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Author: Joe Mcdaldno
‘A story game about the messy lives of teenage monsters’
Caveats before I get underway – first, I don’t usually write reviews as I am not a great fan of coming to an opinion based on someone else’s experience. Second, I’m a giggling fanboy of the genre this game involves itself with. Finally, this is based on the Indiegogo version of the game that I backed, so there is the possibility of a degree of cognitive dissonance in here. Be aware.
So, a few years ago I was having a discussion with a number of people about the ‘next big crossover genre’ and I suggested that ‘dark/paranormal romance’ would be it. Others suggested that it was a passing fad and too niche to be taken seriously. Flashforward to the present and we have TV shows like True Blood, Lost Girl and Being Human, every library and bookstore has an entire section dedicated to the genre – in both the adult and young adult sections – and like it or loathe it, Twilight is a cultural touchstone for millions of people.
Of course, the genre comes in a number of flavours from the PG relationships in Buffy to the romantic adventures of Bella, Edward and Jacob and at the far end, the Rated-R nasty of Anita Blake (which isn’t teen focused at all, but touches on a lot of the same areas in its own peculair way). In terms of tone, I think that Monsterhearts (MH) is focused very much at the teen end of the genre, with a focus on high schools and teenagers, but it opens the door to some very adult play, which is a good thing in my opinion.
Anyway, this is a game right, not a treatise on literature. Lets get on with the review!
The Characters and Skins
MH is based on the rules engine of Apocalypse World and appears to have had some of the details smoothed out of it. I like this, as it makes it easier to comprehend and explain. Players take the role of a teenage monster based on one of a number of skins. The basic game skins are: The Chosen, the Fae, the Ghost, the Ghoul, the Infernal, the Mortal, the Queen, the Vampire, the Werewolf and the Witch. They are added to with bonus skins of the Hollow, the Selkie and the Serpentine. Pretty much all the genre bases are covered although I think there is room for a seer, a necromancer/animator and an angel.
Akin to AW, the players choose their name, look and other details. They allocate their stats (Hot, Cold, Volatile and Dark) and chose their Moves, which are skin-specific actions that they can take. Most skins have two or three Moves, one of which is mandatory.
Characters also have backstory questions which are answered. These establish relationships between the characters and allocated ‘Strings’ between the characters. Strings are a currency within the game reflecting the use of personal, intimate information between teenagers to leverage advantage on another person. You hold and spend strings on other PCs and NPCs. Its a very nice, fluid system.
The players are also encouraged to create a form room seating plan which builds up a cast of teenage NPCs with which they have relationships and can interact. This most definitely cements the game into the high school genre and follows a growing trend in games to have integrated pre-story generation embedded into the system. This is a very good thing in my opinion.
The Game at Play
Characters make ‘moves’ when they do things – and the ‘when’ of that sentence is important. The adage in the game is ‘when you do it, do it’ which I have always read as ‘no faffing about’. You don’t sort of mess around trying to work out whether something will work or not. You do it, roll the dice and live with the consequences. Players roll 2d6 and add on the appropriate stat, any bonus that has been ‘carried forward’ from a previous positive result and from any strings that they expend – trading intimate knowledge for power. On a result of 7-9 the player gets a partial success, usually with a difficult choice. With a 10+ they get what they want with benefits. Anything less than 6 and the GM gets to abuse them with what’s called a ‘hard move’.
The moves that everyone can use are: Turn Someone On, Manipulate an NPC, Shut Someone Down, Hold Steady, Lash Out Physically, Run Away and Gaze into the Abyss. That list really underlines some of the play in the game. You turn people on … but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have sex. In fact, in the game I ran there were a load of sexually charged scenes but no actual sex. The game also embraces what it calls ‘queer themes’ within this and yes, this too is a good thing but I will talk about it more later.
On the GM side, you ask a lot of questions and push and prod the game in ways that really test the PCs. One thing that I found quite jarring compared to games I have been playing recently, was that the GM rolls no dice and just ‘does things’ which the players roll against. So for example, if I want to attack the character with a vampire, I attack them with the intent of doing Harm (damage, of which they have four checks before death). The player then has the option to just be attacked (hey, they might!) or do something else – and when you do something, you do something so you might Lash Out Physically yourself, Run Away or Shut Someone Down. I think its a gameplay style I am going to have to get used to as it is very different and offers a different tempo in gameplay.
Lets Talk About Sex?
This game juxtaposes sex and horror and the game can easily flip-flop between the two. Thematically, I think the game has got it spot on. The backstory questions are all about the relationships and many of the skin moves rotate around sex and intimacy … as well as, of course, the sex moves. Sex moves are a part of AW that I have always been a little wary of, mostly because of the need to have sex with another PC which I think doesn’t sit well with everyone. MH changes this by putting sex with ‘someone’ which seems to make it a little more accessible. The sex in MH is also sexually inclusive, tackling directly issues of sexual ambiguity and the full range of sexual combinations. In a game involving teen romance, this is very important and the fact that it is tackled head-on is brilliant. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a game which wallows in these topics, but it tackles them and deals with them openly and maturely.
In my opinion, I think you need the sexuality in the game for this game to work. You don’t need a blow-by-blow (no pun intended) description of what is happening, but you can work with more than ‘We hold hands and move into the bedroom … fade to black’. Its subtle as for many people, the difference between the two might seem slight, but I think it can be done and I think it needs to be done to get full mileage from the game and the genre.
Building a Better Monster
Players advance their characters through the accumulation of experience points. You get these by either using moves which trigger from certain nominated stats, being given them in return for actions linked to strings, or as a result of certain moves. Reach five experience to take an advancement (more stat, new moves, a gang and other stuff) and then wipe this clean. When someone has taken five advances, the end of the season is triggered, the endgame kicks in and new advances are available, including the very clever ‘Grown Up’ moves. This experience mechanic adds a certain pace to the game and I like it.
But What Do You Do?
The GM builds ‘Menaces’ to abuse the PCs. These Menaces are made up on multiple threats who are in-turn made up of their Cravings (what they want), Offerings (what they can give to get it) and their Capacity (what they will do if you cross them) and these are models as ‘hard moves’ that the GM can bring into play. Its a very easy way to do things, but I think that the three examples of each could have been expanded a little for more variety.
There is also a wealth of potential for the PCs to just get on each other’s nerves (or just on each other…) and generate situation there too. External threats, internal tensions and the cyclical nature of teenage life should provide you with more than enough material to game with … and if not, just watch an episode of Glee and stick some fangs on Kurt. Joking!
Actually, that does bring me to one final observation – the game is, as I read it, soaked in the atmosphere of American high school. I did consider the options for running it as a UK high school and the thoughts of a horror version of Waterloo Road (or worse still, my place of work!) freaked me out. I’d resist the need to hack and stick to the genre staple!
So, What Do I Think?
I think Monsterhearts is an excellent game which does a remarkable job of hitting the notes of the genre that it is based upon. The system is tried and tested, but the changes have really made it more accessible in my opinion. I think that it might be a game that requires a degree of maturity and calm to play and get the desired effect. Too gonzo and you miss some of the point of the game. There is, after all, a difference between The Craft and Jennifer’s Body!
Reviewed by Neil Gow