This is about a Monster Hearts game that caused me to quit my group. Although I’m using the actual play to try and have a clearer look at what’s fun about this activity and why it’s confusing to talk about
So the group was, Me (playing Amanda), Matthew (Werewolf), Paul (Hollow), Luke (Ghoul), John (GM). There were five sessions and Luke didn’t join until session 4.
So my character was Amanda, A Vampire, she really was a malevolent bitch but we’d established two important things about her. Her brother had been killed, maybe by her father (her mother, father and brother were vampires), and that she had sad eyes. The way I saw her was that a lot of her deal was fronting. She always wore sunglasses to hide her eyes. I think she thought she was doomed to becoming like her father and mother, an evil killer. She also suspected that her older brother had been killed by their father for being weak. So there was the threat to her self image if she did actually cut her bullshit AND the fact there might be the existential threat to her unlife if she did so.
The set up from character questions was reasonably strong. Paul played the Hollow as basically naive. She dressed like a five year old girl and was just kind of innocent. I didn’t really dig it that much but the relationship was interesting because Amanda has ‘seen through her made up past.’ Which is the type of info you really don’t want Amanda to have. Now in actual play nothing came of that but I’m not too bothered because there was a lot going on. Matthews werewolf had saved my life, which was cool, because Amanda felt indebted to him but in that bad way, like she hates him but she doesn’t want someone to have that power over her. I guess because the fact it happened makes her weak. The fictional details of this didn’t really get elaborated in play either. Which was annoying because to me it was the springboard between Amanda and the werewolf, which I thought was pretty important but no one else seemed to. A reoccurring theme I’ll address fully at the end.
So I’ll bullet point the first three sessions and some commentary.
There wasn’t a lot of player cross over at first. Paul’s Hollow was hanging out with some weird incel guy. Although I think he became weirder, more 2d and an incel in later sessions. I found their interactions pretty boring to be honest.
Matthew’s werewolf was in a band with Claire the lead singer and Steve the bassist. Claire was the werewolf's girlfriend but I think it was revealed that Claire and Steve were sleeping together and then Claire kicked werewolf out of the band. Werewolf threw Steve through a window. I though that was good shit.
Amanda was basically cruel to her ‘friends’ and the popular girl crew. I succeeded at every dice roll and was just making everyone feel bad and causing drama.
That was session one and two pretty much. I’m glossing over a lot of stuff because of space and a bad memory.
In session three Amanda had her darkest self triggered. She invited one of her friends back to her house and after some making out and being told how cool and beautiful she was. She started to feed from them with the intent to drain them dry.
Amanda’s father broke it up before she actually managed to kill (breaking darkest self) and at that point Amanda realised what she was doing and was terrified. Her father then revealed that, yes he did kill Amanda’s brother, because Amanda’s brother couldn’t control himself.
Now in hindsight I should have stepped in and broken the game up for a moment. I’d already got a reason that my brother was murdered. It was because he couldn’t bring himself to kill, he was weak.
Or should I have stepped in? I remember doing it earlier or later when one of John’s npcs had inflicted a condition. The condition John chose was ‘bitchy’ which to my mind had no bite at all. Wasn’t Amanda trying to be bitchy, I suggested the condition should be uncaring. Which Amanda would just laugh at but deep inside it would cut her because what if it’s true?
Anyway I guess this highlights how much me and John were on different pages for what the actual stakes of the character were.
So then some stuff happens that’s hard to recollect but one night Matthews’ werewolf murders a sheriff that’s bothering him. I actually think my character was in the vicinity but escaped when the werewolf actually transformed into a werewolf. John basically nudged Matthew into making him kill. Afterwards I had a conversation with John about why he did that and john’s response was that he was trying to get Matthew to commit to the drama because Matthew wasn’t that responsive.
So the next day at school, in home room, we learn that the Sheriff has died. Amanda freaks out and shouts ‘I’m not like you.’ At the werewolf, whose response was ‘fuck you.’ At that point I knew we all had very different ideas about the ethical, psychological stakes of the situation. I think Matthew thought I was just having Amanda be cruel, as she usually is, ignoring all the other stuff I narrated previously about weeping alone in her room out of guilt and fear.
Also to my mind (Alex not Amanda) a big ethical line has been crossed. Why the fuck wasn’t Matthew playing into that more. On reflection, he had been kind of goaded into it by John I guess.
Later on in that session Amanda pulls herself together and I had my big Monsterhearts is fucking awesome moment, shame about the group. Amanda decides that if she can save Matthew’s werewolf she can save herself. This is how she’ll pay him back. So she goes up to the werewolf and… I can’t share pain because I don’t have the move. In fact the closest I can manage is to shut someone down. So rather than making a genuine human connection I’m just a bitch. Fuck me it was awesome, would have been better if everyone else understood but whatever.
Session 4. Luke arrives and his ghoul just starts killing people. Matthew has his character die in a car crash and come back as an infernal. I was invested at this point so I hung on trying to see what became of my character.
In session 5 the incel who was friends with Paul’s Hollow comes in and starts a school shooting. Matthew’s inferno stops him but starts shooting everyone himself. Including me. Before turning the gun on himself. I’m bleeding to death and so feed to heal my wounds. Therefore killing someone. I’d failed so save the Inferno and was now in fact a killer as well. So I resigned myself to evil. I think my closing narration was taking off my sunglasses at last, but revealing dead cruel eyes.
So I didn’t quit immediately after this game although it was the impetus. I quit because John seemed content with it and Matthew’s self reflection on play was ‘I just want to kill some things and roll some dice.’ That’s simplifying matters and maybe being unfair to them, the fact is there wasn’t group consensus that play could be better and I didn’t have the tools to be able to explain how it could be.
The latter is what interests me for the purpose of this discussion although, one of my ‘big model’ insights, was that the two are necessarily interconnected.
So we’d been playing together for ten years and it was only during that game ‘and’ the fact I was reading Ron’s ‘Porcu’ dialogues ‘and’ the fact I’d ‘watched Aaron Sorkin’ on how to write ‘and’ the fact I’d read ‘Egri’ ‘and’ the fact I’d read some articles on Vincent Baker’s ‘Anyway’. So a lot of different sources and piecing things together myself.
So there needs to be a situation and one way of framing the situation is ‘dramatic questions’, the atoms of a situation are dramatic questions. These dramatic questions are what we’re playing to find out.
There needs to be actual emotional investment in the questions from the players at the table. Not like weeping openly or flipping the table in an act of rage but you know, just caring.
The means by which we resolve, change or introduce new questions (the system), must be ‘good’. I’m weakest on this point because it was all I thought about for years but without the other bits, it’s like thinking of how to design a screwdriver when it hadn’t even occurred to me that the function was to drive in screws.
So back to my group and my confusion. One of the easiest ways of explaining our dissonance was that we had different ideas about what the dramatic questions were. This makes sense because when watching/reading fiction you rarely stop and give voice to the question. You might think ‘I wonder if Han will get with Leia’ but actually a lot of the time you have an idea of what will happen and you’re enjoying it being played out. The particular way it happens is what excites you and gives the whole thing meaning.
I don’t think that was going on though. I don’t think there much thought about that tension at all. I’ve watched ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ twice. The first time I just didn’t understand why this was exciting and I didn’t get why it would be good. It’s not for me. Then I ended up watching Mamet (the writer) talk about how to write. I liked it and so I resolved to watch the film again, analytically. I knew it was shit but I was going to put on my theory goggles and make notes, pull the thing to pieces and see how it worked. I got about three minutes in before I was hooked and forgot all about the theory stuff and was just watching. I mention this because I don’t necessarily think we all just ‘get it’. I can write stories now but I had to learn the theory to be able to dissect my own enjoyment.
So what I think was going on with this group a lot of the time. Was that fiction was being created but without the underlying tension and investment it was just boring and kind of nonsensical. I think it led to a kind of portraiture, a cargo-cult of story, where people did the kinds of things that happen in fiction, in the hope that somehow that will work.
Lastly I’d got a huge problem. I’m an I.C immersionist. For me it’s obvious where the joy is. I’m ‘my character’ in a situation, with my characters drives, fears, hopes, the entirety of their ethos. Just reacting as they would to the unfolding situation and in doing so answering the dramatic questions. So my answer to the ‘how’ you answer them, is that you just do it. The author function of the work is like channelling and the audience function is then looking at what’s just been resolved and introduced and going ‘fuck.’ So how do I then convey what I like? what’s more, all these other people are apparently making choices based on ‘the story’, which makes no conceptual sense to me because the story is always ‘after’. What’s more it really doesn’t look like fun in any way I can discern.
Now after deep reflection I actually think I.C immersion is a can of worms and possibly far less relevant to the discussion than it would appear. In Big Model terms I think I.C immersion (by my definition) is a technique that is subservient to a larger story or challenge based agenda. In fact Monsterhearts really disabused me of some of my notions of what I.C immersion actually is.
For purposes of this report though. It added to the confusion when communicating what the ‘fun’ of roleplay is. Really really confused me for years and I still have issues with it.