I’ve only played Monsterhearts twice, both times at conventions in 2012. The story game from Joe Mcdaldno is based on the same rules mechanics as D. Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World. I feel a bit strange calling it “rules” since it feels far more like narrative guidelines that keeps the forward momentum going.
Monsterhearts is described by its cover as a story game about the messy lives of teenage monsters. I can say with confidence that I’ve rarely found cover copy so succinct and yet brutally accurate. I’m not afraid to own the fact that I was unsure of the game before playing it. I’d seen it wildly praised, but feared it was more “Twilight” and less “Heathers.”
I didn’t anticipate it to sit at the axis of both.
Teenagers and their lives have been a genre long before the recent boom in movie franchises, books and games that look to capture the time of life most of us could not be paid to return to, let alone relive. It’s difficult to elucidate all of my feelings and thoughts about this game, but the ones I’ve found words for, I’ll share.
I never read the book for Monsterhearts before playing it. Both sessions I played were at conventions, and hearing that some groups played more than one session had shocked me before making the purchase of a copy. Based on convention play alone, I could see the appeal of playing the same characters across more than one session. But how that could happen didn’t make a damn bit of sense until I bought and read the book. Unlike games suited well to one-shot play, like Fiasco, I think Monsterhearts lacks that completely self-contained quality.
Half the game is still in the box, as it were, hidden from view, when played in a strict one shot only format. I don’t see that as a flaw in the game. I do, however, see it as a caution to those who want to MC Monsterhearts at conventions. The impression convention play gives does not fully match the text of the book. Convention play lacks a degree of fully rounded emotional context.
Both times I played, I found the concept of strings and sex moves subject matter that was deeply uncomfortable for me. I do credit some of my discomft with strings to playing in a number of role-playing games where emotional holds over someone else were cast as a win/lose situation. I’m still prying my fingers off that sense of “losing” whenever someone else gained a string on me. But the feeling sick to my stomach when someone gains a string? For that, I can point back to high school. You may play at being teenage monsters in the game, but rare is the person whose teen experience did involve running into people you describe as an adult as monstrous. That sick feeling is the same one I had when someone I liked used that attraction against me, or my silence put someone else in power over me. The social dynamic of teens is lamp-shaded and then lit with floodlights in this game. There is no escaping the literal and metaphorical monstrous capabilities of teens—or their struggles with that.
In the “What This Is” section, Mcdaldno refers to the game as “a teen sex horror story.” While you ponder the literal and metaphorical handling of that phrase, I’ll be moving on to some of the language differences of Monsterhearts versus other texts I’ve encountered. Stats are usually phrased in mainstream games in a psychology of “bad or good” at them. In this text, it’s “excel or struggle with.” It’s a little change, but I think it goes well with the teenage themes of the game. It’s a subtle encouragement and reframing of how to approach your use of your stats. It’s the first time I’ve come across that in a game text, a sense that you’re not going to be ‘punished’ by being ‘bad’ at a stat, but instead rewarded by seeing what your struggle nets you (often a new form of trouble.)
Turning people on, and the sex moves, are where I hit my most solid discomfort with the game. Even playing with friends, dealing with the consequences felt like peer pressure turned to 11, a sick dread inducing encounter that I don’t look for in my games. At least, not as frequently as that sexuality-related dread popped up during Monsterhearts for me.
Seduction, mechanical or otherwise, skirts boundaries and personal trauma for me in ways I find at best, emotionally difficult to deal with. In the way it’s framed in the game, I have yet to find a way to approach it in a way that does not make me feel emotionally battered and vulnerable. It’s something that shows the game shines at what it does, but Monsterhearts pushes sexuality to an extreme, forcing players to either engage in painful feelings, or distance themselves from the narrative, delivering a hollow performance. That alone may be why I cannot definitively say that I love Monsterhearts. I’m still willing to try to play it in a more emotionally safe (non-convention) setting, as my feelings may be different if I change context and setting.
In less personally emotional take-away, there were a number of things I found valuable and highly applicable to gaming in general throughout the text, which I can see porting to my own approach to facilitating role-playing games.
- The concept of Seasons, which aid in managing pacing and narrative
- The moves for Growing Up, and learning how to build up and nurture people, vs tearing them down and harming them
- The MC advice, which I fought the urge to highlight nearly all of
- The Principles for MCs, which I found an inspiring way to remind GMs of their duties to story and the table
In the “After Graduation” section, two sentences made me stop mid-read.
The PCs need to be in the midst of a major transition. They need to feel alienated—both alienated from their own bodies and alienated from the world at large.
Underneath the monsters, teen sex, and unique take on horror, that’s what Monsterhearts was for me, when I came away from the table, and after reading the book. The game does exactly what it says it’s their to do. Push you to the limits of discomfort and drama, sex and romance, at a time of life when alienation from your body and the world are at the core of daily living.