Monsterhearts by Ratpick
|3||Playing the Game|
|4||Still Playing the Game|
|18||The Serpentine, supplemental|
|19||Being the MC: Part 1|
|20||Being the MC: Part 2|
|21||Teaching & Running the Game|
OverviewOriginal SA post
As I promised in last month's chat thread and owing to the fact that I've finally got some free time on my hands, it's time for some Monsterhearts.
Monsterhearts is a game "about the messy lives of teenage monsters" designed by Joe McDaldno, whom you might know better as the designer of The Quiet Year. What started as a joke about running Twilight using the Apocalypse World system spun off into a unique take on the Powered by the Apocalypse system with completely new mechanics and themes, written in an easy-to-read style and with the explicit goal of being friendly to players of all sexual orientations without having an implicitly heteronormative undercurrent.
The genre of Monsterhearts is supernatural teenage romance, with Twilight and the Vampire Diaries being obvious sources of inspiration, but the game draws very broadly from the genre of "teenage drama with monsters and/or the supernatural," with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Carrie, The Craft, Lost Boys and Roswell also being obvious inspirations. Basically, you play teenage vampires, witches, werewolves, and even mortals who have to deal with petty high school politics, alienation, raging hormones, and not quite fitting in. As is standard for this genre, while the characters are literally monsters, it's all very symbolic. More on this later.
Now, I'll be the first to say that I'm not a huge fan of this genre of media. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is obviously a great show, but outside of that I'm really lukewarm to the "monsters as a metaphor for teenage problems" genre. That said, Monsterhearts is one of my absolute favorite games ever, probably for reasons similar to those McDaldno outlines in the introduction to the game:
And let’s be honest. You play because you have a guilty attraction to supernatural beasts and harlequin love stories, but you harbour the secret presumption that you could write them way better yourself. Good. This is your opportunity to prove it.
Even if you're like me and not a huge fan of supernatural teenage romance, Monsterhearts is a great game to look at for a number of reasons: it's got a very clear theme coupled with mechanics that support said theme, it has a very mature treatment of gender and sexuality unprecedented in RPG writing, and, let's be honest, it's just fun to play a teenage werewolf harboring a secret crush on the school's star quarterback, who is actually chosen by some higher power to protect humanity from monsters yet doesn't realize that the girl he's got his eyes set on has got a demon at the back of her head making bargains for power with her.
The game begins with the traditional "what is role playing" spiel, but in Monsterhearts' case it's very brief and doesn't dwell too long on explaining itself. What we get is an explanation of the game's main themes, the game's focus on emergent narrative (or as the game refers to it, "keeping the story feral") and the fact that the game's got rules that sometimes step in between to negotiate what happens in the narrative for you. After that we get a brief rundown of the sort of stuff you need to actually play this game, including dice (you only need two six-sided dice), pencils, the Skins (or character sheets) and other booklets (all available to download on Buried Without Ceremony's website !).
Next time, Chapter One, Character Creation . Or Chapter Two, Playing The Game . Thing is, the game does one of those weird things where it first goes through the character creation process, but the available character types (or Skins) are only presented two chapters later. Since I thought it might be nice to make some sample characters, it'd make sense to go through Character Creation and the Skins at the same time. Or not. I don't know.
Creating CharactersOriginal SA post
Hey guys, you ready for some more Monsterhearts? No? Too bad.
Chapter One: Creating Characters
Following the game's introduction, Monsterhearts gets right down to character creation, giving you a nice check-list for creating characters. Beyond that, the first chapter also contains an explanation of the game's four main stats as well as some choice advice on how to get your players in the mood for supernatural teenage romance.
The first, and most important, step of character creation is Choosing a Skin . Everyone except the MC (Oh yeah, that's a thing: like in Apocalypse World, the GM is called the Master of Ceremonies.) picks a Skin for their character, and each of the Skins represents a different monstrous trope from teenage horror. The Skins are, in order, The Chosen, The Fae, The Ghost, The Ghoul, The Infernal, The Mortal, The Queen, The Vampire, The Werewolf, and The Witch.
What the game suggests you do when creating characters is for the MC to divide up the Skins evenly amongst all the players (including the MC) and then have the players, in order, present the Skins. Each of the Skins has a short two-paragraph long blurb written in the kind of prose you find in supernatural romance and in all the fanfiction thereof, and each of the players should take turns to read those blurbs in the most melodramatic voice possible. This is a really important step. Not only is it fun to read the overwrought purple prose in a funny faux gothic voice, it also gets the players in the mood of the game. Monsterhearts is a game about overblown emotions and melodrama, and the sooner the players get into that mindset the better. Do not skip this step. Trust me.
(As an aside, having played Monsterhearts a couple of times I now sort of wish that Dungeon World, my other favorite PbtA game, had gone for a character sheet format that could've fit the flavor text on it. Anyone who owns Dungeon World knows that each of the classes has a short one-to-two paragraph long blurb about that class, and I personally think that the step of reading these blurbs out loud is a really fun one and really sets the mood for the game. Obviously it'd have to be modified for Dungeon World: instead of reading the class blurb in the most melodramatic voice, you'd read them in the most cheesy 80s Swords and Sorcery movie narrator voice or something that best fits said class.)
After this the players each choose the Skin that appeals to them the most. It's okay for them to look at the rules text of each Skin, but it's not necessary: players should just choose the Skin that speaks to them the most based on the image on the Skin and the flavor text. If two players are interested in playing the same Skin it's recommended that they reach some sort of compromise, because like a lot of PbtA games Monsterhearts is built around the assumption that there be only one of each character type in the group. That said, if there happens to be a photocopier handy and the players are insistent on playing the same Skin, it's okay.
After Skins have been chosen, it's time to pick your Name, Look and Origin . These three things are usually something of an after-thought in lots of RPGs, which have you craft your character's stats and abilities first and only then go "Oh, and you should probably name your character too, and describe their look, and tell us a bit about them."
In traditional PbtA style, each Skin comes with a list of suggested names. If none of them strike your fancy, each Skin also has a few guidelines for coming up with a name that fits that Skin. For an example, here's the Werewolf's Name guidelines:
Cassidy, Candika, Flinch, Levi, Margot, Lorrie, Luna, Peter, Tucker, Zachary
A trailer park name, a tough name, a name that evokes the full moon, a primal name
The next step, your Look, allows no painting outside the borders. In Monsterhearts two things make up your look: your character's appearance at a glance, and your character's eyes. Eyes are really important in the genre that Monsterhearts emulates, so it's important that they be given their own space on your character sheet. For a taste, here's the Vampire's Look options:
intense, aloof, pale, predatory, smoldering, old-fashioned
dead eyes, hungry eyes, thirsty eyes, lusty eyes, pained eyes
Finally, it's time to choose your Origin. Origins are pretty much a short description of your character's background. In the case of the Witch it describes what kind of magical tradition you come from, while for the Ghoul it describes how you were brought back to life. For the Ghost , it describes how you died!
Murdered in cold blood, murdered in hot passion, left to die, tragic accident, a confused death
To be fair, the Ghost is the most of the Skins in the game.
Stats ! Monsterhearts has four stats, which are Hot , Cold , Volatile and Dark , and here once again I find that it's better to just quote the book instead of trying to explain them myself.
Hot means fucking gorgeous, alluring, exciting, smokin’, someone you can’t stop thinking about, magnetic.
Cold means stone-cold, calculating, collected, unwavering, frigid, able to be cruel and merciless, able to keep their wits about them, obstinate.
Volatile means impulsive, wild, feral, quick-tempered, quick to fight or flight, aggressive, unpredictable, a basket-case, sudden.
Dark means weird, mysterious, sinister, dabbling in the occult, comfortable in darkness, able to liaise with otherworldly forces, powerful.
Two of your stats start at -1 and the other two start at 1, the exact spread being determined by your Skin. Someone's made an image explaining the Stat combinations for Monsterhearts, which is pretty sweet of them:
For an example, The Ghoul's high stats are Cold and Volatile. Going by our list of adjectives we can see that the Ghoul is cold and calculating, but also aggressive and unpredictable, so basically a murderous sociopath.
You also get to increase one of your Stats by one. While it can be worth it to increase one of your lower stats by one (all the way to zero) I personally think that it's best to focus on one of your strengths. That said, Monsterhearts isn't exactly a math-heavy game and your character will probably do just fine with those two +1's. The game suggests that you glance at the basic moves and the moves granted by your Skin and figure out what you want to be doing the most, and then to focus on that.
Then there's Picking Moves . Each character has access to the list of basic moves, in addition to which each Skin has their own unique set of moves. Some of these are mandatory for characters of that Skin (the Ghoul always starts with The Hunger, the Infernal always starts with Soul Debt and two bargains with their Dark Power, and the Witch starts with Sympathetic Tokens and Hex-Casting), and might require further choices to be made as part of them (the Ghoul has to choose the exact nature of their Hunger, the Infernal needs to name their Dark Power and choose a title for them, and so on), but beyond those you generally get to choose one or two more moves from your class list. To once again go back to the Ghost, the Ghost starts with the following move and gets to choose one more:
Whenever you project the blame and trauma of your death onto your current situation, roll with dark. On a 10 up, give two people the blamed condition. On a 7-9, give up to two people the blamed condition, but for each, choose one:
- You gain the delusional condition,
- You can’t speak during this scene,
- You suffer one harm,
- You start re-enacting the scene of your death.
Oddly enough, the character creation checklist lists Sex Moves & Darkest Selves as the next step, even though there are no decisions to be made there. I guess this is just there to remind players that their characters also have those.
Sex Moves are the same as Specials in Apocalypse World, i.e. moves that trigger when two characters have sex, or don't, or something. The Sex Moves aren't really about the act of sex, they're about the emotional consequences of sex. As in most games that feature romantic or sexual content, the general assumption is that when sex happens the scene fades to black and resumes at the moment of post-coital snuggling. This is also when the Sex Moves trigger. We'll get back to those once we get to chapter three.
Darkest Selves also require a bit of explanation: each Skin has a Darkest Self, which is basically a description of what that character does when they give into their most base and monstrous nature. There are a number of ways for your Darkest Self to trigger, and when it does you're expected to act it out, as if going off from a script written on your character sheet. Each Darkest Self is unique to their Skin and basically represents that Skin at their most monstrous: the Werewolf becomes a wolf-man-beast bent on destruction and subjugation, the Vampire becomes a predator that preys on the weak, the Ghoul gives into their hunger, stopping at nothing to satisfy it, and the Mortal lashes out at everyone and anyone, whether human or mortal, to get revenge for nobody understanding them. (Insert quip about Man being the real Monster here.)
Finally, there's Your Backstory , which is your source of Strings. I'll explain Strings in more detail in the next update, but for a quick and dirty summary: Strings are a meta-game resource that represent your emotional leverage on other characters, and expending strings for various effects is the heart of Monsterhearts' social interaction mechanic.
Anyway, each Skin has their own unique Backstory, which each player needs to go through together with the rest of the players at the start of the game. Before this, however, players must introduce their characters to each other, so that each of the players knows of potential drama that could spring between their characters. The players can go in whatever order they wish, but if there's a Mortal in the group they need to go last. Why? Because the Mortal gets to choose their Lover, and it's of great importance that the Mortal's player knows each of the characters and their relationships before they choose who their monster boy-toy is going to be.
For an example, here's the Ghoul's Backstory:
Someone reminded you what love was, when you thought that death had stolen it away from you forever. Give them 2 Strings.
Did anyone watch you die, or watch you come back to life? If so, you both gain 2 Strings on each other.
In general, you want to hold as many Strings on other characters as possible and have them hold as few Strings on you as possible, although some Skins actually have moves which allow them to benefit from having Strings held on them, including the Mortal that thrives on being codependent.
The final two steps of character creation is What You Start With and Objectives . The first simply says that the group should establish together what each of the characters owns, but also states that unless it's really important to the characters those sorts of details should be left to emerge from the narrative. Objectives is basically a reminder that Monsterhearts doesn't have a set endgame, and thus you shouldn't plan your character's story or development beforehand. It's more fun when you just throw your character into a situation and then see how they would react instead of having already decided what their story should be.
Next time, Chapter Two: Playing the Game , where we explain the basics of the PbtA system for the nteenth time and finally find out what you can do with Strings.
Playing the GameOriginal SA post
Alright, before we jump into the real meat of the game (being the Skins) we still have Chapter Two: Playing The Game to brave through!
Playing Monsterhearts works pretty much like in Apocalypse World and its derivatives: the players narrate what their characters are doing and saying, while the MC sets up scenes, narrates what the various other characters in the narrative are saying and doing, what else is going on, and is in a constant dialogue with the players to flesh out the scenes and to keep the story moving. The rules step in when a player narrates their character doing something that falls under the one of the moves .
Moves are pretty much the backbone of any PbtA game: the choice of which things to codify into the rules as moves speaks a lot of the themes of the game as well as where the focus of the game lies. For an example, because Dungeon World is pretty much about exploring the lives and times of fantasy heroes, of course there's a move for throwing a huge party when you return from your latest adventure triumphant, sacks full of gold, whereas such a move would feel really out of place in Apocalypse World, where scarcity is one of the major setting elements.
When a move happens, the player rolls two six-sided dice and adds their relevant stat to the result. As a general rule, the scale of results is as follows:
If you roll a 6 or lower, your character fails at what they were trying to do and the MC gets to introduce a complication into the situation.
If you get a result from 7 to 9, your character succeeds, but it comes with a cost: either you get a worse outcome than you were looking for, your action has unexpected consequences, or you otherwise put yourself in trouble or on the spot.
If you get a result of 10 or higher, your character succeeds, no problem.
Monsterhearts does differ from other PbtA games to an extent in this regard: a 7-9 means that you succeed, sometimes with consequences, while 10+ in general means that you succeed with a little something extra.
That's the general rule. Each of the game's moves has their own outcomes coded into the 7-9 and 10+ results. Results of 6- are not codified on a move-by-move basis; instead, the MC throws something at the player depending on what exactly is going on in the narrative at the given moment. The idea is that even on a 6- something should happen, so that failure isn't just "You fail, and thus nothing interesting was achieved."
So, anyway, moves! As a quick reminder, the four stats of Monsterhearts are Hot , Cold , Volatile and Dark , and the moves are as follows (with their governing stats in brackets):
Turn Someone On (Hot) - This move is explicitly about sexual manipulation and seduction. Unlike the other moves, which explicitly trigger when your character does a thing, this move can be triggered without the character actually doing anything at all. Instead, to trigger this move a player gets to step outside of the traditional actor or director mode and instead describe their character as if they were an author. The key thing in triggering this move is to describe how your character looks and why that would get a rise out of their target. This being a very melodramatic game, descriptions of your character's bare chest glistening with sweat, silhouetted by the pale moonlight, a playful twinkle in their eyes, their brow furtively curved... I'm sorry, where was I?
Anyway, on a 10+ you get a String on the character you were trying to turn on. On a 7-9, your target gets a choice between the following three: give themselves to you, promise you something they think you want, or give you a String on them. I haven't explained Strings yet, but the important thing to note here is that seduction isn't mind control: while the player has no control over whether their character is turned on by someone, the player is free to decide whether they want to act on that emotion. There's also an explicit note that turning someone on doesn't care for sexuality, because teenage sexuality is messy and unpredictable, and that instead of getting angry when a dude turns on your dude character conflicts with your perception of your character as a straight dude you should use that to fuel further drama: your dude got turned on by another dude this one time, but what does it mean? Is your character secretly in the closet, or was this a one-time thing? How does your character feel about it?
Manipulate An NPC (Hot) - This move does exactly what it says on the tin: when you try to get a non-player character to do something, this move happens. On a 10+ they'll do what you want if you present them with a bribe, threat, or motive. On a 7-9 the MC will tell you what it'll take to get them to do what they want.
Shut Someone Down (Cold) - The move for intimidating people, hurting their feelings, and humiliating them. On a 10+ you get to choose between giving them a Condition (which I'll explain later), or making them lose a String they hold on you; if you choose the latter and they don't have any Strings on you, you instead gain a String on them. On a 7-9 you either both give each other a Condition or both lose a String on each other.
Hold Steady (Cold) - Another exception to the rule that moves are triggered through character actions, this move generally triggers as a result of external stimuli. When your character finds themselves in a scary or stressful situation they might have to hold steady . On a 10+ you keep your cool and get an additional goodie: ask the MC one question about the current scene, remove a
Condition, or carry 1 forward. What's carrying forward? Well, whenever you carry forward it means that you get a +1 to your next roll. That's it.
On a 7-9 you still keep your cool, but you can also choose to voluntarily take the terrified condition to pick one of the extra options from the 10+ list. So, if you really wanted to know something about the scene at hand but only rolled a 7-9, you could take the frightened condition to ask the MC that question.
Lash Out Physically (Volatile) - When you seriously try to hurt someone you roll this move. On a 10+ you deal harm (generally 1 harm if you're just attacking them with your fists) and get to choose one: the harm is great (deal 1 extra harm), gain a String on them, they'll need to hold steady to retaliate in this scene. On a 7-9 you still deal them harm, but you have to choose between giving them a String on you, letting them deal you 1 harm, or becoming your Darkest Self. You should always become your Darkest Self.
Because Monsterhearts is mainly about interpersonal drama and because the use of violence and how a person reacts to it says a lot about a person it only makes sense that the game's only fight-move would involve the exchange of social leverage in the form of Strings.
Run Away (Volatile) - When you need to get out fast you roll this move. Also, if a situation would call for you to hold steady you can instead opt to just flee and roll this move. On a 10+ you get away and end up in a safe place. On a 7-9 you get away, but you either cause a big scene, you run directly into something else, or the scariest person present gets a String on you.
Gaze into the Abyss (Dark) - The only basic move that uses Dark, gazing into the abyss is basically a form of supernatural sight available to all Monsterhearts characters. The exact trigger for the move should be different on a character-by-character basis: a Witch might gaze into the abyss by various forms of divination, including Tarot and such, an Infernal might ask for advice from the demonic voice at the back of their head, and a Mortal might put on The Cure's Pornography and look for hidden meaning in the lyrics. (This is actually what the Mortal in my group did.) However the character does it, it always involves getting high, blacking out and/or slipping into a dark consciousness. Remember Cordelia's ability to see the future in Angel? Yeah, she was totally gazing into the abyss .
On a 10+ you get to choose two: the visions are lucid and detailed; the visions show you what you must do, and you carry 1 forward to doing it; the visions cure you, removing a Condition. On a 7-9 you get to choose one of the following: the visions are confusing and alarming; the visions are lucid and detailed but they leave you with the Condition drained .
Unfortunately, that's all the time I have for this update. Next time I'll try to write up the rest of Chapter Two so we can finally move on to the Skins.
Still Playing the GameOriginal SA post
Last time on Monsterhearts I got started on the second chapter of the game, Playing The Game , and today I hope to go through the rest of the chapter so I can finally move on to presenting the Skins.
The next section of the chapter is Strings . Strings are basically the reason why a lot of people gush about Monsterhearts' social manipulation mechanic: Strings are basically bennies in the style of Fate's Fate Points, Savage Worlds' Bennies and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay's Fortune Points, meaning that they are a metagame resource that can be spent by players to evoke a number of effects. The main difference is that Strings are tied to specific characters, meaning that they can only be used against or on those specific characters. Holding a String on another character can mean a number of things in the narrative, but they all amount to some kind of emotional leverage: if you hold a String on someone it might be because they're in love with you, because they're afraid of you, or even because you've seen some part of them that they'd like to gain hidden.
The exchange of Strings is such an important part of the game's economy that most of the game's basic moves can result in the exchange of Strings: you can gain Strings on someone by turning them on , if you shut someone down they might lose a String they hold on you (and if they don't hold any Strings you instead gain one on them), lashing out physically might carry the extra consequence of gaining a String on the person you're attacking or on a roll of 7-9 you might give them a String representing the fact that they've seen what you're willing to get violent over, and even when running away you might choose to give the most dangerous person present a String on you to get away (if you happened to be unlucky enough to roll a 7-9).
So, now that you've got some Strings what can you spend them on? Well, PCs can spend Strings on other PCs to do any of the following:
Add 1 to your roll against them (choose after rolling)
Subtract 1 from their roll against you (choose after they've rolled)
Offer them an experience point to do what you want
Force them to
to carry out an action
Add an extra harm to whatever harm you're dealing them
Place a condition on them
Now, because we're still operating on the principle of "To do it, do it" the player must still narrate what their character is actually doing in the fiction to evoke the effect. So, you don't just say "Hey Joe, I'm spending a String on your character, I'll give you an experience point if you go to the prom with my character," it should be your character who is acting as the medium of using the String.
The game thus allows for some PC on PC manipulation in the form of offering players experience points for doing certain things. The important thing to note here is that players always have agency over what their characters do: you can't just roll to turn someone n to force them to go to the prom with your character, instead successfully turning someone on gives you a String on them which gives your character a bit of extra leverage when they ask them to the prom with them. That said, the player on the receiving end still has the option of giving up that experience point if they'd rather not take a particular course of action.
You can also hold Strings on NPCs and you can use Strings on them as usual, but there are a couple of differences: firstly, NPCs don't have moves, so subtracting 1 from their rolls or forcing them to hold steady are not options. Instead, you can use a String on an NPC to force them to falter, hesitate, or freeze up momentarily. Similarly, NPCs don't gain experience points so offering them XP to do what you want isn't an option. Instead, you can spend a String to add 3 to your manipulate an NPC roll against them. This makes Strings held on NPCs particularly powerful, because you can usually count on succeeding on that roll.
NPCs can also hold Strings on PCs, but the rules for those are covered later.
Next up we've got Conditions .
Conditions are basically like temporary aspects from Fate. When a character has a Condition that your character could potentially take advantage of and you narrate how you use that Condition to your advantage, you get to add 1 to your roll against them. There are a number of ways to give others Conditions, including shutting someone down or spending a String on them, and rolling a 7-9 while gazing into the abyss or holding steady can also give you the drained and frightened conditions. Some Skin moves also interact with Conditions: the Ghost, in particular, is all about projecting the blame for its death onto others, meaning that they can give the blamed condition around pretty freely (and then use that to their advantage with some of their other moves).
There's no ready-made list of conditions, and they can equally represent actual mental and physical conditions or social perceptions of that character. In general the player giving the Condition gets to name the Condition, but once again it must make sense in the narrative. If you shut someone down by intimidating them it probably makes sense to give that character the frightened Condition, but if you make an awesome yo mamma joke it might make more sense to call the Condition "yo mamma so poor she shops at the penny arcade."
Conditions last for as long as it makes sense for them to do so, but characters can also get rid of them by rolling 10+ on holding steady , representing the extra mental boost the character gets from keeping their head straight. It's obviously important to narrate such things in a way that makes sense: if you roll 10+ on holding steady and choose to remove your "broken leg" Condition it probably doesn't mean that your leg is no longer broken, but that your character has gotten their head straight enough to cope with the pain so the broken leg is no longer a hindrance on them. Their leg is still broken in the narrative, but it's no longer relevant as something that others might take advantage of.
Harm and Death . PCs can take 4 harm before dying. 1 harm represents a punch in the face, 2 harm represents a knife in the leg, 3 harm represents a gunshot into the gut, and 4 harm represents being hit by a truck at full speed. Once you've taken 4 harm it's game over, but once per game a character can do one of the following not to die:
Lose all Strings they currently hold
Become their Darkest Self
Harm doesn't heal on its own. Once per session you can heal and rest, removing 1 harm. However, if another character is present and tends to your wounds delicately and intimately, and, the game adds, "perhaps with erotic subtext," you heal 1 additional harm. Don't think too hard on it: it doesn't really make sense from a real-world physics point-of-view for your hot teenage werewolf to be able to rip off their shirt to turn it into a gauze for their near-mortally wounded mortal girlfriend/boyfriend, but because stuff like that is constantly happening in the fiction that Monsterhearts is trying to emulate, might as well encourage it in the rules.
Advancement and Seasons ! Characters gain experience whenever they roll one of their highlighted stats (chosen each session: one by the player whose character currently holds the most Strings on that character, one by the MC), and whenever a move states that they get to do so. However, the game also has the Singleton Rule: you can only gain experience and/or Strings once per move in each scene, meaning that if your highlighted stat is Hot you can't keep on turning people on left and right to gain all the experience points and Strings.
Once a character has 5 experience all of their experience is erased and they get to choose an advancement from their Skin. Most of them are stuff like "Add 1 to Hot", "Gain a new move from your Skin" or "Gain a move from another Skin," but all Skins (except for the Mortal) also have the option of taking a Gang as an advancement.
Gangs are basically groups of NPCs that a PC is a part of. When a PC takes a gang as an advancement it's assumed that the player and the MC discuss the nature of the gang and what sorts of things the gang expects from their character. All gangs also have a trigger that will launch the into direct and unplanned action.
The mechanics for gangs are very short and simple: you can manipulate a gang to do your bidding as if it were an NPC, and when a gang helps you do something you get to add 1 to your rolls, and when they partake in an act of violence with you you add 1 to all harm dealt.
Finally, Seasons . Seasons are Monsterhearts mechanic for building clear story arcs and breaking down the game into manageable bits. This is how they work: when one of the characters in the game get their 5th advancement, it means that the session after the current one is going to be the last game of this Season. There are a couple of effects to this: firstly, it signals to the players and the MC that if there are any particular storylines they want to resolve, they will have to do so during this or the next session or they will be left hanging until the next season. Secondly, it opens up Season Advances for all characters, even those who haven't yet gained their 5th advancements.
The Season Advances are:
Change your character's Skin
Rewrite your character's Sex Move
Rewrite your character's Darkest Self
Retire your character and start a new one
Gain 2 of the Growing Up moves
The Growing Up moves are exactly what they sound like: they are moves that represent your character growing up, maturing and getting over their teenage drama. There's one Growing Up move for each of the stat, and they are pronounced in how different they are from the basic moves. Whereas teenage characters can use Hot turn someone on , characters who have grown the fuck up can make others feel beautiful . Teenagers use Cold to shut people down , adults can call people on their shit . Kids lash out physically , mature people intervene against acts of violence . Your starting Mortal can roll Dark to gaze into the abyss , but once they've learned a bit about themselves and how not to be such a self-centered brat they can share their pain .
While it's definitely possible to simply string together Seasons one after the other with new bad guys and possibly new characters, the game itself suggests taking a break between Seasons and playing something else: while the game is supposed to be fun, the game also acknowledges the fact that playing monstrous teenagers can actually be pretty draining in the long run. In a hobby where the zero-to-hero campaign spanning tens if not hundreds of sessions seems to be the platonic ideal (but one which very few people seem capable of reaching) it's actually pretty refreshing to see a game that actually has clear rules for dividing your campaign into manageable chunks.
Next time on Monsterhearts: Skins (finally)!
The ChosenOriginal SA post
Okay, time to pick this shit right up. It's
Before the game gets to the Skins (i.e. the character archetypes available for play) there's a brief section called Queer Mechanics . The purpose of this section, as far as I understand it, is to spell out in plain simple terms what a lot of people already seem to know of Monsterhearts: that the game, while on the surface being about monsters, is really about the troubles of being a teenager and all the confusion that comes with it. Once again, the game spells out that the Turn Someone On move works on anyone regardless of their gender and what this means is that you can't use "Hey, no, my character is straight so he'd never be turned on by Gary's character!"
I personally think that there are some unfortunate implications to this, as it basically posits that every character in the game is at least potentially bisexual and that gay and straight people simply don't exist. That said, I understand the purpose of the mechanic: the characters in Monsterhearts are teenagers without fully formed sexual identities, and since the game is very much about emergent narrative the purpose of the mechanics isn't to use them to go "Haha, your character got turned on by mine, he's totally gay now!" but to use the mechanics to inform the further narrative. So, if your rebellious and tough on the outside werewolf kid just got turned on by a look from the pretty fey boy, what does that tell us about the character, and moreover, how does he react to it? It's not a mechanic I'd use in a game of adult drama, but that's not the genre Monsterhearts is geared towards anywhere.
The section also briefly discusses trans subject matter but not in those exact words: the idea is that a number of the Skins in Monsterhearts have a degree of body horror and/or not being in complete control of your body as their themes. While this could easily be read as a simple metaphors for teenagers and their raging hormones and changes, there is also an undercurrent of feeling trapped in a body that isn't fully yours in some of the Skins. Not being trans I can't vouch for whether that matches the trans experience, but since the author of Monsterhearts is trans I wouldn't be surprised if their own feelings on the topic would've informed this section.
First of all, I love this section. I'm not saying that every RPG needs a section that discusses how sexuality and game mechanics mesh together, but if you're making a game that at least on some level features sexuality as a theme, the Queer Mechanics section from Monsterhearts is pretty much how you should write it. That said, the section could've used a bit more concrete advise on how to implement sexual content in the game as well as at least a brief discussion on social contract. As is, while Monsterhearts is far from being the RPG with the most creepy and unnecessary sexual content (quite the contrary, I'd actually say that whenever Monsterhearts discusses sexual content it does it very maturely and it never feels gratuitous), there is still the chance that someone playing this game will use it to creep the fuck out of their group (as apparently happened in a Monsterhearts PbP right on these very boards).
That said, it's time to get to the actual meat of the game: the Skins.
Totally not Buffy.
The Chosen is totally Buffy. They're a pretty much normal human that somehow have the power to fight against monsters. The Chosen is one of the most combative of the playbooks, but also has a lot of potential drama inside: their Darkest Self is characterized by wanting to be fiercely independent and not having to rely on their friends for help to a self-destructive degree, but a lot of their moves rely on their friends to work. The Chosen is caught between wanting to protect everyone and feeling helpless when they inevitably can't.
Having a Chosen in the group also changes the tone of the game heavily: so much as having a Chosen in the group is enough to shift the game from being the Vampire Diaries to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The Chosen's high stats are Hot and Volatile, with Cold and Dark being their low stats. This means that while they are alluring and don't shy away from physical conflict, they are also not very good at controlling their emotions nor very in tune with the supernatural.
The Chosen gets two moves to start with, from the following list:
Mercy: Whenever the Chosen spares someone they have reason to kill, they gain a String on them.
Growing Pains: Whenever the Chosen fails to protect their friends, they mark experience.
Final Showdown: An extremely powerful move: the Chosen can simply spend four Strings on an NPC to kill them, probably after a cool showdown. On the downside, the NPC gets to spend their Strings on the Chosen, dealing one harm for each String spent. Potentially this move can be used to set up an awesome final scene where the Chosen, having finally learned everything there is to know about their enemy, goes out in blaze of glory, killing both.
Come Prepared: A purely flavorful move, stating that the Chosen has an armory complete with outlandish artifacts. Basically a way for the player to say "Yeah, I totally have a stake and hammer, as well as other potentially useful vampire-slaying gear, given enough time to prepare."
To The Books: You know how I said that the Chosen is totally Buffy? This move is full-on Buffy. When the Chosen hits the books with their friends to find out information about the monster of the week, the Chosen rolls with the number of people assisting them, choosing two on a 10+ and choosing one on 7-9. The options include gaining a String on the enemy, asking the MC a question (which they must answer truthfully), giving the enemy the Condition secret weakness , or simply carrying one forward.
Take The Blow: Pretty simple: when the Chosen places themselves in harm's way to protect a friend, they roll with Volatile. On a 10+ they take the harm in their friend's stead and reduce it by one, on a 7-9 they simply take the harm.
Light The Way: Whenever the Chosen's friends act on their commands, they add one to their rolls. If said friend is an NPC, they instead act with Advantage.
Then there's the Chosen's Backstory , meaning their relationship with the rest of their group. Two of them are friends they can rely on for monster-hunting support, giving the Chosen one String on each. The second bit of background is amazing though: there's a big bad evil out there who wants the Chosen dead. The MC gives them a name and gives them two Strings on the Chosen.
So, right from the outset, simply having a Chosen in the group implies that there is some evil menace out there who wants them dead, meaning that their life is never going to be easy. This works really well with a certain other playbook that assumes there to be a big bad supernatural entity behind the scenes. Not telling.
Then, finally, there's the Chosen's Sex Move and Darkest Self . The Chosen's Sex Move is basically a full-recovery (i.e. it removes all harm on the Chosen), but if the Chosen feels disgusted by either themselves or the other person after the fact, they must give them a String.
The Chosen's Darkest Self is also pretty nasty: when the Chosen finally loses it, they will simply go out and hunt down the biggest and baddest monster out there as a way to prove how strong and independent they are. The Chosen escapes their Darkest Self when someone comes to their rescue or when they find themselves hospitalized, whichever happens first.
Each of the game's Skins also gets to choose a Gang as one of their advancements. In the Chosen's case, their Gang is called Unholy Allies . What this means is open to interpretation, but I like to imagine it to be a peanut gallery of supernatural creatures somehow bound to the Chosen in their quest to destroy monsters for whatever reason. Very Buffy/Angel in a way.
Next time, the Fae.
The FaeOriginal SA post
So, me getting my shit together with my write-up of Monsterhearts was pretty much a blatant lie, since apparently June turned out to be a really shitty month as far as productivity, but I'm back for now. That means it's time for more
Last time we took a look at the first of the skins, the Chosen. This time, it's the Fae .
Can't come up with a clever subtitle for this, sorry.
The Fae is one of the skins with the most social shenanigans going on. It draws heavily from Celtic myths of the sidhe, or the fair folk as they're sometimes called, and in this regard it shares a lot of thematic ground with the fae of nWoD. The Fae is alien, beautiful and hypnotic, but also an outsider to human norms and customs, having their own weird ways of looking at morality. That being said, not all characters of the Fae skin are 100% pure-blooded Fae: some of the choices of origin include stuff like "adopted," "stole the gift" and "touched with the gift," meaning that your character may have been a mortal before until fairy shenanigans happened. "Adopted" for one takes some interesting implications when one considers that lots of European cultures had stories of fairies stealing away human children, raising them as their own. Not surprisingly, stories of these "changelings" are also what informed the nWoD interpretation of the fae for Changeling: The Lost.
Okay, enough talk about fairy tales. What does the Fae skin actually do?
Well, first of all, its high stats are Hot and Dark, meaning that they're seductive and manipulative, while at the same time being in tune with the occult and the "other side" if you will. On the other hand, this leaves Volatile and Cold as their low stats, meaning that they're vulnerable, both physically and mentally.
All Fae start with the Faery Contract move, which fits in perfectly with the inspired-by-Celtic-myth angle of the Fae: geasa, or magically enforced vows and promises, are kind of a huge deal in Celtic myth. (Also, in case you're wondering, the D&D spell geass takes its name from the same expression.) What this move does is that whenever breaks a promise or vow to you, you take a string on them, and when you spend strings on them to even the score you can invoke one of the following effects instead of one of the standard ones:
- they fuck up something at a crucial moment
- add 2 to your roll on an act of vengeance
- they suffer 1 harm, whether the cause is obvious or not
Because of the magical nature of Faery Contracts, it's explicitly stated that these effects need not obviously come from the Fae: for an example, if another character had wronged the Fae and broken a contract with them, the Fae could make them fuck up at, say, an important performance in front of a huge crowd, and no one could be able to pin it on the Fae. To all onlookers it'd just look like the person in question had fucked up due to bad luck or their own incompetence.
Fae also get to choose one more move, from amongs the following:
The Constant Bargain , as its name implies, is about constantly trading favors, and it's a very powerful social move. Whenever someone asks you to do something and you do it, you get to roll with Hot. On a 10+ they lose a string on you and you gain one on them, on a 7-9 you choose one or the other, while on a 6- you've shown that they can walk over you and they gain a string on you. This move can make the Fae very good at controlling the economy of strings in the game.
The Wild Hunt is, desing-wise, a bit boring, since it's just a +1 to turn someone on as long as you demonstrate your most feral manner, i.e. by "echoing the lithe movements of a cat or the voracity of a wolf".
Beyond the Veil adds a new option to the gaze into the abyss move when you commune with the Faery King: on a 10+ you can gain a hidden string on someone, while on a 7-9 you can choose "The visions are clear, but the Faery King demands a favor of you." A nice move, since not only does it add to an existing move without just being a +1 bonus, and it also adds a bit of world-building into the game by implying the existence of a Faery King.
Lure is a move that works really well with Faery Contract: whenever someone makes a promise to you, they get to mark experience, but whenever they break a promise and you seek vengeance for it you get to mark experience. This move pretty much complement Faery Contract: in actual play, it might be really hard for the Fae to get people to make promises to them, as they know it might come and bite them in the ass, but this move takes some of the edge off of that by giving them experience for making promises.
Guide is a simple move: spend a string on someone and bring them with you across the veil into the faery court. No word on what the faery court is and what the players can expect there, but in the hands of the right group it can lead to interesting world-building and story hooks.
Unashamed allows you to give someone a string on you to take a +3 on your attempt to turn them on. It's a bit... yeah. It's more interesting than The Wild Hunt mechanically, due to involving an exchange of strings, but not great.
Next up is the Fae's backstory: because the Fae wears their heart on their sleeve, everyone gets a string on them. However, the Fae gets to choose someone whose fancy they've caught, and they get two strings on that character.
Next we have the Fae's sex move, which is one example of not all of the game's sex moves being explicitly sexual:
When you lie naked with another, you can ask them for a promise. If they refuse, take 2 Strings on them.
And finally, the Fae's darkest self:
Everything you say is a promise. Everything you hear is a promise. If a promise is broken, justice must be wrought in blood. To escape your Darkest Self, you must in some way re-balance the scales of justice.
Fun fact: in the very first Monsterhearts game I played, the Mortal and the Fae ended up having sex. The Fae immediately extracted the promise "Promise you'll never leave me" from the Mortal. Now, because the Mortal's sex move triggers the other person's darkest self, the Mortal narrated that while the Fae was putting her clothes back on, she suddenly heard the door to the room slam, and once she looked around the Mortal was nowhere in sight.
The GhostOriginal SA post
In this episode of Monsterhearts...
The Skin with the best piece of prose attached. Each of the Skins has a bit of really flowery prose that's supposed to get you really into the character. The Ghost has this:
Ghosty ghost. You're dead.
Okay, so the Ghost is one of those Skins that at first seems like a hard fit for the genre of Monsterhearts. If the characters are supposed to be teenagers that are able to fit in (although awkwardly) in high school and pretend to be normal teenagers, isn't a literal Ghost kind of going to kind of blow that cover?
The truth is, the game is kind of vague on this part. It's implied that while the Ghost is, well, literally a Ghost, they have a corporeal form to an extent. Furthermore, since one of the Ghost's themes is being caught in a perpetual cycle of unresolved trauma, having one hanging out at high school, going through the motions, actually kind of works. The Ghost is that kid who no one really pays attention to, the one whom everyone just sort of ignores, only sometimes stopping to wonder about their out of place look and their outdated style of dress.
The Ghost's got high Cold and Dark, but low Hot and Volatile. Neither very physically imposing nor alluring, the Ghost is still very controlled and cool, and in tune with the occult.
So, moves. The Ghost starts with Unresolved Trauma . When the Ghost projects the fear and trauma of their death on someone else, they roll Dark. On a 10+ they give the blamed condition to up to two people. On a 7-9, same, but for each person they pick they have to choose one of the following:
They gain the delusional condition.
They can't speak during the scene.
They suffer one harm.
- They start re-enacting the scene of their death.
Unresolved Trauma is the backbone of the Ghost, because blaming people for your death, lashing out at those you blame for it, and forgiving them is effectively what the Ghost is about.
Creep gives the Ghost a String whenever they secretly witness someone in their most intimate moments, like showering or sleeping. This is the one you pick if you want to be the creepy Ghost that is mostly about spying on the living for kicks.
Vengeful is the move you pick if you want to play an angry poltergeist: when you Lash Out Physically at someone with the blamed condition, you roll Dark instead of Volatile and deal one extra harm. While fighting isn't the main focus of Monsterhearts, this move makes the Ghost a real threat when punches start getting thrown.
Forgive and Forget lets you mark experience whenever you forgive someone and absolve them of the blamed condition. This is another move that rewards you for playing the Ghost like you're supposed to: caught in a cycle of blaming others and eventually coming to terms with it and forgiving them.
Hungry Ghost basically turns you into everyone's best friends, but also lets you get off on their sadness. When the Ghost lets someone dump their problems on them, the Ghost rolls with Dark. On a 10+ the dumper loses all their conditions, but the Ghost either marks experience, gets to carry one forward, or gains a String on them. On a 7-9 the person dumping their problems chooses to either lose all their conditions or to gain a String on the Ghost. I don't quite get the theme behind this move, but apparently it turns you into a ghostly shrink?
Dissipate lets you walk through walls, like in the movies. Yeah, that's all it does. In a more rules-heavy game at this point there'd be a huge explanation of the exact mechanics of walking through walls, but in a game like Monsterhearts the statement that you can walk through walls is explanation enough. I'm not sure I'd take it personally, because some of the other moves are much more thematically interesting, but it's a well-designed move in its minimalism.
The Ghost's backstory is as follows: Someone knows that they're dead and how they died, and they gain one String on the Ghost. However, the Ghost has been inside someone's bedroom while they slept, so they gain one String on that person.
Sex move . When the Ghost has sex with someone, they both get to ask each other one question, either character-to-character or player-to-player. Whatever the case, they must answer the question honestly.
Darkest self . When the Ghost's darkest self triggers, they turn invisible. No one can see them, feel them, or hear their voice. Their only avenue of communication is through being able to move inanimate objects. They only escape their darkest self until someone acknowledges their presence and demonstrates how much they want them around.
The darkest self is enough on itself to really drive home what the Ghost's biggest tragedy is. I mentioned them being the kid whom everyone ignores, and that's basically the worst thing you can do to someone caught in a cycle of unresolved trauma, willing to blame everyone around them. Turning invisible at your darkest moment just reinforces that, but also gives you a pretty good avenue for enacting your vengeance upon those who you think you've wronged you.
Next time, the creepiest motherfucker in Monsterhearts: the Ghoul.
The GhoulOriginal SA post
I was reading back through this thread and I thought "man, Monsterhearts is cool but I will never play it."
Monsterhearts is cool. It's also, in my experience, both the hardest and the easiest game to get people to play. Like, people who are already into tabletop will react with something between "What is this Twilight bullshit?" and "Why would I play a game of teenage drama when I could play a cool fantasy hero?" with usually a side of "Ewww, it's about sex" to taste. I've had the most success finding people to play it with by asking from people within my social circles who have no preconceptions of what RPGs need to be about and are open to the idea of teenage monster melodrama.
That having been said, it's time to press on, 'cause I've been putting this off for long enough.
The Ghoul is the next on our list of Monsterhearts skins. As I said last time, while the Ghost is the saddest of all the skins, the Ghoul is definitely the most disturbing in my mind, the reasons for which I'll explain further on.
The Ghoul is another dead-person skin. Whereas the Ghost was brought back to life due to an unresolved trauma, the Ghoul was brought back from the dead against the will. This transgression lies very much at the heart of the Ghoul. Thematically, the Ghoul is a flesh-eating Hollywood zombie, but given that this is Monsterhearts, it's obviously a sexy flesh-eating zombie. They have a hunger they must sate, no matter who gets hurt.
Stats: The Ghoul starts with 1 in Cold and Volatile, and with -1 in Hot and Dark. This is basically the statline of a psychopath: the Ghoul is cold and calculated, but should they need to hurt someone they will do it. The downside is that they're not very well equipped for manipulation and seduction, nor are they very well in tune with the occult.
Moves: The Ghoul starts with the Hunger and gets to choose two more. With the Hunger the Ghoul chooses a hunger for one of the following: flesh, fear, power or chaos. Whenever they heedlessly pursue that hunger they add 1 to all their rolls, but when they ignore a feeding opportunity they need to hold steady .
There's some further discussion on the Hunger in the skin: a Ghoul with a hunger for flesh won't sate that hunger just by eating a rare steak every once in a while: they need raw flesh, and lots of it. Similarly, a Ghoul with a hunger for fear can't just go around the hallways going "Boo!" to sate their hunger: they might need to go full-on psychological warfare on their victims to sate their hunger. While the hunger provides a lot of conceptual space to explore, the underlying thing is that it needs to be a big thing, one that involves doing fucked up shit to people to sate.
Disaffected is another of Monsterhearts' many stat-switch moves, and it's surprisingly thematic: it allows the Ghoul to use Cold instead of Hot when turning someone on . So, instead of turning people on with your smoldering gaze, you turn them on by being really cool and distant.
Short Rest for the Wicked basically makes the Ghoul invulnerable: whenever they would die, they can just wait it out, and they'll wake up with all their wounds healed in a couple of hours. Given that characters already have quite a number of escape clauses from death (losing your strings, taking a condition, triggering your Darkest Self) this move basically just adds another way for the character to come back from the dead.
What the Right Hand Wants is fun: your body has been stitched together from multiple bodies, and the different parts want different things. You get to create another Hunger. Note that the word here is create . While your initial Hunger needs to be one of the four provided, this move's phrasing implies that this Hunger is yours to define. Go crazy!
Watchful Golem is a great move if you want to give your Ghoul a bit of a warmer side while still retaining the skin's creepy sociopath nature: whenever you defend someone without them knowing about it, mark experience. Yeah, that's totally not creepy nor transgressing on anyone's boundaries.
Satiety builds upon the Hunger: whenever you sate your Hunger you get to choose one of the following:
Heal one harm
Remove a condition
- Carry 1 forward
Ending is my favorite move, especially when coupled with Disaffected: this Ghoul remembers how they died. Whenever they tell someone about it, they give that person the condition morbid and get to roll to turn them on . It's heavily implied that the Ghoul could also immediately tag the condition for a +1 to their roll. I just love the fact that a Ghoul that's been built for it can potentially be the most seductive and alluring character in the game: it evokes a scene of the Ghoul showing their crush the scars from their accident, punctuated with requisite gasps and inquiries from their crush, followed by awkward teenage sex. It's just such a Monsterhearts thing.
Someone reminded the Ghoul of what love is when they thought dead had stolen it from them. They get 2 strings on the Ghoul.
If anyone watched the Ghoul die, or see them being brought back to life, they both take 2 strings on each other.
I just realized I forgot this on the Fae and the Ghost, but the Ghoul has the option of choosing Necromantic Caretakers as an advance. As with many things in the game, this is left for the players and MC to define.
Okay. Now comes the hard part. The Ghoul's Sex Move and Darkest Self. Neither of these is, in isolation, completely terrible. Put together, they make for something potentially problematic.
Sex Move: When the Ghoul has sex with someone, they add "having sex with [this person]" as an additional Hunger. If they already have this Hunger, they mark experience instead.
Darkest Self: Well. "You will maim, kill and destroy anything in between you and the nearest object of your hunger. You will feed relentlessly. You escape your Darkest Self when someone restrains you or fends you off for long enough for you to regain your composure – at least thirty or forty minutes."
That particular combination up there? Once the game progresses to the point where characters are already starting to get intimate with each other, the Ghoul basically becomes a ticking timebomb of rape. This is one of those things that, provided with no commentary, makes for a potentially uncomfortable game.
Having said that, I'm not the only one who realized the problematic nature of the Ghoul. Well, not specifically the Ghoul: Lillian Cohen-Moore of Bitch Magazine wrote about the game, ( link ) and while she praised the game, she also noted the fact that while the game is very much about sex, it doesn't actually provide a lot of discussion for how to deal with potentially problematic and uncomfortable matter around the tabletop:
Lillian Cohen-Moore posted:
Monsterhearts has a lot to say about how we treat sex and each other. My one concern is that the game pushes participants to uncomfortable emotional places without balancing that in the text with caution. In the wrong mix of players, the game could be a terrible play experience. With such senstive topics at the game's center, it seems irresponsible to not to include more text about creating boundaries and when to call "scene," in order to make the table a safe place to explore volatile and highly charged emotional content. It's a game worth playing, but it needs to be played mindfully. Not everyone starts their roleplaying experience off with story games, and if your first time at the table is a bad game of Monsterhearts, it's not likely you'll be running back for more. Whether you play or run games, remember first to always be kind to those playing with you.
Avery McDaldno, the author of Monsterhearts, weighed in on the discussion:
I just wanted to say thanks for this article.
When designing this game, one of my goals was to approach dysfunctional relationships/selfhoods/behaviors in such a way that they became viewable and material, but that the task of de-mystifying them still remained in the hands of the players. Like saying, "here's this problematic thing that people do, now let's try to figure out how it works." I think your article touches on that aspect on the game in a great way. Yay!
I want to touch upon a specific thing you said: "with such senstive topics at the game's center, it seems irresponsible to not to include more text about creating boundaries." In hindsight, I think the approach I adopted here was lacking, and that you're totally right. If I were to rewrite the book, there'd be a whole chapter about negotiating healthy social contract & on dealing with player discomfort/hurt. My thoughts on all that stuff change and evolve continually, and at the time of writing I was definitely of the belief that "those issues should be handled by the individuals at the table with the breadth of their communication tools and life experiences, not by what little I can communicate here in text." Since then, my stance has dropped the false binary. In short: I agree with you, and would definitely write more on social contract if I were to go back in time.
I've been contemplating releasing a free supplemental PDF called, like, "Navigating Problematic Sexual Content in Story Games: A Supplement for Monsterhearts and Other Games."
And, well, that's exactly what McDaldno did. See Safe Hearts, A guide to boundaries and vulnerability in Monsterhearts .
What I'm trying to say is that Avery McDaldno is one of the coolest designers ever. Normally when something in an RPG gets identified as problematic by the audience the authors get up in arms about it, defending their "creative vision" and generally act like a bunch of complete insensitive assholes about it, as if their writing was behind reproach and couldn't even be criticized as "Hey, this stuff you wrote is potentially rapey." McDaldno gets called out on the fact that some of the stuff in Monsterhearts could be potentially problematic without a discussion about boundaries and a well-defined social contract, and their response is "Hey, you're right! Let me fix that for you!" That takes a lot more guts than curling up and shouting down all criticism.
Coming to this particular skin I may have seemed to be saying "I love Monsterhearts but ugh the Ghoul is terrible!" That's not the case: I love the Ghoul, but realize that without an in-group discussion about boundaries the skin can lead the game to triggering situations. Furthermore, since players retain control of their characters in all situations (even when their Darkest Self triggers) players ultimately still retain agency over what their characters do and where they want to take the story. If you're playing the Ghoul and you're starting to flirt with the boundaries of consent, you as a player of the character always have the right to say "Okay, I don't want my character to do that, because it would be uncomfortable for all of us. So they're not going to do that."
Next Time: The Infernal, a.k.a. a junkie with a demonic dealer, or my favorite skin ever.
The InfernalOriginal SA post
Before I get into the next Skin, all this discussion of objectives in the game made me realize that the book actually discusses it at some length. Basically:
Unlike some story games, Monsterhearts doesn’t have an endgame or an explicit goal to shoot for. You are left to determine what it is that your character wants, and pursue that in any way that makes sense to you.
Since the default setting is a high school, there are a few goals that nearly everyone is going to have: saving face, gaining friends and social security, figuring out who their enemies are, getting social leverage on others, dumping their pain on other people.
If you aren’t sure who your character is, start with those things and build outward from there. Soon, you’ll likely find yourself embroiled in situations that demand action, and your objectives will emerge from that.
Play to find out what happens, what’s important, and what it is you really want.
So, yeah, basically what Kai Tave said above.
With that out of the way, it's time for my favorite Skin, the Infernal !
The Infernal has literally made a deal with the Devil. Okay, not necessarily the Devil, but the point is that the Infernal has made a bargain with some nefarious entity in exchange for power. The Infernal's theme is very much about a meteoric rise to power through the use of the powers granted to them by their demonic patron, followed by a downward spiral as those powers are momentarily denied from them. Actually, let me just quote the prose of the Infernal to give you an idea for what the Infernal is about :
At first, it seemed innocent. It gave you things, made you feel good about yourself. You came to it with your problems, and it fixed them. When you asked how you could return the favour, it told you to be patient - that all debts would be settled in due time. That was the first time you heard it mention debts.
You’ve got Satan as your corner-man, or a demon in your brain. Or maybe the stars glow just for you. Regardless, you owe a debt to something much bigger and scarier than you’ll ever be.
Yes, the Infernal is a demonic junkie, riding high with dark power one minute, going cold turkey another when they must repay their debts to their dealer. The Infernal also makes amazing use of the game's Strings mechanic for the purposes of fueling its main narrative function.
Statistically the Infernal starts with a 1 in Volatile and Dark and a -1 in Hot and Cold. They're in tune with the occult (no surprises given the theme) and also very prone to physical confrontation.
Moves: All Infernals start with Soul Debt, and get to choose one more.
With Soul Debt the Infernal gets to name a Dark Power that they owe a debt to, and said Dark Power can hold Strings on them. Whenever the Dark Power holds 5 Strings on the Infernal, they trigger their Darkest Self. The Infernal also chooses two bargains with the Dark Power, representing powers they can call on from their Dark Power in times of need. Many of these Bargains involve giving the Dark Power Strings. In the discussion of the Infernal's mechanics it's pointed out to the MC that they should probably turn the Infernal's Dark Power into a Menace for their game at some point, meaning that the Infernal potentially ends up playing lackey to the big bad of the Season.
The player must also choose a title for their Dark Power, or come up with one of their own:
- The Poisoner
- The Trickster
- The Connoisseur
- The Fallen
- The Glutton
- The Emissary
- The Butcher
- The Tyrant
Dark Recruiter is a move that basically rewards the Infernal for being the Renfield to the Dark Power's Dracula: when the Infernal brings an innocent soul to their Dark Power, they mark experience.
Unknowable is a really weird and powerful Move, as it basically makes lashing out physically involve no mechanical risk to the character, even on a 7-9. With this Move, whenever the Infernal lashes out physically , on a 10+ the target loses 1 String on the Infernal, and on a 7-9 the Infernal gets another option added to the "choose one" list: they lose 1 String on you.
Okay, so this Move basically means that even on a 7-9 you never need to choose any of the bad options (provided the target is holding Strings on you). However, it is sort of balanced out by the fact that while it removes the immediate mechanical consequences for beating someone up and rolling a 7-9, it doesn't remove the possible narrative consequences. Even if you do roll a 7-9 and something bad doesn't happen to you mechanically, beating people up is still bad, okay?
Can't Save Myself is amazing. When someone saves you from forces too powerful for you to reckon with (read: your Dark Power), they mark experience, and you gain a String on them. This move really encourages the Infernal to play the angle of a unwitting Scooby to a power they don't understand and can potentially make the Infernal's character arc be about being saved from their unhealthy debt to the Dark Power. Basically, it makes you Bubs from The Wire, except with the Barksdale Crew replaced with the forces of Hell. The fact that the game's Season mechanic allows for changing your Skin makes the salvation arc viable mechanically as well.
That's all the Moves for the Infernal, but now we're getting to the really meaty stuff: Bargains . You get two to begin with, in case you forgot, and you can get the remaining ones as an Advancement.
The Power Flows Through You lets you add 2 to your roll by giving the Dark Power a String (choose before rolling). Since the range of numbers in PbtA is pretty narrow, a +2 to the roll is huge .
Numbing It Out allows you to give the Dark Power a String in order to remove a Condition or up to two harm.
With Elsewise Power you can use any Move from any other Skin that you don't have once, in exchange for a String to your Dark Power of course. Since the Infernal has a high Volatile and Dark, good options include hexes from the Witch and a bunch of things from the Werewolf.
Uncanny Voices is a really nice narrative power: you give your Dark Power a String in order to learn a secret about someone you're talking to. The player of the character has to tell you one of their secret fears, secret desires, or secret strengths (you choose).
Strings Attached allows you to ask your Dark Power for literally anything. The MC attaches a price to it and hints at an undesired twist in its nature, and if you pay the price, you get what you asked for. Need a getaway car? Sure, but the body of the car's previous owner is in the trunk.
Backstory! The Infernal owes debts, meaning that they give out 3 Strings, divided any way they like between their Dark Power and the other characters.
Someone thinks they can save the Infernal. Take one String on them.
Gang: In case you thought the Infernal wasn't laden with enough drug addict metaphor as is, they can supply for a gang of Needy Fiends as an Advancement.
Sex Move: When the Infernal has sex with someone, the Dark Power loses one String on the Infernal, but gains a String on the person the Infernal had sex with. If you thought owing a debt to the Devil was bad enough, wait until you show affection to someone: the Devil will already have their number.
So, what happens when the Dark Power collects 5 Strings on you or your Darkest Self triggers in some other way? You go cold turkey.
You can’t get what you need, anymore. The world has left you cold and alone, shivering in the wake of your own addictions. The dark power will make some open-ended demands of you, and it’ll promise you some lucrative (and perhaps volatile) things in return. Every demand you fulfill brings you a little closer to feeling whole again, to rekindling the fire in your heart. Whenever you fulfill those demands, remove a String it holds on you. You escape your Darkest Self when the dark power has no more Strings on you, or when you agree to an even worse bargain with an even more dangerous dark power.
So, why do I like the Infernal so much? First of all, the Infernal comes with a prefab Menace for the MC to use. The moment there's an Infernal in the group, you know there's a big satanic power behind the scenes, trying to cause chaos in the community. Second of all, the Infernal often acts as a vehicle for that chaos, making for a great PC-NPC-PC triangle. Monsterhearts is one of those games which really work the best when the action is character-driven and the MC really just sits back and watches the sparks fly: they set up the scene, put the PCs together, ask a couple of provocative questions, and then watch the players burn everything down to the ground. With an Infernal in play the MC often doesn't even need to worry about setting up PC on PC drama, because the drama and conflict will create itself. Of course, the same could be said about the Mortal , which is the next Skin on our list.
The MortalOriginal SA post Monsterhearts time!
This time, it's time for the Mortal , a.k.a. the most destructive Skin in a game that is about monsters. The Mortal is dark, brooding, beautiful, and also probably caught in a dysfunctional and codependent relationship with someone who is actually a monster. So, that's fun.
Crawling in my Skin.
The Mortal is basically Bella from Twilight if the books had actually acknowledged the fact that her relationship with Edward was ultimately unhealthy and bad for her. Thematically the Mortal is about being infatuated with exactly wrong person: it's about codependency, one-sided love, and other such wholesome and unhealthy habits. It's also potentially the most monstrous Skin, which is appropriate, because one part of the MC's Agenda in Monsterhearts is to make the people look like monsters and the monsters look like people.
The Mortal starts with a 1 in Hot and Dark, and a -1 in Cold and Volatile. They're not well-equipped for physical confrontation, nor are they very good at keeping their cool or putting people down. They mainly rely on social wiles to get their way.
Moves: All Mortals start with True Love and get to choose two more.
True Love is the core of the Mortal: the Mortal always has one lover , the first chosen during their backstory. However, should the Mortal fall in love with someone else, they give that person a String and they become their new lover. The Mortal always carries 1 forward to winning their lover's attention or fancy. Yes, the Mortal is mechanically encouraged to obsess over a single person and to pursue their attention.
Mess With Me, Mess With Him gives the Mortal a way to cover up for their low Cold score: whenever the Mortal uses their lover's name as a threat, they can add 2 to their roll to shut someone down or hold steady , but their lover gains a String on them.
Sympathy is My Weapon rewards the Mortal for being caught in a dysfunctional and harmful relationship: whenever they forgive someone for hurting them and excuse their base nature, the Mortal gains a String on them.
Excuses are My Armor is the perfect pairing with the above: it allows Mortal to mark experience whenever they ignore some blatant problem with their lover or how they treat them.
Downward Spiral (named after a Nine Inch Nails album, or so I'm told!) allows the Mortal to deal themselves 1 harm to add 2 to their roll to gaze into the abyss .
Down the Rabbit Hole rewards the Mortal for getting caught in affairs beyond their reckoning: whenever they poke their nose in non-human affairs, they mark experience, but someone involved in the situation takes a String on them.
Entrenched really makes the Mortal shine: as you can see, a lot of the Mortal's moves are about giving people Strings. With Entrenched, whenever the Mortal and another person have 5 or more Strings between each other, the Mortal gets to add 1 to all rolls against them.
So, yeah, commentary. The Mortal is another example of how Monsterhearts uses its Skins and their Moves to encourage a certain type of drama. In the Mortal's case, the drama happens to be about unhealthy relationships with people. It's about being helpless and giving people power over you. It also encourages self-destructive behavior, as Downward Spiral and Down the Rabbit Hole demonstrate.
Robindaybird already said it, but as potentially triggering as the Ghoul is, the Mortal is also really dark, even without the self-mutilation angle of Down the Rabbit Hole.
Backstory: The Mortal always declares their backstory last. They declare one person to be their lover , they gain three Strings on the Mortal and the Mortal gains one on them.
The Mortal is the only Skin that can't pick a Gang as an advance.
But the real meat of the Mortal is this:
Sex Move posted:
When you have sex with someone, trigger their Darkest Self.
The Mortal's Sex Move is a great example of how almost every single Move in the game has been designed to drive the story in a certain direction. The Mortal is all about obsessively trying to get in their lover's pants, no matter how monstrous their lover may be. However, when they finally get intimate with someone, they show their really monstrous side, leading to a circle of abuse, followed by forgiveness at the expense of the Mortal's well-being.
Actually, I'm starting to think that the Mortal might be the darkest of all the Skins.
Anyway, there's still the Mortal's Darkest Self:
Darkest Self posted:
Nobody understands you, or even wants to. They’d rather you disappear. Well, you’re not going to disappear. You’re going to make life a living hell for them. You’ll betray the wicked to the judges, the weak to the executioners. You’ll pit humans and supernaturals against one another, until everyone looks like monsters. Only seeing the pain that you’re causing your lover will let you escape your Darkest Self.
Yeah. When the Mortal finally snaps, they take it out on everyone. Having had enough with all the abuse they've taken, they lash out against everyone around them, even their lover. And then it starts all over again.
Wow. I never thought that doing a write-up about a storygame could be so draining emotionally. Thankfully the next Skin on the list is the Queen , which has its own share of issues but at least isn't quite as depressing as the Mortal.
The QueenOriginal SA post
Once again, it's
After the depressing and disturbing skins like the Ghost, Ghoul and Mortal, it's time for something not all that heavy. It's the Queen .
To explain what the Queen is in Monsterhearts terms, I'll just dive straight to which horrible part of teenage life they're supposed to represent: the Queen is all about the horrible nature of teenage cliques and how prone kids are to tagging with the cool kid in school just to get a piece of that popularity. The horror of the Queen arises from their controlling nature and the petty politics they play.
The Queen is one of the few skins that supports playing either an entirely mundane character or one with a touch of the supernatural. If you want, you can play the Queen as Cordelia from Buffy. (That is, Cordelia when she was still a somewhat antagonistic character.) Cordelia is even listed as one of the example names for the Queen. However, some of the Queen's moves suggest a more supernatural influence, and can be easily used to build the Queen as a more supernatural character: occult leader, firstborn of the hive mind and source of the infection are all listed as potential origins for the Queen. The three-episode mini scenario for Monsterhearts, The Blood of Misty Harbour, features a Queen as the leader of a demonic cult, borrowing one of the moves from the Infernal to give them a more cultish demon-worshiping feel.
Basically, the Queen gets a gang for free. In case you don't remember what the rules for gangs are: PCs can manipulate gangs of NPCs, and whenever a gang helps a PC out with something they get to add 1 to all their rolls. So, if you're ganging up on someone to kick their ass, you could add 1 to your roll to lash out violently , if your gang derisively laughs at the insults you throw at someone you could add 1 to your roll to shut someone down . Hell, if you're playing up the occult leader angle, you could even have them chanting some mumbo-jumbo around you to add 1 to your roll to gaze into the abyss .
Oh, and in case you're wondering: yes, your character can be a male Queen.
Stats: The Queen starts with 1 in Hot and Cold, and a -1 in Volatile and Dark. They're all about being social characters and will generally not excel in physical conflict (unless they've got their gang backing them up) or the occult.
Moves: The Queen gets the Clique and gets to choose one more move.
The Clique gives the Queen a gang at the beginning of play. The Queen also gets to choose one strength for their gang:
- they’re armed (with guns and real dangerous stuff)
- they’re connected (with money and designer drugs)
- they’re talented (in a band or sports team)
- they’re cultists (with dark oaths and willingness to die)
No mechanics are stated for their strengths: basically, the strengths are just narrative tags that inform what sort of stuff you could sensibly have your gang help you out with, and also what sorts of things you may be able to get from them through manipulating them.
The Shield gives the Queen a bit of protection from others: whenever they're surrounded by their gang, all players reduce 1 from all rolls against the Queen. NPCs act at a disadvantage (a mechanic that will be explained in the MC's section).
Bought Loyalty allows the Queen to give someone a String on them in order to add 2 to their roll to manipulate an NPC . Normally a player can spend a String held on an NPC to get a hefty bonus to attempts to manipulate them, and this moves gives the Queen the alternative of giving someone more power over the Queen instead of losing power over them.
And Your Enemies Closer really emphasizes the Queen's focus on loyalty, betrayal and backstabbing politics: whenever someone betrays the Queen, the Queen gains a String on them.
Many Bodies turns your Queen into a pimp (sort of): when you promise one of your gang members to someone, you can add 2 to your roll to turn someone on . Also, whenever a member of the Queen's gang has sex with someone, it triggers the Queen's sex move.
Streaming gives the Queen a telepathic connection with their gang, allowing them to always hear their emotions and fears. Also, whenever the Queen wants to hear their exact thoughts, they can gaze into the abyss and add 1 to their roll to do it.
So, that's pretty straightforward. A bunch of moves that give the Queen a bit more social currency while using their gang as pawns.
The Queen names three NPCs that are members of their gang, and gains a String on each.
However, the Queen also finds someone threatening. They take one String on the Queen and the Queen takes two Strings on them.
As said, the Queen already starts play with a gang. However, they can take an advancement to take The Clique again, detailing another gang.
Now, the real meat of the Queen:
Sex Move posted:
When you have sex with someone, they gain the Condition one of them . While the Condition remains, they count as part of your gang.
Remember how Conditions work? Whenever you could narratively justify a condition giving a benefit to one of your moves, you add 1 to your roll.
The Sex Move combined with the rest of the moves results in so many potential narratives: combine it with Streaming for listening to the rest of the group's thoughts. Take Many Bodies to make membership in your gang a sexually transmitted disease.
And finally, there's the Queen's Darkest Self:
Darkest Self posted:
They’ve failed you. This is all their fault, and there’s no reason why you should have to suffer the consequences of their idiocy. You need to make an example out of each of them, a cruel and unwavering example. You escape your Darkest Self when you relinquish part of your power over to someone more deserving, or when you destroy an innocent person in order to prove your might.
So, what do I think of the Queen? Well, I kind of love it. First of all, you know the sort of person it's supposed to represent, not necessarily from your own life but from popular culture, so it's an easy to understand concept. Secondly, the more supernaturally oriented moves like Streaming and Many Bodies give it just enough of a supernatural edge to really drive the metaphor of the class through. Speaking as a guy with a minor in education, it can't be stressed enough how important the teenage years are to a person's development of social skills and group dynamics. Having said that, and this is me speaking as a guy who was a teenager once, teenagers are also kind of horrible and left to their own devices they will develop the worst possible social dynamics based around excluding others and even playing those within their immediate peer group against each other.
The Queen also deserves distinction as another Skin that would work perfectly as an antagonist: they certainly have enough social power to potentially be a threat to anyone in a high school setting. That said, I think the Queen also works perfectly as a character not explicitly taking sides but pursuing their own agenda on the sidelines. Since the Queen often has a lot of capital (not only in terms of social power, but also in terms of having all the coolest drugs/weapons/money) the MC could easily build social triangles where two players whose characters were at odds with each other would be able to gain an edge over one another if they could only petition the Queen for help.
Only three more (core) skins left one. Next time, put on your fake plastic fangs and black cloak, as we look at the Vampire !
The VampireOriginal SA post
Speeding through the last of the Skins so we can finally get to the MC section of the game. On this episode of
It's time for the most iconic of all the monsters from contemporary supernatural romance: The Vampire . Being the literature geek that I am, it's fun to read about how images of the vampire have changed throughout history: stories of bloodsucking unliving monsters are a near-universal phenomenon, and variations of vampire myths appear in a number of cultures. The one source from which most modern vampire tales are derived from is Dracula, where the titular villain was largely inspired by South Slavic tales of vampires, as well as the real historical figure of Vlad the Impaler. Having read Dracula I'll be the first to say that it doesn't quite hold up: like a lot of gothic tales penned by British writers it largely builds its horror through othering, and the favorite other of most British writers were those God-damned mainland Europeans with their twisted Papist church and revolutionary ideals.
So, the most powerful image of the vampire in popular culture was basically an angry Irishman writing a horror story about how those nasty Eastern Europeans were coming to Britain, corrupting the Empire and stealing our women. However, Dracula laid the groundwork for the popularization of the vampire as a sexy creature; even though Bram Stoker didn't originate the idea, he made it popular. Modern images of the vampire tend to focus on the sexy and not so much on the stupid sexy foreigners angle.
Now, vampires are tough to portray in almost any kind of RPG: they come with so much baggage from different myths and popular depictions that it's really hard to find an exact mechanical focus for the vampire. Whereas in a game like Vampire: The Masquerade (and Requiem!) you can explain away divergent vampire myths by saying "Oh, vampires come from different bloodlines with different powers!" Monsterhearts doesn't have that benefit because the Vampire is a single Skin instead of being divided into a number of sub-Skins. Theoretically, if you were to draw inspiration for your Vampire from a number of contemporary sources, you'd just have to give them a high stat in everything.
The Monsterhearts Vampire solves this conundrum by giving it a very clear focus: it very clearly draws its themes from Twilight, True Blood and the works of Anne Rice. However, while the vampires in all those sources were pretty good at everything (super-strong, super-fast, with keen senses, being able to fly, shit rainbows, basically whatever power the writer felt comfortable giving them at the time) the most interesting stuff they did had nothing to do with their physical prowess, but everything to do with how manipulative and seductive they were.
The Vampire is all about drawing people in but then keeping them at an arm's length, never quite letting them close. Basically, they know what you want and they're not giving it to you because they love to watch you squirm. Also, they're control freaks.
Stats: As a very socially powerful Skin, the Vampire starts with Hot and Cold at 1, and Volatile and Dark at -1.
Moves: The Vampire gets to choose any two of the following:
Hypnotic allows you to hypnotize people, provided they hold no Strings on you. Rolling with Hot, on a 10+ they do exactly as you wish and have no idea that anything is wrong, and on a 7-9 it works but they either realize you hypnotized them, they fuck up your commands, or their sanity becomes unhinged. A very powerful move, but since getting Strings on people isn't all that hard most other player characters will have blanket immunity to it. That said, the Vampire has a high Cold, so it's not too hard for them to shut someone down to make them lose their Strings on you.
Invited gives you the traditional Vampire weakness of not being able to enter a home without being invited. That might not sound like a very useful move, but when someone does invite you, you take a String on them.
The Feeding makes you able to feed on hot blood. If it's the first time your victim's been fed on, you both mark experience. When you feed you choose two:
- you heal 1 harm
- you carry 1 forward
- they don't die
Marked for the Hunt allows you to establish a close bond with someone when you feed on them (as seen on television!), implying that you don't actually need the Feeding to feed on people. It's just that with the Feeding you also get a mechanical benefit out of it. Anyway, with this move, when you gaze into the abyss about a person you've fed on, you roll as if you had Dark 3, effectively counteracting your shitty Dark score.
Cold As Ice allows you to pick an extra option from the 7-9 list whenever you shut someone down and roll a hit (that is a 7 or higher). Pretty great.
Inescapable is the move that Bill uses in True Blood whenever Sookie tries to walk out on him and he yells "Sookie!" in that one particular voice of his. It allows you to spend a String on someone to tell them not to walk out on you. If they do, you gain 2 Strings on them.
Now it's time for the Vampire's Backstory ! The Vampire is beautiful, so they take a String on everyone. However, someone ("Sookie!") once saved their unlife, so they take 2 Strings on the Vampire.
As an Advancement, the Vampire can gain membership in a Vampire Coterie as a Gang.
Now, the Vampire's got basically one of the best Sex Moves in the entire game:
Sex Move posted:
When you deny someone sexually, gain a String on them. When you have sex with someone, lose all Strings on that person.
Yes, the Vampire's Sex Move is all about withholding sex.
Finally, it's the Vampire's Darkest Self :
Darkest Self posted:
Everyone is your pawn, your plaything. You hurt them and make them vulnerable, for sport, like a cat does with a mouse. You feed to the point of death whenever you’re alone with someone, though you take your time. You escape your Darkest Self when you’re put in your rightful place, by someone more powerful than you.
So, the Vampire's kind of cool. However, it's got nothing on the next Skin, another one of my favorites, the Werewolf .
The WerewolfOriginal SA post
Time for the penultimate Skin and one of my favorites, the Werewolf .
The Werewolf is an interesting Skin. Its theme seems to be one of wanting control but also losing it. Basically, the Werewolf is the impulsive teenager who struggles to control their own emotions and lashes out at those close to them, in so doing bullying them into submission. If the Vampire is the withholding and passive-aggressive partner, the Werewolf is the one who is a bit too loyal and clingy and prone to violent fits of jealousy, not necessarily excluding physical abuse. That's just my reading of it though, and if anyone else has an alternate reading on them I'd very much like to hear it.
Like with vampires, there are lots of divergent werewolf myths, not all of which agree on what exactly sets off the werewolf's transformation. The fact that the Werewolf's Darkest Self can trigger at any time implies that it is entirely possible for them to go wolfman even without the influence of the full moon. Whether they can actually transform at will is up to the MC and the players, though.
One thing I haven't really been addressing with the other Skins is the origin bit given in each Skin, but with the Werewolf a couple of them stand out: possible origins for the Werewolf include stuff like born a wolf, raised by wolves, ancestral power, awoken, bitten and favoured by the moon. So, a mix of traditional (bitten) and more esoteric (raised by wolves, born a wolf).
As far as Stats go the Werewolf has the same spread as the Chosen: 1 Hot and Volatile, -1 Cold and Dark. So the Werewolf is alluring and sexy, but at the same time prone to fight or flight, which given the Wolf part of the Skin makes perfect sense.
As far as Moves go, the Werewolf gets to choose two:
Scent of Blood allows you to add 1 to rolls against those who have been harmed in this scene already. Note that this is any roll: given that this is Monsterhearts, you could arguably use this move to add 1 to turn someone on while applying medical care to them after they got hurt in a scene. I just have this image stuck to my head of a Werewolf ripping off their shirt to turn it into a gauze in order to staunch someone's bleeding. If you remember the healing and recovery rules of the game, if you describe the act of applying medical care to someone in a sexually charged manner, it actually heals one extra harm. So, yeah.
Unstable is one of those moves that rewards you for driving your character towards a certain type of narrative: since the Werewolf is all about losing control, with this move you get to mark experience whenever your Darkest Self triggers.
Primal Dominance gives you a String whenever you harm someone. Yeah, remember what I said about bullying people into submission?
Uncontainable allows you to try and escape any kind of physical entrapment by rolling Volatile. On a 10+ you escape, on a 7-9 the MC will offer you a hard bargain, and if you accept you will escape.
Bare Your Fangs is another interesting stat-switch move: whenever you're in your Darkest Self, you can roll Volatile instead of Cold to shut someone down or hold steady . Basically, when you go Wolfman, you're so uncontrollable that you can freak people out with ease and are hard to freak out yourself. Again, this move encourages you to trigger your Darkest Self when going into a situation where you either need to emotionally hurt someone or where you know your character might otherwise flinch.
Howl at the Moon covers for the Werewolf's low Dark score: whenever you're basked in moonlight, you get to add 2 to your Dark. So, if you pick this move, expect to do... well, a lot of howling at the moon to trigger gazing into the abyss .
Heightened Senses is the closest thing that Monsterhearts has to AW's read a sitch move: when you rely on your animal instincts to make sense of a charged situation, roll with Dark. (Yeah, this is where howl at the moon might come in handy.) On a 10+ you get to ask the MC three questions and if you act one of the answers you get to add 1 to your first roll. On a 7-9 you just ask one.
- Where's my best escape route or way in?
- Which enemy is most vulnerable to me?
- What's their secret weakness?
- What poses the biggest threat to me?
- Who's in control here?
There's a lot of interesting thematic ground here: if you want to relish the opportunity to lose control and roll Volatile for everything forever, pick unstable and bare your fangs . If you want to gain power through hurting others and then hurt them even more when they're down, pick scent of blood and primal dominance . If you want to nag the MC about whether the moon is out and be surprisingly perceptive for a Werewolf, pick howl at the moon and heightened senses .
As an advancement, the Werewolf can choose to belong to a Wolf Pack .
The Werewolf has one of the sweetest in the sense of not being immediately horrible Sex Moves in the game:
Sex Move posted:
When you have sex with someone, you establish a spirit connection with them. Until either of you breaks that spirit connection, by having sex with someone else, add 1 to all rolls made to defend them. You can tell when that connection has been broken.
However, their Darkest Self more than makes up for any accidental good feelings brought up by the Sex Move:
Darkest Self posted:
You transform into a terrifying wolf-creature. You crave power and dominance, and those are earned through bloodshed. If anyone attempts to stand in your way, they must be brought down and made to bleed. You escape your Darkest Self when you wound someone you really care about or the sun rises, whichever happens first.
So, as I said: the Werewolf is fiercely loyal, but constantly ready to snap, and when they do snap they're more than likely to snap at those closest to them. And that's horrible.
Anyway, next up we've got the last of the main Skins, the Witch . However, after I'm done with that I might take a stab at the three limited edition skins, the Angel (for straddling the lines between Heaven and Hell), the Hollow (basically an artificial person with no identity, struggling to find their own self) and the Serpentine (for a bit of Southern Gothic, plus snakes), or just go straight to the MC section of the game. Whichever people think is most interesting at this point.
The WitchOriginal SA post
the casting does the Witch 1 harm
the hex has unexpected side-effects
the Witch triggers their Darkest Self
Sex Move posted:
After sex, you can take a sympathetic token from them. They know about it, and it’s cool.
Darkest Self posted:
The time for subtlety and patience is over. You’re too powerful to put up with their garbage any longer. You hex anyone who slights you. All of your hexes have unexpected side effects, and are more effective than you are comfortable with. To escape your Darkest Self, you must offer peace to the one you have hurt the most.
The AngelOriginal SA post
I was supposed to do this last night, but I was very tired so I played some Crusader Kings 2 instead. My Empire of Italia is doing very nicely, though.
This time we'll be moving on to the limited edition Skins, and progressing in alphabetical order we've got the Angel first.
The Angel is really interesting in terms of the sort of baggage it brings with it: the other Skins are very neutral or at least coy about their mythological inspirations, what with the Infernal not actually discussing the nature of its demonic dark powers, the Vampire and Werewolf being very silent on which popular myths actually apply to them in play, and while the Witch mentions Wicca and Vodun as possible origins for the Witch it's entirely silent on the subject of whether these religions are literally magic. The Angel's mechanics and description come with the lord. Not capital L Lord though, but you know the lord it's talking about.
So, what does the Angel actually have to say about the lord? Not much, really. The Angel doesn't actually take any stance on whether the lord is good or not, and the main conflict of the Angel is about either submitting to the authoritarian will of the lord or rebelling against it and being a free agent. As with the other Skins, I think it having been left open to interpretation is intentional: some players might wish to play the lord straight as the capital G God of Abrahamic tradition, which will cast the Angel in a very dark light since they'll be rebelling against the will of a good god (at least according to a majority of religious people in the World). Interpreting the lord as the Gnostic Demiurge is also equally valid, because while the Demiurge was pretty powerful he was also believed to be pretty much an evil guy keeping mankind in submission, which would give the Angel's rebellion a little more bite and cast them more clearly as someone rebelling against an unjust authority.
But really, whatever angle you and your group decide on for the lord (and it might actually be best left open at the start and let it emerge through play, as with many things in Monsterhearts) the key of the Angel is rebellion and submission: you've been kicked out of your old house by an authoritarian figure, and now you have to choose between humility and submission (representing your old upbringing) or agency and rebellion. So, as was already pointed out by Gazetteer:
The Angel is a kid who has been kicked out of or run away from their strict and probably religious home. They are struggling with whether to fall back into what their upbringing taught them, or to try and deliberately deviate from it half out of spite. The default assumption is that it's literally heaven they fell from, but the struggle is more like... conformity versus defiance, rather than heaven versus hell.
Anyway, the Angel has one very interesting mechanic which relates to its Stats . The Angel starts with Volatile at 1, Hot at -1, and Cold at 0, which is an odd spread for Monsterhearts. Also, the Angel doesn't have a Dark stat: instead it has a sliding scale called Trespass and Forgiveness, representing your current standing with the lord. You start with a 0 in the stat, and it maxes out at 3 on both ends of the scale. Whenever you would roll Dark, you roll with Trespass instead. A positive score in Trespass counts as a negative score in Forgiveness and vice versa, so if you were at Forgiveness 1 and rolled to gaze into the abyss , you'd roll with -1.
The Angel gets the following Move :
Cast From Heaven is the Move that determines how your Trespass and Forgiveness scale changes. Basically, whenever you subjugate yourself to another's will, you move the marker towards Forgiveness. Whenever you judge or punish others without the lord's permission, you move the marker towards Trespass.
As with other characters, you start with two of your stats highlighted. If you have Trespass highlighted, you mark experience whenever you roll with Trespass or when the marker moves towards Trespass, and the same with Forgiveness. However, the singleton rule still applies, so you can only gain experience for a highlighted stat once per scene, and as far as the Angel is concerned it's further mentioned that you can only move the marker in one direction once per scene. A crafty group might choose to highlight both an Angel's Trespass and Forgiveness if they really want the Angel's story to focus on their conflicted nature.
The Angel also chooses two more Moves from the following list:
Better And More Deserving gives you a String on someone whenever they get the praise that you deserve. Bitterness is a big part of the Angel's theme, not only bitterness at the lord but also bitterness towards those the lord deems more worthy than you, and this Move encourages you to get into situations where others are going to be patted on the back when you did all the heavy lifting.
Smiting lets you add 1 to your rolls to lash out violently and add 1 harm to your rolls when you do so. This move works both for the rogue angel with a cause of their own and the angel that seeks the lord's forgiveness (provided you ask the lord first whether they'd like you to smite the wicked).
Halo allows you to roll with Forgiveness instead of Hot when turning someone on . Basically, when you find yourself in the lord's favor the lord rewards you with a magical aura to help you get into other people's pants.
Profane Powers comes to play when you hit 3 Trespass: once you hit 3 Trespass you can perform miracles, like flight, teleportation, returning to life and so on. However, after any scene when you've used it your Trespass resets to 0 and you are drained .
Grace And Brilliance is profane powers' good twin: when you hit 3 Forgiveness you can call upon blessing and divine might. When you do so, you add 7 to your next roll, basically guaranteeing a success. However, after you've done so your Forgiveness goes back to 0 and you are drained .
Resetting the Trespass/Forgiveness scale as well as the drained Condition in the above moves represents how tiring, both emotionally and physically, using these powers is. After you use grace and brilliance your body is sore, but you also realize that you've been trying to get into the lord's favor and this is what you get rewarded with. Similarly, when you've used profane powers to basically give the lord a middle finger while going "Fuck your rules, man!" you not only feel tired but you might come to a realization that maybe you've been rebelling for nothing after all.
Finally, there's Gaze Into Heaven , or the best move ever. When you gaze into heaven as a servant of the lord, you roll with Forgiveness. On a 10+ you are filled with his voice and may ask him for guidance and command, and carry one forward to doing whatever you like. On a 7-9 you are contacted by one of the lord's emissaries who give you a mission, and you take one forward to completing that mission. Basically, the implication of the 10+ result is that whatever you use the forward on was the thing that the lord told you to do. It's a perfect example of giving the player some agency towards determining the nature of the lord.
On the flip side, the Move also allows you to gaze into heaven as a spurious and hateful child, in which case you treat it as gazing into the abyss (which you roll with Trespass, because you use Trespass whenever you'd use Dark). On a 10+ you add the following option to the list: the visions show you what the lord fears the most from you, and you carry 1 forward to realizing that fear. On a 7-9 you add this option to the list: the visions show you how you have upset and bewildered the lord.
So, that's the Moves. Now onto the rest.
The Gang that the Angel can pick up as an Advancement is, obviously, a Rogue Choir.
The Angel's Backstory : the lord loves you someone more than you, and a rivalry has sprung up: you gain two Strings on them, and they gain one on you. Also, someone reminds you of heaven. They gain a String on you.
The Angel's Sex Move allows you to do an interesting Move switcheroo:
Sex Move posted:
When you have sex, you are reminded of your purpose here on earth. Lose one of your Skin moves and gain a different one.
And finally, there's the Angel's Darkest Self:
Darkest Self posted:
You've fought so hard to distance yourself from the lord, to establish autonomy and independence. In doing so, you've unwittingly stumbled into the service of another power greater than yourself. You will carry out their will as if it were your own. Whenever possible, you'll convince yourself that you're doing this of your own volition. You escape your Darkest Self when you realize who's been tempting you down this dark path, and beg others to save you.
Basically, the Angel's thing is that in rebelling against the lord they actually bring themselves to the attention of another greater, darker power. The Angel is basically the kid who rebels against their religious upbringing only to find themselves blindly adhering to some other authority, be it an ideological, political or a different favor of religious authority.
For reasons that might be obvious from the Angel's Darkest Self, I think the Angel meshes really well thematically with the Infernal. If you take the interpretation that the Angel's lord is literally capital G God and the Infernal's dark power is a literal demon from Hell, you've got an interesting dynamic where the Infernal is mechanically rewarded for luring the rogue Angel towards the service of their dark power, and when shit hits the fan the rogue Angel (who might've even been smiting the dark power's servants of their own accord all the way until now) might realize that in their rebellion against the lord they've actually played right into the dark power's hands.
Next time, the second of the limited edition Skins, the Hollow , or the monstrous teenager with an identity crisis.
The HollowOriginal SA post
Path of War seems legit awesome. If I ever get press-ganged into a Patfhinder game again, I'll definitely ask the GM if I can roll up one of those classes.
Anyway, I had nothing better to do today, so I did a thing:
This time on Monsterhearts , we've got the Hollow .
The Hollow is an artificial person. Maybe they're a demon given human form, a dream made flesh, a dark gift given to an infertile couple, or a wrinkle in reality, but the thing is that they're not actually human. They look human, they act human, but inside there's something missing, the part that separates a pound of flesh evolved over millions of years from a real human. This gives the Hollow their main thing: they are trying to find an identity for themselves, since they lack one. This is represented in the mechanics by the Hollow being one of the most mutable Skins, as well as a number of their Moves allowing them to gain bonuses from Conditions. (Remember, in Monsterhearts Conditions are things that others can use against you, and you can't generally use them to gain benefits.)
Basically, they're Dawn Summers from Buffy.
The Hollow's Stats are as follows: Volatile and Dark at 1, Hot and Cold at -1. As I understand it, the high Volatile is supposed to represent the Hollow's unpredictable and mutable nature on account of it lacking a human frame of reference, whereas the high Dark represents some type of dark knowledge afforded by them not being entirely human. Like the Infernal, the Hollow is not Skin built for social interaction, being instead about taking what they want by force.
The Hollow starts with two Moves :
A Blank Canvas allows the Hollow to add 1 to their rolls when they take an action that embodies one of their Conditions and they allow that Condition to influence their sense of self. After rolling, they also remove that Condition. For an example, if you had the Condition psycho (Probably because someone called you that. Remember, Conditions are as much social constructs as they are literal effects on your character.) you could use this move to get a +1 to a roll to lash out violently when you let other people's perceptions of you as a psycho influence your behavior.
Better Than Nothing gives you a reward for getting Conditions, in the form of letting you mark experience whenever you gain a Condition. Again, since Conditions are as much about how people perceive you, the Hollow is rewarded for others building an identity for them.
This Body Has No Meaning allows you to reduce harm by 1 whenever someone deals harm to you without taking advantage of one of your Conditions. However, you must have at least one Condition to make use of this benefit. So, let's say you have the aforementioned psycho Condition and someone decides to stab you in the stomach. Their player can't find a rationale for you being psycho influencing their roll, so they roll, and deal 2 harm (for the sake of argument). You reduce that harm by 1, because even though they have stabbed you in the gut and damaged your body, they have not actually hurt your (completely artificial) self.
Flesh of My Flesh triggers when you lash out violently with your bare hands. Instead of dealing the usual one harm with your bare hands, you deal harm equal to one more than the amount of harm you've taken. If you yourself are at the brink of death (at three harm) you could potentially deal four harm by lashing out violently , potentially taking out someone in one punch. Holy shit.
Metamorphosis lets you add this option to the 10+ list when gazing into the abyss : the visions show you what you must become, and you can permanently switch two of your stats. So, if you don't want to play your Hollow as a psychotic kickpuncher, you could trade that high Volatile for a high Cold or Hot, for an example.
Inhuman Gaze lets you roll with Dark when you shut someone down . Yeah, it's a simple stat-switch move, but a really thematic one: there's just something eerie and unnatural about your gaze, which is enough to make most people back the fuck off.
Finally, there's Mimicry . Whenever someone uses a Skin move on you, you roll with Dark. On a 7-9 you temporarily gain that move, losing it after the first time you use it. On a 10+ you may choose to replace one of your Skin moves with this new move.
I really like the Hollow's moves: a blank canvas is a simple move that lets you benefit from a usually negative effect (even though the social consequences of acting out one of your Conditions are still arguable), and it works perfectly with better than nothing and this body has no meaning . Metamorphosis and mimicry are another obvious pairing and have a clear theme of trying to find a new identity (and in the latter case, trying to find it through stealing it from others), whereas inhuman gaze is just nice and thematic.
The Hollow's Gang is their Hollow Siblings.
The Hollow's Backstory is as follows: they've been taking their social cues from someone, and in doing so have learned a lot about them. They take 2 Strings on that person. However, someone's seen through their invented past, and they gain 2 Strings on the Hollow.
Now to the good bits. The Sex Move :
Sex Move posted:
After having sex with someone, replace your current sex move with theirs, adding this sentence to the end of it.
Again, this nicely enforces the image of the Hollow not having a real identity of their own. Now, the Darkest Self:
Darkest Self posted:
Your body is a prison. You don’t belong inside of it. You need to put it in harm’s way, and make it suffer, just like it’s made you suffer. There’s got to be a way to cut yourself out of it. You need to meet your makers, and hold them accountable for what they’ve done to you. To escape your Darkest Self, you must come face to face with someone who feels more trapped than you do.]
So, what do I think of the Hollow? I like it, even though it doesn't jump out at me as one of my favorites. It is a great Skin and has a very clear theme to it (identity politics being such an important part of teenage life), but it just doesn't have as clear a minigame built in as my favorites the Infernal and the Werewolf.
Also, I only just realized that I forgot to do the Angel's backstory last time. I'm going to go and add it to the Angel post, so go check that out. Next time we'll be taking a look at the Serpentine , a snake-person with an old money family who don't want to let go of their past glory.
The SerpentineOriginal SA post
Alright, before we get to the MC'ing section of Monsterhearts , we've got one more limited edition Skin to go through: the Serpentine .
The Serpentine is a snake person from a family of snake people who used to rule the earth, before us stupid apes took control. Basically, you're a kid from a suffocating family who still clings desperately to their ancient glory and wants to reinstate their power.
I've heard the Serpentine being being described as a Southern Gothic skin, and my limited experience with the Southern Gothic genre of literature definitely matches up to the themes of the Serpentine: it's focus on a family's lost glories coupled with said family being unable to let go of the past remind me of Tennessee Williams' heavily autobiographical play A Glass Menagerie , where the mother of a family stuck in poverty still clings to her past as a Southern Belle from a family of wealth in the South, and tries to urge her socially awkward daughter to emulate her. The Serpentine's mechanics even reflect the ending of said play, where the family's son rejects his mother's aspirations of reliving the glories of the South and goes off on his own.
So, even more so than the Angel, the Serpentine is about family. You're basically that kid from a very insular family who views the rest of the world through paranoid eyes, and as such the outside world is very alien to you.
In addition to their normal appearance and origin options, the Serpentine gets to choose two items from a list to describe their True Snake form. Again, the Skin does not discuss the exact mechanics or nature of the Serpentine's snake form, so it's once again left up to the group to determine.
As far as Stats go, the Serpentine starts with Cold and Hot at 1, with Volatile and Dark at -1. Get it, they have high Cold and Hot 'cause they're both warm-blooded like mammals and cold-blooded like reptiles? Eh? Eh? I'll get me coat.
All Serpentines start with Failing Dynasty . The Serpentine chooses one thing their family wants to regain: their political clout; their old wealth; their failing beauty; their web of secret allegiances. Whenever a family member asks the Serpentine to do something for them, the Serpentine takes 1 forward to fulfilling it and the family member gains a String on them. However, whenever the Serpentine helps their family regain some of their former glory, they mark experience.
In addition to the above, the Serpentine chooses one more Move from the following list:
Mesmerizing allows you to be a hypnotic snake of legend. Remember that shit Ka was always pulling on people in The Jungle Book (the Disney film, not sure if any of that was in the original novel)? You can do that. When you stare at someone without blinking, roll with Hot. On a 10+ they freeze up until you blink or someone touches them, and they gain the Condition dazed . On a 7-9 they gain the Condition dazed .
The Big Reveal triggers when you reveal your true form to someone. They gain a String on you, and if they accept you for who you are they mark experience. If they reject you, you take 1 forward against them.
Temptation is one of the coolest manipulation-related moves I've seen: when you convince someone to do something, they take 1 forward to doing it. If they succeed you choose to either mark experience or to gain a String on them.
The New Order is for those Serpentines who want to get away from their family and play the arch of becoming independent outside of your family's coils (Get it, coils?). When you learn to fulfill one of your needs within human society, mark experience. When others help you fit in better with human society, they mark experience.
Patience is a Virtue triggers when you bite your tongue and don't respond to adversity. Roll with Cold, and on a 10+ you choose one: gain a String on them or give them the Condition snake food . On a 7-9 they gain the Condition snake food .
Trespassing gives you a bit of power in your lair, while also allowing you to sneak into others' lairs at ease: when someone enters your lair without your permission, they gain the Condition snake food . You also get to add 1 to your rolls whenever trying to infiltrate or escape someone else's lair.
If you're wondering what the Condition snake food does beyond allowing you to add 1 to your rolls when you make use of it, Hapless Prey is the answer to your question: when you lash out physically at someone with the snake food Condition, roll with Cold instead of Volatile.
The Serpentine's Moves have a lot of obvious synergies, but sadly you only start with one of them. That having been said, a high Cold Serpentine with hapless prey is something to watch out for: you can use your high Cold to shut someone down and give them the snake food Condition (probably adding a bit of hissing into the narration of your sick burn) and then roll Cold all day every day when lashing out physically at them. Having said that, to me the most thematically interesting Moves are the ones that drive the narrative towards the Serpentine trying to get out of their family's sphere of influence. Start with new order , roleplay the stranger who needs a little help from the mammals to understand human society, pick up the big reveal when dramatically appropriate and see what happens when you reveal to your loved one that you're actually a weird snake person.
Oh, and speaking of the person who will teach you to cope with human society? From your Background you get two Strings on someone whom you've been watching in order to learn more about human society. However, your family also seeks to control your every move, and the head of your family gains two Strings on you.
As an Advancement the Serpentine can pick up the Nest of Humans Gang . The wording here is intentional: the Serpentine is a bit alien to human society, so they even think of human family units in terms of being like a nest of serpents.
The Serpentine's Sex Move is also perfectly appropriate for a character that is trying to escape their family:
Sex Move posted:
When you have sex with someone, they become a part of the Failing Dynasty (and subject to the move’s mechanics).
What this means is that when you have sex with someone, you can gain experience for helping them meet their wishes, and you take 1 forward for doing what they ask you to do. However, it can potentially mean that the person gains a lot of control on you.
Finally, the Serpentine's Darkest Self is all about either rejecting your family or slithering (Get it?) right back to them:
Darkest Self posted:
You aren’t ever going to be able to reconcile the human and serpent worlds. You can’t live with the lies and insanity any longer. You need to reject one side or the other to escape this madness. Run the fuck away, hide, return to the bosom of your serpent family or abandon them entirely for the human world. You’ll threaten, hobble or destroy anyone who tries to keep you enmeshed in contradictory obligations. You escape your Darkest Self when you submit yourself to the old obligations once more, or you shed your past life and integrate yourself into a new family.
The irony of the Serpentine is that they only escape their Darkest Self by either returning to their old family or integrating themselves into a new one. The Serpentine needs a family of some sort: either their old snake person family or a human family, but they are always subservient to one family unit. The Skin doesn't actually state as much, but if I were to be playing a Serpentine I'd argue that escaping my old life to integrate myself into a human family (with family here being up to interpretation, potentially representing a close-knit group of friends) they'd be subject to the mechanics of my failing dynasty move now.
The Serpentine is not at the top of my list of Skins I'd like to play, but it's definitely close. There's just so much story potential in a character whose thing is escaping a doting family and who has a lot of trouble relating to the outside world, and the fact that the Serpentine is always going to need a family of some sort even if they escape their old one is pretty tragic. You could play the Serpentine as a villainous figure who basically serves as a mook to their dynasty and that can also lend itself to some fun roleplay.
Since the Serpentine also comes with their own group of NPCs, the matriarch or patriarch of the serpent dynasty potentially makes for a great Menace. If you've got a Chosen in the group, you can easily play the Serpentine and the Chosen against each other, with the Serpentine as a hapless mook to their family who wants to destroy all of those stupid mammals who stole their former glory.
Anyway, for now we'll be shedding (GET IT?!) the Skins and moving on to the MCing section of the book, which is actually one of the best how to GM sections in any RPG I've ever read.
The Serpentine, supplementalOriginal SA post
I can also see it working really well for a kid from an immigrant family to whatever country you're playing in whose family is very close-knit and tied deeply to their old country while you're the kid assimilating into your new country - perhaps the only country you've ever known - and having problems with your family as a result.
Absolutely. You could easily play your Serpentine as the scion of a family who had a lot of clout in the old world, but who are lacking that in the new world.
Also, I was going through my Monsterhearts PDFs and realized where I first got the connection to Southern Gothic: when I purchased Monsterhearts the PDF bundle came with the Serpentine and a supplemental PDF for MCs called "Under the Serpentine's Skin:"
Under the Serpentine's Skin posted:
The serpentine’s family should lean heavily upon Southern Gothic aesthetics and themes: baroque families, fallen glory, incestuous internal politics, grotesquery, racial tension , and horrific violence.
Bolded the bit that is relevant to my point here: I don't think I stressed the fact that the Serpentine's family sees humans as intruders on a world that is rightfully theirs enough. Basically, the Serpentine's family is a Southern family with connections to the KKK who see a multiracial society as an affront to their family's former glory, and the Serpentine is an innocent kid who's been raised in that environment who either needs to drink their family's Kool Aid or awkwardly learn to accommodate themselves to a society that doesn't match their family's values.
Shit, for a more nerdy metaphor with an extra dose of snake imagery, the Serpentine is Draco Malfoy: his family is all "We're descended from this pure-blooded snake-magic guy, all y'all mudbloods better show some respect," and Draco's arc in the books is basically him turning from a willing puppet of his family to someone who finally sees their bizarre magical racial politics for how fucked up they are.
Being the MC: Part 1Original SA post
Alright, now that we're done with the Skins, it's time to move on.
Being the MC
In case you haven't got that yet, the referee/game master analogue of Monsterhearts is the MC, or the Master of Ceremonies, a term borrowed straight from Apocalypse World. This chapter opens with brief sections titled The Others and The MC which explain the main purpose of the MC: to play the other characters in the story and keep the story moving. However, it's emphatically noted that the MC's job isn't to "create the story:" the story should emerge from the actions of the PCs, and the MC's job is to play the world at large with integrity in relation to the PCs' actions. It also notes that one of the MC's priorities is not to fall in love with their characters: the MC's characters are vehicles for the story, but the action should focus on the PCs and not the NPCs. Sometimes the MC just needs to bite the bullet and throw their dear NPCs at the PCs' mercy.
Like in other games that use the PbtA engine, Monsterhearts presents its MC with an Agenda , Principles and Hard Moves .
The Agenda are the MC's list of little imperatives that they must follow in order to create an interesting story. They are:
- Make the PCs' lives not boring.
- Make the PCs feel unaccepted.
- Keep the story feral.
- What the principles demand.
- What the rules demand.
- What honesty demands.
Where the Agenda tells the MC what their goals are, their Principles tell them what they must do in order to achieve those goals. Basically, they're a list of best practices to make the kinds of stories that Monsterhearts encourages come to life. The MC's Principles are as follows:
Blanket the world in darkness
Monsterhearts is at its heart a game about melodrama and horror. As such, the MC is encouraged to take a leaf from Gothic horror. If at possible, set scenes at night, or if they happen during the daytime have it raining or foggy. If a scene could take place in a cemetery, set it there.
Address yourself to the characters, not the players
A simple but effective trick: when the MC's refers to the players by their characters' names, it'll nudge them ever so slightly into the role of their character.
Make a move, but misdirect
Make a move, but never speak its name
This is a very important Principle. The MC has their own list of Moves, but as far as the players are concerned, the MC is just keeping the story moving and throwing interesting twists at them. The MC should never say, "Okay, I'm announcing future badness ..." but work that future badness into their narration.
Make humans seem monstrous
Make monsters seem human
Okay, so Monsterhearts has both monsters and humans. It might be easy to cast the humans as the good guys (or at least innocent victims) and have the monsters be the bad guys. However, the MC should keep in mind that sometimes inverting that dynamic is more interesting and there are so many interesting things you can do with it: the school bullies are probably human, but the torment they visit on their classmates makes them monstrous; the police force of the town are human, but when they start a literal witch hunt on the Witch and their family, they become monstrous; hell, the Faery King your Fae player introduced into the game might literally be a monster and an unpredictable force of nature, but even he might occasionally visit the PCs with a boon when it aligns with his agenda.
The second part of these Principles is that teenage life almost always involves having to deal with prejudice. In going with the MC's agenda of making the PCs feel unaccepted, the MC should bring to fore the monstrous prejudices present in the community, and make sure those prejudices have teeth.
Give everyone a life
An important part of portraying a world with integrity is making the NPCs who inhabit it seem like real people. This doesn't mean that the MC should chart out their NPC's entire daily routines, but if it's been a while since an NPC hasn't been in the limelight the MC should think about what they might have been up to. Occasionally the MC should even surprise the players by making it clear that their NPCs also have messy, unpredictable lives of their own. Basically, while the PC's should be the center of attention, you should occasionally hint at other stuff going on in the world.
Accept people, but only conditionally
Happiness always comes at someone else's expense
This might seem like it conflicts with making the PCs feel unaccepted, but it actually works really well with it: sometimes you need to accept the PCs just to give the fact that no one else accepts them some context. Even when someone accepts them, it should come with strings (maybe capital S Strings) attached. So the jocks now accept the Werewolf, but only because they feel he might be a threat to them, maybe the Serpentine finds a boyfriend, but will he accept the Serpentine when he finds out his true nature? These are the sorts of questions the MC should be asking themselves (or maybe even the players!).
Secondly, because Monsterhearts is about sad stories, happiness should always come with a price. So the Mortal finally got their lover: who are all the people who could stand to be hurt by it? If one of the other PCs was pursuing the Mortal or their lover, ask them how they feel about it and what they're willing to do about it.
Basically, when someone says "I love you," look for the "...but" in that sentence.
Ask provocative questions and build on the answers
This is a really important part of Monsterhearts: not only does it help you build the world without having to do all the work yourself ("What does your house look like?"), it also allows you to build more interesting drama ("So you think your dad is kind of an asshole? Why?"). It also helps you put your PCs in unpredictable and volatile situations that help drive the story forward ("Jamie, it appears that the girl you loved has a thing for the creepy emaciated kid in your school. How does that make you feel?")
Whatever answers the MC gets, they should build on those answers and use them as springing boards for future action and drama.
Be a fan of your PCs
Okay, so in spite of the fact that Monsterhearts is not necessarily supposed to be a heroic game, your PCs are still its stars. Even though your Agenda and Principles encourage you to throw shit at them, it's not because you want to see them fail, it's because you want to see how they'll get themselves out of that shit. Conversely, it doesn't mean that the MC should do everything in their power to keep the PCs out of harm's way: you can't really appreciate the PCs for their struggles when there are no real struggles for them to experience.
Treat your NPCs like stolen cars
This is my favorite Principle. Basically, don't get attached to your NPCs. They are yours, so use them to do all the stupid shit possible to keep the story moving. You're in control of them for a time, but they're not yours and once you're done with them you have to be able to let them go. Basically, play them recklessly so that you can get all the possible drama, sex and violence out of them.
Give your NPCs simple motivations that divide the PCs
Simple is the key word here. Make your NPCs straightforward and obvious that the players know how to react to them, and give them obvious goals and obvious means to achieve them. And then make sure those goals divide the PCs and pit them against each other. The idea is that the NPCs' goals are means for you to put the players in the spotlight and make the drama about their differences.
Sometimes, disclaim decision making
Basically, sometimes you don't want to be responsible for making a decision. That's when you give the responsibility to the players. When the PCs look at you and ask whether the Werewolf just killed the Infernal, you can just look at the Werewolf and ask "Well, did you?"
Picture here just to break up the wall of text.
Finally, the MC's got their Hard Moves. Hard Moves are things the MC can do whenever the players look to them to find out what happens next, whenever they put themselves in harm's way, when it's unclear what should happen next, or when a player rolls a 6 or less on a Move. Again, the MC doesn't name the Move they're making, they just weave it into the conversation. The Hard Moves are as follows:
Pretty straightforward. Sometime's you want to separate the PCs and see how they deal with a difficult situation when they're alone.
Put them together
However, sometimes you really want to see the sparks fly when you put two PCs who are at odds with each other together.
Announce off-screen badness
Announce future badness
This Move basically works straight from your agenda to give everyone a life. Sometimes you'll just think of a perfect scheme that an NPC might have been up to and want to drop a hint about it. Sometimes you'll have the perfect idea of something terrible that might happen in the future and drop a hint about it.
Inflict harm (as established)
Basically, when your PCs put themselves in harm's way, you can just deal harm to them, as established in the harm rules.
Make them pay a price
Tell them the possible consequences and ask
When there's an obstacle in the players way, tell them what price they must pay to get past it. Sometimes there's not price, but a risk involved. If the PCs are trying to sneak into a warehouse, you could make them pay a price to bribe the guard, or you could tell them that they can totally sneak into the warehouse, but they might get caught and the police might be called in.
Leap to the worst possible conclusions
When the NPCs don't fully understand what's going on, make them leap to the worst possible conclusion. If the players have been trying to catch a murderer and the police find the latest victim right at the same time as the PCs find it... well, you know what to do.
Turn their move back on them
Take what the PC was trying to achieve with a move and create some unexpected and terrible consequences. Sometimes a PC takes a swipe at someone meaning to subdue them, only to accidentally hit too hard and end up with a bleeding corpse lying at their feet.
Expose a dangerous secret to the wrong person
So the Serpentine's been secretly dating the Mortal, and it'd be terrible for the Mortal if the Serpentine's family were to find out. Have the Serpentine's brother find a secret love note the Mortal gave to the Serpentine.
Take a String on someone
NPCs can hold Strings on PCs. Sometimes a player will roll a 6 on a Move that normally involves the exchange of Strings, and you can have it backfire by giving the NPC the String instead. An NPC returned your sick burn with a witty retort? Give the NPC a String on the PC. A PC's attempt to turn someone on was a bit too transparent? Give the object of their flirtation a String on them.
Trigger their Darkest Self
This Move should be used sparingly, and only when the situation is perfect. Tell (or ask) them what made them snap and then let them play their Darkest Self.
Herald the abyss
PCs can gaze into the abyss to find answers to their questions. Sometimes the abyss gazes back at them. Again, just as each PC should have their own way of gazing into the abyss , so should the abyss speak to them in a unique way. If the Infernal gazes into the abyss by consulting their dark power for advice, have the dark power suddenly become an omnipresent voice in their head. If the Witch gazes into the abyss by reading Tarot cards and trying to understand the symbolism, have them assaulted constantly by obviously symbolic events and entities on all sides.
After every move, "What do you do?"
Whenever the MC makes a Move, it's just to set up a situation for the PCs to react to. Whenever you make a Move, ask the PCs what they do.
That's quite a lot of text already, so I'll delve into the rest of the section later. There is one more section I'd like to address though: Chain Reaction . This brief section discusses how Moves, whether PC Moves or the MC's Hard Moves, should always drive the story forward, cascade into each other, and lead to more interesting drama. Whether the players fail or succeed, it should always increase the momentum of the story. This shouldn't be alien to anyone who's played PbtA games before, but the idea is that a failure on a dice roll should never stop the story, but lead the story in a new, unexpected direction.
Next time, Managing NPCs , NPC Strings , Advantage & Disadvantage , Blending In , and Under Each Skin .
Being the MC: Part 2Original SA post
Uh, it's been a while. Where was I?
Moving on with Chapter 4, Being the MC.
So, like in Apocalypse World and other PbtA games, NPCs don't really work the same as PCs in Monsterhearts. As you may or may not know, all rolls in PbtA games are made by players. NPCs do have rules associated with them, but the real purpose of NPCs in PbtA games is to give a context to the Moves the MC makes. In a more traditional RPG the GM would declare that the group of thugs are gunning at the PCs and roll for each thug's attack roll against the PCs, then declare what happens. Because in PbtA games all the rolls are made by players, the same situation could be presented as the MC declaring that the PCs are about to come under fire (a soft move) followed by asking "What do you do?" This might trigger moves on the players' part (in Monsterhearts, probably run away if they try to get out from the situation, or hold steady if they're trying to do something risky under fire), or it might even escalate straight into a hard move (say a player decides that their character will just stand there dumbfounded, taking a load of buckshot into their chest, a viable strategy if you're purposefully trying to trigger your Darkest Self!), which in this case would probably be to deal harm as established.
Anyway, this brief section mainly just lists advice on how to keep tabs on all of your NPCs. You should have some kind of a sheet with each of your NPCs listed by name, a short description of each (just enough to tell them apart) and any Strings they may hold on PCs (or even other NPCs!).
As I've undoubtedly mentioned a number of times before, NPCs can hold Strings just like PCs can. However, because of the aforementioned fact that the MC doesn't make rolls, NPC Strings work somewhat differently from PC Strings. NPCs can spend Strings on others to do any of the following:
- Put the NPCs action against them at an Advantage.
- Add an extra harm to whatever harm the NPC is dealing to them.
- Place a Condition on them.
- Offer them experience to do what you want.
- Come out of nowhere with a hard move.
Now, here's a weird thing: PCs can use Strings to force people to hold steady to act, something conspicuously absent in the NPC list, which is a really weird omission because a number of examples in the book have NPCs spending Strings on PCs to force them to hold steady . It is probably a simple omission (because later in the text making PCs hold steady is explicitly identified as a use of NPC Strings), but I still think it's kind of weird (especially when later on the text describes making PCs hold steady as falling under coming out of nowhere with a hard move).
Yeah, it's weird. I get the intent, but it's confusingly phrased.
Advantage & Disadvantage
So, because NPCs don't make any rolls, Monsterhearts uses a simple system of Advantage/Disadvantage for NPCs. NPCs act at an Advantage whenever they're able to make use of a Condition placed on a PC, they spend a String on that PC, something would give the NPC a +1 to their action, or a custom move or special rule would make them do so. On the flip side, NPCs act at a Disadvantage when they have a Condition that would interfere with their action, something (like the Queen's Shield ) would give them a -1 to their action, or a custom move or special rule made them do so.
Advantage and Disadvantage don't actually really change the rules or how the moves work, they modify the consequences of moves that the MC makes with their NPCs. When an NPC acts at an Advantage, they gain one of the following benefits: the action gains them new followers or support; the action leaves them better protected in some way; or the action sets the NPC up perfectly for a follow-up action of some sort.
When at Disadvantage, the action has one of the following additional effects: it alienates their friends and allies; it leaves them exposed to danger; it leaves them exhausted or without an escape plan.
Now, I haven't actually made a lot of use of Advantage or Disadvantage in my Monsterhearts games (because they were mostly about player vs. player drama), but I think Advantage & Disadvantage is a neat little system. It is a simple system based on narrative tags, which works perfectly for a game as light on rules and heavy on emergent narrative as Monsterhearts.
This brief section discusses the many different ways the PCs can blend in with humans. The idea of Monsterhearts is that the characters are monsters, but they're very human on the outside, and no matter which Skin you're using they should have some means of interacting with high school life. Most of the Skins can easily pass for human and interact with them like normal, but the Ghost and Vampire both require a bit of extra consideration: how does no one notice that the Ghost is, well, a Ghost? Maybe there's just something about them that makes people ignore them, even when they literally walk right through them. How does the Vampire not burn in sunlight? Well, maybe you've decided with your players that that's not a thing for Vampires in your game, or maybe the PC lugs around a parasol or some magical geegaw to protect them from the sun? Who knows? It's up to you guys.
Under Each Skin
This section is pretty much what we've been doing throughout my write-up of the Skins: discussing the themes of the Skins and what they bring to the table, as well as special MC considerations that should be made for each Skin. It's mostly just really no-nonsense and worthwhile advice, like "If your Werewolf takes the Uncontainable Move it's not because they never want their character to be caught in bonds or captivity, but because they want their character escaping from captivity to be a story for their character! Throw them in the back of a police car once in a while!" and so on.
There's also a lot of neat stuff about adapting the setting to the needs of the Skins as well as introducing NPCs to give a context to Gangs that PCs may take when they advance. If you have a Fae in your group, there should be a lot of pristine wilderness nearby, probably with lots of reflecting ponds so they can gaze into the abyss . If you have a Werewolf in your group, it's basically a licence for you to set all your scenes at night under the light of the full moon. If you have a Ghoul in your group, ask them lots of probing questions about how their body may be falling apart to make sense of why they might seek the services of Necromantic Caretakers .
So, you want to play Monsterhearts but don't want any of that teenage drama? This section discusses it. Sort of.
Basically, given the themes of Monsterhearts, high school is a perfect setting for the game. If you don't want to run a high school game, you should still find a context for the game that features a lot of social changes for the PCs, as well as potential for volatile drama. Also, petty social politics are a must. That's basically the extent of this section.
Next time, Chapter Five, Teaching and Running the Game , which is thankfully short enough for me to do in one sitting!
Teaching & Running the GameOriginal SA post
Make a homeroom seating chart.
Follow the characters around.
Learn what they want and what they're afraid of.
Wonder what kind of menace might be dwelling withing this town.
Real MonstersOriginal SA post
Just listened to the Horrortoberfest review of The Rage: Carrie 2. ...Is... Is that just somebody's game of Monsterhearts?
I haven't seen it, but the Carrie films (and the books) in general are perfect Monsterhearts material. Supernatural powers as a metaphor for puberty? Check. High school setting? Check. Generally nasty atmosphere of intolerance and an undercurrent of "the humans are the worst monsters?" Check.
Speaking of which, I'm just going to try and finish this writeup real quick so I can move on to something else.
The penultimate chapter of Monsterhearts is about the villains, menaces and dangers of the setting, as can be surmised from its title. You know, all the stuff that gives a context to the game beyond the characters trying to awkwardly sex each other up.
First of all, there's a short discussion on what makes a good Monsterhearts villain. The main idea boils down to this: villains should be simple, with clear goals that either conflict or go hand in hand with the PCs' motivations. Secondly, while villains should be formidable, the PCs in general should be stronger than them, going from the principle of treating your NPCs like stolen cars. The job of villains isn't to block the PCs' actions, but to give new opportunities for the drama and story to move towards.
Secondly, there's some discussion on how to make the villains seem monstrous: the idea is that while the PCs are monsters, they're also teenagers. Villains should be real monsters. The difference is that real monsters kill people, eat babies, that sort of thing. Also, if you're taking your principles to heart, your villains might not even need to be literal monsters: because making humans seem monstrous is one of your principles, a skilled MC can probably concoct a villain that is a human but is really monstrous because of their actions.
There's also a short discussion on Darkest Selves and how they allow players to be villains in their own right. If you've got a player who's constantly going into their Darkest Self, you can use your villains to offer to work with them to sate their unnatural urges. Or alternately, if you've got the traditional situation of say a Werewolf terrorizing the town in their Darkest Self, you can probably introduce a werewolf hunter as a villain. Basically, you've then got a villain that the other PCs have good reason to work with (if they want to do something about the Werewolf murdering people in town) but can also drive the drama forward (say, the Werewolf happens to have a love interest in the group, the werewolf hunter can easily become a wedge in their relationship, or even try to use the love interest against the Werewolf).
Menaces are basically Monsterhearts' version of Fronts. They're a neat package of information to help the MC keep a track of all the potential dangers and villains in the game and to allow them to codify them with actual rules to an extent.
A Menace is composed of three parts:
An outline, quickly summarizing what the Menace is about.
Stakes, questions about what might happen if the Menace gets its way.
- Threats, the villains and dangers introduced by the Menace.
So, we've got the outline "Werewolf pack menacing the town." Our Stakes include stuff like "Will the werewolf hunter be able to stop the pack before they rip the town to shreds? Will Jason [name I just came up with for the Werewolf PC] side with his pack or work against them? Who will Robin [the Mortal love interest of the werewolf hunter] side with?" and so on. Then we go on to making our Threats.
Each Threat has a Craving, Offering and a Capacity, describing what they want, what they have to give to their allies, and what they're ultimately capable of. Each of these gives the Threat a custom hard move.
The Cravings, and their moves, are as follows:
- intimacy (isolate them)
- notoriety (lash out and provoke reaction)
- ownership (viciously protect coveted thing)
- transcendence (enlist others to do unethical bidding)
- sex (tempt them and seek promises)
- power (shower them with outlandish gifts)
- inclusion (show them what they're missing)
- support (save their skin at a vital moment)
- sudden violence (outright kill someone they love)
- cold betrayal (turn their friends against them)
- calculated sacrifice (lose an eye to gouge an eye)
Going back to the above example, we've got the following threats:
Threat: Werewolf Pack
Craving: Notoriety (lash out and provoke reaction)
Offering: Inclusion (show them what they're missing) [I'm thinking "You could be one of us cool werewolves!" here]
Capacity: Sudden Violence (outright kill someone they love)
Threat: Werewolf Hunter
Craving: Transcendence (enlist others to do unethical bidding) [What I'm imagining here is a religious zealot type of slayer.]
Offering: Support (save their skin at a vital moment)
Capacity: Calculated Sacrifice (lose an eye to gouge an eye) [So, this guy is more than happy to send those he's allied with to their deaths if it means taking out a few werewolves.]
Finally, if you want, you can write a Custom Move for your Threats. These follow the standard formula of Moves in the game. Since we've got a religious zealot werewolf hunter here, he's probably more than happy to offer support to those who also have interests in fighting against werewolves, but this support comes at a price. So, we give him the following custom move:
Whenever the Werewolf Hunter offers you support (soldiers, weapons, money, whatever) and you accept, he gains a String on you.
Finally, we get to the last chapter!
"About fucking time!"
The last chapter of Monsterhearts is about hacking the game. The first and most important part of this is Shifting the Action .
Shifting the Action is about altering the assumptions of the game by making an all new Basic Move. The anatomy of the Basic Moves is pretty simple:
When you do [something], roll with [a stat]. On a 10 up, [a good result]. On a 7-9, [a mixed result or hard choice].
The example given is about traveling between dimensions, but that's just one possibility. You could make your game about sports and cheerleading, adding new moves to fit that idea, you could write moves relevant to certain places in the town to accentuate their weirdness, and so on.
Modifying Skins is the second least intensive way to modify the game. Say you'd rather have the Mortal be about friendship instead of love (if you're a boring person) you could easily modify the Mortal's moves to refer to their best friend instead of their lover, change a few of the moves a bit, and you've got a different kind of Mortal. If you've got a player who's really into the Werewolf but also likes the Skin-walker angle of needing an animal pelt to transform, hell, steal a few moves from the Selkie (a third party Skin and one of the best I've seen, actually) and you've got a Werewolf type of character whose big dramatic arc is obviously about someone stealing their animal pelt.
Changing the MC Toolkit is also pretty straightforward: if you don't like the list of Cravings, add a new one and come up with a hard move related to it!
Finally, there's Creating New Skins . The list of things you need to create a new Skin is a bit too exhaustive for me to list here, so yeah.
The book finishes with The Long Example , an example of play showing how the game works both on the player and MC side, Mediography , a list of media that inspired Monsterhearts (and yes, Carrie is there, but I'm kind of surprised at the omission of Nine Inch Nails from the music section given that one of the Mortal's Moves is named after a NIN song), and finally, A Perfect Moment , a scene from Jennifer's Body that is too good for me to not post here:
A Perfect Moment posted:
Let's say you don't have time to watch all the same movies and television shows that I did, but you still want to understand this teen monster genre.
Here's the entire genre, distilled down into a single moment. It's one of the last scenes of Jennifer's Body. Major spoilers on this page.
Needy has decided that enough is enough. Jennifer might be her best friend, but she's also a flesh-eating demon who's wracked up a pretty serious body count. Needy's the only one who can do something about it. Jennifer must die.
And so Needy breaks into Jennifer's room in the middle of the night. She's got Jennifer pinned to the bed, straddling her. There's an x-acto knife in Needy's hand, and she's wrestling to drive it home. She somehow manages to overpower Jennifer and drive the x-acto knife into her chest.
"No," says Needy, "Your heart."
Jennifer wilts. There's a moment of silence. And then her mom walks in and flips on the light. Cut to Needy in an insane asylum.
There's not a single thing missing from that scene. Someone murders their best friend. An element of messy sexuality. Punchy, over-the-top dialogue. Betrayal. Melodrama. Crude violence (with a boxcutter, no less!) And finally, the mundane world suddenly rearing its head.
So, that's it. I think it goes without saying that I love Monsterhearts. As far as RPGs go it's pretty much in a genre of its own where there's not a lot of competition and it manages to perfectly emulate and encapsulate said genre. However, even if you've no interest in running a game of teenage supernatural sexytimes, it's really worth reading simply from a game design point of view, because it's probably one of the best examples of genre emulation in the RPG scene.
Anyway, I'm probably going to be taking a break from writing F&F for a while, but in the meantime I'm open to suggestions about what I should do next. I've got Golden Sky Stories , a game of cute magical anime animals helping people, 3:16: Carnage Among The Stars , a game about badass space marines that kill aliens simply because all non-human life in the universe is a potential threat to Earth's well-being, or I guess I could do Rookvale , another game by Avery McDaldno, this one a hack of the Anima Prime system that could be best described as "grimdark weird fantasy Pokemon".