Monsterhearts in Historical Settings (with bonus Lovecraft)

Over on the What Did You Play This Week? thread, @Paul_T asked

I'm glad to see you running a lot of "period" Monsterhearts (as opposed to modern-day Monsterhearts). It's something I've been curious about for quite some time, but never actually done.

Would you consider starting a thread (or contributing to one) about best practices, observations, and advice for playing Monsterhearts in a historical setting?

How does one retain a personal connection with the characters and their family/school/life as it becomes more and more removed from our own high school experiences, for instance?
Let me see if I can answer any of this!

The origin of this idea happened by accident, almost literally. I was heading out to my weekly meetup, I knew we didn't have any game planned, and I saw Monsterhearts sitting on top of my piano. I'd never run it before but figured I could handle a one shot.

This has resulted in me running at least one session a week of MH for the last 12 weeks. And as a result of that first unplanned session, I've been sticking the MH games smack dab in the middle of Lovecraft Country, because one of my players basically always wants Lovecraft in games. But I vetoed Arkham--too done; instead I decided to use Kingsport, which has much less canon associated with it. The end result of this is an ongoing quasi-shared world project, where I've been running 4 session campaigns online set in different historical periods, building up the town's fictional history and weaving together the information we learn in each run.

I've pretty much always been a history buff, and I've run a lot of Cthulhu type games the last five years or so; this is a type of gaming that rewards the historically minded of course, so I've had a lot of practice in how to engage the past without replicating its ugliness and developing a sense of just how much history we need and how to get by with even less.

The Kingsport Project [that's a Youtube playlist] is in it's third chapter (1962); the first was 1976, followed by 1692. Let's speak to why those dates as a way of addressing Paul's points.

They had at least some interest to me. 1976 was the result of a growing fascination with the decade, which in America was one of rapid change but also growing discontent and a realization that there was far more ugliness and corruption in the country than acknowledged, coupled with an inability to change it. It's no accident that there was a film noir revival in this decade. 1692 and 1962 were two decades I hit upon next: the witch trials are an essential piece of New England legend, and the 1962 run will deal with the Cuban Missile Crisis, plus my fascination with the liminal period of the early '60s, which was no longer really the 1950s but hadn't become what we usually associate with "the Sixties." I've been keeping a list of future games; the ones I know about are 1943 (because I like the idea of draft-age monsters in WWII), 1967 (hippie werewolves?) and 1886 (because I love Emily Dickinson). I want to do a big Civil War series at some point, and then maybe see if I can pull off putting MH characters in an actual military unit in WWII.

So that's my first recommendation: choose a period you are interested in, because chances are you already know something about it, and any extra research will be easy and interesting. You also don't have to go overboard; I read one book and a couple of websites for 1692 but that gave me enough cool facts (there were only 100,000 English colonists in all of New England! The churches had pews like theater boxes! Here's how to properly use the pronoun thou!) that I could stay ahead of the players.

That connection to the period helped me with what you asked about--keeping the players connected to their characters even as the historical experience gets further away. Right now only 1692 had any radically different social arrangement; for that game, rather than do a "homeroom map" I did a "meeting house map" and I added some details from my research--like how Puritan children were often sent out to be servants for other families--to help round up everyone's connections. Even there, the characters fit into an age that was a rather in-between time for the period--too young to be married, too old for school.

Monsterhearts will cook best when you have strong connections between the characters; and in 1692, while I didn't have the rationale of high school to bind them together, they still had the relationships from backstory and the questions I asked during "homeroom". It helped that I had the outside threat of the trials and the paranoia about witchcraft, and I ramped up the supernatural a bit by having "the Messenger" (Nyarlathotep doing his best Jolly Old Satan impression) come around to stir things up and throw the PCs at each other.

Those bits are going to stay true no matter what historical period you choose; you might lack the unifying trope of high school, but it's easy enough to replace (for the Civil War run I'm thinking of using an Abolitionist society). The questions you ask can help push the historical facts you're interested in--so one of my last homeroom questions in 1962 was "Who has built a bomb shelter?" Even so, the first episode was kicked off by people trying to get a date for the Halloween Dance.

The historical context does create some interesting opportunities, of course. The Witch in 1692 had escaped Salem one step ahead of a noose; she was working as a servant for the Hollow's family, creating a very interesting dynamic that you wouldn't see in other games, perhaps. In 1976 the Chosen played Chainmail and was a proto-gaming nerd; the Witch was seduced by "Rhiannon", her favorite song. (It helps when you get some good buy in from the players of course :smile: )

So what I'll say to wrap up is, I guess:

1) Use your own connection to the historical material as a way of forging connections for the players.

If they see how much you care about the period, they'll start to care as well.

2) No matter how they're framed, the relationships between the characters will drive the game.

You can push on these and get very creditable MH no matter when you set it.

3) Know enough stuff that you can make the period look credible, but don't sweat it too much.

This was something I learned while facilitating my game Red Carnations on a Black Grave. (It was a note from Jason Morningstar, and one of the best bits of criticism I ever got.) The game will have to be what it is; most people will work on not having obvious anachronisms, but if there is something a bit off, don't sweat it.

4) Make goshdarn sure you have robust safety systems.

The past is usually a very awful place. You want everyone to feel safe, and the past wasn't safe for a whole lot of people (me, for example). Give some thought to how you want to engage that. This can also guide your choice of period: 1692 was interesting to me not just because the witch trials are fascinating, but because the patriarchy trembled at the whim of teenaged girls. I was able to weave in some threads about resistance and subversion of society into my game, aided by the Witch's player who just loved tossing bombs around :smile:

Okay, that's what I have off the top of my head, but I'm happy to talk more in the comments, and you can go and take a look at the actual games if you like. (Starting in 1692 I have a titles sequence I made, which I think is kind of neat.)


  • Wow, I'd really love to see a paleolithic monsterhearts-Cthulu mash-up. You're the one to do it! And an ancient Rome one too!
  • Other historical setting ideas:
    -Exploring the poles, Shackleton, etc.
    -French Indo-China, Vietnam war
    -Any colonial crisis period; as long as it's the colonizers and not the colonized that are the exotic, Cthulu worshippers, the other way is too tropey and stigmatizing/othering
    -French Revolution, Russian Revolution

  • Heh, the only downside of Kingsport is that I'm mostly locked into stuff dealing with this peculiar little seaport New England town, although I've pondered following the characters from the 1943 run to Overlord, as I mentioned in passing above.

    Thinking about it this morning, I think the Cthulhu elements actually help me with do historical gaming using Monsterhearts, because the Mythos stories are grounded in a recognizable reality but have fantastic elements; they're all mostly secret history, not alt-history. That said, the French Revolution is a good setting idea (I'd go with either the early, chaotic days of 1789-90 or the Terror in 1793-4) as is the Russian Revolution--you could easily do a whole campaign that goes simply from February to October revolutions.
  • A Franklin/Shackleton-esque campaign would be cool. Was It really ice that crushed the ships?
  • A Franklin/Shackleton-esque campaign would be cool. Was It really ice that crushed the ships?
  • It might :smile: Je vous invite à le faire :)
  • Malheureusement, je n'ai pas assez de compétences avec soit MH ou HPL.
  • C'est juste. What can I help with? :smile:
  • I just realized that I never popped in to say "thank you". I'm still mulling this over and digesting it! It's excellent advice, and I will definitely try my hand at "historical Monsterhearts" at some point - I'm itching to do it. Thanks!
  • Just rereading this fabulous short “guide” from @Aviatrix . Such good advice! I still want to do this sometime.
  • @Paul_T, I have a longer guide to playing in Kingsport proper that's part of the digital rewards for the Codex Volume 1 Kiickstarter, so maybe that will be widely available one day.
  • Amazing! Would love to see that.
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