Kickstopper: If There’s Onyx Path In Your Hedgerow, Don’t Be Alarmed Now: It’s Just a Spring Clean For Changeling

While it’s not true that Kickstarter is the sole route by which Onyx Path brings games to market, it’s certainly true that it’s a major foundation stone of their business strategy, and that by this point seeing them pivot away from using Kickstarter at all would arguably be more newsworthy than them launching yet another one.

With repeated Kickstarters comes mistakes and accidents, and from those comes lessons. Backing an Onyx Path Kickstarter these days is a bit more of a certain prospect than it was in earlier years. Previously, Rich Thomas had followed his creators-first instincts by allowing project managers to largely structure their Kickstarters as they chose, which led to some wild variations in results. Some books came to Kickstarter with at least the first pass of the text already prepared and ready for backer inspection, thus substantiating that the time-consuming part of the writing process was more or less done and what remained consisted of writing stretch goal content, editing and tightening up the text, and getting that layout and artwork action going prior to producing the PDFs and hard copies. Such projects were rarely very late.

Other projects took a different tack, launching prior to the text being completed with the expectation that they would be resolved in good time. In some cases this led to major delays and no little controversy. Wraith: the Oblivion‘s 20th Anniversary Edition only recently managed to ship its deluxe copies to backers, with the project massively delayed due to project lead Rich Dansky having taken on a new full-time job unexpectedly; Exalted 3rd Edition was both extremely late and had a controversy-laden design process, with the two original lead designers eventually leaving the project under a cloud of mutual recriminations.

These days, Onyx Path runs a tighter ship, at least when it comes to Kickstarters – realising that whilst the company might afford to be indulgent of creators’ bouts of writers’ block and other such issues when it comes to products developed entirely out of the public eye, Kickstarted products inevitably give customers a bit more insight into where things are – and customers can’t be expected to extend the same patience to creators indefinitely, especially when the question of “Why doesn’t Onyx Path step in and help the creators get on with it?” is outstanding. Now, Kickstarters don’t get greenlit by Onyx Path until there’s a manuscript to share with backers during the crowdfunding campaign, and in general the process is much smoother.

From the perspective of, say, a Changeling: the Dreaming character, this may represent a loss of innocence, a banal imposition upon the creativity of project heads. From the perspective of a character in Changeling: the Lost, this is a welcome addition of stability in opposition to the chaos of Arcadia…


Usual Note On Methodology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

The Campaign

The intention behind this project was simple: bring out a 2nd edition of Changeling: the Lost through a traditional print run, ideally including at least one print run for retailers. By and large, the management of the campaign itself was nice and smooth.

As mentioned above, Onyx Path have shifted to a policy of ensuring that a manuscript is in place and ready to show the world before a Kickstarter begins, to avoid massive delays like those which plagued Exalted 3rd Edition or Wraith 20th Anniversary Edition. Whilst with some Kickstarters, they made that manuscript available straight away on the campaign page before you even pledged, for this one they decided to take a somewhat different approach: they laid out the chapters like a breadcrumb trail during the campaign in backer-only updates, chapter by chapter.

This did mean you had to make a pledge to see the preview, but I don’t think that’s too unreasonable. It’s worth remembering that unlike some crowdfunding platforms, Kickstarter pledges a) only get collected if the target is hit and b) don’t get collected until the fundraising stage is over. Ultimately, there was nothing stopping people from pledging towards the end of the campaign, downloading and reading the entire draft, and then dropping their pledge.

I suspect the advantage of doing it this way, rather than opening the thing out completely, is a higher quality of feedback on the draft – since it’s only visible for people who bother to jump those hoops, one can expect that the people who’ve done that are folk who are already invested to an extent in Changeling: the Lost, and so can be reasonably assumed to have bought into its key concepts and generally support them. This would tend to reduce the sort of feedback along the lines of “Your entire premise is terrible, you should do this completely different project instead” and increase the proportion of feedback along the lines of “I get where you want to go with the premise, but I feel like it would be better delivered if you did X”.

What Level I Backed At

Adept of the Leaden Mirror

You’ll receive:
• Access to the Manuscript Previews, which will be posted as Updates throughout the campaign.
• An option to purchase the CHANGELING: THE LOST 2ND EDITION CORE BOOK Print on Demand (PoD) version as close to cost as we can give you (see description in the text to the left)

Delivering the Goods

As you might expect, with the text largely in place already and a good deal of prior Kickstarters under Onyx Path’s belt, the rest of the fulfillment process of this Kickstarter went smoothly. How smoothly? Put it this way: they went conservative with their estimates for delivery, saying we should expect it by June of 2019, I actually got my book in January. This is a rare and welcome thing in a world where Kickstarter project creators seem chronically incapable of learning the ol’ lesson of “double the maximum time it could reasonably take, report that as an estimate, then if it goes smoothly everyone gets a nice surprise and if it takes a while you have slack time planned in already”.

Reviewing the Swag

Changeling: the Lost 2nd Edition

So far the story of the Chronicles of Darkness 2nd Editions – particularly when it comes to games with clear World of Darkness equivalents – is that they are very much “1st Edition Done Right”, delivering a refined and clarified version of what their original iterations were going for whilst fixing a number of major issues which had turned some people off of those games. For instance, 2nd edition Vampire: the Requiem did a much better job of establishing what made Requiem more than just Vampire: the Masquerade with all the setting lore blowtorched away, and 2nd edition Mage: the Awakening managed to drag the gameline away from the idea that it’s all about Atlantis.

Both versions of Changeling: the Lost depart sharply from Changeling: the Dreaming by casting player characters as the other side of the folkloric changeling equation; whereas Dreaming focused on creatures of faerie exiled to the mortal world, here you play human beings who have been abducted to Arcadia and then escaped their fae captors, returning through the metaphysical barrier of the Hedge back to ordinary reality. So far, so good.

However, something always seemed very slightly off about this angle in 1st edition – at least in its core book. (As with most of the Chronicles lines – and many other White Wolf games besides – many of the sins of the 1st edition’s core book were somewhat clarified and alleviated in the supplement line.) In particular, it seemed like the Changelings were expected to assemble in decidedly faerie-ish courts (rather than more prosaic and mundane social structures like support groups) and spend a lot of time cultivating their Arcadian powers, despite the fact that they had every motivation to steer well clear of anything which even aesthetically reminded them of fairyland, let alone stuff which draws on that power.

Overall, 2nd edition does a much better job of explaining why this would be the case: the fae didn’t merely kidnap, imprison, and abuse your character, they metaphysically reshaped them so that on some level they are now as much things of Arcadia as of the everyday world, which in practice means they aren’t entirely at home in either. Whilst remaining in Arcadia is no option when being recaptured by their former Keeper is a real possibility, Changelings are out of step with the world they left behind – both because of the time that has passed and because of the vistas they have witnessed and can no longer entirely forget. The Court system develops that way, with that aesthetic, in part because it’s an expression of its constituent Changelings’ Arcadian aspects; Changelings choose to develop their Wyrd powers because this both gives them the power to turn the fae’s power back on them when it’s necessary to do so.

This all helps answer the “what do you actually do?” question which World/Chronicles of Darkness games have in the past been kind of bad at answering. For the purpose of Changeling: the Lost, the second edition suggests a default set of activities quite well: seek community in your Courts, defend them from threats internal and external, explore your new nature, and maybe, just maybe, reach the point where you can confront your old Keeper.

As far as threats go, the book offers decent guidelines and rules for deploying a range of them. The True Fae themselves, of course, plus various Arcadian denizens, plus fetches – the simulacra left in the place of the folk the fae steal from the world. There’s the agents of the fae who go hunting for escaped Changelings; there’s also Changelings who sell out their own to the fae, either because they regret leaving Arcadia and hope to be allowed back (shades of that one splat from Demon whose members want to reconcile with the God-Machine) or for grossly mercenary reasons. On the flipside of the coin there’s the bridge-burners, Changelings whose hate for the Keepers extends to hatred for Arcadia in general and a desperate quest to destroy all links between their world and ours – including the ordinary human capacity to dream, and very much including Changelings who explore their Arcadian nature rather than violently denying it.

This seems to be a good time to work in the abuse angle. In 1st edition Changeling leaned heavily on an angle where the captivity in Arcadia was a metaphor for sexual abuse; the concept of Arcadia as a realm of blood, rape and torture was very much pushed, it was very specific about the type of abuse Changelings received, and so on and so forth. In principle, the abuse metaphor was appreciated by some who liked that this experience was reflected in a game, but in practice other features of the setting make it very awkward. For one thing, if Arcadia is basically the Hellraiser Cenobites’ realm, then the bridge-burners are 100% right. Bridge-burners as villains only work if the thing they are trying to purge has at least some positive aspects; if they’re trying to rid the world of something unambiguously abhorrent, then they’re much more sympathetic figures. In particular, saying “the bridge-burners are bad because we need just a little sexual abuse in the world, lest we lose our dreams and our passions” is absolutely wackadoodle.

Moreover, the abuse metaphor would sit badly with the way that 2nd edition emphasises that Changelings take on a partly Arcadian nature; whilst the phenomenon of abused people who go on to be abusers is a known thing (and heartbreaking for it), it is a huge, huge mistake to universalise that the extent that this angle would imply – and, indeed, I’d say that the fundamental problem of abuse metaphors in general is that they attempt to universalise an experience which actually isn’t amenable to being universalised in that way. Any particular universalising metaphor for abuse will inevitably work very well for victims who recognise a sympathetic portrayal of their own experience in it, but will needlessly annoy, vex, or even distress and retraumatise victims who either don’t recognise themselves in it or find that it directly goes against the grain of their experience.

For 2nd edition, Changeling leans on the abuse metaphor much less. You can still go for it for your particular captivity if you really want – but helpfully, the game is much more happy to contemplate other types of captivity and thereby greatly broadens the range of stories that can be told with it. After all, one problem with how hard 1st edition pushed the abuse metaphor is that it made every Changeling’s story the same and shut down a great range of otherwise perfectly valid takes on the “lost in fairyland” concept. Arcadia is now a place of great glory and wonder as well as terror – it’s a land of passion, and is as dark or as bright as the passions of its rulers – and the option of having been kept as a pampered, beloved bauble, smothered with kindness rather than being tortured with abuse, is very much present.

(Seen through another lens, you could say that the abuse metaphor is still present, but the range of types of abuse is better reflected; rather than all abuse coming down to violence and rape, your captivity in Arcadia could instead be framed as a metaphor for, say, an emotionally abusive relationship complete with gaslighting, or a smothering parent/child relationship where you were never allowed to express your own personhood, or whatever.)

Other pointless limits on the stories you are allowed to tell are also lifted. For instance, in 1st edition there was a rule that your abduction could have taken place no more than 50 years ago, killing off the Rip van Winkle option; if that rule is still here, I can’t find it. On the whole, it’s this opening up of Changeling: the Lost to fit a range of cool character concepts which previously fit the elevator pitch but got ruled out by the detailed unpacking of the setting, in conjunction with giving players more freedom to decide the precise nature of their abduction and how they process that (rather than insisting that they must see it and process it in a particular way), which seems to me like the big success of 2nd edition. If you just want a fun game about renegades from Arcadia fighting fairies whilst trying to make it in the mundane world, it’s there for you and you don’t need to touch the abuse metaphor at all; if you do want to tackle the metaphor, you now have much more freedom to decide a) what that abuse was and b) what you think about it, which I consider a fundamental freedom which if we can’t extend to victims we can’t hope to help them.

Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?

I’d say Just Right. The book is a lovely item and I would have regretted passing it up; at the same time, I feel no great desire for the higher-tier bonuses, Onyx Path consistently getting referee screen design wrong (the individual panels should be landscape orientation, guys, not portrait orientation!) and PDFs of the 1st edition line not being of much interest to me, since it feels like the reforms of 2nd edition needed to happen before Changeling became a game I could get into.

Would Back Again?

With the usual caveat of “if it’s for the right product”, yes – Onyx Path are one of the safer bets out there in Kickstarter land these days.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.