Monsterhearts via Fiasco-style Playset: "It All Ends in Tears"

One of my favourite games, especially for playing with non-gamers, is Monsterhearts. (Or, as I sometimes affectionately call it, M<3s.)

However, the setup portion of the game can be a bit tricky if people don’t really know the genre well. It leaves you floundering a little, if you’re not already well marinated in the source material.

I ended up making a variety of tools for myself and for running games.

This one is a particularly successful one, and I’ve used it several times to start a campaign. I’ve found that just leaving it out on the table has often convinced people to play. (They walk over, take a look, read a bit, and say: “What is this? Can we play?”)

It’s a fun procedure, adapted from Fiasco, where you roll a pile of dice and then set up a basic relationship map. The last two sections work well as a random generator for NPCs in the game, as well (I find it useful).

Here’s a link to a PDF! If you use it at your table, let us know how it goes. Hopefully it ends in tears for you, too.

It All Ends in Tears.pdf (140.1 KB)

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Interesting! Fiasco is such a different game than Monsterhearts, it’s interesting that the setup procedure works so well for you. When you think about it, the sort of weird relationship triangles that form in Apocalypse World and Monsterhearts are also common to Fiasco, although they serve a very different function.

I’d be interested in an example (something that really happened to you) of how play can flounder at the beginning if you don’t know it well. What do you mean here with “genre”?

Is it the lack of conflict, or the meandering into scenes without much purpose? Is it not setting up a situation that’s worth playing through?

The question is completely non-rhetorical—I’m genuinely curious.

I like to think of it as a genre understanding issue.

Monsterhearts is derived from Apocalypse World, and uses the same “cold start”—there is no “situation” dictated by the game. You make characters and then you’re supposed to ask questions and brainstorm until some kind of meaningful situation for play gets formed.

In Apocalypse World, this is—at least for me—very easy to envision. The world is dangerous and unstable, people are desperate and violent, there are pressures everywhere. Many of the playbooks also do a fair bit of world-building for you: here’s a “hardhold”, here’s a Maestro’d’s establishment, someone wants it gone, here’s a Hocus’s cult. There are also “start of session” moves which generate potential situations and conflicts.

Everything is a potential source of conflict in Apocalypse World, so it’s easy to imagine interesting conflicts. I ask a player, “so, where do you get your ammunition from?” No matter what they say, it’s likely going to be something that other people may want to capture, conquer, or destroy. We outline that a bit, and some interesting conflict or scene can emerge very quickly.

The ‘fundamental scarcities’ and the apocalyptic premise sets you up nicely (although some people do still struggle with it).

Monsterhearts gives you fewer tools here. We don’t usually have a “hardhold” with a start-of-session move which tells you that people are starving and mutinous, for instance.

For me—and some of my friends—it really wasn’t obvious how to get into play, to launch some scenes, to establish a situation. I think people who are very familiar with the genre which inspires Monsterhearts kind of get that intuitively: oh, it’s a love triangle and someone’s embarassed at school, and, by the way, the football captain is a werewolf, so he lost his temper. For some people, getting there isn’t obvious.

I like how the playset here gets you there even if you don’t know where to start—the options create relationships, pressures, potential conflicts, and orient you to the “playable space” really nicely. It tells you that you’re jealous of your sister, and, by the way, someone left a loaded gun in your locker. Those are the things we need to play. (Or maybe I’m just slow! :stuck_out_tongue: )

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Oh, I think I get it now. That’s not what I usually mean with “genre”, but sure, yeah, if you’re used to speaking the language of teen drama tropes, then the sources of conflict and how you can make a playable situation are more obvious.

I’ve noticed a pattern of decline of immediacy in forming a workable situation, the more a PbtA is removed from Apocalypse World. But I never would have considered Monsterhearts to have this problem, and in fact I’ve never encountered it. Possibly, I’ve just watched enough of the touchstone material.

There’s a couple of users from La Locanda dei GDR that are more avid players of Monsterhearts than me, I hope they stumble onto this and give their view. It’d be interesting if any of them (or anyone else) has anything to say regarding this.

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Yes, basically! If you’re familiar with the genre, you have an intuitive sense of “what might go wrong” in the life of a teenage monster, and it’s easy to ask questions and answer questions with material that’s appropriate to that.

For people - like me - who are less familiar with it, it’s more challenging.

I remember, as a particular example, reading the Long Example in the original Monsterhearts text. In it, there’s a tense standoff between a Werewolf character and her best friend’s dad, who is an alcoholic. I remember that reading it really shocked me; somehow it had never even occurred to me that the parents of the characters might be involved in a story of this sort (and the rules themselves don’t really hint at that anywhere).

This material really helps orient you and get you started.

But, anyway, those are my own limitations, and I do get it now - but I turned my practice and learning into this playset.

The upside to using it in general is that it provides a catchy and appealing procedure to get into the game. Like I said above, I have now, on several occasions just left this on a table and then had people look over it and get really excited. They’ve never played an RPG before, they don’t know what in the world this is, but they demand to play it immediately. So then, you can launch right into the procedure instead of lecturing them about what a game is and what the genre is and what we’re going to be doing: it’s very practical, and by the time you’re through it, you’re basically already playing. The players are almost certainly seeing conflicts and tensions and are keen to find out how it’s going to play out - they can see that their Witch is in trouble because her rival at school got her hands on the STI test, and they’re ready to go cast a hex on her.

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I’ve noticed a pattern of decline of immediacy in forming a workable situation, the more a PbtA is removed from Apocalypse World.

This is worth a whole other topic. I may start one. I have felt this myself, in many cases, but I have not been able to see it clearly until you put words to it.

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Very very very true. I think people didn’t - and likely still don’t - appreciate how much Apocalypse World leverages its implied setting, genre, and various details in the playbooks and rules to generate a basic situation for play. When the world is dangerous and there’s a psychic maelstrom and no social order and every resource is scarce to the point people are willing to kill each other over it, that does a lot of the heavy lifting for you. I agree I have seen this trend in PbtA design and welcome anyone starting a thread about that sometime.

(Although I have also made “starter” tools for AW, to get playing faster. I may post those sometime, as well.)

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Oh, a quick note on this that apparently didn’t make it into the PDF:

The Personalities generator suggests a lot of adult characters and other significant people in the “town” or wherever your game takes place.

However, what if you want to generate some random school kid as an NPC? (E.g. “Hey, there’s a new girl joining the basketball team.” “Ok, what’s her deal?”)

No problem. You have two options:

  1. Roll a single die, you’ll get a stereotype off the first category on the Personalities page (“a classmate”).

  2. Roll a single die, then choose one of the four Reputations that offers from the Reputations page.

The latter is what I normally do. Just roll a die, then give them a Reputation. That’s usually enough for a new NPC classmate. (For more detailed and important NPCs, you already have an idea or a purpose, after all; it’s not the kind of game where you wouldn’t want to give that some thought! But for a quick call on an unknown student, just roll a Reputation and I promise you’ll end up with something interesting and playable.)

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I’m fresh out of a Monsterhearts 2 season, around six or seven sessions overall, with the last session just last night. I can’t really comment about on-field use of the playset, since we did our first session by the book, but there are some points I’d like to contribute to the discussion based on first-hand experience in play.

I’m not particularly familiar with the genre myself. I know Buffy the Vampire Slayer out of its fame and have watched a lot of Smallville (where you get the teen drama, but it’s more superheroes than supernatural). Yet I didn’t feel stranded when we began playing scenes. In our case, I think the seating chart provided tons of material for loaded interactions and crossfire, but mostly I found it very easy to simply strive for the stated goal of my playbook. I was the Mortal, I had my True Love, everything I brought to the foreground aimed at attaining this love… or his pain, since I entered my Darkest Self around scene 3 and got out of it in the last scene of the final session. I didn’t really feel at loss when playing for two reasons: 1) teen drama is something everybody lived on our very skins in our real lives and 2) Skin moves make a very good job of providing hints at the supernatural and driving play towards sources of conflict. In my experience with Monsterhearts I’ve never felt I had to contribute supernatural teen drama tropes: they’re already baked into the rules, you can just advocate for your character’s monstrous, horny mind and drive the body where the former wants the latter to be.

Despite the fact that I didn’t experience the same frustration with Monsterhearts played by the book, I can totally see the value of this playset as a tool for pickup games. It doesn’t need the strong thematic statement of choosing a Skin on a blank canvas, contrasted to the default procedure suggested by the manual. At the same time, you get more investment in the setting in contrast to Small Towns, since everybody at the table gets to pick up some Lego bricks and add them to the project.

I must say that setup via the playset attracts me specifically for the infringement on character ownership, so I’m already thinking of using it without the optional rule you mention. This world building and relationship mapping is already play and the aggressive play you can get by shoving problems in the other players’ faces, well, I think it would set up a tangled situation where it would be fun to find out what happens next. It’s also a quite explicit way to draw people out of their comfort zones and get variety out of the play experience.

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I’d love to hear more about this, Eugenio. I agree with you, by the way, and I have my own mind on the issue, but I would like not to influence you before you get a chance to explain your point of view.

It’s something I started enjoying thoroughly after trying Clink and Polaris, both of which I mentioned among my favorites in the introduction post.

In Polaris you act as the Heart of your Protagonist, yet you can clearly see in retrospect that whatever happens to them hinges on what the Moons and Mistake throw at you throughout the game. In my first playthrough, my character ended up colluding with demons and fighting a squadron of corrupted knights all alone just because one of the Moons picked up a filler name from my Cosmos and turned her into a never fully quenched childhood crush. I find it exciting how you’d have never imagined the turn of event, but everything simply comes out of you accepting a prompt from another player and building on it to its extreme consequences.

Clink fully revolves around this. Characters start out as stereotypical drifters with a couple of mementos and triggers, something along the lines of “the guy with just half a coat on his right shoulder and an irrational hate of snakes”. Delving deeper into the characters’ personalities and past is a table-wide effort, because the core mechanics of Flashbacks and Scars explicitly require other players to shove a loaded question into your face, which quite easily leads to other people adding substantial traits or past events to “your” character. Once I made another player’s character a war criminal, heralding the gruesome finale where they could finally obtain the revenge they were striving for. I wrote about Clink in this blog post, unfortunately for the international audience in Italian, also more of a game showcase than an actual play.

To sum it up, I’m not jealous at all of my characters, because I treasure the value you can extract in terms of play when you leave the door open to other people’s prompts, rather than digging out your trench and keeping everybody else out of your yard.

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Eugenio, you would enjoy Tales of the Round Table by Mythweaver Games.

I’ll split this topic in a separate thread as soon as I have time.

Yeah, some good discussion here. I think there are some really good takeaways and conclusions.

I have a very unusual history with this game, as it originally began as a sort of a joke. “What if we did a teen supernatural story using Apocalypse World?” Avery Alder started working on this idea, and I encouraged her. It went from “joke concept” to “serious game” pretty quickly, as the potential was easily seen. So I was pitching ideas back and forth with Avery. I can’t say I really played a hand in the game’s design, but I was certainly showing interest, asking questions, and encouraging its development. There were several forum threads where Avery was fleshing out the game with me, before other people got interested and eventually we got a wide variety of people interested.

So I have kind of a particular perspective: I was really really curious and excited about the prospect of this game, but also utterly unfamiliar with the genre it’s based on. (I think I’ve read one Anne Rice novel in my life, and that’s about the extent of my engagement with anything beyond classic vampire literature.)

I found it really difficult to figure out “what do we do?” in this game. That led to a bunch of great discussions and a bunch of tools and ideas came out of them. This is one!

So, good takeaways in this thread:

  • Yes, I agree that for many people, Monsterhearts just works “out of the book”. They’re familiar enough with some of the typical tropes of the teen monster genre, and they come to the table full of ideas. That’s great! They certainly don’t need this playset.

I needed it, though, as I never watched that stuff. So this was me struggling with the genre and figuring out what its building blocks were. (I’ve done this for other games, too; including a procedure for Apocalypse World I should probably post at some time - everyone has different levels of need in terms of tools to assist them at the table.)

And with people new to roleplaying or curious about Monsterhearts but not fully immersed in this kind of content, it’s a great way to get on board and check it out. You roll some dice, choose some elements, and you’re playing - no need to discuss a whole lot or put people on the spot. A few hours later, you’ve gone from “we’ve never played any games before and we’re just curious to try something” to a full-on Monsterhearts campaign, quite effortlessly.

In ours, the material that came from here launched all kinds of long-term play arcs that were fantastic. Probably my favourite roleplaying experience of my entire life was a Monsterhearts campaign started with this playset, and so many of these elements inspired some wonderful and dramatic character-building ideas from the players.

  • One great insight I got in the process of exploring Monsterhearts that wasn’t immediately apparent to me was:

The source material for Monsterhearts can be simply “teen high school” issues.

This is not something that was intuitive to me.

Eugenio covers it really nicely here:

This is how I look at Monsterhearts now:

You start with basic, human teen drama. Relatable, real world stuff. Draw on your own history, all that. And then you let the Skins and moves and the game’s design screw that all up.

The result is quite delightful. It’s a game very much like Dogs in the Vineyard, in that we have relatable human problems, but the game gives you tools for dealing with that which are all wrong. Great roleplaying results!

Of course, this is not how everyone plays Monsterhearts. But it’s my favourite way, and it’s baked into this playset.

  • The issue of character ownership infringement is really interesting, and I’d love to see more discussion of it (perhaps, as Claudio says, may be worth a new thread). I think it can be exciting, too!

It’s quite a divisive topic, and depends a lot on how close you are to your play material and how long you’re going to play for. When I posted this playset on Story Games, years ago, we ended up having a discussion about this as well, with people falling on either side of the issue. It’s an interesting one!

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Helping PbtA games start up is something I’ve given a fair bit of thought. It’s a sufficiently “unregulated” or “undirected” process that some groups do fine with it while others struggle. As a result, I’ve made a few different “startup procedures” or game seeding tools.

I’ve long thought that using a Fiasco playset for Apocalypse World would work well, too. I would take the Boomtown playset from the basic game, and use it to set up the situation. Just reinterpret any setting-specific words into a more post-apocalyptic aesthetic “colour”, do the setup, then choose playbooks and get going. I think that would be a fun way to do a quick and short-term game of AW - it’ll generate a starting situation for you and a hint of setting. You might get a Gunlugger in the role of a local enforcer (“Sheriff”), some kind blood debt, and a stash of explosives, for example. The Western tropes suit a post-apocalyptic scenario pretty well, I think.

Here are some related takes and tools:

  1. A thread on the Gauntlet archives about starting up a game of AW (the normal, by-the-book way) where I share my thoughts on how to do that:
  1. My “NPC Starter Kit” for easy and quick AW play, here on Wynwerod:
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Given Wynwerod’s focus on Actual Play, I went and found my online record from the last time I used this procedure. Here’s the Setup we ended up with after rolling all the dice. This led to a 20-session campaign that was extremely memorable, with some really dramatic developments for all three PCs.

Particularly nice was the starting situation/scene which kicked off the game:

We knew that Spencer (the football quarterback) was murdered at the old clock tower on the edge of the Atlantic ocean. A tall man in a cloak pushed him off the top, and Serina, our Vampire, watched it all happen.

It was a dramatic scene which set up some great dynamics between the characters as well as some central mysteries which became major drivers of the game.

The Setup also fairly reliably creates some love triangles, which are, of course, great for Monsterhearts. In our case, none of the PCs ever coupled up in a serious way, but there was often a tension there which was very fruitful.

You can see how the elements we chose all leaned in a creepy, horror direction more than a “wacky high school hijinks” direction, and the game was definitely full of creeping dread and slow reveals. Serina had seen Miss Noonan dressed as a nun a hundred years earlier in Europe, which was an intriguing part of the plot for us to unravel. (After all, she wasn’t a vampire, it turned out, but a sort of mesmerist.)

Chloe was (willingly) trapped in a love triangle between her dead lover’s demonic spirit (whom she felt very guilty about) and the rakish but totally irresponsible and much older James Kodiak (the mayor of the town). In the end, she agreed to strangle Kodiak, allowing the spirit of Logan (her dead lover) to live on in his body. She thought she’d get the best of both worlds: her old boyfriend, her true love, but in the body and with the advantages of the irresistible mayor. Of course, it didn’t end all hearts and smiles.

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