Monsterhearts Three Ways

For some people, the three-day Labor Day weekend is a last hoorah for summer. Maybe a camping trip. Maybe a day of meat. Some other horrible thing involving sunshine and the outdoors.

I spent three days shunning the evil Daystar and running Monsterhearts one-shots, collaboratively spinning yards of angsty teenage monsters and their messy lives. All in an effort to feel a bit more comfortable with the rules before I run a one-shot at Ambercon Northwest.

Yeah. I’m a huge dork.

I tossed in almost all of the skins for every day of play, the one exception being the Heir from Jackson Tegu‘s Second Skins. (I got preview editions of the skins as a Kickstarter backer. It’s a difficult skin, not suited for new players or one-shots.) This may have been too much, but I tend to like having options available.

Saturday was an all-female group and we had a Hollow, a Ghoul, and a Werewolf. One player compared it to Morning Glories. It was a sort of weird town full of secrets game, with alternate timelines and strange things in the woods. Of the three games, I think I was most satisfied with this one. We found some traction with a plot early on, and even with making it up as I went we still managed to finish a story arc in one go. This is also one that we may continue later. Because I need to run more games.

Sunday was an even split in terms of gender, and featured a Mortal (female), Ghoul (male), Unicorn (female),  and Sasquatch (male). We didn’t do the melodramatic readings. Arrivals were greatly staggered, so either people knew what they wanted to play before they showed up or they had enough time to pick something. By the time the last person showed up, there wasn’t any need to read them. I felt something was lost by not having this. There’s a beauty to the ritual of it, of bringing people together and also having them be a bit silly so they are not as self-conscious.

I fumbled around with this iteration a lot. I had trouble working in possible plots early on, then second-guessed myself a lot. So we ended up with a hodgepodge of unrelated threats and we stumbled to an end. Also difficult was that we set it in a real place rather than Anytown USA, and it was somewhere one of the players had once lived but I didn’t know much about the place. So things got a little over-specific at times, rather than fleshing out the setting as the story needed.

And, for my future reference, the Mortal really needs to have a real monster as her “Lover.” The Unicorn was just too nice. Though I’m not sure if that was a result of the skin or the player.

Monday we played with another couple at their house so that they could take care of their toddler, putting our mix at two women and one man (not including me or the toddler). Having a toddler added a different dynamic. Not bad, just a little distracting. (Unrelated, but I never realized how much I needed to hear a toddler with gamer parents say “d10” as part of his limited vocabulary. He had one of these d10s. It was like unlocking an Achievement without realizing it was there.)

The players all portrayed female characters: Ghost, Selkie, and Witch. I tried to learn from my experiences on Sunday and had a much more coherent plot. With the coastal town in question, we ended up having a pissing match between followers of Dagon and the King in Yellow with the players trapped in between. (Team Dagon won, btw.)

My wife and I had very conflicted feelings about the Ghost as a skin. It doesn’t seem to jibe with the common mythology for them, but I’m not sure if there’s specific fiction it’s meant to emulate.

Beyond the individual games, there were some common lessons I took away from the experience.

It’s not great for one-shots. A friend had told me such, but I had to experience it to understand. For me, the hallmark of a good one-shot is having a coherent story line. And to draw a lesson from writing short fiction, you need to get to the meat of things fast.

The first session of a Monsterhearts game is meant to be for just following the characters around, getting a feel for them, throwing some problems at them and seeing what happens. There’s a lot of trying to get your feet underneath you, collaborating a lot, and not forcing any particular plan. And that can work out fine, but also has a high chance of meandering. I managed to wring out a narrative arc two out of three times, but I had to find a spot to drop a plot hook early or it didn’t seem to happen.

The other option, of course, is to use something like The Blood of Misty Harbor, which is a pre-gen mini-series using the Monsterhearts rules. I don’t know that I will use it for my run at AmberCon Northwest, but it’s a neat setup. I think what I would really like to have is a generic hook to drop in. When we had the Ghost on Monday, it worked out really well that her death was something that happened within the last few months instead of the last century. All of the PCs built their connections around this murder, and it formed a core part of the plot. Cribbing from other fiction I’ve consumed lately, there’s also tropes like a secret heritage, a new student in school (PC or NPC), or a supernatural past coming back to haunt someone (Damn you Damon Salvatore!!!).

Take note of Moves picked. When the players hand me their characters to highlight their stat, I should also note what Moves they chose for their characters. If a Ghost chooses “Hungry Ghost,” which gives the Ghost a benefit for letting people vent their sadness to the ghost, then I need to have sad people approach the Ghost. The Unicorn had a Move that allowed her to talk to animals, all Disney Princess like. I should have animals show up and just start talking to her.

Oh, and stats too. One of the things that constantly blows my mind is the way stats in the game influence personality. For those who aren’t familiar with the mechanics, most rolls are 2d6+Stat. In Monsterhearts, characters have four stats (Hot, Cold, Volatile, and Dark). Starting out they two stats at -1, two at +1, and the ability to increase one of them by 1 during character creation. 7-9 is a partial success, 10-12 is a complete success. I won’t go into probabilities, but the difference is noticeable and huge.

With the Infernal I’ve been playing in our ongoing game, he started out with -1 to Hot and Cold, which means he it is very hard for him to get his way through social means. He also isn’t great at keeping his cool. On the other hand, he’s pretty good at punching people, running away and getting visions. All of this works out well for him to be a high strung, low-impulse control monster who Knows Too Much.

In our Monday game from Labor Day Weekend, all three characters had Cold and Dark as their main stats. There was very little seduction and violence. But a whole lot of people shutting people down. A whole lot.

My take away from this is that it’s good to note what characters are good at and give them a chance to shine. And it’s also good to give them a chance to use highlighted stats, regardless of whether they are good at it, so they can gain XP. (Though, really, people seemed to have an aversion at trying to do something they are actively bad at.)

Hard Moves are hard.  One challenge I have as a GM with many RPGs is that I’m really bad at inflicting outright harm on PCs. I especially have this problem with games like Amber Diceless (and now Monsterhearts). Because ultimately it’s a decision of me as a GM deciding that you have been hurt for whatever reason I feel like. I always tend to dislike GMs who are very antagonistic towards players, and I always feel like I’m falling into that trap.

Monsterhearts has a list of what it terms “Hard Moves.” It’s specific actions the GM can take. Doing out of the blue just feels weird to me, though. You have license to bust out an extra hard Hard Move, and I feel more comfortable with that. But then there’s the question of what Move do I use? If they are attacking someone, it’s easy to find one. Like “Inflict harm.” If they’re attempting to seduce someone and bomb it, though, coming up with a suitable consequence based off the list is challenging for me. I fumble around a lot, and sometimes just opt to do nothing. So it’s something I need to think about more.

Sort of related is that I also need to get better at handling success. I have a tendency towards just giving them a clearly defined win if the dice favor them, because I don’t want to blunt the payoff of their success. But one Hard Move is “Turn their move back on them.” I’m supposed to be able to give them unintended consequences. One point where I ran into this difficulty was when a secret society was chasing after an NPC that the PCs were protecting. These were the Monday game Cold/Dark characters, so they were great at shutting people down. But then I couldn’t think of a way the secret society could continue pursuing their goal after they’d been stopped cold without negating the success. So they just grumbled and made vague threats as they left.

So I have a lot of things to mull over and consider how to do differently.

People are sometimes uncomfortable when you give them narrative power. The game has a list of Principles that you are intended to upload while being the MC. One that can be difficult to remember is “Sometimes, disclaim decision making.” I can give players power to make decisions about the setting. Sometimes this is great. When the player with the Ghoul asks me, “Do I have a pulse?” I can just say, “I don’t know, do you?” And then they feel empowered to add some flair to their character concept. “I’m thinking I do, just a really, really slow one.” Sometimes they don’t want to choose these answers. They want to interact with something outside themselves and experience the world from an unknowing point of view, and get really uncomfortable when you try to dump choices in their laps. (Or, you know, if they’ve been playing Monsterhearts with you for three days straight, they may be sick of making decisions. Ahem.)

I don’t have a good answer for this right now. I struggle with it in my conventional games. “What do you guys want to play? What do you want from the game?” “Whatever.” And then I get all emo. So, something to consider for the future.

Sometimes it’s not good to have ALL THE THINGS. I like to have tons of options for players. Want to play a sentient moss? Awesome! Let’s do this! But I think that works against me with Monsterhearts, especially in a one shot. Especially when my slot at the con will probably be only four hours. The basic book has ten skins to choose from. When you toss in Limited Edition skins and the Second Skins, that doubles the options. But when I’m running in a four hour slot, which will probably not start on time, I need to hit the ground running. The extended options are all awesome, but I don’t feel like the game loses anything by not having them for a one-shot.

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