Monday, July 29, 2013

Review: Monster Hearts

Monster Hearts
by Joe Mcdaldno
Buried Without Ceremony
Rating: ★★★★

I wasn't really interested in Monster Hearts when I first heard about it.  But then again, being told it was "the perfect game to use to run something inspired by Twilight" was clearly the worst way to get a first impression on a game.  This game, to be honest, is devilishly fun and even better, so easy to teach to even those who have never ever played a role-playing game in the past.    For fans of shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Being Human or TruBlood, this game system nicely captures the sexy dangerous darkness that such franchises offer without cluttering the fun process with far too many rules to keep track of.

Messy Lives
Based on the Apocalypse World system, Monster Hearts is billed as "A story game about messy lives of teenage monsters" and to be honest, I get confused when some seem to insist on separating role-playing games with story games when I always felt story games are more like Atlas Games' Once Upon a Time.  The moment players are part of a group that is creating an evolving story while they portray specific roles, I feel, they are playing a role-playing game.  It isn't about whether or not there are stats, or dice, or experience points.  It is about playing a role and experiencing a story unfold as a group.   But I digress, Monster Hearts is a game of teen angst, of darkness looming, of dangerous excitement, of mesmerizing whispers and unveiled secrets.   Each player chooses a Skin, the game's term for a character type, to portray and from the list of options quickly and easily generate the character they will use in the game.  The wonderful staples of Apocalypse World's system are there, with the Stats, the Moves, and the prepared options readily available and easily selected with a circle or a check.

The System
Two six-sided dice are used whenever a player needs to resolve an action.  Actions tend to fall under specific Stats and the game has the following:  Hot, Cold, Volatile and Dark.  Hot actions tend to be about Turning people on or Manipulating them.  Cold actions are about shooting someone down, or maintaining a steady facade.  Volatile actions are for combat and other physical actions.  While Dark explore gazing into the Abyss.  Rolling 10+ means you typically get the result you wanted.  Rolling 7-9 means you might get what you want, but at a cost.  Rolling 6 or lower means you fail, and the repercussions of the failure are then revealed.  A lot of the language of the rule book can be confusing to those who never played a Dungeon World/Apocalypse World game before, but in many ways the confusing talk about Soft and Hard Moves are actually just a different way of saying light and heavy consequences for the actions chosen.  

The Skins
Each Skin nicely covers a supernatural concept that is typically in many shows and books now.  Vampires, Werewolves, Witches, Ghosts are there, as are Fae folk, the Chosen, Mortals and Infernals.  The Ghoul is an odd addition since it seems to be a strange twist to the zombie concept (but I guess after the movie Warm Bodies, its a very welcome addition.)  But admittedly my favorite is the Queen which gives a nice quirky approach to giving the game the Mean Girls treatment.   Each Skin has interesting moves that they can use, and a great idea to how their Darkest Self manifests.  In Monster Hearts, one can allow their Darkest Self to manifest to keep from dying, and it is such a wonderful bonus that the Skins throw in the necessary role-playing activity to regain control from it.

Sex Moves.  
There, I said it.  This is probably one of the more controversial aspects of the game for some people.  I will confess to being uncertain about including it my game at first, given I was introducing the hobby to a non-gamer and I wasn't too keen on letting this new person have her first impression on gaming to be "playing a devil worshipper, and finding ways to have Sex with another character to get some magic going."  So yes, the Sex Moves were a concern at first.  But once the game was clearly toying with the idea of adolescent and young adult supernatural drama, it easily all fell into place.   I will give the game bonus points for a very interestingly written section gender concerns nicely touched on some sensitive issues without sounding preachy.

The concept of Strings is an interesting one.  A natural evolution of Apocalypse World's Hx ratings, Strings shows how certain characters have already affected your character in the past, and how these "strings of influence" can be used to help or hinder the same people.  I do wish, however, they were written to be as modular as Dungeon World's Bonds system, given Strings in this game might not be useful beyond the first session.

And finally, the MC section is wonderful.  For people who have never tried running a game before, the book extends to the reader a very well explained section on how to run games, the importance of asking questions, and the ways to invoke dramatic moments into your game.

Rating Breakdown:
Definitely turned my opinion around, this game is crazy fun and is awesomely good at making it stay that crazy fun.  And I am very impressed at how much Skins are now out there for this line too.

Crunch: Tremendously lean that non-gamers can learn in a few minutes.  The Strings can get confusing at times, but over all it is a wonderfully made game.  I would have wanted to see more moves, maybe sort of a generic listing of other move options.

Layout: Very pretty and I have to admit, the logo is just beautiful.  The approach to the art, which clearly took from Apocalypse World's visual stance, worked wonderfully here.  I'm surprised they didn't include suggested theme songs for each Skin (hence when I ran the game, I made sure each character's scene had a theme song.)

My favorite part: The Darkest Self.  Just a wonderful way to add such a concept without being too pretentious about it.  And yes, the Queen is just awesome.

What I wish was better:  The Sex Moves.  I guess I wish the game also offered clear alternatives to them, for groups that would rather separate their gaming exposure and their concerns on games that have a sexual presence. But don't mistake this opinion to suggest the game is soft core gaming porn.  Trust me, the game is definitely a far better version of Twilight.

So find that inner monster in you, and let it fall in love.
Available at Drivethru rpg.
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