Changeling the Lost: Second Edition

The political kingmaker is the fairest of them all, with a designer suit, a killer intellect, and a smile that will make men follow her anywhere. She is a master of the boardroom and has a knack for deal making, even when the terms seem a bit, well, strange. If you agree to them in jest, you may be surprised when you are compelled to follow through. The bartender is a short man, barely noticeable behind the counter. He’s quick with a smile, and a drink, and is always willing to hear a gripe or a complaint, and offer a quick word of comfort to the concerned bar patron. What is odd is the number of filled shot glasses he keeps over the lintel as a marker. The private eye has streaks of grey throughout his raven black hair. His eyes are quick and dart to the sides wildly. His smile, while charming, seems to have a few too many teeth. He’s been following up on a number of abusive husband cases lately. It’s a bit odd how so many have seemed to disappear, but no body, no crime. It might seem as if all of these characters have nothing in common, were it not for their  enemy: the beings who took them away to a far off land, and who may come to take them again. And for that, these Changelings will join together to stay alive.

I have a special relationship with products from White Wolf Publishing, and with its successor, Onyx Path. On one hand, they have a knack for creating premises for games that I find utterly fascinating: The original Vampire: The Masquerade, throughout all of the backstabbing and power brokering, has the meta-plot of the approach of Gehenna, an apocalypse where their ancestors will all rise and devour them. Vampires, creatures who fear nothing but time, are now running out of it. Mage is about humankind with magic, as the inertia of the world pushes back against it. Exalted has a beautiful, epic backstory about the revolts of the Gods, the vengeance of the Primordials who came before them, and the foibles and pride of the humans the gods had chosen as their champions, advisors, and soldiers.

And yet, when it came time to actually put those gorgeous ideas into playable games, very often the result was a mess. The first Mage game, Ascension, was incredibly vague on what constituted Paradox, which meant that a lot of what players could try to do would be incredibly reliant on what that GM allowed. Exalted, a game about mortals being empowered explicitly to do the things that were impossible for Gods, tend to be all about constantly pulling out impossible stuff. Exalted was the first tabletop I tried when I got back into gaming, and while I had fun, I am not lying when I say that a single combat could tie up half a session. I’ve heard the joke, “The best element in Exalted is fire…because you burn the books and then pick a better system.” The ideas were great, but a beautiful mess is still a mess (we won’t even touch on OPP’s timetables on fulfilling their Kickstarter projects).

It was with these experiences in mind when I was introduced to the first edition of Changeling: The Lost. The premise was beautiful, haunting and possibly terrifying: In short, players take the role of people who were spirited away to another dimension (Arcadia) and made playthings for their new masters, the True Fae. The Changeling’s bodies are reforged with the magic of Arcadia to serve this new purpose: turned into a flame to light the halls, made into a hound to guard the manor, or just kept around as a servant to clean up. Most who are taken never return, but every so often, a Changeling will get the drive to sneak away and will themselves through the thorns of the Hedge, the barrier between Arcadia and the Mortal realm.

Even then, their suffering isn’t over. They return to a world that has continued to move, while their own flow might be different: a year might have passed in the mortal world while fifty in Arcadia, and vice versa. A Changeling might come home to see an imposter in their place, a being left by the Fae as a near perfect copy of themselves. Regardless, they have been utterly changed. Their bodies have kept some of the alterations that the Fae made, changing their appearance and giving them powers that are fueled by glamour, the distilled essence of human emotion which they now need to feed on. This makes them completely alien to the life they came from, and their new life is always threatened by the idea that the immensely powerful being that took them, that tortured them, can come back at any time.

But for all of that, there are some things the Changelings have going for them. First, they have Contracts: pacts that the Fair Folk made with the metaphysical concepts of Arcadia that granted them their awesome powers. Even the Fae must live by these deals. The alterations made to Changelings to better serve their master have made them a part of that same pact. Some of the most powerful of these are the Seasons themselves, and enclaves of escaped Changelings have formed Courts around them: small organized groups who share the powers and collectively buy into that Season’s contracts.

The Seasonal Courts is one of the best written pieces of meta in games in my opinion. Each one is designed not only to correspond with the season, but also their approach to dealing with the Fae, with a different stage of grief, and, scarily enough, the coping mechanisms of survivors of long term abuse. Spring is the Court of Desire: lively and warm, they throw themselves into hedonistic pleasure to deny the horrible things that happened. Summer is the Court of Wrath: brazen as the burning Summer sun, they turn their anger into a weapon, and violently lash out to satisfy it. Autumn is the Court of Fear: a dread chill in the air, the time when shivers run down our spine on the lengthening nights. They have gifts now, even if the cost is high. They push to understand the sorcery that bound them, and to use it to give the Fae something to really be afraid of, to abuse the Fae’s hunters as the Fae abused them. Winter is the Court of Sorrow: quiet and still, they know that their former master is still out there, so they better be as silent as possible. It’s easy to hide, so long as you can bear cutting yourself off from anything or anyone that would reveal you and you make yourself numb.

In case there are any doubts, yes, this is  agame that explores abuse and trauma. The capture and treatment by the Keepers (the Fae that took you) was purposefully modelled to make the game a story about survivors. For some players, this could either be helpful, or could really open up some wounds. Make sure that you prime players before they come in if you are interested in the game (if they are not, might I suggest a look over at City of Mist instead). Overall, the game is about surviving in the world you have returned to, making peace with yourself, and keeping a wary eye toward the dangers that might ensnare you.

As a dug in I got really into the plot, settings, and themes. However, as I started to look into some of the crunch involved in 1st Edition, my hopes dimmed. There were already a number of supplements involved, which had led to a complicated Gordian Knot of different Courts depending on the location involved, a huge number of subclasses that were all limited by a relatively small number of classes to choose from, and a lot of math that didn’t seem to make sense. My first character idea was an oneiromancer (someone who can shape dreams) and not only were there are a lot of steps and checks, the difficulty was rather high even when trying to build specifically for it. These all combined to me abandoning the game without playing it.

I still really enjoyed the concept though. So, when someone in a PbP group mentioned they wanted to see what 2nd edition was about, I brought myself back in. I don’t know for sure, but I think that the writers realized that the fans of the 1st edition very often heavily house ruled in order to make the playing process enjoyable. To that end, it seems like Onyx Path tried to make the system more of a toolkit for players and give a larger variety of options without forcing hard mechanical challenges.

Overall, character builds have the same structure in the standard WoD: three groupings of attributes and skills (Physical, Mental, and Social), which players are forced to prioritize and allot a decreasing number of ranks to. When faced with a test, players combine the appropriate Attribute and Skills, and roll that number of 10-sided dice. Rolls of 8 or higher are counted as successes, and the number of successes are compared to a target value to see how the player did.

Players begin building by picking their Seeming, the things they were changed into (effectively, the character’s class), which are based on fairy tales and legends: Beasts, for those who were turned into animals (Princess and the Frog); Darklings, the things that go bump in the night (shapeshifters and boogeymen); Elementals, people who were changed into nature (The Ifrit and Undine); Fairest, those picked and molded for beauty, but now have the royal bearing of leaders (Snow White); Ogres, creatures of brutality who have come back to their humanity (The troll under the bridge); and the Wizard, the servants and craftsmen of legend, gifted(?) with the talents to do and make things for their masters (Rumplestiltskin). Optionally, you can pick a Kith (sub-class), though as it grants a free ability almost everyone does so. Previously, kiths were tied into specific Seemings. However, in 2nd edition, they act more as a “what was your job”, and are open to all Seemings (though there are two suggested for each type as to what would have been thematically appropriate).

From there, players pick their Contracts, which act similar to Disciplines in Vampire and Charms in Exalted: they grant a certain effect or ability and typically have to pay points out of a pool to be activated (again, similar to Blood and Essence in Vampire and Exalted respectively) and players can choose to join a Court or stay unaligned. There are a few flavor items: Needle and Thread is what keeps the character together and Touchstones are what bind the character to their humanity and previous life. The last items are neat ways to flesh out a character more than simply stats on a page.

One very nice difference is how character advancement occurs. As players go through the session, they have the opportunity to pick up Beats depending on their play, typically doing things that mean that their characters have been getting involved: fulfilling a goal, taking damage, resolving negative conditions on them, or by choosing to make a failure a Dramatic one (for example). Acquiring Beats adds up to expendable XP, from which the player can improve their character. I like that it’s more than just handing over XP at the end of a session, and encourages involvement.  

One important theme I want to touch on is the nature of promises and oaths in game. Humans in the real world make them all the time: “I’ll be home by seven” or “If I get handed another project, I’m going to quit!” Usually, these are given and broken somewhat freely and often without consequence. However, to Fae…promises are promises. A neat feature is that Changelings are actually able to bind both mortals and other beings to them, and punish them with mechanical disadvantages when they don’t follow through on a promise. It’s a neat feature that plays off of plenty of tales about the Fair Folk and dealing with them, and as they often do exact wording applies. You might have to abide by a promise to never speak of something, but instead choose to write it. The nature of these promises also leads to a cool new edition: the Fae-Touched. These are mortals who made a deep promise to someone who was taken as a changeling…and lived up to it. It has to be something big, a promise always to return to the same spot once a year, to name your firstborn after them, but the depth of the promise and the meaning in keeping it is so great that the mortal is drawn in-between the space between worlds, giving the Changeling they are tied to a chance to escape. While I don’t think I would play as one, it’s a neat add on.

Overall, I think the Changeling: The Lost 2nd Edition is an improvement. By no means do I think that it has the best mechanical design. I think people will find some parts perhaps clunky, but I do think the designers made a concerted effort to make the game easier to play. If you love the concept, but felt pushed away by the design in 1st Edition, I wholeheartedly suggest that you take a look.

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