Monsterhearts is a favorite here at Gaming As Women and right now something special is going on over at Kickstarter that’s garnered our attention: A thing called Second Skins, the first major expansion for Monsterhearts. New Skins, new MCing advice, new ways to play the game, music, an entire new rpg, crossovers with existing rpgs, and even a nordic larp spin-off (co-written by Kira Scott of GAW fame)… there’s a lot of awesome tied up in Second Skins. But who is Jackson Tegu, the man behind it all? Maybe you know… and maybe you only think you do.
Read on as Jackson and I sit down across keyboards and a continent to discuss Second Skins, monsters, game design, queerness and sex, and all the other good things in life.
RK: By the time people read this, it’ll be a couple weeks into the campaign (at least). The people who are sold on more Monsterhearts Skins have already pledged, or are going to when their next paycheck comes in (*raises hand*). What do you say to those on the fence to get them on board? What don’t we know that we should?
JT: Hello Renee! Thanks for talking with me.
The Second Skins expand the mechanical and thematic territory of Monsterhearts in a permanent way. This next thing sounds a bit arrogant, but it’s something I’ve already witnessed coming true: the inclusion of the Second Skins will become the new standard. Players will expect to take an advance from The Wyrm or The Cuckoo, and unless they’re stated to not be in play, players will assume that the moves will be available. In the same way that a missing Queen or Werewolf might raise an eyebrow or a question at the start of a game, so too will the absence of the Second Skins.
This is a bit of a double-edged sword, because just as the Chosen can re-focus the game into a distinct subgenre of teen paranormal romance (monster hunting), so too can some of the Second Skins re-direct your story’s trajectory.
The benefit here is that the added numbers and variety allows the exclusion of Skins to work to your advantage, too – that with these Second Skins, there are now enough Skins to shape your game in certain directions, depending on which Skins you offer at the outset of play.
RK: Ever since first hearing about this project I’ve been intrigued by the Unicorn. Having the benefit of the KS page, I’m even more curious now. I think the Unicorn is my skin when someone finally gets around to running MH for me but I’m having a hard time waiting! Can you spoil me on the Unicorn? Even just a little?
JT: Ah, you want a Unicorn spoiler, huh? Sure! First, some background. Joe was working on the Angel at the same time as I was starting up the Unicorn. We were hanging out a lot, but we hadn’t talked about them specifically (I was mostly talking about the Wyrm, really excited about some of its support moves). When we finally did, we realized that we were in some similar design space – “good” characters who had a non-standard “fifth” stat. Thankfully, from there we went different routes with it – where the Angel has a pair of pendulum stats that replace Dark, the Unicorn has a fifth “stat” called Integrity, which fluctuates based on their judgments of their own actions.
You see, the Unicorn is very self-critical. And the Integrity that they grant themselves, based on ways they behave, is used to power several of their Moves. These moves generally are positioned to assist other characters, with little mechanical benefit to the Unicorn, but there’s a lot going on in the Unicorn’s fruitful void – which is to say, there’s a lot going on in the way the player of the Unicorn will position their character to interact with the other characters and the ways that those other characters will be positioned by their players in order to interact with the Unicorn; that the narrative benefits that the Unicorn receives by being helpful and good may well be huge, and if not, their lack will certainly be interesting.
It’s also important to remember that Monsterhearts is not, at its core, a game about happy people who have a clear and functional idea of how to get their needs met.
People are asking if the Unicorn interacts with the concept of virginity at all. Of course it does! I’d really be dropping the ball there if it didn’t. The Unicorn has three intimacy moves, only one of which has to do with sex itself. The first, in fact, starts off “When you lay your head in a virgin’s lap…” It’s pretty fun!
RK: Lots of people make MH skins (myself included), but you really elevate the form. The Selkie is achingly beautiful and has a ton of fans, and you’ve been working on these new ones for, what, like a year or more?
JT: Yeah, these Skins have been on the workbench for a year and half now. *Looks at calendar mournfully* I thought this would be a fast project! But the funny thing is that each Skin is actually its own non-self-contained game system that interacts with its parent game, Monsterhearts. That’s something I didn’t realize right away, so some of the Skins that are more mechanically “out there” took a bunch of bushwacking to actually even get on the trail of. I’m glad to have tracked them down! And that also gives me solace, to remember that I’m actually releasing a web of six games that hub on Monsterhearts, it’s not just some pretty layout and cool ideas.
The Selkie has many vocal fans, and I’m deeply honored by the expressions of their joy. And it’s cool to look back on all the stuff that I did right with the Selks, almost intuitively it seems. You know that feeling when you’ve come so far that your early work seems rough hewn in comparison? Or when you look back at an earlier version of yourself and you say, “gosh, I knew so little then”? Sometimes I feel those ways. Sometimes I look at the Selkie and think, “these moves are kind of all over the place, thematically speaking” and then I see the Selkie in play again and I’m like “Oh, right.”
RK: People who haven’t seen the Selkie – or who are Monsterhearts skeptics – should head over to the Kickstarter page and check out the revised version…it’s free to everyone. We had a Selkie figure prominently in my Bahamian Rhapsody game and it was heartbreaking and scary watching them try to remodel Nassau to be more like home with Ocean’s Breath. And, ummm, okay back on track…what’s your favorite part of the process?
My favorite part of the process? That’s the dreaming-up. When nothing’s tacked down yet, when it’s all just amorphous and maybe-this and then-this-happens. It’s exciting! So much discovery. And it’s not like the rest is all drudgery, but I got into a funny habit where I’d start a new Skin to reward myself for getting an earlier Skin into a playable state. Even just adding the front-end material, like names and appearance descriptions, sometimes seemed like a mountain to climb. Which, I’ll take a quick aside, the front-end lists are vital and shouldn’t be written carelessly. Quickly is fine, but with great attention. This is where players will be rooting their characters!
Second favorite part of the process is watching players use their cleverness to interact with the cleverness that I baked into the Skins. Watching the mechanics hum… it’s what all the work is for, those moments in play when my creation is supporting the players making an engaging story, and then there’s some CRACKLE and a spark jumps out – that’s magic. I love it!
RK: What do you think the key to making a good skin is?
Ah, the key to making a good Skin… if only it was only one key! There are many things to be aware of, certainly. Here’s three pieces of advice, though: remember that you’re detailing a teenager stereotype which is a concrete metaphor for a type of monster which is also a mini-game for the player to enjoy. Hold that in your mind; those things in that order. Secondly, make your moves trigger with things that will definitely occur during scenes, and make them trigger in ways that the player themselves will get to leverage. Like, if it triggers when someone tells you that they love you, well, that’s probably going to happen but you don’t get to say when – so that’s an imperfect trigger. It’s still useable, but the move has to be very carefully crafted to make a specific effect after that point. Until you know exactly what you want & have an idea of how the fiction will lead up to, go away from, and perhaps skirt around or avoid that move, stick to the more reliable player-with-the-move-gets-to-trigger-it formula.
Third piece of advice is to do lots of comprehension testing. That’s where other people read it and tell you what it does, and even better, play with the Skin and interpret it wrong accidentally, missing the point of a move or skipping a subtlety or trying to do something that the Skin isn’t built to do. You make notes about their expectation clash experiences, then you re-write, changing wording to correct tone expectations, move effects or triggers, bringing those subtleties closer to the surface if necessary.
RK: In the beginning, I was a Monsterhearts skeptic. Being a trans woman, and queer to boot, I get a little worried about how queer people are often likened to monsters in pop culture (the game is about teenagers, yes, but it touts its queer lineage too). I’ve been called a monster to my face, so you know, that can be a sensitive thing. At the same time, I’m a ridiculously huge horror fan, and I can’t deny that my queerness is intimately interwoven with that. The werewolf, in particular, appealed to me as a child…the act of transformation has always fascinated me, and I could relate to the feeling of not being in control of one’s own body (and wow, discovering Cronenberg at a young age was really huge too). In Monsterhearts, the werewolf is something different, but a number of other skins speak to me. The Selkie feeling out of place everywhere they go, for example…and, of course, the Hollow. And like I said earlier, there’s something about the mythical creature that appeals to me in the Unicorn (the self-critical thing rings a bell too).
JT: It’s interesting hearing you talk about pop culture & media representations of queer people – I’ll admit that I don’t interact with much pop culture at all. I live in a weirdo college town with lots of people who present a not-immediately-clear gender, and also lots of people who identify as something non-binary on the gender front. Though the majority of the folks I’m thinking of right now are within a pretty focused age range, it goes a long way to coloring my perception of the world, even if it’s because I’m in a bubble. In our play culture in Olympia, for example, there is no expectation that someone will play a character who’s the gender they present as / are. Sometimes players play characters who’re non-binary genders, and sometimes their intention is to have that character freighted with the unkind public perceptions that people sometimes face in 2013, and sometimes the intention is to show how normal that is. It hasn’t ever taken center stage in a game I’ve played, just as subplots.
I don’t think I’ve ever played a non-binary gendered character in Monsterhearts – or if so, it’s certainly not common. I guess I reflect on high school as a time when I didn’t know myself particularly well, and things seemed really black and white, and I bring that mindset to the table for the characters I play in Monsterhearts. Hmm. Maybe it’s time to change that.
RK: So what Skin or Skins hold special appeal for you and why?
JT: Good question! Well, if you flip to the front of the Monsterhearts book, you’ll see that Joe thinks of me as his Witch. Which is quite lovely, because witches are super compelling and rad – Joe thinks of me as his witch because I’m secretive, and go into my secret place to do my long and strange rituals. And because I’m more that a little judgmental, and catty, though I always put myself first on the chopping block. And because I make magic. I take everyday things and pull them through a process that makes something wholly new and amazing. I’m paraphrasing, but that was pretty much what he said, which was just so great to hear. Maybe because it’s so close to who I am (or maybe because it’s just a way that a certain friend sees me & doesn’t reflect on how I am outside of that relationship or something) I don’t tend to reach for the Witch at the table.
As for which Skins I identify with… well, there’s this part of me which is solidly a Ghoul. An unrelenting craver of chaos, which is not the most socially acceptable thing to be, so I’m glad that that aspect surfaces rarely. I can see shades of myself in the exact-wordedness of the Fae (Yeah, but what you said was…) and the magnetism of the Vampire, and the reckless easy strength of the Werewolf. Also the inconstancy of the Werewolf. Definitely.
Funny that you brought up the Hollow. I don’t connect mechanically to it, but I deeply connect to its premise. I’ve got a lot of sketches and daydreams about created beings; they factor heavily into my personal mythology.
But here’s a secret for you: everything I do is autobiographical. This is so true for me that I have long believed it to be true for everyone. So to ask which Skins are me – well, more than any of Joe’s Original Skins, The Selkie is me. I do all that stuff, I have all those moves. All of the Second Skins are me. They’re based off of my experiences, my fears, my teenaged hangups – some of which I even got over. The Wyrm keeps their eye on everything that’s going on, molding it. Hello! The Sasquatch wants to disappear and watch from the invisible sidelines. Hi there! The Cuckoo wants to grab the spotlight and try being each thing. Pleased ta meecha! And the Unicorn. Well. I just try so damn hard to be good and help other people out, you know? And it’s just not enough. I just can’t do enough.
RK: Okay, I can’t interview you for GaW and not talk about sex. I’m still mulling over this question though…MonsterHearts is popular amongst our contributors so I can’t just talk about the usual stuff.
JT: Right. Well, let’s see, here’s some history: years ago, I didn’t used to have any sex in my games. Like, none. Then out came Apocalypse World and decidedly put sex on the table. The game said “it’s cool if your characters aren’t having sex, but other people around them are. Having sex sometimes is how things go. If you don’t, that’s a choice, and it says something about your character.” And I was like whoa.
RK: I’m thinking about how Monsterhearts and the genre it emulates and how sex in both is typically “wrong”…either unsatisfying in some way, or with the wrong people, or delving into stuff that only feels safe in the privacy of our fantasies. And it’s interesting…I didn’t quite see it at first, but it feels like the turn someone on mechanics work as tacit permission from one player to another, a sort of invitation…”if you want to do something with my character in this game, I’m on board.”
JT: I heartily agree with both of your observations! Yes, the Sex Moves in Monsterhearts, as with Apocalypse World playbooks, are a deeply embedded part of that Skin’s personality. And the game tells us that life isn’t easy and welcoming, so of course the Skins’ Sex Moves would further problematize their situations. Most of the Second Skins’ Sex Moves just jumped right out at me. It’s like, once they were held firmly in my mind, it became really clear what the Sex Move would be – in two cases it led from the main move for the Skin; the Sasquatch and Cuckoo. You just imagine what’s going on in the Skins’ bodies and minds before, during, and after sex, and you’ll probably find your answer. The Wyrm’s Sex Move is a bit complicated, and it puts temptation in their lover’s hands – there’s a list of four things that the lover can get from the Wyrm, but for each that they choose (and they can pick all of them if they want to), they give the Wyrm a String. To the other extreme, the Neighbor’s Sex Move is straight ahead, simple, and only occurs if they want it to (or bumble into having it occur!) When the Neighbor has sex and screams someone’s name, they gain a String on that person. That’s right, they gain the String on the person who’s name they yelled – which might not be the same person they’re having sex with! While making sex moves, it’s the imagining how different individuals behave during sex, the imagining where their insecurities or physicality or outlook interfaces with the sex act, that’s the gold.
But what you were talking about was the genre as a whole, and how Monsterhearts filters that, but keeps to the “sex is kind of about how another thing goes wrong, or doesn’t work out right.” I mean, it’s great for body horror, that’s for sure. I guess that’s one of the things that games derived from Apocalypse World’s dice systems will share: the story is about things going wrong, and how the characters cope with those things. Sometimes the ways they cope will make more things go wrong, absolutely. Sexual activity not least of these things.
RK: In play, I’ve had some trouble getting everyone to take advantage of [the tacit invitation of turn someone on]…a couple of them feel safer with NPCs and me than they do with each other, while a couple of the others are totally gung ho about the sexytimes and milk it for all its worth. It seems to really boil down to age disparity, gender disparity, and to those who feel more sexually confident in their personal lives. I guess I’m not so much asking a question here as looking for some reflections from your own play, and also sex move design, and how the game itself works to create a “safe space” for its players not unlike you might find in some kink circles (and maybe how we, as players and MCs can take best advantage of that).
JT: There tends to be quite a bit of sex in the one-shot games that are played in Olympia. I suppose we’re comfortable enough with one another in the community that that’s something we can navigate. I think there are two other factors, too – we have a meetup group which attracts between 5 and 25 people each week, drawing many women and queer folks. There’s a lot of lead-by-example-see-that-wasn’t-hard type of introduction, and when you’re around people not being weird about sex between characters (and we do a lot of fading to black, too) then it’s easy to incorporate that into the way you play.
And then secondly and most importantly, we do an introduction at the beginning of every meetup, saying names and maybe something about yourself, then some of the folks who’ve been coming around for a bit will help list off three things about story games. The first two change, and will usually be something about saying the obvious thing when you’re stuck, or re-incorporating something someone said before, or to make sure to listen well and if you don’t understand why someone thinks something is cool, go ahead and ask questions until you do understand. The third thing about story games is invariably The Veil, which is a safety brake of sorts – when something comes up in the fiction that ruins your fun or makes you wish you weren’t playing or makes you feel uncomfortable in that “bad” way, just tell the table about it. Sometimes, as per the person’s desires, we leave the problematic thing in but fade to black, and perhaps take a break to talk about it, though the default is that the thing is out, the person who made it up makes up a new thing to replace it, and the person who Veiled doesn’t have to say anything about why they exiled that. There’s a strong precedent that the table will embrace whatever the person who’s feeling uncomfortable wants to do in order to get around that bump.
Sometimes it’s hard remembering there’s that Veil option available. So we also do some talking about Veiling for other people if they look like they’re uncomfortable, or how it doesn’t make you a jerk if someone Veils something that you put into the fiction – like, how would you have known?
The using-turn-someone-on-as-consent-flag is definitely a thing that happens. That move does a lot to remove the grittiness of Apocalypse World’s sex (rather unfortunately vivid wording, that) and give the players a soft way to do something that’s directly interacting with the mechanics, but also clearly a tool for gauging interest in inviting romantic play between those two characters. Making the first move is hard, though! I wonder if the MC framing two reticent PCs into a make-out party where they’re the only two people who aren’t making out would have interesting results. It would be a point of connection at the very least. (“Do you wanna get out of here?” “Yeah, let’s leave these losers to one another’s misery.”)
RK: We should also talk about other stuff you’re working on. Or anything you want to promote…music, other people, whatever.
JT: Other stuff, hey? It’s hard to know what’s next. I’ve been thinking of polishing up Silver And White, which is a tabletop story game about a group of teenagers that stumble upon a mystery that will change their lives. As you read it aloud at the table, the game text sets up a rich situation, teaches you how to play, then turns you loose. But I’ve also got another collection of little games sort of ready to hit the high gears. I have two collections of my little games already done, all in little booklets. One collection pushes the edges of the spaces and definitions of games, and the other collection is just a bunch of weirdo ridiculous joke games. One of which, SUPERHERO, remains my best party or bar game, which is extra funny because that’s not how I meant for it to turn out. C’est la vie, I suppose!
What I’m particularly excited about right now is all the other nearing-finished games in my direct design community, in Olympia. Robert Bruce and Orion Canning are working on this beautiful game about accepting the loss of a loved one, called Letting Go. It’s set in a magically realistic town in South America, and there are some mechanics that just catch your breath because they’re so heartbreaking. It’s very good. And Ross Cowman, who created the wonderful game Serpent’s Tooth, is now bringing the elegance of his design sensibilities to a tabletop simulation of attempting to survive in the woods after a global disaster has snuffed out most of civilization. If you’re familiar with Serpent’s Tooth, you know that Ross focuses on making the at-table experience as seamless and intuitive as possible, and he’s really outdone himself with the aesthetic work and mechanical support that he’s providing in HVE Water. That first word is pronounced “Heavy.” And then Morgan Stinson has a game about a drunken chimney of a private eye – well, it’s sort of both about the personal, smokey-eyed, hard-talking drama that goes on in this private eye’s life, and then there’s sort of a sub-plot of solving a case. Two people are playing the same private eye, one being his body and passions and addictions and dirty mouth and so on, and the other is his cunning mind, called “The Hat.” It’s full of these tiny moves that each of the four roles can do; it never feels overwhelming or like you’re not sure what to do.
I’m really lucky to have these people around me. They, and several others, have been indispensable to making the Second Skins happen. And the stretch goals, which we’re currently in the process of knocking down, are bristling with these names, and with the names of other people whom I love and respect. If you do happen to go over and check out the Monsterhearts Second Skins Kickstarter campaign (which is running through until the 16th of June), please check down at the bottom of the page for all the amazing things that will be created by the wonderful authors and designers in my community. I’m pretty darn excited about the things that you’ll be creating, Renee! You’re working with Bret Gillan to make a Skin called the Reanimator, and you’re writing a scenario about a spring break vacation to the Bahamas. I’m really excited to see those!
Thanks a lot for talking with me, Renee! I hope that you, and everyone who reads this, gets enough play in their lives – whether that’s with a group of friends around a table or with a dog at the park – and I hope that you get to talk about sex as much as you want to, and I hope you do those things that bring you joy.
Here’s Jackson’s website!
Here’s the Monsterhearts Second Skins kickstarter!
Here’s Ross Cowman’s website (for information about Serpent’s Tooth and HVE Water)!