Guys, Listen, I Have So Many Opinions About Monsterhearts Skins

I’m preparing to run a Monsterhearts campaign again, and one of the players asked ‘did you ever write anything about the individual skins’, so, uh, this happened. Apologies in advance for prolonged opining.

(I’m keeping this to the basic, come-with-the-book skins. There are other good ones, but I personally think that the basic skins can’t be beaten for flexibility and solid design.)

The Chosen. Since I’ve just gone on about how the basic skins are reliably great, let’s walk that back a tiny bit: the Chosen is a handle-with-care kind of skin. Some players just ask for it to be immediately taken off the table, because the Chosen has a very strong tendency to make the story All About Them. They tend towards driver-style play, which really isn’t what Monsterhearts is about; a lot of the challenge of playing Chosen is figuring out ways to let other characters drive the plot for a while, and about shifting your own focus from Plot Objectives to Personal Issues.

The Chosen is very closely modeled on Buffy: responsibility-driven, self-sacrificing to the point of masochism, a social linchpin afflicted by the loneliness of leadership. Listening to Walk Through the Fire on repeat is excellent preparation for playing Chosen. The Chosen is so Type A it hurts.

Some players, particularly those with a traditional role-playing background, have an implicit assumption that the PCs will default to a party system – that they form a natural group of friends who mostly work together against external threats. You can totally play MH as the Scoobies; and if that’s the dynamic that you want anyway, having a Chosen character is slightly less of a game-changer. It’s still important to keep an eye on them, though: the Chosen isn’t primarily useful so much for ‘good at hunting monsters’, they’re useful for dragging people together when they’d rather be off sulking in corners.

I’ve played more muted Chosen characters in the past: kids who don’t have a Cosmic Destiny, just an extremely driven personality, a sense that every responsibility is uniquely theirs to shoulder. (This requires somewhat careful Move selection.)

themortalThe Mortal. The Mortal is very much Bella Swan: a mopey kid whose low self-esteem masks massive self-importance. The Mortal’s Big Issue is romantic fixation and dependence; they pick a lover who becomes their overwhelming central motivation. (The lover need not have been apprised of this.) The Mortal is self-destructive, clingy, demanding, manipulative, intensely passive-aggressive. Where the Ghost is about excessive blame, the Mortal is about excessive forgiveness: to them, True Love excuses any behaviour, on either side of the relationship. Or non-relationship. The Mortal is an enabler par excellence.

The Mortal is the one skin that cannot acquire a gang as they advance: they’re too oriented around their lover, and too wrapped up in themselves, to take on that kind of social obligation. (The Mortal will throw you under the bus for the sake of their boyfriend of three days, and then not understand why you’re upset.) But it’s still worth thinking of the Mortal as a negative-energy version of the Queen, sucking other characters into their orbit. The Mortal is powered by emotional vulnerability, giving Strings away like candy and marking tons of experience for doing it. The Mortal needs intense emotional intimacy very strongly, and foists their vulnerability upon people who aren’t ready, willing or able to cope with it.

The Mortal can change their lover whenever they feel like it, or make their lover a couple, or whatever. The Mortal doesn’t have to be with their lover, or talk to them ever. You can figure out a consistent system for doing this, or you can just go with whoever rolled to Turn On last, or just do whatever seems like the worst possible idea at the time.

[Edit. This ability to shift focus is a clue: the Mortal is often more devoted to their idea of their lover than to the lover themselves. If you want to really make the Mortal garbage, you can have them completely ignore their lover’s actual needs and desires in favour of their magical constructed image. And/or you can make them Sulky Friendzone Guy.]

As the pinnacle of all this, the Mortal triggers the Darkest Self of any PC they fuck. (This has weird how-does-Angel’s-soul-work implications if you take it over-literally, but I prefer to think of it as: the Mortal is really, really into people in crisis. And anyone who fucks the Mortal probably knew, deep down, that it was a really awful idea.

In short, dating a Mortal is a profoundly awful idea, but you will probably end up doing it anyway because the adoration and loyalty they offer, however twisted, is in short supply in the emotionally-ravenous world of Monsterhearts.

The Vampire. The Vampire is the garbage dom to the Mortal’s garbage sub. Where the Mortal acts through passive-aggressive emotional demands, the Vampire acts through direct control and emotional denial.

I’ve seen the Vampire played relatively infrequently, and I’m sort of edgy about playing one myself. Partly it’s because they’re so predatory: it’s not that difficult for them to slide into irredeemable monstrosity. (Together with the Ghoul, the Vampire is the role which creeps and edgelords tend to play.) But another factor is that the Vampire is a social powerhouse, and it’s challenging to play that – at least the Queen has a posse to exert influence through, but the Vampire has to command attention and respect through sheer force of personality. How do you play that? And if you can play that, how do you make it interesting?

An obvious risk with the Vampire is that, because you’re playing someone who affects stoicism as a way of exercising power, that you end up playing someone who is actually emotionally self-sufficient and invulnerable, which is extremely boring. The Vampire has power, but you need to have some idea of what they want to do with it, and how their needs make them vulnerable. Relatedly: if you play a Vampire, it’s most straightforward to play a newly-formed one who is still figuring this whole mess out. If you play an ancient character, in any skin (the Fae and the Ghost are the other usual suspects) you need to make sure that their hurt and confusion are still raw, that if they think they’ve got it all figured out then they’re utterly kidding themselves.

The Werewolf. This is probably the easiest skin to play, because the Werewolf’s issues are very straightforward: uncontrolled emotions, particularly anger. The Werewolf is fundamentally kind of a lug – they might be physical bullies, as per Primal Dominance and Bare Your Fangs, or loyal defenders, but that low Cold score makes them socially vulnerable.

You can make werewolves who focus on the loyal-protector side of things, big klutzy well-meaning puppies who are legitimately horrified that they just tore someone’s arm off. Or you can play them as cultural outsiders, struggling to deal with a social context where routine violence isn’t normal. Or you can have a world where routine violence is socially normal, and the Werewolf is just the one who ends up taking it too far.

The obvious problem with the Werewolf is that, because it’s the most violent skin, it has a  tendency to death-spiral. (Other death-spiral-prone skins: the Vampire, the Ghoul, the Infernal). The Werewolf’s big problem is what the hell you do with the story if the second scene features them tearing off the gym coach’s head in front of  the whole school.

The good thing about the Werewolf is that they don’t prevaricate. If the Werewolf has a beef with someone, they’re going to have a fight. If the Werewolf is into someone, they’re going to ask them out. If you’ve got a game where a Witch, a Ghost and an Infernal are all moping in their corners, the Werewolf can be relied upon to make shit happen.

thewitchThe Witch.  I love the Witch. The Witch is the nerdiest skin: withdrawn, intellectual, nosy. Witches watch, and wait, and judge. The Witch is a hidden manipulator, a troll, willing to pull egregious shit if they don’t think it can be traced back to them. The Witch might see themselves as powerful or weak, oppressed victim or powerful mastermind, above all this shit or desperate to get in. The Witch’s emotional makeup can be whatever you want it to be.

The main thing about the Witch is that they don’t obviously have all that much wrong with them. They’re kind of a shy nerd, but compared to the Ghost’s trauma, the Ghoul’s hunger, the Infernal’s debt, the Werewolf’s violence, you get the picture that the Witch is basically going to be OK. This makes them a decent beginner skin – you don’t immediately have to confront a huge, bleeding character flaw. The Witch has to make their own trouble; luckily, they have the tools to do it, in the form of hexes. Like the basic Moves of Monsterhearts, hexes seem to be ways of exercising power, but really they’re ways for you to create trouble for yourself. “Try to fix a problem with magic; it goes badly, and you need to deal with the consequences” is the basic Witch pattern. Ideally, there’ll be a few loose threads that escape your cleaning-up.

So, you can make up your own reasons why the Witch is messed-up – after all, anyone could choose to use magic to fix their problems – but by default, the Witch’s main problem is that they tend to interfere with shit that isn’t their business, and go too far. And, let’s be honest, sensible restraint and respect for boundaries are not qualities that any of the Skins are overendowed with. So the Witch has it relatively easy.

I tend to divide the skins into open and closed-off. The big risk with the closed-off skins – the Witch, the Infernal, the Ghost, the Ghoul – is if they end up disengaging from the other PCs, hiding in their bedrooms, not going to parties because nobody invited them, wallflowering, shrinking away from interpersonal entanglement. It’s partly the MC’s job to draw them out of that – make the PCs’ lives not boring – but, to be corny, it’s everybody’s job to make sure that everybody gets to participate.

The Fae. Like the Mortal and Chosen, the Fae is a glass cannon, intensely charming but vulnerable.

A pattern I see a lot with the Fae – sometimes also the Werewolf, the Ghost, the Selkie – is the What Is This Thing You Call Kissing syndrome. The player plays up how alien their character is, how they’re unfamiliar with the basic customs of modern life or the emotional arrangement of humans. And this is a totally fine thing! Much of my own secondary school experience was coloured by being the third-culture Cady Heron who was off in Africa when everybody else was devloping basic adolescent-culture norms; that’s a thing worth exploring.

The trick here, especially with the Fae, is when players start looking at everything as a quaint human thing and taking it lightly.

That’s cool in moderation. It’s interesting if the Fae fundamentally doesn’t Get certain norms which people around them want to consider as basic, universal assumptions. (Nudity is the obvious one that’s kind of built into the skin). But you’ve got to make this a problem for the Fae. Often players try to spin it as a mode of emotional invulnerability, a way of seeing all this teenage bullshit as not applying to you. And the Fae has to really care about things; even if they don’t care about fitting in with the cool kids, they need to fit in somewhere. The promises are one obvious way of doing this: to the Fae, promises offer a desperately needed social certainty, and it’s devastating when that’s taken away.

Like the Werewolf, the Fae needs some Dark Woods to play with. For the Werewolf, the Dark Woods are primarily useful as a neutral, unseen place to flee to after wolfing out. For the Fae they’re defining. Monsterhearts is a melodrama, and melodramas thrive on really strongly-characterised settings. The Dark Woods don’t have to be pristine wilderness – you can go all urban-exploration with them if you want – but having a strong sense of the Fae’s environment and their connection to it will go a long way, much like taking your time over descriptions of the Witch’s rituals.

Also, THE FAIRY KING. I love getting the Fairy King involved, because while they’re generally a powerful, ominous figure, there tends to be a lot of ambiguity about them – are they going to be a Big Bad, an ally that needs careful handling, monstrously indifferent, a capricious trickster, unreachably alien?

The Ghost. The Ghost is about trauma and blame. The Ghost is that person who was abused, and now sees every conflict, disagreement or social discomfort as abusive. The Ghost is about letting your past relationships ruin your present ones. The Ghost can find a way to blame anyone for their death. The Ghost is a force of indiscriminate, messy revenge.

The Ghost is about being voiceless, unseen, ignored, disregarded. The Ghost is also really good at alienating themselves from the only people who might help them. It can be a tough skin to inhabit, susceptible to bleed.

The Ghost concerns hidden crimes. The Victorians loved ghost stories in part, I think, because they grasped the vast potential for abuse that lurked beneath their controlled, hierarchical, private society. Ghosts, predominantly women and children, were guilt reified, atrocity brought to light. Ghost stories, via Wilkie Collins, are ancestors of the detective genre – and thus, too, the superhero genre. Like detectives and superheroes, the central purpose of the ghost is to satisfy the sense of cosmic justice, to right wrongs which would normally go hidden, ignored, forgotten, shrugged off. Like Witches, Ghosts are Cold/Dark,  good at sneaking around, figuring things out, and being judgmental about it.

On that note – when creating a Ghost you have a really tough backstory question to answer, about the circumstances of your death. This is a decision which can have a pretty major impact on how dark the the themes of the game will go, and you have to make it at the start of the campaign, when you might not have quite got the sense of how hard your fellow players want to push. I’ve seen players back down from the decision, put it in the MC’s hands, make it a mystery that they have to investigate – but that leaves a really big element of the character in the hands of the MC, who then has the same tricky decision to make with the added difficulty that they’re imposing it on someone else. Regardless, if you want to go really dark at this point, it’s a good idea to check in with the other players.

The Queen. The Queen is a role that, at first glance, looks like it’s made for an NPC. In the standard high-school story, the Queen is the antagonist. Playing antagonist is pretty fun, and can make for excellent drama; but ultimately, Monsterhearts PCs should be treated as PCs, and you should be thinking about how you’re going to build complexity onto the Queen – beyond ‘secret heart of gold’ or ‘desperate for validation’ basics.

Like the Vampire, the Queen is a Hot/Cold social power-player, but this doesn’t require you to make them a ruthless bitch. It does require you to make them a politician, though; someone who, given a challenge, immediately thinks about how to fix it by managing people.

The Queen starts with a gang, and Moves which strongly encourage you to use them. You should take every advantage of this. Your gang are pawns: they’re minions and trading-pieces, but they often get in the way of things. It’s really important that a gang is more than a convenient tool or appendage; the Queen should always feel pressured by them. Gangs have expectations and demands, and have simple triggers that push them to action whether you like it or not. Technically the MC has authority over gangs, but I tend to split it up: the player controls the gang members when they act as the player wants them to, and the MC controls them when they don’t.

theghoulThe Infernal.  The Infernal is the Witch with the stakes raised. Witches can use magic, and it might go badly; Infernals have to use magic and they know it’s going to be terrible. Witches keep their cool. Infernals are desperate.

The Infernal can be emotionally rough to play because, no matter what, they’ve got a sense of doom hanging over them. The Infernal’s situation is really, really fucked. The skin offers no way out, except by changing allegiance to something even worse. The Ghost and the Ghoul are fucked too, but at least they’re getting a second chance; the  Infernal got one chance, and they’re ruining it. And on some level it’s the Infernal’s own fault: it’s one thing to confess to being something, it’s quite another to confess ‘I’m doing this extremely bad thing, and I’m not going to stop.’

Like the Chosen – and, optionally, the Fae – the Infernal comes with a built-in special relationship to a Big Bad. This puts a great deal of your character’s fate in the hands of the MC. The most interesting demonic patrons are those who have an agenda beyond getting the Infernal to do risky and unethical things.

Often people’s instincts are to make the infernal contract initially be about something really big – saving a family member’s life is the classic one. That’s cool, not least because it creates an important family relationship and immediately puts a lot of stress on it. But you can also present the contract as being a lot more venal, about small things that escalate. The Infernal is the only base skin who has negative scores in both Hot and Cold: they’re really not someone who has a lot of social aptitude. The Infernal is someone who can’t imagine getting what they want through normal means, so – what seemed impossibly out of reach for you, as a teenager?

The Ghoul. The Ghoul’s usually read as being about addictive or compulsive behaviour, but – to make things a tiny bit broader – what they’re really about is raw need. The Ghoul needs something incredibly badly, in a way that they can’t be open about. The Ghoul can’t be Liv Moore, with convenient access to a regular supply of mortuary brains; they’re forced into regular, risky, transgressive behaviour.

The most common mistake with the Ghoul is the tendency to play them as though they’re already their Darkest Self, completely consumed by the single motivation of hunger. The Ghoul often cultivates the image of an unnerving sociopath, but it’s boring if they are one. The Ghoul is dead, and players often take this as a way of severing their ties with family and friends, becoming a brooding loner with no breathing emotional connections. As the Ghoul you need to attend extra-closely to Strings, because any connection that isn’t the Hunger could be really, really important.

Still, the Ghoul is a creep. Any Monsterhearts character is probably going to end up being kind of creepy at some point, but they have to slide down towards that point; the Ghoul starts creepy. The Ghoul’s death is messy, body-horror stuff, unlike the ethereal Ghost or flawless Vampire; the moves encourage you to use this to freak people out. Some players, with some skins, struggle to make their characters truly monstrous, but with the Ghoul the struggle is to keep them human. If their Hunger is fear or chaos, the Ghoul is going to spend a good amount of energy fucking people up for – as far as anyone else can see – the lulz. A power-hungry Ghoul is stepping into the same kind of territory as the Vampire, Queen and Werewolf; the big difference is that they don’t have a decent Hot score to back it up, and will probably have to engage in a lot more direct nastiness to get what they want.

And I really don’t know about the flesh thing, because I’ve never seen anyone attempt it. It’s essentially boring if you can get by long-term on steak, however huge the pile is. I can see that as a slow ratchet – stealing steaks, then killing a cow, then munching on a corpse that the MC generously scatters in your path, then… honestly, that’s more sympathetic than chaos ghouls or fear ghouls.

*

One of the cool things about skins is how the small character-creation choices you make can be really powerful signals about the direction you want to take the character. This is about choosing Moves, yes, but the initial stat you boost also makes a big difference. Take a Witch and boost Hot signals that you’re planning on being less of a recluse than the norm, moderating the skin. A Queen who boosts Cold – doubling down on the skin’s strengths – probably wants to play up the skin’s cutting, confrontational, stone bitch side.

The other really useful tool for calibrating your approach to a skin is the ability to take moves from other skins. Even if you haven’t done so yet, thinking about this in advance can help. Jake is a Queen, yes, but with a side of Werewolf; his gang’s social dynamic is pretty rough-and-tumble, and the aggression that serves him well within it is going to cause him big problems in the wider world. Van is a Witch, but her backstory has enough trauma in it that she functions almost like a Ghost for much of the time – and that’s a good way of thinking about it even if she never takes a Ghost move.

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4 Responses to Guys, Listen, I Have So Many Opinions About Monsterhearts Skins

  1. Benjamin Davis says:

    There’s some great stuff here. Thanks!

  2. David says:

    There’s some good stuff in here. I’m curious to know how your game goes. I’m also curious if you’ve seen bleed happen in MH and how you handle it.

    • Oh, boy. This is a long subject; too long for a comment. This is a very condensed version.

      I have seen and experienced plenty of bleed in MH. It is a bleedy game. I think that if you don’t get some bleed out of MH you’re not getting the most out of it. It’s a game that works better in the I Will Not Abandon You mode than in the Everybody Stays Safe one.

      OK, so the first thing is that bleed is not necessarily bad. Most obviously, MH is definitely one of those games which tends to encourage and benefit from bleed when it happens inwards, from the player towards the character. MH characters are more interesting when they incorporate some of their player’s real-life issues. Bleed-out can be rougher, but sometimes bleed-out is roleplaying fuel. I’ve felt a character’s despair, frustration, exuberance or longing many, many times. That can help. That’s yer basic method-acting material. But I assume that what you’re talking about is when bleed-out gets to be a Problem.

      There’s the obvious stuff. You take breaks. Sometimes you call a halt to talk about stuff before you go there, and sometimes after, and sometimes during. It helps, too, to drop out of character sometimes, to comment on what your character is doing, as a way of reminding other players that you don’t hate or resent or look down on *them*. If someone’s isolated in-character, make sure they don’t feel alone out-of-character.

      It’s important to allow for the possibility that you won’t be able to manage bleed – that a game might bleed so hard that you have to stop playing in order to protect your players. Accepting this, and making sure everybody knows this, is really important. People often suffer through unacceptable bleed because they feel guilty about ruining the fun for everybody else. Make it really clear: it’s no fun for me if you’re getting hurt.

      As much as possible, play with people you know well, like, trust, and respect. Managing bleed is an intimate process, and becomes more difficult if you’re not on an intimate basis.

      • David says:

        I’m not sure why I didn’t get a notification when you posted, but I’m glad I checked back. A good solid reply.

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