Monster Hearts: What’s fun anyway?

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.


15 responses to “Monster Hearts: What’s fun anyway?”

  1. I can understand how you felt

    I can understand how you felt like the other players weren't focused on addressing story questions. It does sound like you had expectations of attentiveness to your portrayal of Amanda and the players and GM did not pick up fully on them. If that's a chronic experience, it certainly makes sense to seek a group of like minded players.

    This post prompts me to consider a phenomenon that shows up a lot in roleplaying: the disappointment of preconcieved ideas of how our character's experiences will play out. I've had that experience. Can we expect other players to catch on and cooperate? Is that even a good thing? Is the unexpected contribution something that brings roleplaying to life and makes the series of events unique?

    • Important context I forgot to

      Important context I forgot to add. The tactless asshole comments ‘shame about the group’ etcetera are meant to be honestly capturing my thoughts while play was happening. They’re not my actual thoughts now or even after the game. I didn’t make that clear stylistically.


      Alan, I’ll give you a proper response later.

    • Alex, I think it’s OK to let

      Alex, I think it's OK to let the frustrations or anger speak, even from the past and from far away. I am certain that our community here understands that you are not attacking your fellow players. The topic is your dissatisfaction with that game experience, and – well, I'm being blunt and intrusive again – you don't need to apologize or to call yourself names for saying what it was like for you.

      (This has been a brief appearance by "caring me" who will be stuffed back in the sack when he … quits – dammit! – struggling! Ow!)

    • I wasn’t disappointed by how

      I wasn’t disappointed by how Amanda’s story turned out, well I was but I wouldn’t have had it any other way, if that makes sense?

      I think unexpected contributions needs breaking down a bit. Let’s take the instance of Amanda’s brother and father. I should have made it clear from the start that Amanda’s brother was killed for being weak because it adds stakes and clarifies the core conflict. Amanda’s actually terrified of being seen as weak, in this case being weak is being able to open up to people and share your pain. So the whole avenue of authentic communication is denied her and ‘then’ on top of it she would discover that if she was ‘weak’, well she’ll end up in a hole in the ground.

      Introducing the idea that her brother was killed because he lacked control changes the dynamic a lot. For one, good, a frenzied vampire is put down for being too blood thirsty, cry me a river. Two, it changes the stakes for Amanda into ‘can she keep control’.

      Which from Johns (the GM) point of view could well have been the stakes. One popular conception of Vampires is that they have a beast inside them they are struggling with. Amanda was in her ‘darkest self’, which could suggest being in thrall to that beast. So Johns view is perfectly understandable.

      So you know you have the SiS (shared imagined space), like a mutual understanding of where the characters are, what location they’re in and what they’re doing. I think there’s also a SSU (shared situational understanding). Like what the emotional/ethical/physical stakes of the current situation are. If there is no SSU then there can’t be any mutual appreciation of the story on the level of meaning. It’s just a string of events happening. I’m not saying you don’t understand this Alan, I’m clarifying because I think our groups biggest issue was even understanding there was such a thing.

      I don’t think I started understanding situation until about 4 years ago, on an explicit rather than implicit level and I don’t think I really understood how that applies to RPG’s until about two years ago. It’s when I saw it that it was like a light bulb going off and I knew what I wanted from rpgs.

      I’ll let Ron takeover here if he wants because the concept of a SSU (as distinct from a sis) makes a lot of sense in my head but I might be mangling things horribly.

  2. There’s a lot going on here

    … I think it will be useful to parse & separate a little.

    1. The distinction between very different uses of the word "story" in the hobby: (i) imposed, planned, or desired, or "inflicted" in such a way to override or ignore system/mechanics and current fictional components; (ii) the discovery and resolution of characters' priorities, with system/mechanics utilized as Bounce, all of which is antithetical toward imposing specific outcomes and thematic impacts.
    2. The presence, or rather, vague/absence of authorities in the nebulous design space of "PbtA." Briefly – when a Move's result offers you options, and you take the one which introduces new fictional elements ("but an enemy is watching you" e.g.), who says what or who they are? [Everyone: don't tell me "the answer." There is no answer. I've seen these games' actual play crash hard on that rock too many times, always the same way.]
    3. The methods or attitudes that make playing self-involved, "difficult" characters, often in different locations, fun. I've seen it work so often for Sorcerer and Trollbabe that I do not think it is intrinsically hard or demands extra skill or commitment. But yes, sometimes it does result – and I'm looking at Monsterhearts especially – in players being merely bored and annoyed by the other players' characters.
    4. The Monsterhearts aesthetic in particular, in terms of identification, catharsis, and character development – Alex, if you haven't seen it, I hope you'll review my thoughts presented in The Hunger, Unresolved trauma, Cold as ice, which is my breakdown of the game in mechanics and thematics. (if you click on the Monsterhearts tag you can see most of our game recorded and discussed here – it also failed to crest and fell into abandonment)
    5. Liking one another as participants, in two interesting ways: not really liking one another in any enthusiastic way, but really liking the creative work and outcomes you get together; really liking one another, caring about one another as people in important ways, but not sharing a specific interest in actually playing this game together. The parallel with musicians is, I think, exact. (For clarify, yes, you can like both, as well as like neither, but those are obvious/uninteresting.)

    I'd like to let you lead on how to proceed with the discussion, but my recommendation is to pull these and anything like them apart, resisting every emotion's demand that they get blended.

  3. A case of the “party problem”?

    The obvious, in fiction, question is: why would your character hang out with these losers?

    OK, "we're all monsters" and thus isolated from everybody else, who presumably aren't. Still, however, the PCs are presumably able to pass enough to be able to function in the school.

    My character would join the Chess Club. Less drama.

    Monsterhearts doesn't seem to be the kind of game I would play, but there is a question here.

    • The same (valid) question

      The same (valid) question could be asked in both other media and in real life. Monsterhearts as I understand it is about the isolation and issues of being a teenager, with a focus on the isolation and sexuality of our teenage years. It could just as easily be about chess club or strategy club or band. 

      And the reason you hang out with these losers is that at least you have something in common with them, more than you do the normies. You put up with a lot of shit or crap behavior from friends in these years, just so you belong to something.

      In fact, all other considerations aside, there is something to the way MH drills down, unintentionally or not, to the core of the RPG. Why does any group stay together? A basic shared otherness. Even dungeon murder hobos share that common trait with the other party members, even the "heroes". You may not like the rest of the party, but at least they don't laugh at you or spit at you or tell you that you need to stay home and raise a family.

      And to be fair it is not entirely a rational idea. I'd rather be in High School Murder Club than engage in other activities for fear of rejection is not a rational idea, but I think most people have been there.

  4. Enlightenment

    Coincidentialy years ago I had just at one shot of MH experienced my worst rpg experience of my life, ever. But I did not realized exactly why until this post 

    I cite 2 passes above which strongly enlighted me:

    a-"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." from Alexander White

    b-"The distinction between very different uses of the word "story" in the hobby: (i) imposed, planned, or desired, or "inflicted" in such a way to override or ignore system/mechanics and current fictional components; (ii) the discovery and resolution of characters' priorities" by RE

    And it is in particular this last point 

    "The presence, or rather, vague/absence of authorities in the nebulous design space of "PbtA." Briefly – when a Move's result offers you options, and you take the one which introduces new fictional elements…who says what or who they are?" 

    To summarize, what I remember happening in my actual plays (AW,MH, US, MoW) was that the new fictional elements were establised by the ones who self nominated themselves as leader of the group (not in game, in the small group relations at the table).So when I was feeling these coherent with my logic of history I liked the story, when I was feeling these illogic and incoherent all was like imposed and abusive to me.

    However ll PBTA share the sme base mechanics, so I wonder if this is the only reason because MH was the ugliest play of my life, AW one of the best, and US and MoW absolutely gray. Going to read  The Hunger, Unresolved trauma, Cold as ice,

    • As with 20 years ago and D&D,

      As with 20 years ago and D&D, "coming out" stories of not enjoying Monster Hearts and some other PbtA games are going to be fraught and I anticipate considerable pushback arriving soon as well. In hopes of laying down some clarity, let's work out the tricky terms.

      • The original Apocalypse World (2009) was/is a stand-alone game. It is not "PbtA." The term did not exist and it's not on the cover. There's a section at the end encouraging people to customize the system but it's not labeled or branded.
      • "Powered by the Apocalypse" is an imprint provided by Vincent and Meg that you can put on your game to indicate that you were influenced by Apocalypse World. It swiftly evolved into a perceived entity or system of its own.
      • How "PbtA" as a this perceived entity relates to the revised version of Apocalype World that was Kickstarted in 2016, I have no idea, but since the term "PbtA" emerged long beforehand, it certainly cannot  be held as a model or source for that term.
      • The last time I checked in with Vincent and Meg, they encouraged extremely customized, non-standardized applications of the AW rules. "PbtA" to them meant whatever you do with it, or with any piece of it, not a genericized standard to adhere to.
      • However, in a specific vocal and often socially-mandating design culture, there is such a genericized standard which is promulgated and – as I see it – often enforced. It does not exist as a text but is "understood," and as far as I can tell arises from informal teaching of Dungeon World.
      • This genericized standard is frankly pretty lousy game design, or at the very least, is rife with half-baked applications that people think "must" be in there. It also features several uncritical concepts which are both expected to be there and distinctly not in Apocalypse World. I will be specific when I get to it. [There is a parallel to the abomination which emerged in 2005-2008 from bad or absent reading and a rapid telephone game concerning Capes, Polaris, and Primetime Adventures.]
      • The negative fallout during play is remarkably consistent across a number of PbtA titles. It is also marked by shaming and social fallout because these games are perceived as cutting-edge good due to branding. It isn't cool not to be into them, both in social-cool and acceptable-cool.
      • That does not mean that a specific title with "PbtA" on the cover must be bad. That is a case by case issue. Good games have emerged from genericized standards, although they often carry over mantras and social signifiers from the watchful and intrusive subculture (which does not include Vincent and Meg).
      • My concern is how the genericized standard is halting and distorting the potential for good game design, both in specific mechanical ways and also by existing in the first place and being socially so strongly reinforced.

      Critique & corrections are welcome. I think it's important for us here to make sure we're not misapplying critiques and inviting unnecessary scuffles by imprecisely using or misunderstanding these terms.

    • Very Interesting Mr. Edwards,

      Very Interesting Mr. Edwards, I did not know 90% of the points above. The only things which I had clear evidences was a strong internet marketing, in socials and in other sites. So thanks truly for the big amount of  interesting info.

      I would just only correct that in some not English languages (French and Italian for example) the expression PBTA was used quite a lot, in internet and outside, in 2014 and 2015 too. Looking today at the past I would think to this as the development moment of marketing brand. But honestly I do not feel that advancing from 2016 to 2014 changes anything.

      Perhaps, but this is just a personal hypotesys, the "genericized standard" idea arose too from the fact that marketing, brand and franchising are processes inerently based on technical standards (you know that Mcdonald meat is bad for health, but you are sure that in every MCD store is served the same meat with the same taste). 

      Anyway I stop here because I fear to go out of theme from the original post highlighted by Alexander. But I have understood the importance to stay focused on that specific game.

    • You can just call me Ron.

      You can just call me Ron.

      I think I may have been unclear on one point. The term "Powered by the Apocalypse" appeared fairly soon after the initial game's release. I don't know precisely who proposed it or when, but it was acknowledged by Vincent and in general use by the time Monsterhearts and Dungeon World were published (2012).

  5. This: “To summarize, what I

    This: "To summarize, what I remember happening in my actual plays (AW,MH, US, MoW) was that the new fictional elements were establised by the ones who self nominated themselves as leader of the group (not in game, in the small group relations at the table"

    And this: "The presence, or rather, vague/absence of authorities in the nebulous design space of "PbtA." Briefly – when a Move's result offers you options, and you take the one which introduces new fictional elements ("but an enemy is watching you" e.g.), who says what or who they are?"

    … relate to one of my worst experiences in a role-playing game ever as two players argued back and forth over who had the power to introduce a door into the fiction. This was session 2 of a Monster Hearts game.

    My experience with MH has been playing three different session ones, all of which went really really well with high levels of excitement and buy-in around the table, and then this session which almost broke up our play group.

  6. Closure

    Hey Ron, our conversation clarified a lot for me.


    In ‘where do little situations come from’ You split the role of a text into four purposes, of the last one you say.


    To encourage reflection and self-correction concerning common errors of practice and concept, for people who are familiar with the activity but often do it badly and have little fun? (Think of this, if such a thing can be imagined, as a self-help book with legitimate points and practices.)


    I realise what I’d been grasping at, is what exactly that type of repair would like look like. Trying to understand my own process of repair and how applicable it is to others.


    What was significant about the Monsterhearts game was that I had the lit match (a new found understanding of story) and the text, situation and the mechanics (all the stuff you said in trauma cold as ice) were the oil. This was what I was fucking looking for all those years.


    As to the other players, it’s inconsequential.* Over a ten year period we’d tried every ‘indie’ game under the sun with similar results. In our case system didn’t matter, except for deciding precisely what variety of lame you wanted.


    *John actually played a big part here. Since we both had a handle on the mechanics and ‘our’ creative relationship was stable, we had a murk free game. One of the very few in that group.


    I dare say if I’d played Monsterhearts a year or two earlier, I’d have found it bad and unfun.

    Anyway what our conversation made me see was that my own process of repair was quiet possibly idiosyncratic. Furthermore I think I’d been ‘shook’, I didn’t believe in other people’s ability to ‘just do it’. I’ve now taken an agnostic position.


    Which means I’ve gotten what I want out of this thread. Although if other people are having productive conversation then please continue.

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