So Tessa is dating Andrew but Andrew is gay for David but David only has eyes on Scott who is shacking up with Nancy’s mom in secret. Oh, and Nancy’s a werewolf. This is Monsterhearts.
Created by Buried Without Ceremony, Monsterhearts is a tabletop RPG where the players – using the freakin’ awesome Apocalypse World system – are teenagers in high school. They’re also monsters. And not just in that “teenagers are scary” sort of way, but literal monsters ranging from vampires to fae.
Entrenched heavily in media such as Buffy or Teen Wolf (and yes, even Twilight), Monsterhearts at surface value is a melodrama RPG about juggling the mundane – dates, puberty, losing virginity – with the extreme – controlling your werewolf transformations, not vanishing when the lights go out, or trying to explain that, yeah, you might be dead but it’s TOTALLY not necrophilia.
The theming (that of “teen-oriented-paranormal-romance-soap-opera”) is reflected in the mechanics. Using the Apocalypse World system – where the player rolls 2d6 and adds/removes stats – the player has four primary ways to act out whatever melodrama they want: The stats of Hot, Cold, Volatile, and Dark. Hot is for turning people on and manipulating them, Cold is for shutting people down and holding your ground, Volatile is for lashing out physically, and Dark is for gazing into the abyss – best summarized as wallowing in misery until you think of something to do.
The surface read of this game – that everyone has a monster inside them or has the potential to be monstrous – is completely relevant. Every Move described above is, in a way, destructive. Budding sexuality is used to manipulate, misery is used to seek guidance, a sharp wit is used to isolate, and when pushed into a corner the only thing left to do is to lash out like a child.
The Skins (which type of monster you are) are further reflections of the surface read as well. It doesn’t take a scholarly dissection of the text to understand that the Vampire is a teenager learning the power of sex, that the Werewolf is a kid with anger issues, the Mortal is someone who is only defining themselves by their relationships – yada yada yada. I wouldn’t really say it’s “subtext” so much as “blatant text if you look at it for more than three minutes.” The Strings system – where each player has established dirt/relationships before play begins – helps shove this down your throat.
So, is that it? Is this just a fun melodrama game with monsters? Well, kind of, yeah. There’s more to this game, though, and that’s partly why this might be one of the best RPGs on the market.
It’s the depth that this game really, really puts into itself. From beginning to end, everything about this game pushes the players and the MC (the Master of Ceremonies, or the dude who will be running the game) to create layered, dramatic, and convoluted games and push the players to confront some really fucked up things about themselves and the character they’re playing. More importantly, it pushes them into trying to get past all that crap.
Monsterhearts is a game about growing the fuck up.
As characters “level up” you can eventually start taking Growing Up moves – things like Sharing Your Pain, Calling People on their Shit, or Make Others Feel Beautiful. Things that connect and help others and, ultimately, yourself by stopping the cycle of bullshit. Things that hard to do at any age but we learn (hopefully) in our teenage years. Your character has a Sex Move, something that reflects how momentous and simultaneously miniscule sex is can be.
Your character can, eventually, control their monster. No, I’m not posting another “unfortunate gesture from Buffy” gif for that.
Writing a review for Monsterhearts is hard in the same way that explaining abstract concepts can be hard. When you look at it, or use it, or read it, boom, it makes sense. It evokes a strong emotion and can be a joy to share, but to actually put it to words is – what the French would call – a bitch and a half. It’s a game that lives up to it’s potential and is probably one of my favorite RPGs of all time. So, if you want a number for it: 10/10, 5/5, A+, Gold Star, go buy this game.