Joe McDaldno - Writing Monsterhearts

edited February 2013 in Story Games
Hi, Joe!

I'm looking over the old playtest draft of Monsterhearts you sent me way back when. And there's a lot of stuff that's much better in the final text, but also a lot of cool stuff that just didn't make it into the final text. (I can bring up examples if you don't know what I mean: mostly flavour text-type stuff.)

I'm curious as to how the re-writing process went for you. Did you throw out a lot of this stuff for aesthetic reasons (or tone), or because you didn't like it anymore, or was it a question of saving space?

Were those difficult decisions for you?




  • Hey Paul,

    Figuring out what to include is always a difficult decision for me. If you over-write your text, you make it less accessible for some players, and I think you make each individual sentiment smaller in the reader's overall recollection. I mean, "complete robust explanation" trumps "digestible minimal presentation" for most projects, but in weighing the two I feel like there are lots of difficult choices to make.

    Sometimes writing the next draft mostly involves editing and tweaking. That was the case with Perfect Unrevised: lots of small iterations. With Monsterhearts, I tended to do more "Okay, I'm going to start from square one, doing up a skeleton outline that's more cohesive and coherent than the last version." Since I was doing full rewrites more, it was easier to lose little gems that didn't fit well into the new framework. I guess. This paragraph is a bit of an invented narrative.

    Also, I fell out of love with various things I'd written, I'm sure.

    I'd love to see the specific examples you're thinking of!
  • Thanks, Joe.

    Your "invented narrative" is more or less what I would have guessed, just from reading the two texts. I'll have to compare them a little more closely and come back with some examples!
  • This is neat and valuable stuff and I'm glad you guys are talking about it in the open. I hope you do come back with examples, Paul.
  • Okay, I will be back with more specific examples, but for now here is a general comment:

    The early draft made much more of an effort to be evocative, to have a very particularly kind of "voice", to include little bits almost like "flavour text". More conversational.

    The final draft seems more sleek, more impersonal, more functional. It's much more clear and more concise.

    Why did you choose to go with a more functional tone of voice for the final draft (if you even agree with this distinction, of course)?

    An example:

    Old version: A section entitled, rather evocatively: "Pulling your Strings"

    New version: The section is simply entitled "Strings". Text says, "Spend a String to:" [list of effects follows]
  • Ooh, yeah.

    I value clarity over feeling clever. That's only just barely true. As the game evolved and saw play, it became clear that stripping out the poetic / emotive / clever voice would help to make it more accessible. And it became clear that I should be striving to make it more accessible.
  • Joe - Are there any other strategies you utilized to make it accessible? Aside from changing the voice.

    I really like designing toward accessibility. I'm curious if there's neat tricks for this you learned while designing.
  • edited February 2013
    There's absolutely no question that the final is much, much more clear, much more concise, and more accessible. Goal? Achieved.

    You did a great job of "killing your darlings" with the re-write. I'll be back with more examples, as promised, a little later.

    I would also love to hear what kind of tricks you picked up along the way, and what strategies you leaned on most during that process.
  • Joe, didn't Daniel help edit? What did you ask him for? What did he provide that you didn't ask for and what of that did you take?
  • Here's an interesting example of concise vs. evocative:

    The final text drops the original text's suggestion to use actual coloured string for Strings.

    (Does anyone actually do that in play? I'd love to, I think.)
  • A problem with using colored strings to represent Strings is that NPCs can have strings too, and PCs can have strings on NPCs. You might wind up needing a lot of different colors. Although now I'm imagining each player with a little rack in front of them to store their own strings to hand out, and the strings they have on others, and a little candle in the middle to burn strings when you use them, with a little ritual at the beginning and end of the session to light and snuff the candle.

    But someone would probably wind up playing with the candle flame or hot wax and it would all end in tears.
  • Better to buy a big bag of assorted rubber bands, nothing could go wrong with that. ;-)
  • Ooh, yeah.

    I value clarity over feeling clever. That's only just barely true. As the game evolved and saw play, it became clear that stripping out the poetic / emotive / clever voice would help to make it more accessible. And it became clear that I should be striving to make it more accessible.
    I've made a To Read list and have been knocking out about three game books a week, but for almost every one I end up thinking about much more direct and clear Monsterhearts was to understand. Anytime I have to reference the system over a question brought up in play it's incredibly easy to find the answer and understand it. There's such a clarity in the writing that I wish other games I've read could adopt.

  • Ok, here's an example. This is a perfect example of conciseness and clarity (which Monsterhearts, final version, has in spades), whereas this earlier text is evocative and personal, describing the game as a designer rather than as a rules-explainer.

    From a forum post:
    For me, the Darkest Self is about knowing what kind of monster you are, knowing what harm you are capable of, not wanting to go there... and ending up in that dark place none the less. It's also about self-indulgence. There's a point at which the mechnanics say, "You should just abandon your goals and your friends, and wreck the world." The power of absolute self-centeredness, of absolute justifications, of plain old absolutes... That's a power that youth have. And Darkest Self is a way of flagging that no, as a matter of fact, you don't know better. No, your great power doesn't lend itself to great responsibility.

    You are, in fact, a monster. And no matter what you aspire to be, you are a monster. And for all the good you might do, all the things you might accomplish, you will eventually destroy yourself.
    From the final text:
    Certain instances in the game will demand that a character become their Darkest Self. 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 know this is not from the playtest document, but it's an example of how you choose to describe the inner workings of the game from different angles. The playtest document had a lot of material along the lines of the first example: explaining the genre and the concept behind it to the reader, and how to bring it to life. The final text aims rather for clarity and efficiency, without trying to explain as much. Would you say that you developed more trust in the procedures of play to bring about the genre and feel of the game as you went along, or was it just a question of being clear and saving space?

  • Another example: the "shut someone down" move.

    Here we have mechanical differences as well as change in the written style. Minor differences, like the lack of capitalization in the early draft, but also an effort to explain the design thought behind the moves in the early version but not the final version.

    I'd love to hear how this particular move evolved.

    Early version:
    when you shut someone down, roll with cold. on a 10+, choose three. on a 7-9, choose two: they lose a String against you; you don’t leave yourself vulnerable; you don’t need to try to keep it together when you next see them; you don’t look like a total asshole.

    this move is intimately connected with the turn someone on move, thematically. you don’t get to control what turns you on or who you fall in love with. what you do get to control is who you drive off,and how you keep people at arm’s length distance. this move will often set up future conflicts for you.
    Final version:
    When you shut someone down, roll with cold. On a 10 up, choose one: give them a Condition; they lose a String
    against you; if they held no Strings on you, gain a String on them. • On a 7-9, choose one: you each give a Condition
    to one another; you each lose a String on one another.

    The 10 up result for this move gives you the opportunity to expose a character’s weakness, reduce the power they hold over you, or gain power over them. In the 7-9 results, you end up going down with them. Your harsh words hurt and defame them, but also expose your true character in an ugly way.
  • Hey Paul,

    Dang, that italicized paragraph is a really good one. I don't have a good reason for it having been cut. It unpacks the purpose of the move really effectively and efficiently. So that's maybe an example of where I just made the wrong call, or something got lost in the endless-rewrite shuffle.
  • That paragraph really makes me understand what you were doing. I feel like something just unlocked in my head.
  • Joe,

    Yeah, there's some really good stuff in the playtest document! I'm not 100% sure that you made a "wrong call" by cutting it out--not everything that can be in a final text needs to be in there. It's a valid choice to strive to be succinct.

    I could quote a few other things I really liked, but I don't know if I'm stepping on your toes by making all this text public. Let me know! There are a few other passages I think were really neat.

    One strange experience I'm having during this re-read is finding stuff in the old text and thinking, "Yeah, that's cool! Why isn't that in the new text?" And then I look in the new text, and there it is, sure enough. Like maybe something about the layout or text structure makes it stand out more in one and blend in more in the other. Hmmm. Odd.
  • Reading this and looking at the annotated Sorcerer got me thinking; you know what would be fascinating? An electronic game text where you could select a unit of text (chapter, subheading, paragraph, whatever) and scroll through iterations in development. I wonder how much that would just be a clusterfuck and how much it would explicate the writer/designer's thought process. And I wonder how hard that would be to automate if you were careful to write in a version-control platform and check in frequently.
  • edited February 2013
    OK, so I'll be returning to this with some more quotes (just from the original text, now, so as to avoid posting the entire text of the game in this thread - go buy it, instead, people!). In the meantime, there are some other differences I'd love to get your thoughts on, Joe.


    1. This is silly, perhaps, but I really liked the original cover. It was more quirky, and therefore appealed to me. The "final" cover seems more "mainstream", perhaps.

    I'd be curious to hear why you changed some of the art, as well--I liked some of the original art quite a lot as well. (Like the original picture of the Witch, which was fantastic.) The final art looks great as well, though, so no complaints there!

    2. The original rules had five stats ("Steady", for Holding Steady), and a "when someone is vulnerable, add 1 to your rolls against them" peripheral move. I can well imagine why these went away, and good riddance. (Although "vulnerable" as a sort of tag shows the evolution of the Condition mechanic--such as why you gain a Condition on a 7-9 shut someone down roll, which used to be an option you hoped not to choose called "you leave yourself vulnerable".)

    3. Stat highlights were supposed to change mid-game in the original version. So two characters could have "tug of war" over someone's heart, and change their highlighted stats as they gained Strings on that character.

    Was this just too clunky in play, or unnecessary in other ways as well?

    4. In the original version, there are no Conditions. Instead, you can use Strings to get a +1 against someone, or to give them a -1 against you, and you also get a +1 against someone who is vulnerable.

    What's interesting is that Conditions, unlike Strings, do not allow you to make someone roll at a -1 against you, even though you can do so against NPCs (take advantage of an NPC's Condition and they act at a Disadvantage). I'm guessing the rationale was simply to limit any instances of penalties to rolls for PCs (after all, we want people making as many moves as possible), but perhaps there's a deeper logic or other rationale at work as well?

    I think "high school" (the genre) is never safe, it's all about being vulnerable, being able to hurt people. We don't want mechanics which limit other people's ability to affect us. But then again, Strings allow you to do that, so it's clearly not a hard rule in the design toolbox. How did this evolve, Joe?

    5. The most interesting change in terms of gross mechanical differences in moves is the "hold steady" move:

    * In the original, it was called "keep it together":
    on a 10+, you’re fine. on a 7-9, choose one: you freeze up; you lash out at someone; you garner suspicion
    Let's review: based on a single stat (which does nothing else).
    - 10+ Nothing (bad) happens.
    - 7-9, something not-so-good happens, your choice.
    - Miss, something bad happens (as usual).
    * In the current version:

    - 10+ You get your choice from a list of good things.
    - 7-9 You get a mixed result (gain a Condition and choose a good thing), or nothing (bad) happens.
    - Miss, something bad happens (as usual).
    That's quite an interesting design choice!

    This move ("hold steady") is clearly most similar to AW's "acting under fire" move, which looks pretty much exactly like the original version of "hold steady".

    In the final version, the move has become much more forgiving! The 7-9 outcome is pretty similar to the original 10+ outcome. It's also got a really unusual feature for an AW move: a "nothing happens" (or "you do it") option on a 7-9 result. Given how the AW mechanics are designed to produce 7-9 results most of the time, and how mixed results are interesting in general, many people have said that "the 7-9 result makes the game". Why does this move include an option which is basically "carry on, nothing to see here?" Or do you see differently when it's wrapped in the fiction?

    (This makes me realize that, oddly enough, in my own Monsterhearts experience no one has ever rolled 7-9 on a "hold steady" move, at least not yet.)

    I would love to hear your thoughts on the "shut someone down" evolution -- from my last post, above -- as well, if you're still up for it!

    Once I have your reply, I'll be back with some more juicy quotes from the playtest version. (Can you tell I've been thinking about this game a lot lately? Ha.)
  • 1. People had mixed feelings on the first cover. And ultimately, it didn't feel like a teen monster romance book ought to. And so I spent time staring at the covers in the Teen Romance section of the bookstore. I stared at books from The Twilight Saga, The Vampire Diaries, and the Fallen series. While the original cover picture (created by Northerain) was awesome, I didn't feel like it was quite right. The elements that trended consistently among all those novels were glossy airbrushed photos of sexy people and their sexy necks, especially ones that receded into blackness or mist, cover fonts in red and white, and little text ornamentals.

    2. Yeah, evaluating "vulnerability" in a scene turned out to be a sticking point for players, and not particularly fun. Conditions replaced that rule.

    3. Super clunky. It involved checking in with who else had Strings on a person all the time, and was ultimately lost mid-session most of the time. Not a good rule. Jettisoned.

    4. The reason that Conditions don't give you -1s to your actions is that being hurt doesn't make you less capable of hurting others, and being marginalized doesn't make you less capable of marginalizing others. The reason that Strings can be spent for -1s to actions is because love and power make a person hesitate. Seeing the pain in your would-be lover's eyes is enough to cause you to falter, and maybe lose your cool altogether.

    5. Having a 10 up response be "nothing bad happens" doesn't actually give you new information. And so it can dead-end the fiction. Also, it doesn't feel like a win. Rolling boxcars and having that only mean "not getting fucked over" felt like a mismatch of outcome and expectation. People avoided rolling hold steady because there was no way the move could benefit you - at best, it'd not disbenefit you. I like the current version way more. And it's exciting to roll.

    I'll get to the shut someone down question eventually, but for now I'm all drained of retrospection stamina. And I feel like of late I've been eying shut someone down sideways, wishing I'd maybe written it differently. Mixed feelings. More thoughts later.
  • Awesome, Joe!

    And certainly take your time in responding, I'd rather a well-considered answer on your own time. (Not that you owe me one anyway!)

    I can certainly see how the new cover art is more "in-genre", and a better decision overall. I really liked the original, though!

    5. Having a 10 up response be "nothing bad happens" doesn't actually give you new information. And so it can dead-end the fiction. Also, it doesn't feel like a win. Rolling boxcars and having that only mean "not getting fucked over" felt like a mismatch of outcome and expectation. People avoided rolling hold steady because there was no way the move could benefit you - at best, it'd not disbenefit you. I like the current version way more. And it's exciting to roll.
    I really like how you made an effort for all the moves' 10+ results to give something interesting, and it works great in this case. But I'm not sure why the 7-9 result is so much better in this version than the original.

    I'm thinking, in particular, of how it affects the use of the move on all those "force you to hold steady" effects (like from people spending Strings on you). If you're as likely to get something good (10+) as something bad (6 or less), why would I want to spend a String to make you hold steady?

    I'd love to hear your thoughts on "shut someone down"! I have a vague feeling that move could be a bit better, but I haven't played enough yet to say exactly why or how.
  • edited February 2013
    4. The reason that Conditions don't give you -1s to your actions is that being hurt doesn't make you less capable of hurting others,
  • Could you explain a bit better what shutting someone down actually mean?
    I mean yeah it's saying "no! fuck off!" to someone but that is not really it.

    It feels like the most weird move to me and can be pretty close to calling people on their shit eventually.
  • edited February 2013
    So, MH is pretty PvP and IMHO, thrives when that is happening.

    There are going to be scenes where two characters are interacting aggressively, verbally usually, and one goes to turn off, put down or negate what the other is doing or saying.


    Crow, the Fae, is talking about how important he is to the current situation and about how he basically ain't nothing to fuck with.

    To which, Chloe, the Infernal, was like, "No, you've been out of the loop. Things have changed. You don't matter anymore. To anyone."

    Damn, Chloe that's cold! Roll to shut Crow down.

    Calling people on their shit is about doing what's right; shutting someone down is about dragging people down to your level.
  • Great illustration, @Orlando_Wilson. That nails it for me.

    Joe hasn't come back to answer my questions yet, but I'll keep adding stuff, since it's been a while and I don't want this thread to die.

    1. On the subject of move design, shut someone down and hold steady, that conversation is echoed a little bit in this new thread.

    2. One of the other things which featured strongly in the original text but in the final text is examples and a discussion of the "gaze into the abyss" move.

    (This has recently come up in this thread.)

    In the final text, the basic move is described, with a direction for the MC to prompt the player "how" exactly they gaze into the abyss, with the implication that it's a fairly introverted, ritualistic action (from the examples), and a note which mentions it may be different for each character. There is also some text about gazing into the abyss in the MC Hard Moves section, which suggests that the abyss can contact the PC as an MC move ("herald the abyss").

    Aside from those two places in the text, the abyss is never mentioned or explained: the text chooses to let us use our own imagination to decide what the abyss actually is, how we interact with it in play, and what kinds of effects it can have on the characters' lives.

    In the earlier version, the approach is similar, but there is a lot more written about the abyss itself:
  • edited February 2013
    First of all, a mechanical difference: in the early draft, missing a "gaze into..." roll meant you turned into your Darkest Self. That's some scary business! I would imagine this was too intense a consequence for any old dark roll, and was therefore axed, understandably so.

    Now, what does the text say about the abyss? It introduces it as follows:
    as a group, and individually, you get to decide what it means to gaze into the abyss. there’s an upcoming chapter called what dwells beneath in which i make suggestions about what the abyss might hold for each skin, but more generally: the abyss functions like a hungry crystal ball.
    Under the "herald the abyss" hard move, there is an example of how you might use it:
    herald the abyss.
    “so, you’re hiding there, in that little cave. you’ve got that can of mace, and that little switchblade. and, what, you’re just going to wait until sunrise comes and that creature goes away?

    yeah, okay. while you’re waiting there, you hear that voice, again - the one that’s inside your head, but isn’t yours. it wants to talk. it wants to cut a deal with you.”
    Later, after the Flames & Coals section (an MC tool which was dropped from the final version for being too unnecessary involved, similar in form to Fronts in Apocalypse World, another topic to discuss if anyone's interested), is a whole chapter about the abyss:

    the abyss

    there’s this thing called the abyss. you know where to find it. it knows where to find you.

    it’s the shit that’s too awful to wholly exist. it’s where kids get their nightmares, and schizophrenics get their delusions. it’s where monsters get their power. the abyss can make offers, and demands. it can cast visions and prophecies. but without you, the abyss is weak. it needs a partner with which to tango. your relationship to the abyss is your own. like a terrible mirror, everyone sees something different.

    the abyss & your type

    Vampires often see their prey through the abyss. sometimes they see their own terrible darkness.

    Witches see the answers to their problems, if they are patient enough to wait for them to bubble to the surface.

    Fae see a portal beyond the veil.

    Ghouls see their hunger. they see their next meal. they see the things that didn’t come back to life.

    Infernals see their dread benefactors.

    Mortals see that which Mortals shouldn't see.

    Werewolves see both sides to everything. they see the calm and the fury.

    Ghosts see that which has died. they see the past.

    the abyss & you

    each Skin has a different sort of relationship with the abyss. some of this is hard-coded into the options fo reach Skin, but a lot of it is left open to interpretation. ask about it. ask, “so, how do your kind deal with abyss? is it responsible for the way you are?” ask leading questions, and let the answers imply a sprawling mythology about the world.

    but don’t get stuck there, on that surface level. ask questions that personalize one’s relationship with the abyss. ask, “what about your relationship with the abyss sets you apart from other Ghouls?” ask, “why does the abyss want to help you so much?” make them feel special, because teenagers feeling like they’re special in the eyes of some great unfeeling entity is fertile ground for drama.

    if you do it right, you’ll create two dysfunctional patterns. First, you’ll put the Skins at odds with one another, based on differences in worldview and perspective. second, you’ll have lucy treating the abyss like a second boyfriend, and jack-o treating it like a limitless credit card, and you’ll create messy dependencies. and the whole situation will just be a tower of mis-communications and presuppositions, waiting to collapse.
  • I find it fascinating that both Apocalypse World and Monsterhearts never say a thing about whether the psychic maelstrom/abyss is something that just exists and everyone can access, or just some psychic weirdness which only the PCs have access to, by virtue of being protagonists in this drama.

    This part of the text, though, implies at least a little that it exists for everyone. It's where our nightmares come from, after all--and we all have nightmares.

    Although the text is certainly less polished than the final version, there's a lot of really good and succinct play advice in this bit, giving tools and ideas for how to use the abyss in play, what it is, and how you might personalize it. The final text basically just defines the abyss as something we should know about: there is a move called "gaze into the abyss", but the text never tells us what the abyss is, which is very interesting. I personally find the text I quoted quite inspiring, it gives me lots of good ideas for play as well as fodder for MC moves I might make in a game. The suggestion to give each Skin a different relationship with the abyss is also a good one.

    What do you think?

    Was this kind of text cut in an attempt to be concise (a valuable thing in itself), or is its absence from the final book actually a feature? Was its presence considered unnecessary? Was the detailed abyss an unfortunate casualty of page count? Or were its directions actually deemed to be too limiting to players of Monsterhearts, who should instead be invited to explore this mysterious "abyss" and figure out what it is on their own?

    And yet: a "hungy crystal ball"? That's a lot of explanation, a lot of juice, in just three words. Cool.
  • Wow. Yeah, I never read the playtests, and gazing into the abyss just never made as much sense to me as the other moves, just going from the final text. As a player, I was never quite sure when an appropriate time to evoke it was, or even what evoking it represented for most of the skins. That makes it make waaaay more sense, and more exciting.
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