A Fomorian Horror Among His Gentried Peers

The horror movie is innately conservative, even reactionary.” – Steven King

A World of Darkness dev introduced me to this quote on Facebook. He went on to explain the theory that the vast majority of horror is designed to make us afraid of the other, the thing that goes bump in the night, or stalks obscure corners of our world that we may one day be foolish enough to invade. This is not the conservatism of our modern politics, but a more fundamental use of the term rooted in the “maintenance of the status quo”. It is only by returning to normalcy that the beasts of the pit can be banished. There is a long history of these stories being used to reinforce societal norms, but there are as many examples of this small ‘c’ conservative format being used by creators who aren’t interested in maintaining any social status quo, but are fascinated by the human relationship to horror.

I’ve pondered this topic for a long time, and it strikes me, as role players, it’s worth understanding these themes in a meaningful way, because it helps us build the kinds of stories we want to tell at our tables. I’ve also found this model of horror illuminates why we are drawn to certain stories and not others. I think the best illustration of this dynamic is the relationship between Changeling: The Dreaming and Changeling: The Lost. I’m a long time fan of Changeling: The Dreaming, and when Changeling: The Lost came out for what is now known as the Chronicles of Darkness I went and dropped full MSRP on it without so much as cracking the cover. I had been jonesing for new Changeling content for years and it was with immeasurable excitement that I opened the book. After reading the text cover to cover I was in full blown Edition Warrior mode. I’ll spare you my barely more than a teenager histrionics, but suffice it to say, I was not a fan of the new game.

What really bothered me though is I WAS, kind of, a fan. There was so much in Changeling: The Lost that I loved and wanted in Dreaming. The kiths were flexible, the magic was more dynamic, the writing maintained a consistency of quality that unfortunately eluded Dreaming for most of the 90’s. I’ve talked with other Dreaming fans for years and hear this same sentiment over and over. The theme is consistently that Lost is a beautiful well done game but just . . . no and no one exactly knows why. Until recently I wasn’t able to find a satisfactory explanation for this feeling. I honestly believe the explanation lies in the Stephen King quote above.

Changeling: The Lost is a quintessential example of the kind of horror King describes above. You play a creature abducted into the Hedge by Chthonic Fae horrors called The Gentry who is subjected to one trauma after another. When you return to the world, either through heroic escape, or your master growing bored and releasing you, your family doesn’t recognize you, and your entire existence is now a perpetual PTSD trigger reminding you that you barely survived. This is systematized to the point where using your own magic can trigger your morality trait, because it reminds you “you are wrong”. This creates stories of desperately wanting to re-establish the status quo of your previous life, but never pulling it off.

Even in the deepest, most interconnected motley of Changelings, there is always a background of “Yeah, we’ve lived through hell and worse together, but if I could go back to normal I’d ditch you all in a hot second and run screaming back to my wife/husband/children/etc”. I don’t know about the supplements, but the core book passes up no opportunity to remind you of this creeping sense of isolation, or that you are always desperately afraid of losing even this shadow of a normalcy should The Gentry return for you. One of the core messages of Lost is, “cherish the phantom normalcy you’ve been gifted because at any moment it could be stolen away. The Gentry remember”.

In contrast, Changeling: The Dreaming is a game that casts the status quo as the greatest horror in the game. You play a primordial creature born of human dreams. As with all World of Darkness games, you do indeed play a monster feeding on humanity in one way or another, but you are a monster because humanity dreamt you into being as a monster. If you make the world a bloody and brutal place it is not because something awful lives in the darkness, it is merely because humans BELIEVE something awful lives in the darkness, and would they believe or care if there were no status quo to shatter in the first place?

Even where the game slips into more Chthonic territory its core premise subverts the conservative nature of more mainstream horror. This is clear when you look at the Fomorians, who walked a path of darkness across the world in the earliest days of creation. The Fomorians now threaten to return to the world, but the fear of “the other” is always subverted by the fact that the darkest of Fae are still summoned by the dreams and fears of humanity, not the other way around. The Evanescence of dark glamour described in the Changeling 20th Anniversary edition originated with the atrocities of humanity, and even the myths of ancient times speak to the fears of humans at the mercy of a capricious world they did not yet understand. They do not speak of the Fomorians coming before the fear of the unknown.

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Years after that first reading of Changeling: The Lost, the initial sense of “betrayal” I felt has passed and I see these games as possibly the perfect reflections of each other. In many ways this division assures that everyone has some corner of the Faerie they will love, which I deeply appreciate. If you approach these games with an awareness of these themes you can much more easily cast antagonists and scenarios that double down on, or explicitly subvert the core identities of the games.

Plot Seeds

ADHD Shaman by Lydia Burris

In The Dreaming, the toxicity of the status quo of humanity, and the status quo of the Seelie court is hinted at throughout the game line, but is not often how the court is played. A story emphasizing those themes, with players who are Seelie opens a lot of narrative potential. Perhaps the most powerful saining magics of the Dark Ages aren’t as lost as everyone thinks, and if your players see the need to tear down oppressive feudal structures, but don’t want to be caught in the role of “the court of nightmares” then you could tell a story of great quests, and complex magics means to redefine the core identities of the courts, or perhaps even sain a new court altogether. There is nothing that compromises the status quo like redefining the basis of identity for your entire species.

On the other side of the Faerie divide Changelings in the Chronicles of Darkness who find themselves allied with a Beast may come to see the Beast’s hunting and the scars it leaves as a lesser form of the sins committed by the Gentry.  Not all Beasts “teach their lessons” with equal elegance, and some make no attempt to teach lessons at all, seeking only to feed on the fear of mortals. The existence of Beasts, who exist to subvert the status quo, and Changelings, who are creatures uniquely driven to preserve it creates a dynamic where if you are aware of these themes you can tell truly brutal stories setting family member against family member. I would pity the poor Changeling who finds themselves allied with a Hero seeking to “purge the world of Horror”, but I could easily see how such an ill fated allegiance could emerge.

At the end of the day a solid foundation in genre awareness aids a storyteller running any game. When you find yourself guiding players through the darkest corners of humanity’s narrative canon look closely at what makes your players afraid, and tailor your setting to those fears. Knowing the deepest, broadest themes of any horror game makes it a lot easier to find exactly where those fears come from, and how to tap them.

Spring Again At Last: The Return of Changeling: The Dreaming

Now out for public consumption!


When most people describe the World of Darkness the first thing that tends to come up is gritty street wars fought between the undead and other horrors of the night. Sometimes that includes hyper violent Garou burning with deep bloody passions trying desperately to stop creeping death from consuming mother Earth, or Nephandi seeking to corrupt all they touch. However, for some, the World of Darkness is very different.  

Underlying the horrors of the first 4 WoD titles is the hidden chimerical world of Changeling: The Dreaming. When I started gaming in my mid-teens, I lived in a town where Changeling was so popular, our local LARP crew built home brew Mind’s Eye Theatre rules because they couldn’t wait for Shining Host to dive into the capricious machinations of the fae.  

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When I left my early gaming bubbles I was surprised to discover that Changeling is not the universally loved game I was familiar with. I have heard from more than a few people that Changeling is a fine game, but it doesn’t belong in the World of Darkness. So when the Changeling: The Dreaming 20th Anniversary Kickstarter succeeded with flying colors I was excited, not only that Changeling might have another life, but that with a 20th Anniversary edition the full scope of tragedy and horror Changeling represents might be brought into focus for a wider swath of players.

In many ways, the writers for C20 faced greater challenges than previous 20th Anniversary developers. Changeling never got a Revised edition, but unlike the other games in the World of Darkness, Changeling changed focus and central themes more than once during its life. There are several corners of the world that haven’t received any meaningful attention since 1st edition. The result was almost every Changeling book broke new ground, creating a much broader array of content than the line’s relatively modest word count would indicate, with several concepts and rules that were woefully out of date.

Themes

C20 tackled this challenge head on, and accomplished transforming one of the most diverse and honestly inconsistent games in the World of Darkness into a poignant, modern role playing experience. The greatest testament to this accomplishment is the sheer number of WoD fan posts I’ve seen talking about how they didn’t like CtD, but they are loving C20.

Changeling is 1 part politics, 1 part Cthonic horror, 3 parts psychological tragedy built on a pathological fear of death and loss, and some indeterminate amount of whimsy and wonder which serves more than anything to bring the first three elements into deep and painful contrast. C20 is the first Changeling book that captures every emanation of that often indescribable, unshaped mass and weaves it into a coherent whole.

Woo Hoo by Lydia Burris (http://www.lydiaburris.com)

Rules

While the thematic cohesion is a huge win, C20’s greatest accomplishment is tackling the often misunderstood rules system of Changeling. This is done, not only by tying it up into a much more balanced and manageable package, but actually expanding on the system with the concept of Unleashing. Changelings from previous editions were powerful, but deeply limited in how they could apply that power.

With the new magic rules, they now feel much more like the fae of myth and legend, able to wield the raw force of creation, but with often unpredictable and occasionally terrifying results. I have run and played in con games that used the early version of Unleashing shared during the Kickstarter and it adds a satisfying and mythic scale to the game. Beyond Unleashing, the Arts and Realms received an extensive cleanup. They were expanded in some areas, and minimized in others, resulting in a far more coherent and thematically engaging whole.

Storytelling Banality

C20 also borrows a page from modern narrative systems and builds explicit systems around your character’s emotional relationship to the world. This emphasizes the omnipresent threat of banality. In previous editions of the game, characters had a toxic (but often generic) relationship with banality. Now when you build a character, you select a variety of banality triggers, including a trigger that is unique to your character called your antithesis.  

This trigger is something the rest of your motley may find to be a minor nuisance, or in extreme cases may even garner glamour from. To you, it is the epitome of the creeping death of the coming winter. Some of the trigger dynamics could stand to be broader than they currently are, including the seeming triggers, which feel entirely too specific to me and are occasionally inappropriate for Thallain or Gallain characters, but the overall system adds a deeply personal relationship to banality that meaningfully enriches the game.   

Changes in the World

There are several other accomplishments in this edition including the expansion of the Thallain, the reworking of the Dauntain and the Autumn People, and actually wrangling Hsien Alchemy into what feels like a sleek approachable magic system. While I would love to expound on all of the edition’s strengths it would paint an unbalanced picture of the text as a whole. Much like the systems, C20 takes an often radical approach to the backstory of Changeling, and dramatically changes the canon in several areas. Some of those changes were sorely needed, such as the reframing of House Leanhaun, which changes them from arguably more evil than the Baali or Nephandi,to deeply parasitic, but playable. However, some of the changes to the canon feel unnecessary, and more problematically aren’t always well explained.

The flavor section reframes the Sidhe as being split between the Autumn Sidhe who stayed behind during the Shattering and undertook the Changeling Way, and the Arcadian Sidhe. The Arcadian Sidhe came back with the Resurgence and refused to soil their souls by fully bonding with humans. Effectively this was performed as a more violent and incomplete form of the Changeling Way where they displaced a human soul and took its place.

The Autumn Sidhe

Occasionally the text reads as though only House Scatthach and Liam took part in the Changeling Way, sometimes it frames the Autumn Sidhe in generic terminology that could  be read to imply Sidhe from any house might have gone through the Changeling Way. In the House section intro, Liam is listed as a returning House, and only Scatthach is listed as having stayed behind, and then in some of the house writeups there are subtle references to other Sidhe who stayed behind, but often in ambiguous language. The final result is honestly confusing.

During an exchange on Facebook, one of the C20 writers confirmed that any Sidhe that stayed behind became an Autumn Sidhe, which clarified things a bit, but ultimately those sorts of exchanges shouldn’t be necessary. A few explicit sentences in the Autumn Sidhe two page spread would go a long way towards providing clarity on this point. This change also wipes out broad swaths of story centering on the tragedy of the Sidhe who died in the years after the shattering because they were either trapped or chose to stay behind.

I love the addition of the Autumn Sidhe as a general concept, but less absolute framing about how all Sidhe who stayed behind became Autumn Sidhe, and all the Sidhe who returned refused to go through the Changeling Way would have cut off far less existing canon, and created messier, but more diverse plot hooks.

History Convoluted?

While the confusion about the Arcadian/Autumn Sidhe is definitely the most pronounced example of muddled narrative, there were several other smaller moments in the setting and history section that didn’t make a lot of sense, and occasionally even seemed to contradict material that appears elsewhere in the book. There is a lot to love in the C20 setting material. The conflict between the Tuatha and the Fomorians is far more dynamic than I remember in previous texts.

The role Christianity played in transforming the stories about the fae is included, which is something I’ve wanted to see in the game for a long time, but the history and setting content in C20 is best read with a strong eye towards the golden rule, especially if you have any investment in existing canon.

I’ve talked about the good and the bad of the edition’s treatment of Arcadian fae, but then there is my favorite and arguably the messiest part of Changeling, the Gallain. The Gallain are fae who are not a central part of Arcadian society. While there are a few European faeries who are considered Gallain, the term generally refers to non European faeries. Changeling has traditionally framed these spirits as either not being part of the Dreaming, such as the Asian Hsien, or in the case of the Nunnehi and Menehune, as being cut off from the Dreaming due to acts of genocide and violence committed against their dreamers. I’ve never been terribly comfortable with this framing, but I knew the writers wouldn’t have the leeway to dramatically change the way these groups functioned, but I was really hoping for a few more inclusive tweaks to the status quo.

Sprites Dance by Lydia Burris (http://www.lydiaburris.com)

Who is a part of Whom?

Occasionally the approach to non-European Changelings went above and beyond my expectations. The introduction of non-European Thallain gave the Nunnehi and Menehune a much more robust representation in the setting, but also occasionally drifted toward centering the Gallain around European stories more strongly than previous editions. The most pronounced instance of this is changing the Higher Hunting Grounds from being the Nunnehi Dreaming, which is invoked in the Changeling Player’s Guide as an equal but separate place from Arcadia, to being the Nunnehi’s home in Arcadia. On the surface this is a small change, but it recontextualizes the Nunnehi in a way that intentionally or not makes them a part of something fundamentally rooted in European mythology. The other examples of moving towards an even more European centering narrative are less blatant, but I honestly hope they are rectified in future texts.  

Overall, C20 brings Changeling into the 21st century. It is a deeply innovative take on the Storyteller System, and provides a more robust foundation to build a future line on than the game has ever enjoyed. It has done a huge service to the game by inspiring more fans to consider including Changeling in their personal World of Darkness. What C20 needs more than anything else is a full game line. It needs Gallain stories written by authors who have lived the truth of the myths being invoked, and full text expansion on the concepts that were completely reinvented for C20. This book is a monumental achievement, and it would be a tragedy of Arthurian proportions if this resurgence isn’t followed by a lasting and inspired spring of new material.

 

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Actually, It’s About Ethics in Media Consumption


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Anyone who has ever been part of a subculture knows the bright red sting of controversy.  Sometimes the controversy is low stakes like the general fan rejection of Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition. Sometimes controversies go to the core of a community’s values like the ongoing controversy about whitewashing in Hollywood, and more specifically, to the likely interests of this blog’s readers, the continuing whitewashing of Asian characters by Marvel comics.

Boycotts

Over the years I’ve seen a number of calls for boycotts over these types of issues, and I’ve wondered how useful this tactic is.  Recently, I’ve heard similar calls within the role-playing community over a variety of events that have been litigated enough in the public square that I’d rather not discuss them here, but I do think it’s worth talking about the broader concept of “boycotting” work, especially work in a tightly integrated media landscape like the role-playing industry.

While many people find the idea of a dramatic boycott satisfying, how we make day to day media consumption choices within our hobby and why those choices may or may not have an impact on the industry has the potential to be a much more productive conversation.  Think of it like going on a binge diet, or trying to make long term adjustments to the way you promote health through food choices.  Binge diets do more harm than good, but holistically training yourself to eat in a healthy manner one step at a time is a path to healthy consumption habits. The same thing applies to the commercial choices we make.

Does that work for RPGs?

Role-playing games are unusual media beasts in a lot of ways.  With the exception of Dungeons and Dragons, which is in the hands of a wholly owned subsidiary of Hasbro, RPGs are generally produced by small companies, and in many cases aren’t produced by their IP owners.  The majority of new White Wolf games are produced by Onyx Path Studios, or By Night Studios.  Chill is produced under license by Growling Door Games.  Shadowrun is produced under license by Catalyst Studios.  While there are also plenty of titles being produced that aren’t under license, several of the biggest names in RPGs are developed in this manner.  This complicates any situation where you want to use your economic activity to influence the behavior of a corporation, because it often puts you in a position where you may well be punishing a company you feel behaves in an exemplary manner for the behavior of an only vaguely involved IP owner.

So first let’s address the elephant in the room.  Trying to influence companies through consumption patterns gets a really bad rap because in many cases it’s a lost cause. Ethical consumption is all too often reduced to a marketing opportunity.  Free  Range and/or Pasture Raised chicken, Fair Trade Coffee and Chocolate, and any variety of attempts to patronize kinder, gentler, more labor friendly corporations tend to fall apart upon particularly close inspection.  It takes such massive bad press to impact the bottom line of most big companies that being seen as ethical is at best a matter of appearance and branding for most companies. So the question becomes, why bother?

Ethics?

Setting aside the issues with ethical consumption of non-media products, and even ethical consumption of AAA media, the situation is a little bit different in the world of the RPG. No matter what behavior you want to promote in the industry, it’s fair to say our dollars count for a lot more to a company selling a product like Numenera that had a mere 4,658 backers on its original Kickstarter, or even moreso, a game like Chill that had 793 backers on its original Kickstarter, than Kellog or Dell.  Losing a handful of customers hits most RPG producers in a way it just doesn’t hit the other companies we tend to give our money.

The impact of of our economic choices is amplified for those of us who choose to run games, as opposed to just play in them.  I’m going to be dropping cash on Exalted Charm cards in the near future because a close friend of mine chose to run Exalted and I want to have those cards during game. So, he has effectively made a sale for OPP without spending any money by running that game, and some of my fellow players may follow suit once my cards arrive. The question that has been nagging at the back of my mind is, given the influence we have, what choices will have the most positive impact on our hobby, and how should we interact with those who make different decisions?

Making a Difference

The first question is in many ways easier to answer, though it is far from simple.  The most significant way we can make a difference with the gaming money we spend is by focusing on supporting the creators and narratives we want to see flourish in the world.  Unlike consumption of things like food where we may or may not have the economic affluence to afford the most “ethical” options out there, the money we spend on RPGs is by its very nature disposable and we are not lessened by devoting some of that money to more experimental and inclusive media.  That might mean supporting something entirely new but somewhat traditional, like Ehdrighor because it dramatically expands the potential of big book role playing games, it might be supporting something completely experimental like Bluebeard’s Bride, or it might be supporting a company producing for an established product line telling inclusive stories in a more nuanced way than their lines have been known for in the past. Conscious engagement with these choices help us shape the gaming industry we will enjoy in the future, albeit in small ways.

The other question I posed above is a more difficult one to tackle.  In the past couple months I’ve seen several people upset at events in our community make personal decisions about who they would and would not give their money to and then openly shame others for making different choices.  Often those different choices were well thought out, and a reflection of different ethical priorities.  These choices were not based on willful ignorance or ethical laziness, and even if they were I have yet to see shaming someone for not sharing one’s values change a mind or even inspire greater thoughtfulness on an issue.  I feel that as our hobby grows there is a vital place for discussing our values and who we want to be as a community. While we will never be a monolith, that discourse is a vital part the growth of any community, and with events like the inclusion of game writers in the SFWA, and White Wolf pushing to produce more mainstream World of Darkness related media there is no question that we are growing. We can expect to face several of the same problems other fandoms have struggled with as they have moved out of obscurity and farther into the mainstream.  

Balancing Act

As that happens, it is important to engage with other fans who are thinking about these dynamics in good faith in the spirit of discourse, and not as though they are an enemy. Many people make an unfortunately meager livelihood producing the games we all love so much, and part of our ethical calculus should be the collateral damage of saying we’re going to pull back from supporting a given IP owner and every company that licenses from them.  Some people will care more about drawing a line in the sand based on corporate actions, others will care much more deeply about that collateral damage, and neither group is necessarily wrong.  If we choose to try to effect change through the media we consume then we should try to be aware of the good and ill caused by all our choices, and recognize that the choice to try to effect change through consumption is imperfect, and opinions on its validity will vary.  We should all go forth and be ready to be the change we want in the world, but know our view on that process is not a monolith, much like our community.

An Interview with Chill and Changeling the Dreaming 20th Anniversary Developer Matthew McFarland

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According to the Onyx Path development Blog the Changeling the Dreaming 20th Anniversary edition is nearing completion, and rumors about that the Monsters Sourcebook for Chill 3rd edition is nearing completion.  Given these exciting developments it only made sense for Victor Kinzer and Simon Eichhörnchen to ask Matthew McFarland who is leading development on both of these projects to talk a little bit about these projects and he graciously agreed.

Victor: Thank you for taking the time to chat with us.  For anyone who isn’t familiar, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your history developing games?

Sure! I started writing games professionally in 1997. White Wolf Game Studio had an all-call for writers, and I sent in the first bit of a novella I was working on. That novella is thankfully lost to time, but it did get me a job writing on Giovanni Chronicles IV, and then I slowly infiltrated the rest of the World of Darkness lines and eventually got a full-time job as Dark Ages developer.

I left White Wolf in 2004, and went to grad school to become a speech-language pathologist, because while you can have steady work in the RPG industry, it was a little too unstable for me as a new dad. In 2012, my wife Michelle Lyons-McFarland and I started our own small press games company, Growling Door Games, Inc. We published two single-book story games (curse the darkness and A Tragedy in Five Acts), and then 2014 we obtained the license to publish a new edition of the classic horror RPG Chill.

Simon: What was it that attracted you to the projects you’re working on now?

Right now, I’m working on a couple of freelance projects for Onyx Path Publishing (which licenses the World of Darkness from the new owners at Paradox)[Editor’s Note, The World of Darkness is a property of White Wolf, AB a subsidiary of Paradox Entertainment Inc.], including the Beast Player’s Guide for Beast: The Primordial and the second edition of Hunter: The Vigil. Can’t talk much about Hunter; that’s Monica Valentinelli’s show, and I’m just a writer. Beast is very much my show; the game was mine pretty much from the ground up (though of course I had a really awesome team of people helping to put it all together), and I’m excited about the Player’s Guide. It’s a chance to flesh out the areas of Beast that I don’t think came through as well as we wanted in the core book, and also follow the time-honored tradition of adding new cool powers, new “splats”, and new toys for players to use.

Outside of Onyx Path, I just finished up writing a sourcebook for Chil called Monsters. It’s a bestiary book, in a way, but it’s also a look into the world of Chill and how the organization dedicated to fighting the Unknown, SAVE, approaches creatures that don’t fall into easily understandable categories (vampires, ghosts, werewolves, etc.). Monsters is the first book in a good long while that I’ve written entirely myself, and it was fun flexing those muscles again. (Monsters should be available for sale in August, by the way.)

Victor: The Changeling the Dreaming 20th Anniversary is the first new edition of the game since 1997.  Can you talk about what your approach was to updating Changeling to the world of the 20teens?

The 20th Anniversary Edition games were meant to keep the feel of the old games, but to update the world around them and (in the case of Changeling) become the revised edition they never got. As such, our approach was to look at what made Changeling awesome. We tried to keep the whimsy, but also the tragedy. One of the greatest explanations of Changeling I ever heard (from a friend and player in Atlanta many years ago) was that it’s like someone pointing a gun at your head and saying “be happy.” We tried to keep that notion, that dreams are hard to maintain in the face of the crushing pressure of the “real world,” but they’re all the more important because of that.

The other thing we wanted to do give changelings a little more magical “oomph.” I’m not a believer in “game balance” as it’s usually defined (that is, given a featureless white room, could two characters stand an equal chance of killing each other), but I do think that changelings in previous editions were a bit too fragile. We changed magical mechanics a bit, and brought in the notion of Unleashing (originally from Dark Ages: Fae) so that changelings have the chance to court disaster with the power of Glamour.  

Victor: One of the major focuses of Keep is inclusivity in gaming, so we have a few questions about the Gallain.  In a blog post about your early playtests for Changeling, you said the theme for the edition is  “powerful nobles hiding in freeholds and staying young while the changelings outside freeze”.  In previous editions the various groups of Gallain were presented with either less oppressive nobles or no specifically noble kith.  Since C20 includes all the Fae how are you including the non European kiths in the theme of this edition?

That’s one theme of the edition, and it definitely resonates more with the European Kithain than the Gallain. The Gallain are in the book, but they’re not the focus of the game (they’re in the Appendix and while there’s enough to play them, it’s severely truncated due to space constraints). I know that’s a roundabout way to answer the question, but the answer is that Gallain don’t get included in the same way, except perhaps insofar as to note that even the “commoner” Kithain, who are the bottom class of that particular system, still get to participate in that system. Gallain don’t, necessarily (which might not matter, depending on where they are).

Simon: Part of any good story is compelling antagonists. Changeling’s ultimate enemies, the autumn people, the people who disbelieve the fae out of existence, are a powerful metaphor for the destruction of culture. With that in mind, how do you go about creating autumn people that speak to that kind of horror while at the same time being sensitive to real world colonization experienced by the cultures reflected by the Gallain?

What’s scary about the autumn people, to me, is that they don’t have to confront the fae to destroy them. They’re not aggressive (necessarily), they’re confirmation bias made manifest. They’re a form of privilege, if you will, because they don’t see what they don’t need to see. I think that’s pretty relevant for the Gallain and their cultures, too (though of course, not all Gallain use dreams and Glamour the same way as Kithain).

Simon: Given that the Inanimae can reflect how different cultures perceive their environments how do you see the Inanimae fitting into the 20th Anniversary of Changeling?

One of the notions that the book brings up is that during the Mythic Age, everything dreamed, including the world. Bearing in mind that, like the other Gallain, the Inanimae don’t get a lot of space in Changeling 20th, I think the takeaway is that part of ignoring dreams and Glamour is ignoring the natural world. That’s something that people (both in the World of Darkness and in the real world) do at their peril, but it’s hard, and again, what makes autumn people scary and frustrating isn’t that they go out of their way to ruin the world (a la Pentex) but that they can blithely ignore the problems.

It’s easy to imagine an Inanimae looking at a changeling and saying, “well, sure, whine all you want, but people still write books, using paper that they make from the mulched-up bodies of my family.”

Womb of the Earth by Lydia Burris


Victor: When I first started playing the World of Darkness I was in a community of gamers where Changeling was incredibly popular, but in more recent years I’ve discovered that a lot of White Wolf fans feel Changeling doesn’t fit into the broader World of Darkness.  Where do you think this sentiment comes from, and did you make any changes in C20 you can tell us about that help the fae interact literally and thematically with the broader World of Darkness?

So, personally, I never had any trouble making Changeling fit into the greater World of Darkness. I used to do a lot of crossover (still do, for my Chronicles of Darkness games, where it’s much easier), and what it boils down to is that themes unique to one game might not work for all the others, but there are themes that are intrinsic to the World of Darkness as a whole. The death of creativity and passion is strongest for Changeling, of course, but tell me you couldn’t make that work for Vampire, too. Hell, “our way of life is dying” is perfect for Werewolf as well as Changeling. “Discovery and passion are intoxicating but dangerous:” Changeling and Mage.

Mechanically, of course there are some things you have to work around (not everyone has the same Traits, for instance), and if you’re doing crossover, you can’t just throw any old characters together and think they’ll work. I happen to think that’s true no matter what game you’re playing, though.

Simon: Throughout the CtD line the three major Gallain groups, the Nunnehi, the Menehune and the Hsien, are either excluded from or not a part of the Dreaming. Has this dynamic changed at all in C20?

We don’t get into the cosmology of it very much, due to space. Nunnehi and Menehune still deal more with spiritual expressions of Glamour than Dreaming-based expressions, though.

Victor: I’d like to talk briefly about another one of your upcoming projects, the Monsters sourcebook for the Chill Role Playing game published by your company Growling Door Games.  Can you tell us a little bit about Chill, and the Monster book specifically for anyone who isn’t familiar with the game?

Chill is an investigate horror RPG in which players take on the roles of members of SAVE (the Eternal Society of the Silver Way). SAVE is an organization dedicated to protecting people from the Unknown (the supernatural in general), which feeds on humanity’s fear, misery, pain, and sometimes just flesh and blood. Our first sourcebook, called SAVE: The Eternal Society, delved into the history and current state of the organization.

Monsters, like I mentioned earlier, is a bestiary book, but it’s also mostly written in-character, from the perspective of a SAVE researcher working on a classification system for monsters. It was a lot of fun to delve into how SAVE saw these creatures when she was writing it (in the 1980s) and then add commentary from a more contemporary agent. There are a lot of fun “Easter eggs” in the book that refer back to the Chill core book and to SAVE, and I think it will be fun for readers to see these characters’ stories as they read about these monsters.

The second edition of Chill presented adversary books in this format (Lycanthropes, Vampires, Apparitions), and I was always impressed with how skillfully the in-character information evoked the horror of the setting. I’m trying for something like that: Fun to read, evocative for players and Chill Masters.


Victor: I saw you comment online a few months ago about tweaks you were making to the Monsters in the book to remove some of the invisible bias that was present in previous editions of the game.  Can you talk a little bit about how you approached this and in general how you approach making those kinds of revisions to RPGs with established fan bases who may be resistant to any changes in their favorite games?

As far as making changes to games with loyal fanbases, I’ve always found that if you try to please everyone, you please no one. I love the 2nd Edition of Chill, and our edition draws very heavily on that one. I’ve always been very clear about that, and while I do get fans of the first edition sometimes who complain that our version isn’t enough like that one (the first edition drew more inspiration from pulp-horror and Hammer films), for the most part folks grasp what we’re doing and are with us.


I think the comment you’re referring to was in noting that there were quite a few creatures in previous editions that presented as female, and were said to “tempt” or “deceive” men. If you look at how female-presenting creatures appear in horror generally, you see a lot of that, so it’s by no means unique to
Chill or to RPGs, but since one of the big themes of Chill is that fear becomes manifest in the Unknown, I wanted to address that. I play a lot with the notion of unreliable narrators in Monsters, talking about SAVE making assumptions that it really has no business making, and members letting their own biases creep in. The kind of meta effect of that is that we wind up hanging a lantern on some of the sexist implications of previous work; Dr. Garrett, the narrator of Monsters, notes that female-presenting creatures are consistently described in certain ways that male-presenting or genderless creatures are not.

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of the Editor or any other Author of Keep On the Heathlands

Mage: Refuge a Prequel

Keep on the Heathlands recently published a review of the new Vampire the Masquerade mobile game from White Wolf Publishing, Vampire: We Eat Blood  All Our Friends Are Dead. After reading his review I was anxious to see what White Wolf did with Mage in Mage: Refuge. For anyone familiar with choose your own adventure books these games will be familiar. The game is fundamentally a piece of short fiction, but at various points during the story you are prompted to make choices about the protagonist’s actions, or decide on aspects of her personality, and those choices impact the outcome of the narrative.

Mage: Refuge is a solid example of a branching narrative game. The story feels urgent, and fairly claustrophobic, which is an appropriate feeling for the World of Darkness. The art and aesthetic does an excellent job of making the game feel immersive, and gives you a sense of just how disconcerting true magick can be. While an engaging experience, some of the design choices introduced accessibility concerns.

During the narrative, there are a few scenes where you find yourself in an altered state of consciousness. The nature of this experience is left intentionally vague but clues are dropped over the course of the game about what is happening. While you’re in this state the text goes from black on a white background to white on a black background, with a blue and yellow shift that moves constantly just behind the white text. I often had difficulty reading these scenes. I cannot imagine how difficult these scenes would be for someone with vision problems or data processing issues. Given the eye strain I experienced during these scenes I sincerely hope that future releases from White Wolf give more consideration to accessible design.

Sigil from Mage: Refuge

In general, despite some shortcomings, Mage: Refugee is a solid branching narrative game, and if you don’t have a history with Mage: The Ascension I think most players will find it very enjoyable. I am much less sold on Refuge as an introduction to the world of the awakened within the World of Darkness. In an early interview about the direction White Wolf would be taking the World of Darkness, Martin Ericsson said the central theme of Mage is the tension between safety and human potential (This is paraphrased, unfortunately worldofdarknessnews.com is no longer online and this interview was not archived in the WayBackMachine). The introduction to the Mage 20th Anniversary edition frames the central themes of Mage around personal responsibility and the fanaticism that comes from believing something so profoundly that you’re able to channel that belief into a magickal act. The horror of Mage often lives in the mirror, and at its core is about the road to hell being paved with good intentions, and the power to act on those intentions.

Through the lens presented in the introduction of M20, the conflict between potential and safety is merely one of many that emerge out of the more complicated soup of zealous belief and power. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. I was sincerely hoping that when we began to see Mage products from the new White Wolf the quote from Ericsson would turn out to be a one off thing, as opposed to an indication of his fundamental understanding of Mage. Mage: Refuge does not focus on the corrupting nature of power at all, and instead focuses on the tension Ericsson emphasized in this early interview. Between the quote, and the narrative expressed in this game, it seems reasonable to expect this focus to be central to future White Wolf Mage releases.

The main character awakens in the story while in a nightclub, after coming to the realization that we are all one, and separation is a lie. It’s a wild awakening with no instruments or action on her part involved in the chaotic correspondence effects that take place during her avatar’s emergence. There is also no pre-existing belief system presented to frame her awakening, just some deep techno beats and a description of correspondence from Mage 1st Edition. This is also the only use of correspondence Julia expresses during the game. Julia spends the rest of the story in an existential dilemma, repeating the refrain of “Is this really happening”. Her awakening feels much less like a dawning understanding of her ability to change the world, and much more like the trauma metaphor commonly used during a werewolf’s first change or a changeling’s chrysalis.

In Mage 20th, it is made very clear that the act of manifesting magick is focused will through the lens of belief. In the game this is called paradigm. This lens is completely absent from Mage: Refuge, as Julia jumps effortlessly from paradigmatic practice to paradigmatic practice during the course of the game. Julia shares several traits with Katniss Everdeen that are commonly critiqued. She never actually manifests any personal inspiration. She is always choosing between which of the other Mages’ takes on reality she wants to support. While the format of choose your own adventure requires a limited set of choices, those choices could have been written as Julia recognizing changes she could make to the world. Instead they are all framed around other character’s visions she could attach herself to. Since the game basically opens with a wild awakening, as opposed to a faction controlled awakening, she needs to have some belief or revelation of her own that her avatar has guided her to, but that is unfortunately nowhere to be found. I have absolutely no idea what her paradigm is, and that’s fundamentally problematic for a Mage story.

The character’s relationship with her avatar is expressed through blog posts “she makes in her sleep”. With the exception of 1 story branch where you sell out the mystics to the Technocracy, all of your working manifests as wild/mystic magic. So, the technological relationship with your avatar feels incredibly out of place. Julia is also never pushed by what her avatar shares with her in these blog posts. They point towards a certain story branch being “correct”, but the description of your character’s state of mind after she reads her avatar’s blog posts never comes back to what her avatar is driving her to do. This is especially frustrating when you follow paths that are obviously in opposition to your avatar’s urging.

If all of these problems weren’t fundamentally concerning enough, the game directly associates the Technocracy with the Sweden Democrats, an anti-immigrant political party. The game presents  arguments made by the Technocracy as “keeping those people with their superstitious ideas out of Sweden”. In game, this reads very much like a thinly veiled cover for xenophobia. When I did some basic reading on the real world Sweden Democrats, it became obvious that while they are not the most extreme xenophobic group in modern politics, the game still softened their message to preserve the aesthetic of “either side of the ascension war COULD be right”. While there are probably people who will disagree, I am uncomfortable using that equal playing field narrative with nationalist xenophobia. If you want to cast the Technocracy as nationalist xenophobes to inspect that theme in our culture, don’t pull any punches. Make a statement. If you choose to aid this group, the game’s epilogue is considerably more compassionate towards refugees than what many members of the Sweden Democrats have called for in real life. While I am a big fan of a more relatable Technocracy, softening xenophobia isn’t a reasonable approach to accomplish that goal, and if the Union is meant to be the unquestionable villain of this story, the choice is even more confusing.

When Mage came out in the early 90’s, the Technocracy were the bad guys. That changed when the 2nd edition Guide to the Technocracy came out. The game line has moved consistently towards a view of the Union as corrupted by hubris and power, but arguably no more than the Traditions who have their own bloody history. Large swaths of the player base considers the Technocracy to be the unsung heroes of the World of Darkness. Even in their darkest interpretations the Union is multicultural, and included the descendants of the Mokteshaf Al Nour, and the Dalou’laoshi. I unfortunately found no trace of that Union in this piece.

(warning: spoilers ahead) Beyond the accessibility issues, and the problematic relationship to the themes of more recent Mage releases, Mage: Refugee did something else that is a more fundamental red flag for me. Shortly after your character awakens you are approached by another Mage who in your most vulnerable moment pulls you into a private place and takes advantage of you sexually. This act plays a delicate game of skating dangerously close to rape while avoiding making it a clean cut example. The emotional violation is unquestionable though. A brief nod is given to asking for consent, well past the point in the scene where consent was called for. In order to go down the path where actual sex happens, the text implies you are all for what’s going on, but at the end of the branch you have the opportunity to undo what happened as you realize “What happened was wrong. What if you could rewind . . .”. If you make this choice you are taken back to an earlier point in the decision tree by Time Magick, so you have the exquisite joy of getting to read how you wanted it, but nope we’re going to go ahead and make it rape anyway, but you know it never really happened so it’s fine or something.

Vice by Lydia Burris (http://http://www.lydiaburris.com)

The most troublesome thing is you are allowed to think that the character Julia is interacting with during these scenes is an Ecstatic, and these scenes reinforce the most unfortunate player stereotypes about the tradition. Then mid game you find out, SURPRISE, he was a Nephandus the whole time. Ultimately the entire engagement with him is in no way related to the actual plot of the game. He comes up once as an example of “well he was a bad guy and he’s not Syrian”, but aside from that one exchange the entire Nephandus sub-plot could be excised and no damage would be done to the main narrative.

I’m not opposed to inspecting sexual assault through narrative, especially a horror narrative. I am a big fan of Jessica Jones, and works like Bluebeard’s Bride that present the societal horror of sexual assault, while also critiquing the aspects of our culture that it emerges from. Mage: Refuge doesn’t do that. It throws sexual assault into a secondary storyline that isn’t needed for the core plot, it doesn’t inspect the sexual assault as a cultural phenomenon, or critique it’s causes, and it does it all while putting the “player” of the game in a first person framing for the experience.

The problem is if the Nephandus storyline was removed, there wouldn’t be any traditional horror anywhere in the game. There is some unsettling political commentary, but that’s all. I have said on several occasions that the core horror of Mage lives in the mirror. As the introduction to M20 discusses, the primary theme of Mage is the horror that grows from believing something with the zeal necessary to change reality with will alone, and then having the hubris to act on that power. That theme was missing from this game almost entirely, and so, something had to fill the void. The fact that the writers chose to fill the void with sexual assault is more than a little concerning, both in terms of what it reveals about their views on narrative integrity, and their understanding of the fundamental horror intrinsic to the experience of being a Mage.

Mage: Refuge is a solid choose your own adventure game.  It’s well written, and shows an attention to quality and detail.  However, it also provides a lens into the potential future of the Mage property that some will probably enjoy, but for fans of the current edition, represents a fundamental change in thematic focus.  It is worth noting that this is a small example of what White Wolf might do with Mage, and even combined with previous statements,  White Wolf’s vision for future Mage  products may be very different.  I am still in the wait and see what manifests camp, but I have to admit that after playing Mage: Refuge I relate to the concerned fans a bit more.

Mage the Ascension: Refuge

iTunes, Play Store, Steam

$4.99

Author: Karin Tidblad

Co-Authors: Martin Elricsson

Art Direction: Eric Thunfors

Music: Kajsa Lindgren

 

Producer: Jon Svenonius

Programming & VFK: Stefan Svebeck

Scripting: Karim Muammar

Victor Kinzer has been roleplaying since he first picked up Vampire Dark Ages in high school.  He nabbed it as soon as it was released (he might have been lusting after other Vampire books for a while at that point) and hasn’t looked back since.  He role plays his way through the vast and treacherous waters of north Chicago, and is hacking away at the next great cyberpunk saga at http://redcircuitry.blogspot.com/.  Victor is an occasional guest on Tempus Tenebrarum (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCvNp2le5EGWW5jY0lQ9G39Q/feed), and is working to get in on the con game master circuit.  During the rest of his life he works in Research Compliance IT, which might inform more of his World of Darkness storylines than he readily admits.

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of the Editor or any other Author of Keep On the Heathlands.

 

Narrative Dissonance and Humanity in the World of Darkness

World of Darkness

Who is the true, underlying villain in the original “big five” games of the World of Darkness?  I can’t really think of a more loaded question related to White Wolf’s flagship IP.  At first glance, it seems as though every game has its own villain: Werewolf has the Wyrm; Mage has the Nephandi, and in some editions the Technocracy; Wraith has, well, everyone; and Changeling has humanity itself.  Some editions of Changeling shied away from the Humanity-as-villain narrative, but whether the enemy was the Shadow Court or uncaring nobles, those foes can be traced back to what humanity’s abuses have done to the Fae.

If you look closely, the theme of humanity-as-villain is central to most of the game lines, with Vampire being the one exception.  In Wraith, Oblivion historically is a more productive force than it is today.  Every description of harrowings talks about how they were once a critical part of attaining transcendence, but over the centuries have become increasingly dark and twisted.  When you look at how Oblivion has manifested in the other dark kingdoms, such as the Dark Kingdom of Ivory, where there is no great human administrative infrastructure, the “sins” of Oblivion seem less cosmological and more the result of humanity’s relationship with their darker impulses.  This is hardly the only game where we see these tropes.

Mage is an even more acute example.  As the Technocracy-as-villain narrative has been intentionally subverted over time, we have seen the horror of Mage shift, holding up a dark mirror.  Mage is a game about a human being displaying enough hubris to believe they have the power to change reality and the wisdom to do it properly, and then act on that belief.  In many ways, the greatest enemy in Mage are the main characters, and every time you spend experience you are giving that villain more power.  While some view mages as a class of “others” like vampires or werewolves, they are arguably the most distilled expression of human existence in White Wolf’s canon of work.

When the villain lives in the mirror, the villain is humanity.

PentexartIt’s a little harder to see this theme in Werewolf. When you trace the Wyrm’s story, it doesn’t take  long to see the paragon of destruction as a victim, and that leaves the Weaver as the real villain. No matter how much emphasis you put on pattern spiders, or the Weaver’s other spirit minions, her greatest avatars are humans.  Pentex is seen as doing the Wyrm’s work, but they function as a strictly controlled and organized corporation.  I can’t think of anything more Weaver-like or symbolic of modern human advancement than the corporation.

That leaves Vampire, the largest and most financially successful game in the World of Darkness.  This is where these themes fall apart.  Humanity isn’t the primary villain in Vampire; Humanity is idealized in the system as its primary morality trait.  The hierarchy of sins for Humanity, which acts as an in-game guide to which actions will send a character into a crisis of morality, reveals a collection of scolds that elevate Christian moralism more than they reflect anything true about innate humanity.

The humanity dynamic is obviously inspired in part or whole by the challenges faced by Louis in Interview With the Vampire. The Embrace, the struggle with shame and guilt, and many of the social/political themes of Masquerade draw heavily on Anne Rice’s early work, and as a standalone piece inspired by and inspecting some of the questions Rice posed in her books, Masquerade holds up very well.  The problem is that White Wolf then published 4 more games that present a much less flattering view of humanity, and the new White Wolf has publicly stated they want to engage more fully with events from the real world.  In a world where Duterte not only exists but has a non-antagonistic relationship with America’s President, I have a hard time envisioning White Wolf engaging with real world events and political themes while presenting Humanity as a glorified ideal to which Vampires cling.

Are Paths the answer?

Vampire provides an alternative to Humanity in the form of the Paths of Enlightenment, which serve as alternate moralities a vampire can use to hold their beastly hunger in check.  In my personal experience, the Paths of Enlightenment become a way to get around tracking morality far more often than they prompt players to meaningfully inspect themes of self justification, which is how they were originally framed.  The burden of calling for morality checks falls on the ST, and in a Sabbat or Independent game where five players each have a different path of Enlightenment, knowing when a given player has violated their path is cumbersome enough that it is often ignored.

It is also wortTuskegee_University_sealh noting that the current relationship between speculative fiction and the idea of “The Other” is very different than it was in the early 90’s when the first edition of Vampire the Masquerade came out.  Vampire swept several issues related to humanity’s less savory tendencies under the rug.  Vampires aren’t sexist, because why would you care about gender when you are an immortal entity with no sex drive?  Young vampires wouldn’t enter the early days of their unlife with that perspective, though they might shift their views on gender after their first run in with a 500 year old female Tremere – assuming they survived the encounter.  

Additionally, our conversations around prejudice have become more nuanced. Claiming vampires become nothing more than ravaging beasts if they victimize people, regardless of their races, genders, sexual orientations, etc., while allowing humans to take similar actions with no repercussions creates some messy narrative dynamics.  A Kindred held to the sins of the path of humanity would fall to their Beast long before they got around to internalizing the “more enlightened” philosophies that allow them to resist that fall if you allow vampires to demonstrate the kind of monstrosity mortals have perpetrated during the Tuskeegee Syphilis Trials, or the Trail of Tears. As many players have pointed out, we shouldn’t minimize these horrors by pretending that only supernaturals are responsible for such acts in the World of Darkness.  In 2017 it’s hard to ignore these reflections of humanity and if we try to play Vampire without them the game ends up being reduced to little more than the urban fantasy escapism that the new White Wolf has said they want to avoid.

The Future

downloadWhite Wolf has announced that Vampire 5th Edition is slated for 2018, and they are planning on making some pretty dramatic changes to the systems, including changes to what the Beast represents.  If the Beast changes, then the relationship between the Kindred and their morality could change as well.  Personally, I’d like to see a core morality mechanic that emphasizes the creeping alien nature of immortality.  I would like to see a mechanic that accommodates what happens when a genocidal despot or a mass murderer styled after the likes of Dylan Roof is embraced without invoking a Path of Enlightenment that exists only in Vampiric society.  I want to see an edition of Vampire that joins the rest of the World of Darkness in forcing us to stare into the mirror to find our horror instead of allowing us to pretend that some alien other is the true monster in the night.

This may be a tall order, and I know that, like all changes to an established and loved product, a large swath of fans would protest a change to Vampire this drastic.  However, Twenty years of thematic development in the rest of the line and the goals laid out by the new White Wolf necessitate some shifts.  I can’t pretend to know exactly what this change would need to look like, but I think while Vampire 5th ed is in development it’s important to talk about our future hopes for the line, because White Wolf has reached out to their fans and by all indications is really listening to what we have to say.  Instead of just posing a solution, I would like to ask the question: “What morality dynamics would you like to see for Vampire 5th ed, and how can the game more acutely focus on the horror of the human condition instead of the evil of the alien vampire other?”

 

Victor Kinzer has been roleplaying since he first picked up Vampire Dark Ages in high school.  He nabbed it as soon as it was released (he might have been lusting after other Vampire books for a while at that point) and hasn’t looked back since.  He role plays his way through the vast and treacherous waters of north Chicago, and is hacking away at the next great cyberpunk saga at http://redcircuitry.blogspot.com/.  He is an occasional guest on Tempus Tenebrarum (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCvNp2le5EGWW5jY0lQ9G39Q/feed), and is working to get in on the con game master circuit.  During the rest of his life he works in Research Compliance IT, which might inform more of his World of Darkness storylines than he readily admits.

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of the Editor or any other Author of Keep On the Heathlands.

Beast the Primordial: Subverting the Monomyth

Beast the Primordial Logo

One of the most persistent tropes in modern speculative fiction is the Hero’s Journey, or the Monomyth.  The monomyth varies from telling to telling, and it can be found in a wide swath of modern media.  The basic manifestation of the Hero’s Journey takes a protagonist from “normal life” into a fantastic setting where they are faced with conflict, personal struggle, and ultimately, they achieve triumph/glory over a villainous foe.  In most tellings, a glorious return home completes the journey.

RPGs, from D&D to Exalted, use the Monomyth as their central narrative.  White Wolf didn’t start with a substantial investment in the monomyth, and arguably the World of Darkness, and even moreso the Chronicles of Darkness, often explicitly subvert or at least de-emphasize the monomyth.  It’s not hard to find player troupes that missed that memo and run heroic arcs with their Sabbat packs, Wraith circles, or throw themselves at the hero’s tale intrinsic to Changeling while ignoring the tragedy that’s clearly designed to subvert that narrative in the core text.

A Group of Japanese Yokai Feeding on a VictimFor all of the subversive ways the World and Chronicles of Darkness play with the Hero’s Journey, I’d never seen a game completely reject the validity of that story model until Beast the Primordial.

Beast devotes almost two and a half pages to the topic of how and why the game subverts/deconstructs the Monomyth. In Beast you play a monster of myth manifested within the soul of a human being.  Beasts are driven to feast on human terror in uniquely personal ways. The primary antagonists of the game are “Heroes” who are driven by the same supernatural cosmology that creates Beasts to seek and destroy them.

It’s easy at first glance to think that this game is just a dark twist on the narratives common to our modern media, but the game does something much more compelling as you work through it.  There is no monolithic enemy in Beast.  Hero’s arise as stand alone phenomenon, every bit the cosmological constant Beasts are, and the culture of the Children (Beasts’ name for themselves), is incredibly loose and comes with no great political force to oppose. There is no Sabbat, no Technocratic Union, no Hierarchy, or corrupt guilds to stand against. The game emphasizes family, and the connection Beasts have with other supernatural creatures in the Chronicles of Darkness.

The fundamental conflict of Beast centers on the complicated task of finding your place in a world when that world finds everything you represent abhorrent.  Heroes in Beast are clearly forged in the mold of the broken and corrupt heroes of Ancient Greece as opposed to the bright eyed perfection of classic Superman comics. They are deranged, driven, and while they may save a few humans from Beasts who have been pushed out of control by their hunger, it is a rare person who would say that is worth the collateral damage they cause.

Why is this  framing so powerful? It seems due to the fact that the game forces the player to truly grapple with the experience of being the “other”.  While that theme runs through many of White Wolf’s horror titles, Beast takes the metaphor further by casting the Beast’s greatest enemy as humanity itself.  Heroes are twisted, deranged, and supernaturally powerful, but they are fundamentally human.  It is the Beast who is not.

If you want to pick up Beast and give it a try one of the most important narrative considerations should be how comfortable you are with demonizing humanity.  There is a sidebar in the Heroes chapter that asks, “What about the Heroes that listen to reason?”.  The answer is that these heroes do exist, but they generally don’t hunt Beasts.  The book continually states that the Heroes that should appear in a Beast game are the narcissistic, driven, cruel ones.  I have seen a few people talk about having problems with this dynamic because it creates an unrelatable villain, and the book specifically states than Heroes should not be relatable enemies.  

Heroes, at their core, are quintessentially human. So shouldn’t they be relatable?  Modern storytelling has moved farther and farther in the direction of understandable antagonists, and messy flawed protagonists.  Beast seems like an obvious attempt to dive directly into that dynamic, but when you step back and look at the game as a model that inverts a classic storytelling trope the problems with this lens become apparent.

Beasts are not good guys.  You are not playing some gritty but relatable anti-hero.  Despite the few words in the opening about how Beasts were outcasts, and “different” before their Devouring, this game is not some glorified revenge fantasy.  The narrative that runs through the book emphasizes the constant struggle to keep existing while humanity continues to reject you, because you are fundamentally wrong.  If you view this game through a lens where humanity is intrinsically good then a lot of the intended themes quickly fall apart, and I’ve seen this specific logical crisis in a great deal of the negative responses to the game.  

A Beast's Horror Standing Behind ThemBefore playing this game you should really know your players, and you should spend some time making certain they are prepared to play true monsters in the night with none of the glorified romanticism that comes with games like Vampire or Changeling.  You’re not flipping the tables so you can play a Beast anti-hero. There is no good guy in this story.

Not every player will be able to get into this particular narrative headspace, and if even one or two players approaches this game with the wrong intent it could derail your whole chronicle.  That said, approaching the game with this tilted perspective opens up new story possibilities.  As a litmus test, if you dislike the writing of Thomas Ligotti due to the lack of a moral compass, even the inverted one present in more mainstream horror stories, this may not be the game for you. That particular form of nihilism is required to dive into the darker corners of Beast.

If the narrative darkness above sounds appealing there is still the question of game mechanics.  I have seen consistent complaints that Beast is overpowered compared to the other games in the Chronicles of Darkness.  After reading Beast I understand where that perception comes from.  While the “powers” that Beasts purchase aren’t necessarily overwhelming (though they are powerful and a lot of fun) Beasts come with a barrage of innate abilities you don’t have to pay for.  They have a special realm carved out of the Primordial Dream, they have the ability to transport there from a variety of places in the real world, they can buff other supernaturals they are allied with, and they automatically sense other supernaturals. There’s a system to create custom powers, which even though they must be purchased, is something you don’t often see, and these custom powers can become more unique when based off supernaturals a Beast is associated with.

Reading Beast, I felt like I was constantly stumbling over new powers, and it was a little overwhelming. However, I believe all of this power is important to further the fundamental themes of Beast.  Unlike Mages, Werewolves, or Vampires, who might have driving goals, or grand schemes which their powers help them fulfill, Beasts are just trying to survive. More importantly, their power is a trap.  

 

Hero Fighting a Dragon

Satiety, which is the Beast’s supernatural resource, is complicated and dangerous.  If you gorge yourself on the fear of your victims your inner Horror becomes fat and contented and you suffer penalties to your rolls.  If you are starving, then your powers are buffed by your deep hunger, but your Horror (your Beastly soul) can easily run out of control and you are left with no resource to buff your powers. You may think this is a simple matter of maintaining balance between these two states, but as a primordial being you reject such equilibrium and grow uniquely vulnerable if you maintain the stasis between these two extremes for long.

If we look back at this system, and think about the themes of the game, it becomes immediately apparent that a Beast’s power reinforces the anxiety of their existence.  Beasts have profound power, but every method of engaging with that power is toxic in a different way, and the more they leverage their supernatural strength, the more attention they draw from Heroes who want nothing more than to stand over their broken bodies.  Even Wraith, which plays with a similar dynamic by having very shallow experience costs, but pairing PCs with a dark shadow that will abuse their drive for power, still comes with a set of enemies players can secure satisfying victories against.

When a Beast defeats a Hero all they gain is a brief rest before the next Hero finds them.  As long as the Beast isn’t allowed to break out of that cycle, and Heroes are powerful enough to be a threat, no Beast can truly be overpowered, because their strength is a mockery more than an actual benefit.

Beast the Primordial is probably one of the most complex games in the of Darkness lines, both in terms of systems and due to its rejection of familiar narrative territory.  The lack of a unified enemy, and the fundamental rejection of the Hero’s Journey are daring moves that align Beast with experimental narrative ventures like Dread or Bluebeard’s Bride as opposed to other games using the storyteller system. Game mechanics are fairly complex (satiety is no blood pool), and to be honest, I have a hard time imagining keeping track of all the different things I would be capable of as a player without a substantial cheat sheet.  

Madness on the Outskirts

By Lydia Burris http://www.lydiaburris.com/

Several sections of Beast drive the inverted Monomyth narrative in less than nuanced ways.  This is most acute in areas that were re-written based on player critique during the kickstarter.  Several players felt the game was too dark, that Beasts had no reason to exist, and that the relationship Heroes had with the Integrity stat was messy in toxic ways.  To the dev’s credit they listened to the fans and made changes, but they did so very quickly and some of the text dealing with the themes introduced during the rewrite feel somewhat rushed.  This is especially obvious in the reminders that only Heroes with low integrity hunt Beasts, though the fact that the devs made certain to leave high integrity Heroes in the world is significant, and I hope we get to hear more about them in the upcoming Beast Conquering Heroes.

Ultimately, Beast takes some profound risks, and in doing so creates a dynamic new corner of horror role-playing than many of us never knew existed.  There are areas of the game that need some judicious application of the Golden Rule, such as the persistence of the “Beasts Teach Lessons” idea among the Children, without any coherent Beast society to perpetuate this culture.  That said, some of my favorite White Wolf games have tapped into incredibly messy, yet fascinating narratives because they were willing to take risks, and they also required fairly liberal use of the Golden Rule to manage their rough edges, so Beast is in good company.  Finding a large enough group of players ready to discard any heroic impulses and embrace the endlessly powerful anxiety of Beastly existence is a tall order (and may well resign Beast to my eternal bucket list alongside Promethean), but I do feel it’s a unique game that breaks new ground not just for the horror genre, but gaming more broadly and it’s well worth exploring.

Victor Kinzer has been roleplaying since he first picked up Vampire Dark Ages in high school.  He nabbed it as soon as it was released (he might have been lusting after other Vampire books for a while at that point) and hasn’t looked back since.  He role plays his way through the vast and treacherous waters of north Chicago, and is hacking away at the next great cyberpunk saga at http://redcircuitry.blogspot.com/.  He is an occasional guest on Tempus Tenebrarum (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCvNp2le5EGWW5jY0lQ9G39Q/feed), and is working to get in on the con game master circuit.  During the rest of his life he works in Research Compliance IT, which might inform more of his World of Darkness storylines than he readily admits.

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of the Editor or any other Author of Keep On the Heathlands.

Bluebeard’s Bride: An Interview with the Developers

I started role playing back in the mid 90’s when AD&D was struggling a little bit, but the World of Darkness was just hitting it’s boldest strides. It was an era where my local game store, in my relatively small hometown had 2 incredibly tall book displays just for role playing books. Shortly after I started role-playing D&D 3.0 came out and it felt like, just maybe, RPGs were going to be the next big thing.

Now, if you’re reading this blog there is a good chance you know how this story ends. The World of Darkness ended and was replaced by another, which didn’t totally end production, but slipped into a much more obscure status after White Wolf was sold off to CCP. D&D never went away, but the heady days of 3.5 definitely waned.

A lot of people talk about those years as role-playing’s golden era, and I have agreed with that assertion until very recently. We are seeing an unprecedented resurgence of our beloved hobby thanks in large part to the democratization of crowd funding.

Financial risks are now much easier to take, and as a result the past few years have seen the rise of new modes of thinking about role-playing, and the systems to back up those new modes of play. One such system is the Powered by the Apocalypse system, or PbtA for short, which focuses on a very different arc of character creation, and narrative play than the games of the 90’s. PbtA as well as many other modern systems put a much heavier emphasis on narrative flow and story driven action resolution as opposed to actually focusing on emulating combat dynamics through the dice system. Since PbtA has been released under the Creative Commons, it is available to independent developers, there are a wide variety of titles available that use the system.

Three such indie developers are currently running a Kickstarter for one of the most innovative uses of the PbtA system I have seen to date. Whitney “Strix” Beltran, Marissa Kelly, and Sarah Richardson are the developers of Bluebeard’s Bride, and as soon as I looked at their project and their background I realized I was looking at a very special development team. Their combined development experience covers video game writing, Scion, 7th Sea, Fate Worlds, Velvet Glove, and several other titles I don’t have the space to list here.

Their kickstarter describes Bluebeard’s Bride as an “investigatory horror” game focusing on the themes of feminine horror. Between the beauty of the work they have shared already on their campaign page, and the incredibly unique pitch I knew I wanted to know more about this game, so I contacted Magpie Games to see if they would be willing to share a little bit more about what they are creating with this project. Marissa Kelly, and Sarah Richardson graciously agreed to share some of their thoughts below:

Bluebeard's Bride Main Kickstarter Art

-Thank you very much for taking the time for this interview. Could you give some background on where the idea for Bluebeard’s Bride came from and what drew each of you to the fairy tale the game is based on?

Sarah: Strix & I met at a Hacking for Women workshop at GenCon 2014 where Marissa was our coach. We’d never actually met before, but when we sat down to talk about what kind of game to make, Strix asked me if I liked fairy tales. 😀

MK: Like Sarah said, they had the idea to make a dark fairytale game and it was my job to jump in and help show how it could fit into the PBtA framework. So, I listened to their crazy cool concepts and showed them how they could represent them mechanically.

– On the Bluebeard’s Bride kickstarter page the game is described as an “investigatory horror roleplaying game”. Can you talk a little bit about what this means, and what drew you to this particular format?

Sarah: In the fairy tale, the Bride is encouraged to explore the house with that one forbidden room as a lure to violate boundaries. Having the players investigate each room, with that uncertainty of what they may find, is this really nice symmetry.

MK: The rooms of a haunted house provide a beautiful holding environment for a horror game. In a genre like this things can escalate quickly, but we wanted the game to reflect the fairy tale. And that fairy tale has an ending, so investigating whether or not Bluebeard loves you is a great way to keep the game fun and suspenseful without letting it run away from having an ending.

– The Kickstarter makes a mention of feminine horror, and in previous interviews you’ve invoked this theme in varying degrees of depth. What do you mean by feminine horror and how you explore it in the game?

Sarah: In this specific context, feminine horror revolves around the life experiences of women. So you’re playing as a woman, and some of the horrors you encounter in the house are more commonly associated with women: enduring pain in order to be beautiful, the aftermath of sexual violence, denial of actual lived experiences, just to name a few.

MK: Feminine horror generally explores tropes and experiences commonly associated with a women and the fears that keep them up at night. In this game, we explore lack of character agency by limiting the options the Bride has when engaging her surroundings and reminding the Bride how society views her, which then undermines how she thinks of herself.

– I see varying emphasis in horror RPGs on navigating boundaries with players before you begin play. You mention safety in the FAQ on the Kickstarter page. How much time do you devote to this topic in the game text, and what game experiences from your own lives have shaped your views on negotiating narrative boundaries in gaming?

Sarah: I’ve gotten to the point where I give each individual player an X card. I want to make sure they use it! We talk about it in both the player chapters and GM chapters in the book, but people need to recognize that they’re playing a horror game.

As far as my own experiences go, I play a lot of games with strangers at conventions. This has given me a lot of time to evaluate how I personally feel when different things come up, and to watch other people try to navigate that for themselves. And while I’ve found my limits on some subjects, overall I’ve been impressed with the level of trust people give each other in games.

MK: For me, it is important to mention that while the game works at conventions with a table full of strangers, it really sings when you play with a group of friends who know and trust one another. I go through a lot more safety talk with a table of people I don’t know than I do with my home group.

The Bride with her Keys

– There was a lot of discussion around the first season of Jessica Jones about how the show dealt with some of the same themes Bluebeard’s Bride invokes, but specifically held back from showing graphic scenes related to the themes of sexual abuse and trauma on screen. In several reviews this restraint was called out and celebrated. In watching the playthrough videos on your kickstarter page, Bluebeard’s Bride dives into this subject matter much more directly. What do you think is the value, as well as the risk of tackling these themes with fewer filters?

Sarah: I loved Jessica Jones, and really appreciated how they handled that. I would say, though, that having these experiences show up more directly is a difference of medium. So if you and I are sitting at a table together, we’re able to talk through trauma in a very open, personal way that you can’t do with TV, and the X card is there to make sure you can feel comfortable doing that. You can stop a TV show if it goes too far for you, but in Bluebeard’s Bride you can press up against boundaries without going over and still finish the story.

MK: Kilgrave was an amazing representation of some of the themes we explore in the game. I agree with Sarah, that the medium and the audience is an important difference to keep in mind, but I think we are going down a similar analogous road to Jessica Jones. We rely on the horrors in the house to represent threats rather than BE the threats. Sure, in Bluebeard’s Bride the ghost might lash out and physically hurt you, but the WHY matters a whole lot more. After all, you cannot exit a room without discovering what happened, to who, and why.

The Kickstarter has obviously funded well beyond its goal and at this point has swept past several stretch goals. Have you talked about any future projects based on Bluebeard’s Bride or in a similar narrative vein given the positive response to this project?

Sarah: Horror is something that I love consuming, from movies to books to comics. I am really looking forward to working on our stretch goals, and so I’m sure this isn’t the last time horror or fairy tales will creep into my work.

MK: I am, and will always be, a fan of horror, so I see myself exploring that more in the future. We have also bitten off quite a bit for Bluebeard’s Bride with this kickstarter, so I am focused on making these rewards as amazing as possible before committing to any more awesome ideas, but I am excited to see what doors may have opened.

Bloody Key– I have to ask for a few game teasers. Could you each tell me what one thing from Bluebeard’s Bride you enjoyed developing the most and are most excited to see player reactions to?

Sarah: I love the Room Threats, and using the keys as inspiration for each room. I particularly love describing the details that make up each room when I’m GMing, from the way light catches the fall of fabric making up the curtains of an old bed, or the smell of leather and tobacco that permeates a study, or the way the colors from a stained glass window play against a wooden floor, and having moments of beauty that interact with the horror in memorable ways.

MK: I think the player moves sheet (Maiden, Ring, and Exit moves) have provided me with the most satisfaction in design. They are core to the rest of the game’s functionality and I have loved the challenge. The move Shiver from Fear has to be my favorite mechanic in play and I can’t wait to see players creeping out their friends with it. 🙂

Thank you all so much and good luck on finishing what looks like it’s going to be a very robust Bluebeard’s Bride game line. The kickstarter for Bluebeard’s Bride ends on November 20th. There are other interviews and several play through videos posted on the Bluebeard‘s Bride campaign page that I highly recommend checking out.

Victor Kinzer has been roleplaying since he first picked up Vampire Dark Ages in high school. He nabbed it as soon as it was released (he might have been lusting after other Vampire books for a while at that point) and hasn’t looked back since. He role plays his way through the vast and treacherous waters of north Chicago, and is hacking away at the next great cyberpunk saga at http://redcircuitry.blogspot.com/. He is an occasional guest on Tempus Tenebrarum (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCvNp2le5EGWW5jY0lQ9G39Q/feed), and is working to get in on the con game master circuit. During the rest of his life he works in Research Compliance IT, which might inform more of his World of Darkness storylines than he readily admits.

Let’s Talk about This Con Game Thing Part 3: The Challenges of Running Public Games

Part 1, Part 2
ChangelingIn my last article I discussed the difficulties of planning a con game that tackles difficult subject matter in a responsible way while creating a welcoming environment where everyone is comfortable voicing any concerns or boundaries they have related to the game.  Ironically, of the two games I ran at Valor Con, it was not the Wraith game where I ran into these dynamics.  It was during the Changeling game, which acted as a prequel to the Wraith session, I ended up running into a player’s boundaries, much to my surprise.

My Changeling game was set in 1925 Chicago during the opening of the Uptown Theatre cinema palace.  This is a significant moment in Chicago history during the escalation of tension between Al Capone’s gang, The Chicago Outfit and the Northside Gang, which was Capone’s primary opposition at the time.  Chicago was embroiled in an all out gang war after arranging the assassination of the Northside Gang’s leader a year prior.  There was nowhere entirely safe from the violence spilling into the streets.  However, despite the violence, Uptown was relatively peaceful.  At the time, Uptown was the primary entertainment district of Chicago.  It was home to the Arcadia Ballroom and skating rink, the Green Mill jazz club, which was larger in 1925 than it is today, and the Riviera theatre.  As magnificent as the district was, its peak was still years off.  The Uptown Theater, the largest cinema palace in the country was opening on Broadway and the expansive Aragon ballroom was already under construction across the street from the Lawrence el stop.

Original Ad from the Uptown Theatre's Opening Night

Original Ad from the Uptown Theatre’s Opening Night

One of the many reasons all of these entertainment venues were able to flourish is both gangs loved the nightlife and they knew if their war spilled into Uptown and the adjacent neighborhood of Edgewater, where visiting performers were housed, then their night life would fall apart.  If you can’t enjoy the spoils of your illegal empire then what’s the point after all?  The opening scene of my game has the players in the Green Mill, and as it’s a one shot I broke one of my personal ST rules and went for a simple quest giving dynamic.  The local “ruler” among the Fae, a mostly kindly, but terrifyingly powerful Boggan told the characters about a plot to destroy the Uptown theatre on it’s opening night.  He suspected the RedCaps in the Northside gang were involved, but he couldn’t prove it and he had to stay in the Green Mill to keep the peace.

This was the setup I had scripted in advance, and I really didn’t think there would be any particularly problematic aspects of this story.  I generally follow my players lead in terms of tone and boundaries and didn’t think I’d run into any problems as long as I stuck to that approach.  The first question of the night was posed by the one female player at the table, who chose the Pooka I based off of Josephine Baker.  She wanted to know if there were any RedCaps in the Green Mill, when I confirmed that there were, she decided to to team up with the female Sidhe in the group and attempt a seduction roll to try and get some information out of them.

This point in the flow of the game demonstrated to me that “following my player’s lead” doesn’t work nearly as well when I don’t know my players.  I decided to take the opportunity to perform a little bit and put on my best best gangster flirting with a girl in a club.  These were unseelie RedCaps, so I went for hardline trope as opposed to subtle.  The NPC wanted to get the two PCs to go over to the Arcadia Ballroom (my attempt at giving them a hook into the next scene) and do some dancing.  Josephine (I’ll use her character name from here on out for convenience and anonymity) immediately cringed at my performance.  I gave the exchange a line or two more before it was definitely clear that she didn’t know what to say and was uncomfortable acting out this dynamic.  So I immediately dropped character and affirmed that they were supposed to be pretty disgusting unseelie RedCaps, and not a representative of anything desirable.  Josephine seemed happier when I dropped the hard rp approach and she said she didn’t want to go dance with them, but really just wanted to get info from them.  So I said “That’s cool, I’m not going to make you LARP through this.  You can throw a Charisma+Expression roll to try and get the information you need out of them.

Archival Shot of Josephine Baker

What is a Pooka to do when the ST goes off course?

Once I changed my approach the rest of the session went very well, but in the back of my head I realized I had made a huge assumption thinking the Changeling game wouldn’t have the same sorts of dynamics my Wraith game had, especially given the genre it was set in.  At the end of the session Josephine thanked me for running and seemed to have legitimately enjoyed the experience.  She had a couple stellar character moments (one right after the exchanged described above), but unfortunately she had another session that started right as ours was ending. I wanted to chat with her and ask her about that moment and see if she would have liked me to handle it differently but I was not able to have that exchange due to her tight schedule.  For future con games I will likely hand out a link to a Google Form so players can give me feedback even if there isn’t time after a session, or they aren’t comfortable being critical in person.

When you run a game for yourself and your friends you have a good sense of what your boundaries will be, and it’s easy when running a public game to use that experience as a map for what territory you should approach delicately.  The truth of the matter is public games are much more fraught, especially with a setting like the World of Darkness that emphasizes a decayed world filled with all manner of horrors.  Had I been in a session with someone who wasn’t as expressive, or who had learned to hide their feelings on topics like this one I may not have noticed that I needed to change my storytelling approach and left one or more of my players feeling unsafe or unwelcome at my table.  An incident like that could also easily have run afoul of the ValorCon standards of behavior, which I am very happy to say are quite comprehensive.

Looking back at my experiences running both games I am glad things got close to running off the rails without actually running off the rails in my Changeling game because it served as a solid lesson on the dynamics of public play.  I am spending the next few months cleaning up the mini modules I created so I can use them at future cons and I will be including a disclaimer on my Changeling module that is similar, if slightly different in scope to the one in the Wraith writeup.  Despite seeing reminders in countless White Wolf books about negotiating boundaries before playing one of their games it is a very easy step to forget, but an important one not to.

The Tabletop Floor at ValorCon

The Tabletop Floor at ValorCon

Planning and running a game in a public space with unknown players is every bit as dynamic and invigorating as I describe in the first installment of this con game series.  As with all public narrative it is also a more delicate dynamic than telling stories around your table at home, and should be approached more carefully.  I highly recommend finding a way to run a few public games if you generally wear the storytelling hat.  Just remember to set a stage for your players where they feel like you took the time to learn about their boundaries, and feel comfortable letting you know if those boundaries are being pushed.  As Game Runners we aren’t just playing these games.  We are introducing new people to our favorite worlds, and we want that experience to draw them back again in the future.

Victor Kinzer has been roleplaying since he first picked up Vampire Dark Ages in high school.  He nabbed it as soon as it was released (he might have been lusting after other Vampire books for a while at that point) and hasn’t looked back since.  He role plays his way through the vast and treacherous waters of north Chicago, and is hacking away at the next great cyberpunk saga at http://redcircuitry.blogspot.com/.  He is an occasional guest on Tempus Tenebrarum (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCvNp2le5EGWW5jY0lQ9G39Q/feed), and is working to get in on the con game master circuit.  During the rest of his life he works in Research Compliance IT, which might inform more of his World of Darkness storylines than he readily admits.

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of the Editor or any other Author of Keep On the Heathlands.

LET’S TALK ABOUT THIS CON GAME THING PART 2 THE CHALLENGES OF PLANNING PUBLIC GAMES

2016-10-15-11_24_22-valorcon-2016-exhibitor-sponsorship-guide-pdf

Part 3, Part 1
In my last article on con games I talked about my experiences playing at Gen Con, and designing two con game modules with a focus on making them approachable to new players at Valor Con.  I’ve talked a lot about the fun, exciting aspects of the con game format, but con games also come with some very unique challenges that I think are worth exploring.  The con game format turns the subject of the Social Contract between gamers that is being explored in depth in Scott E. Vigil’s series on the subject on its ear, and much of that is connected to these specific challenges.

Scott talks in his last article about finding a space that’s acceptable to everyone, and choosing a game that everyone wants to play.  At a con game all of those questions are swept away.  The con tells you where you will be playing, likely including a specific table assignment.  Whoever submitted the session pitch to the con decides what game will be played.  This person may or may not be the storyteller.  So in many ways the social contract for these games is templated and packaged for you when you take part in a con game.  One of the topics Scott mentions in his first Social Contract of Gaming article was very much in play at my Valor Con games though, “Are there any topics or themes that are to be off limits in the role-playing setting?”.

There is a lot of talk in all corners of the internet about representation in media, both the need for more representation, and the damage that can be done by poor representation of groups that have a history of being stigmatized by negative stereotypes and systematic oppression.  The tension between representation and quality representation weighed much more heavily on me than it normally does when I’m planning a game.  The potential for sloppy representation to cause damage either through someone feeling unwelcome at my table, or by reinforcing a negative stereotype, albeit unintentionally with a completely random group of players is significantly higher than with the troupe I usually play with.  I know my friends well and have an understanding of how they will engage with my content.  At Valor Con, I was walking into a situation where I would be running Wraith: The Oblivion, which is one of the darkest games I have ever played, with a completely unknown group of players.  As I developed my modules, the complexity of these dynamics became abundantly clear to me.

Zero to None by Lydia Burris

Zero to None by Lydia Burris

For readers who are not familiar with Wraith, you play ghosts who are still tethered to Earth by some form of unfinished business, which is a classic theme in ghost stories from several different cultures.  The society of the dead though, is something entirely unique to Wraith, and poses a series of significant problems for the type of game I wanted to run.  Wraith society is based on an economy of souls.  There is a vibrant slave trade, and the vast majority of “physical” items in the underworld are made of smelted down souls.  While it appears at first glance that this is cheap shock horror, there are very compelling reasons for this atrocity, and the game is deeply founded in inspecting the human potential for atrocity in high definition, and really grappling with it.

I am the only person in my immediate gaming circle who has ever run Wraith for more than a few sessions, so I know the lore fairly well, and I love it dearly because I love stories that shine a stark unflinching light on the darkness inherent in the human soul and don’t give into the aggrandizement of “humanity”.

I wanted to set the game in my neighborhood of Uptown, Chicago because Valor Con has a very strong local Chicago brand and I wanted to incorporate that brand into my games.  Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in America, except for Uptown.  In a city where almost everyone lives around other people who look more or less like they do, Uptown stands out as a diverse neighborhood with representations from a variety of nationalities, sexualities, and economic classes  This is a big part of why I love living in Uptown as much as I do and I really wanted to highlight my neighborhood.  I wanted to tell a story about Wraiths from the different generations, and communities that have built Uptown into the neighborhood it is, and who have connections to major changes in Uptown’s history.  There is a large African immigrant community in Uptown and I was halfway through making the character I wanted to represent the local African Diaspora community when I stopped typing and thought about the core themes of Wraith and how they could very problematically interact with an African character.  This was the weekend before the convention and there was no way I had the time to redesign everything before the Con.

uptown-theater

The inside of the Uptown Theatre reminds us what the shadowlands must be like.

My game focused very specifically on soulforging and the commodification of souls that is common in the underworld.  I wasn’t playing with the themes in Wraith that half justify those actions because no one is entirely good or evil in the Underworld.  I was approaching soulforging and the Thrall slave trade as intrinsic evils, but I was still incredibly concerned about the story I was about to tell.  I decided that I didn’t want to back away from the core themes of Wraith or accurate representation of Uptown because I was walking into difficulty territory.  It was time to hold myself accountable to telling this story, even in a public venue like a game con properly.  So the first thing I did was put a content warning at the top of the setting writeup that read:

wraithoblivion2ndlogoThis is a game that deals with incredibly dark societal themes.  It is fundamentally a game about the atrocity that lives deep in the human soul and can never be truly excised, it can at best be vigilantly managed.  These themes include slavery, murder, xenophobia, and a literal commodification of the human spirit.  I tried very hard to balance representing the myriad communities of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, where this session will be set, against those themes in an honest and respectful way, while leaning into the full atrocious horror that defines Wraith.  I am open to critical feedback of areas where that goal might not be fully realized in these writeups, or in how the session ends up playing out.  Please know that if you read the rest of this setting and the character writeups and would rather not engage in this session that is fine.  If you want to engage, but would rather I downplay certain themes I am also 100% fine with that conversation as I feel it is essential to any positive Wraith experience.

I know some people are not fans of content warnings, and I don’t want to open that whole conversation here, but in a con game setting where people want to have fun, and by the nature of the format may not know anything about the games they are sitting down to play, I feel this kind of notice about the primary themes being tackled is appropriate.  This also made it clear to my players that I welcomed them bringing up concerns as the game session went on.  When we sat down to play the game I explained the specific thematic juxtaposition I was concerned about.

I also went through my session plan before the con and made sure I wasn’t aligning the themes related to the commodification of human soul with my PC’s identity as a Black woman.  While there were abductions, and soulforging of clearly unwilling victims in the game, they did not reflect any particular racial makeup, and as I opened my game session with a frank conversation about the themes I would be exploring, I felt I had prepared the most inviting space I could for this kind of horror session.  I was entirely prepared to improv changes to the setting if anyone felt uncomfortable.  As it turns out, no one did.  We had a dynamic session, where the diverse relationships the characters had with the story and the setting came into play surprisingly well for a one shot game.  It is worth nothing, the players ended up being all white men, but they were all very positive about the fact that I opened the game the way I did, and I received good feedback on how I structured the session.

Ironically, despite the content being seemingly less fraught than the Wraith game, I ran into more tricky game dynamics in my Changeling session than I did in my Wraith session.  My Wraith game ended up being an excellent example of how to plan navigating difficult content in advance.  In my next article I will talk about my Changeling session and how I went about navigating unexpected player discomfort mid-session, and what I will be doing differently in future con games based on that experience.

Victor Kinzer has been roleplaying since he first picked up Vampire Dark Ages in high school.  He nabbed it as soon as it was released (he might have been lusting after other Vampire books for a while at that point) and hasn’t looked back since.  He role plays his way through the vast and treacherous waters of north Chicago, and is hacking away at the next great cyberpunk saga at http://redcircuitry.blogspot.com/.  He is an occasional guest on Tempus Tenebrarum (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCvNp2le5EGWW5jY0lQ9G39Q/feed), and is working to get in on the con game master circuit.  During the rest of his life he works in Research Compliance IT, which might inform more of his World of Darkness storylines than he readily admits.

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of the Editor or any other Author of Keep On the Heathlands.