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.

DriveThruRPG.com

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.

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

Huge Discounts on your Favorite RPGs @ DriveThruRPG.com

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

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.