System Review : Monsterhearts 2nd Edition

What, an actual gaming blog post on a Thursday like I originally envisioned for this blog, whaaat? 

Any rate, a review of the second edition of Monsterhearts. 

Monsterhearts is a role-playing system about the drama being a teenager and a supernatural monster. The game is centered around the social ties between characters and various ways they interact with each other. It is explicitly poc and queer friendly, with the ability written into the game to turn on another character, without restrictions on gender or sexuality — in fact, the author urges players to discover their character's sexuality over the course of the game through who successfully turns whom on. It's a collaboratively narrative game focused on social interactions and characters being not very nice to each other, in that way that generates drama and fun at the table.

The second edition is  primarily a refinement and expansion upgrade. One character type (The Chosen (think Buffy)) was moved from a default option offered in the book to an expansion option available on the system website, based on feedback the author received on how that centered a game on that character type (and how often people chose to play the character). Another character type was promoted to replace The Chosen in the book. Some of the abilities of characters were refined. A discussion on asexuality, how it interacts in the game, and suggestions on incorporating it into a game was included. New writers added a section on explicitly including diversity in the game and suggestions for handling playing characters outside your own ethnicity responsibly. A discussion on checking in with players and tools to use to making sure everyone is comfortable with potentially difficult material was also added.

Over all, I would say that the second edition of Monsterhearts is a worthy and useful continuation of the game. If you're new to the system, I would recommend the second edition over the first. If you already have the first edition, I would say to save your money for a new system altogether. Unless you want to support the author — I'm never going to object to people looking to support their artists. The mechanics updates aren't different enough to get you a new game. The expanded discussion of factors at the table is a good one and one the industry and its players desperately needs to keep having, but if you already have the first edition, it's a discussion you can research and educate yourself on online.

Takeaway: Good update, I'm glad to own the 2nd edition, recommend the 2nd over the 1st as the place to get into the game, not necessary for folks who already own the 1st edition.

Gaming Miscellania

As I write this, Partner is almost entirely non-communicative because they're reading the latest publication in our favorite role-playing system: X-Risks in the Eclipse Phase universe. Judging by the in-drawn breaths and mutters of 'oh gods...' I'm betting my characters are in for a horrifying, mind-flay of a time in Partner's next EP game. This makes me so happy!

Speaking of things to shred characters' sanity, I had to miss last week's Call of Cthulhu game since I came down sick with a throat bug last week. Medium defined entirely by talking + sore throat => not fun times. So I'll be joining in the scenario halfway through this week. Benefits of being part of a podcast: I'll be able to listen to what happened last week before playing. It'll be a new experience, to hear what the guys sound like to our listeners.

Also, our Red Markets campaign will finish posting in the next couple of weeks (wow, our first campaign posted in full...) so we recently did some scheduling of what'll post next. A couple one-shots to take us through the end of July and then the Monster Hearts game goes up. Scheduling what's next in the queue episode-wise means we also have to think about what goes up on the blog half of the site, and well. Monster Hearts inspired some fiction writing from the players. Does it count as fan fiction if its in a story you're already creating in a different media? (i'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.)

<pause for discussion/argument with Partner over fan fiction and gender politics>
Me: "You said you didn't care which how I referred to you on the blog!"
Partner: "I meant it's your creative endeavor and you should do what you want!"
Me: "I took that to mean you didn't want to be identifiable through the blog! That's why I've been using gender neutral pronouns. What I WANT is to portray you how YOU want to be portrayed!" ::wanders off muttering to self::

::sticks head back in door:: Me: "Which pronouns do you want?!"
Partner: "Male please."
::wanders away again muttering about 'was that so hard?'::

Any rate, I've already post the first piece I did back in April, although I have done a second draft. That one has incorporated the very useful critiques folks on Scribophile did for me, so the version that'll go up on Technical Difficulties should be a bit better. 

One of the other players, Greg, and I got together to collaborate on a piece with both our characters back in April or May. Our characters worked together a lot in the campaign and I ended up with an idea about their shared backstory. But I didn't want to dictate Greg's character to him, not even by writing the story and then asking him to go over it for characterization. So I pitched that I'd write up the intro to a scene, and then we'd hop on Google Documents at the same time – he'd write JJ's reactions to the set up, I'd add Catrin's, and we'd build up a story that way. It was fun, so much so that we got together again this week to write another one – this time from JJ's POV. As methods go, it produces a slightly dialogue heavy first draft, but that's what second drafts are for. :D

Getting back into writing

Lately I've only been critiquing on Scribophile, trying to be a good member of one of my trading groups, and squeezing in some transcription of audio I'll need for the next big writing project. It wasn't until I sat myself down to write some backstory for my GM for one of my gaming groups that I realized how much I wanted to be putting words to electronic paper. It was also good for me in that a) I had a deadline, which always makes it easier for me to block out time and sit my butt down to just freaking do it already and b) taught me I can write a short story. Yes, that was the first time I've written something short that I felt was complete. Yay! 

So, flailing a little bit, casting around for what to talk about for this blog post, I decided to use that example, perhaps more literally than I originally intended. But the end result is that I sat down and wrote another short story, some flash fiction if you will. And yes, it's backstory for a character I'm playing in my second gaming group.

The stats:
Status: First draft. Very much so. Written in one sitting with editing and spelling correction happening as I write.
Time: Written in two hours (including the two different 15 minute breaks to play 2048 as a mind clearing move).
Word count: 881
Feelings about: Reasonably pleased. It's a pure descriptive piece, no dialog, which is unusual for me, but that's how everything was working in my mind. And I'm happy to have concentrated on description for once.

Critiques, things you would like to see added (or taken out), typos, spelling mistakes, grammar fails, what you liked and what you hated all welcomed in the comments!

Catrin rolled over and fumbled for the alarm clock on her bedside stand – no need to wake up her parents for this little chore. Especially not at 8am on a Saturday. One of the so very few times in the week she was sure she would have some privacy. She just needed to finish packing her personal things before heading off the other side of the country for college on Monday. The last of the going-away and graduation parties had been thrown months ago, at the beginning of the summer, but there had still been the chance she’d run into someone at her crummy retail job or out on the beach over the summer. With only two days until she started the cross-country trip though, it was time.

Sitting up on the edge of her bed, feet flat on the floor, Catrin rubbed her face briskly for a moment to wake up just a little more. She then grabbed the hair scrunchy on the stand and pulled her hair back into its accustomed ponytail. Standing up, she briefly debated not getting dressed but settled on a loose pair of yoga pants and a sports bra – easier to lie to Mother that she’d gotten up early for one last morning meditation that way. If it came to it. Not that Mother would approve of all her bracelets.

Looking down at the open dresser drawer, Catrin had to admit that Mother might have a bit of a point. Enough thin, single-band stainless steel charm bracelets to form a solid(ish) cuff of two inches up each of her wrists was a lot of bracelets. Slipping them on one-by-one was a bit of a pain in the ass too, but moving from just one to multiple charms per bracelet would make it harder to grab precisely the right one in an emergency. Which had been the entire point in the first place.

Finished slipping all of her bracelets on, Catrin reached in the back of the drawer and pulled out a box. It wasn’t a very interesting box to look at it, just one of those cheap colored cardboard pieces jewelry stores packed your purchases in to walk out the door with. But inside were about half of the charms which had originally come with the bracelets. She was going to need to put roughly three-fourths of those back on their bracelets.

Sitting down in the middle of her floor, in between the packed suitcases and sealed boxes, Catrin began systematically taking off all the bit-and-bobs type of sympathetic tokens she’d collected from her classmates over the past four years of high school. Once those were all off and in a small heap at her feet, Catrin examined one of the teeny-tiny test-tube charms she’d spent so many hours scouring the city for. Be a shame to loose those, but she really didn’t need the scraps of bloody tissues in them anymore.

Trying to work the first of the little corks off the charm nearly sent it flying out of her hands and across the room. Tapping the end of the tube to get the tissue out was not working either. Catrin made a moue of frustration with her lips for a second, before her face cleared and she headed off to the bathroom for the pair of tweezers in there. And the tiny bottle-brush that’d come with the box of test-tube charms.

Half an hour later, the heap of old sympathetic tokens on her floor included all the test-tube contents and all the bit-and-bobs had been replaced with some of the original charms. The cutesiest of the originals stayed in the box – Catrin figured she might need them at some point, like if some of the tubes broke. May she could drive over to that crafting store she’d found the tubes in the first time and pick up another set today.

Catrin paused at a sound from her parents’ room next door. Were they getting up already? No, must have just been turning over in bed.

Looking at the heap of tokens on her floor, Catrin bit her lip. Some of them were probably old enough to have lost their emotional significance to her former classmates. But most could still be magically useful for hexing their original owners. Wouldn’t be fair to the classmates for her to dispose of them only for some other witch to come along an use them. Seemed like a remote chance, but still. Worth the time to do things right, Catrin figured. A cleaning ritual should do it.

From the back of the bracelet drawer came her ritual blade. She did rather hope that Odin would approve of the wisdom or Loki would be amused at the trickery of a butterfly knife as her magical tool. She wasn’t worried that any of the Æsir would object to using a practical fighting knife for magic. After all, what good was a knife you couldn’t fight with?

Kneeling down, Catrin took a deep breath and centered herself. It wasn’t even nine o’clock yet. As soon as she’d cleansed the tokens of their sympathetic links and disposed of them in the trash, she’d have plenty of time to start hiding her sex toys in suitcases before her parents woke up.

New System – Monster Hearts

So I really liked listening to The Drunk & The Ugly's Monster Hearts campaign, so much so that I found a copy of the game and floated the idea of playing it by the rest of Technical Difficulties. Good job marketing, guys! I am absurdly excited to play this system, which is a bit odd (to me) since I loathe teenage monster drama television shows, which the system is explicitly emulating. Eh, maybe my theater of the mind is providing better visuals than the television networks. Either way, I thought I'd try and explain the system a little bit to y'all, because it might be interesting and it'll help me keep the rules straight tonight during our first session.

So, the premise of the game is that the players are teenagers in school. Or young people otherwise in flux. And that they are 'monsters' somehow – whether actually supernatural or just the name for a particular stereotype of teenagers is up to the players and the GM. We're going to be playing as actually supernatural. Instead of 'classes' like folks are familiar with from D&D and World of Warcraft and the ilk, the system calls them 'skins'. You've got things like the Chosen (think Buffy the Vampire Slayer), the Fae, the Ghost, the Ghoul, the Infernal (sympathy for the Devil anyone?), the Mortal (nooooope, nope, nope, not even touching that Twilight-level pretentious crud), the Queen, the Vampire, the Werewolf, and the Witch, not to mention all the fan made skins. It's a game that explicitly expects sex to happen between characters (teenagers after all) and every skin has something different happen for the character when they do. It's a more narratively driven system where when you want something to happen, you say it and it happens. It's more Fate than D&D, Shadow Run, or Eclipse Phase, if you know those systems. There's only mechanics involving dice when you're trying to do specific things:

  • 'turn someone on' - think more gaining emotionally-based pull on someone than just making them horny. Although it is that too. Which says something interesting about attraction within the world of the game: a character doesn't determine what they find attractive, it's all based on what other characters do
  • 'manipulate an npc'
  • 'shut someone down' - people being shitty to each other, basically
  • 'hold steady' - big, scary thing? roll to hold steady
  • 'lash out physically' - try and hurt someone
  • 'run away' - what it says on the tin
  • 'gaze into the abyss' - now this one is interesting. It's equating the GM, who is supposed to give you information about what's happening (if you succeed your roll), with 'the abyss'. I think the designer may have had some adversarial relationships with a few of their GMs

The thing with the 'Skins' is that you get more moves specific to just your skin, and not all of them require dice. A lot of them you can just do. The other bit of mechanics is 'strings' to represent that emotional pull you built up with 'turning someone on' or stripped away by 'shutting someone down'. Strings can affect rolls, force people to hold steady to do a thing, hurt people more (lash out physically) or offer people experience to do what you want them to do. Because you need a mechanic to try and manipulate real people, instead of those controlled by the GM.

And beyond that, there's not really any structure. You could have entire sessions of players doing nothing but role-play bouncing their characters off each other. You could have a plot. But you don't have to. There's nothing in the rules encouraging that either way.

Thank goodness the GM for this campaign also prefers narrative fun. Give me PLOT!!


(For more on different kinds of fun read this paper here: Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research).  

A Jumble of Thoughts

I finished reading the core materials on a system called Monster Hearts last night and it prompted a lot of thoughts for me. Fairly disparate thoughts though, so this post is going to be a bit random, fair warning.

1) I probably would have had no interest in reading this system if I'd encountered it on my own. What got me interested was The Drunk & The Ugly's campaign The Harvester and their excellent voice acting. A system about being a teenager and the horrible, melodramatic social jockeying teenagers do to each other, on top of being a vampire, werewolf, witch, fae, etc.? Yeah, not so much... I've never been good at the social-ing in real life, how the heck would I role-play it? But listening to people with voice acting talent/skills create characters in the messed-up little town they're in who occasionally I want to give a big hug to and tell them it'll be alright? Well, that's enough to get me to plunk down some money to check out the system.

2) Plot. I have to have plot. As awesome as the D&U folks are with characters, if they weren't driving forward with a plot and were instead just bouncing off each other, I'd get bored and have wandered away after a couple episodes. I'm certain of this because I did with the Miss Frieda's Halfway Home campaign. And I'm pretty sure I stuck it out through a few books where I didn't care about the characters in order to find out the resolution to the plot. I'll give away those books and won't reread them, but they at least get read to the end. So give me plot.

3) I will never convince anybody in my gaming groups to play this system with me. a) I don't want to GM it: haven't got a story that seems to fit, b) creating a story would take work I rather spend writing, c) you want me to keep track of how much social interaction? (::curls into a ball in fear::). My GM in the ShadowRun group has no time to learn a new system, even if they had the interest in this particular one (which I'd doubt - not crunchy enough for them), and very little interest in being a player. Yes, I have actually found a GM who prefers to GM over play. I'm so dang lucky. GM's partner also has no time to learn a new system and I rather doubt they want to revisit high school. At least one of the other players in my Thursday group is explicitly not interested in "teenage bullshit drama". And most importantly, my partner is of the 'you couldn't pay me enough to be a teenager again' variety.

4) I mean, they're right – being in our 30s is a heck of a lot better than being a teenager ever was. If a genie showed up and offered to magically deage me to whatever physical age I wanted, you couldn't get me to go younger than 25.

5) So, you know, what do I think about the actual system? I like that it is so social interaction focused and that includes sex and sexuality. It's weird how a major part of the human experience is swept under the rug in so many systems and, given my cultural upbringing, also very weird to see it featured so prominently in this system. However much sex is on the minds of the modern American teenager. 

Like I said, a jumble of thoughts