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

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content than the line’s relatively modest word count would indicate, with several concepts and rules that were woefully out of date.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.

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