Do you like games with taglines like “a storytelling game of personal horror,” but your troupe always played a cross-line game and you’d like your Anne Rice leavened with a bit of L.J. Smith? Well, have I got the game for you. And even if that geek-referential smash-up of a sentence made no sense, but you’d like to run a short campaign about angst-ridden teenagers that uses monsters as a metaphor for all of that emotion (and especially the sex part), then you’re in luck. Because Monsterhearts 2 is really good.
The basic information: Monsterhearts 2 is published by Buried Without Ceremony and is Powered by the Apocalypse. The original was published in 2012, and the second edition was funded via Kickstarter in 2016. It’s 172 pages in a 6×9 size. My copy is a hardcover, but it’s also available in softcover from the publisher or as a PDF. The game accurately blurbs that you can tell stories about sexy monsters, teenage angst, personal horror, and secret love triangles. Media inspiration includes Vampire Diaries, The Craft, and Lost Boys (on the other hand, Buffy is not quite on point, because Monstershearts 2 is not about being the ‘monsters’ and having relationships, not about fighting Big Bads and monsters of the week; there is a bonus Skin available online that does add this archetype, but it can significantly change the flavor of the game).
Fair warning: Sex is a big part of this game. That doesn’t mean explicit sexual content is part of the game (any player can fade to black at whatever point in a scene they feel is appropriate). But sexual tension, out-of-control hormones, and sex between characters (player characters and non-player characters) is a central part of the game. So if you’re not comfortable with that, this is not the game for you.
Monsterhearts enunciates several guiding principles – keep the characters’ lives interesting, let the story run wild instead of fitting into a preconceived narrative (to include letting the dice do the talking sometimes, and accepting those results), and honest communication between players.
As a game Powered by the Apocalypse, the flow of play is Monsterhearts is heavily dictated by the moves available, and in Monsterhearts these moves and stats are heavily (and appropriately) melded to fit the genre. Characters have four stats – Hot, Cold, Volatile, and Dark – which range from -1 to +2. When attempting a move, a character rolls 2d6 as modified by the applicable stat. A roll of 10+ is an unqualified success. A roll of 7-9 accomplishes the goal, but at a significant cost (such as letting the other character have a String, or generally making yourself look bad in a way that is mechanically reflected).
With the proviso that it’s somewhat antithetical to the concept of this game, here’s how the math of those rolls works out (sorry, I can’t resist, especially with the very clumped probability distribution of 2d6). So, if a character has no modifiers, they get a full success ~17% of the time, and a success-with-complications ~42% of the time (so some sort of success ~59% of the time). Having +2 in a stat changes those numbers to a 42% chance of a full success and some sort of success ~83% of the time. Having -1 in a stat means fully succeeding ~8% of the time, and any sort of success ~42% of the time. So I guess the takeaways are that (1)without modifiers characters usually succeed, but not too well; and (2) do not underestimate the power of small modifiers in a 2d6 system.
A character’s Skin (their supernatural type) can add more, but there are only seven proactive moves available to everyone – Turn Someone On (Hot), Shut Someone Down (Cold), Keep Your Cool (Cold), Lash Out Physically (Volatile), Run Away (Volatile), Gaze Into the Abyss *Dark), and Pulling Strings. Turning someone on gives you a String on them and makes them sexually attracted to you (they get to choose how to respond to that). Shutting someone down is essentially a social attack move, letting you remove a String they have on you, gain a String on them, or impose ongoing social consequences. Keeping your cool is a very broad move (and very subjective) move that applies when the character is being proactive in the face of fear or nerves. Lashing out physically is the only base way to do damage. This move is basically the entire combat system. You hurt someone or you don’t. Running away is the flight half of fight-or-flight. Gazing into the abyss is a search for information, regardless of form – it could be a mystical activity or simply a computer-based research project.
Pulling strings, as one might guess from the name, involves using the Strings a character has on another character. Pulling strings can be a move in-and-of-itself (tempting someone to do what you want or giving them a long-term social problem), or it can be used for bonus damage or a bonus to a roll. Tempting people into doing what you want really feels like the way to go here most of the time, in the interests of rollercoaster gameplay.
Other base moves are more background mechanics such as healing harm or skirting death (characters otherwise die after four harm).
Character Creation and Advancement
The biggest mechanical choice for a character is their Skin – the time of supernatural (well, probably) being they are, as well as a broad statement of motivation. Everything else mechanical derives from the Skin. Players choose some general physical characteristics, as well as an origin. For some skins the different origins are variations on a theme that don’t seem like a big deal (exactly how did you become a Werewolf) while others are radical departures (is your Queen a very popular social apex predator, or the locus of a literal alien hive mind). Each Skin provides one of two statistic options (+2, +1, 0, -1 arranged across the four stats). The character background typically provides one source of starting Strings on other characters, and one source of Strings that other characters have on the character being created. Each Skin has a sex move (yes, that’s a mechanical thing – usually a benefit – that happens when they have sex). Finally, each character will choose moves (usually two choices out of six options, although some Skins dictate the first choice).
In thinking about the Skins and how they work in the game, I think it’s important to keep in mind that there’s a presumption of everyone being able to fully interact (including, typically, going to school). So, for example, the vampire is some magic that lets them walk about during the day, or it’s always raining, or they have really good sunblock, or whatever. The Skins are:
- The Fae: Alluring, fickle, and alien, the Fae holds people to their promises, no matter how lightly made.
- The Ghost: Dead and lonely, Ghosts are desperate for attention and emotional support, and must deal with the unresolved trauma of their death.
- The Ghoul: Also technically dead, but it is not death that defines the Ghoul, but hunger/obsession.
- The Hollow: The Hollow is psychologically something of a tabula rasa, but how they got there could have many answers. The Hollow doesn’t remember a past, and lacks a sense of self, but that might be due to amnesia, because they’re a robot, were created by magic, or in some other manner.
- The Infernal: The Infernal goes deeper and deeper into debt in order to obtain more short-term power from someone else.
- The Mortal: The only skin that is necessarily not supernatural (the Hollow and the Queen might be ‘normal’ humans, but might be something more out there), the Mortal’s calling card is vulnerability. The Mortal latches on to another character (their ‘True Love’), and tend to give that character power over them (while getting a bit back for themselves). Their sex move, for example, is that soon after they have sex with their True Love, the True Love will become the darkest version of themself. Or they can get power by forgiving wrongs done to them.
- The Queen: The Queen is popular and in charge. They may exert control through charm, menace, mental powers, or a cult, but they are the only characters who start with a gang (see below).
- The Vampire: A manipulator at heart, the Vampire has ample examples in this genre to choose from (although about half of them involve being madly in love with a girl in high school and, despite the age difference and power imbalance, this being portrayed as a totally healthy relationship). This manipulative aspect is emphasized by the Vampire’s starting Strings (they get one on every other character) and their sex move (which rewards them for denying someone sexually).
- The Werewolf: The Werewolf is aggressive and physically dangerous.
- The Witch: The Witch is vengeful and secretive.
A variety of Skins are also available online (such as the Chosen, discussed above).
In addition to creating individual characters, character creation involves creating a “seating chart” of other NPCs and drawing straightforward social connections between everyone (the ideal NPC should have motivations that are straightforward but divisive, such as lusting after one PC and therefore wanting to keep a romantic rival PC away).
The most common way of gaining experience is to fail a roll. Experience can also be gained by giving in to temptation when someone pulls your strings. Experience can be used to increase stats, get new Skin moves (including moves from other Skins), or join a “gang” (a catch-all term for a group of NPCs who can help you out, giving a bonus to rolls or to harm inflicted). In addition, at the end of a “season” (which happens after any character has used experience to gain their fifth advance), each character gains a season advance. These are non-traditional advancements – switching to a different skin (e.g., the character dies and becomes a ghost), switching to a different character, or gaining a “Growing Up” move. The “growing up” moves are about being a better person – lifting others socially, standing up to bullies, protecting others physically, and connecting with others to let them support you.
I could easily have seen myself not liking Monsterhearts 2. I tend to prefer roleplaying games with thorough rules. I tend to prefer roleplaying game books with big, packed pages. I find that games that take a rules-light approach can sometimes find themselves in an “uncanny valley” where there aren’t a terrible lot of rules, but there are enough rules to break what system there is. Or the designer seems to have one concept in mind, but the rules push the game somewhere else. I find that short roleplaying game books can often just be too short – there isn’t enough there to be interesting, there’s an interesting concept there but there isn’t really a workable game around the concept, or (perhaps most frustrating) there’s an interesting game there but $%#& where’s the rest of it, because maybe I’m not super-creative and I need the concept or the setting fleshed out more than that.
So, I could easily have seen myself not liking Monsterhearts 2. But it turns out that I really liked Monsterhearts 2 (I liked it enough that I’ve started watching Vampire Diaries). The limited rules are just the right amount of rules because they push exactly the concept of the game and the genre it’s embodying and the inclusiveness that it’s aiming for. Considering the basic moves, all potentially positive social interaction is mediated through Turning Someone On. You want to use a move to get someone to do something for you, you need to pull a string. You want to get a string on someone (in a positive way; e.g. not shutting someone down), you need to turn them on. And you can always try to turn someone on, because (consistent with the queer-friendly presentation of the book), getting turned on is not restricted by orientation or gender presentation (the player gets to decide how the character handles getting turned on, so the player can decide whether getting turned on represents a blip or something more significant). The mechanics here push the game exactly where it wants to be – a teenage sex-fueled horror genre show that’s inclusive in its presentation (it’s “paranormal romance,” but for geeks!).
That’s one specific example, but the genre fitting the mechanics is there in the bones of the game. Skins aren’t just monsters, they’re psychology, and their moves reinforce that. Long-term character advancement is emotionally growing up. And so on.
The writing style flowed well. There was, for the most part, just enough explanation for this style of game, allowing preexisting roleplaying or genre knowledge to fill in the cracks. Yes, there are a few places that I wish that had been more explanation. For example, I must admit that I don’t really understand how Ghost characters are supposed to work.
All told, Monsterhearts 2 is a real credit to designer/author Avery Alder.