Tuesday, 3 April 2018

And now for something completely different

So, up until now, I've mostly been writing about OSR stuff, with occasional forays into oWoD. Here, instead, are some thoughts about Monsterhearts, and some homebrew I made for it.

If you aren't familiar with it, Monsterhearts is a game about playing sexy teenage monsters (vampires and witches and so on). It uses the Apocalypse World engine and tries to be a metaphor for queer stuff. I have mixed and conflicting opinions about it.

The underlying engine is really neat. 2d6+mod, 7-9 is a mixed success, 10+ is an overwhelming success, that's pretty elegant. The way the game uses strings, and the various social moves, is likewise neat. It fits its genre nicely, and drives play forward well.

On the other hand, the game has some problems. The moves seem very incomplete; a lot of actions that I would require a roll for (avoiding being noticed and reacting to surprises spring to mind) simply don't have a move tied to them, which means as a GM you can't get people to roll. Fights are far too hand-wavey for my taste, meaning that it usually boils down to either a) roll really well or b) narrate really fast so the GM lets you win. Plus, some of the skins (aka classes) available - particularly the alternate and third-party ones - are wildly unbalanced; for example, the Succubus fills basically the same niche as the Fae or Infernal but has none of the drawbacks, and the Unseen is just a ghost but so much better at the ghost's sneaky information-gathering that if the Unseen is in play, the ghost is largely pointless. 
Underlying this is the game's stated goals. It's meant to be an arty metaphor for queer stuff and teenage hormoney stuff and, tbh, that sounds like wank to me. However, I've played it in ways that tone down the arty side and instead focus on emergent stories and character goals, and that works really well.
It's a flawed game, and it tries to be something I'm not really into, but it's pretty easy in my experience to turn it into something much more my cup of tea.

I made some homebrew skins, so now I'm gonna talk about the design ideas behind each of them. The skins themselves are the Flatliner, Alice, The Hive-mind and The Wendigo. Each of them was designed to focus on an area not really covered by other skins, and to have a playstyle other skins don't.

First up, I wanna talk about the Hive-mind. When I last played Monsterhearts, I initially played the Anansi, a spider-trickster figure. Because, after all, I fucking love spiders (they're adorable and amazing and why are people frightened of them?). It was neat, I guess, but didn't really fit what I wanted to play perfectly, so I wrote up homebrew instead, and that pushed me down this rabbit-hole.
The Hive-mind is a swarm of insects (or worms, or spiders, or whatever) in a fake human skin, walking around pretending to be a person. It's an imposter, and under the surface it's very much monstrous and alien. I wanted to play with its outsider status, so it got a few moves that encourage it to not quite fit in; people get XP for explaining how to be human to it, and it can force people to explain their motivations when they try to manipulate it. To contrast this, it gets a few abilities that really play up how horrific it is; it can engulf people in a tide of bugs, or frighten them away with a horrible revelation of the Hive-mind's true nature.
The key to the skin, though, is that it can split itself up and its form is fluid, which gives it a lot of power in terms of scene-framing. By splitting the swarm, it can be in two places at once, and other abilities let it do things like put a 'bug' on people or places to monitor them, or to mimic people's appearance. Combine this with the ability to engulf people (preventing them fleeing) or force them to leave out of fear, and the Hive-mind has a lot of control over pacing and access to plotlines.
The playstyle is probably the most normal of the skins I've designed. On the other hand, the basic ability to be in multiple places and the fluidity of form, combined with specific other abilities, means that the hive-mind in play normally feels unsettling and alien.
If you want to be metaphor-ey, then the whole 'outsider in human society who frightens people and doesn't understand human behavior' makes a pretty neat stand in for something like autism or mental illness.

Next up, we have Alice. Alice is, predictably, inspired by Alice in Wonderland, and her key thing is that she causes weird shit to happen around her. Since most of her abilities come off causing weird things to happen, she's a tempo-setting, plot-creating machine, but doesn't really have much ability to do things or control things herself, so she's all about making game for other PCs.
Essentially, whenever somebody in a scene with Alice gains XP, a Weird Thing happens. Alice picks a 'daydream' from those provided, which provides a sequence of rough spurs for what the weird things are. Each new weird event will be the next one down the list.
Since Alice knows which daydream she's on, she knows what the next event will be, and a few of her powers let her cause or delay weird events. This is, in practice, surprisingly powerful; if Alice's player knows that next up is 'a building catches fire' she can delay that event happening and then trigger it at the moment that best suits her.
On the other hand, Alice only gets two abilities not directly related to controlling the tempo of weird events; she can go into mirrors (giving her a safe hiding place) and gets power from playing games with people. Both of these are neat tricks but still have ways they tie indirectly back to the tempo control.
I'm pretty sure my enthusiasm for random encounter rolls played a part in the design here.
There's no real metaphor here, but considering the persistent rumors about Lewis Carol's interest in children, I'm sure a creative GM could come up with something.

After this, there's the Wendigo. This one's probably my weakest design, because the archetype (eat people, be super strong because of it) overlaps so much with the Ghoul. On the other hand, the ghoul focuses much more on dealing with unwholesome urges of various sorts, while the wendigo is tightly focussed on eating. This one's the class that's the most overt 'themes and art and metaphors' of my designs, as it's pretty obviously about eating disorders.
Fundamentally, the Wendigo doesn't have a Volatile stat (this is the stat used for most physical confrontations in MH). Instead they have Hunger, which fluctuates wildly based on what they've been eating recently. If hunger goes too high, they start taking damage, but on the other hand by pushing hunger they can hit heights of physical prowess inaccessible to other skins; normally, stats range from -3 to +3 ith +3 taking a little min-maxing to achieve), but the wendigo's hunger goes from 0 to +4.
Most wendigo abilities tie into either using hunger (typically for violent or similarly brutal means), or else controlling the hunger score. The wendigo is hard to deal with in a direct confrontation, but needs to be really careful that it doesn't starve itself to death.

Lastly, we have the Flatliner. The Flatliner is, essentially, Tomie (from the work of Junji Ito). Constantly dying but impossible to prevent from returning, and incredibly sexy into the bargain.
The flatliner messes with the assumption that PCs want to be alive, and can't do things while dead. For a start, death is only temporary for her; no matter what happens, she can always come back. She gets various ways to continue interacting with the plot while dead; she can gaze into the abyss for information (at an advantage) while dead, and with the right abilities can also continue using her sex appeal or even communicate directly with people while dead. Her other abilities are about maximizing the impact of her death, letting her give XP to those who see it, or kill herself rather than fall victim to other people's social moves, or force those she sleeps with to either give her a lot of social leverage, or murder her.
The skin, therefore, has it's own little cycle built in, gaining sexual leverage over people, dying at a dramatic moment rather than facing the consequences of her actions, resting for a while whilst dead to subtly steer things, and then returning from the dead to do it all over again.
Again, the metaphor potential here is quite heavy. It's an archetype that's all about romanticizing suicide, which lends itself to all sorts of themes. Or, you can just play it as a weird necromantic femme-fatale. Either works.

If you're interested in Monsterhearts, I'd recommend giving it a try. It's a game that, tbh, I think needs to be hacked in order to really work, but if you're reading this you're probably OK with that. You can get the stuff I wrote for it here.

I also made a Patreon account, because I'm poor and need money. You can find it here, and if you feel like chucking me a few bucks because you like my work, that's always nice (I like being able to pay rent and eat food).

Oh, and test prints for The Gardens Of Ynn are on their way. It should be available in paperback in a week or so.


  1. The Flatliner is so amazingly evocative. Almost makes me want to give the game a try. Good job!

    1. so, monsterhearts is a game I'd only reccomend playing with people you can comfortably discuss the whole 'messy sexuality' side of it with. But if you've got a good playgroup, you totally should. It's surprisingly good at what it does.