I seem to be perpetually catching up with #RPGaDay – despite technically writing Day 3’s post on the correct day I’ve ended up posting it on Day 4.
Day Four’s topic is ‘Most surprising game’. I’m choosing Monsterhearts, which I played for the first time this year as part of an excellent campaign. In theory, Monsterhearts shouldn’t have been a surprise favourite: I love paranormal romance and ridiculous teen drama, and collaborative story games are one of my favourite kinds of RPG. However, I was initially dubious as I’d tried Apocalypse World and found it very much not to my taste. However, I feel like Monsterhearts does an awful lot of things I really enjoy well, and with the right group it’s an absolute joy. Hooray!
My more general discussion today is about the fun of failing. Monsterhearts is a game that encourages you to embrace failure. I suspect it wouldn’t be suitable for a lot of people (my partner, for instance) because they like to feel competent and succeed at things for the most part – a lot of roleplayers want to be the hero, not the bumbling idiot. That’s totally fine. It’s a very understandable impulse, as on some level we have a hobby built around wish fulfilment. However, I would say that as games that embrace failure go, Monsterhearts is a really good way of getting into the fun of failing.
In Monsterhearts, the characters are not enormously competent (because they’re teenaged monsters filled with angst who get things wrong a lot), but their failures are often more interesting than their success. There are the obvious examples where a dice roll going wrong means a series of hilarious and traumatic situations for the characters such as getting arrested or being captured by the bad guy, but there are also times when your character, by gazing into the darkness of their own soul, puts themselves at risk of becoming their Darkest Self, an extreme version of their monster type (skin) in which they might lash out at people, run away or become obsessed or delusional. It’s extremely powerful, because at any minute, failure might mean your game suddenly changes drastically, and the useful tool of Gazing Into the Abyss might throw your character into an awkward situation that is OoC rewarding.
I’m not good with failure. In D&D I’ve had to apologise to people in my group for getting really angry at consistently low dice rolls on important attacks or tasks, and it seems that the bigger my dice pool in World of Darkness, the fewer successes I’ll inevitably roll. I like to feel like a hero too, and because I’m a Fixer type gamer, I’m often after the short-term goals that give me a boost of satisfaction at completing them. It’s particularly galling when something is well within my character’s capabilities but a really bad dice roll means I don’t manage it.
Monsterhearts was a great lesson for me in rolling with the punches. Failure happens, because your chances of rolling a natural 1 are as good as your chances of rolling a natural 20. However, failure doesn’t have to be the end of the story. Our D&D GM (find his blog at Dice Tales) does a great line in reassuring people who roll badly on skill checks despite being competent at the skill by giving plausible reasons why the character is distracted, which goes a long way to soothing the anger at unhelpful dice rolls. In a more narrativist game like Monsterhearts, you can take it even further. Our Monsterhearts GM turned several bad rolls on the part of the players into a saga of character vs character (as Dark Selves kicked off everywhere), arrest by police and ultimately tragic consequences that have had ongoing impact. It’s been quite the ride.
Many story games systems have ways of making failure fun these days, whether it’s choosing to regain plot points through losing access to your powers in Marvel Heroic Roleplay (deliberate choice rather than random failure) or giving the option of a pass with consequences in FATE. It makes a huge difference, because if you can trust your GM to keep the game fun through natural 1s as well as natural 20s, everyone has more fun.