Duality and Thematic Tension in RPGs: Apocalypse World and Monsterhearts

I’ve recently been working on a swords & sorcery-inspired Apocalypse World (AW) hack, trying to create something which fits the themes present in Robert E Howard’s Conan stories, Steven Brust’s Taltos novels, and Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories. In doing this, I’ve had an interesting realization about the construction of AW and the games it has inspired: dualistic tension in the games’ principles drives the dramatic and thematic tension which fuels their best stories.

My favorite AW-based games tie their themes (implicit & explicit) into the principles which guide the storyteller, explicitly stating the fundamental foci of the game—and of most stories the game will create. For those unfamiliar with AW and the games it has inspired, those principles are stated clearly in the text. I’ll give you examples in a moment.

When I told Venn, my sibling, about my project, they shared notes they’d collected from Vincent and Meguey Baker’s conversations about what it means for a system to be “Powered by the Apocalypse,” the category of games which follow closely in AW’s footsteps. Those notes included guidelines for how to make such games, and opened with three questions:

  1. What is your theme?
  2. What is the central question?
  3. What are we playing to find out?

Following these guidelines, the answers to those questions form the foundation of the game’s principles. As I reexamined the work I’d already done and struggled to condense the themes and tones I wanted from Howard, Brust, and Leiber’s works, I had my realization; the AW games I love and admire all have dualistic thematic tension built into their principles, and that tension drives almost all the drama of the stories told through those games.

Let me give you examples of those principles that I mentioned earlier, first from AW and then from Monsterhearts.

In Apocalypse World, much of the tension I love derives from two core principles: Look through crosshairs, and Name everyone, make everyone human. This is a game about ruin and deprivation and struggling to make life better when there’s not enough and everything breaks, and I think those principles drive this home.

Quoting from the 2nd edition of AW, pp. 83-4:

Look through crosshairs. Whenever your attention lands on someone or something that you own—an NPC [non-player character] or a feature of the landscape, material or social—consider first killing it, overthrowing it, burning it down, blowing it up, or burying it in the poisoned ground. An individual NPC, a faction of NPCs, some arrangement between NPCs, even an entire rival holding and its NPC warlord: crosshairs. It’s one of the game’s slogans: “there are no status quos in Apocalypse World.” You can let the players think that some arrangement or institution is reliable, if they’re that foolish, but for you yourself: everything you own is, first, always and overwhelmingly, a target.

Name everyone, make everyone human. [Now I paraphrase, because this entry is much longer: Give everyone names. Give everyone uncomplicated self-interests. Make those uncomplicated self-interests align the NPCs differently between the PCs [player characters], so that you can show off more sides of them as people and create drama and conflicts of interest.]

Something that I read into the second principle which is not stated explicitly… by making everyone human, you also make everyone relatable in some small way. Players can feel empathy and attachment for these NPCs, even when they’re shitheels. It’s okay, and even good, to make NPCs both repulsive and adorable, repellant to one PC and unabashedly endearing to another. This fuels tension between PCs, as an NPC becomes the ally of one PC and the enemy of another.

At first, Name everyone, make everyone human and Look through crosshairs seem to work at cross purposes. When you feel connected to people and things around you, it hurts to see them destroyed. If everything around you is constantly being destroyed, it is difficult to feel connected. There is an implicit dualistic tension between these elements. But the tension between these principles gives rise to the tone and thematic tension of Apocalypse World.

By combining Name everyone, make everyone human with Look through crosshairs, every time you destroy something that has been established you are destroying something that the PCs (and hopefully the players) have complicated—and sometimes positive—feelings about. This chaos, privation, and loss heightens the game’s underlying theme of struggling to survive apocalyptic ruin, and provides dramatic tension. Nothing lasts, things fall apart, and the PCs must struggle to build amongst the ruins on unstable foundations.

In Monsterhearts, a game by Avery Alder, a large portion of the game’s tension is derived from one principle with two parts, Make monsters seem human. Make humans seem monstrous. This is a game about “the terror and confusion that comes both with growing up and feeling like a monster” (from the back of the 1st edition). It’s about being pulled between parts of yourself, and between monstrosity and humanity, without knowing which way to turn or whether to embrace anything or reject it all. Alder clearly recognized the tension provided by the above principles, because she highlights ways to maximize it in her text.

First edition of Monsterhearts, pp. 106:

Make monsters seem human. Make humans seem monstrous. When you start the game, there will be monsters and there will be humans, and they’ll seem like two separate groups with distinct members. Your players will assume that adult humans have their shit together, and that adult monsters are lecherous parasites. Whenever possible, make the situation more complicated than that. Have monsters demonstrate unbelievable altruism, sometimes, before retreating into pathology once again. Show how “good people” have their clandestine and perverse natures, sometimes, as wretched as any beast of myth. The moment you draw a line in the fiction, start thinking about ways to blur and bend it. Work to apply this thinking to age and gender, as well as the division between humans and monsters.

An essential part of the teenage experience is dealing with labels and prejudice. This is the point in a person’s life when sex, gender, race, class, beauty, talent—they become acutely aware of all of it. They feel controlled by labels which only ever half-apply. Make sure those labels are omnipresent. Make sure they have teeth.

[Additionally, from the subsequent principle Give everyone a life] …Occasionally, surprise the other players by reminding them that every character that touches the fiction has a vibrant and messy life going on.

Again, while it isn’t stated explicitly, the explanation for Make monsters seem human. Make humans seem monstrous and the subsequent snippet of the principle Give everyone a life work together to suggest making these characters, both monsters and humans, relatable enough for players to develop empathetic connections to them.

In Monsterhearts, the dualistic tension of the principles is explicitly embraced. The principles Make monsters seem human. Make humans seem monstrous are indeed opposed to each other. And their opposition is explicitly intended to create uncertainty and tension for the PCs (and players) as they struggle to navigate a world with strict but shifting boundaries, where they are constantly shown that reality is messier than those boundaries would suggest.

This confusion and uncertainty is at the core of Monsterhearts. These principles, which create a world with constantly shifting boundaries that briefly erode before being reinforced, drive the game. (Speaking of driving, another principle is Treat your NPCs like stolen cars, which has to be some of my favorite imagery ever used in a game’s storyteller section). This dualistic tension between humanity and monstrosity, and the uncertain lines drawn between them, provide the dramatic tension and thematic heart to nearly every game of Monsterhearts I’ve seen.

I love the ways AW and Monsterhearts have built this dualistic tension into their principles. I love how it focuses and drives the stories that these games produce, and—from a design perspective—how it makes a stable thematic core for the rest of the game to build on. I won’t say that all games need this, but I think narrative focused games (and especially those based on AW) benefit a great deal from it. Without it, how do we know what the game’s stories are about?

Returning to my swords & sorcery project…

Having recognized all this, I knew I wanted dualistic tension in my game too. That’s how I arrived at the following answer to some of those questions far above, an answer distilled from the works of Howard, Brust, and Leiber:

“This is a game about making a name and place for yourself in a world that will forget you.”

I want ambition to play a role. I have some rough ideas for principles, and some of the tension I want revolves around these two sets of ideas:


  • Show the mortality of all things,
  • Remind the PCs that they too are mortal,
  • Remind them that this too shall pass.


  • Show the wonder of the fleeting moment,
  • Show the glory of the ephemeral,
  • Show the universality and eternity of a passing sensation / emotion / connection.

As I said, they’re rough. But some fusion of the first three, paired with some fusion of second three, feels like fertile ground for making a game about larger-than-life characters attaining (or falling short of) their grand ambitions. I think one of the PC retirement options might just be “your character recognizes that what they have is enough.”

This might be a tragic swords & sorcery game. I’m not sure.

I’ll probably have more to tell you about this project in the future.


One response to “Duality and Thematic Tension in RPGs: Apocalypse World and Monsterhearts

  1. Henry, this is interesting, and basically the same as the ideas you shared with me on Monday.

    I do think you have a way to go before your principles are ready for action. I particularly think it would be helpful to focus more on the lasting ripples as well as the eternal moment…

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