Dragon World: Monsterhearts Lessons

Monsterhearts is one of those things that doesn’t necessarily interest me personally, but where I think it’s awesome that such a thing can exist. It’s an Apocalypse World hack that turns it into a teen paranormal romance game, and does a damn good job of it. It’s a genre that’s easy to make fun of–it’s aimed at women, Twilight is a seminal entry, it’s overdone to the point of getting its own shelf at bookstores–but Joe Macdalno unironically embraces it. I don’t know that it’s a game I’d want to play, but the Skins and Moves point to amazing things happening in it. The Mortal character is basically Bella Swan, and it gives you the tools to explore everything that’s messed up about that, including the things Stephenie Meyer isn’t talented enough to get into. Practically every character type makes me want to see/read something with them. “Twilight, but well-done and the boyfriend is a demon” could be amazing. (I also want a Twilight parody where the Bella type girl has a whole reverse harem of supernatural boys, but that’s neither here nor there.)

The other thing about Monsterhearts is that it really makes the framework of Apocalypse World its own. Dragon World has suffered in some places because I stuck too close to AW, whereas Monsterhearts embraces basic AW exactly as much as it needs to and no more. For example, aside from their sheer flavor, one of the things I like about the Skins in Monsterhearts is how they’re simpler in certain places. Each has only one set of stats (you get to add +1 to any one stat, which reminds me a lot of how certain Japanese TRPGs work), and the range of advancement options always include 2 slots for skin moves, 2 slots for moves from other skins, 1 gang, and a +1 to each of the four stats. Calling them something as simple and evocative as “Skins” is a nice little touch too. Even though I have a million other things to work on, reading Monsterhearts set wheels turning on Dragon World, hence this post.

I’ve done a fair amount of playtesting of Dragon World, and it’s right at that point where I know I’m onto something, but it needs work. I’ve also found that for me at least 3 players is the sweet spot, and 5-6 players is too many. I don’t know how it stacks up with other AW-derived games, but I’ve found that Dragon World requires a certain amount of GM attention per player, especially in terms of making their Temptations and Heart’s Desire relevant.

One of the biggest things I want to change is how character advancement works. Apocalypse World’s experience rules just plain don’t work well for my group. Highlighting stats is easy to forget, and it creates perverse incentives that lead to players trying to spam relevant moves. Monsterhearts includes the “Singleton Rule,” which says that you can’t mark experience from a given move or stat more than once per scene. While I like that idea–and will likely use it as a house rule any time I run AW or its progeny–for Dragon World I’m still planning to just drop the experience marking concept entirely and have players get one advancement per session. There are some other moving parts that tie into marking experience (like History), but after looking at Monsterhearts I’m feeling a lot more confident about slicing things out.

Relationship mechanics are one of those things that are very appealing for certain kinds of games, but a bit difficult to get right. Monsterhearts’ “Strings” system is note-perfect for the particular game. Strings are a currency you gain per character, and you can spend them to get an advantage over someone. Relationship mechanics have the issue that it can be hard to make them able to keep up with what’s going on in role-play, and Strings are ephemeral in just the right way, so that they don’t seem like they’d be trying to dictate or play catch-up with how characters relate to each other except insofar as they convey a very visceral advantage. This is definitely going to influence Slime Story whenever I get back into working on it. As for Dragon World, I’m thinking that while connections are awesome for developing the characters’ stories, the game doesn’t have any great need to assign a number to them. For DW’s source material I think helping or hindering others should work a little differently, and doesn’t really tie into relationships per se.

One of the big things in Dragon World that needs work is Falling Down. Not unlike Toon (or Teenagers From Outer Space), damaged characters are temporarily, comically incapacitated. The difference is that in Dragon World I made it binary–either you stay up or you Fall Down–with the caveat that for powerful enemies you need some kind of MacGuffin to make them Fall Down. As currently written, there’s the issue that PCs can be very resistant to falling down, but when they do fall down it kind of sucks because the player can’t participate in the game until the next scene, and they had no control over it. For a while I’ve been thinking about adding some kind of currency that players can spend to avoid Falling Down, and in turn I’ve been thinking that it would be very genre-appropriate for it to be easier or cheaper to avoid Falling Down by having some kind of freakout (not unlike a Maid RPG Stress Explosion) instead. I’m not sure what to call said currency, but it could well have other uses, and of course interact with certain moves. I definitely want to put a cap on how many a character can accumulate in order to prevent hoarding.

This is in addition to the stuff I was already looking into, notably story moves (a kind of temporary and sometimes detrimental move representing a story element like a curse or a certain situation) and an abstract wealth system aimed at getting PCs into trouble. I’ve also been working on an assortment of NPCs and setting elements, and trying to generally make the text better. I definitely needed a little extra distance from the text to come back to it fresh, and I can see the cracks a lot more clearly now. On the other hand this is a game I really want to play, because if I can pull it off it’ll be bursting with bright, silly fun.

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One thought on “Dragon World: Monsterhearts Lessons

  1. You might also want to look at MONSTER OF THE WEEK for some ideas as well, although it does stay closer to APOCALYPSE WORLD than MONSTERHEARTS does.

    As for the stress economy, maybe players accumulate points of irritation from failing or being hurt or certain moves, and when they would normally fall down, they can have a freakout instead by spending some number of irritation points. But, the more irritation points they have, the higher the chance of them spontaneously freaking out (making the player roll + irritation becomes a DM move).

    Freaking out might make you less effective, but it also might make you more effective. Or it could lead to vast amounts of property damage. There should probably be a strong random element there, like in MAID.

    As for experience, it seems to me that a lot of the inspiring media
    was influenced by D&D and by video games influenced by D&D. So maybe advancement should be tied to defeating Bosses or the like? Or maybe steal whatever advancement system the latest version of DUNGEONWORLD is using.

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