Actual Play – Darkest Self (6/21/2012)

GM: Scott White
Players: Sean Nittner, Rich Rogers, Adam Robichaud
System: Monsterhearts

We opened with Abaraham in his plush apartment in the woods. There was a knock on the door and he invited Jenny in. The kissed and we faded to black.

In the night we saw Dante stalking a girl, who turned out to know his older brother. He fed on her anyway, toying with her till she died. Darkest self and all.

On the other side of town Kendall sat in the hospital watching her mother and Dr. Shea (the county appointed psychiatrist) talk. As they did, her mother became more and more crestfallen.  Kendall was told she had to quit student council, too much stress her mother said. Kendall fought, even employed some dirty tactics, to stay president. She agreed however to see Dr. Shae every Friday at 7PM

Mr. Drake, Abraham’s former man-servant, now teacher and still loyal disciple of Mr. Silva, knocked on Abraham’s door. Inside he saw Jenny asleep on the couch. “Your father would not be pleased. Send her away.” The had an altercation and Arabaham pushed Drake off the stairs to his apartment, injuring him. He took the servants serpent can and cracked it over his knee, signifying his defiance of his family (and going Darkest Self). “Jenny, we have to leave…”

Dante was finishing his feast when Abraham and Jenny (pulling a giant suitcase on wobbly wheels through the woods) happened along.  Dante hid and although Abraham suspected something was amiss, he didn’t notice the vampire, cast it off as Drake still trying to follow him.

Dante stalked to two for a bit and then appeared, asking what they were doing.  They made up a flimsy story at first (Moon watching? Yeah, really? with a giant suitcase?) but eventually Jenny, still a little uncertain of what was going on herself, said “We’re running from his father.”

Dante agreed to help. Then sent Jenny off to steal a car and drove to an abandoned trailer park. This is where Abraham was amble to shut down Dante’s baser urges (was Dante trying to “help” just so he could isolate them and feed of them?) by allowing him entry into to the trailer (passing a threshold) and thus asserting his dominance.

Kendall also walked along in the dark, but not home. Instead she made a call and was picked up by Joshua, a member of student council. He took her back to the auditorium where he, Becky, Leslie and Ryan were all hanging out. The had liquor (taken from their parents cabinets) and were taking advantages of student council privileges (keys to the auditorium) to throw a small party. Kendall confided in them that Dante attacked her, and that she wanted to get back at him. An evil plan was hatched.

Dante, having agreed to help Abraham in exchange for his DJ equipment, returned to Abraham’s place to pick it up and found Drake there. He hypnotized the watcher and convinced him (ordered him) to give Abraham some space and to let him feel like he isn’t under his father’s thumb. There seemed to be something of an implication that Dante would be watching out for him, but I might have just imagined that.

Kendall snuck inside but bumped into one of her dad’s architectural models and woke him up (he had fallen asleep on the chair). He seemed worried, at first, but it was more about making her mother upset. Kendall recoiled, feeling rejected by her father as well.

Thoughts on the Game

Based on our previous discussion between games we agreed to try and hold off jumping to the dice this game. Last time we went to the dice very quickly and it led to a somewhat frenetic game. This time we gave the story a little longer to player out.  The story was richer because of it, but the scenes were also longer, involving more negotiation between players.  This helped keep the mood of the game pretty dark.

Scott asked us in advance to set aside some time at the end of the game to talk about how we were feeling about the game. The consensus was that after the second session we were more invested in the game.  We also talked about what was working and what we wanted to change. Most of that below. I’m really glad Scott called for this. It gave some closure to the game and let us talk about what we wanted going forward.

The scene of Dante feeding on Shelly hit some nerves for me. It wasn’t the feeding, that I was fine with an expected, it was the stalking. I likened it to the suspense in a horror movie when you don’t know what’s going to happen. Those are the scenes that I wince at and I found myself wincing here as well. I brought it up in the game, Rich lightened up a bit (still of course feeding, but less graphic with the menace) and then we talked about it more after the game. Rich’s concern, which I think is a really valid one, is how to balance doing justice to the character and the setting of the game (which is pretty dark) and at the same time being respectful of people’s boundaries.  It was a good talk after the game as well as a follow we had the next morning on g-chat.

I was really tired and felt way off my game. I ended up missing out on the scene of Dante and Abraham finding a place for Abaraham and Jenny to stay. I also couldn’t think of the names of the member of my clique to save my life. When it came time for “what do you do?” most of my thoughts were along the lines of pouting and feeling sorry for herself, but none of those were particularly actionable, so  went for getting vengeance, but that felt somewhat misplaced as well.

I find I don’t like my character. Maybe this is a Monsterhearts thing, maybe it’s a high-status thing. Maybe it’s a me thing.  Here’s the thing(s) about Kendall and how I think I can improve them.

  1. She’s vindictive in a way I don’t like. For instance, my gut was to approach Dante and slap him in the face saying “you ruined my life!” Hyperbole for sure, but primal, raw and real. What her clique encouraged her to do instead was to set him up to either get his ass kicked, or possibly have assault charges filed against him, or maybe just create a horrible social stigma. All of those ideas are much, much more effective than what I had though of (in terms of hurting Dante) but they were also a lot more calculating and cruel, which I’m not a fan of.  Rich, after the game, over chat, encouraged me to use my power over the clique to make them follow my worse, but more satisfying (to me as a player) plan. I think that is brilliant!
  2. Most of her motivation is to maintain the status quo. She’s well off, popular, and head of the student council. She gets away with everything and she has a bright future. Why would she want anything to change? I think I made her too “perfect” on the outset and now the only way for her to become interesting is to get broken, probably a lot broken. Having to see a shrink on Friday nights, possibly having to leave student council, and being hurt by Dante, are all good starts.  What I need to do with those, to make them fun, is to latch onto one of those problems and make it a goal to “fix” it. Hopefully not leading back to her original standing, but to something knew and cracked at the seems.
  3. A little bit I miss my original concept with Fee. I kind of just want to “burn it all down” sometimes, especially in this kind of game where that could happen and spark some really cool drama of trying to fit in, but inherently being outside society (Kendall is still very much a part of society, she plays by all of society’s rules, and in facts makes some herself).  I think if I can’t invest more in Kendall, I may bring Fee into the game.

I think that Monsterhearts isn’t exactly what I expected, though I’m not sure I know what that is. I was thinking along the line of Buffy. Teenage angst + monsters. But MH is about us being the monsters, and monstrous we are. I don’t envy Scott’s roll here either. “Hey Kendall, they think you’re hurting yourself and now you need to see a councilor.” Man, who wants to say that? Anyway, I want a shred of goodness in our characters and right now I’m not sure it exists. And when I do see it, for instance Dante trying to help our Kendall and then later Abraham, I don’t know if I should trust that it’s real.

Happiness as scarcity is, perhaps, to ephemeral for me, and I’m more comfortable allowing my emotional reactions to range, based on a response to other scarcities (food, survival, ownership, etc).  This may change as I get more invested in the goals of the characters and identify with them more, but for now they all seem shallow and greedy.

6 thoughts on “Actual Play – Darkest Self (6/21/2012)”

  1. Hey Sean,

    I enjoyed reading your actual play of Monsterhearts (which is rapidly becoming a favorite of mine).

    I wanted to throw in my 2 cents to possibly help with your future experiences with MH.

    I’ve only played it three times (twice as a player, once as GM). From what I read in the rulebook and experienced myself, MH is what the players and GM make of it. If you want angsty, but semi-lighthearted teen drama like the Buffy TV series, you can make it happen. On the flipside, if you want it extra dark and disturbing, you can do that as well. The key is to set intent and mood at the start of play. Discuss the tone and general limits based on examples (movies, books or TV series). I think the group collectively agreed that it would be a game ala Buffy or Angel, that’s what you would get. And keep in mind that many of the primary antagonists in both series were monsters.

    For example, in the first MH game I played, I took the role of the werewolf. He was feral and dangerous, but deep down he had good intentions and he was lovestruck. And in the end, even the darkest member of the group sought redemption, and we came together to defeat the “Big Bad”.

    In the second game, I played the ghoul who was very dark and didn’t balance it with any sort of desire to good for anyone. And while the players were mostly cooperative on the surface, our individual plots entailed controlling and manipulating each other in very selfish and even sinister ways.

    As a GM, I could easily run a very lighthearted and melodramatic game of MH, or I could run a dark and soul chilling session. They key is to understand what everyone wants out of the game, and working together toward common goals while still enjoying individual objectives, which can happen even in a game where everyone is out to screw each other over. It’s all a matter of perspective.

    I hope that wasn’t too rambling, and that it helps.

    1. Hey Mike,

      Always good advice (talking about expectations in advance). In this game we’ve done it a lot, and I think it has helped quite a bit.

      And, as you said the game is what you make of it. I’m not sure thought how to read some of the darkest self bits with any kind of authenticity without crossing some of those lines. For example (from the vampire):

      Everyone is your pawn, your plaything.
      You hurt them and make them
      vulnerable, for sport, like a cat does
      with a mouse. You feed to the point
      of death whenever you’re alone with
      someone, though you take your time.
      You escape your Darkest Self when
      you’re put in your rightful place, by
      someone more powerful than you.

      I think there is something to be said for realizing that I can’t take the heat and getting out of the fire. Clearly a lot of other players dig MH, and maybe I will too over time. If I don’t though, it neither means that MonsterHearts isn’t a great game, or that I won’t encourage others to have a killer time playing it.

  2. I think that’s the point of Darkest Self. It can be viewed as a threat looming over each character’s head like a Sword of Damocles. It’s the darkest possibility that should be used sparingly whether as something to avoid at all costs, or something to call upon in the gravest of times. If people over use their Darkest Self, it loses its true potential to inspire more drama.

    Equally important, regardless of the tone of your game/campaign, there should be consequences of invoking or giving in to your Darkest Self.

    A great example of how the Darkest Self adds drama is the season in which Willow loses it after Tara is killed. It’s an extreme example, but it shows how a mechanic like this can work even in a sometimes campy series.

    When go through character selection, Darkest Self is one of most important elements for me. I try to pick one that offers temptation and fear. The temptation of the power it can bring, but also fear of the damage my character could do if it is unleashed.

    Darkest Self is one of the most brilliant aspects of the game, in my opinion.

    1. We’ve elected for Darkest Self as the result of moves (usually an option in the move that seemed appropriate in the moment). In the times I’ve seen it, the DS didn’t seem gratuitous but it did say something definitive about the characters. They can be monsters at any time and you don’t know whey they will come back.

      Using Buffy as an example when Angel snapped and became Angeuls, he sat in Darkest Self for a long, long time. It wasn’t a drunken night on the town, it was a season (or a large part of a season) of evil.

      With RPGs we have more license to decide what qualifies as “You escape your Darkest Self when you’re put in your rightful place, by someone more powerful than you” but we’re still playing that out until it the end condition occurs, the game is bound to get dark.

      My stomach is sturdier than it was in the past. I’m fine with the presence of a lot of mature content, and I’m okay, with horrible things happening. But there is a point when I stop sympathizing with a character, see them as an antagonist/villain instead of a protagonist (whether it’s my PC or someone else’s) and when that happens my interest in the game fades a lot.

      That said, I haven’t given up on MH. I think by talking to the players, we can find a way to frame any character in a sympathetic light, so that we collectively care about them.

      1. Good example with Angel becoming Angelus. Though, I agree totally that it would be too long for a game. If a player character becomes their Darkest Self for too long, then they risk becoming a NPC antagonist, which essentially happened to Willow and Angel for those seasons. That doesn’t work for a game, unless the player is willing to take on another role temporarily.

        As for losing sympathy, I can see how it could increase sympathy. If the character hates his/her Darkest Self and wants to avoid it, succumbing to it for any period would be torture (which is in line with Monsterhearts). The regret and subsequent desire for redemption just heightens the drama, especially since the Darkest Self could rear its ugly head again to undo all of the progress or make things worse.

        All this discussing Monsterhearts makes me want to play it again, soon.

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