17 August 2012

Monsterhearts

The tagline for Monsterhearts is "a story game about the messy lives of teenage monsters", and it pretty much delivers just that. Based on the Apocalypse World engine and inspired media such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Craft, Ginger Snaps, Jennifer's Body and Lost Boys, it is a big, sexy, dramatic, teenage mess. This is a dark game that travels all of the places your parents warned you about.

This is one of the projects that I backed and before I get into the game too much, there are some pretty great things that Buried Without Ceremony is doing in general. One of the milestones for the project was 5% of everything raised donated to Egale Canada's Human Rights Trust. This is pretty awesome to me and ties into the themes of the game which we will get into later. That is not the only thing they are doing to make the world better: a number of their titles are offered for purchase with the non-monetary currency of good deeds. The Monsterhearts pdf can be yours for picking up garbage for an hour at a local park and baking a dozen muffins for a family on your block. Amazing.

The system is very straightforward: you roll 2d6 and add your appropriate stat (Hot, Cold, Volatile and Dark). A result of 7-9 is a partial success: you get what you want, but there will likely be conditions. At 10+ the action complete success: you get what you want. Anything less than 7 is a failure and the GM will likely complicate your life. The GM does not roll dice, only the players. These stats don't do anything on their own, but to represent roughly your attractiveness and presence for Hot, composure and cunning for Cold, strength and speed for Volatile, and your connection to potentially sinister otherworldly elements.

Any action that you want to take that explicitly has repercussions for failure (like someone resisting or looking into the Abyss for answers) is represented by a Move. The Moves are explicit in what they do and what happens when you succeed. When you fail, the GM will get to make one of their Moves. How this plays: state your action and goal (i.e. where is this going), from there you and the GM will determine the best Move to represent what you are trying to accomplish. Every player character has the basic Moves (Turn Someone On, Manipulate an NPC, Shut Someone Down, Hold Steady, Lash Out Physically, Run Away and Gaze Into The Abyss) and probably some Moves specific to their character type (referred to as a Skin).


Turn Someone On and Manipulate an NPC are both based on Hot and do largely what you would think. The former applies when you are using your sex appeal to get something from someone, possibly future leverage. This is important in Monsterhearts, as a basic tenant is that you do not get to decide what turns you on. If a character successfully turns you on, then you are turned on. You get to decide how you react, but it still happened. This is a fairly direct and powerful way to explore some of the questions about sexuality when a teenager. Much like its predecessor Apocalypse World, Monsterhearts is very direct and powerful. Manipulate an NPC is what you use when you want something specifically.

Shut Someone Down and Hold Steady are both based on Cold and used for control in a situation. Shut Someone Down can remove leverage on you, or give you leverage on the target; it's also not nice - it's direct and obvious. Hold Steady allows you to gain (or regain) some advantage in a scene where things are not going well for you, but likely before things well and truly go sideways.

Lash Out Physically and Run Away are both based on Volatile. The consequence to violence from Lash Out Physically can be subtle in addition to the more vulgar results - those involved can often learn something about the person on the other end. Run Away is at the other end from Hold Steady an involves fleeing from rather than facing danger or confrontation. Success means you get away clean, though a partial success means you might not end up somewhere safe or make a scene; out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Gaze Into The Abyss is based on Dark and gives you visions that can be useful in some way. They can also be alarming. The specifics on how this Move functions is unique to each character: maybe a trance, communing with demons, or getting really high.

A major piece of in-game currency are Strings. Typically generated from Moves, they are attached to a particular character and represent your leverage over them. They can be spent in specific ways, such as giving bonuses or penalties, offering experience if they do what you want, or just generally making life more difficult. Against NPCs they are more powerful, but NPCs can also have strings against the players.

Each of the Skins has it's own character sheet (referred to as a Playbook) with everything you will need on it, including character creation, Skin specific Moves, advancement, etc. After five XP you will earn an advancement and select an option from the Advancements: increase a stat,  ake another Move of your Skin, take a Move from a different Skin, or join a gang (a group of your "kind" that will help you in need, but also place obligations on you). The Skins also have two other things unique to them: their Sex Move and Darkest Self. The Sex Move is a special Move that takes place after a period when things fade to black. They will often define a relationship in a new way and involve the exchanging of Strings.

The Darkest Self is the destructive part that every monster has deep inside (everyone is a monster here, even the Mortal) where all of your rage, bitterness and depression live. Your Darkest Self is most commonly brought out by Moves; possibly your's, another player's, or the GM's Move. It is not a good time to be around when they do. Every Darkest Self has an escape clause that will bring you out of it. For example, the Chosen must protect their friends at all costs and to do so will face down the biggest, strongest opponent head on, consequences be damned. To get out of this someone needs to come to your rescue, or you wake up in a hospital, whichever comes first.

Each of the Skins has two stats that they are good at (getting +1) and two that they are bad at (getting -1). The high stats for each Skin are listed below, with the unlisted stats being correspondingly low:

  • The Angel (special)
  • The Chosen (Hot, Volatile)
  • The Fae (Hot, Dark)
  • The Ghost (Cold, Dark)
  • The Ghoul (Volatile, Dark)
  • The Hollow (Volatile, Dark)
  • The Infernal (Volatile, Dark
  • The Mortal (Hot, Dark)
  • The Queen (Hot, Cold)
  • The Selkie (Cold, Dark)
  • The Serpentine (Hot, Cold)
  • The Vampire (Hot, Cold)
  • The Werewolf (Hot, Volatile)
  • The Witch (Cold, Dark)
When making a character you make some selections from your Playbook: an appropriate name (there are examples and guidelines - this is high teenage melodrama), look and eyes, origin, add +1 to one stat and choose one to two Moves from your list. Then you go through your backstory which will give you some Strings on the other characters and give them Strings on you. No one is truly an island in high school.

At the end of a Season, you earn a special advance: the season advance. These represent a major change that you go through during this downtime (ostensibly the time between seasons in a TV series). You can change your character's Skin, rewrite your Sex Move or Darkest Self, start a new character, or gain two Growing Up Moves. The Growing Up Moves (Make Someone Feel Beautiful, Call People On Their Shit, Intervene Against an Act of Violence and Share Your Pain) aren't more powerful, but they allow you to do something fundamentally different than the other Moves previously available: you can try to make things better. Through them you can start to rise above the petty things that dragged everyone down. This is really thought provoking to me and raises some questions about what it means to grow up.

The task for GMs in Monsterhearts is a very specific one. If you're familiar with Apocalypse World, it is very similar. If not, I don't want to wholly ruin it until you experience it. Essentially, there are principles that will guide how you do things. They do an excellent job of showing how and when to apply the Moves you have access to. Everything is built around making things messy and complicated for the characters. Nothing is safe and each action should increase the stakes and the drama, right up to the point that it explodes in a hot mess. A very important part of this is having the players dig their own graves. Generally speaking the tools they have at their disposal don't really solve problems in the long term, not until they grow up a little at least.

With all of this in mind, let's make a character. I'm going to make a Queen - they have a clique which does their bidding in a rather creepy way. You know the type and if you don't, watch Heathers (it's always a good time to watch Heathers, actually). I think that my Queen (King, in this case) is going to be the frontman for the most popular band in town - they're so close to getting signed, it's going to happen. From the list of names, I can choose Burton, Drake, Raymond, Reyes, Varun, or choose a lordly, cool-sounding, harsh-sounding, or name evoking leadership. Drake it is. For my look and eyes I go with stunning and brooding eyes. He's gorgeous and looks like he has a lot of very deep thoughts. Drake's origin is that he is the most dangerous person around. I'm not quite certain how yet, but I'm sure this plan cannot possibly go wrong. For his stats I add +1 to Cold, giving him a +2 total - he has a bassist and drummer to get into fights for him. Drake starts with The Clique Move, which gives him his gang, and they are one of the following: armed, connected, talented, or cultists. The band is clearly talented and will probably need a name, but I decide they are currently between names and going by "Drake". Looking at the other Moves that I can choose one from, I go with Sheild - when my gang is around, everyone acting against me is disadvantaged; they have my back! My backstory requires three NPCs from my band - Isaac, Taylor and Zac. I get a String on each of them. I also find someone threatening: I get two Strings on them and they get one on me. Drake is ready to run this school from his beat-up van with wall to wall shag carpet!

I really like this game and what it does: it's decadent and indulgent in all the right ways. With friends, this provides some amazingly tawdry fun. I have a particular weakness for supernatural high school drama, but only if they go down the darker roads and engage in more adult themes - which doesn't necessarily mean sex, but deconstructing what it means to be a confused teenager. It's about making terrible decisions while being fully aware that they are terrible and will have serious consequences, but not really being able to comprehend or care. The major weakness for me with Monsterhearts is that I don't think I could play this kind of game with just anyone. The level of trust I need to really explore this game is fairly high. There is a lot of comfort required for these themes.