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.

Scenarios and Systems I will probably not write

I've been immersed in the tabletop RPG world long enough that random things get my brain to churn out an idea for a scenario or a system at a distressingly regular rate. Distressing not because I dislike feeling creative and having ideas. But because, despite writing down the better ones to come back to later, I am fairly sure I will not find (make) the time to turn them into usable things. Because the editing and general fiction writing I do is a) more satisfying and b) expands to fill the available time, if allowed. I could fix this by just setting aside some time every week to just. freaking. write. these things. But then I'd have more projects in various states of incompleteness and each one would make less visible progress on a day-to-day basis. Which I would find more frustrating than having lists of scenario and system ideas I know I probably won't get to. It's entirely in my power to change the dynamics and make the time. I've just calculated for myself that the trade-off, right now , isn't worth it. Maybe that will change in the future, maybe it won't. But if it does, I've got my list of ideas I can use.

Scenarios ideas:

Giftschrank: I've written about this one (and the next one) for this blog before, but I haven't written the scenario yet, so it belongs on the list. The original posts went up March 14th 2016 and March 24th 2016 but the summary version is that Giftschrank literally means 'poison cabinet' and, in German, refers to the cabinet the controlled substances go in a pharmacy or, in a library, refers to a biohazard zone for information. Which just screams for a scenario in the Eclipse Phase universe about information escaping/being stolen from a research facility located on an exoplanet only accessible through a Pandora Gate with the players unsure which side they are or should be on. If I ever actually start writing scenarios, this will probably be first, just because it was the first one I wrote down and I really like the name.

Courrières Mining Disaster: I've also written about this idea, back on the 31st March 2016, but. In 1906, a very large mine in France exploded and then caught fire. It was an awful disaster that killed more than a thousand people, but the part that caught my attention was the group of miners trapped underground, in the dark, for more than a month  before rescuing themselves. To which I said, 'damn that would make a terrifying Call of Cthulhu scenario, the system already had a sanity mechanic.' Writing this one up would involve really learning the 1920s era Call of Cthulhu system, researching mining equipment, technology, and practices of the era, finding a map of the actual site (shouldn't be too difficult...), and building the characters, because no way in hell an I going to let the players build some insanely broken character taking a gun and no rope into the mine for some reason.

Base Raiders: I also have an idea for a base to loot. Well, more like a scene within the base. Let me give y'all the backstory first, because the idea came from understanding the Base Raiders setting. Base Raiders is a Fate system by Ross Payton where the players are in a world where superheroes existed before suddenly disappearing on a day. Left behind were are those superheroes' and supervillains' hidden bases, which you, as PCs, go raiding. Also, lots of the PCs are turning into superheroes themselves.

The idea for the base I'd write is that it's a superhero family and friends' ER and hospital.  Family and friends a superhero thought might be a target for hostage situations would be given emergency teleporters paired with medical monitoring devices. When the teleporter detects tampering or the monitoring service detects a problem, the user is teleported to the triage room of the base or, if the problem is severe enough or the facility is marked as currently slammed, directly into cryogenic freezing. This all came from expanding a scene in my head of a dead body on the floor of medical bay, face down in front of a gurney, having obviously bled out, based on the very old, dried pool of blood the corpse was lying in.

As for writing it up, I'd need to read the system (yes again) in order to make sure something like this doesn't already exist in canon, figure out power-levels of gear that could be looted (all of which would be medically based/themed), and see what kind of security other bases use. Then I'd need to figure out what sort of security would be compatible with a hospital. 

Systems: 

The first two system ideas come from encountering the flashbacks in the Leverage RPG (through the Drunk & the Ugly's APs) and Red Markets' non-linear time mechanic with scams in negotiations. Also how much I enjoy cop procedurals and heist films. ... And now that I'm thinking about it to write this post, Shadow Run and the inordinate amount of time I have spent planning how to hack, rob, extract, and otherwise do mischief to fictional corporations in a cyberpunk dystopia.

Any rate. 

The first is a system around criminal heists with Ocean's 11 style flashbacks while the second has cops investigating crimes with flashbacks to what the criminals did as the cops figure it out. Alternatively, combine the two where the players are both a cop and a criminal. The scenarios would start with a crime having been committed so you have the end result and the cops need to work backwards. When they figure out something, everyone switches over to their criminal character and there's a scene of what happened. I don't actually know where I'm going with this one, or really why/how is different than Leverage so there's a secondary reason this one probably won't see the light of day.

The next five are all systems I'd like to write using the Profit system found in Red Markers:

Running a community hospital

Stone Age tribe level survival

1800s escaped slaves survival

1800s colonization of the American West

Modern day survival scenarios  

So... a lot of survival games in there... It fits with the Profit system's focus on trade offs, opportunity costs, and resource scarcity. Which is how health care fits in with the rest of them for me: resource scarcity. What can I say, there's two ER doctors and a health policy economist in my family, I hear and talk about this sort of stuff more than the average lay person. For the community hospital, I think the players should be the administrative heads of various departments in the hospital. Each compete for resources and prestige in order to stay relevant (and an actual department) while having to use the resources to drive value to the hospital (along with all the other departments) so the hospital can keep their doors open.

I'm picturing the Stone Age tribal survival system as a semi-cooperative, narrative game. My idea is that players control a section of the tribe, like the hunters, the gatherers, the shamans, the elders, etc. instead of individual characters. So folks need to cooperate for the tribe and the characters they're responsible for survive but there's room for intra-tribe politics and changing what kind of society you're building. Sessions/scenarios would be things like going on a hunt, gathering resources, dealing with nature, or trying to build up a tribal improvement (like finding a good source of flint so the nappers can make better spears or something). I think I'd handle trying to change societal norms through an altered negotiations mechanic.

For the escaped slaves system, I was thinking of the American South but if I made this work I could expand it to other countries in the Western hemisphere during the same time period. For instance, I happen to know for a fact there are tribes of folks in Suriname (a small country north of Brazil) in the interior composed entirely of folks who ran from the plantations on the coast and reformed societies like the African ones they were stolen from. But the core idea came from a session recorded for Technical Difficulties (which hasn't been released yet) — it was a Call of Cthulhu game where the characters were escaped slaves who headed into the Great Dismal Swamp to escape pursuit. I'd be interested in stripping out the magic and making it just about survival and what risks the players are willing to take. Do you work towards making a life in the remote area you're hiding in? Escape to the North? The West? Canada? Flat out, can you avoid the slave catchers and are you willing to kill to stay free?

Thinking about that lead to the idea for a system in the American West about colonization. I'd want to write it so you could play the Americans pushing west (and stealing land from the Native Americans in the area) or as members of local Native American tribes. As an American, you're away from civilization, in remote areas, how do you survive? You're invading land someone else calls home under the belief of Manifest Destiny, that you deserve it more, that they're 'savages'. How far are you as a player willing to go as a character who believes those things, explicitly or implicitly? As a Native American, do you resist? Adapt to the changing social and political climate?

Both the last two systems would require a lot of research for me to feel comfortable contemplating writing. For the American West one, I would want to do as much research as possible before even attempting to approach members of the tribes in question to ask for advice. And I'm not a historian in training nor do I have the inclination during my free time. I mean, I'd do it because I have a specific goal and I'm good about working towards goals. But yeah, I am not unaware of how much work these two systems would require from me. At least I might be able to use the same information on tools and technology across the systems.

The last system, the modern day survival system, seems the easiest of the proposed systems. I'm already familiar with the time period :) Just have to research survival skills and craft a narrative around why the players are in such straits. I'm not saying that's not work, I'm just saying the other systems require researching skills and setting/time period. Thinking about the narrative, it feels like a system build around one-shots — here are your characters, here's the situation, survive. I mean, unless you're a Special Forces operator going through training, I'm not too sure why you'd end up in a series of life threatening survival situations. ... If you do, maybe it's time to look at your life choices. Anyway, I'm thinking of things like 'You're all average people from X country who just survived a plane crash in Y location. Survive until rescue or get yourselves back to civilization.' scenarios.

So there you have it, three scenarios for three different systems and six or seven full systems I probably will never write. Unless someone wants to collaborate on them and kicks my ass. I'm real good at working on things when I'm responsible to another person. ;)

An RPG system I failed to sell myself

A ways back, sometime before August of last year, Technical Difficulties had the opportunity to play test Upwind (by Biohazard Games) before it went to Kickstarter. I found Upwind to be an example of a really good, well put together system that just. was. not. for. me. 

The thing about Upwind for me was, that as different and innovative as the mechanics were, and they are very inventive, the thing that made the system itself was the setting. The world building was involved, complex,  and well-done. I'm just not terribly interested in an epic, adventure fantasy right now.

The tagline for Upwind is "A roleplaying fable of lost science, elemental magic and uncharted skies." It's set in a floating world, with sunlight above and The Dark below. Player characters are Explorer Knights on their airships, fighting pirates, keeping sailing lanes open, exploring, mapping, trouble-shooting, and dungeon crawling.

I honestly think my issues with the system have less to do with the system and more with Technical Difficulties's play test session. So I got a bit behind the week we were going to play and by the time I did sit down to read the rules I was trying to read just the rules. Well, the setting section and the rules section were not clearly labeled, and I started reading the setting section. So I'm reading, one chapter, two chapters, five chapters before I start skimming, looking for the rules, getting more and more frustrated, before finally figuring out that there's more than one file and try the other file. Oh look, there's all the rules. Which were kind of short... Which once I read the resolution mechanics made sense:

The resolution mechanic discards dice in favor of a deck of cards: player and GM negotiate two possible outcomes (both of which must allow the story to continue), determine the stakes involved, and then bid on the outcomes using a hand of playing cards. So it's a scene level resolution mechanic, rather than an action level mechanic, which is narratively based.

Once the Technical Difficulties crew gets the game rolling, it turns out that I'm the only player who had perused the setting information at all really. Which, let me tell you, is not a great way to try and use the resolution mechanic. For a narrative negotiation based mechanic to work, everyone involved really needs to be well-versed on what's going on in the world. Otherwise you don't have a great idea of what to ask for, what works as penalties, or even really the type of story to tell or feel to give it.

Also, online game.

The whole deck of cards thing does not work well over the internet. In my experience, you really want the tactile and visual feed back of cards in your own hands, seeing other folks' cards, and being able to look at the multiple decks that make up your various sources of cards. If only to help each other know where to draw from. So the four of us were constantly stopping to figure out our deck situation. That was partially an issue of needing more practice with the system and partially an issue with our set-up. It'd be a better mechanic for people who play together in person.

So yeah, a game I can recognize has interesting stuff going on. But isn't for me personally.

Go give RPPR's episodes of Upwind a listen through though, because they love the game and have a great time playing. Maybe it's a system for you and either way, it's a great series of episodes to listen to they have so much fun.

System Fluency: Gaming edition

I also have some thoughts on ‘system fluency’ in the context my friend, the Shadow Run GM, used the term. See, roughly two years ago my IRL gaming group reformed after a post-college break of multiple years. The GM hasn't had a chance to fully use the fourth edition of Shadow Run and wanted to run a campaign before he even considered buying fifth edition. Shadow Run is his system the way some folks apt D&D or Pathfinder reasons as their system: he knows the system lore and plot at a pretty deep level and it's his default system to run a campaign in. That's the kind of story he wants to tell (and yes, only tell — I don't think he'll be convinced to play anytime soon, if ever).

We have, on occasion, gone three months between sessions. Just life stuff killing scheduled time.

Ignore the difficulty of keeping a story going and fresh with such big breaks between events. We're having a hard time keeping the rules in our heads. The same things cause us to stop and look specific, fiddly rules up from session to session, players and GM alike. We aren't gaining system fluency. Our 'speech' in the language of Shadow Run is still halting and dependent on dictionaries/grammars. The rules and our lack of fluency in them is placing a barrier between us and the story we're failing to craft.

I honestly think system fluency (or lack there of) can play a big part in how enjoyable an RPG system or campaign is. How often have we heard 'the rules got in the way of the game'? Time spent looking up rules is at the table is time not spent interacting with friends or the story. Unless your type of fun is studying RPGs to gain system mastery, that's not fun. (And if that is your type of fun, you can do that in between sessions, yes?)

All of which got me thinking about system design and how the system can aid or hinder gaining system fluency. And how I can pick up new systems faster. Especially since I've been playing a variety of systems with Technical Difficulties.

Rules light, narrative systems seem, to me, like they should be the easiest to pick up. There aren't a lot of rules to remember and what there are should be core mechanics. Things that apply across a spectrum of situations. For example, in Monster Hearts, everyone had four basic moves; the trick was figuring out how you wanted to apply them to this situation and what they said about your character. The difficulty with narrative systems though can be the lack of rules. If the system doesn't do a good enough job conveying the expectations of the system, the type of story it's supporting, I at least can end up flailing, feeling like there's no direction to go and unclear even on what tone to take.

Take, for example, Fate Core and Monster Hearts — Fate Core seems like an awesome system, one I could see using for a sword-and-sorcery epic fantasy and for a gritty investigation. So unless the GM has a clear vision of the world they want to build, the genre of the game to play, conveys that to the players, and gets buy-in from everybody, I'd be flailing as a player. This is not to say I don't like Fate Core — I do, have read up on the system for it's own sake, and would be willing to play in a campaign (or one shot) of Fate or its derived settings (which I haven't read up on yet). But only with a GM who has a clear idea on a campaign. It's a broadly applicable narrative system.

Meanwhile, Monster Hearts has one story it's designed to tell: teens/young adults growing up. You can layer all sorts of stories in that, but that is the core story the system is built for. I've got a direction to take my character and a tone expectation built in. So the system is doing the tone and expectation setting, before the GM ever needs to communicate with players. Gods help you if you want to do a different type of game or campaign with the system though.

In terms of learning these types of systems, I try to focus on core mechanics and narrative feel. So I pay more attention to included fiction and rules examples. 


On the other end of the spectrum are crunchy systems, things like Shadow Run and Eclipse Phase. My main attraction to Shadow Run used to be the cyberpunk setting, but over time the density of the rules and different systems for different classes (the magic system is different than the hacking system is different than the drones is different than...) has eroded my desire to play in the world. One of the things I think Eclipse Phase learned from Shadow Run is to keep the system flat. The magic system in Eclipse Phase is, fundamentally, the same system as performing any other skill: percentile dice under a skill rating target number.

Another thing the EP team is doing differently from SR is that the metaplot is not advancing — whether or not this is a good thing is more individual choice, but personally I'm in favor (and will get to why in a bit). In Shadow Run, there was a story line that canonically happened, lots of which were available to players as modules or campaigns, and then the world changed. It was time for the timeline in system to advance by five years and the next edition of the system to come out. Eclipse Phase is keeping the 'official' clock at AF 10 and diving deeper into various aspects of the setting — what would be the Monster Manual in D&D just came out (it's called X-Risks). 

Both the crunchy systems I know are heavy on rules and setting (Shadow Run more on the rules, Eclipse Phase more on the setting). Shadow Run feels like it has just the one story to tell: go do an adventure from the perspective of people outside the power structure of the world. My GM has played at least one adventure of Lurg, the combat medic mercenary, but the campaign we've been trying to do as a corporate black ops team is the one that's not working so well. And the GM has quietly been doing a lot of work in the background to keep the system balanced (not that he really has that time to spend). Eclipse Phase, I've run a dungeon crawl, I can see a long political intrigue campaign, I've heard an actual play adventure quest, I wanted a different actual play campaign to stop  play the war scenario they touched briefly, I could see running an investigation campaign. Heck, I could see running a police procedural. What I'm trying to say is that, like narrative systems, crunchy systems can range in scope of stories they support playing. So, you know, I think that's the place to start — figure out what type of story the designers expected folks to play in the system and use that to direct you to the rules to learn first. But for me, once I get the first set of rules, I really need to try an adventure or two. One, to figure out if things move fast enough that I want to keep playing and two, to figure out what set of rules to focus on learning next. Setting wise, I limit my dives into the sourcebooks to the areas most relevant to whatever we're playing next.

You know, if I don't have time to read them for fun.

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