Darkness There and Nothing More: My Problem with Monsterhearts

Monsterhearts is a paranormal romance RPG about “the messy lives of teenage monsters” that’s Powered by the Apocalypse. Assuming that the “paranormal romance” part didn’t immediately turn you off, that’s a pretty strong sales pitch, since Apocalypse World remains one of the most innovative advances in tabletop RPG design for the last decade. Let it not be said, though, that Monsterhearts coasts by on the successes of its predecessor – there are plenty of new gameplay options introduced to adapt the system to its new setting, and many of them are implemented successfully. “Strings”, a resource mechanic for measuring the emotional leverage the PCs have over each other, is a particularly notable example. Many characters are at their most enjoyable to play when the economy of strings is in full flow, buying and selling them to power their moves. It’s high school bitchiness at its most fun!

On the other hand… Well, it’s a testament to Monsterhearts’ strength of theme that there’s a lot of fun to be had with other new mechanics, even though they don’t quite work the way you’d like them to. Enter “Darkest Self”. The idea is that every character class (or “Skin”) has its own hilariously melodramatic alter ego, that represents the character at their most monstrous. Witches dabble in black magic and curse everyone, ghosts turn invisible and vengeful, werewolves enter their frenzied wolf-man state etc. There are various conditions in-game which can, as a mechanical effect, force a character to enter their Darkest Self, and each Skin has its own script that the player is expected to be using as a reference point for as long as they remain in that state. It’s a nice idea, and a successful emulation of the genre’s fiction… But it’s in the mechanics of Darkest Self activation that the problems start to creep in.

In short, the circumstances that trigger Darkest Self are both too common and far beyond player control. Everything looks good on paper, but my experience of actual play is that players spend large stretches of their game in their disruptive state, at the expense of time spent advancing the game plot or their own character arcs. Sometimes, that’s fine. The Darkest Selves are fun to play, and the fact that players have limited control over the hormonal urges of their character is exactly what you’d expect from “the messy lives of teenage monsters”. But it also has the following effects:

  1. Characters often accidentally end up in their Darkest Selves very early in the campaign. It’s satisfying to see an established character enter their Darkest Self, so you can contrast their usual behaviour against that of their evil twin. Early on, when you don’t know these characters at all… Not so much.
  1. Whilst being given carte blanche to go off the rails is fantastic at first, the conditions for leaving your Darkest Self can sometimes be quite severe. This means players end up reading their characters from a script for a long time, which can be resented and seen as an imposition on their agency and free will as PCs.
  1. Multiple members of the party will often be in their Darkest Selves at the same time. That’s great when you’re building to a confrontation. At other times, it means that players end up squabbling for screen time – Darkest Self is supposed to be a character’s moment in the spotlight (or the dark, angsty equivalent of a spotlight), and its disappointing to be upstaged by another player doing the same.
  1. Related to the above, when one character is in their Darkest Self, it’s difficult to get anything else done. Which can be tedious for the other players, and sometimes detrimental to a campaign’s overall narrative, assuming something more substantial than a series of unfortunate events is the intended goal.

Since the problem is not with Darkest Self as a concept, but the conditions that trigger them, it seems relevant to consider what those conditions are. Some characters have special moves that can trigger other people’s Darkest Selves, but these are comparatively rare. The MC has the option to trigger the condition whenever a PC fails a roll, but presumably can be trusted to only do so when it will be fun or will advance the narrative. And players can select this as an option when they score a partial success on their default attack move – which is common enough, given the ubiquity of violence in most RPGs, but even this can be mitigated by choosing other options or adopting non-violent solutions to problems. From my in-game experience, the most common trigger for Darkest Selves… is death.

Like in most supernatural TV shows, death is very rarely the end for Monsterhearts protagonists. Instead, once a character has suffered enough harm to be laid low, they have a choice: give up all the Strings they hold, or enter Darkest Self. After that, the character returns from death, and continues play as normal.

Genre expectation, and the logistical practicalities, inform why death is such a minor inconvenience in Monsterhearts. This isn’t D&D; no-one wants to put the breaks on a love triangle so that someone can “roll up” a new character. However, I think it is this element that is the catalyst for all other mechanical entanglements. It’s common enough for players to choose their Darkest Selves after dying – why wouldn’t they, when playing in Darkest Self is fun? – and after death has been exposed as a trivial inconvenience, players are much more likely to take risks that could get them killed again. Aside from undermining the drama and tension of physical confrontation, this leads to the proliferation of Darkest Selves, with all the subsequent problems outlined above.

So, what is the solution? Most directly, death needs its edge back. It won’t fix all the problems discussed in this piece, but I think it will make a dent. Having the chance to think through my thoughts on the subject have inspired me to work on a series of “Death Moves” – options for each Skin that I hope will present options that make death more consequential without ending a PC’s story prematurely. If I do it right, it will also add in another layer of genre emulation, and increase the range of options in play. After all, “darkness” is meaningless without colour to contrast again it. Hopefully I can get as far as dark red and purple.

Watch this space…

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