So recently, my friend Zak asked me a question about the differences between playing D&D, and playing Monsterhearts. I play in his game every week, as well as with lots of other people that run #FLAILSNAILS games. He’d seen me play Monsterhearts for ConTessa, and wondered about my thoughts. Lots of other people chimed in and said they were interested, too. I am a little nervous! It’s not that I don’t have thoughts and impressions, but I’m a simple bug and not very good at elucidating my thoughts in an analytical way.
There are a few other things, too. I’m starting to realise that at some point somebody decided there were two sorts of games, and some people get really weird about which ‘camp’ of games they like. My head has trouble wrapping around that. I see this wildly dissimilar and diverse set of games, and several spectrums games can be on, but lumping them all into two groups is not intuitive to me at all. I’m also starting to discover that who I’m playing with is pretty much just as huge a predictor for how much fun I’ll have as what I’m playing. That’s why gaming on G+ is so awesome: I can pick and choose whom I play with more than I could with only local people. Another predictor of what I’ll want to play is what kind of mood I’m in: some nights it’s a Monsterhearts mood, other nights I just wanna run about and kill shit. More on that later. The more and more I thought about Zak’s question, the more thoughts and comparisons came out. In the end I’d written way more than I expected, probably more than he wanted, and I’d realised a few things about my own gaming style and preferences along the way. The number one thing that became clear to me in hashing all this out was that games are more varied, more unique and more flexible than I had ever really thought about before. Just like movies, or music, there is this huge wide range of what games provide, what I get out of them, how they work, and how they affect me. Saying ‘I’m a gamer’ is like saying ‘I like music’: there’s so much more there! One could no more assume I like all games at all times than assume I’m always in the mood for trip-hop, or all rock bands sound alike – though lots of rock bands do.
So, in jumbled form and without much editing, here are some thoughts:
Monsterhearts and D&D. The hugest difference is what I want when I play them. Monsterhearts is one of those games that ‘supply’ – there is a particular something I can count on them to provide. When I play Monsterhearts, I want to be ridiculously emotional and tell a story about bad behaviour. I want the characters to end up in a horrible train wreck that leaves me in captivated horror, unable to look away. When I play Fiasco, I want to built a lovely set, fill it with characters, and then set the theatre on fire and laugh with glee as it goes up in flames. When I play Deadlands, I want to revel in how horrible the world is and shiver from the descriptions of horrific things – I suspect Call of Cthulhu would be the same way. When I play Star Wars or Marvel Heroic, I wanna be epic – full stop.
D&D, World of Darkness, Apolcalypse World, and a few other games are a little different. I don’t count on the game itself to ‘supply’ anything. Or rather, when I do it has more to do with that particular setting (or gm, or cast of characters, etc) than with the game itself. For example, Cobalt Reach ‘supplies’ the same thing as Deadlands, and Barovania supplies the same thing as the BESM post-apoc game I used to play. Apollyon scratches my exploration itch, etc etc.
I have noticed that Monsterhearts (and Fiasco) tend to be similar experiences each time I play them, whereas D&D (and WoD and AW and Shadowrun) can be wildly different depending on the group and the gm. There is way more difference between #FLAILSNAILS and the kind of D&D my cousin plays (lots of maths, very complicated) than there is between #FLAILSNAILS and Apoc World, which are more about the crazy shenanigans than anything else.
Malleability and Freedom
In a very similar vein, it seems like some games are made to do a very specific thing and they do that thing. Dread, Monsterhearts, Shadowrun are like this. Other games really seem to be malleable to a number of different themes and ideas. Both are very freeing in different ways. With D&D, you can do 8-bit D&D or whatever, but within those vastly different settings there are certain conventions – looting, locked doors, monsters, things like that. With Monsterhearts, you’re telling one very specific kind of story. Within that proscribed storyspace, the games gives you tools to push the narrative to the absolute limit.
I have noticed that both Monsterhearts and D&D are pretty arbitrary about a few things, but totally different things. D&D has rules about what kind of weapon so-and-so can have, while Monsterhearts has a list of what kind of eyes a Skin can have. I’m pretty sure both exist for the same – to evoke something about the world – but I find both equally silly.
The two games are pretty different in how I ‘carry’ my character. Some games, I hold my character tight, and in others I fling them about. I’ve noticed this usually has to do with just one thing: character death. In D&D, my character might die and I have no control over that. It makes me hold my character tighter. I am much more careful with them. I actively try to keep them from serious harm – which can be challenging to do whilst also tossing them into exciting situations. Note that by ‘harm’ I don’t mean misery or consequences (I love torturing my characters!), but only things that might cause their story to end before I’m done playing them.
In contrast, I find that with games that let me be the arbiter of when the story’s over, I don’t only hold my character less tightly, I fling them about. In Fiasco, I have complete of control about when and why death happens, so a lot of times I actually look forward to it. In Apocalypse World and Monsterhearts, there are ways to cheat death – when death happens, it’s the time and the way that satisfies me. When I have power over life and death, I don’t dread it any longer.
Interacting with the World
The funny thing about the above observation is that idea that Monsterhearts allows more freedom of action than D&D. Monsterhearts might provoke more freedom, but it actually allows less. D&D takes away one essential piece of player agency – lifespan – but restricts nothing else. I can literally interact with the world in whatever way I can possibly think up. Monsterhearts is totally different. While I am more eager to shove my character into horror and trauma – to carry them lightly – Monsterhearts is actually very confining in that there are a certain number of ways one can interact with the world, and that’s it. That’s all. That’s what one has at one’s disposal, and the challenge of the game is to get creative about how you use the very limited number of tools in that toolbox.
To play Monsterhearts, ideally I am well-rested, creatively present, in the right headspace. It takes a lot out of me. With D&D, I can show up with my just my enthusiasm and my dice. I can still play if I’m tired, sad, ill, or just feeling uninspired, and all the game requires of me is that I maybe kick some people in the face! I think Zak has talked about this before, and his observations definitely ring true for me.
Much like my most intense WoD stories, Monsterhearts sticks in my head long after the session is over. Events in a D&D game can do this as well, but it’s different. I find myself thinking about my Monsterhearts scenes, picking them apart. I make playlists. I think up little snippets of fiction throughout the day. Often – and this relates heavily to my next point – I think up clever turns of phrase I wish I’d used, or a character action I should have taken. The characters take up rental space in my head, alongside the World of Darkness characters. With D&D, I think about events that were especially epic, awful or exciting long after the fact, but I don’t dissect them in the same way and my D&D characters don’t have the same grip on my psyche. Thank goodness.
I remember D&D like a totally awesome movie I watched, or an kickass concert I went to. I remember Monsterhearts like a play I was in.
Performance and Dissection
The last thing I’ve noticed is that Monsterhearts – as well as Talisman, Fiasco and Dramasystem – brings out the playwright in me. I feel a certain responsibility to the story; my job is not only to react to events, but to be especially clever about it. It isn’t enough to just take actions, it has to be a good story. Thematic! Narratively compelling! Emotionally complex! Monsterhearts and Dramasystem in particular give me what I can only call ‘performance anxiety’. I have to really put some mental effort into where my character is, what kind of mental state they’re in. I often wish afterward that I would have done things differently – done a monologue with more passion, been more eloquent, led a certain scene in a certain way, maintained better thematic consistency, done something more clever or more symbolic, whatever. The scenes stick in my head, and I feel like I have a load of edits left to do. I dissect my ‘performance’ afterward, and often feel I’ve come up short. It’s actually much more nervewracking than acting, in many ways – probably because I’m writing while performing and have no chance for edits.
That never happens with D&D. In D&D, sometimes I go ‘oh shit, maybe I shouldn’t have killed that guy’ but I never feel pangs or fret that my acting wasn’t good enough. If I’ve helped the party and maybe made my fellow players laugh a few times, I’ve made a decent showing.
I should note that LARP – regardless of system/setting – gives me more performance anxiety (and subsequent dissection) than anything else.
SO there it is. I’m sure to add to this if I think of anything else, but that’s enough flailing self-analysis for now, hmm? All the same, I’m glad Zak asked me that, and I’m glad that I took some time to think about it. I adore gaming even more now, having realised all the different things it can do and be. And if it can be this many things for me, imagine all the roles all the games play for all the people! It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?
I’d like to hear the thoughts of others. What games are alike and dissimilar for you? What games fulfill what needs? What games need what kind of prep for you? Are there some games that stuck in your head?
So I just read this game called Deserting Paradise.
I’m kinda in love.
I kinda want to grab people and tell them to play cause I wanna run it right now and it doesn’t matter that it’s five in the motherfucking am and I have a ConTessa panel tomorrow and I really really really need to get to bed and there is too much to do and not even close to enough time.
Nope, I just want to run this game, cause like, it’s short and messy and beautiful. It reminds me of other games I like but mostly I love it ’cause it reminds me of a previous chunk of my life: my punk years, the time on the Road. Before computers and online gaming and pets and having a nice little flat. Back when it took a few hours to find a shower and most of the evening to find a bed and dry socks were like the most vital thing in my world and I was part of this messy, fickle, brilliant web of stupid sticky humanity.
And I’m only brave enough to feel – much less say – any of this at half five in the motherfucking am. But sometimes my wild years do still grab me by the throat and squeeze so hard I can’t breathe for a bit.
Deserting Paradise brought that back with a vengeance.
So last night I ran Tatterdemalion for +Eric Boyd, +Max Kielbasa and +Kenneth Lor, and they all claimed they had a lot of fun! This is a nice change from the first time I tried running D&D, which is when it went down like a lead zepplin. (Not Led Zepplin, sadly, which would have been pretty damn rad.) Part of the reason it might have worked is that I stopped trying to be creative, gave in to the conventions a bit, and just made a damn map and sent them to it. It was one of the maps I’d made in Scetcher, which is an Android app I like VERY much.
Anyhow! The adventure began when one of the Caravan Oblates let the characters know that one of the Elders had a job for them. They were admitted into the company of an old man riding atop an enormous riding turtle that had been fitted with a papasan atop his shell. The characters were told that one of the Caravan’s families had broke away from the rest, gone looking for one of their little ones that had toddled off into a swamp. They were sent to rescue the family! They ended up rescuing all the living members of the family, save one that had perished of exposure and had to be left behind. The party ALSO dealt with a Swamp Hag, a lonely Swamp Maiden, some Swamp Pixies, and a Crocolog. They almost lost their little Pixie Guide! They saved her, though, which was awesome. Overall we saw some real heroics, and an awesome use of corpses for creative purposes. TOTALLY APPROVE.
"Don’t worry about a thing. Baby, you’re gonna be a star!"
"…and we won’t look back. Don’t worry about a thing. Baby, you’re gonna be a star!"
She’d been doing this for hours. The same scene, over and over. Classic movie, big stars, huge sets, glorious costumes, three Oscar nominations… Who knew that anymore, though? Now it was just ‘some old black and white’, some old, dusty bit of of Hollywood sorcery, forgotten by the ages.
"We’ll gun that engine and we won’t look back. Don’t worry about a thing. Baby, you’re…"
She swallowed hard. Dry mouth.
Syd was slumped low in a broken, overstuffed old recliner, one hand clutching the remote control. A little joint had burned out at her fingertips ten minutes ago, and it had been half an hour since she’d refilled her glass. Her mouth was acrid, and she could taste gin and vermouth as she wriggled her tongue around the backs of her teeth. That was ok, though. The bottle still sat beside her, right where it belonged, and it was still half full. She could last for hours, yet.
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My Grandfather Skogen was in a band. My brother blames him for he and our sister and I (and mum, in her way) being ‘too nice’, but I think that was just a good thing we were given: a place to grow kind. He was also well-known as a horse breeder, and in the pony pull and draft circles – and he was in a band. I think he played guitar. He played with his brothers, dances and weddings and such, all over. They never made much money on it, and many nights performed at a loss.
Did you know that they used to let you cut records at the country fair? It’s true. There was a booth where you could up up and pay a little bit, and a man would have a machine that recorded you and make you a little cardboard record, right then and there. You could take it home with you. Somewhere in the basement of my grandparents’ house (which has just been put on the market), there was once a record or maybe more than one, a recording of my grandfather and his brothers playing and singing, and maybe speaking and arguing and laughing. Living. Breathing. Loving. Making music.
I have a terrific need to somehow find that recording, and hear it. I think I need the tears that may (I hope will) come when I do. I think it’s only then I’ll stop blaming myself for being too impatient to learn, when he tried to teach me to play the guitar.
This is Wembit. He came to live with me several months back, when I had determined to find a companion for Nimbus Cloud. He was (in a way) a rescue; I got him out of one of the breeder/feeder tanks at the local pet store. I needed a baby, see, and there weren’t any baby girls among the pet rats, so I decided to take a chance. I’m so glad I did!
Wembit was so very fearful at first, but now he’s as affectionate and loving as can be. I used Forced Socialisation as my chosen method of socialising him, due to how fast it works, and his very young age – only five weeks! It worked like a charm! While at first he ran from me, and cowered, now he is happy to groom me and take food from my fingers. He still doesn’t like being grabbed and taken from the cage, and will cling to anything handy to avoid it. In all other ways, however, he is wonderfully affectionate. In fact, he is the most marvellously licky rat! I love it.
Got a new pet today – it’s actually a pretty interesting story. It all came from my desire to catch Stoverton…and make a pet of him! Turned out to be folly, of course – Stoverton has no wish to be kept! He likes being a kitchen-mouse, apparently… Ah well!
Da suggested I go and get myself a hamster, and Tyler agreed. The lady at the pet store, however, convinced me that a rat was way better. As I’ve loved rats forever, I was pretty easy to convince! She handed me one more-or-less at random (I’d asked to see a female) and….the moment I held her, and she came so easily into my hands, I knew I was going to take her home. She’s adorable! She’s also inquisitive, engaging, friendly, and curious, all qualities I admire.
If one should take a meeting with the CEO and founder of the Streitenfeld group- and if One is Anyone, one likely will – one might notice a woman in the corner, with Snow White’s colouring and Audrey Hepburn’s style. Then again, one might not notice, because said woman is sitting still and quiet, no trace of her at all but the soft scratch of her pen or a glance from under dark lashes. Look again and she might not be there at all, but instead holding a fresh cup of tea and murmuring soft apology for the interruption, the light gleaming softly off a strand of pearls. With Mark Streitenfeld in the room, all booming voice and broad shoulders, it’s so easy to forget she’s there. It’s nicer to forget she’s there, a relief to let her slip from attention. This woman is Justine Sureval, Mark Streitenfeld’s diligent and loyal PA. She is a first glance a ghost, at second glance a paragon, and at third, a mystery.
She is: warm charm and cool class, keen mind and sharp wit, unfussed pragmatism and uncanny self-control, haunted melancholy and hungry smile. Juste (Justine Sureval, that is) is a woman creature presenting a sophisticated collection of beautiful angles and aspects, immaculately fitted together into a whole that – while harmonious, with nothing out of place – is never exactly the sum of its parts.
A stained-glass woman, Justine is fascinating but so intimidating; easy to understand why most mortals (bless ’em!) admire the cover and leave the book alone. It’s only if one were to start picking her apart, after all, that they may find the books don’t balance quite – but why worry over that, when the books are so beautifully illuminated?
Here is a secret: this book is not for you. The cover deceives for your protection.
Here is a creature ‘whip-smart’, ‘sharp as a pin’, with ‘razor wit’: note the words. This is a mind crafted into a weapon, a Soldier not of flesh but of thought, carrying no spear but words and Will. She’s blindingly intelligent, but hides her scorn when others aren’t. Well, usually: there are times her alienation and impatience are too great for even her to suppress, and crackle in the air around her.
Like any Soldier, Justine needs focus, a mission – without a target, this blade is panicked and pained. Her prowess and her appetites both are great, and like a shark (that perfect predator) she must keep moving, must keep that nose to the grindstone, must have an ax to grind – any ax will do.
She is gifted – impossibly, ridiculously gifted – in so many things, and yet there is always a restlessness to her, for she wants to learn and be and do and master moremoremore.
An example: She is fluent in dozens of languages, plays dozens of instruments, and has known dozens of interesting historical personages. This is not what makes her a paragon; she is very, very old.
She speaks dozens of languages, but has seen thousands fall from use. She plays dozens of instruments, but her fingers itch to play scales that haven’t existed for centuries. She has known (and ruined) so many interesting people, but without backward-cast eyes of history has missed the chance to touch so many more. All of this causes her immense frustration, and significant melancholy.
If she were a sour thing, pinched, twisted, bitter, hollowed out with resentment, she would make more sense. She is not. She likes many things; among them wine, the Blues, and traditional spicy chocolates. True, her sense of humour is so scathing dry that most never realise she has one – and yes, oft falls to the cruel side of sarcasm – but it is there, snuggled between a passionate love of music and a fascination with fine dining. Catch her halfway though a bottle of Pinot and you will find her laughing, her sardonic cleverness blossoming into lush, sparkling wit. She cannot be a true Daughter of Joy, but feels it important to at least manage enjoyment.
If she were a glutton for pleasure (a glutton for anything) she would make more sense. Let us be very clear: Justine has her vices, and enjoys every one unapologetically and without hesitation – but she never quite lets go. Always there’s that obsessive self-control, that need to keep herself together as if she’s afraid, somehow, of flying apart. Chemicals, sadism, sex, pain; she has the rapacity and passions to stamp her firmly Libertine, but so often seems missing the abandon that marks a true addict. Even sailing across society’s lines, she never crosses her own.
If she played one of those ‘career women’ so popular in the unforgiving public imagination (with blocky shoulder pads and a frost-blonde chignon), aggressively scathing, utterly focused on personal dominance, she would make more sense. Not so. She has played the Ice Queen in the past, has employed (and enjoyed) that unrelenting ambition and cold, cold air. Nowadays she mimics Ocean: unfathomable, mysterious, patient. True, her hair is slick black and cut in a bob, but too feminine to manage severity. She seems to prefer these days a softer road to power, one – as a long-dead poet once put it – “achieved by woman’s charm and yielding grace, not that clumsy mimicry of heavy-handed men”.
Yet…yielding? If Juste had lost her edge, ‘gone soft’, that would make sense. She hasn’t. She is diligent, exacting, industrious and shrewd, as canny as ever. Her expectations for others are impossible high, but far lower than the bar set for herself. She is ruthless – or we could call it sensible – she does. She can be very cruel, she can be very kind. And true, her tongue cuts deep…but it’s hard to mind when her smile’s warm and sweet as morphine and even cruelty slips in soft as a needle’s kiss. Those who take the time to know her bask in a glowing charm, the sort that curls around the heart and nestles there, growing so slowly that one never has a chance to resist.
And so on, and so on, and on. For every page-fragment, every shard of this stained-glass puzzle, there’s another facet to consider in another light and it all suggests something too fractured and complex to understand without looking far too hard, for far too long and we all know what happens to people that do that.
Close the book now, and walk away. Some books things people just don’t add up and never will. Get up, put the kettle on, and count yourself lucky to leave this book unread next to tea gone cold.