The Sexuality of Monsterhearts

Monsterhearts is a paean to the teen supernatural genre. When I was a teenager we had Christopher Pike, R.L. Stine's Fear Street, and a number of teenage-protagonist horror movies to settle the itch. People talk about the explosion of the teen genre, but it's always been around. Teen genre roleplaying games? Not as common.

Monsterhearts, by game designer Joe Mcdaldno, is built for play by anyone. Your configuration of sex, gender, and sexuality can fit inside Monsterhearts, real or fictional. The teenagers you play in the game are burdened with a little extra as adolescents: They're monsters. The Witch, The Chosen One, The Fae, The Ghost, The Ghoul, Serpentine, Infernal, Vampire, and more—among the mortals of your high school, you carry your own extra, supernatural secrets. When I first heard about Monsterhearts, I was afraid it would be campy or silly. It can be played that way with effort, but Monsterhearts is lurid, dramatic, and often grim.

Monsterhearts's rules come from Apocalypse World, a game designed by D. Vincent Baker. It has the same sorts of messy interconnected relationships, unique philosophy for the MC (the person who "runs" the game), and deeply narrative flow. It's what's called a "story" game. Many people have a mental impression of roleplaying games to be sitting around a table with lots of dice and miniature figurines, killing dragons and consulting lots of books. That's only one genre of games. Story games—sometimes known as indie games—come written explicitly to encourage character connections, and often explore uncomfortable themes.

For me, the uncomfortable themes in Monsterhearts center on its sexuality.

The Apocalypse World rules include mechanics for turning people on, seduction, and what the game calls "sex moves." In more traditional games, sexual content often boils down to a few simple die rolls: Seduce a guard for information, distract the bouncer while your friends get past, etc. Pass/fail situations, in other words, with very few variables.

In Monsterhearts, there are variable narrative endings depending on how things (and dice rolls) turn out. Are you able to resist, but promise your would-be seducer something else? Do you give in? The seduction isn't purely heterosexual—anyone can seduce someone else. How you portray the aftermath of sex is up to you. Does your character regret it? Does s/he have a moment of crisis about another relationship? When I've played Monsterhearts, those moments of seduction make me squirm, and raise a deep emotional discomfort. 

And that's not even including the sex moves, which are unique to each character type. The Witch, for example,can take something from a partner after sex—a bracelet, a letterman's jacket, whatever. Their sexual partner knows it's been taken, and is cool with it. (It's like your girlfriend wanting to keep your t-shirt, except she can kill you with magic later using that t-shirt)

Stakes are high in Monsterhearts when it comes to relationships. People can take "strings" on each other amidst seductions, as a means to make manipulating each other far easier. Strings are a far-too-truthful representation of how we often have a hold over others, and they over us.

Indeed, nearly every rule related to sex and sexuality in Monsterhearts is a game manifestation of real-life sexual dynamics, good and bad, healthy and unhealthy. Instead of the rote, heterosexist portrayals of sex and sexuality you might find in other games, Monsterhearts gleefully encourages people of all identities to explore sexuality in every permutation, often with great self-examination and as uncomfortably as possible. But for a game with such a depth of emotional/sexual content, it's remarkably free of sexism. It also doesn't slut-shame, or enforce traditional gendered tropes of judgment about sexual behavior. Shame in Monsterhearts is personal, centered on whether you feel you have betrayed yourself or someone else.

Monsterhearts has a lot to say about how we treat sex and each other. My one concern is that the game pushes participants to uncomfortable emotional places without balancing that in the text with caution. In the wrong mix of players, the game could be a terrible play experience. With such senstive topics at the game's center, it seems irresponsible to not to include more text about creating boundaries and when to call "scene," in order to make the table a safe place to explore volatile and highly charged emotional content. It's a game worth playing, but it needs to be played mindfully. Not everyone starts their roleplaying experience off with story games, and if your first time at the table is a bad game of Monsterhearts, it's not likely you'll be running back for more. Whether you play or run games, remember first to always be kind to those playing with you.

Previously: Cards Against Humanity

 

Comments

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Curiously compelling...

As a woman gamer, I've been through a lot of weirdness, and have, after many years, taken great pains to avoid the parts of it I'm able to. However, after reading this review, I have an almost creepy compulsion to try this game. In trying to decide whether to write that off as a temptation that should best be avoided, I would prefer to play it BEFORE I bought it.

I'm hoping to see it at a con somewhere, if I ever get to one.

Cynthia, I've only played

Cynthia,

I've only played Monsterhearts at cons; I honestly gained a lot more respect for it after reading the book. There's a lot that "stays in the box" so to speak at con games. Depending on where you live, there's often small cons for playing indie games, and regular indie game nights in some cities/groups that run indie games at local game stores. I think it's def. a game worth trying for a lot of people, but I still find the game itself deals with a lot charged emotional content that I prefer to address with friends vs strangers. Luck to you on finding a good group to test drive with.

Lilian, I just wanted to say

Lilian,

I just wanted to say thanks for this article.

When designing this game, one of my goals was to approach dysfunctional relationships/selfhoods/behaviors in such a way that they became viewable and material, but that the task of de-mystifying them still remained in the hands of the players. Like saying, "here's this problematic thing that people do, now let's try to figure out how it works." I think your article touches on that aspect on the game in a great way. Yay!

I want to touch upon a specific thing you said: "with such senstive topics at the game's center, it seems irresponsible to not to include more text about creating boundaries." In hindsight, I think the approach I adopted here was lacking, and that you're totally right. If I were to rewrite the book, there'd be a whole chapter about negotiating healthy social contract & on dealing with player discomfort/hurt. My thoughts on all that stuff change and evolve continually, and at the time of writing I was definitely of the belief that "those issues should be handled by the individuals at the table with the breadth of their communication tools and life experiences, not by what little I can communicate here in text." Since then, my stance has dropped the false binary. In short: I agree with you, and would definitely write more on social contract if I were to go back in time.

I've been contemplating releasing a free supplemental PDF called, like, "Navigating Problematic Sexual Content in Story Games: A Supplement for Monsterhearts and Other Games."

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