A few days ago we here at CHG were surprised to discover that we had been awarded a free copy of a Changeling: The Lost sourcebook from the Storytellers Vault by the name of Venice Unmasked, written by Christopher Handley. So, keeping in mind what I had learned from the new edition (or perhaps, completely forgetting it and getting swept up by a True Fae), I decided to take a look. But perhaps, I am getting ahead of myself: what is the Storytellers Vault? I had never heard of it before.
What I learned is that the Vault is, for the lack of a better term, the fan module publishing service (much like the DM’s Guild for D&D). People who sign up are given access to the IP for White Wolf, and they are allowed to publish sourcebooks based on locations or different time periods through the auspices of the “Storytellers Vault” branding for 50% royalties. It appears to be a win-win: White Wolf has had an extensive history of farming out chapters of books for freelancers, so why wouldn’t they let the market dictate what sourcebooks are popular and which aren’t? They get some royalty money for little to no effort, and the devoted author gets to use an IP they comfortable with and passionate about and get a decent slice of royalties for their work.
I address the fact that this is an fan written setting for a simple reason: I honestly could not tell while I was reading it. The layout was nearly identical to CtL 1st edition, with subsections neatly stored within the columns. There was artwork that I am sure was in the 2nd edition core, along with a lot of gorgeous original art that reminds me of Dave McKean’s covers for Sandman. Apart from one small typo, I couldn’t see a single book design flaw in it. Venice is a city that Handley cares a great deal about, enough so that he takes time to mention that this is where he was engaged and where he was married. Venice Unmasked is a labor of love, both for the city, and for his passion for gaming.
Venice Unmasked begins with a fairly long backstory (again, hardly unusual for a White Wolf product), going through the history of Venice from the days of refugees from the fall of Rome, to an independent city-state, its rise to one of the most vital cities in Christendom during the crusades, its fall to Napoleon, and how it fell by the wayside during the industrial revolution, coming to be known for its glamor and art. In the end, it’s the glamor, art, legends, and traditions of Venetian history and life that come into play. Changeling is a game that relies heavily on the idea that all stories are true (in some fashion), traditions accomplish something, and old bargains are sacred. The historical sections are filled with these legends and rituals. For instance, the fact that starting in the Dark Ages (and continuing to this day) the ruler of Venice (now mayor) attends the Marriage to the Sea every year, a ritual where a consecrated ring is cast into the waters to “wed” the city to the sea, which had provided the city dominance for so long. There is a legend about a man whose daughter was promised that she would become “like the Madonna” if she hid a communion wafer for 10 days, only for it to bring nothing but hardship on the family. Mostly importantly though, Venice Unmasked delights in one of the most famous events in the city, the Venetian Carnival.
While Carnival has pagan roots, it gained traction in the middle ages as a festival before Lent, with a number of similarities that Americans might associate with Mardi Gras: a time to finish off the wine and rich food that would go bad if left for 40 days of fasting, a feast culminating with a grand festival where people of all status would don masks and celebrate, where you would never know who was whom. People could use the opportunity of this anonymity to do a number of things: dodge creditors, speak their thoughts freely, assassinate a rival. For those following along with the general plot of Changeling: The Lost, wearing a mask that hides your true nature and pretending that you are something else while engaging in bargains in secret is a huge part of the game, and Handley nicely dovetails that into what makes Venice special, creating a unique metaphysical setting.
For the Changelings of Venice, a different Court is in session: The Court of Carnival. Due to the intervention of Changelings loyal to their old masters, the protections that the Seasonal Courts had maintained had been weakened and bypassed, and the True Fae were able to hunt their former Lost once again so that they could be re-enslaved. Desperate, one nameless Changeling made a deal with Carnival itself, cutting off his own face to become the Doge. While the individual Seasonal Courts still exist and have their own factions, the Doge is the ruler of the city. Around him, Masks appear over every Changeling that override their true appearance. Everyone in the Doge’s Court is truly anonymous, though different Court positions carry special masks that correspond to their duty … which happen to correspond to the roles in the Italian Commedia dell’arte, street performances with a bunch of stock characters that companies would make up shows for. (The Renaissance version of the English Punch and Judy shows).
While each Court has its own factions, the Doge can come from any of them…the problem is that becoming the Doge makes you so anonymous no one can remember who you were. As a result, though everyone is under the same banner of “Let’s not get taken back by our old masters”, everyone has their own way of thinking how best that should be done. Unlike the Seasonal Courts, where every faction takes a turn in charge, the Doge rules over all…and no one can remember where the Doge came from, and what his or her (or its) loyalties are. On the up side, no conspirator against the Freehold can be sure that the person he is conspiring with in on his side, which makes betraying anyone rather difficult.
It’s a pretty uneasy alliance. Spring doesn’t like that its typical time of celebration is being cut into by forty days of fasting, Summer can’t remember who is in charge but thinks that it should be one of their own, Autumn is engaged in a spy competition with the Doge’s own, and Winter doesn’t like the flashy show. As I read through it, I see wisps of connection to how Vampire games are played … and I’m alright with that. The overall plot is still PvE, but I am happy to see wrinkles of intrigue set into the system.
There are mechanical groundworks that the book lays down. They are set in First Edition, even though the book was published in 2019 (I assume this is a combination of IP restrictions, and the relative youth of Second Edition) but overall the changes are minor, and since the book is more background and story based GMs should be able to modify what hard systems numbers exist into the new setting. For the most part, the most direct changes to any mechanics would be in the Mantle and Contract of Carnival. The more ranks in Mantle, the harder your character is to place. Contracts with Carnival tend to embody aspects of the event itself. Especially notable, and potentially game changing, is the five dot contract (what would likely be the equivalent of a Royal Contract in 2E) called Farewell to the Flesh, where a successful role on the target (including another person) inverts their place on the morality track. Note that I didn’t say for a Changeling. It works for any applicable character who has a morality track in the White Wolf franchise: Humanity for Vampires, Harmony for Werewolves, Wisdom for Mages. An Elder Methuselah, creatures millennia old who has long since abandoned even the vestiges of being human can be made, for a time, more human than human. It is expensive, and certainly not a one hit kill, but the idea makes for some wonderfully interesting cross system play.
The rest of the book is made up of characters for players to interact with, and story hooks. Again, all of the characters are drummed up using 1st edition rules, but with a little bit of legwork, they could be adopted into 2nd edition with few or any problems. More important is their narrative purpose: the factions that make up the Seasonal Courts, their motivations, and what they might try to do without player intervention or interaction. Overall, it’s a valid resource for a setting.
For me, Venice Unmasked sets a pleasant bar for fan works in White Wolf properties. Even if your campaign doesn’t take your players to Venice, it has a lot of cool ideas that can be grafted onto campaigns. Furthermore, it provides a really cool example for other prospective designers. Is there a festival or something else truly unique about the city you want to base your game around? Why shouldn’t you make a special event with it? Why shouldn’t an excited and passionate GM make an event in game where rules are turned on their heads, and when conspiracies and plots boil over? If anything, I believe this is the greatest gift that Venice Unmasked offers: inspiration to go beyond and let GMs do their thing.
For those interested, Venice Unmasked is available for purchase on DriveThruRPG. Like what Cannibal Halfling Gaming is doing and want to help us bring games and gamers together? First, you can tell your friends about us! You can say hello on our Discord channel! Finally, you can support us directly on Patreon, which lets us cover costs, pay our contributors, and save up for projects. Thanks for reading!