System Split: Paranormal Horror with PbtA

Welcome to System Split! Today, our very own Level One Wonk will examine two very similar systems to see what sets them apart. When the genre, complexity, and even rules system are exactly the same, what makes a game unique? Today’s post involves two spooky games which could not be more mechanically similar, or more thematically different! Let’s talk about Urban Shadows and Monsterhearts, two PbtA horror games.

Powered by the Apocalypse is a rules framework with both immense flexibility and a strongly codified play experience. When I looked at Cyberpunk within PbtA, I found two games which sat in very different places in the mechanical design space of PbtA. In contrast, since all of these games are so driven by story it is possible to produce two very different games which keep the rules very close. Urban Shadows and Monsterhearts do just that, carving out two niches in the paranormal horror genre.

“Paranormal horror” is an imprecise genre term, as horror (like fantasy or science fiction) covers a wide range of media and genre treatments. What makes these games similar to each other and different from other horror games, be they PbtA or not, is that in these games the player characters are the monsters. Thanks to White Wolf’s World of Darkness games that started with Vampire: the Masquerade back in 1991, horror games which cast the PCs as the monsters represent one of the top 3 selling gaming modes in tabletop, along with swords and sorcery (Dungeons and Dragons) and space opera (Traveller).

Both Urban Shadows and Monsterhearts are explorations of what it means to be a monster in the modern world, and both do it by examining both the internal nature of the character and the external nature of the world they must navigate. The internal explorations in both games are similar: monster horror as a genre has explored the notion of the “other” all the way back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and by casting the players as monsters these games both implicitly and explicitly invite you to explore what makes someone ‘other’ in society. In both games, the authors are unafraid to point out that race, gender and sexual identity are the strongest “othering” divides within our culture, and that the game will be more thematically effective if the players are willing to explore them. This does mean that both games will be at their best with players who are comfortable exploring characters with different ethnic, gender, and sexual identities than their own, and doing so thoughtfully. With this baseline for characters in both games, the divide between the systems can be better understood when you look at their respective settings.

The setting of Urban Shadows is the city. Like most PbtA games, the details of that city are free for the group to come up with, whether it’s based on a real city or something out of your imagination. There are a few grounding setting assumptions that cross every game, and the most important one is the factions. There are four factions in the game, three representing different supernatural creatures and one representing mortals. Each one of the playbooks in the game belongs to a given faction, so right away there is a recipe for tension. Further encouraging that tension is the game’s primary advancement mechanic: instead of XP, players must “mark” each faction, earning the right to do so from owing or giving favors to members of each faction. These favors, or “debts”, make up the relationship mechanics of the game and help weave a tangled web right from the start when characters figure out their debts with each other. Between the factions and the allegiances characters have at the beginning of the game, there is immediately a city thick with intrigue when you start an Urban Shadows campaign.

The setting of Monsterhearts is high school. Instead of shadowy cabals and corrupt cops, there are swim try-outs and secret weekend parties. The emotional heights of teenagers are even further amplified when you have to both keep your GPA up and keep Mom from finding out that you’re a werewolf. And to add to everything, your high school has just as much social intrigue as the entire city from Urban Shadows. Now called ”strings” instead of debts, your characters will end up having just as much sway over each other . . . and many of your other classmates will have that sway over you. Instead of using the start-of-game mechanics to build a city, the first thing the MC does when they bring the characters together in Monsterhearts is make a seating chart for the characters’ high school homeroom. The theming is good for high school, but more importantly it immediately creates a dozen or more NPCs, and serves as a great jumping-off point for what any good PbtA MC needs to do as they start their game: ask a lot of questions. From there the game can start off on the right foot with the appropriate number of crushes, nemeses, and love triangles.

Both Urban Shadows and Monsterhearts use very similar iterations of PbtA. Both de-emphasize battle moves (Urban Shadows boils down the subsystem into one move while Monsterhearts removes it completely), and use a favor-style relationship mechanic instead of a history-style mechanic as seen in Apocalypse World or The Sprawl. They both also use four stats, though Urban Shadows uses ability-based stats while Monsterhearts uses emotion-based stats. Unlike in The Veil or Headspace where the fiction determines which emotion comes into play, however, the moves in Monsterhearts are still fixed to a specific stat. Both games also have mechanics to represent the possibility of characters giving in to their monstrous selves. In Urban Shadows, there is Corruption. As you gain corruption from the results of moves or from your playbook’s specific “corruption move”, you gain access to more corruption moves, all of which are quite powerful but all of which corrupt you even further. Although you can gain these powers with each “corruption advance”, take one too many and you have fully succumbed. The character is no longer yours. In Monsterhearts, every playbook has their “Darkest Self”. When involved in violence or when close to death, any character may become their Darkest Self, fully giving in to their temptations and fears. While both mechanics intend to model a similar idea, they also show very clearly different expectations of the characters. In Urban Shadows, desire for power and control becomes a downward spiral, an inescapable one. In Monsterhearts, extreme circumstances can create extreme reactions . . . but you can always come back from being your Darkest Self. It’s an interesting design choice that complements the thematic decision to have the protagonists be teenagers, with all of the messy emotions and horniness that entails.

One of the most significant differences between the two games comes from their treatment of violence and their treatment of sex. In Urban Shadows the characters are part of city-wide intrigue, and violence is part of their toolkit to both defend themselves and get what they want. In Monsterhearts the characters are teenagers, even if they’re monstrous ones. To an actual teenager, violence is transformative. Whether it is commonplace and brutalizing or unknown and therefore traumatic, it is not taken lightly and the game does not intend to take it lightly either. Role-playing games typically use violence as a plot vehicle as well as entertainment, and Monsterhearts for the most part does not; though there may be shoving into lockers or a fistfight at a party, lethal force will mean something very different. On the complete opposite end of human interaction, Urban Shadows has downplayed Apocalypse World’s infamous “sex moves” somewhat, replacing them with “intimacy moves” to allow the additional flavor that the moves gave to social interactions without requiring any romance. Monsterhearts takes the sex moves, runs with them, and then makes “Turn Them On” a core move of the game. This is unabashedly a romance game, and a game where, like teenagers, the characters don’t have control over what turns them on. The “turn someone on” move works as long as the dice say it does, regardless of what a player has established their character’s sexual orientation to be. It’s a great emulation of how messy teenage sex can be, but it’s also bound to cause ruffled feathers if not understood before play. If you want to play Monsterhearts, make sure you play it with people who are comfortable with the thematic content. I know lots of gamers who simply don’t want sex at the gaming table, and while ignoring the sex moves in Apocalypse World doesn’t take too much away from the game the same is not true about Monsterhearts. If I were to run Monsterhearts (and after reading it I want to), I would find players interested in the specific sort of experience it provides, rather than trying to spring it on my weekly group.

(Monsterhearts is also the origin of Safe Hearts, a supplement by Avery Alder about ways to deal with mature content in the game, which has even been adapted for other games. It’d be good to take a look at it before playing. – Ed.) 

Both of these games carry the hallmarks of great PbtA hacks: use the core rules (three-result 2d6 rolls, moves, playbooks), and add just enough onto them to make the game evoke the play experience you want. It’s just as much about writing and setting as it is mechanics, though, as both Urban Shadows and Monsterhearts show. Despite being so similar, both games offer very different takes on the paranormal horror genre. Whether you want shadowy conspiracies or supernatural romance, there are some great options available.

Urban Shadows and Monsterhearts are both available at DrivethruRPG.

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