Making War on Imagination

by Dan H

Dan goes off on one about Changeling: the Lost
First off, this article is about a roleplaying game. Them as aren't interested in the roleplaying hobby, sorry. I'll go back to being rude about other things soon.

For those who don't know, and who haven't already navigated away to other articles, White Wolf Game Studio (apparently now owned by the guys who run Eve Online go figure) made a big splash in the early-to-mid nineties with a game called Vampire: the Masquerade which, to give it its due, was groundbreaking, genre-defining and seminal. It pretty much set the tone for RPGs published in the 1990s and widened the audience of Role-Playing Games from “speccy nerds who read too much Tolkein” to “whiney thesps who read too much Anne Rice.”

In the early “noughties” WWGS blew up their fantastically popular World of Darkness setting (starting with the highly unpopular Wraith: the Oblivion) and replaced it with something almost totally identical. 2007 saw the release of Changeling: the Lost a “Storytelling Game of Beautiful Madness”.

It's actually got a lot going for it. The setting is interesting and evocative, the central premise - you play humans who were abducted by the Fae, and have fought your way back to the real world, but no longer truly belong in it – is cool (if you ignore the perennial question of “yes, but what do you actually do?” which has plagued WWGS since their inception). The funky magic powers are exciting and thematic, and have rules which make them easier to use in appropriate situations (so you can use magic to cheat people who have cheated you, to protect your own property, or help people for no reward, more easily than you can use it for flat mechanical bonuses).

I have several problems with Changeling: the Lost, there's the fact that after the obligatory intro fiction and psudo-highbrow quote its first words are:

We all grow up on fairy tales. Our first exposure to them these days is often in a somewhat light hearted “child-friendly” form ... But as we start to find the older fairy tales in their original form, things turn out differently. Blood and sex creep into the tales...

Wow! You mean fairy tales are dark man, dark? I certainly haven't heard that before.

Then there's what I've increasingly come to think of as the “GTA IV problem” (those who have caught our most recent podcast will recognise this idea as being stolen from Arthur: sorry Arthur). The whole premise of the game is that you are escaping from “Faerie” and pretty much never want to go back. They go out of their way to tell you that your time amongst the Fae was pretty much wall to wall abuse (more on this in a second) that it totally messed you up and your whole aim in life is to put it behind you. Game mechanically, though, your aim is to jack up your Faery stats as high as possible and run screaming from any semblance of a mortal life, so that you can get access to more kewel powers. Pretty much every White Wolf game except for Mage and Werewolf has the same problem though.

Finally in the list of minor-but-dealable-with annoyances is the fact that not only do they go out of their way to tell you that Faery is dark, man, dark and that your time there was one of abuse, man, abuse but they directly and explicitly equate your characters to real world abuse survivors.

Likewise, while romantic tales have been spun of the Fae falling in love with mortals, and sweeping them off to serve as consorts, the realities of such tales are far from idyllic. Some changelings, especially those who were seduced across the Hedge, may have been concubines to their Keepers, but the role was scarcely more romantic than that of an abducted sex slave to a mortal master.

This is made of so much fail I'm not sure where to begin. Leaving aside the fact that forced prostitution is a really serious issue, not something to be bandied about in a “game of beautiful madness” there's also the fact that it totally misses the point. Stories about faeries who take mortal lovers are dark already, you idiots. The tale of Tam Lin isn't made any deeper, darker or more interesting by saying “and also the Fairy Queen raped him with a broom handle”.

And this, in a roundabout way, brings me to my biggest problem with the game (which has been my problem with White Wolf games since the beginning, but is particularly bad here) which is that it leaves no room for individual imagination or interpretation. The game deliberately restricts the ways individual players and “Storytellers” are allowed to interpret it, and encourages the “Storyteller” to build the entire “Chronicle” around a pre-written story arc.

The chapter on “Storytelling” is particularly egregious. Its advice on “basic story structures” has this to say:

As a practical exercise, put a blank piece of paper in front of you. This is going to be your “plot map,” since a story is effectively a verbal journey: it begins somewhere and comes to a conclusion somewhere, too. At the top of the page write “Introductory Event.” At the bottom of the page, write “Chronicle Climax.” Between these entries, make five bullets, which you'll use to describe the events leading from one to the next ... Next, fill in the five bullets from the bottom to the top using one word from each entry in the entry following it ... with some action or event that you imagine the characters participating in.

Now the sad thing about this is that it's actually a really nice little story writing exercise (I might steal it next time I make a doomed attempt to write original fiction). It provides a simple, elegant method of getting from the start of a story to the end, through a sequence of scenes which follow logically from each other, and feel relatively interconnected. What it doesn't do is pay any attention whatsoever to the actual players. This is even clearer when you look at the sample “Chronicle outline” that this method produces.

  • Introductory Event: Nightmares draw the disparate characters to a well in a condemned building's basement

  • A shadowy form leaps into the well with the abducted children slung over its shoulder

  • A changeling abducted by Erlkonig returns to join the renegades

  • Renegade changelings seek to strike out against established members of local changeling society

  • The characters seek aid from established members of the changeling court

  • The Erlkonig's minions ambush the motley as the characters leave court

  • Chronicle Climax: The motley banishes the Erlkonig back to Faerie

Again, the non-roleplayers in the audience (and even some of the roleplayers in the audience, different people find different things objectionable after all) might be wondering what's so bad about this. It's this: in a roleplaying game you have players. Those players, in theory, are supposed to get to decide what they do in the game. Now I'll admit, different people have different expectations when it comes to roleplaying games, but I really don't see the point of playing a game if the GM (sorry: “Storyteller”) has already decided how things are going to end.

It gets even worse when you read on, and it goes into a session-by-session breakdown of how the campaign is supposed to work. It involves planning not only world-events to take place at some point in the future but actually planning how the players will react to things. You get lines like “the session concludes with the characters vowing to one another to keep vigilant over the well,” “in the fourth session, the characters' relationship with the female courtless blossoms,” and “For the fifth session, the characters know that they can't entreat the rebels to care about the Erlkonig's marauding, so they take the details of the Fae's presence to the changeling establishment.” And just in case you were thinking that this was supposed to be a retroactive summary of game sessions that had already happened, this particular point is followed up with the observation that “If the characters don't come to this realisation themselves, an agent of the dominant season's Court can come to them, blackmailing them by telling them they've been seen consorting with shiftless rebels.”

At the end of the section there is a single, tiny concession to the notion that the players have free will: “If the characters truly demonstrate an interest in the rebel cause, it might be best to rework the plot map a bit. Instead of forcing them to find allies among the Courts, perhaps have the rebels aid the characters in confronting the Erlkonig.” This note, though, is damning in its brevity, and the way in which it encourages the Storyteller to respond to player actions is particularly awful, advocating a cosmetic change to the story “Players ally with Renegades to defeat Erlkonig” instead of “Players ally with Courts to defeat Erlkonig” instead of considering the possibility that if the players “truly demonstrate an interest in the rebel cause” that maybe the game should be about – y'know – the rebel cause. It's an ass-backwards but depressingly common attitude to roleplaying games: you have to know what your players are interested in doing, so that you can use it to get them to do what you want them to do instead.

I don't think I'd find this whole thing so offensive if it wasn't for the fact that the game puts so much emphasis on individual character background. Changeling: the Lost (and WWGS games in general) places enormous emphasis on the idea that players should create living, breathing characters with goals and dreams and motivations. The game consistently goes out of its way to encourage the players to give their characters detailed personalities and histories: “Remember, as the name suggests, the main focus of a Storytelling game is on telling engaging stories about intriguing characters.” Not only that, but they frequently seem to belittle people who aren't interested in laying out all their character's quirks and foibles in advance: “Little hooks such as these go a long way toward making your character seem like a real person rather than a mere collection of dots on a page.” If I'm going to put time, effort and energy into creating a character with motivations, I want those motivations to actually mean something in the game, and when I say “mean something” I mean “mean something other than as a way for the GM to make me do the things he wants me to do”.

As well as encouraging the “Storyteller” to railroad his players, ignoring their wishes while, at the same time, demanding that they produce detailed personal histories as the price of admission into his wonderful narrative (sorry, lost it there) the game also stymies the creativity of players and Storytellers alike by presenting a single, specific interpretation of the Faerie realm, one of the game's most central concepts.

Want to play a character who was taken as a lover by a beautiful but jealous Faery queen? Sorry, not allowed – you were treated like a sex slave, says so in the book. Want your Keeper to have a genuine but twisted affection for you? Sorry, that's not allowed either, the Fey don't care about anything, it's anathema to their society, they can't even be bothered to track down runaway changelings because that would mean admitting that they give a crap. Want to play somebody who was snatched from their cradle? Sorry, your memories of the mortal world aren't strong enough for you to get back. Want to play somebody who went into the Faery realm in the fourteenth century and has only just escaped? Sorry, that's not allowed either, there's a fifty year limit, says so in the character creation rules just after it says you have to have been abducted as an adult (by the way, does that rule apply to the girl who escapes from the Erlkonig in the sample campaign?).

And just in case the Storytellers were feeling left out: want to have the PCs' Faery keepers hunt them down? Sorry, the Fae don't do that. Want to have Faery NPCs who are motivated by love, hate, fear or desire, and who aren't exiled from Arcadia as a result? Sorry. Want to present Arcadia as “beautiful and terrible” in a way that doesn't involve buckets of blood and semen? Sorry, down there in black and white, the original fairytales had sex and violence in them after all. Don't believe me:

The Fairest find that the memories of their time in Faerie are brief, fragmentary. The fairest have dreams of self-annihilating ecstasy, of perfect pleasure intercut with moments of horror and fear. Romantic interludes segue into hellish agonies. A bed covered with radiant blossoms is suddenly drenched in blood, the flowers becoming hooks and chains that rend and tear...

I'm sorry, but that's a horrifically juvenile portrayal of a “dark fairytale” and it's not one I'm interested in putting in a game I run but, according to canon, that's what life in Faeryland is like for approximately one sixth of all player characters. And as far as the text is concerned, if I want to change that, it's because I'm too used to the “child-friendly” versions of fairytales that aren't full of ham fisted crap about sexual abuse.

Where were we: oh yes. Want your Fae to be vulnerable? Sorry, they aren't, except in the gross, game mechanical sense. My will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom as great, you have no power over me? Nope, the Fae are driven only by what is entertaining and changelings (or worse still, humans) mean nothing to them. All canonical facts of the setting. Of course it's possible to just flat out beat them up with your in-game powers, because that's Storytelling because you bought those powers with experience points, which means it was character development.

Sorry, got a bit carried away there.

Yes, WWGS won't send the Game Police to your house to confiscate your books if you deviate from the text as written, but there is clearly a “right” way to run Changeling and a “wrong” way, and the book goes out of its way to tell you this, and it gets to the point where it's easier to just use a homebrew system and not have to put up with people wanking in your face about how totally dark their game is.

Which is tragic, because the game has so much potential to be awesome.

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Comments (go to latest)
Shim at 18:55 on 2009-04-15
It seems such a shame. I mean, one of the dark things about fairy tales for me is the sort of sinister compulsion of it, the enchantment and fate and the weird ritualistic quality (see, oh, Fire and Hemlock - does creepy damn well). That seems like it's completely left out in favour of gore. Wouldn't you just play a straight horror game instead? at 15:30 on 2009-04-18
Wow, that does sound pretty bad. It's a shame, really, because it seems to me that tabletop games have the potential to contain the most user-generated content of any current entertainment medium. There've been arguments made (and I think they have at least some merit) that most modern entertainment saps creativity because the audience cannot interact with it, they can only consume it. Video games are better in that regard, but still, the audience has little to know say on how the overall plot develops, except maybe to choose one out of two or three pre-determined scenarios.
C J Morgan at 23:42 on 2009-10-16
Yeah, that's the thing about White Wolf. A few years back they decided to redo all of their games, to help smooth out the massive ruts that you'd hit if you tried to crossover different games with each other. Unfortunately, in the process, they ended up really neutering their settings.

This is actually the New World of Darkness (as it is called with some disgust in the gamer circles I frequent) version of the Changeling game. The Old World of Darkness version was known as Changeling the Dreaming, where you were the Fae, and I think on a lot of levels was the most superficial of the OWoD games (talk about a high bar though).

It's really a shame, I like the new, darker concept, but it seems like once again it fell victim to the same problems that all the NWoD did...less options, less freedom. Really quite a shame when the setting hooks into your brain and makes you want to play something very badly.
Dan H at 21:43 on 2009-10-17
Yeah, there's something faintly lacking about the nWoD. Although I think that in many ways the biggest problem with nWoD is the old WoD. Vampire: the Requiem is a perfectly decent game in its own right, but it's still just Vampire, and without the advantage of being the original.

Incidentally I bought the new "Wraith" recently (now called "Geist") it's actually quite good.
C J Morgan at 22:17 on 2009-10-17
My favorite game still remains Demon the Fallen, which belongs to oWoD simply by the virtue that it was brought out to END oWoD and usher in the various apocolypseseseses...(and now we see why there should only be ONE apocalypse...there is no good plural)

My boyfriend hate nWoD with a burning passion, and so, it's not really allowed in the house. I think I have the New Mage book, which I played and rather enjoyed, frankly.

But yes, most of the new stuff is fine, if it could be considered on its own merits. Sadly, they tried to sell it as a new edition of the old games, instead of a new game entirely. And much like D&D 4e, any resemblance between the old and new versions seems unintentional at best.
Andy G at 20:22 on 2009-10-18
They called it GEIST? Even for White Wolf that's pretty pretentious. And besides, I thought Mage was the dumping ground for all the pseudo-Hegelianism.
C J Morgan at 22:09 on 2009-10-18
Though having now had to go look up both "Hegeliansim" and "Geist" I'm now fully convinced that "Geistlos" is a title I need to find a use for someday.
Dan H at 13:11 on 2009-10-19
To be fair, I'm pretty sure "Geist" is also - like - German for "Ghost" or something (as in "poltergeist") so they might not have been being *totally* pretentious.
Andy G at 14:21 on 2009-10-19
But why use the foreign term except for the more intellectual connotations of "Geist" (which DOES mean ghost in German, but primarily means mind and/or "animus" - "Spuk" would be more usual and certainly less ambiguous for a ghost)?

White Wolf does have previous on abusing foreign philosophy terms - arete, gnosis, hamartia, eidolon spring to mind.
Wardog at 16:14 on 2009-10-19
Okay, why has Blizzard not yet published SPUK?
Andy G at 17:54 on 2009-10-19
SPUK: The Universal-Concretisation.
Dan H at 22:35 on 2009-10-19
But why use the foreign term except for the more intellectual connotations of "Geist"


Although I suspect that part of it is simply that "Ghost" would be a dumb name for a game...
C J Morgan at 22:54 on 2009-10-19
Although I suspect that part of it is simply that "Ghost" would be a dumb name for a game...

Shouldn't that be a clue then?
Andy G at 23:29 on 2009-10-19
If only they had a good name for a game that was also an actual, non-pretentious and English-language synonym for "ghost" ...
Wardog at 11:17 on 2009-10-20
I still don't understand why didn't keep calling it Wraith - that worked for me.

What's a revenant anyway? That strikes me as a stupidly World of Darkness type word.

Or Phantasm?
Andy G at 13:42 on 2009-10-20
I still don't understand why didn't keep calling it Wraith - that worked for me.

Like I said - a good name, in English, that was a synonym for ghost.

"Spectre" would also have worked.

Where did revenant come up?
Dan H at 14:05 on 2009-10-20
I suspect actually that they changed the name because Wraith was *miserably unpopular*.

So unpopular that they literally *nuked it*.
Arthur B at 14:23 on 2009-10-20
Whatever phantasm White Wolf come up with couldn't possibly be as awesome as this one.
Andy G at 14:36 on 2009-10-20
I suspect actually that they changed the name because Wraith was *miserably unpopular*.

So they figure that everyone who was revolted and repelled by "wraith" will be seduced by a German word that sounds a bit like ghost but way more intellectual and sexy?

I rather liked the original, though it did look a bit unplayable.
Andy G at 14:43 on 2009-10-20
OMG it's called Geist: The Sin-Eaters?? This just gets better and better ...
Wardog at 15:16 on 2009-10-20
Nom nom nom?
Jamie Johnston at 00:23 on 2009-10-21
Whatever phantasm White Wolf come up with couldn't possibly be as awesome as this one.

The voice-over guy in that trailer seems to be playing a rather arcane form of charades:

"Is it a nightmare? Is it an illusion? Is it an evil? Not an evil? Sounds like evil? Weevil? Oh, oh it's a weevil! Okay, how many syllables?"
Wardog at 10:08 on 2009-10-21
Ahaha! That's hilarious - I particularly enjoyed "is an evil." Yes, it is, one of the lesser spotted evils of the Northeast Midlands...
Cressida at 04:56 on 2009-11-18
I've been chewing over this rant for a while, and I've got mixed feelings about it. (Disclaimer before I begin: I've never played a White Wolf game and haven't even looked at this particular sourcebook. So I'm going on what's reported in this essay.)

I definitely agree that the methods of storytelling encouraged in the sourcebook sound far too restrictive; not only that, but they simply won't work with most groups. Storytellers can't force the players to end the session with their characters ina particular frame of mind, for example, and only the most pliable of groups will be willing to go along with the suggestion that they should.

But what I keep coming back to is the part of the rant that goes like this:

Want your Fae to be vulnerable? Sorry, they aren't, except in the gross, game mechanical sense. My will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom as great, you have no power over me? Nope, the Fae are driven only by what is entertaining and changelings (or worse still, humans) mean nothing to them. All canonical facts of the setting.


I do know what you're saying about limiting the choices of the players and the storyteller, and how frustrating a lot of people might find it. But part of me wonders if it's entirely a bad thing. I mean, isn't it part of the point of a game to create a world for people to play in? Does the game creator have the right to say "This is in my world, and that is not"? Where is the line between something that is specific but permissible, and something that is too restrictive?

I mean, let's take vampires. For a variety of reasons, the sexy, seductive vampire is all the rage at the moment. Probably a lot of people who would be interested in playing a vampire game would be interested in playing or interacting with a vampire character of that type. But I could see a game designer thinking, "I want to make a game that uses vampires in other ways. I want them to be objects of loathing and repulsion in my game-world: twisted, ugly, smelly." Maybe they're supposed to be a metaphor for urban decay or a personification of the evil within humans, or whatever. Let's assume that there's a valid world-flavor reason for it...or maybe that's the question: is any reason valid? Is it too repressive of that game designer to forbid seductive vampires, if that's what players want? Does the game designer have an obligation to allow for seductive vampires if a storyteller can find a way to tie them in with whatever vampires represent in the world? Is it even too repressive to state outright what vampires represent, or should that be left up to the storyteller?

And what's the appropriate response of players and storytellers who really prefer seductive vampires? Should they vote with their cash by simply not purchasing this game where the vampires are ugly? Or should they just ignore that part and put sexy vampires into the story anyway? As you say, the gaming police aren't going to come to their homes and make sure they're playing properly.

I guess what it boils down to is this: what is the role of the world-creator in a published game world? What are the world-creator's rights, if any? How specific is it appropriate for the world-creator to be? Or does all power ultimately lie with the gamers themselves, and if so, then why worry about what a sourcebook says in the first place?

I honestly don't have answers for these questions! But I'm enjoying thinking about them.

Oh, but the specific vision of what makes Fairyland dark in this setting? I agree--it's not that exciting.
Dan H at 11:42 on 2009-11-18
I think you make a decent point, and as ever it's one of those where-do-you-draw-the-line questions.

I think it particularly bugs me in White Wolf games because they have all of the disadvantages of highly-specific settings and none of the advantages.

Vampires are an extraordinarily good example in fact. I'd have no problem with a game that said "vampires in this world are horrible ugly and smelly" I'd have quite a big problem with a game that said "vampires are not sexy and seductive". The first example gives me something to work with (smelly ugly vampires) whereas the second just takes *away* something I would otherwise have had.

White Wolf's vampire games have, in fact, exactly this problem. The entire setting is based around the idea that vampires are AWESOME and POWERFUL and SEXY - every single vampire NPC you meet is AWESOME and POWERFUL and SEXY - but the text is also full of stuff saying "remember, being a vampire is bad, vampires are most definitely not awesome powerful or sexy.

It gives you the impression that the game designers want you to passively consume their setting, instead of interacting with it, and that's a big problem. A classic example from Changeling is that they say very clearly that any Changeling PC *must* have been abducted as an adult, because otherwise they *would not* have enough memories to find their way back. Then in the sample campaign they have a throwaway character who is abducted as a child and who ... umm ... finds their way back.

I have no problem with game designers saying "this is how my setting works" but I have big problems with them saying "these are the rules you must follow if you wish to use my setting."
Dan H at 19:47 on 2012-07-09
For those that are interested, Shim has just directed me at this Actual Play Podcast for this game.

[Edited to Add]

Oh Em Eff Gee, the character introductions are the most archetypically White Wolfy character introductions I have ever heard!
Ashimbabbar at 17:31 on 2015-06-12
I've never played a White Wolf RPG ( never heard of one I thought interesting ), so I cannot speak out of personal experience here…

It seems to me their concept of Game mastering, sorry, Storytelling - as in a bunch of people listening to the Storyteller tell them what their characters do… is straight out of DM of the Rings… and therefore extremely open to opposition and subversion by any average crew of players ( sub-average would be even better I should think XD )

Unless they abduct utter novices and constrain them to this style of "roleplaying" then, I should think sessions of Changeling: the Lost game could be… interesting ?
Ichneumon at 03:27 on 2015-12-17
In which RPG designers completely fail to Machen and barely manage to Anne Rice.

How depressingly predictable. I really wish it weren't, but it is.
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