Why Monsterhearts Matters

Do you remember being a teenager? That awkward phase where you were trying to figure out who you are, thinking you already knew, but that your parents and the world were set against you. Adults telling you what to do, even how to live your life. Do you remember how frustrating that was? Now add on actually being a “monster”.

Monster could mean many things, but to me it has to do with sexuality. You look normal you  seem normal. You wake up, go to school, go to work, and interact with everyone. You pretend, but deep inside there’s something else inside you, something that feels depraved and wrong.

Monsterhearts is an Apocalypse World hack that centers around teenagers or young 20-somethings struggling with who they are and interacting with those around them. It’s a simple game that delves into complicated feelings, powers, and identity issues. It’s a player vs. player game that, for those who have been used to playing as a cohesive party, can be a bit difficult to digest at first. Basically, you’re going to hurt those around you and most likely those you love the most.

Monsterhearts is usually played in scenes like in a movie or a television show. You give introductions of characters and use a classroom to establish NPCs and relationships before the interaction begins. In my experience it is best when the game is based on improv, where you make the setting and allow the players to fill in the blanks. Players can roll to manipulate NPCs, roll to harm another player, shut them down or turn them on. The Master of Ceremonies’ (MC) job is to bring people together or pull them apart as well as narrate what’s going on around them, the reactions of NPCs, and help players make Moves.

The best way it can be described is American Horror Story: Freak Show quote:

“Dell: I swear to Christ, Ethel, I don't know how you and the others manage it.
Ethel: We manage it because we have to. We wear our shame on the outside. There's no hiding it. It's just who we are. But you? You carry your shame on the inside. You keep it trapped in there. It eats away at you, feeding on you like a living thing 'til there's nothing left but the rot.”

When you play Monsterhearts there are topics that make some people squirm in their seat. These topics are typically sex and violence, and they’re touched on in a different way than most tabletop RPGs. A Fae takes a promise, a Witch takes an item allowing her to make a hex,  a Werewolf can mark you as their own, but it goes beyond that. You can turn on anyone in the game if the MC allows it and if you play it with certain kinds of players, this can provoke a reaction.

When you’re successful in turning someone on, it doesn’t immediately have to lead to sex, but the implication is that the other character is left with wanting for yours but the implication is sex because teenagers use what little skills they have and sex is one of them. When someone is not used to playing queer characters, it can feel complicated, but this is when you have to give a reminder: you are not your character and queer characters exist.

Some of us came into age knowing they were straight. But what about those who grew up unsure of their sexual identity? Should we deny the fact that those of us who grew up curious about our sexuality exist? You might have not known them but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there, hiding.

Teenage years are supposed to be the years of experimentation. You can see your character as a young scientist, testing the chemicals of their minds either with drugs or physical contact. Monsterhearts pushes those buttons about sexuality. It can make players realize that you cannot make clear, sharp definitions of your characters’ sexuality.

In the game I ran for Contessa 2012 I requested that the players play female characters due to the fact I was setting it in an all girls school. There was hesitation at the beginning but soon afterwards that faded when they realized the emotions and motivations were just the same. Teenage girls falling for teenage girls, fights and shouting- it all was a beautiful mess. The reason this is important was that the players, either female or male, realized that whatever their characters felt was valid despite who they were playing.

With the sex moves comes also the gain or losing of strings. Strings are a collection of how much you know about someone. They can give you a bonus to your roll. You tug on a string in order to get what you want from a character or you could say something to make someone fail. The Witch rolls 7 but the Fae makes them flinch with a smile. This turns it to a 6 so the MC goes for a hard move.

Why are strings important? We all know something about those around us. You may know things about your crush that they don’t know about you. Follow their Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr enough and patterns start to emerge. Strings are to be used when needed, but something else can affect your roll: Conditions. These happen when you don’t roll a 10 in certain moves. The Fae becomes terrified, or the Unicorn made the Giant feel insecure. Those conditions are there to help you exploit the situation.

There are some that are uncomfortable with this idea of player vs. player, with the sex and violence, but at the end those are the volatile emotions of growing up that come into play. You are young and you only have so many tools in your shed. There are Growing Up moves that you can add once everyone has advanced far enough. It’s a game that expands and grows but at the end, everyone moves on or dies.

Monsterhearts reminds us of how hard it is to grow up feeling like there’s something different about us, whether it be sexuality, depression, mental disabilities, or even other conditions. It’s those things inside of you that make you feel like a monster, those insecurities that make us pick and tear each other apart just to feel something else. It makes us discuss things that we wouldn’t, like the things we took for granted, and how the world felt like it was against us when we didn’t know ourselves.

The Monsterhearts cover, Witch, and Fae illustrations by Avery Alder Mcdaldno.