Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changeling! (Turn and Face the Dream…) Ch-Ch-Changeling!

Of the big five original World of Darkness lines, Changeling is the one it’s taken me the longest to warm to. I think it’s because I had the feeling that to some extent Changelings were a bit redundant. The basic faerie myth being played on is that there’s a race of creatures with magical powers who exist in a place that’s in the shadows of the everyday world where they conceal themselves from the rest of us, but who can have a profound effect on those who stray into their sphere of influence. Right there, I have described most of the other major World of Darkness splats – what is the clear thematic distinction between a vampire court and an Unseelie court with a particular focus on blood economics?

Having had an opportunity to pick up the 1st edition of Changeling: the Dreaming for cheap and flipping through it, I have ended up changing my mind. It helps that the 1st edition of any particular classic World of Darkness game tends to form the most clear and distinct statement of the game line’s intentions*, with0ut the accretion disc of clutter that comes out as a game line progresses – though at the same time, the recent 20th anniversary editions remain excellent collections both of somewhat tuned-up rules and nicely complied heaps of stuff for you to use directly for gaming purposes. 1st edition convinced me that there was merit to the concept – a dip into the 20th anniversary edition would later convince me that Changeling is actually something you could run a solid, viable game around.

(* Interestingly, I tend to think that the reverse is the case for the pre-God-Machine Chronicle entries in the Chronicles of Darkness series. There, the 2nd editions of the respective games have so far seemed to be less cluttered presentations of a particular vision than the 1st editions – because the 1st editions tended to have the baggage of needing to simultaneously offer something new whilst at the same time providing a bit of comfort to fans of their discontinued classic World of Darkness equivalents, like how Vampire: the Requiem had to fill the gap left by the cancellation of Vampire: the Masquerade. Now that the classic World of Darkness is a going concern again, the 2nd editions are doing a much better job of standing on their own two feet as their own particular things.)

1st Edition

It’s worth remembering that (despite his love of hardline anti-Communist activists and writers), Mark Rein-Hagen conceived Changeling as the culmination of his Five Year Plan. Based on his afterword to this volume, in fact, it’s clear that it was his intention that this would be the last World of Darkness game, and indeed he describes it as the end of the Storyteller saga, as far as he’s concerned. (This distinction has an importance which I will explain a little later on.) As such, whilst taken on its own its initial presentation may seem incongruous, seen as the end of a sequence it makes a lot of sense. After Wraith took the monochromatic, gothic darkness of the game line to an extreme, it sort of makes sense to cap the whole thing off with a riot of colour as presented here.

Indeed, as far as the aesthetic presentation went, this really set a new standard for White Wolf. Though a few art pieces are still in black and white, most are in some colour, every page has colour in the form of a beautiful stained glass-inspired border, and the general standard of the art is excellent – including some absolutely great pieces by Tony DiTerlizzi, who pretty much couldn’t draw a bad picture in the 1990s.

However, in a case of White Wolf perfectly embodying their often well-justified reputation for style over substance, the contents of the 1st edition were seriously flawed in many respects – perhaps the result of rushing to complete the project by the self-imposed one-game-per-year target, rather than taking the time necessary to really polish the text to iron out the kinks and properly present the game’s ideas. The most infamous example of this, and deservedly so, is the magic system.

The magic of the Changelings is here based around them invoking Cantrips. To do so, you have to pair an Art (the type of effect you want to accomplish) with a Realm (the sort of thing you can target with the effect). So far, this is tremendously reminiscent of the verb-and-noun magic system from Ars Magica; a major distinction from that comes from the idea of Bunks, whimsical things that Changelings do to forcibly inject the creative wildness of the Dreaming into the world and thus make it correspondingly easier to pull off the magic in question. Small Bunks constitute stuff like minor pranks or acts of silliness; larger-scale ones involve substantially more risk to the character; Bunks reduce the difficulty of Cantrips more depending on their magnitude.

The major goof here is that White Wolf decided to try and clamber onboard the Collectible Card Game bandwagon here by tying the Cantrip system into purchasable card packs – and rather than being able to buy the whole set at once, you had to buy a random selection. (Of course, you were given the means of just writing your own cards – so anyone with the slightest lick of sense who was intent on deploying the system as written would just do that.)

Tying the system to the cards added a number of constraints that would otherwise have been unnecessary, and which harm the game. For instance, there’s a limited, set list of Bunks for each Art, and your personal Bunk deck is going to be quite limited, which means that you’re going to be drawing the same set of Bunks over and over again, and they aren’t necessarily going to be Bunks which are especially appropriate to your character (or, for that matter, the situation at hand).

For example, whilst the faeries of Changeling are supposed to be quite whimsical by and large, they also incorporate concepts like the sidhe, the fae nobility, who you’d expect to have a certain amount of dignity to them – being a sidhe who can’t pull off any Cantrips in a manner suitable to that concept because the only bunks you draw constitute either absurd nonsense or complex activities which in context you simply don’t have time to implement would flat-out suck. The choice of Bunks you get is also extremely limited – you get to draw only one, and if you want to draw a second one to get some modicum of choice as to which Bunk you perform you have to spend your precious, limited Glamour.

Between that and the lack of choice of your Arts and Realms and the way Changeling early adopters had to make a choice between a tedious process of making cards at home, the annoyance and expense of collecting them, and the headache of trying to work the system without cards, you ended up with a huge mess, and though 1999’s second edition of the game took out the cards the damage was done.

Other flaws are more conceptual. The basic idea of Changeling is that player characters are faeries exiled from Arcadia, the fae homeland which exists deep in the Dreaming, the hazy otherworld of imagination. Things of the Dreaming, like faeries, are driven by Glamour – a power that resides in all products of imaginative inspiration. The world of mortals, though, is overwhelmed by Banality, the cloying force that suffocates dreams, suppresses creativity, and enforces bland conformity in a grey, dreary existence. To exist in such conditions, Changelings adopt a dual nature, their faerie spirit reincarnating over and over in mortal bodies. To live in such a way involves walking a tightrope; succumb to Banality and you will lose touch with your faerie side entirely – worse, you’ll stop believing it was ever a thing. Too much Dreaming, though, puts you at risk of Bedlam – being so overwhelmed with the colourful possibilities of imagination that you cease engaging with the pragmatic facts of reality.

After the Moon landings inspired awe and wonder worldwide, a surge of Glamour means that the Changelings are resurgent – even better, the ways into the deep Dreaming have reopened, and whilst it is still not possible to reach Arcadia, a wave of reinforcements have come out of there to the world – among them several houses of the sidhe, the fae nobility who previously had largely spurned the world. With the hidden kingdoms of the fae spanning the world (North America corresponding to the realm of Concordia, ruled by High King David), the Changelings have new potential to make change in the world – but the forces of Banality are not easily dispersed.

Now if that sounds cool to you I don’t disagree with you – but though I do say so myself, the above is expressed with much greater clarity than the rulebook manages. There’s all sorts of respects in which the book either fails to enunciate this stuff, or the way it does explain it is actively damaging to my (and others’) enthusiasm for the concept.

Take, for instance, the matter of the Dreaming. This seems to be yet another mystical otherworld, like the two not entirely congruent takes on the Umbra in Werewolf and Mage or the underworld of Wraith, but the extent to which this is the case and how it relates to them isn’t at all clear. It’s especially not clear how you are supposed to step in or out of there. The concept of Banality is fair enough in the abstract, especially if you consider that the “mundane” component of the World of Darkness isn’t a realistic mirror of our world so much as it’s an outrageously edgy parody of it as it might be depicted by a cynical 13 year old goth kid. Everything just totally sucks, maaaan, and the reason it sucks is all these fuckin’ squares trying to make you follow their rules.

The thing is that Banality isn’t simply a blunt refusal to imagine, and Glamour is not simply derived from any kind of imagination. Based on the examples in the book, there’s a certain geek snobbery involved, a distinct sense that some creative works are intrinsically more worthy than others. On one hand, Glamour is supposed to arise from the creation and appreciation of inspirational works. On the other hand, high Banality is characterised by stuff like watching lots of TV, with television being pretty consistently presented as a force that spreads Banality. I’m sorry, but if you have a cosmology where Twin Peaks doesn’t count as being a genuinely original work of great creativity and extensive imaginative influence, I’m going to go ahead and call you a huge dork who doesn’t recognise imagination when you see it.

An entirely viable reading of the book, in fact, is that imaginative stuff about faeries and fantasy are what truly counts here – that an incompetent, third-rate fantasy novel that regurgitates all the standard tropes can offer Glamour that the best TV can’t. (Remember, this was before Game of Thrones rehabilitated the fantasy genre for TV purposes.) That is nonsense – if anything, the word “banal” in its everyday meaning fits great swathes of fantasy books out there (and much White Wolf-inspired urban fantasy tat) absolutely.

The depiction of the “Autumn People” – those overwhelmed by Banality and working to spread it – also gets into problematic areas. The major example given in the book is of a psychiatrist who works with people to cure them of the “delusion” of being a Changeling, and whilst that makes sense to a certain extent, given the stigma applied to any attempt by people to find help with their mental health, I have some pretty severe reservations about anything which implies that seeking help for actual delusions which are part of symptoms causing you severe impairment is a bad idea and that what you should be instead doing is taking the delusions as being genuine fact.

Whilst this group would make a fairly decent mid-tier/secondary antagonist for a campaign, one issue that Changeling has is that it doesn’t really offer a particularly distinctive Changeling-specific adversary that can fit the “Big Bad” sort of tier. You’ve got the whole Seelie/Unseelie division, mind – but because the two courts have this pact between them, intrigues between them more resemble, say, internal divisions within the Camarilla, rather than the war between the Camarilla and the Sabbat.

Vampires have the Sabbat/Camarilla war (or, in older takes on the setting, the Anarch/Elder conflict). Werewoofles have the Wyrm and its major conspiracy in the world, Pentex. Mages have the Technocracy. Wraiths have Stygia on the one hand and its various Heretic enemies on the other, as well as the nightmarish Spectres. Changelings… don’t really have anything. Whilst in some respects it makes conceptual sense for the forces of Banality to be rather faceless, at the same time that makes it hard to actually play a game about counteracting them.

This is somewhat alleviated by the fact that there’s rules here for implementing vampires, werewoofles, mages and wraiths in Changeling. Indeed, all have their place somewhere in the cosmology of the Changelings – for instance, mages are considered to be big-time Dreamers who got too caught up in their paradigms to realise they were dreaming, whilst vampires and woofles are both fae beings who have partly forgotten their connection. (Wraiths are just kind of there, I suspect because even White Wolf didn’t wholly understand 1st edition Wraith.)

Since you’ve got these tools, you could totally have Pentex or the Technocracy as being the top-tier Banality-promoting villains of your campaign (the Technocracy, in particular, absolutely fit the bill and their rise fits the timeline of the rise of Banality nicely). But that, of course, requires you to have a reasonable knowledge of the game lines in question to really execute it satisfyingly – which doesn’t exactly bode brilliantly for Changeling as a standalone game.

The thing is, there’s this joyful spark to Changeling which I can’t quite discard – the kernel of a good idea which suggests something salvageable amidst the missteps. The way you regain Glamour through various means such as inspiring mortal artists, and can dissipate your permanent Banality by undertaking various major quests to shake the hold of Banality where it appears to be irreversible, both suggest modes of play distinct both from the combat and treasure-hunting of classic RPGs and the sort of political power games or mystery investigations previous World of Darkness games lent themselves to – in particular, it points to gameplay based around protecting and nurturing something, which goodness knows is a rare enough thing in the field.

It also makes a certain amount of sense as a chosen end-point for the World of Darkness games; in fact, I am convinced that at least as far as Mark Rein-Hagen’s original plan goes, Changeling was not just meant to be the fifth game published, but also present the final major stage in the overall development of the setting and point to a final thematic conclusion for the World of Darkness.

For one thing, faeries were a significant element of Ars Magica, so having the last game focus on them nicely brings things full circle. (Note that even in Ars Magica, the faeries are explicitly meant to be things that sustain themselves on stories and creativity.) For another, it kind of neatly resolves my “aren’t they a bit redundant?” issue from back in the article intro – if the other supernaturals are things of faerie, then the stuff they have in common isn’t so much needless redundancy as it is a clue to that. Moreover, if you look at the original Big Five World of Darkness games in order, there’s actually a sort of logical progression going on.

  • Vampire: the Masquerade introduced us to the baseline World of Darkness; it barely touches on the spiritual world, instead focusing on the mundane world and establishing that Something Is Wrong.
  • Werewolf: the Apocalypse reveals the spiritual side to the setting and establishes that whatever is wrong is no mere mundane conspiracy – there is a spiritual dimension to it.
  • Mage: the Ascension diagnoses the problem – the rise of Technocratic Reason has suppressed sidelined cultures and imaginative worldviews for the sake of bland social conformity.
  • Wraith: the Oblivion offers the prognosis of where all this is going if nothing is done: the creeping nihilism of Oblivion threatens to consume the very human soul itself.
  • Changeling: the Dreaming presents the solution: we must reawaken our creativity and get back in touch with our imagination, because it is through acts of genuine inspiration and originality that the grey malaise of the world will be dispelled and dispersed.

(You might even be able to see a way to break these down into the five stages of grief; Vampire as denial in a “I’m totally not an addict” sort of way, Werewoofle as anger because “When Will You Rage?”, Mage as bargaining because of the endless discussions it prompts both in-character and out-of-character, Wraith as depression because wow that is some bleak shit, and Changeling as acceptance because it’s says “Yeah, I’m playing pretend and being silly, and that’s cool“.)

Yes, this does mean that the Changelings end up coming in and fixing stuff, but the stuff in the rulebook about the various other splats being fae Prodigals or otherwise connected to the Dreaming does seem to set the groundwork for that. (And before anyone swings in with the standard White Wolf/Onyx Path party line about how all the books are written from the subjective point of view of characters in the setting: no they fucking aren’t, the prose stance of the adversary description is an out-of-character statement from the designers to referees discussing about how to use these creatures in Changeling, and none of the other splats try to explain the existence of the other splats in the context of their own cosmology in such a manner.)

Another reason this theory makes a lot of sense is that it means that the way Rein-Hagen referred to the five original World of Darkness games as the “Storyteller saga” makes sense – it puts the act of telling stories at the centre of how the world malaise is resolved. In fact, perhaps the biggest big of evidence in support of this theory is that, if true, it would mean that the whole overarching arc is saying that the central problem of the setting is that mass media is kind of homogeneuous and unimaginative, and that the solution to this is a resurgence of hobbyist creativity and art-for-the-sake-of-it activities intended not for the passive consumption by a mass audience but for the active appreciation of an intimate audience community.

This is absolutely and precisely the rhetoric that White Wolf pushed through all of these games about how roleplaying games are a revival of an ancient campfire storytelling tradition going back to the Stone Age and the counterpoint to mass media formulaic product. (Never mind that the World of Darkness games had already by this point ended up becoming just as formulaic in their presentation…) In other words, not only is this a concept which is precisely as pretentious as the sort of stuff White Wolf were pushing in their more risibly didactic moments, but it’s the actual, specific idea they told us that their work was all about from the first place.

That’s all quite neat – but again, it’s not something that really helps Changeling as a standalone game. Given that the 2nd edition failed to rekindle the game’s fortunes, it seems like the 20th Anniversary Edition has a lot of work ahead of it if it’s going to turn this ship around and really tease out what’s exciting about Changeling as a concept.

20th Anniversary Edition

Happily, the 20th Anniversary release of the game offers a range of major improvements. (It may be worth noting that its lead developer, Matthew McFarland, has subsequently left Onyx Path following seriously concerning information coming out during a #metoo-inspired thread on; for those of you for whom this might be a concern, to my knowledge McFarland does not receive ongoing royalties for sales of the product.)

Let’s tackle that magic system first, because that was the major system blunder in 1st edition; its absolutely fine now. It’s quite nicely flexible in terms of how Arts and Realms work – depending on how you built your character there’ll be certain stuff you can do without paying Glamour, or you can pay Glamour to target stuff outside of the usual scope of your mastered Realms. Bunks are no longer mandatory, thank goodness, and are not limited to options on cards either – you can make up your own of an appropriate magnitude (using the book’s guidance to judge how much of a benefit you get) to get the Difficulty cut, or just go without if you fancy your chances anyway. Lastly, the fun idea of Unleashing your power in an uncontrolled, spontaneous burst of the particular Art’s magic is brought in from Dark Ages: Fae to add a welcome and appropriately chaotic twist.

As far as the discussion of the Dreaming and the world of the Changelings goes, it’s both greatly clarified and massively expanded, the latter being especially useful because it means the Dreaming feels more populated. There’s also a general broadening of the scope of the game; for one thing, the Changeling kingdoms of the rest of the world are covered, so the game no longer assumes you are playing in North America. For another, full details are provided for the fae/Changeling-like entities of non-European cultures, including the Nunnehi – the faerie equivalents of Native American cultures. (Brief details on these were in 1st edition, as was an actual acknowledgement that they’d been subjected to horrible genocide and displacement; this was marred by the fact that they were included in the Antagonists chapter, which rather sends a bad message. Here they are listed in an appendix instead.)

You also get the lowdown on the Thallain – fae servants of a more primal, ancient order, following the ancient Fomorians that predated Arcadia. These have been infiltrating the world bit by bit as their ancient imprisonment wanes, and just as the Changelings had their resurgence amid the surge of hope and imagination after the Moon landings, the Thallain have been able to invade the world en mass after 9/11 due to the wave of fear and terror and the darker side of imagination that was unleashed by that. This is good because the Thallain make an excellent Changeling-specific antagonist faction, which allows you to have a big bad for your campaigns without delving into the murky waters of crossover campaigns.

Speaking of those crossovers, the antagonists chapter still contains details of the other major splats, and even works them in somewhat smoother. There’s even writeups for mummies and demons, though the demon one to be honest is not really possible to reconcile with Demon: the Fallen in the way that, say, the whole “Cain and/or Lilith are/were faerie(s)” thing slots rather neatly into the Vampire backstory.

In some respects, that kind of makes sense given that Faerie and the Infernal were orthogonal forces in Ars Magica. Generally, “the whole God/Satan thing actually happened” isn’t very compatible with many World of Darkness games aside from Vampire (if you assume that Cain was, in fact, that Cain and the myth there isn’t just a theory vampires tell themselves as a result of most vampires in the Western world having been raised at a time when Christianity was near-universally regarded as objective fact). With Changeling, the very cosmology seems to make the objective truth of Abrahamic faiths unlikely, but also antithetical to the Dreaming. (The rise of the Abrahamic religions is specifically called out as being partly responsible for the waning of the Dreaming and the subsequent rise of Banality.) Meanwhile, saying demons are simply fae entities whose recollection of the War In Heaven is a delusion more or less entirety invalidates Demon.

I actually have a pet theory that Demon was intended as a replacement in the World of Darkness line for Changeling, an alternate end scenario to help set up the apocalypse. Not only did Demon come out in 2002, a year after Changeling got abandoned, but weirdly when you set the God stuff aside there’s a lot of conceptual overlap between the two lines. In both cases you are an inhuman spirit incarnated in a human body. In both cases, you recharge your power stat through engaging with human beings on a non-physical level that contrasts sharply with vampiric bloodsucking – compare the Changeling cultivation of Glamour from human creativity to the way demons cultivate and harvest Faith. In both cases, the entities in question hail from Another Place which is no longer (easily) accessible to them but from which they could really do with reinforcements.

Were Changeling to develop to an end scenario where the Changelings stop being shy and start acting openly so as to reawaken people’s sense of wonder and imagination, and where they stopped selfishly seeking to return to Arcadia and instead sought to bring aid from Arcadia to Earth – both of which are entirely conceivable scenarios – that would be an awful lot like the way demons in Demon: the Fallen are meant to prompt the apocalypse by overtly cultivating faith in humans and summoning their bosses from Hell. It really makes me wonder whether the former was the original metaplot plan before the decision was made to sideline the faeries.

Speaking of metaplot, the summation of it offered here is nicely prewented and sets up a present scenario facing the Changelings that I actually think is more interesting than the 1st edition one. As well as presenting a broader view of the world, the status quo presented in Concordia here is more precarious. Whereas in 1st edition High King David was presented as a benign and steady hand on the wheel, the metaplot had him disappear – the writers perhaps realising that the absence of such a strong figure presents more opportunity for adventure.

Now he’s back, but he’s broken – withdrawn into a Dreaming freehold with his love who was blamed for his disappearance in the first place and clearly extremely out of touch, insisting that all is well in the kingdom and there is ample Glamour for all. This is fun because it means you get all the flavour of having a distinctive NPC as high king and all the opportunity that having him absent offers at the same time. How do the players deal with this? Do they seek to heal the king, overthrow him, or sideline him entirely? Will the various sub-kingdoms of Concordia drift apart altogether, and will the players oppose or encourage this? This is all greatly preferable to the sunnier, more stable situation presented in the 1st edition rulebook.

They even fixed Banality… almost. In its initial discussion of Banality and Glamour the book suggests that the exact same creative work could simultaneously inspire Glamour in some and Banality in others, since to some it will be a genuinely delightful and inspirational thing whilst to others it would be meaningless crap, and there’s a lot of subjective taste involved there. This idea can neatly add some nuance to the process of obtaining Glamour, because it suggests that making sure a work finds the right audience is just as important as shepherding it into existence in the first place.

Unfortunately, they don’t quite stick the landing – elsewhere the book reverts to 1st edition’s habit of assuming that some activities, like street art, have Glamour and are opposed by the forces of Banality, whilst other mediums are intrinsically sources of Banality. They try to add some nuance here, but all that does is reveal a high-handed snobbery about stuff the authors don’t like – a dismissiveness which elsewhere in the text seems to be the very definition of Banality.

For instance, rather than watching TV in general being a sign of creeping Banality, it’s specifically competitive cooking shows on TV that are called out. This is absurd on the face of it. For one thing, the culinary arts are specifically cited elsewhere as a valid source of Glamour, so a TV show focusing on creative cooking under pressure should surely be a celebration of Glamour. For another… OK, this may be something that passed by my yankerdoodle dangly readers, but over here in the UK we had a huge moment of national joy when The Great British Bake-Off was won by an observant, headscarf-wearing Muslim woman, Nadiya Hussain. It was a beautiful moment, a national rebuke to narrow-minded xenophobia and a great success for a genuinely talented and likeable contestant hailing from a sorely underrepresented background.

If you think that is Banality, then I’m sorry but you are fucking wrong and are a shitspattered toilet of Banality yourself for even suggesting that. You are the President of Banality Club For Shitheads, the first rule of which is that you take things which give genuine joy to people and you shit all over them because you are a classist prick who doesn’t value mass media unless it has wizards or dragons in it, at which point you are all over that like hypocritical flies on hypocritical shit.

The book also has MMOs as Banality sources, with a snide reference to a high-Banality character neglecting their creative ambitions because their guild needs them for raids on Skinner Box Online. For one thing, this portrays the character’s relationship with their guild as being a soul-sucking, life-sapping affair, rather than the sort of friendly interaction between people of common interests that results in real friendships and meets real emotional needs. I guess we can assume that nobody at Onyx Path watched Felicia Day’s The Guild, which makes a profound case for an MMO guild’s capability to be the latter.

Moreover, surely being highly invested in an MMO can be a gateway activity to a plethora of Glamour-inspiring activities? Delving into and expanding on your personal theories on the game’s lore, drawing fanart of your characters, cosplay, roleplaying servers, all that jazz seems like the sort of thing which, to me, ought to have the capability to inspire Glamour – not least because it involves imaginatively engaging with a realm of imagination. Even if you’re into a hardcore number-crunching raid-grinding approach to an MMO, shouldn’t the fact that you are placing great imaginative importance on fictional things in and of itself counter the bland, unimaginative materialism of Banality?

Look, Onyx Path: I get it. You were under the lash of CCP for a good long time – at first as White Wolf employees, and then as licensors of the White Wolf RPG properties – and you’ve been left shaken and traumatised by the experience, like a Changeling: the Lost PC. The poor Chronicles of Darkness line, in particular, got really bent out of shape for a while there because CCP wouldn’t greenlight a proper second edition, all for the sake of an MMO that never materialised.

But transferring those feelings to MMOs in general is not healthy, and slamming them as a genre is overkill. In particular, it takes you into the dangerous realm of declaring that one flavour of nerdtastic roleplaying shenanigans in an imaginary world is somehow inferior to your particular flavour of the exact same thing, and that sort of pissing contest rarely ends well for the person who starts it.

One thing this edition of the game is absolutely obsessed with when it comes to Banality – the example is given over and over again whenever Banality is discussed, and one of the Banality-inspired sample characters is specifically designed to make the point – is the idea that Criticism Is Bad. I don’t know who it was involved with the project – it could be one or more of the writers, it could be McFarland as lead developer, it could even be collective groupthink at Onyx Path (Richard Thomas has absolutely flipped the fuck out on their forums over what was by any objective measure respectful criticism which actually said fairly nice stuff about his work), but someone or some group of people there seems to think that saying critical things about artwork is an absolute atrocity and the one thing you can do to drive Banality the most is to give someone a bad review, because that discourages them and makes them feel all sadsy-sad in their feely-feels, and artists are so delicate and fwagile that this could be the straw that breaks their back and stops them creating in the first place.

My feeling is that this profoundly mischaracterises the relationship of criticism to art. Bad criticism which simply doesn’t get it is easy to dismiss. Good criticism – the really sharp stuff that truly gets under the skin – does so because it has a ring of truth to it. And to be a truly good critic, to be able to say something about an art form which actually registers as a legitimate point rather than being easily dismissed as the confused waffling of someone who just doesn’t get it, you need to have a love of that artform in the first place. People don’t write angry reviews of bad books because they hate books, they write them because they love books and hate seeing people fuck up the process of producing them.

Moreover, the whole “a harsh word about someone’s work might break their little heart!” stance is, at best, a seriously “speak for your fucking self” thing. I am sure there are people who do work in creative professions whose sense of accomplishment is deeply tied to the critical response to their work, and for whom bad reviews would be a serious motivation to get them to consider quitting. I also know numerous others who go out of their way to invite harsh feedback because they believe that such criticism helps them to grow their craft by looking at it from a different perspective, and who find that criticism actually enriches the process for them.

More than that, though, criticism and artistic responses to it seems to me to be orthogonal to the question of Glamour. If anything, the game intrinsically applies that there are creative works which add genuine Glamour to the world, and works which are mere dross, Banality-spawned offal that makes the world a more drab, dull, cynical and grey place. If we are going to make such distinctions, show discernment between works, lift up those with a genuine spark of Glamour and set aside those which are merely Banal, are we not then exercising… criticism?

This whole thing seems especially rich when you consider the way the book slams entire genres of works like competitive cooking shows and MMOs. If you are going to write off entire categories of creative endeavour like that, then not only are you being just the sort of snobbish critic you slam in the book, you’re also being an incompetent critic. Writing off an entire genre of thing as having no intrinsic worth at all is lazy, easily-refuted bullshit. Again, a skilled critic reviews stuff in their chosen field because they love the field in question, not because they hate it and think it should go away.

If you are going to romanticise the creation of art to the point where it becomes the means through which an occult force of wonder and magic comes into the world, why would you not also embrace the concept of “art for art’s sake”? If mass-produced crap produced for money tends to be Banal, why wouldn’t smarmy, ego-stroking stuff designed to pander to a particular audience for the sake of making them say nice things about the artist and puff up their ego be just as Banal? Surely, if the pursuit of art should be upheld over the pursuit of material success (the poor artist trope is exercised near-constantly here), shouldn’t the pursuit of art also be upheld over the pursuit of popularity and/or critical acclaim? Shouldn’t the true Glamour come from works of art which are produced heedless of any concern other than expressing the creator’s imaginative intent, and as such wouldn’t a creator who crumbles and breaks when they get a bad review show just the same lack of dedication as someone who crumbles and breaks because they didn’t get a good paycheck?

If anything, it kind of sets the creator in an even worse light. An artist who gets bad reviews but earns a living has at least earned a living, which means they can afford to keep producing work and stick two fingers up at the naysayers; an artist who gets good reviews but cannot earn enough to survive on through their art must necessarily step away from their art so they can meet their basic needs. Giving up in the latter case makes absolute sense, because no matter how dedicated you are to your art it’s a bit much to expect you to figuratively or literally starve for it. Giving up in the former case, however, suggests that you were never really dedicated to your art – you were dedicated instead to your hubristic fantasy of yourself as a Great Artist, and have decided that the game isn’t fun to play any more just because people won’t play along with your high estimation of your own work.

Now, I’m fully aware that Onyx Path and its creators have been the subject of some vile harassment in recent years from folks who don’t have a brilliant opinion of their work. An Autumn Person who is a serial harasser who keeps badgering and berating artists they disapprove of in order to drive them out of the field would be a great villain for a game, and would certainly be someone I’d be willing to say deserves the intervention of faerie magic to stop their rotten behaviour. However, that really isn’t what they’re talking about here – the specific examples given are much more under the column of “bad reviews” rather than “harassers”. Once again, I wonder whether the internal Onyx Path groupthink has ended up lashing out at the wrong targets.

(The critic NPC written up here especially makes me think that the folks at Onyx Path simply don’t understand what criticism is and why it is valuable. The NPC in question is a theatre critic who writes bad reviews of stuff because they’re bitter that they could never be an actor themselves. This is exactly the sort of shitty “bloo bloo bloo critics say mean stuff because they are jealous they can’t create themselves” nonsense that makes me want to dunk the Changeling team’s collective heads in the toilet and flush it on them. No, you do not need to be an expert creator in a field to be a good critic – one does not need to be a master chef to realise that one has been served a shit sandwich. Furthermore, many important artists have also written works of criticism – they aren’t two distinct worlds. Ursula Le Guin inspired Philip K. Dick to write his final masterpiece, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, when she wrote a harsh review of his treatment of woman characters in VALIS. This whole “ooooh, you’re just bitter because you can’t do better!” stance is the classic response of creators who are constitutionally incapable of processing a bad review – and that’s a personal flaw in them, not an intrinsic problem in the practice of reviews.)

That said, despite still having aspects which make me want to dump a sobering bucket of water over the heads of the designers, the Banality stuff here is at least a bit better handled than in 1st edition. As far as Banality-spreading Autumn People go some of the problematic “psychiatric help = imagination-destroying hate” stuff is still in there, though some of the examples are much more villainous – like a Christian “pray the fae away” camp which is pretty transparently based on those obnoxious homophobia induction gulags that parents in the US somehow think it’s OK to send their kids to. (I assume the idea is that if you outsource the emotional abuse of your child, you get to pretend you aren’t a total monster completely undeserving of the love your child extends you or the life your parents bestowed upon you for endorsing such a horrible thing. Seriously, yankerdoodles, fix your culture, that reeducation camp shit is vile.)

The best thing about Banality in 20th Anniversary edition, however, is that given the sheer amount of stuff crammed into this book it’s much more viable to run a game which doesn’t put a lot of focus on it if you fancy it. The Thallain and the Fomorians, in particular, are such a deliciously flavourful threat that my personal inclination would be to run a Changeling game focusing on the fight against them instead of the war against Banality. Banality and Glamour could still have their importance, in the sense that faeries could still represent an incursion of the wild and fantastical into a grey, drained world, but rather than presenting Banality as being an evil born of the Renaissance, it could simply be part of the natural waxing and waning of the strength of the Dreaming, whilst the Thallain could be working to overthrow the natural order and culture alike and bring about an era of unfettered nightmare.

A rules tweak I would be inclined to do here would be to modify the rules for how being in the Dreaming sucks the Banality out of you. In the rules presented here, you get all your permanent dots of Banality back when you exit the Dreaming; if you took that out, it would be substantially easier for Changelings to manage their personal Banality, and thus make the gaining of Banality – whilst still problematic – much less of a headache to manage. Between the various documented threats that exist in the Dreaming and the risk of Bedlam, taking a visit in there that lasts long enough to clear your accumulated Banality could still be a difficult thing, and there’s reasons not to go down to 0 Banality anyway. (For instance, it can be used to resist magic to an extent.) Plus, of course, if the campaign is focused on struggles in the mortal world, people aren’t going to want to spend so long in the Dreaming that they miss out on important mortal world action anyway.

This tweak would mean that your morality gauge became a bit looser and easier to slip out of, but for my part that’s fine – if anything fits the bill of being capriciously amoral, it’s faeries, who I tend to think should be more worried about the social fallout of being caught doing something unacceptable than they would about the deed itself. That said, I like the idea of the quests you can undertake to undo your permanent dots of Banality, but in this proposed tweak I’d make them available not for the narrow, selfish purpose of managing your own Banality, but for the broader and more potent purpose of untangling Banality’s hold on the world itself, permanently weakening the barrier between the mundane world and the Dreaming (useful if, for instance, you wanted to make a new trod into the Dreaming or establish a new freehold).

Perhaps the best success of Changeling 20th Anniversary Edition, then, is less the way it clarifies how to play Changeling as it was intended, and more the way it gives you the tools to drift Changeling into whatever it is you wanted it to be, even if that undermines the main point of the game. In Forge terms this is classic Incoherence, with the drift to focus on bits of the game which serve your ends and ignore bits of the game which don’t being an inevitable result, but frankly I consider this to be no bad thing. Whereas there are some games where I lament the dilution of their initial distinctive idea under a mass of additions which cause them to lose focus, with Changeling I find that the initial idea is divisive enough hat it’s to the game’s benefit to enable people to deviate in this manner.

Overall, Changeling seems to fit the pattern I have found useful with classic World of Darkness games, where you want to have the 1st edition around to do the “vision thing” and remind you of what’s truly core to the game in question, but also the 20th anniversary edition to have that rich storehouse of material to make use of. I didn’t expect it to like it to the extent I did, but like it I do. Ultimately, that stained-glass inspired layout and the DiTerlizzi art is extraordinarily pretty.

5 thoughts on “Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changeling! (Turn and Face the Dream…) Ch-Ch-Changeling!

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