Monsterhearts: taking a peek under the ribcage


Monsterhearts sells itself as “the messy lives of teenage monsters.”  But the truth is that the monstrous nature of the PCs in any game of Monsterhearts really just serves as a reminder of the alienation, discomfort, and feeling of mislabeled or misunderstood powerlessness that gnawed at so many of us when we were teenagers.  And maybe as adults as well.  Furthermore, themes which have filled classic literature for ages rear their heads again and again in this game; you don’t have to have ever experienced any of them yourself in order to be fascinated by and indulge yourself in them.

A quick background: this is an RPG which has grown out of the Apocalypse World system created by Vincent Baker.  It takes the sparse elegance of Baker’s ruleset and applies it to a very different type of life.  Read on to find out what makes Monsterhearts different from Apocalypse World, and learn some of what makes it so dynamic and so much fun to play.

Apocalypse World delivers extensively on the flavor that is central to its concept; every part of it is built to amplify that feeling of violence, manipulation, scarcity and shitty choices that so characterizes fiction about the apocalypse.  It is an apocalyptic story generation machine.

In the same way, Monsterhearts is finely tuned to deliver as much drama as possible.  The players’ only means of mechanically interacting with the fictional world are all specifically meant to encourage (and even enforce) the feel of struggling to reach some sort of emotional and physical security without being able to truly rely on others.

The truth is, Monsterhearts isn’t about teenagers: it’s about people who are still emotionally and socially immature and who have yet to really grow into themselves.  There are people like that all over the place.  You could set a game of Monsterhearts in any number of times and places (thank you, Shakespeare), it just lends itself especially well to high school.

Maybe the best way to describe this is to tell you a bit about the basic mechanics.

The “basic moves” in Monsterhearts, the mechanical interactions that every character can have with the world around them, are all built around manipulation and power, with a pervasive theme of the less emotionally mature aspects of ourselves.  Most of the moves aren’t inherently negative, or can at least be used in positive ways, but they nearly always induce a certain set of dynamics which flavor the entirety of the game.

As with Apocalypse World, to succeed at a given move you must roll two six-sided dice (2d6) and add the appropriate stat (generally ranging in value from -1 to 2).  If your total is 6 or lower, you screwed up.  A result of 7-9 means that you succeeded with some sort of complication, while a 10 or higher means that you’ve done really well.  Also as with Apocalypse World, there are fictional triggers which must be met if you wish to make the move.  You can’t do it mechanically without having it happen in the game’s fiction.  There’s one minor exception to this with Turn Someone On, but it fits the setting of the game.

The basic moves are:

  • Turn Someone On*,
  • Manipulate An NPC,
  • Shut Someone Down,
  • Hold Steady,
  • Lash Out Physically,
  • Run Away, and
  • Gaze Into The Abyss.

Different skins (the game’s term, replacing “classes” or “playbooks”) also have special moves of their own, but they rarely offer a more positive way of interacting with other people.  Instead, they are more likely to focus on specific dynamics for that skin; the binding power of promises for the Fae, hypnotic intensity for the Vampire, power over your clique for the Queen (as in Queen Bee), etc.

Most of these basic moves (all of them except Hold Steady and Gaze Into The Abyss) also have interactions with another excellent game mechanic, called Strings.  Strings represent power over other people, and you track them for each other person in relation to your character.  This seems like it could be a bad idea and just encourage overcomplicated bookkeeping, but it works surprisingly well.  Strings, and their in-play ramifications, are one of the biggest differentiating factors between Monsterhearts and the game which gave it life, Apocalypse World.

Notice how there’s a move called Manipulate An NPC, but no move called Manipulate A PC?  The only commonly available in-game way to get a PC to do what you want is to spend Strings that you have on them.  This means that you’re using the power you’ve gained to encourage or punish their actions; the most direct influence you have is to offer them an experience point to do what you want (everyone loves XP!), or force them to Hold Steady first if they try do something you don’t want.  Each of those options costs one String.  Of course, you could just ask them nicely to do what you want, if you don’t mind having no guarantee.

The only way to get Strings on someone is to use one of the other basic moves (there are a few exceptions to this, since some skins are able to get Strings under other conditions).  The easiest way to get those Strings is to Turn Someone On, or to Lash Out Physically.  Only if you roll well and the other person has no Strings on you can you get a String through Shutting Someone Down.  This means that everyone will be turning each other on and occasionally getting in fights, which is perfect for a messy drama.

Of course, not everyone is comfortable with someone else having power over them.  What socially and emotionally vulnerable teenager wants to let someone else tug on their puppet-strings with no method of recourse?  So the urge to get Strings often plays into a brinksmanship dynamic, in which players will try to gain more Strings on each other in order to protect themselves, encouraging other players to get more Strings, encouraging… you get the idea.  There’s only one way to get rid of someone else’s Strings on you: Shutting Someone Down.  And that pulls the put-downs and casual social cruelty into the game, rounding out the lust and violence dynamics.

But there’s another way in which the game’s mechanics strongly encourage teenager-ish behavior.  Shutting Someone Down or spending a String can also impose a Condition on a PC or NPC.  Conditions are very simple: they are labels that represent how other people perceive the character.  They could be something like Rebellious, or Lame, but they could just as easily be PoserFag, or Slut.  They don’t dictate how the labeled PC or NPC has to act, but there are mechanical benefits for other people to respond to and use them.  There’s plenty of potential here for emotionally troublesome in-game dynamics, so make sure that you and your friends are comfortable traversing this ground in play, or are able to speak up without fear when something feels wrong.

Why would you ever want to put a label on someone else?  Well, Conditions can be used by others to make rolls against the labelled person easier.  For example, Murray has the Condition Poser and has just gotten dressed up to go to Mira’s party.  When he arrives, Lila sees him and doesn’t want him to be there (maybe they’re exes and Lila can’t stand the thought of him being there while she hangs out with Mira).  She makes fun of him (Shutting Someone Down), specifically mentioning that he clearly is imitating the way the more popular kids dress (she says he’s pretending to be something he’s not? Sounds like she’s making use of Poser).  Now Lila has +1 on her roll, a significant advantage when rolling 2d6 and adding your (usually low) stats.  The granularity of the probability curve with 2d6 encourages players to hunt down every +1 bonus they can get their hands on.

You can remove Conditions only by taking appropriate fictional action or by Gazing Into The Abyss, that experience of deep introspection which can also result in revelation.  Gaze Into The Abyss is specifically meant to be a unique experience for each character, playing up to how they perceive the world around them.  It is also one of the few ways that players can get answers to their questions directly from the storyteller, which makes it especially popular when players are trying to figure out what they are facing and what they must do next.

There’s one final note that makes this set of basic moves, and their accompanying screwy social dynamics, both perfectly appropriate and a pile of fun to play with.  Once a character has advanced sufficiently (the game’s term for leveling up), they have the opportunity to expand their basic moves repertoire.  This is only one of a number of awesome available choices, so you’re not guaranteed to pick it, but the additional basic moves come from what the game’s creator Joe Mcdaldno calls the Growing Up Moves.  Basically, these moves offer an alternative to the poisonous dynamics encouraged by the normal basic moves.  They are:

  • Make Someone Feel Beautiful,
  • Call Someone On Their Shit,
  • Intervene Against An Act Of Violence, and
  • Share Your Pain.

None too subtle, no?  Both the fictional triggers necessary to perform these moves and the dynamics that they create encourage far more altruistic and positive interactions between PCs (and NPCs too), but they don’t replace the old moves entirely.  There will still be times when you are tempted to Shut Someone Down instead of Calling Someone On Their Shit.  Furthermore, you can only get two of these moves per every five advances, so when you do pick them you should pick the ones that feel most appropriate to your character.  Just another way that the game reminds you that we don’t grow up all at once.

There are a number of ways in which this game is fairly heavy-handed in terms of how it encourages specific behavior, but it does so for excellent reasons and with great style.  It is, at its heart, a game about the messy lives of teenagers, or teenagers-in-spirit.  The process of growth from immature young person to mature adult is something that we all go through in our lives, some with more suffering along the way than others.  Monsterhearts bites deep into the conflicted and sometimes painful nougat center of the dramatic-teenager candy bar, and bares it to the rest of the world for all of us to see.  And it does so in a way that lets its players create their own stories about what it is like, and what it means, to grow up.  I can imagine games of Monsterhearts in which people don’t have fun, but I have yet to play in one.  Instead I’ve been caught by surprise and left laughing at the overwrought nature of it all, or delighted by the release of playing characters so emotionally uninhibited or so willfully and confidently close to self-destruction.

It’s an excellent game.

*That exception I mentioned with Turn Someone On?  It works like this: you’re all at a time of your lives when you’re still figuring out what it is that turns your crank without necessarily knowing what it is that gives other people a good time.  Nearly ANYTHING you do can be used to Turn Someone On, without your character intending to do that per se.  That unselfconscious moment where you brush your hair back over your ear, or the way your body moves as you pick up your backpack, any of that is fodder for the sex drives of your fictional counterparts.  This lends itself to nuttiness and hilarity, along with feeling very “high school.”


8 responses to “Monsterhearts: taking a peek under the ribcage

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  5. Great, in-depth analysis of how game mechanics incentivize certain kind of game play. I wish more rpg reviews contained this kind of smart analysis!

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