Game Review: MonsterHearts

MonsterHearts: A game about the messy lives of teenage monsters

^ That title, right there, sums it up.

I'm a huge fan of teenage monsters. When I was just a wee lass, being a social outcast and nerdlet in my local high school, I picked up the books by L.J. Smith. I can't remember which one I read first, but it was likely some part of the Soulmates series, and not the Vampire Diaries. I was already a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and so it seemed a natural progression of my inability to belong-ness that I pick up these books and become immersed. And as I got older, I started reading things like Laurell K Hamilton's Anita Blake series (seriously, what happened to her being awesome?). And then I progressed, naturally to Interview by Anne Rice.

Eventually I got a little older (or a lot) and moved on past my teenage and early-twenties into a phase where vampires and werewolves took a back seat to lit theory, philosophy, poli sci and other school-like topics that made me a Serious Adult (TM). After I got over my "I'm-too-serious-for-fun" attitude, Twilight had come out. So after four soul-crushing books that made my inner feminist die each time I turned a page, I found myself longing for the good-ole days of Buffy. Fortunately, Vampire Diaries came out shortly after and I found myself speed-watching through Elena's teenage life and wanting to play a game with these tropes.

So I started running a gmless, open form, no real system rpg called OMG! Vampires! with several of my awesome gaming friends. We had a total cast of about 16 people. We had a main character, a few secondary characters, and a plethora of tertiary characters to play. We did scenes, co-authored story lines, story boarded a little... but a low attendance and a lack of commitment from the bulk of the cast meant the game fizzled way too soon.

Thankfully, my awesome friend at Firestorm Ink, Jonathan recommended I pick up Monsterhearts. Best decision yet. MonsterHearts, hereby mentioned as MH, functions on the Apocalypse World system. It's fast and intuitive, with an easy system to pick up and play within an hour or two of buying the book. AW and MH both function on having "skins" which are like classes. You circle some descriptor words (like look, eyes, name), you get four base stats, and then some moves that give you advantages. Easy peasy.

Next you make relationships with each other and with your town. I ran my game in a medieval setting, much like the movie Red Riding Hood. For my cast, I had a vampire, a werewolf, a fae, an angel, and a ghost. They played the skins beautifully, we had three dramatic and hilarious episodes, and when it was done, we all walked away happy from the game. First session you make a seating chart. For our game we made a village chart. I asked questions going around the table so people made ties and relationships and populated their own shitty village. It was awesome.
My Pc's names were: Levi the Werewolf, Cassius the Vampire, Ping the fae, Spencer the Ghost, Isfrael the Angel

As a GM, I struggled with the failed roles. The book gives you a list of "hard moves" you can do when a PC fails. I'm so used to running free form and not having to think, that I mostly ended up ignoring failed rolls and moving on. I really shouldn't have done that, but next time I'll know. The skins themselves function on the premise that the players are go-getters in their own stories. They can't sit back and make the GM provide everything, and a couple players struggled with that. I know now I would force this issue when I run it again.

Players must, in this game, be the culprits of their own disasters. Because they play teenagers, they have to want to do things and make stupid decisions. If the players rely on the GM to bring the madness to them, they miss out on 75% of the experience this game is about. It's messy, grotesque, monstrous, and hella sexy. The players all have sex moves that help them through the game, and strings (relationship markers with function) that allow them to affect and manipulate one another.

If you want to emulate that feel of Buffy and Vampire Diaries, with teenage angst and sex and madness... then this game is the one for you. As a GM, it demands you be on your feet and ready to force the action all the time. It requires a lot of rolls in terms of social warfare and gives the GM so many opportunities to blast your players and force hard choices. I love the use of social warfare in the system, and the consequences of failing. It's risky and tempting to screw up, just like adolescence.

I loved it so much I'm making more skins for a dark carnival setting called The Crossroads Carnival. This game goes into the top 10 games I love to play, and means it'll likely make it's rounds at FanExpo next year.

Price: 20 bucks
Players: Best at 4, works at 5
GM work: Limited, a lot is player generated
Dice: 2 D6
Materials: One of each skin, cheat sheets if you want, the book, scrap for making a seating chart
Feel: Dark, sexy, hilarious, dramatic, tense
Rating: 4/5 Stars