Just in time Only slightly late for 💖 Valentine’s Day! 💖
Monsterhearts 2 is the second edition of Avery Alder’s1 Monsterheartsroleplaying game. As you might guess from the title, this RPG lives in the intersection of teen romance and horror. Not limited to the usual issues presented by puberty, this game has extra issues galore! The player characters in this storytelling game are (almost all) literal monsters, transformed by circumstance and magic into strange new forms.
Despite which, they are still expected to attend high school.
People of my vintage do not appear to be the target market for this game, although we could certainly play it. Not everything is meant for us! The text strongly suggests that this is for people the same age or perhaps a bit older than the characters2. Which isn’t going to stop me from reviewing the game.
Monsterhearts 2 is one of the many, many RPGs to emerge from the Powered by the Apocalypselineage. This diversity is driven by PbtA’s straightforward, flexible game mechanics, which can be and have been adapted to a wide range of genres. Key to each game is purpose-designed “skins,” character classes by another name.
In the case of Monsterhearts 2, each skin save one is a different kind of monster, each with their own special strengths and weakness. The single non-monstrous skin is the Mortal, with the Queen—technically baseline human but with disturbing levels of charisma—as an interesting edge case. Each skin has a Darkest Self specific to that skin, an unpleasant manifestation of worse impulses that can emerge in moments of stress.
RPGs have explored the theme of beings struggling with their inner monster before—hello, White Wolf Games—but Monsterhearts 2 complicates the beings’ situation by making them hormone-addled teenagers. Not only do they have to come to terms with being a ghoul, or a ghost, or a vampire, but on top of that, they have to wrestle with sexuality and romance (or absence: this edition includes asexual and aromantic characters). The potential permutations are vastly expanded by the game’s rejection of narrow heteronormative standards. It’s the stuff of heartbreak and drama!
It’s very nicely done. Alder’s art is atmospheric, reminiscent (to my untrained eye) of Tim Bradstreet. The mechanics seem functional, and although the rulebook is comparatively short at 175 pages, the author manages to fit in a lot of campaign advice (as well as a short index3). The text does its best to steer gamemaster and players past the inherent pitfalls of a game like this and towards entertaining drama.
If you want more, here is more.
Chapter One: How the Game Works
More or less a mission statement for the game, providing some history leading up to its development and the purpose for which it was designed, before launching into an explanation of the core game mechanics.
This game is queer, meaning that it pushes back against the heterosexist framework that underlies so many of our culture’s stories. When you play, you contend with all the chaotic (possibility) and uncertainty of desire.
The four guiding principles are:
Make each main character’s life not boring, keep the story feral, say what the rules demand, and say what honesty demands
For the most part, the meaning is clear. Keep the story feral means allowing the storylines to develop organically rather than trying to railroad players or plot threads. Kids these days! We were perfectly content with “no blocking!4”
The core game mechanics are simple. There are four stats, valued from -1 to +2: Hot (turning people on), Cold (self control and closing down social interaction), Volatile (impulsive physical action, either aggressive or defensive), and Dark (insight and facility with arcane talents). There are a handful of Moves, actions characters can take, phrased broadly enough to cover a wide range of activities. Strings provide personal connections to other characters. Attempted actions are tested by rolling 2d6 and adding the relevant stat. Values of 10+ succeed without complication, 7-9 indicate partial success, with 6- brings failure and delicious complications.
The focus here is on interpersonal interaction. This may be why violence of the sort beloved to murder hoboes will have consequences, ranging from the authorities taking a keen interest to character death. With some specific exceptions, characters can be very fragile. Use your words.
Chapter Two: Preparing to Play
This covers what the Master of Ceremonies (the gamemaster) and their players have to do to ready themselves for play.
Chapter Three: Keeping Your Heart Safe
Any roleplaying game can go pear-shaped and a game focused on melodramatic teen social dynamics has an even greater potential for unpleasant player level outcomes (trauma for the player characters is baked in). The text offers various stratagems to ensure that everyone has fun and that players are still on speaking terms once they step away from the table.
This section seems potentially of great use while simultaneously being about a hundred orders more touchy-feely than I am comfortable with.
Chapter Four: MCing
How to run the game.
Chapter Five: The Skins
Characters classes by another name. The default skins are: the Fae, the Ghost, the Ghoul, the Hollow, the Infernal, the Mortal, the Queen, the Vampire, the Werewolf, and the Witch, each of which comes in two basic varieties. For example, the Mortal5 will always be attractive (Hot 2), but they could be either impulsive (Volatile 1) or spooky (Dark 1)
Most are what they say on the tin. Hollows are creations, Infernals have sold their souls, and Queens command impressively weaponized social skills.
Also included: advice on crafting new skins.
Technically, the Queen is as human as the Mortal, but they can go to toe to toe with the Vampire when it comes to manipulative skills. Oddly, Mortals always have but one True Love at a time, which surprises me in the context of this specific game. Not poly for the mortals? Or only hierarchical poly?
Chapter Six: Making It Your Own
More MC advice.
Chapter Seven: Taking Inspiration
This provides a long example of game play, as well as suggested research materials.
1: Full credits:
Writing and design by Avery Alder
Writing contributions on race and racism by Ciel Sainte-Marie,
James Mendez Hodes, and Jeeyon Shim
Editing by Daniel Wood
Cover illustration by Cecilia Reis
Interior art by Avery Alder
With endless support from Jackson Tegu
2: Wait, you ask, aren’t parents of a particular tendency going to reprise the D&D Panic of the 1980s if they discover their teens roleplaying queer supernatural monsters? You betcha. Especially when they notice that each skin has its own special sex move. This seems like a good place to mention that graphic descriptions of in-game activities are not required by the game.
3: I was going to complain that there were no page numbers, but on closer examination it turned out the page numbers are midway up the edge of each page, which as it happens is where my thumbs are when I hold books.
4: With the exception of the choreographers.
5: Why Mortals? Mortals are born plot catalysts: everyone wants one and their range of special talents include story facilitating hilarities like
Sympathy is My Weapon
Every time you forgive someone for hurting you, and excuse their base nature, gain a String on them.
Excuses Are My Armour
When you ignore some blatant problem with your Lover or how they treat you, mark experience.