RPG Review: Monsterhearts
Monsterhearts is a game of “the messy lives of teenage monsters,” where 2-4 players play a coterie of youthsome witches, vampires, fairies and so forth, who go to the same school. A final player’s job is simply to “make their lives interesting.” Which, as we found out, is the easiest job in gaming.
Leigh: Saying we “play as” monsters is only part of the story, isn’t it? The monster identity of each teenage character is as much allegorical as anything else. Or, rather, the particular traits, strengths, failings of these creatures as they’re prescribed by folklore have quite a lot in common with the stuff of growing-up drama. The Ghost who lurks at the edges, feeling invisible. The Werewolf afraid of the power in her dark side, the Vampire who can’t stop using others.
Quinns: Yes. It’s a metaphor! Except it’s… not?
Leigh: No, no, allegory. The characters really are monsters, except uh…
Quinns: Except aren’t all teenagers monsters? ANYWAY I’m so fascinated by this as a piece of game design. By playing a character who’s a monster and a teenager you’ll always slot into whatever’s most natural in a given scene. In one moment, you might find yourself acting the part of a true night-terror. In another, you’ll be trembling and vulnerable.
Leigh: It’s a particularly piquant role-playing exercise, as once you choose your character class the fun and challenge lies in drawing a young person for whom it reasonably makes sense to have certain urges and darknesses, unmet needs. Monsters act out in intense ways when their needs aren’t met, and sometimes teens do too.
Quinns: Fittingly for a game about teenagers, I’m expecting to do a lot of gushing during this review, but if I had to pick one scrap of game design from Monsterhearts’ manual that I’m in love with, it’d be the fact that there is not story. Or rather, the story is the players themselves.
Just about every roleplaying game I’ve tried sees the “games master” player prescribing an adventure to everyone else like so much medication. Monsterhearts, instead, wants you to keep the story “feral”, alive, and not simply constrained to one person’s head. The GM’s role is simply to set scenes, then snap them shut when they’ve run their course. And I had an absolutely incredible time doing this. I was the the director and audience all at once.
And like I say, it was so easy. During character creation the tiny amount of groundwork everyone has to do, deciding their characters backstory, had incredible consequences. In our game, Dan had to pick two characters for his Fallen Angel archetype: One who reminded him of heaven, and another who God liked better than him. Once you’ve done that for everyone’s monsters, the moment you start, the story’s like a rocket leaving a launchpad. You’re all just so… monstrous.
Leigh: Dan had to pick two characters for his Angel’s backstory (and I, as a Ghost, had to decide on one character who knew the circumstances of my death) because of the Strings system, an interesting social leverage mechanic that sees characters gain either additional power over or vulnerability to one another. You can use your strings like hit points, right?
Quinns: Yesss. The string system is one of the many touches that means Monsterhearts simulates teenagers and not just monsters (or adults), giving what was already a refreshing take on storytelling a unique dimension.
Every monster player starts the game with strings on other players, representing pathetic wads of social currency. They fancy you, you know something about them, they owe you a favour. And these strings can be spent causing extra damage when you’re fighting them, adding to or reducing their dice rolls, or even sweetening your request that they do something with an experience point.
Leigh: You’re right, though. It’s easy. I told you last time we talked about roleplaying games that I’d been bored by the idea of Mr. Dungeon Master letting me know how many chests were in the room and how many liches there were between me and the chests, but you steered our story pretty gracefully, thanks to a system that basically wants the characters to have as many chances as possible to be themselves. So we had Kieron’s character nearly murder a man with a sausage and try to set the woods on fire, and Paul biting off a little more than he could chew with our teacher, Mr. Stephens. And me monologuing. But only a little.
Quinns: But only a little. So we’ve been pitching indie RPGs as an alternative to the traditional perception of roleplaying. They’re less about levelling up and raiding chests for magical trousers. BUT, but, I have a feeling that Monsterhearts’ systems (which are mostly drawn from another RPG called Apocalypse World) strike balance between these two extremes- the idea that roleplaying games have to either be about swords or Emotions.
Leigh: Yes, there was definitely more ‘game’ there than with Shooting the Moon, which was very loose. Not that I’m complaining. Kept things exciting as we were playing with five people. Gave stakes. Not like, through-the-heart stakes, but you know what kind.
Quinns: Right. So here we have a game with love, but also with fighting and death. A game with sex, and experience points. And it all just works! Nevermind these indie RPGs being the perfect gateway into roleplaying. I feel like Monsterhearts is the perfect gateway out of D&D campaigns, and into something more adult.
And as a game, the ultimate road-test of Monsterhearts’ systems came with Kieron, who was playing an Infernal, someone’s who’s signed a pact with a dark power, starting to–
Leigh: GET TO THE SEX
Quinns: IN A MINUTE so Kieron learned that he could gain experience points in almost every scene. He started doing so. This rapidly led to his character being expelled from school and lying sedated in hospital, but it didn’t break the game.
Instead, we had an incredible scene where Kieron cashed in his experience points and gave strings to his dark god to snap out of his bindings, heal his broken ribs, and go sprinting off into the forest. By the end of the evening he had become the story’s loveable villain, with such awesome scenes as his arson being stymied by his realisation that he didn’t have the £20 to buy a can of gasoline. In treating the story with what in any other RPG would be a mad disregard for politeness, he just made the story better.
Leigh: If Kieron of all people didn’t break the game, then I figure it works.
Quinns: Right. Shall we draw a summoning circle and invoke Paul?
Leigh: Chalk and wax at the ready. Hi, Paul! GET TO THE SEX.
Paul: Oh, I’ve been summoned again. THAT HURTS EVERY TIME.
So what I think’s so interesting is that we sat down with what is essentially a supernatural soap opera where the GM isn’t so much a games master any more than they are simply a director who pushes you in certain directions. I felt like this was a pretty strongly player-led game and immediately we got off on being mean to each other. It actually took us… a little while to get to any sex. Though can I just toss (!) that question back at you and ask: how much of the appeal of this game, for you guys, was that mature theme of sex, of danger and whatnot? Then I’ll get to the sex. I promise.
Leigh: I think if we’re supposed to believe in a world where hormones are raging and inner darkness abounds, it would be implausible for anyone to suddenly PG-13 it, you know? I work in video games. I am all too accustomed to them bungling sex. I think lots of us were so excited by the idea that our creepy characters could Do It that it added a sort of interesting electricity. Paul, tell us about your character and his experience, as it was one of the defining moments at the table for me.
Quinns: Yes! No more coyness, like on the podcast. Let’s give the people what they… Deserve? No. Want? No. Well, they’re getting it anyway.
Paul: WELL. I think Leigh makes an interesting point. This was a game that boiled and simmered towards a… steamy situation? Possibly partly because I’m suddenly roleplaying a very mature game with five people and only one of those is someone I’ve played with before. But you’re right that the climate of the game didn’t bungle that build up, and it though this is a game that can be about sex, it’s not necessarily sexy. Because sex isn’t always a good thing.
Leigh: LIES okay nevermind I’m listening
Paul: So my character, with his terrible (and rather open) crush on his teacher, finally managed to manipulate that poor, brow-beaten man into a situation where it’s him, the teacher, with him, the young and dashing and self-absorbed and slightly magical pupil, alone in a house together. What this character thought he was working towards was a realisation of one of his teen fantasies, but as things came to pass, this already rather dark, slightly sinister situation just got worse. It didn’t pan out the way he’d imagined it and, perhaps as all too many teenagers find out, the reality of a sexual situation might be a lot worse than the fantasy. My character got to seduce his teacher and that beautifully crystalline fantasy shattered like a falling chandelier. Now there are a lot of pieces to be picked up.
Quinns: Which is another rule I love. If a player ever fails a roll (in your case, the roll to Turn On Mr. Stephens) the GM is encouraged to immediately pull a “hard move” from a list, which effortlessly keeps the story rolling. One is that it works, but they pay a price. Another is that the reverse occurs. One of which, in the best teenage style, is that you were far more successful than you hoped for.
And if nobody else is going to say it, then I will! And in your case this led to Mr. Stephens… urgh, I can’t even bring myself to type it, even though I ACTED THIS OUT WITH YOU.
Paul: Well, when you say “acted”…
Leigh: Oh, man. I am going to have to help out you two English men, aren’t I. So one sad, complex part of a growing-up story is when we learn that adults have their own heavy burdens, their own twisted things inside of them, some of them larger than us. Mr. Stephens did eventually give in to the urge that Paul’s character, Dani, had stoked in him. And it was a big, painful adult kind of thing that probably Dani wasn’t ready for. Because of course it’s wrong for a teacher to be with a young student in that way. It was a lot of wrongness, real, sad stuff.
On a lighter note, Kieron slept with my character, Alice, who has no true friends and is dead, in order to get a cell phone. How about that.
Paul: And then what did he do with that phone?
Leigh: He sacrificed it to his Infernal god.
Quinns: We’ve all been there.
Leigh: I mean. It wasn’t as bad as all that. We shared secrets after. God, I’m like a diary-scribbling high school girl all over again, buying into all of this “but he’s really a good guy even though he stole my cell phone.” I mean. That never happened to me. Not exactly. AHEM I should say the sharing-secrets thing is the Ghost’s “sex power.” We all have one. Mine is that if you get it on with me, you have to tell me something no one else knows, and you can ask me anything you want. The sex powers are all so interesting, it encourages that kind of interaction within the game. It wants you to go to those dark places.
Paul: So, for all its teenagering, this is actually a really very mature game, isn’t it? Not simply mature as in “Tag with M,” but the concepts it plays with, the implications, the themes. I’m not sure this is actually a game I’d recommend for teenagers, but it was strangely fascinating and, even though we played just one very dark session, it was already becoming complicated. What do you guys think of it, now that we’re looking back with a fortnight’s worth of perspective?
Leigh: I just want to know when we’re going to play again. I keep thinking about Metatron, Dani, Alice, Mara and… Kieron… uh… oh, yeah, his name is Luther, not Kieron. Seriously, incredibly fun time, especially if you’re playing with people who are comfortable with themselves and, ideally, you.
Paul: And that’s a very good point, isn’t it? This is a world away from bashing some dragons in The Temple of the Moon God.
Quinns: YOU SAID YOU LOVED THAT ADVENTURE. But yes, as much as I’ve been pinwheeling my arms in this review about the systems present in Monsterhearts, what’s more important is that I think it’s the most fun I’ve had gaming this year. If you’ve got the melodramatic friends, this game will give you the time of your life.
Leigh: Or your DEATH. OooOOoooo * ghost fade *
More information on Monsterhearts, as well as the print copy and .pdf, can be found right here.