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Monkey: The Storytelling Game of the Journey to the West

By Ian Warner

Introduction

To say the Monkey Roleplaying Game was hotly anticipated is something of an understatement. Frequenters of the Mongoose forums will be aware of the 100+ page thread begging for a Monkey Roleplaying Game. Well your request has finally been answered but not by Mongoose. D101 Games is a small outfit much like Postmortem and it is they who have published this long sought after Holy Grail of Roleplaying Games. Something of a coup that is sure to do well for them. Curses! Beaten to it! Ahem…. anyway here is my totally unbiased review of Monkey: The Storytelling Game of the Journey to the West.

Background

A lot of adaptation games make the assumption that you intimately know the background of the source material right from the start. Monkey is not one of those games. The hand-holding and detailed guide to the game world may irritate hardcore Monkey fans but it makes the game accessible to all. I personally had only heard of the Monkey story in passing so the background as presented was extremely useful to visualising the world of mythical Tang China from the point of view of the game’s protagonists.

Monkey makes a big assumption in what kind of characters you want to play. The default is that your character is one of 5 types of minor immortal who has been cast out of heaven for some terrible crime. This may seem a bit limiting but it is no different than having to play a god’s child in Scion or a Vampire in Requiem. Major Immortals all work in perfect harmony making them boring to play and Mortals are bit parts in this particular brand of Mythic Fantasy. 5 “classes” may also seem a little too few but honestly I can’t think of any more that would fit. Pretty much all the main characters in the myth can be matched up to one of the 5 archetypes presented. I shall discuss characters further in the Mechanics section.

The main part of background material is the World of Monkey chapter. This describes the main areas of the game’s cosmology and gives sample characters you may encounter in each. This section’s layout reminded me of the equally excellent Dead Domains in Geist. Essentially it’s a very utilitarian approach to conveying the background. This may not suit the more artsy gamers out there but it works especially well for me as I like being able to pick up and play.

Overall the background material is effective at conveying the basics of the setting for you to develop. It may well be hand holding for the die-hard Monkey fan but it is helpful to the rest of us.

Mechanics

Those of you who like complex rules and tables for everything this game is definitely not for you. Everything is simplified to the extreme with 2 action types covering everything from Kung Fu showdowns to heated debates.

So what dice does it use? That’s a beautiful thing about this game there are no dice. Instead a deck of playing cards is used for the randomiser. I’ve seen games using cards before but never quite like this. Savage Worlds has them for Initiative and a few colourful tables, Mind’s Eye Theatre uses a 1-10 card pull (though I always use a single D10 in a transparent shaker) but Monkey is unique in what I have seen.

At its most basic the system is as follows. The player draws a number of cards equal to his most relevant skill and chooses whether to go for a Yin (red card, active) or a Yang (black card, passive) action. Once chosen and modified this action hand is played with a bit of player narration (you get a free draw if your narration is particularly entertaining.) The Narrator then draws some cards for the opposing force or character in the same way. The winner succeeds in either completing the action or opposing the action. In combat (social, mental or physical same system) the winner gains a Strike against his opponent. Player characters and big bosses have 3 strikes, supporting characters 2 and extras 1. Once you run out of strikes you are out of action. Being Immortals this isn’t much of an issue as you simply take some time to regain your strength. That’s right a game system without death: doesn’t that make all you multiple total party killers breathe a sigh of relief?

There is a bit more to the system than the basics.

Attitudes give bonuses draws to actions that match them. This is particularly important to Animal Spirits who start with fewer Skills than the others but can double the Attitude bonus when using one of two preselected Attitudes.

Magical Powers are almost totally freeform with one important guideline. They all have a Limitation. A critical flaw that limits their utility. All Immortals start with Fly  and Shape Change at level 1 and may add points of powers or magic items of their own making or improve the two basics.

Fortune serves the dual purpose of the “Hero Point” stat and the experience system. It allows you to store a number of discarded cards equal to the number of points you have currently as well as providing the ability to raise Skills, alter the plot to your favour and steal the scene. The latter uses involve burning the capacity of your Fortune Hand though.

Virtue is a morality stat. You gain points for moral feats and lose them for sins. Once you have reached 6 points (or 60 points in an Epic game) you have redeemed yourself and got back into Heaven.

Overall the mechanics are simple and sound. It is a very rules light system and that may count against it for some people but personally I find it refreshing to have such little emphasis on rules and greater emphasis on story.

Atmosphere

The tone of the book is conversational and light hearted and that pretty much sums up its approach to the source material as well. Serious gamers looking for an in depth discussion on Eastern Philosophy and Mythology needn’t apply, though fans of silly chop-socky, like me, ought to find it very entertaining.

Artwork

This is the one disappointment with the book. Apart from the awesome cover by Jon Hodgson the rest of the artwork is public domain clipart. I understand keeping your overheads down and all that but really a Roleplaying Game should have at least some original artwork.

Conclusion

Monkey is a sound game that looks a lot of fun and is true to the spirit of its source material.

No assumptions are made about Player knowledge of the setting giving us a complete game world to set to work in. At the same time it doesn’t waffle giving the reader just enough material to launch off their own ideas from without preaching what the game should be like and setting too much in stone.

The system is extremely rules light which may not be to everyone’s taste but the emphasis on narration with system mechanics to back it up makes for a very story driven game. There is no need for pages of weapon stats when you can just describe smashing your nun chucks into your opponent’s skull.

The tone is light hearted and doesn’t take itself seriously at all. Again this may not to be everyone’s taste but it makes the book an entertaining read which helps when inevitably you read and reread to familiarise yourself with the system before starting your game.

The artwork was a disappointment but I understand the reasoning behind the cop out even if I don’t agree with it.

In conclusion Monkey is a great casual game to pick up and play for a good laugh. How it will work over a protracted campaign I have no idea but I wouldn’t mind finding out even if it did mean disaster. Anyway how can chop-socky Mythic Fantasy go too horribly wrong?

Score

Style: 5

Substance: 4

Overall: 4.5

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