Welcome to the once a month review article where Jeremy Verkley tries to answer the question “should I play this game?” Or is the question “why should I play this game?” Maybe it is “is this game any good?” or “who is this game for?” regardless, once a month, Jeremy is going to answer A gaming question.
This month: It is time for the apocalypse! What is Monsterhearts (2)?
Why look at this game?
Happy Valentine's Day! I know that doesn’t seem like an answer to this question but really, it kind of is. Valentine's Day is an emotional day for many people, and Monsterhearts is about telling stories driven by emotion. It’s also a prime example of how the rules of a game can really move the action forward. I also think it’s a great game for us to look at because two extreme and distinct ways of playing it have emerged, without any changing of the rules. Monsterhearts is “Run by the Apocalypse”, which means its mechanical roots stem from the ruleset known as the ‘Apocalypse System’-- there are so many games that run off of the Apocalypse System it is worth introducing it early in this columns life, and I can think of no better place to start than here.
What type of game is this?
Monsterhearts is a Narrative game; that does not mean it does not have mechanics or rules, just that they serve telling a story more than anything else. Compared to traditional tabletop RPGs (TTRPG) the mechanics of Monsterhearts are very simple and employ mixed results, meaning that when the player rolls, the result doesn’t have a binary outcome. You can succeed, succeed with a complication, or fail on each and every roll, and the result has a clear effect on the character’s narrative arc.
During play, Players and the MC (what they call the Gamemaster in Monsterhearts) are encouraged to build on each others’ descriptions, to help show how each character is interacting with the story; if you aren’t collaborating at the table, I’m sorry, you are playing it wrong. In short, Monsterhearts is a game where the narrative takes precedent over everything else. If you want an easy way to convince your friends to try out this game, I think the best way is to describe Monsterhearts as a high school simulator, except everyone is a secret monster.
I’m going to briefly touch on the three pillars of gameplay of TTRPGs (Simulation, Narrative Storytelling, and Abstract Storytelling) and then talk about the two different ways to approach the game:
Monsterhearts isn’t interested in realism, in fact, I would argue that it does not have any rules that encourage the players or the GM to stick to the rules of our reality. Does that mean there aren't any aspects of simulation in the game? Of course not: instead of creating a situation and letting it play out, Monsterhearts focuses on creating a feeling, along with the emotions that come from the fallout when one feeling clashes with another. How does it accomplish this? With a set of intersecting but simple rules.
First, there are four statistics each character has: Hot, Cold, Volatile, and Dark:
Hot is a measure of how enticing a character is,
Cold is a measure of how controlled a character is,
Volatile is a measure of a character’s physical ability,
Dark is how connected the character is to the mysterious—aka the supernatural, or the unknown
These stats are used in moves, which are broad definitions of action, that the Player can take. The Players will use their stats by rolling 2d6 (two six-sided dice), adding the relevant modifier, and on a six or less the Player fails and the MC makes a Hard Move which makes something bad happen, on a seven to nine the Player succeeds, but either not completely or with a complication (MC’s choice), and with a ten plus the Player has a resounding success.
Let us say that my character is attempting to get their crush (and also the target of a dangerous monster) to slow dance with them at the Valentines Day dance. I roll 2d6 and add my “Hot” modifier. On a six or lower the MC describes how I saunter across the dance floor, only to trip on the punch table sending the punch bowl flying landing (of course) on my crush. The crush runs to the bathroom, embarrassing my character and isolating my crush making them easier for that dangerous monster to attack (A bad thing happened).
On a seven, eight, or nine, the MC tells me that I succeed in approaching my crush and they seem excited to dance with my character, but over their shoulder I see the captain of the cheerleading squad (my character’s personal nemesis, and monster suspect) making a b-line to me and my crush (the situation grows more complicated).
On a ten or greater not only does my character get to dance with their crush, but my crush is openly happy to do so, and as we start dancing the song “Unforgettable”, performed by the hired live band that sounds exactly like Nat “King” Cole starts to play. As the song dies down we share a sweet short kiss (What a resounding success for my character!).
There are couple things I want to point out here: first, each result moves the narrative forward in some way, either my character’s personal arc, or the general narrative. Second on a failure (roll of six or less), my character still gets to mark an experience, so even though I don’t get what I want, my character has learned from the experience and will grow from it in the future.
Players, also, each have a “Skin” or monster that gives them unique abilities, and some great insight into what type of character will emerge through the gameplay. Controlled and manipulative? Vampire. Brooding and dangerous? Werewolf. Enticing and capricious? Fey.
The flavour provided in each Skin is the most valuable resource for the player, and also informs the MC as to the type of personal arc that character might go through over the course of the game. The Skin also includes something called 'the Darkest Self', which are instructions on how to act when the Player’s monstrous nature takes over; the game is at its most dramatic when a Darkest Self comes into play, as each Skin gives instruction on how your character has gone out of control, often times the Player is only able to care about a single thing to the exclusion (and often abuse) of all else. Finally, there are Strings, which is Monsterhearts’ way of representing the influence people have over each other, and it is encouraged that a Player use and accept the Strings (it is not mandatory, just encouraged) to make characters act in a way other characters want them to.
The power of narrative storytelling is equally in everyone’s hands in Monsterhearts. The MC is there to keep things moving should the story stall, but really, the characters/Players are empowered (and encouraged) to drive the action themselves. Before any game, the group builds the classroom, the school, and the city (or town); everybody contributes to the world in some way. During play, most of the MC’s responsibilities deal with reacting to what the player does, because the MC relies on the players for much of the action, it creates a real balance in the storytelling. This co-dependence goes beyond just MC to the Player, the mechanics of the game allow Players to push another Player in a narrative direction while being pushed themselves. it makes it impossible to control the narrative individually. It’s a very engaging and intuitive, making it easy to jump into and experience a story with your friends.
One of the most interesting choices in the design of Monsterhearts is how it handles the Abstract elements of its setting. Player’s Skins make the abstract concrete, so much so that it feels normal. The weird stuff your monster (or supernatural creature) can/will do is laid out as specific effects that can give one Player options other Players will not have.
The Witch can cast hexes, The Queen has minions, The Ghost can move through walls, and The Infernal has bargains they can call upon. All of these effects lie in the domain of the Abstract, but they are normal for your characters. As such even when engaging with these strange concepts it doesn’t feel removed from reality. As such, Players don’t have a ton of say in how any other abstract concepts inform storytelling. The MC, on the other hand, has all the other tools. Monster threats, and the mysterious happenings in the setting (Like that professor who always has a mouse following them, or the group stoners who smell of brimstone), but the biggest impact they can have on the story is when a player chooses to try the Move “Gaze into the Abyss”. “Gaze into the Abyss” is the move Players use when they are trying to gain information through supernatural means. The MC then gives them a strange, sometimes alarming, scene centered on whatever supernatural bent the character has going for them. The result can be anything from lucid visions, to a confusing hallucination, to introspective brooding, or even, on a failure, a psychic assault, and often the character is left with a Condition (something like confused, or afraid) to inform their roleplaying going forward. Conditions are important cues characters gain that note what emotional state the character is in at any given moment. They can be positive (such a blissful), neutral (such as apathetic), or negative (such a paranoid), and remain with the character until they are specifically dealt with. A condition could be dealt with by having a touching heart to heart conversation with friends, removing the crocodile woman trying to eat you, or even a good night’s sleep. Conditions are decided by the MC and the Player together and should reflect the type of story everyone is trying to tell, and if done properly, thanks to the games’ flexibility, a campaign of Monsterhearts can cover a multitude of genres ranging from fantasy to Lovecraftian horror.
Alright, before moving on to the setting, I think it’s important to talk about the two sides of this game I mentioned above.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there are many other ways to play this game, but these two examples are the far extremes, with one of them being actually intended by the designer of the game, so let us start there: Monsterhearts has Queer content, and takes some amount of control away from the Player in terms of sexuality. If you are uncomfortable with sexual themes, this is not the game for you, however because of this content, it can allow people to play through scenarios that might be uncomfortable, or even dangerous for them in real life, or grapple with something that happened to them in the past. Playing the game like this is serious business, and the rulebook has rules in place so that if things get too intense a Player, the MC can simply stop the game and retcon (Retcon is short form for retroactive continuity, which means you change something that has already happened, maybe instead of the victim of a crime being an animal, you change it so that the victim is a middle-aged man) whatever happened out of it. Playing Monsterhearts in this way can be therapeutic or a good exercise in perspective; I have played it this way and found it immensely satisfying.
That all being said the other extreme is to play it at a Buffy-esqe soap opera, where everyone is an attractive heartthrob and every few sessions the group is dealing with different a monster of the week. The game is ridiculously hilarious when played this way, and I totally recommend it, but remember that for many people this won’t be a joke, as they will be looking for a more serious experience, so try to be respectful of that.
The setting is mostly up to the group, but a few common threads stick out: The players are in high school, they are monsters coming to terms with their lives (cough, puberty, cough), and there is more going on than meets the eye.
I’m personally a fan of a having the game set in a smaller town, as it lets the group focus in on the smaller community, and forces interactions because, put quite simply, there isn’t a ton to distract people in a small town. I also enjoy setting it in the late nineties, because that’s where my junior high/high school experience started, however, there isn’t any reason you couldn’t set your game in the Elizabethan era, or even a far-future cyberpunk. Monsterhearts is very flexible so long as everyone agrees with the process you can play whatever setting you like. The book provides quick play rules if you don’t want to sit down and flesh out your world, but I would only recommend that for a One-shot.
What you Need to Play the Game
This is going to be short. You need for the whole group 2d6 and one rulebook. You can print off Skins online for free or copy the ones in the book. I would say try to have every player have their own dice as it cuts down on “where did that die go?” time, but the entry level for this game is extremely low.
First-time Player: Watch an episode or two of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and you’ll be ready, all the rules you’ll need on are your character Skin.
Experienced TTRPG Player: If you are coming from D&D, or Pathfinder, get ready: this thing plays fast and crazy. If you aren’t ready for heavy (HEAVY) roleplay, get ready for it. If you love seducing everything you come across, well, why haven’t you already played this game?
First-time GM: If this is your aesthetic, you’ll flow seamlessly into the game. Just know what you can and cannot do. Make sure you talk to the Players about sensitive material possibilities before the first session. Use the information from the world building and character creation to guide the players when they get lost. As far as games go this isn’t a bad place to start so long as you are comfortable with roleplay.
Player Becoming GM: If you’ve played Monsterhearts chances are you can run it quite easily as you’ll already know the majority of the rules. Think about the things you’ve really enjoyed while playing make sure to allow those things to happen while remembering that other people will also enjoy other things.
Experienced GM: If this is your first time with Monsterhearts or the Apocalypse system take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with the rules. If you want more roleplay in your group for a D&D game, see if people would be interested in a one-shot of this. Playing a game like Monsterhearts can really open up your eyes in less narrative focused games to moments or opportunities you might be missing. Also, adopt the rule that lets people back out of story situations that are not safe for them. That’s just a good rule.
Hey everybody, thanks for reading this article, I’m grateful for any feedback you can provide.
If you have a request for games to cover let me know, and I’ll do my best to track them down/write about them.
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