Monsterhearts is a tabletop roleplaying game about sexy supernatural teenagers ruining their lives. It is very direct in its aims, seeking to create a teenage sex horror story. We played it last weekend for the first time and I came away stunned, really, impressed and inspired. It was one of the best sessions I’ve ran, ever, and while we do have a great group, a lot of it was thanks to the game.
Monsterhearts is a story game and as such there’s an emphasis on narrative integrity and story driving everything. Rules are important, but they are there to protect the narrative. The focus is on the characters, and the players are studying things they find interesting in those characters. The game is based on Apocalypse World, so if that (or its popular offshoot, Dungeon World) style of playing is familiar to you, you have a pretty good idea of how it works. Except Monsterhearts is all about the social dynamic – it doesn’t care about anything else.
There’s a couple of things that make Monsterhearts stand out. They’re things you might want to explore in your games, too, regardless of whether you’re into the Monsterhearts’ theme or not.
It’s wholly improvised. The gamemaster’s job is to make the characters’ lives interesting, which typically means picking any loose end and bringing it back in with as much noise and mess as he can manage. Most of the time it was obvious what the next scene must be and what’s going to happen in it.
We did have a couple of moments where this didn’t happen and as a GM I realized I’m without my usual bag of tricks, because the GM is forbidden from preparing the game in advance – it wouldn’t really work, anyway, because everything happens because of the PCs (see below). Thus my only option was to poke at the PCs until something interesting came up.
But as a player, you need something to work with, too, and I think we probably should’ve had some more chaos-spawning NPCs around. In a sense we had run out of NPCs in those situations. With improvised games I’m always worried there will be no satisfying arcs, but that proved to be incorrect: all three PCs had great personal stories that did come together beautifully (horrifically) in the end.
The instructions for the GM are not vague “you could try doing these things” type directions – they’re rules on how to keep the narrative “feral”; unpredictable and engaging. No player – including the GM – should know what’s going to happen in any scene, going in.
It’s only about the player characters. The gameplay is fully social. The giving and taking and using of “strings” (emotional power) you have on other characters drives everything you do. We had awkward, magnetic scenes between two characters falling in love that I would’ve cut short in any other game, but here you simply had to see them through, all the way until the clothes started coming off – and even then we had to cut back in as the vampire was getting… urges.
The single biggest reason which keeps the play about the social dynamic is that your characters have no physical abilities. Pretty much everything on your sheet comes back to relationships. Thus in order to “play the game”, you have to create drama.
Because everything revolves around the player characters and there is effectively no world beyond their agency, you automatically get powerful tension. All the rules and all the action is driven by the players and directed at themselves and the other player characters. There is no external force to which you could just react to, as you do in many games. The GM doesn’t even get to roll dice: it’s always the players doing things and dealing with the consequences.
The mechanics create the gameplay. I was doubtful about if it’s possible to create the kind of feel the rulebook evokes in a single sitting, but the rules made it work very well. The experience mechanic drives the action; players like being rewarded and they like playing with their character sheets, so they look for opportunities to gain experience. To do that you need to use your character’s “moves”, and those moves invariably create problems and result in tension. Some of your important abilities are only triggered after sex – there is a “sex move” on everybody’s sheet – and naturally you want to get to play with all of your abilities… hence sex. Finally, as the characters’ Darkest Selves start manifesting, you’re well on your way towards a dramatic, messy, memorable climax. If you didn’t have all these rules in play, you would pull punches and not go to all the places the rules push you to. Play it as written, though, and you’ll have a hell of a hot mess between your group.
It builds on and feeds off sex and romance. I’ve thought about romance and sex in games a lot, especially since the original release of Vampire: The Masquerade made it explicitly part of the characters’ unlives. Monsterhearts makes it work.
Because the romance and sex are tied to your abilities – your stats are Hot, Cold, Dark, Volatile and you have a bespoke sex “move” – it doesn’t feel like forcing something into the game that the game isn’t about. It’s plain to see to everybody that you’re supposed to be in a relationship (or few) and you’re supposed to have sex. It feels like you’re missing out if you don’t. And because it’s openly at the table, it doesn’t feel so hard to go there – you’re not standing out as a player, you’re just the first one to go there, with the understanding that likely everybody will.
Of course the first sex scene in the session still felt awkward, but then it was two teenagers trying to figure it out. The rules and the setting makes sex possible in a game, but they don’t take away the power.
Contrary to what you might, understandably, suspect, the mechanical basis for romance and sex in the game does not diminish the intimacy at the table. This would be a very difficult game for me to play with strangers (or it would lose all its power). It does make it easier as you have some rules to fall back on, but to make romance and sex work in a game, the group needs to pay very close attention to what’s happening. You have to be sensitive, or the romance doesn’t work, and you have to know when to call it a scene or it becomes just cheap and nasty. The rules can’t do this for you. My rule of thumb is figuring out if you could show it in a mainstream TV show, á la Buffy. Well, we may have gone a little bit further than that, but not quite HBO.
If you only had mechanics that would encourage characters to have sex, you’d have a sex game, obviously. Monsterhearts subverts that by introducing the Darkest Selves. Our game was all awkward teenage romance until the vampire got laid with the mortal, the mortal’s sex move then triggering the vampire’s Darkest Self. The Darkest Selves turn the teenage characters into literal monsters, forcing them to cause no end of trouble at the table. Relationships are broken, feelings are hurt, blood is spilled. The violent scenes in our Monsterhearts session felt like the easy stuff – even if those, too, were more powerful than in most games thanks to the grounded, believable teenage setting.
The hard parts were the ones in which the Darkest Selves did horrible things just with words, abusing already tender relationships, and we had to watch the characters deal with it. The decisions, even though dictated by the rules governing playing your Darkest Self, felt heavy. I had trouble believing the things our vampire did and said, although nothing in it was R rated.
It’s a great game and if you have a group of friends you trust, you owe it to yourself to play it. It’s also easy to play and very easy to run. After the one session to get your head around the dynamics and what works, it’s pick up and play with zero preparation.