Monday, 10 July 2017
Review: MONSTERHEARTS 2
I was a latecomer to the Kickstarter game, mostly because cash is often tight for us, and sometimes a Kickstarter is a dodgy prospect. Eventually, my love of games (and desire to support the people who create them) got me to dip my toes in. MONSTERHEARTS 2 was one of the first products I ponied up the dough for, and I did so without hesitation. The first edition of Avery Alder's now-classic game of supernatural romance was the text that opened up my mind to the world of Powered-by-the-Apocalypse, thanks to Avery's lucid writing and tight focus on dramatic play. Getting the finished text via e-mail recently was like gaming Christmas.
Just in case you've never played MONSTERHEARTS, it's a game about the messy lives of teenage monsters. Players take the part of vampires, werewolves, ghosts, ghouls, and other things that go bump in the night who also happen to be teenagers struggling through the nightmare of high school, family, and sexual awakening. Importantly, it's a queer game -- for our teenage monsters, sexual identity is something they're still figuring out, and sometimes their changing bodies have feelings and desires that are confusing and uncontrollable. It's a game that's tightly focused on its themes, and bold in its presentation. MONSTERHEARTS is about sex and sexuality in a way that APOCALYPSE WORLD wasn't, not really, and in a way that few games that followed have had the courage to explore head-on. Hell, most of its cousins in the PbtA world don't even include sex moves. In MONSTERHEARTS, game play is all about them.
The second edition is not vastly different from the first. Mostly, the rules have been streamlined and tightened up in very pleasing ways. Some of the Basic Moves are a little different, and the rules for Strings have been tightened up. The Chosen is not one of the core Playbooks included in the book, replaced by The Hollow, which is one part Frankenstein and one part Edward Scissorhands. Playbooks are nicely polished, with some little changes to the moves, and excellent advice for playing them included.
Most of what's changed in MH2 are additions, rather than changes. Avery has included in the core text the essay "Safe Hearts", which talks about boundaries and vulnerability during play. There are very good tools here to help make a table playing the game establish a safe, supportive environment for exploring themes that can get pretty dark. A new chapter on racism is really excellent stuff, and it expands the game in important ways.
There was some controversy ahead of the game's release about how asexuality would be addressed in the game's rules. One of the killer bits of game design that makes the original MH a classic is the "Turn Someone On" Move, which -- importantly, based on the theme of exploring shifting sexual identities -- is written so that anyone, any time, can try to turn someone on sexually. No one is allowed to say "I'm only heterosexual"; how their body reacts to a sexual advance may surprise them, although the game allows players to respond in any way they wish. Since this upends play in interesting ways, making sexuality surprising territory to explore, there was some worry in the community that allowing characters to declare themselves strictly, non-negotiably, asexual would hobble MH's most powerful mojo. I had confidence that Avery would do her usual amazing job of thinking things through carefully, and come up with a thoughtful and challenging answer, and she does not disappoint. If someone tries to Turn On an asexual character in MH2, that Move simply doesn't go off -- instead, you read the results as though the character had made a "Shut Someone Down" Move. This makes sexuality into a kind of ongoing micro-aggression against an asexual character, which is a very interesting (and difficult to play) approach.
There is some new art throughout, including a brand new cover by Cecelia Reis (seen above in black-and-white-and-red), and new writing throughout in Avery's clear, engaging prose. I have absolutely no hesitation in giving this game the strongest possible recommendation to anyone who enjoys dramatic games, but I suspect that most of them already know and treasure the first edition. There is ample new material here to justify your purchase, but even if there wasn't Avery Alder is the kind of game designer you should be supporting with your dollars. Her work is thoughtful, challenging, cutting edge stuff. Exactly what everyone in the hobby should be aiming for.
I have a small complaint -- very small -- about MH2, and that's about the Small Towns included in the Kickstarter as a quick way for people to dive into a new game without spending time developing setting. There is some good stuff there, but I found that some of it was so specific that I had a hard time imagining it in play. What I was hoping for was a set of tools to help you develop your own small town setting, and the game does not include those, although you have enough material to inspire such efforts. I built a set of town-building tools for my Twin Peaks-inspired game LOST PINES, and frankly, I was hoping Avery Alder had created something that would kick my ass and show me how much better I could have done. No such luck, not yet.
I was able to MC a game of MONSTERHEARTS 2 this past weekend, and I feel like the game works very well indeed in play. I was quite intimidated to run it, honestly, because although I've read many PbtA games, I haven't run very many of them myself. I had played in a couple of MH games over the years, and had excellent experiences, so I felt that I had a lot to live up to in running the game for my friends.
As with a lot of PbtA games, I found it was challenging as a one-shot experience. We started a little later than I'd expected, and ended much later than usual -- after midnight, which was a bit of a challenge for us adult gamers. We probably played for a little more than four-and-a-half hours altogether, with character-and-game creation taking a little more time than usual. That was partly because one of my players was not only new to MH and PbtA, she had never played before at all, which meant there was a lot of explaining to do and sometimes it took her longer to decide which choices to make for herself in character creation than it would have for a PbtA pro. My regulars all dove right in, and were right at home.
Using the "homeroom" setup to generate characters and conflicts for a game worked very well, as always. It took us a while to get things moving, as people explored their characters and began to get a feel for the rules. I had very little planned, but building on what the players were giving me (and one of the broad story frames the game provides -- a party) I pulled things together into a satisfying and bloody conclusion. I felt like I had to nudge things pretty hard at the end, but that was in the service of making sure all of the characters were involved, something that was complicated by how long it took the party's Ghoul to come back from the dead. I either had the choice of letting him confront the baddies at the end in a very fragile state, which would have likely taken him out of the action early, or having the bad guys kill him early in the evening so that he'd be ready when the shit hit the fan later. I went for that.
We had some satisfying teenage drama, sex, drugs, a Witch that had magic blow up in her face, an Infernal who dug herself in way too deep, a Werewolf seeking bloody payback, a Ghoul eager to play games with death, and events that became darker and more dangerous than any of them anticipated. In other words, exactly the kind of good time you'd hope for from a game of MONSTERHEARTS 2.
I'm sure I will do better with some practice, because the game was a little rough, and it was clear that a campaign game would look much different, but overall we had a great time with the revised rules and I'm sure you will too.