For anyone with an appetite for young adult fiction and horror, Monsterhearts rates as a must-play tabletop RPG. Created by Avery Alder, it’s a Powered-by-the-Apocalypse game about being young, confused, and monstrous.
Players embody monsters like vampires, ghosts and ghouls, and have abilities that center around doing harm, making mistakes and turning people on. Games play out like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Ginger Snaps, The Vampire Diaries and other teen monster dramas — usually with the chaos and sexuality turned up to eleven.
Because of that, Monsterhearts is also a game that can go from hilarious to heavy in a single scene, as violence and issues of consent underlie every character archetype and scenario. Being a monster can be messy.
Monsterhearts 2 launched this week after a wildly successful crowdfunding campaign. It’s more an expanded edition of the original game than a sequel. Among its many changes and additions, it addresses some of the ways the original could be challenging for people who’ve dealt with trauma, who are coping with mental health issues, or who are sensitive to certain content.
Most of those topics are handled in “Keeping Your Heart Safe,” a full chapter on boundaries, risks, and solutions. It’s expanded from “Safe Hearts,” a supplement Alder released after players brought up the potential risks of playing in unsafe groups or environments.
It’s a chapter that any game master, dungeon master or storyteller should read, whether they plan to run Monsterhearts or not. Thanks to the improvisational nature of tabletop RPGs, it’s always possible for a game to veer into uncomfortable territory. Depictions of sexual violence (or even sexual content), torture and other potentially upsetting material can crop up in any game, and players can have boundaries they don’t make clear.
Alder advises everyone talk about boundaries beforehand but she also acknowledges that preparation can’t always prevent issues:
“Stating boundaries before you start play isn’t a replacement for evaluating them during play. Throughout play it’s important to check in with yourself. Pay attention to how you’re feeling about the contents of the scene. Does an event in the game leave you feeling panicked, trapped, hurt, or mistrustful? It may be time to express some new boundaries or request a new approach.”
She uses the opportunity to introduce resources like the X-Card, a gaming tool created by John Stavropoulos. It’s the roleplaying equivalent of a safe word, a way for players to safely communicate that the current scene is making them uncomfortable and the focus needs to be shifted. Because that tool is only helpful if people feel comfortable using it, Alder suggests a few ways to prompt its use.
It’s always okay to ask, “Hey, does everyone feel comfortable with that, or should we X-Card it?” Try not to put others on the spot and single them out, but do pay attention to the vibes at the table.
For groups who want something less formal, Alder has recommendations for fading to black, checking in, and recovering after intense scenes.
Guest authors Ciel Sainte-Marie, James Mendez Hodes, and Jeeyon Shim tackle another issue that neither Monsterhearts nor Safe Hearts originally addressed: race. Handling race through the abstracted (and often problematic) metaphors of elves, orcs and drow can be complicated, but handling it in a game about teenagers in a version of the real world has more immediate potential for harm.
The authors offer a few smart ways to explore race in any game, and elegantly address the issue of in-game racism:
“Monsterhearts purposefully engages negative, painful, and harmful elements of teenage social experience in a safe, controlled way. Accordingly, it’s okay (and perhaps inevitable) to create a racist character; after all, even the most staunchly anti-racist character will have unconscious prejudices of their own. But if you fail to clear that choice with your entire table, you put players whom racism has hurt at risk. The more these negative character traits are an active, public choice on your part, the safer the table will be; they won’t be an awkward or harmful surprise when they arise mid- game”
Again, their recommendations could apply to any game. Clearing issues of racism, sexism, homophobia and other expressions of bigotry with all players at the table can save a lot of hurt down the line. And being open about those topics can also reveal potentially problematic areas players want to explore so everyone can prepare to take appropriate care.
Monsterhearts intentionally delves into dark, painful territory, more so than most tabletop RPGs on the market. With this new edition, it does so while recognizing that players’ lived experiences with bigotry, abuse, and trauma demand conscientious play.
By laying out the conditions for safe play and inviting players to follow suit, Monsterhearts 2 turns a risky game into an opportunity to build a safer tabletop community for everyone.