Monsterhearts, Descriptive Harm

edited April 2017 in Story Games
I've written up "visceral/descriptive" harm rules for AW and Dungeon World, and now I can't stop. Since I'm playing Monsterhearts in a couple of days, it gets the same treatment.

It's basically a first draft; I expect many revisions. But I think Monsterhearts needs a more interesting take on harm than good old hit points, so here's a basic adaptation of my AW harm rules to Monsterhearts.

The basic gist is: you hurt someone to make them lose control over their destiny.


When you suffer bodily harm, roll. For each statement that is true (below), take +1 to your roll.

* "It's not serious: they're not really trying to cause me lasting harm."
* "It's not frightening: they're not bigger, heavily armed, or more numerous than me."

-If you're not sure if "they" are trying to cause you lasting harm, ask them.
-"It" could be an object or a place, if, say, you've just crashed your car.

On a 10+, choose one from the list below.
On a 7-9, choose two, or ask your opponent to choose one.
On a miss, you choose one, and your opponent chooses one.

Mark your choices. You can only choose each option once. If you come back from apparent death, clear them all.

The MC or other players can narrow your choice. Don't choose an option which doesn't follow believably from your actions or the situation. If "you're dead" was chosen, the second choice might come into play before, during, or after your death: for instance, you might flee, only to bleed out and die in the woods.

O You are scared and shaken - give a String to your attacker.
O You look weak - lose a String on your attacker, and take a Condition.
O You're a bloody mess. This will probably leave serious scars.
O You freeze up or you panic and flee (your choice).
O You're knocked flat on your face: dazed, senseless, you hardly know where you are.
O It's bad: you're going to need medical help.
O Afterwards, you have no clear memory of what happened or misremember important details.
O You're dead.


At the beginning of a new session, clear any and all choices which don't seem to be still relevant.

Otherwise, spending time with someone in an intimate context (being vulnerable to them) can allow you to clear one. Ask them what they're doing for you, and which choice that might allow you to clear. (Again, follow fictional logic here: if they have some weird way of restoring your memory or bringing you back to life, then that's an option. Otherwise, probably all they can do is remove a Condition or get you cleaned up so you don't look like hell anymore. A medical professional can supply medical help, of course, in the same way.)


  • edited April 2017
    Oh, one more thing:

    If your opponent choose to deal extra harm (on a 10+ roll to "lash out"), make your roll at -2.

    Or perhaps "choose an additional option" would be better. I'd have to try it to be sure.
  • No significant commentary other than that I really like this. Thanks!
  • Thanks, Jonathan!

    I really enjoyed your posts in the recent "social mechanics" thread. I think we have very similar views on gaming and "immersion".

    More notes on this attempt at a hack:

    * You can spend Strings to make someone roll this move at -1, as with any other move.

    * If you have some really hardcore violence in your game (guns, butchery), prepare yourself for one of two things:

    1. These teens are going to be incredibly resilient to physical harm, action movie style. (This is already the case in default Monsterhearts; no change there. It's appropriate to the genre.)


    2. Get used to describing truly horrible harm in fairly vague terms before you make this move, so you have room to re-imagine a gunshot wound as getting winged by a bullet, for instance. (I suppose those often happens in default Monsterhearts, as well.)
  • edited April 2017
    Another note:

    If a move indicates for you to take 1-harm, and there is no obvious fictional sense for it, it becomes a -1ongoing to the harm move. (These may be treated by healing, as though it was a point of damage.)

    It's probably easier to think of it as a Condition, in 90% of cases.
  • Like it! Steps a bit into what i think of as the purview of conditions, wonder if they could be rolled together somehow.

    Ripe for playbook specific harm tracks too, which i like a lot. Id be tempted to throw some blanks on the track too, or options unlockable through advancement.
  • I agree with all of that, Dirk!

    Conditions seem to cover a LOT of ground in Monsterhearts, and I feel like I never *quite* got the hang of them. There's always that moment in play where somebody gets a condition and we all have to pause and try to figure out what it is and how to phrase it.
  • I like this quite a lot.
  • Just stopping by to echo the general praise, I too like this. Like Dirk's suggestions too.

    And also agree with Paul, there are moments when conditions don't quite fit. I think it's often when they have to include a physical component (like Exhausted) vs how I explain them as "labels your developing teenage identity has partially internalised and thus have power over you".
  • I like that, Cneph!
  • I used this hack for the first time today in my Monsterhearts campaign. (Well, we've been using it all along, but this was the first session where it came up.)

    It felt REALLY good in play so far.

    We had one person smash another into a bench, terrifying them and getting a String.

    Another person got smashed in the face and passed out, unable to remember what happened next.

    That felt far more Monsterhearts to me than any kind of hit point system I've used, and now the players are looking at each other for some opportunities to use violence to score more Strings on each other.
  • edited May 2017
    It's interesting. I like it, mostly, but things like getting a String for harming someone starts to step on the toes of specific playbooks (for example, one of the Werewolf moves is exactly 'when you harm someone, get a String on them.') A lot of these things are, descriptively, stuff that happens already when violence occurs in games of Monsterhearts I've played -- but having a specific list could certainly operate as a nice reminder to people, and as long as the mechanical effects remain straightforward enough it seems fine.

    Some options make more or less sense to only be choosable once, though -- for something like 'you're a bloody mess' it makes sense, but for getting strings or freezing up, much less so. I understand the desire to retain some of the HP-track feel, though.

    It also seems to make it much easier to kill someone, if you want to kill them, which is not necessarily a problem but makes your statement about action movie resilience seem strange to me -- are you just assuming nobody would ever be so gauche as to choose 'You're dead' from the list until it was nearly the last option? As the rules stand, a miss is lethal if it makes sense in the fiction. So regular harm can kill someone like... 40% of the time, assuming it is not unreasonable in the fiction. Someone choosing to cause great harm ups that to 70%. As I said, this doesn't necessarily seem like a critical flaw, but I'm curious about how you see that working -- or how it has worked so far. (I am guessing: nobody has even considered choosing it for somebody else.)
  • Also, as a random note, in the new edition Conditions are exclusively social labels. They are no longer used for physical states, etc.
  • Good feedback, thanks.

    In our game, we didn't track which options were chosen - I think, as you suggest, you should be able to pick anything that makes sense, rather than tracking each use.

    I agree that some of the options 'step on the toes' of other existing things in the game, but I'm willing to see that in play. I don't think it would be a disaster if occasionally a Werewolf with Primal Dominance could score two Strings by harming someone. We'll have to play with it some more, of course, to see if there are other undesirable effects, but so far it feels good.

    You're quite right about it being easy to kill someone, but consider that, in default Monsterhearts, you can do so automatically by hitting them with harm and spending a few Strings.

    My thinking is that the choices made must respect the fiction - if it doesn't seem believable that the action could kill a character, then the group should veto that option. I think that should be sufficient for most purposes (other choices in the game operate this way already, at least in the way that we play with the moves).

    The reason I say it's "non-lethal" is that, unlike hit point rules, it's possible for someone to take a lot of harm without dying. You could now get shot four or five times in a row and conceivably survive, for example. I don't know yet if this will be a problem or not; again, for the time being I'm expecting the players to collaborate on choosing options appropriate to the situation.

    About the new edition:

    Where are people getting all this information about rules changes and the new edition? I'm a backer and I have the "Sneak Peek Preview", but I haven't heard any other news in many months...

  • Two more sessions with this under my belt.

    It's felt really good so far - makes physical altercations much more colourful, instead of having to remember to add some detail to harm suffered.

    It also makes moves which threaten "1 Harm" much more interesting - our Witch missed a roll which made them suffer 1 Harm, and they ended up panicking, running through a derelict building and emerging covered in blood and dirt. (Which they used to their advantage to frighten away a group of onlookers!)
  • We had our first PC death in the game:

    The Werewolf was caught in flagrante delicto with the Mortal and the Witch was going mad (high on a dangerous drug cocktail as well as a powerful mixture of jealousy and desire).

    This triggered the Werewolf's transformation and, after the Witch threw a lamp at her head, she pushed the Witch out a second-story window.

    The harm roll was a miss, and it was the Witch's player who chose death for his character. (Don't worry; he's coming back - he also took the Ghoul's move which allows him a return from the dead.)

  • The basic gist is: you hurt someone to make them lose control over their destiny.
    Funny, that sounds like Trollbabe.

    That sure would be a fun game to play!

    ;) :P
  • @Paul_T I received my physical book a couple of weeks ago. The digital one has been out for months, maybe.

    This is interesting stuff. How do you think this would handle things like non-standard types of harming? For example, I once played with a Unicorn and she sometimes often showed harm as a decrease in her unicorn essence/power, rather than physical damage, with the idea being she was slowly becoming a Mortal. This really added to her arc, and played to the idea of her being "too good for this world". Do you think this would handle this sort of nonstandard harm narrative well?
  • Yeah, that's more challenging.

    In our game it's only come up a couple of times. We've been able to use the harm roll in those situations so far.

    The alternative is to treat 1-harm as a -1forward to the harm move, or as a Condition.

  • @Paul_T Re: Challenging, trying for "helpfully pushing my thinking" rather than "man that Colin guy is a dick.". Sorry if I strayed into the second at all; could have couched it better.

    I can see how those would work, for sure. Nice!

    Also, it's nice to see how death would be chosen in play. That plays to the type of game I feel like MH wants to be.
  • Thanks, Colin! (And no worries whatsoever!)

    Indeed, so far the hack has felt very Monsterhearts in play.

    I wonder if it could be redesigned in a simpler or more elegant way, but the results feel perfectly appropriate.

    (Except that everyone always wants to choose the "you can't remember anything" option, because of the dramatic possibilities!)
  • edited August 2017
    I can definitely see how that would have possibilities! Though maybe having to work through a checklist or otherwise being pushed to select different options would be good, if you see people going for the same options?

    (Semi-related, the players in my own game keep avoiding Lashing Out, because they don't want to kill each other without permission. I'm thinking of revising what happens when you take a 4th harm, to offer more options besides darkest selfing.)
  • "Change your Skin" can be Ann interesting option.

    However, given a specific game and setup, you could create something more targeted. Do you have a Dark Power or scheming villain in your game? Perhaps THEY offer an alternative to death - that can have some possibilities. What do they ask for in return?

    However, why are they avoiding the Darkest Self? Harm in Monsterhearts is quite intentionally supposed to be a "countdown to the Darkest Self", I think.
  • I was unclear: we had the whole group together, and the scene was violent. Basically everyone had one health left, and several were already in their darkest selves.

    The group was avoiding Lashing Out at people who were in their Darkest Self, I beleive out of politeness, because nobody wanted to force someone into death (and, generally, a new skin - we tend to prefer to keep the character's story going, but in a new skin, rather than introduce a new protagonist. We have a Queen who has become an undead-themed Hollow, for example. It nicely represents big changes that teens go through. The Dark Power is basically the avenue by which this has been happening in the fiction - we seem to have arrived at the same idea!). I beleive this holding back was meant to be considerate of fellow players, but it made the scene a bit odd and enervating.

    I've since reviewed, and recalled that you can loose all your strings on people to recover, but had forgotten this at the time. It also wouldn't be much of a shift for this group, as they tend to forget string use (which itself is something I've tried to encourage).

    But I think part of the issue is that people don't want to force each other to change their character theming (via their skin) against their will. So I was thinking about introducing a kind-of death-lite, where a character's sex move or darkest self shifts to something new, but the character stays in the same skin.
  • Interesting! It's always seemed to me that Monsterhearts death is already far too "weak sauce". Hard to imagine a group trying to take away its teeth.

    All the house rules I've seen for Monsterhearts are to make death more impactful.

    That said, why are they fighting in the first place? Perhaps you could introduce a rule for attacking someone with 0-harm (to subdue or knock out or push out of the way). Or a rule where taking someone to 4-harm allows you the option to dominate them instead of killing them.

    It all seems a bit silly to me, though. Monsterhearts is all about messy sexy, drama, and personal violence, isn't it? People die in these stories all the time; it's an important part of the genre.

    Or maybe you need a softer Darkest Self rule?

    Really, it's the escape clause that's meaningful here. Surely the PCs would at the very least desired recenege against whoever killed them? That seems Darkest Self enough already.

    If they could escape from it fairly quickly, that would soften it significantly.

    All working together to make that situation come about fairly fast might do a lot of the work for you.

    In my current campaign players are usually disappointed by how HARD it is to get into your Darkest Self. They're trying but it's not easy to do! The Mortal is now planning to sleep with as many PCs as possible, just for the opportunity to turn people into their Darkest Selves.

    If your characters are goody-two-shoes, and going Darkest Self would "ruin them" as characters, I'd be tempted to say you might not be playing the right game.

    When I play, I get all the players to read their Darkest Self description and tell them that if they don't feel excited to play it out, they should pick a different Skin.
  • Hard to get into Darkest Self? Can't one just decide that their character is going Darkest Self?
  • edited August 2017
    @Paul_T, think of it not as taking away teeth, but as teeth substitution: Specifically, the teeth of the person you killed come back as some new monster's teeth to extract vengeance. I may have belaboured that simile a bit, but the point is that killing
    doesn't really solve a problem.

    I think I'd argue that this also lets the players play a little harder under most circumstances. We tend to get very close to our characters in our games, encourage bleed, self-discovery, and provoke emotions. Ensuring that your character's story doesn't abruptly end is important to that end; people need certain safeties to explore emotions, I think.

    And yes, absolutely, people die in these stories all the time! However, the in-genre media that I've consumed tends to have it that the lead cast of the show/book always survive (if you consider undeath surviving), while it's the supporting cast members who have a pretty high attrition rate. Awful, awful stuff happens to the main cast, but death generally doesn't let them off the hook from it.

    Take BuffyTVS for example. The core cast of Buffy, Xander, Willow and Giles is always in the show. When people die (as Buffy is prone towards), they change skins. When Buffy dies at the end of season 5, she definitely comes back as a different skin.

    But supporting characters (such as Tara) who die, tend to serve another character's plotline by their death (in this case, Willow). Similarly, in our game, character's NPC classmates and teachers are always outside the bubble, and won't come back, but the people who care about them get pissed.

    Maybe I'm over-illustrating my point, though. But this mode works for us, anyway.
    In any case, NPCs drop like flies and anytime someone is in their darkest selves, and people generally play hard. They just don't want to push anyone out of their character unwillingly.

    Anyway, yes, I'm thinking that reframing what happens when you take a 4th harm away from "death" might help. Dominated is an interesting idea. Maybe if I just reframe it as a move, where death is just one choice on a list would work:

    When you take a 4th harm, you are critically injured. You can feel your perceptions narrowing on survival, and death closes in. Choose:
    o You become your darkest self
    o You lose your strings on everyone else.
    o You are dominated, and promise to do anything. The character who dealt the 4th harm extracts a promise from you, in exchange for your pathetic life. If you don't doggedly persue it, they either return and finish the job, or your injuries re-open and finish you.
    o You sucumb or appear to sucumb to your injuries, but return as Something Else
    o You succumb to your injuries and pass from the narrative

    @Lisa Padol I don't believe you can just choose to (though... I can't see any reason you couldn't just act like you are in it), but it is definitely easy. Any time the GM takes a hard move, Darkest Self is on the list of options. If I want to be in my Darkest Self, I usually just ask.
  • For what it's worth, I've found this hack to address this pretty well. No one is ever killed "by accident" (just because someone wanted to lash out and they were "out of hit points", in other words). It's always a player choice. (And the usual options of losing your Strings or going Darkest Self are there if it's ever one-sided).

    In our game, the Witch found yet another alternative, which was to take the Ghoul's move "Short Rest for the Wicked" at the moment of his death. This means that, yes, he died, but he's coming back - without going Darkest Self.
  • Worth thinking about, cool. And that is also always a solution, for sure.

    Keeping that sort of power in the player's hands is key, after all. And sorry I wrote a novel ;)
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