Monstrous Hearts and Other Apocalyptica

After Go Play Northwest this year, I found myself wanting to dive into Apocalypse World and its assorted hacks. In part because I have a couple hacks I want to make and don’t want to repeat my past mistakes of taking elements from a game I barely understand and then fumbling it up when I try to apply it elsewhere. In part because it’s just stupid fun. Bizarrely, I still don’t feel jazzed over “the post apocalypse” as a genre. But I’ve had stupid amounts of fun both times I’ve played it so I was willing to give it a whirl.

So while at Go PlayNorthwest, I connected with Jason, who I’d met in the past but hadn’t interacted with much. He proposed trying out a long-form Monsterhearts game (as opposed to just a one-shot). For those unfamiliar with it, Monsterhearts is a hack of Apocalypse World by Joe McDaldno and is what led me to Apocalypse World in the first place.

And, before I continue, I feel I should note that Joe has a Patreon thing going on. I don’t entirely understand it, but I don’t care. Just give him your money.

Anyway, this last Saturday we got together and started the Monsterhearts game. It was me, Jason, and both of our wives. We started right off the bat at 12:30. Played up to dinner, went and got dinner down the street, and then played for a few more hours.

We sort of loved it. A lot. And, you know, made a site. It’s also the first time I’ve ever used Obsidian Portal instead of some generic collaborative site service. This is pretty awesome so far. Just sayin’.

There was so much that spawned out of it, not all of which I think I have words for. And, not to diminish anything I’ve been a player in lately, but it’s been a long time since a game has left me obsessed. I’m still thinking about the things we did, days after the fact. Trying to dredge up what it was like to be 16 and weird was a strange experience. There’s some laughing at the sort of things that made so much sense at the time. There was some introspection over how teens are treated. (I mean, seriously, those mandatory assemblies where they had some ridiculous guest speaker. Did those have any value?) And there was some stuff that I never had to deal with: campus security, locker searches, similar sorts of treating-teens-like-criminals things.

And we fucked up. A lot. The game sort of encourages you to dig holes you can’t fill, and we dug like madmen. I played the Infernal, which has a whole junkie-who-sold-his-soul thing going on. I had power, but if I wanted to use it to get myself out of trouble, then I had to give up a little more control to the Dark Power that gave me this power. I also kind of feel that Monsterhearts is a game that is best played putting yourself in uncomfortable situations, and I dove into that.

The other thing I’ve started is a straight up Apocalypse World game. I was really iffy going in. Again: I’m pretty meh about the post-apocalyptic genre. And then we got together and made characters, and the whole thing just popped. We came up with this whole Lovecraftian apocalypse with Great Old Ones roused from the deep, water levels rising and flooding coastal cities, and set the game in what was now the Seattle Islands. Fishmen rising up from the water, cultists serving dark masters, the whole nine yards.

And we had a shit load of fun. And I’m looking forward to running it again. Yes, I made I site for it. (I’m an Amber player at heart. Making sites is what you do for Amber campaigns. Don’t judge me.)

Both of these games are just really great at leaving things open to hitting the ground running. And its sometimes amazing what a group of people can create together off the cuff. I’m increasingly atheistic as I get older, but if there’s magic I believe in it’s in this ability to make these stories just happen. I’m sure on some crude biological level, it’s a lot of sharing narrative arcs that we’ve been immersed in for years through TV and movies and books and then regurgitating it. But to see it happen just floors me.

I have a few games I want to make a hack of to see how they’d work. But with it comes looking back at games that I’ve run in them that went well. And while I’m sure they’d be fun, I could not recreate those games using an Apocalypse World hack. The various hacks that have come about are great at flagging iconic characters types and immediately getting you into those roles.

But there’s something amazing in letting players find their own role. I just started a 7th Sea campaign recently. You can look at our wiki if you like. I could have had some hack for “Swashbuckler World” and had iconic skins for it modeled after Zorro, d’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, Aramis, the Scarlet Pimpernel, the Count of Monte Cristo, the Dread Pirate Roberts, Captain Jack Sparrow, or whatever other swashbuckly trope icon you like. And it would be a rolicking swashbuckler game that hit all the high notes. But I don’t think the skins let you jump the rails and do your own thing as well. Even though we cribbed a few notes from books and movies, these characters are each very much their own thing. And they work just as well.

I think if there’s one take-away that I’ve had, it’s the importance of connections between the characters right off the bat. It’s what my ill-fated Nobilis campaign lacked, and I think that had a huge impact. That’s another thing that Apocalypse World and its assorted hacks have going for them. Not only do you have immediate links to characters, but you also have incentive in the game to interact with them.

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