster of the Week setting works best when it has familiar elements that help ground the characters. Some campaign settings may have a central base that the characters return to at the start or end of every episode. Other campaign settings might rely on an old, flashy car in which the characters travel the countryside.
Once you know the familiar “set pieces” for your campaign setting, employ elements that help bring it to life. This can be as simple as using miniatures or monster tokens that properly invoke the feel of the campaign, or it can be as thorough as using music, slide decks, and other cool atmospheric elements.
After you have the campaign setting mapped out in your mind, make sure that the players understand it so that they can create setting-appropriate characters. This doesn’t mean imposing limitations, of course. But you should definitely work alongside your players to build this shared storytelling environment.
For example, if you are running a Gothic Monster Hunters campaign, the characters should play characters who would work well against the threats they will face. Clerics are usually effective against the undead, and melee combatants are perfect against beasts and monstrosities. Even a diviner wizard or ranger can help the group track down monsters.
Furthermore, the characters may even want to tie their backgrounds and stories to the setting itself. Why do these characters do what they do? Were their parents killed by a demon when they were young? Is one of the characters a time-traveling rogue who recruited a gang of companions to assist in his or her adventures? Or maybe the characters were workers in the lab whose own physical forms were affected by the same event that created the monsters?
Remember: the best campaign settings are the ones that the characters are invested in. Nobody wants to play a tourist. Work together!
Devise the Plot Hooks
The plot hooks (or adventure hooks) are what drive the characters to do the things they do. For the Monster of the Week episodic format, there are three classic types of plots: stand-alone, continuity, and change-of-pace.
A stand-alone adventure is where the Monster of the Week campaign setting thrives. It’s totally self-contained. The hook introduces the problem, the characters spend most of the time trying to solve the problem, and by the close of the adventure, the characters save the day. Unless, of course, the monster gets away.
Usually, a stand-alone adventure has two sub-types: character focus (sometimes called a “bottle episode”) and ensemble adventures. Character focus adventures build on character backstories and backgrounds. Ensemble adventures cut out the sub-plots and work to keep the team together. Often, the campaign will start primarily with ensemble episode introducing the character and settings, then switch to character focus.
A continuity adventure (or mythology episode, as it’s sometimes referred to) introduces or advances an ongoing storyline that runs throughout the lifetime of the campaign setting. This is where regularly recurring villains or overarching themes pop up. Usually, these types of adventures can be interwoven with stand-alone adventures, too.
These types of adventures can be confusing for new players, just as it would be confusing for new fans of a TV show. When bringing in a new player, try using stand-alone adventures first, then transition to continuity adventures.
Once the formula is fully established, a change-of-pace adventure shakes up the campaign setting by altering the formula in new, interesting ways. For example, the characters could wake up and find themselves in a totally new plane of existence. Or the characters might befriend a drunk, singing unicorn–despite the campaign previously having a mostly serious tone.
Use change-of-pace adventures sparingly. Too much can be jarring. And while these adventures can play into the overarching themes and continuity, it’s best if the temporary change in formula starts and ends with the adventure itself.
If you’re a big fan of TV shows, then you probably already know that most show episodes have a pretty common format that each episode follows.
Here are those parts broken down:
Usually, this occurs just before the opening credits, but this is the hook of the story. For a murder mystery, this is the first victim that turns up (think of the jogger that finds a body in the woods trope). A continuity episode might drop a major revelation that propels the characters forward (“your father… he’s still alive!“) It might even introduce the villain right from the start.
Often, television shows are divided into four segments. Three of the segments further develop the adventure’s primary storyline, each usually ending with a cliffhanger; this is the body of the episode. The cliffhanger is a major revelation revealing an even bigger challenge. This could even be a twist: “the killer was actually the owner of the flower shop!”
The fourth segment builds to the climax in which the heroes solve (or don’t solve) the central problem. By this point, the characters know exactly what happened and must now work to prevent such an occurrence from happening again.
Remember Rule #1: Have Fun
If you decide to go with the Monster of the Week format, remember that you and your players are in no way restricted to this structure. Always do what’s best for your players and yourself. Ultimately, these rules are suggestions and aren’t limitations.
Some other things to remember:
- Characters die all the time. Ditto important NPCs. So be careful when centering a storyline around a particular character. At the very least, have a back-up plan if it happens. Sometimes, the death makes for a cool twist. How many of us thought that Robb Stark was an important part of Game of Thrones, right up until his death at the infamous red wedding?
- It’s okay to ignore the continuity. On the CW series, Supernatural, Dean literally went to Hell and saw some horrible things while he was there. That didn’t stop him from strapping on short shorts and knee-high socks and pretending to be a high school gym coach three episodes later.
- The players control the pace. Just because you envisioned your stand-alone adventure as a single session spectacle, doesn’t mean the characters will hit all the beats you expect them to. Let them run the game and adapt accordingly.
BroadSword is Coming!
The first issue of BroadSword Monthly will be out in just a few weeks. Be sure to grab a copy if you haven’t already. Currently, pre-orders get a 10% discount on the cover price.
The book will include 4 new adventures, new campaign settings, new monsters, new magic items, and more!