edit: you’ll want to add ‘former’ to ‘friend’ in the opening paragraph.
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?
This is excellent analysis. Thanks!
You’re having fun the wrong way!!!!
Yep, I agree that D&D can be liberating because it allows for many different ways to play. In addition to catering to a person’s different moods it also allows people with different personality styles to play together, and not feel awkward doing so as you would with a game built for extraverts or creative people or rulesgrinders.
I played Monsterhearts a little bit (as a Witch) and my takeaway was that there’s two games going on. On the surface there’s a role-playing game about monstrous teenagers being dicks to one another, and underneath that is a second game where players are collecting strings and using them to mess with other players. The duality didn’t sit well with me since I thought some players were far more invested in the under-game than the over-game, if that makes sense, but your comments here have made me want to give it a second chance. I definitely felt that responsibility to help make a good story while playing, despite that some characters were behaving psychotically just to get an edge over others.
I find that I approach just about every game I play (or even run), even computer games, with my ‘D&D’ hat on. For me, D&D (and similar games, clones, OSR, whatever) allow me the freedom to do anything, although I much prefer an exploration-style approach more than hack&slash. I write adventures with the same mind-set: locations that players can explore, fight monsters, loot treasure, freely move about with any plot controlling their actions. I like that, but it does mean that when it comes to other games it is sometimes difficult for me to step outside of that D&D-box.
We tried a FATE game the other day and while I love the flexibility of it, and the rules, I kept trying to make it more of a D&D-game, which it just isn’t. It requires a different perspective, and the game- for me- failed because I couldn’t break out of that box.
I also find that I like creating a story, whether it’s in the background of my adventures, of emergent through play. FATE is perfect for that, and yet it still failed when I tried to run it. I enjoy D&D-style games the most when there is more to it than just dungeon-delving and slaying monsters: I want a story to emerge or be tied-up in, but I also want it to be flexible and adaptable to whatever actions the characters take.
It is the stories that stay in my mind. I have a very ‘narrative mind’ and as I write stories, I guess it is only natural that I enjoy the story aspect of a game.
I could go on, but I am not sure what my point is now. Consider this a stream of conscience comment 🙂
Good post, by the way. Certainly made me think 🙂
For someone who claims not to be very analytical, you do a right fine job of analysis.
I tend to GM more than play. Someone wrote something the other day about how GMing is the best way for him/her to keep attention on the game. I’m the same way. I like things to be as immersive as possible. Otherwise my mind follows after any shiny thing that grabs my attention. I also like internally consistent stories, and having players who are interested in their characters and in interacting with the world we’re creating. I like telling stories, and often feel artificially constrained by game systems that have too much background/setting info. I played a lot of Dark Heresy for a while, and just sort of got burnt out on having to justify my choices to “break” that setting. They killed off the dwarves for heaven’s sake! Well, I brought ’em back, and made up a plausible reason why, but one of my players was very, very immersed in the WH40K canon. His skepticism made it difficult to tell the story. Not a hostile audience, but one which just wasn’t getting it. Very sad.
In the end, the system doesn’t seem to matter too much. As Simon say (above) it can take a while to wrap one’s head around certain rulesets, and some just sit in the brain all catawampy and never become comfortable. For me, those are more about my inability to stomach the setting, usually, though sometimes rules of some game systems are what is annoying about the game. I agree, though, that who you play with is the most important thing. I’ve played in several games where I should have been having fun, but wasn’t doing so. Almost without fail, the inability to let myself have fun was more about being irked by others’ play styles (which can, of course, include the GM’s playstyle), than about the game system itself. And, if you’re not having fun, then what’s the point of playing, right?
Anyway, I look forward to reading a bit more of your stuff. It’s both decorous and useful.
I have had some games that went sideways of how they were written but were an awful lot of fun. I ran a Shadowrun game for years where the most interesting characters and plots we had were not even shadowrunners. That worked out brilliantly.
Conversely, when I tried Fate, I could not stand it because I was looking at it like D&D. I wasn’t telling a story, I was trying to kick down the door and kill the monster. I didn’t get to kill the monster (I rather got my petoot handed to me) and I certainly didn’t get any loot, but if I had been playing the right game, it might have made for an amazing story and a good time playing.
Thanks for the article and the thinkiness it provoked.
August 1, 2013 at 1:59 am
I am learning from this!
August 1, 2013 at 3:03 am
I never thought I would have anything to teach anyone… blush!