AP: Dresden High, Chicago, 1-shot - Fae/ Gho/ Ghu

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AP: Dresden High, Chicago, 1-shot - Fae/ Gho/ Ghu
« on: March 11, 2013, 09:30:36 PM »
My previous AP was largely a narrative. Given the recent interest in how to approach MCing Monsterhearts, this time I've added quite detailed MC notes on what I did and my own thought process in the hope that they'll be useful to others.

This was a pick-up game at Concrete Cow for some latecomers and selected because it's the only GMed game that I'm willing to run. None of the players had any experience with MH or indie games before (though one had played Apocalypse World and had played Joe's indiest of games, Ribbon Drive, earlier that day). While it was my third game of the day, it went well and was - while perhaps not the most eventful - certainly a 'pilot I'd have liked the network to pick up'.

Setup and Character creation

MC's notes:
The setup took a while (~100 mins), but at least everyone was starting from the same position so no one was deathly bored while I explained the basics of the game.

Introducing a game for a time-constrained one-shot, especially where the players have to design their characters, is always a compromise. You need to convey enough of the rules of the game so the players know how to interact with it, but there's no time to detail everything they need to know. For this session, my approach was:

- We're making an HBO teen supernatural romance horror pilot (this is a great piece of advice as it conveys not only the genre and the potential content, but also sets the expectation that - while something will wrap up by the end of the session - we're also laying down plot seeds for a full 10 episode series).

- Monsterhearts is a "story-first" style game. The mechanics are just there to support the story, add a bit of suspense and help break deadlocks. So don't sweat that you won't know exactly what they are, narrate what you want to do and the MC will suggest when the game's mechanics are triggered.

- Then I laid out the skins and said they were the 'character types'. I said that each one was a metaphor for a particular type of teenage angst and briefly introduced each one (often just saying the inspiration behind each skin so for the Chosen 'This is Buffy', for the Queen 'This is Cordelia'). I asked them not to worry about the subtleties but rather pick one that appealed to them and read them. The players tended only to pick up one or two and then settle with one of those.

- I also handed around a copy of the Long Example as an example of play for them to read while looking through the skins. The Long Example is really good again for setting tone and content, for showing how the MC and players introduce content and for demonstrating a PvP conflict. I've previously had players read it out loud, but that took too long.

- As they read through those, I tried not to chatter so they could concentrate, but fielded the questions they had about Moves (specific actions you can take), Stats (modifiers to the Move rolls), Strings (heartstrings or puppet strings, emotional leverage over another) and Conditions (how someone is perceived by others, can be narrated into a move to give another bonus). I brought out my one page mechanics summary, but focused them on the middle where it says that all the moves are essentially about influencing others as this was a game about influence and social combat rather than physical combat) and then put my summary off to one side, further underlining that they shouldn't sweat the mechanics. As one of them had picked Ghost, I also explained 'Blending In' to make it clear that the Ghost could be treated just as a regular kid (so they could play as normal and weren't limited by only being able to be seen by other monsters).

- By this time they had picked skins, I asked them to fill in the different sections as we went, aside from the backstories. I also explained the Sex Moves (because their characters are in their senior year and sex has a big impact on teens, I typically use the example of the impact of Buffy sleeping with Angel) and Darkest Selves (they're a licence to unleash the inner monster and be at complete liberty to destroy everything around you, how you enter your Darkest Self and how you escape).

- Before we moved on, I then I asked them to introduce their character to the others (and myself) and take us through the choices they made in the skin book. I pushed for them to include physical descriptions ('What do other people see?') as often this gets skipped, but I need it to know how NPCs will interact with them (for all the importance ethnicity has in the world, for example, many players don't even think of it).

After the set-up we had:

Cole the Ghoul - the former head cheerleader, gaunt, dark-haired and a little too thin. She was recently murdered in an alley - murdered to be resurrected - and awoke with a ritual scar carved into her chest from which blood seeps when the Hunger is on her. She has a Hunger for Chaos and the Satiety skin move.

Spencer the Ghost - short, out of date, and uncomfortable in his own skin, he constantly tries to fit in, but tries too hard and so fits in no where. Spencer and Cole were childhood friends before high school social politics split them apart.  Spencer was also killed recently, but his memory of the incident is a blur. He has Unresolved Trauma and Hungry Ghost.

Moon the Fae - slight of frame, but effortlessly able at everything to which he turns his hand. He's from Bolivia, but is taunted for being 'Mexican'. Truly independent from the school's social groups, he disdains the fleeting fashions of the day and dresses in the classics. Unknown to himself, he was exiled from the faery court and cursed to repeat high school again and again: graduating, forgetting what he has learnt, and starting again elsewhere. The accumulated experience, however, leads him to excel at whatever he tries, but just as quickly he bores of it and moves along, leaving others frustrated and heart-broken in his wake. He has Faery Contract and The Wild Hunt.

MC notes:
Moon also buffed his Hot, giving him a +3 on his Turn On rolls even before he starts pulling strings or tapping conditions. Funny how, even when you say don't sweat the mechanics, some new players can see a power-gaming opportunity :) But fair play in my book; as an MC I far prefer when Moves hit than when they miss.

Before getting into the backstories, I asked the players what their characters roles in the school were and how the characters knew each other (and that strong relationships, either positive or negative, are best - as we need to have a reason for them to interact and it's tedious to have them meet for the first time). Cole decided that she had been a cheerleader so Moon said that he - for a time - had been part of the sports clique. After citing the obvious sport of football, we discussed the other options, before finally deciding that Moon had been  most recently on the wrestling team (the erotic potential of the sport fit in far better with his Fae nature). As a cheerleader, we decided that Cole had also been a bit of a gymnast and so they would have travelled to some athletics meets together. Spencer wanted for he and Cole to be childhood friends through their mothers - who were still close- but now bifurcated by high school politics. Moon decided that he found Cole amusing and so they decided that Moon was willing to give Spencer the acceptance he craved, which Spencer adored, but he also was secretly jealous of Moon's effortless competence at everything.

I found this talk gave us a better grounding for the backstories. The rulebook says you should discuss with the other person to sketch in some details about the shared backstory. I like to go a bit further than that and have the players narrate little mini-scenes (or memory fragments or whatever you want to call it) to get them playing before the 'cold open'.

This took a little bit of coaxing as I started with the Fae and his first backstory didn't explicitly involve another character. Instead it's that he wears his heart on his sleeve so I asked for an example of how that characteristic had exposed himself to others (any others, not just the PCs).

In order we had:
Moon - You wear your heart on your sleeve. Give everyone one String. - Listening to a poem in English class, Moon breaks down and weeps in front of everyone else. (I asked him what the poem was about and he said it was about being sent away and exiled and had triggered some memory of his own exile from the faery realm.)

Spencer - Someone knows that you’re dead, and how you died. They gain a String on you. - Spencer chose Moon. Spencer's memory about his own death are still fuzzy - he remembers something about a gun - but he has the feeling that Moon knows more.

Cole - Someone reminded you what love was, when you thought that death had stolen it away from you forever. Give them 2 Strings. - Spencer comforted Cole with the memory of the time when, as kids, they had camped out together in the backyard and how scared they had been.

Moon - You’ve captured someone’s fancy. Gain 2 Strings on them. - Moon prevents Spencer being beaten up by distracting the bullies and vouching for Spencer. (Spencer's player: so I've had a bit of a man-crush on you?)

Spencer - You’ve been inside someone’s bedroom while they were sleeping. Take a String on them. - When younger, Spencer sometimes hid under Cole's bed.

Cole - Did anyone watch you die, or watch you come back to life? If so, you both gain 2 Strings on each other. - After being murdered, carved up and resurrected, Cole staggers back to her feet only to see Moon at the end of the alley. Moon turns and runs.

MC notes:
The players all quite neatly chose to split their backstories (one for each other character, rather than assigning both backstories to one). That lead to quite a nice, intense triangle between them with romantic connections on all sides (as Joss Whedon says about Buffy, all the relationships were romantic in a way).

Finally, the school: Dresden High in Chicago, Illinois - an urban, but not inner city, school with the regular collection of high school subcultures from rich kids to those on welfare, athletes to chess club, goths to high achievers, the cheerleading squad to the school newspaper. The school football team is the Dresden Heffers.

MC notes:
This last point was a joke based on some sports confusion around the Chicago Bulls.

At this point, I often ask them to draw a map of the town or school, often based off teenage emotions, or you could do a seating chart - but we were getting close to 80 mins (I question my own recollection of this as it certainly didn't feel that long - how could I have spent over an hour just doing the above?) and I felt as though I'd done a lot of talking and just wanted to get the game going. But I did need to know more about their environment and so I asked them to give me the social groups at the school and then sketched them out in a basic social organogram. And then I said 'I need ten minutes to pull all this stuff together, let's take a break' (though what I should have added is 'Think of what scene you want for your character'). I went and sat in another room for ten minutes and did a rough mind map of all the info I had so far.

A Chaos hungry Ghoul is my favourite MH character - what they do ticks so many of the MC's Principles that you can just wind them up and let them go. Despite this, though, I was a bit bemused by the skin selection. Normally, with new players you expect to see Vampires, Witches and Werewolves, where the folklore itself is nicely connect, but a Fae, a Ghost and a Ghoul? How to tie them together?

As it turns out, quite well as both Ghost and Ghoul have a common element - their own death - and as both deaths were violent and recent, I wrote "Murder One - gun" and "Murder Two - knife" in the middle of the mind-map and then "Moon" in between them, as he was somehow connected to both. That was the mystery that I knew would be central to our story. I didn't have such a strong grip on the Fae skin, but I knew it allowed me to bring in the world of Faery if it served a purpose.

I then looked at each character and looked where they wanted to be pushed.

- Cole had mentioned the ritual nature of her killing and that she had been killed in order to be resurrected as  Ghoul. It made sense that, if she was resurrected deliberately, that whoever did it would be keeping tabs on her so I wrote "Cole feels herself being watched". I then connected it with "School Newspaper" and "Former Head Cheerleader" and created a spying school reporter NPC named Polly Perasis who was interested in writing for the school newspaper (the 'Cowbell') why Cole quit the squad. I also created the name of the new head cheerleader, Alexia Winslow, as someone who could embody what Cole had lost.

- Moon had set up this whole aspect of his character where he's awesome at stuff, but then he gets bored and moves on. Well, in high school, you don't always get to move on. We said he was on the wrestling team so I created the school's wrestling coach NPC who wanted to get Moon back onboard. I also created a name for a wrestler, Bruce, who could apply more physical pressure.

- Spencer had picked Hungry Ghost, meaning he wanted people to dump their sorrow on him. I connected this with his 'tries too hard' aspect and created an NPC guidance counsellor who call him in to talk about his problems, but end up dumping her own on him. I also added "why was he killed?" and that, as a ghost and with the 'tries too hard' aspect, I added "people keep forgetting he's alive".

- I also liked the idea of the welfare kids at the school and so created the name Stig for one of them.

This was all I had time for, but it was enough. I had an NPC to bring in for each character to illustrate one of their aspects. There was one great big hook in the murders, I hadn't worked anything out for that yet, but it was an obvious place for the players to push. And I had the following anchors:
- The reporter Polly Perasis approaches Cole to get the scoop on her resignation and what really happens in the cheerleading squad.
- The wrestling coach approaches Moon to get him back on the team.
- Other wrestlers push Moon to get him back on board.
- Moon breaks down in class over a story of exile.
- Spencer is threatened in the canteen with Moon nearby to save him.

I then went back to the players and explained how scene framing worked, that typically the MC framed scenes, but if they had ideas I wanted them to frame scenes as well. At that, I asked "What scene do you want to kick off?"

Re: AP: Dresden High, Chicago, 1-shot - Fae/ Gho/ Ghu
« Reply #1 on: March 11, 2013, 09:32:18 PM »
Placeholder for Act 1 - Seeing the school nurse

Re: AP: Dresden High, Chicago, 1-shot - Fae/ Gho/ Ghu
« Reply #2 on: March 11, 2013, 09:33:00 PM »
Placeholder for Act 2 - Practice

Re: AP: Dresden High, Chicago, 1-shot - Fae/ Gho/ Ghu
« Reply #3 on: March 11, 2013, 09:33:52 PM »
Placeholder for Act 3 - A reporter calls

Re: AP: Dresden High, Chicago, 1-shot - Fae/ Gho/ Ghu
« Reply #4 on: March 12, 2013, 11:22:41 PM »
Great stuff, nicely laying out your thought process. I'll keep checking in as you keep editing!

Act 1 - History class and the school nurse
« Reply #5 on: March 14, 2013, 07:42:09 PM »
Hmm... I don't see how I can edit the above placeholders. Hohum.

Act I - History class and the school nurse

Moon the Fae is sitting with the rest of the class watching a video about the second world war. Their teacher, Mrs Wiley, a dumpy woman in her late fifties who’s cruising towards retirement, shows a lot of videos so that she doesn’t have to teach and can snooze behind her desk. This video moves onto a segment about the Free Polish Army and how, despite being first into the fight, many of the veterans could never return home because of the Soviet occupation of their country after the war. Hearing of this tale of exile, Moon bursts into tears, dashes towards the video and runs his hands down the screen, moaning of the misery. Mrs Wiley – unmoved – points him to the door and tells him to go and see the school nurse. As he appears inconsolable, she asks if he needs a friend to go with him. Spencer the Ghost volunteers and Mrs Wiley assents. Anything to keep things quiet.

MC notes
When I asked for initial scenes from the players, Moon said that he wanted to see the school nurse. I connected this with his backstory description of bursting into tears in class as a valid reason for him to be sent to see her. Rather than have another English class, I picked History as another example where we could have a tale of exile.

Where I don’t have a NPC name in mind, as in this case, I’ll throw it to the players. Often they’ll just pick the first name that comes to mind, but sometimes the name they pick will give me a clue as to how they want to interact with them. Mrs Wiley’s character came pretty much ‘off the peg’ – it’s an easy connection to make that a teacher who shows their class a lot of videos has given up on teaching.

I wanted to get some of the mechanics into play early and so – after I described the content of the video – I asked Moon to Hold Steady, as this was a particular trigger for him (and, thankfully, he promptly failed). It emerged after that he wanted to burst into tears and so we decided that a ‘success’ would have been him being able to fake bursting into tears, but keep it on the surface. His fail meant that, in faking crying he actually pulled in his own emotion and so lost control. I asked Moon to narrate that, resulting in the rather over-dramatic pawing at the screen.

Sometimes when player and MC both want the same thing from a scene you can almost fall over each other trying to make it happen. Both Moon and I wanted the same thing to happen, but in asking for the roll without asking ‘What do you do?’ and understanding the player’s intention, I had almost scuppered it.

I wanted Spencer to go with him and Spencer wanted to go as well. I dealt with this better and left a hook dangling by having Mrs Wiley say “Do you need a friend to go with you?” which Spencer was waiting to bite on.

Spencer leads Moon out of class. He appears to console him, but actually seeks to provoke more tears and feeds on Moon's grief (Spencer gets a 10+ on Hungry Ghost and takes a String on Moon). Moon, in return, leaves his arm around Spencer just long enough for Spencer to receive an elicit thrill. Moon knows the effect he has had (Moon gets a 10+ on Turn On and takes a String on Spencer). Both Moon and Spencer recover themselves and converse. Moon drops some heavy hints that he knows of Spencer's 'condition' (that he's a ghost).

They're interrupted by Bradley, a hall monitor. He sees Spencer and says "Hey, what are you doing? Oh, Moon, I didn't see you there." Moon knows Bradley from the wrestling team and Bradley asks when they'll see him back. Moon demurs and explains that they're heading to the nurse and Bradley urges them along. As they leave, he says after Moon, "The Coach is looking for you. He wants you back on the team. And remember what the Coach wants, he gets."

MC notes
One of the players muttered something about railroading here and I agree that Bradley appeared to be a quintessential GM-cipher. But railroad? You picked going to the nurse, I'm just trying to get you there! In truth, though, it sounded to me that their personal conversation had stalled, but that neither of them wanted to call time on it, so I brought Bradley in to remind them that they did have a purpose in leaving class. Could I have let it run longer? Maybe. Sometimes as an MC it's tough to remember to listen. I'll think about using a 'Scene' card so the players can indicate when _they_ think they're done (whether or not _I'm_ done with them is another matter).

Though Bradley was a very incidental character, I did use him to push a couple of things. The first was to introduce the wrestling coach and to build his reputation a bit and so foreshadow that anchor. The second was my note on Spencer that "people keep forgetting he's alive". This became a bit of a recurring theme that - whenever Spencer was with Moon - no one would recognise him, but then they would see Moon and everything would be alright; this all played on the protector & jealousy aspects of their relationship.

What I was delighted to see in this small scene was how the players were already looking to push for their objectives - even if through each other. First, Spencer had identified somewhere to use his Hungry Ghost move and pounced upon Moon's breakdown to gain a string on him, and then Moon Turned Spencer On to gain a string back.

Spencer and Moon arrive at the medical station and see Nurse Lovelace. She's an attractive woman in her late twenties, but she dresses down in plain scrubs. She's not alone, however, Cole the Ghoul is already there. Nurse Lovelace is trying to take a blood sample, but Cole isn't having any of it. The nurse looks up at the interruption, sees Spencer and, annoyed, says "I'm in session, what do you want?" Then she sees Moon and smiles. "Oh, Moon, it's you."

Moon artistically wilts before her, playing the dying swan for all he's worth. Nurse Lovelace was determined to get a blood sample from Cole, but given Cole's obfuscation and Moon's play-acting, she turns her attention to the Fae. Moon complains of having a fever and, when the nurse places her hand on his forehead, he nuzzles into it, sending the slightest tingle of illicit attraction through her (Moon gets a 7-9 on Turn On and I give him a String on the nurse).  She agrees that he seems more urgent than Cole and so she dismisses Cole and Spencer and turns her attention on Moon. Cole and Spencer head out and as they go - and the nurse's back is turned - Moon gives Cole a big "You're welcome" wink. His overbearing smugness pisses Cole off and, as they step outside and Spencer starts to head to class, Cole pulls him back and the both listen at the door.

Moon pursues his goal. He lies on the bed and then, claiming a variety of symptoms, he gets Nurse Lovelace first to dim the lights, then to get him an icepack, which he conspires to split and spill on himself so he has an excuse to take his shirt off. The heat in the room is dispelled, however, when Cole bursts back in to 'interrupt' them.

Cole says that she needs to talk to the nurse privately and Lovelace, aggravated but still professional, leaves Moon and lets Cole into her small office. Once inside, Cole begins to talk about her feelings and the changes going through her body. Nurse Lovelace thinks Cole is about to confide in her about an eating disorder, but instead Cole reveals her even more personal problem - she's been murdered. The nurse tries to dismiss her words out of hand, but there's something about the gaunt, dark-haired girl and the description of a knife plunging into flesh that makes her half-believe it might be true  (Cole uses Ending to give Nurse Lovelace the Condition Morbid and then gets a 7-9 on Turn On and so I give her a String on the nurse).

Cole sees the uncertainty in Lovelace and goes in for the kill. "So, that's why you can't take my blood, you understand? Because then everyone would know that I was dead. And I don't want people to know that, just like you don't want people to know what you'd like to do with Moon." Nurse Lovelace reacts angrily to that, rejecting such an accusation and saying that she has never been anything else but professional, but Cole can see that she's a little too angry. Nurse Lovelace agrees not to keeping asking for blood, but only if Cole leaves now and doesn't spread such ridiculous lies (Cole rolls low on Manipulate an NPC so she burns her String on Lovelace to get to a 7-9 result, I tell her what it will take for Lovelace to do what she wants).

Cole leaves Nurse Lovelace and Moon together and - as she closes the door - she just misses the nurse saying to Moon "I promise you'll be all right." She rejoins Spencer and they head back to class. Spencer is not happy with her, though. He wants to know what she did and so Cole tells him how she got the nurse to back off. This annoys Spencer even more. As they were growing up, Cole grew away from Spencer, but Spencer never did from Cole. And now he sees that their respective deaths give them a connection, a shared secret, that he's been missing for so long. But Cole has just blabbed that secret to some random schoolworker. This is all her fault after all. She is the reason he was out that evening. She is the reason he was out in that alley instead of safe at home. She is the reason he was shot. She is why he's dead and he lays this all out on her (Spencer gets a 10+ using Unresolved Trauma on Cole and gives her the Condition Blamed).

Cole realises that she's completely surrounded by postering, pseudo-macho dickwads today and fires back a volley of her own. He should never have been in that alley in the first place. Why had he been following her in the first place? No one was interested in him. Not even the murderer. He was just in the way. That's all he was... collateral damage. The two complete their walk back to class in silence, both fuming at the other (Cole gets a 7-9 in Shutting Down Spencer, she gives him the Condition Worthless, while he gives her the Condition Tattletale).

MC notes
When Moon said that he wanted to see the nurse, I connected nurse with Cole's description of 'a little too thin' as a way to bring her into the scene. (Actually Cole's player was a bit more explicit with her description which alluded to Cole appearing as though she might have an eating disorder, otherwise I probably wouldn't have hinted at such content in a pick-up game.) I thought it might just be a useful way to put the PCs together, but it was Cole who seized upon the idea that - as a Ghoul - she definitely didn't want anyone examining her blood. And so, from me just putting people together and the PCs with a clear idea of their character's desires, the scene grew from that, with both Moon and Cole using their available armoury to gain what leverage they could over the nurse.

What was also great to see was PCs getting at each other. Monsterhearts is essentially a PvP game. The less time the MC spends talking, generally the better it's going as the more players are engaged. If the PCs 'party up' and just become a single entity facing the world - or alternatively never connect with each other, and only ever interact with NPCs - then you're going to spend a lot of time talking and players are going to spend a lot of time waiting for their moment with you. There was nothing I did in particular to help this along in this example beyond proposing they use moves suggested by their narrative. There were a few factors at work here:
- 1, two of the players were partners and obviously quite enjoyed sparring with each other
- 2, the skins they were using were a bit more traumatised and a bit less heroic (like the Chosen skin for example)
- 3, they'd established strong backstory relationships which were a mix of positive and negative (which at least allowed them to go negative if they wanted to - it's a good way to think about all PC PC relationships, have the players think about both the positive and the negative ways they manifest themselves)
- 4, I used Skittles candy pieces as strings, so they all wanted to have a bigger and bigger pile in front of them (and then eat them)

Something I did hint at during Spencer and Cole's argument was the hook (the 'season hook') of their murders. I didn't have anything behind this hook yet, but with that's one way you can treat mysteries, just allow the players to create more and more information about it until - a) they figure something out themselves or b) inspiration strikes you and you connect up a bunch of disparate elements to construct the ultimate truth.

I find having two scenes, preferably with 2 PCs in each (or a 2/1 split as here), running in parallel helps a lot with pacing as it gives you the ability to cut back and forth as scenes either falter or need a time or location-jump. Players want to get into it, but they also need rests and inspiration from others to keep going. Also, if all the PCs are in a room together then none of them can talk behind any of the others' backs! Keeping them split and mixing up the combinations is fruitful stuff and it allows you to signal the climax of the session by bringing them all together.

The entire encounter with the nurse was a good example of rolling with what a player wanted. I didn't have anything prepped for it, so I was winging it all the way. I asked what the nurse's name was and when he said Lovelace, that gave me enough to know how he wanted to interact with her and so how I should describe and portray her. At the same time, though, I drew a very clear line in my head about how she should behave. I didn't know exactly what Moon's intention was, but he was not going to get any woohoo. I wanted her to be a (perhaps soft-hearted) professional and so - while I made her young and attractive in line with his name - I also dressed her in functional clothing to make it clear that she was not going to be a piece of fetish fuel.

(I later learned that Moon's objective was to get access to the school medical records. When I heard this, I wondered whether I should have taken the time to establish his intention first before getting into it - however sometimes that kind of meta-gaming (or "talking about the story rather than telling the story") can sap some of the fun out of it and make scenes too straightforward as everyone knows what goal they're pushing towards.)

As it was the scene got diverted and by the time we were ready to cut back to Moon after Cole and Spencer had fallen out, he had a new idea of what he wanted to do next. Had this been a regular 'season' of Monsterhearts then Moon had the strings on Nurse Lovelace to come back and investigate the medical records at a later date. I, equally, could well have pulled Lovelace out of the bag on a future occasion doing something unusual and then let the players stew as to this knew mystery about her.

NPCs in Monsterhearts, especially adults, often fall into one of two categories: victims or villains (which you might say was well in keeping with source material like all the teachers in the early seasons of Buffy). When an adult NPC isn't actively conspiring against the PCs, it can be hard to stop them being pushed around by the PCs, as is the common complaint of every NPC in every RPG (Manipulate an NPC is a particularly powerful move in this respect). The difference to remember is that - unlike other games - PCs here are teenagers and teenagers are entirely dependent upon adults for pretty much every material possession they have. If the PCs think they can beat up the headmaster and then manipulate their way to ensuring he doesn't tell anyone, you don't need to wait for them to fail a roll to make hard moves. They might suddenly find that, for example, that principal has been replaced by a new one... who's marked them down as troublemakers, and they're in permanent detention, and they're grounded, and their car's been confiscated and their fancy new clothes have been taken away. The idea with all this is not to try to make their lives boring, you're a fan of the PCs and sometimes being a good fan - just like being a good parent - isn't allowing the PCs to run around like demi-gods. You put down limits so that they can push against those limits. Would Buffy have been as dramatic if she hadn't had to sneak around her mother all the time? (Answer: no, read season 8). Would the big party at the end of Footloose have been such a triumph if the town had been actively sponsoring it and encouraging the event? (Answer: no, see every community dance ever). Anyhow, the thing to remember is that - while a particular NPC may be powerless - the MC never is and never needs a PC to fail a roll to follow the principles Blanket the world in darkness and Happiness always comes at someone else’s expense.
« Last Edit: March 14, 2013, 07:58:48 PM by Epistolary Richard »

Act 2 - Practice
« Reply #6 on: March 17, 2013, 10:36:04 PM »
Act 2 - Practice

MC notes
To move onto the next scene, I just asked whether any of the players have a particular idea or wanted to do something. Moon suggested that he wanted a scene with Spencer and he provided the initial framing. If no one did, then I would most likely have framed one of my anchors.

That afternoon, Moon the Fae and Spencer the Ghost are sitting on the back row of the bleachers besides the sports fields. In front of them, the school's football team is practicing, but they're not the least bit interested in that - they're watching Cole the Ghoul, sitting right down at the front. Spencer and Cole haven't spoken to each other since their argument that morning and its been eating at Spencer. For a moment, their shared trauma threw them back together and it was almost like old times, but he's messed it up and now he wants desperately to undo it. And Moon knows it. He consoles Spencer and they exchange promises: Moon will talk to Cole so that she'll make peace with Spencer, in return for a future favour.

Cole, meanwhile, hasn't been watching the football practice either. She's been watching the cheerleader squad and, specifically, her replacement as head cheerleader: Alexia Winslow.  The squad are trying out a human pyramid. While Cole looks on, she's interrupted by a freckled, red-headed girl named Polly Perasis. Polly works for the school newspaper (the 'Cowbell' - "not the Daily Udder?" Cole snarks) and she wants to do a story on Cole: trophy winning head cheerleader suddenly resigning her position and quitting the team over an 'injury'. Polly tells Cole that she's an inspiration to others - someone who's been at the core of the sports clique and come out the other side. Cole considers this and then, seeing potential for chaos, accepts eagerly. "Shall we do it right now?" she asks. Polly demurs and flustered, says that she doesn't have a pen and paper with her to make notes. Instead, she asks to come around to Cole's house that evening - about 9pm - so they can talk without worrying about anyone overhearing.

Cole agrees and, at that point, Polly sees Alexia walking over to them. Polly scrams, afraid of attracting the attention of the new head cheerleader.

MC notes
The first time I MCed I had this notion that - as the PCs were all at school - there should be some sort of timetable (to compliment the 'homeroom seating chart'). I thought that this would help generate ideas based on whatever class they were doing. As I quickly learnt, trying to make a Monsterhearts school operate like a real school is far too constricting (and boring). Have it work like a tv school and have the schedule serve the demands of the story. If they're working to a deadline (like a school dance that's happening _tonight_) and the PCs need to be out doing stuff during the day then you can just saying that they're cutting class (or if they have an administrative position for the event - perhaps they have dispensation to be out of school).

In a 3 player game, I like this set-up of 2 players in a scene, but the third also visible but not involved for some reason. It keeps the 3rd player engaged in case they want to get involved (so they don't check out entirely) but they get a rest from narration (it's also easier to deal with player vs character knowledge if we limit the difference, otherwise sometimes stories can just disintegrate into collections of scenes taking place just so one character can pass on a piece of info to another, an actual benefit to in-game mobile phones). Having the 3rd player 'on hand' makes the story flow better from one conversation to the next. We started this scene with just Moon and Spencer, but rather than close it down as soon as the promises were exchanged I decided to go to one of my anchors (the reporter Polly Perasis approaches Cole to get the scoop on her resignation and what really happens in the cheerleading squad) and so we brought in Cole and established what she was doing.

As an MC, you have to pay attention to scene pacing - too many short scenes and the story feels fragmented, one scene is going on too long, you'll lose the flexibility in skipping ahead to the interesting stuff the story is building to. This particular scene felt too short - plus, with Moon playing match-maker, the interesting fallout between Spencer and Cole might be too easily resolved. Without external input, the tangled relationships of the PCs will naturally spend their inherent tension and work themselves out over time. You'll often have two or three relationships (typically a love triangle) at the core of a game and those relationships need to keep their 'juice'. Once the PCs get their shit straight with each other, you're then running a game of a bunch of well-adjusted teens taking on the world - which isn't really what Monsterhearts is about. You can prolong complications by putting other stuff into the game to allow the relationships to be the subtext for a while and allow the big relationship changing events to emerge from the other stuff, rather than restricting the game to only using the relationship to feed itself (imagine Buffy if she had nothing else to occupy her apart from her relationships,and  even Ally McBeal got to pretend to practice law once in a while to fill the airtime).

The best external stuff should always serve the relationships, either creating them if a PC is isolated, highlighting a problem or easing them if they're just too messed up and the PCs can't deal with them, (more often) complicating them because the PCs are getting along too well with each other or - as in this case - delaying the resolution of a tangle so to enjoy it a little longer.

One small specific point: I liked Polly as a character because - so the trope goes - as a reporter she can be an ally (as a source of info about the murders and the general goings on around the school), a potential threat (if she learns of the supernatural nature of the PCs she may wish to publicise it) or she can just blunder into something entirely over her head and either a) require saving or b) her body can be a cautionary warning to the PCs. Her entrance her was supposed to be just a quick hit to establish her and set up her anchor scene for later, but Cole being ready to talk about it _right now_ threw me. I did consider going ahead with it, but I felt the interview might be quite long and so didn't work with the pacing of Moon coming over to Cole to talk about Spencer and also, tonally, getting into secrets and scandal in the middle of a sunny afternoon didn't seem to fit, and so I grasped around for some kind of excuse why Polly couldn't do it _right now_ after being so eager and came up with the lame "I don't have a pen and paper". Had I taken a little bit longer to think, I would have realised that I had the perfect interruption in the form of Alexis already on hand. Even if she hadn't been there, I could have easily said that she had to get to class or to a meeting or another interview or that she didn't want to talk about it with the cheerleaders just over there. I should have taken a breath and given myself time to think.

The knock-on effect, though, of Polly (and me) getting flustered was that it put Cole on guard as to why Polly wanted to be alone with her. As it turned out, she jumped to the wrong conclusion, but it was fun to play into her expectations for a while.

As Polly disappears from view, Alexia steps up to Cole, gives her a friendly wave and a big smile. Alexia looks almost relieved to see Cole there, and asks how she's doing with her injury and whether she'll might come back to the squad before the County finals. Cole thinks not. Alexia's clearly disappointed and confides that it isn't the same without her. The squad was so successful under Cole, real champions, and Alexia's struggling to lead them as well as Cole did. They're trying the human pyramid at the moment, but it's not working and Alexia asks if Cole has any advice.

Cole certainly does and tells Alexia what to do, knowing that it fail disastrously and cause chaos. Alexia buys every word and runs back to the squad to try it out. They reform and it starts off well, but then as the top girl is lifted up into place, somewhere a weak knee gives and the top girl goes crashing into the second tier. In an instant of panic, the base level girls tighten their grip instead of releasing and catching as they know they should and the pyramid implodes in a tangle of screaming girls. They're all injured, most with grazes, cuts or bruises as others fell on them. One of the upper girls fell on face forward and blood starts spurting from her noise. Another one's leg is twisted horribly. A third isn't screaming at all. She's lying still, unmoving. The sports practice stops and everyone starts running over. Everyone but our PCs who stay sitting in the stands.

MC notes
Mechanically, what happened here was that Cole used Manipulate an NPC on Alexia in order to convince her that these doomed adjustments were actually the right thing to do. The roll, however, failed miserably, which left me with a Hard Move to make. I find Hard Moves one of the tougher aspects of MCing Monsterhearts as they come a little out of nowhere and they can happen every time someone picks up the dice (and sometimes not even then). When a player rolls dice it's normally pretty clear what happens on a success - even if it has to be tweaked to be a partial success. While Hard Moves should follow naturally from what's gone before, the MC has huge discretion as to what they can do.

What they _should_ do, of course, is follow the principles. But applying them to a specific situation at the drop of a hat can be tough. As I mention above, it's better to stop the game for a moment and take a breath before the dice get rolled and let an idea spring to mind than barrel on and then - when you see snake-eyes suddenly be put on the spot.

I've been making a conscious effort to get more creative with my Hard Moves. Your backstop Hard Moves (Inflict harm, Take a string, Trigger their Darkest Self) will always be there if you need them. They're safe and they're clear to the player - 'mechanically you failed that roll and so here are the mechanical consequences'.  In this situation above, I could have easily said that Alexia realises what Cole is trying to do and calls her on it, taking a string and burning the relationship between them. That's all clear and a follows naturally from what's gone before. But, is that following the MC's Agenda "Make the PCs' lives not boring"? Does it "Keep the story feral"? How about the principles "Happiness always comes at someone else's expense"? Or the big one "Be a fan of the PCs"? Using my safety, taking a string, failing the move, it felt it would be telling the player: "That was a great idea you had there to feed your Hunger, but random chance meant that it didn't work, so nothing happens and now go away and think of another idea that may also fail due to random chance". That tack just smelt of whiff.

Ironically, this was actually what the player expected to happen. She saw the fail and thought that it was blown and then, when I narrated what happened, she asked me to explain how Cole had 'succeeded' when the dice said she failed. And I so I took a time out here to explain how Hard Moves work and to show them the list ("Always say what the principles demand, what the rules demand"), specifically "Make them pay a price" and "Turn their move back on them". In both of those examples in the book, the characters achieve what they set out to do - but with something they didn't expect. To my mind, a success roll would have accomplished what Cole wanted, the pyramid to collapse and Alexia to be shamed - this still happens, but the Hard Move amps up the consequences: it's not just a few scraped knees and social shame, but serious life-threatening damage. Cole has caused chaos, but these are the consequences (and the consequences will have consequences and so on).

Hard Moves really are a whole bag of tricks and - if the player has come up with a cool idea that I want to make happen - I'd like to see it through rather than just shutting it down because of random chance.

And then, of course, once you've made your Hard Move you ask the player "What do you do?"

Act 2 - Practice (part ii)
« Reply #7 on: March 17, 2013, 10:36:39 PM »
As Cole desired, it is chaos. Ambulances, paramedics, coaches, football players, crying cheerleaders, concerned boyfriends are all mingled together. The two most severely injured girls are being lifted onto stretchers, more are boarding ambulances. Polly Perasis, on the scene within minutes, is running around trying to get people's names and quotes. Cole wants to talk to her. Polly hurriedly asks if she has a quote, Cole says "We just have to be there for the girls and Alexia now. She must be devastated for all this to happen through her own inexperience." Polly thanks her and rushes off to get the details of which hospital they're being taken to and Cole looks over to Alexia, who, now the girls are being cared for, is sat alone, shell-shocked, in the stands.

Cole, her hunger sated for the moment, is not the only one to notice her. Spencer feels his own hunger for Alexia's sorrow. He appears beside her, offering her a comforting shoulder and she - glad of any human contact - clings onto him. Spencer feeds on her misery (Spencer gets a 7-9 on Hungry Ghost, giving Alexia a String on him). She pulls away from him slightly and catches a glimpse of the unnatural in his eyes. She straightens herself up and excuses herself to return to her girls, but she turns to look back at Spencer as she goes.

Spencer is left alone again, angry at Alexia's cold reaction to him, but also scared of himself. He searches, his memories, once again wondering what happened to him when he died and what he has become (Spencer rolls 10+ on Gaze into the Abyss). A new image appears in his mind, the barrel of the gun that killed him and above it, the face of his killer, but that identity hangs just a hairs-width out of reach as we cut to:

Just as Spencer goes off to Alexia, Moon goes to Cole. Saying he wishes to speak to her privately, he leads her into the shadows under the bleachers. He talks to her about Spencer and tries to convince her to make amends with him. When she refuses, he leans in a little too close, breathes deeply and looks into her with his heavy lidded eyes (Moon rolls a 7-9 to Turn Cole On, Cole then picks which option she wants). Cole refuses to allow Moon to best her at this game and so instead she calls his bluff, grabs him by his tailored jacket and pulls him to the ground with her.

(While we chose not to have them fully consumate, we did rule that the contact they had was sufficient to trigger their Sex Moves.)

After this hurried, unearthly coupling, the two of them lie there naked, hidden, watching the lights of the ambulances playing against the seats above them.  Though she should be pleased at her victory, surprising and breaking down Moon's usual effortless facade, Cole doesn't feel victorious. Something new is gnawing at her. And despite what they have done, Moon hasn't been deterred. He asks once again that she reconcile with Spencer. Cole cannot believe him and storms away, showing more emotion that she wished (the Fae's sex move is to ask the other person for a promise, Cole refuses and Moon gets two strings on her). As she goes, this new hunger worsens. She steals a look back at Cole, who shows no inclination to get up or get dressed, and she realises that her new hunger is for him (the Ghoul's sex move is to add a new Hunger "having sex with that person"). Then we cut back to:

Spencer, a short time earlier, seeing Moon lead Cole under the bleachers. His face is in shadow, but then the blue light from one of the ambulances suddenly lights him up. Spencer's vision completes. The blue light from a neon sign at the end of the alley, shining on a face, his killer. The wink that Moon gave Cole in the nurse's office.  Spencer flashes back and feels the bullet strike his chest once again and looks up and Moon is there, smoking gun in hand and - as Spencer collapses to the concrete, he sees Moon give him that same big wink.

MC notes
The remainder of this scene flowed quite nicely with no great intervention in my part - just the players following their characters motives. A few mechanical points:
- When Spencer rolled a 7-9 on Hungry Ghost, he realised that actually this move aids the target more than the ghost and so felt it was less appealling.
- None of the players had studied their sex moves closely before this scene and so, mechanically, Cole actually was worse off accepting Moon (as she had to give away two strings when she refused the promise afterwards, rather than just the one from a 7-9 Turn On move). Cole also realised that her sex move appeared a liability, but having taken Satiety new - easily fulfilled - hungers could be good for xp. Storywise, I was happier how it turned out as it was more of a battle between Cole and Moon (not lovemaking, more like 'fencing with genitals'). Had Cole known her optimal approach beforehand, Moon would have taken the string and then most likely offered Cole XP to reconcile with Spencer - which Cole could then simply turn down flat. Okay, but a bit whiffy as Monsterhearts doesn't have anything mechanically to _force_ a PC to do anything. If Cole doesn't want to reconcile with Spencer then they have to deal with it in the fiction, rather than through a mechanic.
- I prompted Spencer's Gaze into the Abyss as I noticed him doing something introspective and then I did take a breath after the roll. The game played out in the order as written, so we established his success but then I asked to hold off on giving him the vision while we dealt with Cole and Moon. Gaze into the Abyss is another MC 'stress-point' in my book where suddenly, out of nowhere, the MC has to create relevant visions for a character. That can be okay if it relates to another PC, but when it's about plot - and you've not planned out the session but are winging it as you go - you need a bit of time to provide something cogent.

Finally, suddenly throwing to one player that he murdered another in cold blood is a bit extreme GM-ing. My own thought process here was that we've got this big hook about the murders, we need to have some kind of revelation about it before the end of the session (and we're over halfway through already), I can create some random new NPC to take the blame but - as the players won't have encountered them - they won't be able to engage with it, or I can connect it to an NPC they've already met, but none of them seemed particularly good candidates - and there Moon's name on my thought chart, sitting between and connected to both murders without any reason.
But even though it made some narrative sense, make no mistake that I was making a huge ask of the player. He could be having a 'this is a crowning moment of awesome' moment or he can absolutely hate it and feel that it's been pushed on him, severing his personal connection with his character. BUt you'll never know unless you at least suggest it.

As I was introducing it, I was careful to ensure that Moon had an 'out' if he wanted it. I said that we're dealing with elements of faerie here and that it was perfectly possibly for Spencer to have seen Moon's face through a glamour but that actually Moon wasn't involved at all.

I also gave Moon time to decide. As I'd added the info outside of a scene between the two of them, it meant that - so long as Moon decided yes or no before the relationship knot is untangled - the player still was making the active choice to incorporate a new aspect to his character. Ideally I would have done this through private chat, but given this was a one shot I felt this approach was okay enough.

As it was, the player did choose to take it onboard (see the final part), but reshaped the memory so that it fit in better with his character.

Act 3 - A reporter calls
« Reply #8 on: March 24, 2013, 08:26:39 PM »
Act 3 - A reporter calls

MC notes
We were starting to run out of time in the session and I wanted to get to Polly’s interview with Cole. Once the scene at sports field wrapped up, I asked if any of the players wanted to do anything else at school. None of them did so we skipped ahead. Before beginning the scene, I asked Cole to describe her home-life. She decided that she had a single parent, her mother. After originally saying that her mother had to work nights as a cleaner, Cole decided that such an occupation didn’t fit in with her own social status at school and instead decided that her mother was sufficiently well-off that she didn’t have to work and instead she was out of the house dating – she dated a lot. A small, but characterful detail. Cole also created a younger sister for herself, the 11 year old Bonnie, whom she was babysitting.

The rulebook states that you should ask questions like crazy as part of the first session. I find that, as part of setup, I tend to focus on what the PCs think about themselves, their position at school, how they’re seen by others and connections between themselves. This gives me enough to get the game started. Everything else – like their home lives – I’m happy to create as we go. Players get a far better feel for their characters once they’ve had a few scenes with them and so can give more suitable responses about the other aspects to their lives when the game gets to them.

That evening, Cole is babysitting her young sister Bonnie when the doorbell rings. “Someone’s at the door. Is it a boy?” Bonnie asks. She’s instantly curious about anything to do with her older sister’s romantic life. Cole replies, “No, it’s someone from school.” Despite Cole’s protests, Bonnie runs and opens the door to reveal Polly Perasis, they’re for her interview with Cole.

“Who are you?” Bonnie asks. “I’m Polly,” Polly replies, “And what’s your name?”

Uninterested now that she sees it’s a not a boy, Bonnie calls for Cole and then runs up to her room.

MC notes
I realised once Polly started interacted with Bonnie that I’d fallen into the old trap of talking to myself (NPC talking to another NPC). If some players get bored when only one PC is in a scene, _all_ players get bored when the MC starts putting on a one-man show. Had I wanted something to come out of the interaction, then I would have handed Bonnie over to one of the other players to play. As it was, I wanted to get on and so just parcelled her away up in her room.

Cole invites in and Polly looks around a bit and comments what a lovely home she has. Cole offers her a beverage and Polly asks for a Diet Dr. Pepper “What’s the worst that could happen, right?”

Cole sits, ready for the interview, but Polly is still looking around. She asks:

“Where are all your cheerleading trophies? Sorry, I just assumed that they’d be out on display.”

“They’re up in my bedroom.”

“Oh, do you mind if I go have a look?”

Cole pauses at this, but relents and so they go upstairs. Cole checks on Bonnie, she’s IMing her friends and listening to music on her headphones. Polly admires all the trophies that Cole has won over the years and then sits on the bed. She takes out her voice recorder, turns it on and lays it between them.

Cole asks about the cheerleaders hurt today and Polly reports that one has her nose broken, another her leg shattered and is out for the season, and the really hurt girl has yet to come around. They commiserate that it’s a tremendous blow to the squad’s chances of making it to the regional finals this year and Polly mentions how distraught Alexia is and that her parents are afraid of leaving her alone. Cole takes the opportunity to once again sympathise for the girl, but also lay the entire blame for the debacle at her feet.

Polly nods along and then launches into her own questions. At this point, Cole reaches out and stops the dictaphone.

“I’d really prefer if we could speak without the recorder.”

“I’m sorry; I didn’t mean anything by it. I just use it to make sure I get what people say exactly right.”

“I’ll go slow; you can just write notes. I trust you.”

Polly agrees and, with little prompting, Cole lays out a narrative of the dark side of the cheerleading squad, how their lives are controlled, how their coach is an alcoholic, how he’s been drunk while responsible for the squad during away games, how he’s verbally abusive. Polly writes it all down eagerly. This will be the perfect expose to run alongside the piece about the accident.

MC notes
I felt that this scene was a nice example of offer and acceptance between myself and Cole. I pushed to have the scene take place in the bedroom and she accepted (again, further heightening her suspicions, but directing them at the red herring that Polly might be interested in Cole romantically). She pushed to talk about the injured cheerleaders and I accepted by providing details of the criticality of their conditions and the destruction Cole had caused. I pushed to have the interview in the first place and Cole accepted, not only by allowing it, but also using it to push her own objective to cause chaos. It’s worth noting the couple of areas I pushed where Cole didn’t bite, however. I pushed about the coach’s conduct and whether there was any hint of inappropriate physical contact between him and the girls, but Cole said no. This was a nice in-character way of talking about lines and veils. The other was that I pushed about whether Cole had been impacted by a previous traumatic incident (hinting at her murder) but again Cole didn’t bite at it.

I wanted this scene to be the session climax and that meant I needed to address the central hook of the setup – the murders of two of the PCs. I had to reveal at least some truth behind that incident and Polly was in position to do so. My original plan was for Cole to talk about her murder – in the same way she’d done with the nurse – and then Polly to let slip some piece of information that she shouldn’t know. Cole didn’t bite at that hook though, and so I altered tacks. Polly would excuse herself, claiming she’d left the drinks downstairs, doctor one of them and then come back up and offer it to Cole. As it turns out, however, Cole had her own ideas about getting to the truth behind Polly.

A brief aside, I asked for feedback at the end and one of the other players mentioned that this interview scene went on too long – and it was too long for a PC v NPC scene. If I was MCing this type of scene again, I’d put another PC (most likely Spencer from this scenario) outside the house watching so they feel more engaged.

Act 3 - A reporter calls (part ii)
« Reply #9 on: March 24, 2013, 08:30:14 PM »
Polly excuses herself, saying that she’s going to get her drink from downstairs. When she’s out, Cole grabs the voice recorder and rewinds it back before the interview started and hits play. She hears a deep, inhuman voice say “Galadriel, Galadriel, kill her. Kill her. The dead must stay dead.”

As she listens, she sees Polly appear back at the bedroom door. Gone is her perky smile, replaced by an expression of stone. In her hand is a knife and Cole sees that it is the same ceremonial knife that carved up her chest. Polly looks at her and says: “You shouldn’t have heard that.”

MC notes
To end the session, I had to reveal something about the main mystery. The easiest thing to reveal is someone who was involved in it. Who it was, was actually an obvious choice by the time we got there. So, I had the clue “Polly was involved in the murders” but I had a ‘floating’ reveal (i.e. it could come out a bunch of different way). Cole didn’t go for the hook of telling Polly about her death and so I was going to make it more overt with doctoring the drinks, but then Cole rewound the Dictaphone. I had no idea she’d do that, I just added the Dictaphone because I tend to use one in interviews. I could have easily said “Your interview is the first thing on the tape, there’s nothing else.” And then carried on with my idea. Indeed, how likely is it that Polly would have her orders taped at all? But as MC you are a fan of the PCs. Imagine a tv show or a movie, does anyone search under someone’s bed or at the top of their closet and find absolutely nothing? And by shooting down the players own suggestions (by having them find nothing) it makes them less inclined to suggest things in the future. And now I also get to work out how come Polly’s orders were on that tape.

Polly lunges at Cole with the knife and Cole dodges back around the bed. Polly slashes and this time Cole steps inside the blow and shoves Polly back and the girl stumbles and the knife goes flying embedding itself into the wall. Polly recovers, looks for the knife, but then hears an undead rasp from Cole “Leave iiiiiit”. Cole’s eyes have sunken, her hair whips around her face, her skin looks stretched across her bones. The monster in her had emerged (Cole got 7-9 on Lash Out Physically, she caused 1 harm on Polly and in return became her Darkest Self). Polly grabs for the knife, but Cole seizes one of her cheerleading trophies and smacks Polly across the head (Cole got 10+ on Lash Out Physically, choosing to cause additional harm). Stunned, bleeding, Polly turns and runs through the open bedroom door for the stairs. Cole launches herself after her, tackles her and they both flip over the banister and fall to the ground floor below. There’s a sickening crunch as bones break (Cole got 7-9 on Lash Out Physically, she caused 1 harm on Polly, killing her, and took 1 harm in return). Cole clambers to her feet and looks down at the crumpled body beneath her.

And then the doorbell rings. It’s Spencer and Moon.

MC notes
Violence is an inherent part of the Monsterhearts genre. At some point, the pressure of all the social manoeuvring builds until you reach the point where one character just smacks another in the face. Or alternatively, you decide that things are a bit dull and so have a bit of a punch-up to get things going. What would Buffy have been without a MOTW for her to whale on at the end of each episode? Even Charmed had a bit of pushing and shoving during the weekly vanquishing, and so – as MC – it’s perfectly legitimate to introduce a certain level of violence into your story.
Monsterhearts is not designed to be a combat heavy game; in social conflicts, the players have options in trying to gain an advantage, they can try to flirt, they can try to cut them down verbally, they can get all introspective to see what the other is hiding. In physical conflicts, though, it all comes down to Volatile. Fight or Flight. And it only takes a few poor dice rolls to leave one or more PCs really messed up.

When you introduce violence – or it erupts spontaneously – I suggest going through the following mental checklist:
-   If you’re the one introducing it, are you being fair with the players? Did they know that combat was on the cards in this scene or are you dropping it on them out of the blue?
-   Do they have a chance to evade the combat or use other moves or are you forcing them into a Volatile move?
-   What will stop the combat before a PC is killed? Often this will be the setting: a fight in the school cafeteria is going to get broken up before things get too bad. If nothing around them would stop a potentially fatal outcome, then maybe others are coming to the rescue or the sounds of the fight will make someone alert the authorities.

These are all manifestations of being a fan of the PCs. Significant violence against a PC can flow quite logically from their actions, but if the consequences are so severe as to effectively take them out of the game then you’re not being a fan of the PCs. Buffy goes looking for trouble all the time, but none of us wanted her so badly injured that she’d be deprotaganised. In those few occasions where a fight went bad for her, there would always be a ripcord to pull her out of it. Beaten once, but still a viable agent in the story.

Skins with low Volatile (Fae, Ghost without Vengeful, Mortal, Queen, Vampire) are particularly vulnerable to having Fight or Flight situations dropped on them, especially those without other direct attacks (the Witch can at least Hex in close quarters). This is all down to the maths. In the *World games, a 7-9 is a partial success. The average roll of a 2D6 is 7. That means the system is designed for the PCs to succeed more often than they fail. In Monsterhearts, Harm can only be inflicted on the PCs as part of a Hard Move (typically when they fail a roll), a -1 in Volatile means that – if you make Volatile the only option – these Skins will fail more often than they succeed. They won’t be able to fight and they won’t be able to run. If the dice go against them (and it’s more likely than not they will) you need a ripcord to be able to pull them clear.

While it doesn’t sound much, a +1 instead of a -1 makes a big mathematical difference; it changes your odds of at least a partial success from 42% to 72%. That gives you only a 7% chance of failing 2 Volatile rolls in a row and only 2% chance of failing 3 Volatile rolls in a row (which would get a PC into real trouble). As a result, high Volatile characters are far more robust when either Fighting or Fleeing.

Applying the above to this situation, it’s clear that I dropped the combat on Cole out of the blue. (I talked about my concept for Polly above and none of it had her as a knife-wielding maniac, but I wanted to bring the story to close with a bit of a bang and her NPC was just in the right place at the right time and so she ended up as an embodiment of how the MC should treat NPCs as stolen cars.) There was perhaps a moment where Cole could have tried another move, but really we were almost straight into Volatile only – in retrospect, I should have given them a chance to talk a little before Polly went for the jugular. The villain savouring the moment before the climactic encounter is as much a part of the genre after all.

But if the dice fell badly, I did have a ripcord – Spencer and Moon heading around to patch things up. If Cole got in trouble, they could appear and at that point Polly would try to flee. As it turned out, being a hard-ass Ghoul, Cole had no trouble dealing with the Chloe Sullivan wannabe, but even so I had the ripcord there and if I had to pull it, Cole wouldn’t have been left deprotaganised and the story could continue with adversity helping to re-forge the relationship between the three PCs.

Act 3 - A reporter calls (part iii)
« Reply #10 on: March 24, 2013, 08:37:09 PM »
“Cole, there’s a dead body in the hall and your friends have rung the doorbell. What do you do?”

“I open the door.”

“The body _is_ quite visible from the door.”

“I know. I open the door.”

DarkCole feels the hunger on her. She looks around her mother’s pristine sitting room and she wants to destroy it all. But there’s another source of satisfaction nearby. DarkCole opens the door. Moon and Spencer are standing there, hopeful.

Moon begins “Good evening, we know it’s quite late, but I really wanted to bring Spencer around so we could waaaurgh!” he cries as DarkCole grabs him by the lapels and drags him inside, slamming the door in Spencer’s face. Moon’s surprise at DarkCole’s appearance and her actions, though, is nothing compared his shock at seeing the body of a classmate on the floor. DarkCole doesn’t care, she has a source of satisfaction in her hands and so she starts tearing at Moon’s clothes and biting at his neck. Moon fights her off.

“No! No! Not unless...”

“Unlesssss what?” DarkCole’s eyes bore into Moon’s own.

“You have to make up with Spencer.”


“As a favour to me.” (Moon burns a string to offer Cole XP to do what he asks.)

MC notes
Darkest Selves are one of the signature elements of Monsterhearts and they’re also one of the most enjoyable. They’re a chance for players to bring out the ‘monster’ in the title and it operates using pure permissioning. There’s nothing stopping players from acting monstrously all the rest of the time as well, but they don’t because it would hinder them using the other elements of the game and may be seen as ‘destructive play’ by others. By creating a state of ‘Darkest Self’ though the game gives you permission – and indeed almost the obligation – chew the world up and spit it out. It’s all part of the social contract put forward by the game.

But just as Darkest Selves can be a real highpoint for the game, their use can also go wrong. I’ve seen it happen in a few ways such as:
-   players going to Darkest Self without really knowing what to do with it and so the fact that they’re Darkest Self gets ignored and the game continues as normal;
-   players getting themselves locked in their Darkest Self without being able to escape it and so either effectively write themselves out of the story or (as above) forget about being Darkest Self so that they can re-engage;
-   players going to Darkest Self when it’s out of tone with what’s happening in that moment of the story, trampling over stories being constructed by others.

There are ways that all of the above can be managed okay in the game, but really the root cause behind each is – when the prospect of going Darkest Self arises – failing to take a breath and think ahead. Certainly as MC you should be thinking when this arises: what will they do with it, how are they going to get out of it, and how it will impact the story.

-   If they go Darkest Self, what will they actually do with it? Are they actually in a position to carry through their Darkest Self mandate? Some examples:
o   A Chosen goes Dark that means she’s now out to chase down the biggest threat imaginable, but actually they don’t know about any threats in the story yet so they have nothing to chase down (or they have to go after someone who is fundamentally trivial, creating some comedy but undermining the story).
o   A Ghoul goes Dark when they’re surrounded by people who will immediately restrain them.
o   A Witch goes Dark that means she’s now out to get revenge on anyone who’s slighted her. But no one’s slighted her yet and so she just has to wait until someone does slight her so she can do something.

-   If they go Darkest Self, how will they get out of it?
o   Some skins allow the player to be active about escaping their Darkest Self, but some (Ghost, Ghoul, Mortal, Vampire) depend on actions taken by others (often specific others). Before these skins go Darkest Self, are there others in place willing to do what’s necessary to bring them out of it?

-   Finally, how is this going to impact the existing storylines?
o   Going Dark should be a big deal. It should be significant element of the ongoing story and the focus should naturally shift to the Dark character to allow them to properly explore the monstrous side of their nature. But maybe however that Dark is going to manifest isn’t going to be in tone with what else is happening. It’s tough from some characters to be fretting about who they’re going to ask to the prom if another is going berserk in the cafeteria.

o   One character going Dark can be a session climax. Two going Dark at once and heading for each other has the potential to be a sweeps week episode or season ender. But everyone going Dark? That’s just a mess. It can happen that you get some Darkest Self escalation, especially when a story starts to reach its peak. One character goes Dark, then others suddenly realise the mechanic is available and follow suit. Players get the feeling that it’s expected, that if they’re not Dark then they’re somehow vulnerable (whereas actually the opposite is true). They all want to get their game face on. Maybe fun for a one-shot sure, but you’ll find that no one then has the spotlight, no one can explore their monstrous nature properly, all the characters start acting more like automatons following a script and – crucially – with everyone focusing on themselves, no one’s around to help pull the Dark characters _back_.

I always try to remember that the game never forces a character to go into their Darkest Self – it’s always a choice, either by the player or by the MC. So, before when it looks like the players are heading down that road, just tick off that mental checklist and it should end up a more satisfying experience.

Outside, Spencer is a bit peeved. He trusted Moon to be his wingman, but instead he’s out in the cold again while Moon and Cole, well, he didn’t need much imagination based on the sounds he could hear. He was just about to turn around and walk away when the door opens again. Now DarkCole and Moon are standing there, DarkCole’s face unreadable, Moon smiling, holding two thumbs up. He says “Good news, buddy” and DarkCole reaches out and drags Spencer inside as well.

We draw a veil at that point and rejoin our PCs some time later. Cole’s front room is a ruin; everything is smashed, torn or splintered. The three of them lie naked together and, as they do so, they experience a moment of communion. Through Spencer, the three of them learn secrets of each other, Moon extracts promises and Cole discovers that she has developed a new hunger.

Spencer asks Moon: “Were you really the one who killed me?”

Moon replies: “Yes, but it was for your own good.”

And while Spencer struggles with that, Moon continues “And you must promise to forgive me.”

And Spencer does.

Stunned by all these latest revelations (and events!) he gets to his feet, leaving Moon and Cole, who’s reverted back to her normal aspect, lying together. He walks back into the hall only to discover that Penny’s body has disappeared. His puzzlement is interrupted by a gasp of breath from above him. He looks up to see Bonnie standing on the top of the stairs. She sees the naked man before her, opens her mouth and screams.

MC notes
Sex Moves when there are three or more PCs involved can get a bit tricky. We ruled that everyone’s sex move triggered on each other and so the Ghost asked both a question and both asked a question back. The Fae could ask for promises from both and the Ghoul – well, we left it open whether she developed an additional Hunger for Spencer or a Hunger for both of them at the same time.

(The time it took to work this out did lead to Moon wanting to push ahead and investigate the knife Polly had dropped, leading to me saying the unlikely combination of words: “Can we just work out the sex moves before you pick up the knife?”)

We did talk after about whether the mechanics had driven us to an unnecessarily gratuitous resolution. As Joss Whedon said of Buffy, all the relationships were romantic to some extent, and the same was true here. The important thing for the story, though, was that the three of them have some clear unifying experience – something that clearly defines them as distinct group from their other classmates.

Here, this could have just been the self-acknowledgement of their supernatural natures. Had Cole not picked up the Hunger for Moon earlier, she would have embarked on a rampage through the house and Moon and Spencer would have had to restrain her for long enough to snap out of it. It would have worked as a unifying experience just as well (though we would have lost the awesome question and then promise between Spencer and Moon – how can Moon killing Spencer have been for his own good? How could it possibly be? The story must continue!)

(Sidenote, this was also Moon’s chance to reject the vision I’d given to Spencer about his murder. If he had said no, then he would be innocent and we’d be looking for someone who'd adopted his face for the deed.)

Yes, the Monsterhearts mechanics _allowed_ us to end in such a lurid fashion, but it only got to that stage because of the sexual tone brought in by the players – first in selecting a Fae in the first place, then in Cole casually giving herself to Moon as part of sexual one-upmanship and then finally with Moon offering Cole XP to include Spencer and Cole accepting it. So, in this, as in most games – the group itself provides its own steer as to the content it’s comfortable including. The time you run into problems are where different players have different comfort levels, so how individuals are reacting to the violent and sexual elements is something to pay attention to as an MC.

At the end of all this, I brought it back to where we began: we just a pilot for a network. The network suits liked what they saw, but before they commission a series, they want to know what we have in store. So I put it to the players to describe a moment from any upcoming episode:

-   Cole is going through Polly’s room and she finds a diary. In it, she finds a line saying “O came to me. I can’t believe I’ve got to kill again.” And the inside back cover is filled with the name Galadriel written a hundred times.

-   Spencer is walking through the hospital. The injured cheerleaders who came in to be treated have started disappearing.

-   Moon is standing outside the school as a fleet of black tinted-window, drug-lord hum-vees of his family’s Bolivian cartel roll up the street. A well-dressed figure gets out and takes him by the shoulder. “Mom?” he says and the school explodes behind him.

Re: AP: Dresden High, Chicago, 1-shot - Fae/ Gho/ Ghu
« Reply #11 on: March 25, 2013, 09:13:06 PM »
Wow.  That game is everything that is cool about MonsterHearts.

I really like your insight on Darkest Selves.  The MH game I've been playing in has been underwhelming particularly because of the way we handle darkest selves:  They only seem to trigger in situations where they don't change our behavior, and we're too lenient when it comes to escaping them.

As far as combat/harm goes, It's good to be careful and mindful of the situation you're putting the PCs into, but be equally wary of pulling punches.

I'd take Ghost and Vampire off the list of vulnerable skins.  The ghost almost always has a method of either fighting back or running away (by, say, walking through walls).  And worst-case scenario, the ghost takes 4 harm and becomes its darkest self, at which point it's safe.

With vampire, you have to be willing to let them be dangerous.  Let them do two-harm on a hit, let them hypnotize, let them feed.  Sure they're not actually great at making a volatile roll, but when they do they should get a lot more out of it than the mortal does.

As for the fae, queen, and mortal, yeah, they're gonna be in a bind if they get into a fight.  Though it the Mortal's case, that's exactly what they want--to be put in a situation where there lover needs to come rescue them.

Re: AP: Dresden High, Chicago, 1-shot - Fae/ Gho/ Ghu
« Reply #12 on: March 26, 2013, 09:51:57 AM »
Ooooh, this is soooo fuckin' beautiful!!!

Re: AP: Dresden High, Chicago, 1-shot - Fae/ Gho/ Ghu
« Reply #13 on: March 26, 2013, 06:35:24 PM »

This is great stuff.

Having just played a sex-move-filled one-shot at a con, I found the reflections on the degree to which the game pushed the players into amping up the sex pretty interesting.

I do sometimes feel like there is much more fertile psychological/narrative ground available in the place between tepid/network 'teen romance' and all-out HBO 'everyone screws everyone' -- especially for teenagers -- but the existence of Sex Moves really does tend to push players to trample directly over that ground at the slightest provocation.

So much of (my own) teenage experience around sex and romance had to do with the interaction of fantasy, accidental provocation, and social incompetence -- all things that Monsterhearts actually models extremely well -- that it seems kind of weird when all my Monsterhearts PCs have no trouble getting it on at the slightest provocation.

Obviously the goal here is not some sort of high-school verisimilitude (not at all!), but even when the goal is 'melodramatic sexiness' I can't help but feel like it might be better-served by a little more sexual tension, and a little less sexual release.

Of course, that's a lot more likely to work in an ongoing campaign than a one-shot, but it almost makes me want to play my next Monsterhearts game with an explicit goal to not-quite sleep with anybody.

Re: AP: Dresden High, Chicago, 1-shot - Fae/ Gho/ Ghu
« Reply #14 on: March 26, 2013, 08:15:52 PM »
Thanks! I loved this game and the fact it came out of pure happenstance made it all the better.

I'd take Ghost and Vampire off the list of vulnerable skins. *snip*

Yeah, there are things that these skins _can_ do if they're allowed to do so. Ghosts can go through walls, but presumably they're still making a Volatile roll to Run Away. Vampires can hypnotise _if the MC allows them to do so_. Really, this section is to just to put a flag in the MCs head whenever they find themselves saying "No, you either have to Run or Fight (i.e. make a Volatile roll)" without allowing the PC to try any other move. This has happened to me as a player and an MC (in this AP) and, as I say, I really should have given Cole a few more options than going straight for the fight. The rule of thumb that I'm going to take forwards is - where violence is justified - provide them with a potentially violent situation (e.g. someone standing at their door holding a knife), but then let them make the choice to use a violent solution. If they want to talk or bargain their way out... let's hear what they've got.

The MH game I've been playing in has been underwhelming particularly because of the way we handle darkest selves:  They only seem to trigger in situations where they don't change our behavior, and we're too lenient when it comes to escaping them.
Yeah, I've wanted to bend the escape clauses plenty of times (often in relation to a Ghoul with a Sex Hunger (do I really want the group to go into how they're restrained?)) My most successful times with Darkest Selves have been when they're taken as dark as possible (often with Werewolves as there's a clear physical transformation in that case) and everyone scrambles to try and deal with it. I try to remember that Darkest Selves are supposed to be the difference between Angel & Angelus. As to how to encourage players to treat their Darkest Self less casually, refer them back to the rulebook:

"When you become your Darkest Self, there’s a script to follow. That script is described on your Skin sheet. Play that script as hard as you can. This is the moment where you are supposed to lose sight of your humanity, whatever amount you had in the first place. It’s the point at which you forsake the world. You’ll be able to escape your Darkest Self eventually. Until that point, revel in the darkness.
When at your Darkest Self, your priorities as a player should shift. Aim to do damage, to live up to a certain dark vision for the character, and to set up some awful precedents."

I do sometimes feel like there is much more fertile psychological/narrative ground available in the place between tepid/network 'teen romance' and all-out HBO 'everyone screws everyone' -- especially for teenagers -- but the existence of Sex Moves really does tend to push players to trample directly over that ground at the slightest provocation.
You're quite right. It's very much a case of 'Oh, there's a mechanic. Let's try it out.' Part of that stems from the fact that sex moves aren't really that negative for the other PC (aside from the Mortal, of course) especially compared to the benefits of your own sex move. So, mechanically (deliberately), players are more inclined to say yes.

But it's very true to say that it depends on where the group wants to go. I've had con games between strangers where there was a single Turn On move and that was it. Equally, where the players are friends, they've been shagging in the locker room in front of the football squad.

Some thoughts on ways to reduce sex and increase sexual tension:
- allow greater flexibility with the Turn On 7-9 result i.e. "give themselves to you" doesn't actually have to mean sex. I typically interpret this result as 'sex' however it doesn't say that in the rules or in the long example. Instead, the sex in the long example comes as a natural consequence of the narrative (and actually after choosing a different resut on 7-9).
- don't give them the privacy to have sex - Monsterhearts games (like their source material) give teens free rein to have private encounters when in truth there's always more people around
- lower the PCs age or raise the age of consent so they're actually committing a criminal act (with all the potential leverage over them that implies) should they do so
- give them an external focus, if there's a big bad on the horizon, players are less likely to screw with each other
- include a Mortal, a Vampire, an Infernal, a Ghoul
- have a menace that's focused on upholding moral standards (see Fangloose part way down this thread http://www.ukroleplayers.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=14016&p=151159)
- set it in an all boys school (this may not work if most of your players are female slash fanfic writers)