Tabletopping is a series where Bryce takes a tabletop RPG he has never played before, sits down with some friends, and tries it out. It’s about his first experience with a new game. As a result, rules will be gotten wrong, confusion will arise, and not everything will make sense. Some games rise, and others fall, but either way, stories will be made and told.
Teenagers and monsters must have something in common. They’re matched together so frequently. Teen Wolf, Buffy, Twilight, Vampire Diaries…what is it? Is it the using monsters as a metaphor for the isolation that teenagers can feel growing up? Is it the gratuitous and over-the-top action that can arise? The secret lives that some have to lead? Or a confluence of all of these factors? Well, now you can find out for yourself.
Enter Monsterhearts, by Avery Mcdaldno. Monsterhearts casts the players as—you guessed it—teenage monsters, struggling to get by in a world that is either unaware or terrified of them. Monsterhearts tells you that it knows you could write a better Twilight. I mean, hell, anyone could, right? So do it.
To take a couple steps back, let’s look at Monsterhearts the system. The game is based off of the rules for Apocalypse World (same as Dungeon World, discussed in a previous article), which is a system built around consequence. Perfect when dealing with the messy lives of teenagers. The conflict mechanism revolves around rolling two six-sided dice and add a modifier (usually plus or minus 1 or 2). If you roll a 6 or under, you fail. If you roll a 10 or higher, you succeed. If you roll between a 7 and a 9, however, you succeed with a consequence. This consequence can range from getting a lesser benefit for a move to taking damage as you dish it out.
There are a few things that distance Monsterhearts from Dungeon and Apocalypse World. For one, this game is more social, based more around dealing with the people around you than dungeon-delving. Hence, where Dungeon World has bonds that connect you to your party members, Monsterhearts has “strings.” Strings are pieces of emotional manipulation that you hold over other people. Having many strings over someone means you can manipulate them into doing things for you and gain bonuses against them. Of course, they can also hold strings against you. Another mechanic that Monsterhearts uses are conditions. You can inflict conditions on people, then later exploit those conditions to gain bonuses against them (as long as it makes sense within the reality of the game).
So why play this game? I have to admit, before I started our session of Monsterhearts, I was not sold. Subject matter about teenagers usually makes me roll my eyes at best. I hated being a teenager, so why would I want to relive that? Well, the answer is that being a teenager sucks for everyone, even if they don’t admit it. Being a monster teenager sucks even more. And, strangely, seeing these miserable people screw with each other to get ahead and to gain emotional leverage over each other is kind of…fun. In a, “Jesus, I’m glad that’s not me anymore” kind of way. Also, in a, “This is kind of beautiful in how depressing it is” kind of way.
Players choose classes in Monsterhearts (called playbooks in Dungeon World and “skins” here). Each skin reflects a common monster archetype. You can see the Vampire, the Werewolf, a Buffy-esque Slayer, and more. Each skin has their own unique set of moves that they can do. I sat down with three other players for our session of Monsterhearts. Joe was playing the Infernal, the ultimate goth kid who just happened to have a dark and malignant spirit that gave him power…in exchange for teensy tiny favors in the future, of course. Noah played the Mortal. Yes, you read that right, the Mortal. Also known as the most terrifying class in Monsterhearts, for reasons we will get into later. For now, imagine the Mortal as Bella from Twilight with a lot more problems going on. Finally, Rick played as the Serpentine, a child of an unimaginably old family that craved their lost power still. At the outset of the game, they choose how many strings they gain against each other based on their skins, then I set them loose on each other.
The story was pretty typical. Rick’s Serpentine was in love with Noah’s Mortal, who believed her true love was Joe’s Infernal. The Infernal beat up some punks, the Mortal played with everyone’s hearts. Then a mysterious Vampire stepped in, inviting the school to a party in a scheme to “convert” the Mortal. The party is raucous, punches are thrown, and the teens escape with their lives. Just another day in the neighborhood.
As an aside, there are a couple mechanics I haven’t explained yet. For one, every class is equipped with a sex move. That is, when you have sex with another player’s character, something happens. Usually you get some benefit against them (rarely you both benefit from the encounter). On the flipside, everyone also has a darkest self. That is, when you let your rage bubble over, you turn into a true monster and go on a self-destructive streak until you die or someone frees you. I mention this because both of these came up in my game. See, I didn’t want to advance the story forward because it was so entertaining watching my characters screw each other over emotionally. The Mortal seemed to take joy in torturing the poor Serpentine, until finally she decided to give it up for him. The thing is, the Mortal’s sex move is that she triggers the other person’s darkest self. The Serpentine’s darkest self caused him to distance himself from his family and throw himself full-bore into the Mortal’s life, attaching himself to her and attempting to abandon his previous life. She had destroyed him by giving him what he wanted.
And this is where you begin to see the subtle social commentary. The monsters seem like relatively normal (albeit troubled) teens when you look at the one who isn’t a monster, the Mortal, who feeds off of abuse, both emotional and physical, and uses sex as a weapon. There is a section in the book that talks about queer themes and how they reflect in Monsterhearts, and it’s an easy connection to make. The themes of hiding who you really are, being afraid of “coming out.” It makes the whole thing take on a certain depressing air. Ironically, for what seems like the first time, none of my players made queer characters!
While we weren’t able to reach this stage, at some point your characters start to get “Growing Up” moves, allowing you to rise above the teenage nonsense and break the cycle of hate. You begin to learn and mature, and get over what you thought were impossible obstacles. In a whole campaign, you can go from petty, emotionally-stunted teenagers to adults. This takes time, of course (just like real life!), but I can see this game being a true emotional journey for those who stick with it.
In short, I was very satisfied with my experience with Monsterhearts, and so were my players! They all enjoyed being able to sink into characters so familiar and yet so alien (one might say…monstrous?). If you’re interested in the game (and I would absolutely recommend it), I would pick up a copy from Avery’s website Buried Without Ceremony or from DriveThruRPG. If you are interested in other indie RPGs, take a look at Avery’s Patreon (and definitely think about supporting a fantastic queer game designer). Avery makes some other great games that I will be taking a look at soon.
And that wraps up another Tabletopping! If you have a game you think I should look at, let me know in the comments or follow me on Twitter (@Spincut)!