Posted on February 9, 2014 by Flames
Available at the Flames Rising RPGNow Shop
Monsterhearts should come with two warning stickers. The first is “Warning: This is a game for mature gamers and deals with adult themes.” It doesn’t have this because that sort of warning fits the Book of Erotic Fantasy rather than a genuinely mature take on the subject matter. It has lead to some of the most intense and immersive experiences I’ve ever had roleplaying, but I refuse to play it with my main tabletop roleplaying group.
The second is “Warning: This game can go into uncomfortable territory. Discuss expectations and respect boundaries.” It doesn’t have this, and Monsterhearts is the only game I’ve played that’s imploded when it has become clear that one player doesn’t know the meaning of the word “consent”. Better there than in real life.
So what is Monsterhearts? Monsterhearts is based on the Apocalypse World rules and claims to be about “The messy lives of teenage monsters”. What it actually is is a game based on the teen horror/romance genre that is written around two fundamental insights:
– Monsters are metaphors for real life problems This was true even before Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker.
– Teen supernatural drama and teen series in general are full of queer content. This even applies in something as innocent as Gilmore Girls.
“No. I mean, she’s actually evil. Not high school evil.” – Needy Lesnicky, Jennifer’s Body
All the PCs in Monsterhearts are teenage monsters, with their monstrous nature being a metaphor for teenage issues. Each monster type is handled by a “Skin”, the game’s equivalent of a character class, and there is an official rule that each PC must be a different type of monster.
Mechanically each skin is a type of monster with four stats and a collection of abilities (of which they get two or three to start). They each also have a “Darkest Self” that describes what the monster does under intense stress; this isn’t always a bad thing as there wouldn’t be much point playing a werewolf if you didn’t sometimes turn into a giant scary wolf-man. Each skin also has a “sex move” that automatically triggers when they have sex. This is a game about teenagers. Of course some of them have sex, and of course sex has emotional consequences. (Being pedantic, a couple of skins have sex moves that don’t require actual sex to trigger; the Fey merely requires you lie naked with another).
To take one of the more intense examples, the Ghost’s central issue is that they are traumatised; they died in traumatic circumstances and can’t move on. They have mechanical tools to project the blame for this on people (whether they were actually involved or not), and move more effectively against those they blame. The traumatised ghost can then be taken in several directions from finding sustenance in sadness through lashing out to share their pain to oscillating between blaming people and forgiving them, with mechanics to support all these paths of responding to trauma. In their Darkest Self they disappear, unable to be seen or heard until someone shows they want them around. An extremely elegant set of mechanics for handling a traumatised character, with the trauma itself being something no one has experienced, minimising the risk of triggering people.
The other skins are all as mechanically elegant, from the obsessive Bella Swan-inspired Mortal (whose sex move involves sending people into their Darkest Self) to the controlling Vampire (who triggers their sex move when they deny someone sexually) and secretive, vengeful Witch who steals sympathetic tokens used to cast spells. The only possible failure is the Buffy-based Chosen, driven by their hobby or calling, and requiring much more GM attention than most other skins. Perversely the Chosen also isn’t very good at Holding Steady when terrified.
“I am not really breaking any rules. Charlie said I could never take another step through the door again… I came in through the window… Still, the intent was clear,” – Edward, Twilight
Monsterhearts uses most of the same core mechanics as Apocalypse World, with the consequence that you normally get some of rather than all of what you want. When you try to do something challenging that’s relevant to the game (known as making a move) roll 2d6 and add your relevant stat from -1 to 3 (and occasionally another modifier) and consult the table for the move;
– On a 10+ you succeed – sometimes with a list of broad brush options of how you did so spectacularly.
– On a 7-9 you partially succeed, normally choosing which part of what you were trying goes wrong from a short list
– On a 6 or less it went horribly wrong, GM’s decision as to how.
Simple and easy to resolve – but far more important is the pacing of when you roll. Freeform roleplaying normally has a rhythm and triggers as to where you hand over narration (most notably when you are trying to do something to someone else) and the game mechanics follow this rhythm almost seamlessly. This minimises any disruption from rolling while the mechanics offer unexpected outcomes and partial successes, adding to the richness of the story in a way freeform roleplaying wouldn’t.
In the case of Monsterhearts, almost all the basic moves are purposely slightly messed up from Shutting Someone Down (i.e. bullying them or denying them) to Gazing Into The Abyss. This is intentional, representing how messed up teenagers are. After every few sessions there’s an opportunity to take a “Growing up move” like “Make someone feel beautiful” or “Call Someone on their Shit”. Many people try to, for instance, Call People on their Shit with the Shut Someone Down move – but it’s not terribly good at that, leading instead to retaliatory battles. Again, elegant, effective, not terribly subtle, and represents real character growth. Also there are purposely very few situations which the Lash Out Physically move actually improves.
There’s also a measure of inter-personal control in Monsterhearts called “Strings”. If someone’s somehow under your thumb you gain a string on them which can be spent to mess them up – or to offer them an XP to do something you want (which can have long term consequences). Strings are handed out in character creation to represent your past history with each other. In play the simplest and most common way to gain more is to “Turn Someone On” (a defined move which does exactly what it sounds like).
I get this ache… And I, I thought it was for sex, but it’s to tear everything to fucking pieces. – Ginger, Ginger Snaps
Turning on leads me into the other big theme of Monsterhearts – Queer Content. This central insight of Monsterhearts you explicitly do not get to decide what turns your character on; to quote Xander Harris “I’m 17. Looking at linoleum makes me wanna have sex.”
Your characters are coming of age and don’t understand themselves very well yet, let alone what turns them on – you discover that in the course of play and one of the rules of Monsterhearts is that you play to see what happens. The Ghoul can even take a move that means they roll to turn someone on whenever they tell them how they died – not something most people would declare would turn their character on.
Of course, just like in real life, you never have to do anything specific about being turned on (although if you do nothing about it you must give a string to the person turning you on) – but this does not give you any control about what turns you on. People don’t choose to have straight or gay characters; what happens happens. This is a level of uncertainty about your character that is simultaneously realistic, true to genre, and much more vulnerable than most RPGs leave the players.
Oz: We survived.
Buffy: It was a hell of a battle.
Oz: Not the battle. High School.
– Buffy and Oz, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
So that’s what it is. How does it play? Like most Apocalypse World based games it plays fast, and with absolutely minimal preparation, and it’s the most immersive game I’ve ever played. The first time I ever played Monsterhearts, I was playing a Queen, confident she knew exactly what was going on and utterly ignorant of the supernatural until the first session started. After finding that her best friend had just been bitten by a vampire, and pulling a ghost back from near-oblivion she decided to pull a kilogram bar of chocolate out of her backpack and Gaze into the Abyss or at least the porcelain bowl. This wasn’t something I planned, and I’ve never had an experience quite that intense in any other role playing game. Other games I’ve played have ranged from “Gossip Girl with fangs” to “The sexiest, bloodiest HBO Teen Series ever”. Always intense, always compelling. And never knowing what will happen or even quite who your character will turn out to be.
To sum up. If a game about pretending to be teenage monsters, and that’s full of terror, queer content, sex, blood, interpersonal drama, and awkwardly learning who you are while screwing up as you grow up sounds awesome I can’t recommend this highly enough. If not, there are plenty of other games on the market.
Presentation: 4/5; sparse and elegant. Small art budget as an indy game but well used
Writing: 4/5; clear and evocative, one mark deducted for lack of warnings
Thematic content: 5/5; Teen horror on the nail. I’ve never seen it done this well
Gameplay: 5/5; Fast, flowing, immersive, and inspiring
Overall: 5/5; It does what it does spectacularly well
Review by Francis Dickinson
Monsterhearts is available now in PDF format at the Flames Rising RPGNow Shop for $10.00.