Review: ‘Monsterhearts’


Monsterhearts is one of those games that’s acquired a sort of mythic status (certainly where I live). It’s known for being emotionally powerful, excellent for genre emulation and potentially hugely variable depending on the campaign. Maybe that’s just in my friends’ circle, but there are good reasons for this reputation.

Monsterhearts by Avery Alder uses a hack of the Powered by the Apocalypse Engine (originally published in Apocalypse World by Vince Baker) for the genres of teen supernatural drama and paranormal romance, with obvious examples including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, Teen Wolf, even The Craft and The Covenant. The characters are all teenagers who have the usual teen problems, with the added fun of being monsters of various kinds. If this sounds like your kind of thing, then you are in for a treat: Monsterhearts is the best iteration of this genre I’ve ever seen. You have the chance to play through the heartache and awkwardness of teen supernatural romance while also trying to balance world-ending horrors and getting to school on time, and it’s just glorious. The system is excellent for enabling you to tell the stories you want to tell without getting in the way and, honestly, the stories that result are almost always better, more fulfilling and more engaging than the stuff that comes pre-written.

I was initially dubious about Monsterhearts: I didn’t get on well with Apocalypse World when I read it or played it, and I found the fixed ‘moves’ restrictive rather than inspiring. It was a bit of a change of paradigm that I suspect I wasn’t ready for – however, Monsterhearts convinced me utterly. Powered by the Apocalypse is brilliant, and it just might be that Apocalypse World is not my thing. The jury’s still out on that one.

Like Apocalypse World, you choose an archetype for your character based on the ‘playbooks’ provided, but rather than the post-apocalyptic characters from AW, this book is filled with monsters, called Skins. You can play the Mortal, the co-dependent lover of a monster who might not even know they exist, or you can play a Vampire, Werewolf, Ghoul, Fae…pretty much any archetype from paranormal romance is either here or in one of the many, many fan Skins produced. In some ways, there is so much fan-produced material out there for this (much of it very specific to particular works rather than generalised) that it can become necessary to narrow it down by quality, thematic usefulness and appropriateness. Monsterhearts delves into some very dark places because that’s the whole point of teen supernatural drama. Just look at vampires – it’s been established many times over that they involve very difficult explorations of consent, predatory sexuality, desire and dominance. Monsterhearts doesn’t shy away from this: consent, control and the fear of rejection are at the heart of the Vampire Skin. Every Skin is not just about being a Werewolf or a Ghost, it’s about being an exaggeration of a problematic part of the human (often teenage) experience. The best fan Skins do exactly this: they get to the heart of what it means to be a vampire, beneath the fangs and cape. The Monsterhearts have power, but the question becomes how they use it and what it costs them.

Monsterhearts have four stats, Hot, Cold, Volatile and Dark, with set moves such as Turn Someone On, Shut Someone Down, and Gaze Into the Abyss. They also have a set of moves from their Skin which vary wildly depending on the Skin. Balance isn’t a huge issue – having a terrifyingly powerful move won’t actually give you much of an advantage in this game. The Skin moves are variable, but your character can potentially take moves from other Skins, so it’s worth being aware of some of the other moves out there.

There are also Strings, the emotional links and influences your characters and NPCs have over one another. They can be exploited for your gain, used for certain Moves or just indicate something important about your character’s relationships. I could go on all day about Strings, but they are a wonderful mechanic that makes so much sense.

The randomising mechanic is rolling 2d6 and adding them together, but instead of simple success or failure, there is a 7-9 and a 10+ effect. The 7-9 is usually success at a cost, and 10+ often gives you powerful benefits. Lower than 7 is a failure, but that can allow the MC (Master of Ceremonies) to add things into the game. One warning: Monsterhearts thrives on failure, and is excellent at making failure into a glorious fiasco of angst, but it does mean that chances are your character will not be enormously competent, at least not in season 1. We’ve found that it’s actually hard to run a game beyond 3 seasons, which can translate to a surprisingly small amount of gameplay (when everyone has levelled up 5 times, it triggers the end of season), purely because at a certain point it’s hard for characters to fail at certain things. And failure is really fun. Appropriately, your characters will eventually outgrow their world. Something I love about the advances is that when you have levelled five times in a season, you can buy a season advance, which can involve changing your Skin, Darkest Self, Sex Move, character or gaining a Growing Up move (such as Share Your Pain and Make Someone Feel Beautiful), which are like the standard moves but without the downsides. It really reflects the idea of the characters growing and changing across the seasons, as they would in a TV show.

Your Skin will have something called Darkest Self – this is when you truly fulfil the promise of your monstrous nature. You might become obsessed with controlling everyone around you, or attack someone you love. These will always have an escape clause, the point at which the state ends, but it can be a long time before that is fulfilled, and you can wreck a lot of your relationships on the way!

You will also have a Sex Move. These are something I found quite difficult in Apocalypse World, mainly because I didn’t understand why they were such an important mechanic in a post-Apocalyptic setting, where relationships, or even meaningful one night stands, are not usually high priority. However, in Monsterhearts, it makes so much sense. For instance, the Mortal’s Sex Move activates their lover’s Darkest Self. The Fae’s allows them to extract a promise from their lover. It’s a really excellent fit, and emphasises how fraught sex is for teenagers: it can give them power over others, or it can bring everything crashing down.

Monsterhearts is deliciously customisable and the book encourages you to play with the Skins, creating new Moves or entirely new Skins. You’ll almost certainly find that after you start playing it, you get ideas for new things to add in. It can, with some tweaking, be run for one person, as well, for a super intimate experience.

A bit of a warning: Monsterhearts is designed to be ‘feral’, to tackle uncomfortable or emotionally fraught subjects. It represents the pain and confusion of teenage psychology (which, frankly, many of us still carry with us as adults) as well as the darker sides of desire and fear. The group is encouraged to discuss their boundaries before the game extensively and the designer has also made an excellent document called Safe Hearts (found at the Buried Without Ceremony website here under ‘resources’) designed to help people feel comfortable in exploring these issues, as well as promoting a safe environment where people feel they can do so.

I’m so glad I played Monsterhearts – it’s shown me what everyone has been raving about with the Powered By the Apocalypse Engine and it’s honestly changed how I play RPGs, made me think hard about how well I actually play collaboratively, and shown me the kind of flow you can get in a game where the drama is built into the mechanics rather than being something you have to build in round them. If this appeals, give it a go – you won’t regret it.


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