Empty Your Heart
By the time they hit adolescence, most people have gotten over their fear of the dark. They spend their midnight hour on gushy phone calls, diary ramblings, and wet dreams. They fall asleep peacefully, assured that the shadows hold no monsters. But the shadows do hold monsters. You know because you’re one of them. Wickedness dwells within your heart, hunger courses through your veins. High school weighs on you and teen drama puts you on edge, but you have power. What will you do next? - Monsterhearts 2 opening italics.
Monsterhearts 2 has become the game I point to when trying to express elegant RPG design. The stories that you can tell, and the characters that inhabit them, are so fundamentally constrained by the system that it lands every emotional punch that it sets out deliver. There are plenty of discussions about the game’s approach to sexuality, identity, consent, and abuse (enough that my voice isn’t required), but I’m not seeing anyone approach Monsterhearts 2 from the direction I believe it to be the strongest: Absence.
My first exposure to Monsterhearts 2 came just after the kickstarter had finished. I saw, through a friend on twitter, that Avery Alder had released the PDF, and I thought I’d buy it and give it a read. My first shock was that this wonderful secret had been hidden from me for 5 years, that Monsterhearts was not a game about monsters having teenage problems, but about teenagers having teenager problems, who just happen to be monsters. No one needs to save the world for our games to be filled with drama, instead Georgia is throwing a party, and Nathan really wants to go with Anders, but Anders really wants to go with Josh. And Josh just wants to drop MDMA and protect his fragile masculinity. The straight-forward nature makes the game easily grokable, and players are able to follow along with an ease that I’ve not seen outside of one-page RPGs.
My second shock that the game was so….empty. Both characters and stories within Monsterhearts are defined by the system’s absences, especially in a genre-of-systems so populated as Powered by the Apocalypse. Monsterhearts has only four stats: Hot, for those sultry, attractive, and alluring. Volatile, for the moments when frustrations boil over. Cold, for building distance between you and another. And Dark, for when you turn to the monstrous part of you for power. The three biggest absences are felt here: there is no Sharp, there is no Calm, there is no Friendly.
The fifth stat, the relationship stat, is Strings. Strings represent emotional leverage and are established through basic moves, then later “pulled” to tempt people to do what you want. This is the basis of human interaction in Monsterhearts, the meat of the system, and it’s telling that every social engagement is so very manipulative. If a player wishes to have an NPC do anything outside of their usual activity, like maybe Chloe wants Alex to join her in some of Josh’s MDMA, she can’t just ask nicely. This is the core of design-by-absence: Monsterhearts does not have a move that begins “When you ask nicely”. Instead, maybe Chloe attempts to turn Alex on, or maybe she wants to call Alex out as a coward in front of everyone, and attempts to shut her down, maybe Chloe (being the vampire that she is) simply looks into Alex’s eyes and hypnotises her. Regardless of the option, though, the relationship between the two is manipulative, escalatory, and filled with sharp edges.
The most beautiful omission of Monsterhearts 2 is reading people or situations. PbtA games tend to have some sort of ability for players to interrogate the fiction. It may be through analysis of a person, or a charged situation, or it may be just studying a room. Regardless of execution, the intent is for a player to ask “how can my character be empowered with knowledge?” The lack of fiction-interrogating moves in Monsterhearts 2 offers a kind of frustration to the players. “Why is Sarissa upset?” “Where’s Juicebox off to?” “Can I really trust Nathan?” All of these are answered with a shrug from the MC. They are devilish questions, and their answers would solve a lot of problems, but teenagers don’t have the capacity to understand even the inside of their own heads, let alone anyone else’s.
The biggest failing of Monsterhearts 2 is when it does bloat, when it does give characters more power and agency. At first, characters are more Hearts than Monsters, having only one or two core moves of their monstrous Skin. Their interactions rely on those angular teenage moves, on gaining Strings and pulling them, on turning their classmates on or shutting them down. All of these interactions are intense or complicated and drive the story into interesting places immediately. However, as players gain advancements, the only options available to them are to become more monstrous. And with monstrosity comes to ability to interact in more one-sided ways. This tends to deliver the players into situations where they don’t care if Alex likes them or not, because they have her hypnotised. Where they don’t want Georgia to take down that Facebook post, because they're planing to induct her into their dark cult anyway. Monsterhearts tends to have a “burner” feel, where these characters have been attending school for years without issue until our players arrive, and then everyone is dead or enslaved by demons and vampires within the week.
In the end, though, Monsterhearts 2 is a tightly designed game that delivers on it’s premise: The messy lives of teenagers. It’s greatest strength is in that mess, in the manipulative interactions that are forced on characters. However, that mess has a tendency to get away from the group, and the natural escalation of both moves and Skins can be the enemy of the High School drama. For anyone with an interest in design, I recommend Monsterhearts 2 as a case study of design-by-omission. For anyone with an interest in high drama, I recommend Monsterhearts 2 as one of the best ways to spend an evening with friends.