Monsterhearts is an indie Role Playing Game, published by Apocalypse World and created by Avery Mcdaldno (formerly Joe), about the “messy lives of teenage monsters,” in which characters take the roles of supernatural teens in the high school settings, along the lines of TV shows such as Buffy or the Vampire Diaries. If you’ve ever wanted to game in the young adult paranormal romance genre, there’s no better system for diving head-first into it than this one.
- Simple, easy to learn system
- Storytelling-focused system – light on rules and rolls, focused on drama and character interaction
- If you love teen drama with monsters, there’s no better system
- Not a robust system: no real fighting rules, no opposed rolls
- Not built for longevity
- NPCs lack agency
Audience: Fans of Buffy, The Vampire Diaries, Teen Wolf, Twilight, and the young adult paranormal romance genre in general.
GM Learning Curve (1-10): 3
Player Learning Curve (1-10): 3
Built to highlight social interaction, storytelling, and mature content including anything from death to love to sex to queer content, players create characters who struggle to find the maturity to deal with these things and the considerable power they have to shape their own lives and those around them. Though it’s up to you and your fellows how seriously you take the potential darkness in the Monsterhearts world you create, it has a lot to offer and is light on mechanics so that story and drama take center stage.
In Monsterhearts, players choose Skins just as they would choose a class or fighting school in most other RPGs. Each Skin is a mix of a monster and a high school archetype. The hotheaded athlete with anger management issues? Werewolf, of course. The addict who always says this time is the last? The Infernal, whose demonic patron will give them power but eventually demand they pay up in return. The quiet one who considers himself judge, jury and executioner? The Witch, whose powerful hexes can do serious damage.
With just four Stats (Hot, Cold, Volatile, and Dark) and no opposed rolls – using two 6-sided dice for all rolls, you either succeed, have a partial success, or fail and face the consequences – the mechanics are built to encourage interaction and storytelling. In my group’s sessions, in fact, the GM has rarely had to do any planning at all, given how the game lends itself to creating an ever-increasing spiral of drama by its very nature. All on our own, we’ve managed to concoct numerous crisscrossing romantic entanglements, high school rivals and social politics, with a dash of mystery thrown in thanks to our backgrounds stories. These are determined during character creation and set up the common history between the characters, determining who your character is, who knows them, and who knows their secrets. The Ghoul, for example, has come back from the dead with an all-consuming hunger; in her backstory, someone saw this happen, the experience marking them both, giving them Strings on each other.
Strings and Conditions are the core of what makes Monsterhearts’ drama-obsessed mechanics work. Strings represent leverage you have over other players and NPCs. For example, if I know you snuck into the locker room for a secret tryst, then I have a String on you. Later on, I might use that to improve my chances on a roll against you. Conditions, on the other hand, are placed on you by other characters. A romantic argument that goes poorly could result in one PC (Player Character) being dumped and labeled unloveable, a condition others can tap to boost their rolls against that PC.
The quick flow of social interaction, turn-ons, shutdowns, secrets and the high school setting – with characters who have the power to manipulate and harm each other, but lack the maturity to handle them – makes for a game that lets you dive into the genre with all the fervor of fan fiction and the cool factor of a CW show. It offers both highly amusing hijinks and serious dramatic moments as your characters deal with the problems they’ve created (and believe me, you’ll have no trouble finding and creating trouble).
There two more key pieces of every Skin in Monsterhearts that can especially raise the bar on mature content and serious topics in your game: Sex Move and Darkest Self.
The Sex Move, as you might guess, is triggered when your character has sex. Just like in real life, sex can be a powerful thing. You and another person (or persons!) make yourselves vulnerable to each other: maybe you make a connection, or maybe you’re repulsed by one another. If you sleep with the Fae, who thrives on promises, she gets one from you, free of charge. Seems like no big deal, sure – until you break it and she unleashes her vengeance on you for it. But because each of you gets one, it balances out. Maybe you’re a Witch, building your spells by taking tokens from others that let you cast powerful hexes on them, and now you get one from your partner.
And then there’s the Darkest Self. Everyone has a breaking point, where they unleash their worst, withdraw, or become destructive. I used to play a Ghoul, a monster driven by a Hunger for flesh. When my Darkest Self triggered, I lost all control and pursued my Hunger relentlessly, destroying anything in my way. A bloodthirsty flesh-eating monster on the loose is not a problem you want to have, and sure enough, my Ghoul has a body count and blood on her hands because of it. But every Darkest Self also has an escape clause; in my case, I had to be restrained long enough to regain control of myself. Others aren’t so clear-cut: The Vampire goes on a feeding rampage, drinking to the point of death, until he’s “put in [his] place, by someone more powerful.” You can start to see just how well this game is built for social drama.
But what’re the downsides? Well, the system isn’t built for longevity. The suggested way to structure your campaign is like a TV show, and after a certain amount of advances, it signals the end of the season. Each season will run for maybe 10 sessions, and after about 3 seasons, 4 at most, you’re going to hit the end of your advancement track. So if you’re looking to play longer with the same characters, you’ll need to hack the system or consider changing to a different one altogether.
The system isn’t mechanically robust either. This is partly the point: a game to pick up quickly that also plays smoothly. The system isn’t meant to be technically detailed or to be brought anywhere near a rules lawyer. But if you’re like my group, you like your story to come with crunchy bits, so to speak. There’s nothing quite like an epic battle with a tough monster, and while we’ve managed to have those, they’ve always required hacks and take a long time to get through since there are no rules to speed up combat. While there are partial successes that give you or your target a list of consequences to choose from, and you control what your reaction actually is, the lack of any opposed rolls sometimes leaves you feeling as if you’re low on options that feel right for you. We’ve found that to especially be the case when dealing with combat and defending yourself.
Which leads to the third issue: NPCs lack agency. The GM isn’t supposed to roll dice at all, so NPCs have no stats. Even major ones are, in the end, subject to the rolls, actions, and whims of the PCs. This isn’t to say that you can just make any NPC do whatever you want, there’s a specific move called Manipulate an NPC, and it often requires you to provide a motive, threat, or bribe to get their cooperation. Even so, their ability to make moves against you is limited. While I’d never say the PCs shouldn’t be the stars of the show in any RPG, I prefer a world where the side characters can be well fleshed-out and have their own agendas with a little more oomph to them. As a result, my group has actually started giving major NPCs some stats and the ability to roll against the PCs.
Monsterhearts has quickly become one of my favorite games. I’m a huge fan of supernatural TV shows and books, and I love character-driven dramas in general, so being able to jump into a game that emulates those so well has been a ton of fun. Though the system has limitations, we love it so much we’ve hacked around them, to get more out of a game we love! There’s a good community around the game, too, with a lot of fan made Skins available for download for free, and a second batch them that Apocalypse World is working on, from a Kickstarter they ran. At $10, it’s a bargain for all the enjoyment you’ll get out of this game.