I love games that don’t require a dedicated Game Master*. In the time I’ve been in The Gauntlet, I’ve played in a lot of GMed games that had so much player input that they basically felt GMless (or rather, GMful, but I’m not going to get into that).
I’m also gay as hell, so it should come as no surprise that Dream Askew instantly snatched my attention. It is a game about “a queer enclave amid the collapse of civilization”, and half of Dream Askew / Dream Apart (the latter deals with “a Jewish shtetl in a fantastical version of nineteenth-century Eastern Europe”). These games were written by Avery Alder and Ben Rosenbaum, and both run on an engine they call No Dice, No Masters.
It’s Powered by the Apocalypse-adjacent, and it gives all of the narrative control and responsibility to the players. The core of the engine is a simple and elegant mechanic: there are three kinds of moves — Weak (moments of vulnerability and failure), Regular (straightforward tasks), and Strong (very impactful and powerful actions). You can only make a Strong Move if you spend a token, and you can get a token if you perform a Weak Move, which encourages everyone to build an engaging narrative with ups and downs. You can also earn tokens by playing into another character’s Lure, but that’s beyond the point of this article.
I’m also a big fan of another one of Alder’s games called Monsterhearts, which is about “sexy monsters, teenage angst, personal horror, and secret love triangles”. We often say around The Gauntlet that Monsterhearts “runs itself”, in the sense that the system gives the players such a good framework for creating interpersonal drama between their characters that the Master of Ceremonies can often sit back and just let the cast rip each other apart, both physically and emotionally.
So I thought “what if?” and took (most of) the sleek engine of No Dice, No Masters and shoved it into the chest of the metaphorical teenage monster of Monsterhearts. But something felt lacking, so I took Jason Cordova’s “the player whose character has most Strings on yours decides your character’s fate” mechanic from True Beauty (his excellent Monsterhearts playset about queer ball culture in the 80’s, available in Codex: Joy 2) and threw that into the mix. For the purpose of this analogy, we’ll say I gave our little monstrosity a gorgeous wig.
And so MONSTERDREAMS arose from the metaphorical slab, ready to strut the runway and wreak havoc. Here’s how it looks:
Players pick the result of their moves.
When they pick 6-, they gain a token. The player who has most Strings on them will make an MC move against them. If there’s a tie for Strings, the tied players decide together.
When they pick 7-9, follow the move as usual.
To pick 10+, they must spend a token.
There is no rule for who gets to play side characters. Use them as a way to divide the spotlight. Make sure the person playing the side character at the moment respects the decisions made by the player who has narrative authority over the scene (as established by Strings).
Stats are gone. Every player starts with 0 tokens.
If at any time you get a +2 or higher bonus on a would-be roll, you instead get to pick 10+ on that move without spending tokens. It’s important to keep track of +1s you have lying around so you can stack your bonuses (the +1s only count as fictional positioning if they’re not stacked).
For example: Meredith has two Strings over Dario and wants to Keep Her Cool against him. She uses Pulling Strings and spends both her Strings to pick the “Add 1 to a roll” option twice, which gives her a +2 bonus. This means she gets a free 10+ on Keep Your Cool without spending tokens.
All other rules and moves are kept as-is. I haven’t combed through all playbooks to make sure they fit this format, so you might need to do some tweaking on-the-go.
TIPS AND PRINCIPLES
- First of all, make sure everyone you present this format to knows what they’re getting into. Not everyone is comfortable with sharing MC duties, and that’s fine! Also make sure everyone knows the extra layer of importance added to Strings;
- Even though there is no MC, the game will benefit from having a dedicated facilitator, who should nudge people into following these tips and principles, and help others participate in the game;
- Be very mindful of the Turn Someone On move, since you are picking your own result. Make sure you consult the other character’s player to see if they’re comfortable with your choice. It shouldn’t be too big of a leap from the regular care we tend to have with this move.
- Be assertive. The games you’ll play belong equally to everyone. The world is both yours and theirs. Don’t say “maybe it would be cool if my werewolf was homeless?” Say “so my werewolf lives on the street and dumpster-dives for clothes. I found a dead body last week but I haven’t told anyone”;
- Backstory questions are extremely important to get a solid foundation going. Really extrapolate on them, make sure all of the main characters are connected somehow;
- Be mindful of everyone’s space. Don’t establish something about another player’s character — ask questions instead, and give people time to organize their thoughts before making a suggestion. A lot of people feel nervous when they’re stuck, and many times they will accept any suggestion just to keep the game moving. Give them a chance to think, and then ask “what ideas do you have? We can help flesh them out if you want”;
- Be conscious of how much time you’re spending in the spotlight, and do it proactively. If you realize you’ve become an overpowering presence in the game, don’t just fall silent: prompt the more quiet players to frame scenes, ask them what their character is up to. Don’t just get out of the light — step into the dark and nudge people forward;
- Even though the final decision is up to the most-Strings-haver, people should ask for input from other players, as a way of keeping everyone involved.
One thing I’ve thought about but haven’t tried is removing Experience and conflating it with tokens, so whenever you would get experience, you get a token instead (that already happens on all 6- outcomes, so you’d just have to change some playbook-specific moves and the “Tempt” option on Pulling Strings). With this rule, a player would spend 3 tokens to get an Advance instead of 5 Experience (like I said, I haven’t tested the math, but 5 tokens feels like a lot).
FINAL THOUGHTS, FUTURE PLANS
I’ve unfortunately only run one game with this format due to time constraints, but it was a great amount of fun. It gave me everything I could hope for from a Monsterhearts game, and I’d dare say some more beyond that. We did run into some speed bumps (part of the mechanics in this article were created on the fly during the session), but it was still a hell of a ride.
I plan on running this system in Gauntlet Hangouts and applying it to some Monsterhearts playsets to see what happens, and maybe even expand it with some tech from other systems (Storybrewers’ Good Society could lend itself nicely to this format). We’ll see what the future holds.
Until then, keep your dreams feral.
You can acquire Dream Askew / Dream Apart and Monsterhearts 2 by clicking here.
If you'd like to see more by Luiz, visit his Itch.io here.