Joe McDaldno Tells Us About Monsterhearts
Joe McDaldno, designer of Perfect, Unrevised and Ribbon Drive, among others, is coming out with a new game. Monsterhearts is story game about teenage monsters toying with one another. I read the beta version and had the chance to talk to Joe about it. Our conversation follows.
Giant Fire Breathing Robot: So, Joe: you gave me the best possible intro question, and I’m going to give it back: why do cheesy teen monster dramas make for amazing story gaming material?
Joe: An excellent first question, I agree.
I think there’s three reasons why cheesy teen monster dramas work well in this context. The first is that they have a pretty recognizable genre formula. Genre formulas are great for gaming! They give you something to fall back on when you’re wondering where to take the story next, and they give you something to subvert when you’re feeling especially clever. Rules might be able to structure our contributions to a story, but genre conventions are able to structure our expectations. That’s powerful stuff to work with.
Secondly, story games thrive when characters and situations are volatile and change rapidly. It gives the MC a chance to frame interesting scenes at every juncture, and it gives players permission to push hard for their goals and create messy situations – no matter how improbable they are.
And finally, bad fiction makes for good gaming. As a rule.
GFBR: That makes a lot of sense. Today I heard someone on a podcast say “Sometimes I feel like people are just needy monsters walking through life,” and I thought, “oh man, that’s Monsterhearts!” Because sometimes it feels like you’re living in cheesy fiction, or like you’re still a teenager making bad choices and acting all emotionally immature.
Joe: Definitely. I think the reason I was drawn to writing this game is that it speaks to the kinds of confusion and messiness that I’ve lived through. We hit a point in our lives when we stop giving ourselves permission to be irrational, volatile, to live life in the moment. But those impulses don’t just vanish because we want them to.
As much as it’s about monsters, this is a game about navigating those unwelcome feelings.
GFBR: And about how fucked-up and messy teenage life can be right? I mean, adult life can be those things, but it’s magnified in the teen life in media.
That makes me think about Strings in Monsterhearts. Having read the game, but never played it, Strings immediately jumped out at me as the core (or a core) part of the game.
Joe:Yeah. Strings are the emotional hold you have over people. There are a whole bunch of emergent behaviors that evolve out of them in play. The interesting thing is that those emergent behaviors are totally different, from group to group. Sometimes, Strings are stolen and spent at a break-neck pace, making the game feel like an emotional blood opera. Other times, people hold onto them and lord over others with the threat of betrayal. The game starts to feel suspenseful, and every word feels like it carries high stakes. So, yeah. People engage with Strings in different ways from game to game, but they always feel consequential.
GFBR: Did the emergent behavior Strings caused surprise you at all?
Joe: I was surprised the first time I saw people being really cautious about how they spent Strings. I thought, “Oh no, they’re playing it wrong!” But I watched a little longer, and I realized that they were playing it different, and it was producing new results that I hadn’t seen before. Results that were totally on genre – less True Blood and more Twilight or Gossip Girl.
GFBR: That must be a really cool feeling, as a designer. So, you’ve name-dropped some of your influences.
Joe: Yeah. Can I name drop some more, now?
Joe: The game started out as a joke about using Apocalypse World to run Twilight. But then I realized that it wasn’t a joke, it was a really good (if bizarre) idea. So, Twilight is definitely on the list. But I’d say that my favourite two inspirations are Ginger Snaps and Jennifer’s Body.
Ginger Snaps is about a girl becoming a werewolf, but on another level it’s about a girl reacting to her first menstruation experience. I love it because her lycanthropic condition is treated as both literal and allegorical at the same time – it doesn’t choose to be “just a werewolf story” or “just an allegory for womanhood.” It does both exceptionally well. Jennifer’s Body is about a girl whose best friend becomes a flesh-eating ghoul, and how that girl tries to cope with that information. It’s campy, it engages the idea of sluthood in really subversive ways, and it’s got the best scene involving a boxcutter that cinema has ever produced.
GFBR: Now that you mention the idea of sluthood, sex is definitely a part of the teenage experience and a big part of the kind of fiction MH is going for. The game engine you built MH on (Apocalypse World), already contains rules for what happens when characters have sex, but you took it a step further and included the Basic Move when you turn someone on…
Do you see people really go for that one, attempting to turn on other characters? I suppose I should say that a successful roll on that move nets you a String, which you’ve already said is an emotional hold that you can spend for certain effects against other characters.
Joe: It gets used lots in almost every game, but like Strings, it gets engaged in a range of ways. Some groups approach in-game sexuality tepidly, just dipping their toe into the edge of the pool. That’s cool! The game supports that. The “turn someone on” move and the sex moves (triggered when your character has sex) all have mechanical benefits, and mechanical benefits can act as a comfortable safety net for people who are a little iffy about the whole ordeal. You’re turning someone on for Strings, you’re sleeping with them in order to gain XP or heal some Conditions. It’s easy.But once that comfort level is there, people often do turn the sexy dial way up. Sometimes, it’s only jokingly. Sometimes, it’s only jokingly at first. Often, it’s sultry gazes and steamy make-out sessions and weird sexy-scary monster behavior.
Joe: For the characters. I’ve never seen two players make out in the middle of a session.
GFBR: Ha! So, “Darkest Self” is a thing each character has in the game, which, when triggered, causes the character to follow a script of behavior, like, the Werewolf has to transform and maim anyone in her way, or the Vampire has to drink anyone they’re alone with to death. How does this aspect of the game interact with everything else? Because everyone has cool powers, but this seems to be where the real monstrous side of things comes into play.
Joe: Teen monster dramas are a funny drama. These characters are supposed to be bloodthirsty monsters, but then they spend a great deal of time stressing out about prom. Now, don’t get me wrong, prom dilemmas are super fun. But sometimes players are itching to have their characters go stone-cold and rip someone’s throat out. Literally, for a change. Your Darkest Self acts as a permission. It’s like flicking a light switch and saying, “Alright, drop the inhibitions. Drop the bullshit. Just go eat somebody.”
The Darkest Self scripts do give you specific behaviors to carry out, but they’re also pretty context-specific. It’s not like the character is taken away from the player, just that it’s pointed in a new direction for a while.
It’s fun, because it creates a tempo to the game. It’s not all teenager stuff, but it’s not all bloodthirsty monster stuff either. Without the Darkest Self mechanic, groups might get stuck in one rut or the other, maybe. It ensures that the game remains unpredictable. Or, in the wording of one of the Monsterhearts principles, that it stays feral.
GFBR: I love that term, feral, as a way to describe a story that everyone’s making, but no one’s in control of. Is the GM role very different in MH than from any given game? Why would someone be excited about GMing MH?
Joe: Well, Monsterhearts is based off Apocalypse World, right? So it borrows that GMing tradition (which, in both of these games, is called MCing). Here’s how MCing works: you have a tiny list of Agendas, things like “Let story emerge from the feral unknown”. These are the reasons you’re playing the game. You have a list of Principles, like “Make humans seem monstrous, and monsters seem human.” These are the things you should be making happen in the game. They’re going to make the game interesting, and they’re going to make your Agendas come to life. And finally, you have a list of Hard Moves, like “separate them” or “announce off-screen badness.” In any given moment, when you need to say what happens next, these are the things you can say.
Now, there’s more to being an MC than just interpreting your Agendas/Principles/Moves at any given instance of play. But in my mind, it’s that scaffolding and set of expectations that’s key to how MCing works. Lots of the stuff on those lists is stuff you might be doing anyways, depending on how you GM any given game. That’s fine! What Apocalypse World and Monsterhearts do is they codify it, making it accessible and surefire. Lots of other games have a GMing tradition that’s oral and experiential. These games put it down on paper, make it universal, and make it tangible.
But MCing Monsterhearts is different than MCing Apocalypse World, in a couple ways. The scope of the game is smaller. The Principles and Hard Moves play to the characters’ emotional circumstances more than their physical circumstances. The whole notion of “scarcity” that is crucial in an apocalyptic game is basically absent here.
Oh, yeah, there’s one other thing I want to mention on this topic. MCing Monsterhearts is liberating. You aren’t expected to have a plot. You aren’t expected to outsmart the players, even temporarily. One of your principles is to “treat your NPCs like stolen cars.” That means that when you create a badass vampire kingpin, you can show her off. You can put her in harm’s way. You can watch the PCs tear that character to pieces. And you can relish how badass the whole thing is, rather than panicking about how to salvage that character or your plot or whatever.
GFBR: Yes! I loved the bit about the NPCs-as-stolen-cars. Joyride those fuckers into the ground. That’s a game. So, given that this is based on Apocalypse World, there are character playbooks, right? Tell me about those.
Joe: Yes! In Monsterhearts, they’re called Skins. Most of them are specific kinds of monsters (The Vampire, The Werewolf, The Fae, etc), with others being more human archetypes (The Mortal, The Queen, etc). Character creation starts with these Skins getting passed out, and their flavour text getting read aloud. People choose the Skins that interest them, and they’ve got this little booklet to work through. They choose a name, a look, an origin story, stats, a couple special moves. Everything you need to create and play a character is on this little half-letter pamphlet, meaning that there’s no page shuffling or book crowding. Skins give you traction when you’re creating a character, but they also step back and let you create someone unique and unexpected.
For people backing the IndieGoGo preordering campaign, there’s an exclusive Skin going to them. The Hollow, which is a fabricated person with no history and no place in the world. Think Dawn Summers from Buffy, or Frankenstein.
GFBR: They’re quite beautiful.
Joe: Thank you. They borrow from Apocalypse World’s art style: iconic, ink-heavy black and white art. This is my first time creating art for a game, and I’m feeling super proud of the results.
GFBR: You did it yourself? Good job!
Joe: There’s a game I’m planning to publish in mid 2013 that I’m learning to do illustration for. Fingers crossed.
That’s part of the reason I love publishing indie games – the ability to experiment and learn and find cool mentors within the gaming community.
GFBR: There are a lot of cool mentors. I’ve found, as someone interested in design, that you just kind of have to find a place and be willing to help people out and you get more than enough in return. It’s a pretty great DIY scene. But anyway: MH is on Indiegogo? For how long? Any cool perks?
Joe: Yes! I’m handling preorders and fundraising on IndieGoGo, a nifty crowd-funding site. You can contribute money to the campaign in exchange for a PDF ($10), a Print+PDF combo ($25), and other reward levels above that. My favourite reward listed is the BELOVED package, which contains the PDF, the book, a folder containing all the game print-outs, and a handmade unique zine about one of the Skins. But there’s only one BELOVED package left at the time of writing, so it may well be gone by the time this interview goes live. C’est la vie.The IndieGoGo campaign ends on February 22nd. The game has already met it’s initial publication goal, but I’m adding new milestones to the campaign as we go. At $5000, we unlocked The Selkie (a new Skin about homesickness and weird water-related magic). At $8000, we will unlock proceeds going to a charity. Beyond that, new milestones are going to appear.
GFBR:Thanks for talking Monsterhearts with me, Joe!
You can find Joe and all of his work at Buried Without Ceremony.