Sneak peek cover art by Cecilia Reis
Your Vampire might sparkle, might sip daintily from her V Juice box, or might be an ill-advised and off-the-books member of MI6. Your Witch might cast spells using animal bones, bulk quantities of tealight candles, or a telescoping thermos/bong. These are mere details, for some of us. The fundamental mystery we all really want to know is:
…will there be kissing?
Monsterhearts is a much beloved game about being teenagers in a dark and confusing world. Also, you’re secretly monsters (called Skins), such as vampires, ghosts, ghouls, fae, and witches. You try to navigate your place in the world and understand yourself and figure out what the hell Stella meant when she said you weren’t her type and… I’m getting carried away.
Hark, a Kickstarter!
Famed also for The Quiet Year, Ribbon Drive, & much more, Avery Alder is making a return to game design from that far-off land called Life to refine and Kickstart Monsterhearts 2. Already funded past its goal, the Kickstarter is creating new tools to facilitate quickstart play, includes new sections on asexuality and safety, and tightens the Monsterhearts experience. Stretch goals fund quickstart locations called Small Towns written by some of my personal favorite designers – back it now to help us reach those goals by the Kickstarter’s end on November 30th! A sneak peek of the new game can be found on the Kickstarter front page.
Monsterhearts is powered by the Apocalypse World engine and tailored with its own bells & whistles, such as Strings: the power you have over specific individuals. Another feature of the game is that you don’t have a labelled sexual orientation. When you’re a teen, you’re still figuring that out, and it can be frustrating (and dramatic) not to know who or what is going to turn you on at a given moment! This design choice can lead to some really fun and silly storytelling, but gets at a deeper insight about the human condition, which is what I’d say generally of designer Avery Alder‘s games.
Avery kindly stopped Gazing Into the Abyss re: the Darkness threatening Windyvale High, just long enough for an interview with Totally-Not-A-Witch Darcy Ross. Enjoy!
Darcy Ross: Monsterhearts is held very dearly in the hearts of many gamers I know. Why do you think it speaks so strongly to people?
Avery Alder: There are a couple answers that come to mind. The first is that it is often praised as an especially lucid text, for which I owe large thanks to Daniel Wood (my editor) and folks like Jackson Tegu (my dear friend and design conspirator). I worked hard to make sure that Monsterhearts was a good introduction to the whole genre of teen monster drama, that it elucidated its principles and perspectives. That’s perhaps the easiest answer to why it speaks so strongly to people, that the text communicates a unifying vision that helps put all the mechanics in context. Good editors make a huge difference.
But I think the most important reason is that this is a game that gives people permission to explore their ghosts and their demons. It asks you to wade into the confusion of adolescence, the clutch of dysfunctional relationships, and the turbulent process of queer awakening. It asks you to root for people who are flawed, who have caused harm and will cause more harm in the future, but who we ultimately see ourselves reflected in. The overwrought tone and monster metaphors help lower our defense mechanisms and engage in challenging stories.
DR: Monsterhearts 2 development looks like a convex lens, streamlining and refining the original game, while so many RPG Kickstarters behave like a concave lens, adding ever more character options, spell sections, bestiaries, etc. as stretch goals are reached. You explain your goal for streamlining in this update, but was it difficult to come to this choice, especially when consumers are so used to more, more, more? How did you figure out which content was most central to the experience, and which needed to be reworked or left out?
AA: That’s a great question! Gamers really love the idea of more. In the first couple years after I released the first edition of Monsterhearts, I was asked repeatedly whether I was going to release a supplement of some type (beyond The Blood of Misty Harbour). But when I probed, it was clear that there wasn’t a sense that something was lacking from the original text. There was just an excitement about the idea of there being more. I think that instinct is worth examining critically, both from a consumerist perspective and as a design goal. The only things that I feel like Monsterhearts needed more of were more clarity, more contextualization, more refinement, and more social tools to ensure that everyone at the table felt safe and centered. And so those are the things I am working to add more of. It’s maybe less sexy than saying “there are seven new kinds of monsters in the new edition!”, but I think it’s what’s best for the game.
As for what content was the most central, I feel like the bigger question I implored myself to explore was “what content should be central, that’s getting stuck on the sidelines?” The answer that emerged most clearly in my mind was Strings, the representation of power and persuasion that you have over others. People excitedly collected Strings on others, because those mechanics were solid and exciting. But then they’d just sit there on the character sheet getting dusty, especially when it came to new players. The mechanics for spending Strings were just a little too wordy and bulky. And so part of my design process this time around has been working to make sure that the spending of Strings is simple, central, and exciting.
DR: Small Towns are new shiny things being introduced in Monsterhearts 2: “Each town is a one-page quick-start guide for playing Monsterhearts 2 in a different setting and evoking a different vibe.” As stretch goals get funded, new towns will be written by a diverse bevy of fantastic designers and writers. How did you come up with this idea? How do you imagine these tools will impact play?
AA: I’ve talked about how Monsterhearts 2 isn’t adding much in the way of new content, and is instead focused on refining and clarifying what’s already in the text. Small Towns are the big exception.
The origin story of these quick-start micro-settings is simple enough: people have often stumbled when it came time to figure out where the game was set. Sometimes people would even forget this step altogether, and then twenty minutes into play be like, “Wait, where even are we? Is this a city, or a tiny village, or what?” A lot of groups stuck with a sleepy town in the woods. I love playing Monsterhearts in a sleepy town in the woods (and one or two of the Small Towns are totally being written in that vein!), but it seems like sometimes the game defaults to that place because it’s the first thing that comes to mind, whether people are actually excited about it or not.
Sometimes, the small town you choose will have a small impact on the stories that get told. Sometimes it’ll be a huge, driving part of the plot. I think both are great.
DR: Your design philosophy is outlined on your website – you aim to make games that are simple and shareable, meaningful and thoughtful, near and dear to your heart. Your games have innovative mechanics (I love Ribbon Drive’s use of mix tapes, the Quiet Year’s building of a semi-symbolic map), explore various topics (community building, otherness, vulnerability), have fun takes on cultural references (Monsterhearts). I could see the seed of a game starting in any of these places, or more, but where do you tend to start with game design?
AA: Different games have started in different places. For Monsterhearts, it started with a mounting annoyance about how grown-up, college-educated men were publishing scores of think-pieces about how Twilight was bad and anyone who liked it was dumb. It got under my skin because the majority of Twilight fans are either teen girls or young women, and those sneering dismissals were rife with sexist privilege. I was thinking about that a lot, and I was also thinking about how amazingly good Apocalypse World is, and the two started interacting in my brain. I made a forum post and it grew from there.
DR: Many games are designed to facilitate players and characters getting on the same page, so that they can navigate away from internal conflict and focus on conflict against Big Bads, the environment, the mystery, etc. Your games expect and mechanically interact with internal conflict. The Quiet Year has Contempt Tokens to communicate tension and frustration within the community based on something a player did to the community. Monsterhearts has Strings to indicate emotional hold your character has over people (including PCs), and its basic moves largely revolve around social conflict (e.g. turn someone on, shut someone down). What are the advantages and dangers of designing mechanics that facilitate party conflict? Do you have advice for those interested in designing along these lines?
The advantage of telling stories about group internal conflict is that you build skills for handling that kind of conflict. And, if I can just get intense and moralistic for a second, the other advantage is that you aren’t telling yet another story about rallying together to hurt or kill a common dehumanized enemy, which is great because that story has already been pretty exhaustively told across every single artistic medium ever invented.
The disadvantage of telling stories about group internal conflict is that most of the time you don’t emerge feeling triumphant. Stories about group internal conflict or community strife are often filled with compromise, sacrifice, damage control, and consequences. I think those stories are important! I get a lot out of telling those stories with people! But it can definitely feel like you are giving your heart a strenuous workout sometimes.
DR: You’ve spent a little time away from games to focus on other aspects of your life. How are you changed since coming back?
AA: One major change is that I’m returning as a mother of two. That means returning to design with new priorities and time commitments. I’m still figuring out how that will impact my design and publishing practices, but I know that it will. So far I notice myself tagging in more collaborators, rather than trying to figure out how to do everything myself. I’m relying on external playtesting a lot more, an option that I am pretty privileged and lucky to have. I’m quicker to accept and incorporate design feedback from trusted peers, where in the past I might have been more stuck on my own darling ideas.
DR: What hopes do you have for your game creating future?
AA: I’m still not sure if there will be more projects after Monsterhearts 2. If I decide to make this return to games a permanent fixture in my life, the next project I’m considering is a book-length revision and expansion of Dream Askew.
DR: That’s really exciting! Dream Askew is a queer take on the post-apocalyptic genre, where you play people living in a society that keeps getting changed through the apocalyptic process. If you’re queer, go download the current version for free, and if not, consider a $5 donation!
A mere 8 days remain for you to back the Monsterhearts 2 Kickstarter, which ends just as the final hours of November wink out. Stretch goals have continued to pile up, funding diverse Small Towns by excellent creatives in the community, and I fully expect that to continue until the very end of this exciting ride.
For those of you who might be queer teens yourself, or if you are in poverty, the Kickstarter has a discount pledge level for you, based on the honor system. I think it’s such a good idea that I’m bumping my pledge up a bit to offset it, but you do what your finances allow!
I can’t stress enough – play this game, explore feelings and identity, and tell really fun stories with friends. You won’t regret it, and the new version is going to make it even easier to play.
Explore more of Avery Alder‘s games and ideas through her website, Buried Without Ceremony, or follow her on Twitter. I heartily recommend trying out Teen Witch by yourself on a rainy or snowy afternoon, and let me get you started:
- Step 1: Ensure that you are both a teenage girl, and a witch. If you are not currently a teen witch, become one. (Don’t worry, Avery will show you how.)
Influences for Monsterhearts include movies and shows like Twilight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Misfits, etc. What are some other media inspirations you can think of? Which Skin or monster trope do you most want to play?