Monday, October 25, 2010

Dancers in the Dusk: Reviewing Changeling the Lost

What Is It?
A GM hodge-podge loosely organized around the idea of darkening a Changeling the Lost campaign.

For a Few Books More...
Arguably one of the strengths of Changeling the Lost as a line is that as a limited run series, the support books have a pretty narrow focus-- less story fluff or unimportant tangential issues. The series, as I understand it, was originally planned for one core book plus five support books. Besides the four I've already covered (Winter Masques, Rites of Spring, Lords of Summer, and Autumn Nightmares), the fifth Equinox Road covered high level Changeling campaigns and Arcadia itself. I have to admit I picked that book up only briefly and put it back o the shelf as it didn't have anything appealing to me in my campaign design. Changeling proved popular and so they released a volume for their Night Horrors series, Grim Fears. I heard pretty bad word of mouth and so I skipped that one. I already had an antagonist book and that seemed redundant. After those, White Wolf decided the sales warranted additional material so they released three more books, Dancers in the Dusk, Swords at Dawn and Goblin Markets (pdf only). Given the new strategy for White Wolf I suspect these will be the last things we see. That's fine though as it leaves GMs and players with a nice, closed set of materials all of which are pretty useful.

The opening of Dancers in the Dusk suggests it is about bringing more darkness to your Changeling chronicle. That's a pretty loose thematic to wrap your material in. Some sections definitely fit under that, while others stretch that. It isn't, however, a deal-breaker. Actually I appreciate the variety-show approach to this material. It avoids the problems of some other nWoD line supplements where a fairly narrow topic or theme means a chunk of filler just to get to a reasonable page count. There's always interesting material throughout Dancers in the Dusk's 160 pages.

Something in the Air Tonight
I'll stop off for a sidebar moment here, not entirely addressed to the substance of this book. Have you ever bought a book new, brought it home and only after a little while realized it had an odor to it? Well, my copy of this book has it. It's taken me a while to figure out what it reminds me of-- mimeographs or developer fluid from old xerox machines-- the kind with thermal paper. Now I'm not someone who usually notices these things-- I'm not not hyper-allergic or sensitive. As a former smoker one has to suspect my deadened sense of smell. But I can definitively smell this heavily chemical scent-- a good year after buying the book. I suspect the printing process; this book was printed in China while the others in the line were printed in Canada. That's a small problem and a quick search online don't reveal other mentions of it. On the other hand, I don't look at this book for more than half an hour at a setting for fear of having my brain melt out from the leaching chemicals.

Dusk Dreams
Each of the four chapters of Dancers in the Dusk has about the same page count, ranging from 30-40 pages. The first chapter returns to the idea of a Dreams campaign, presented a little in the core book and expanded on in Rites of Spring. It has a host of interesting ideas, thrown rapidly at the reader one after the other. The system for dream realms, broken down by themes and planetary archetypes, is novel and provides a structure a GM could hang a campaign on. The authors tie a number of great story ideas to that framework. However those descriptive ideas and narrative only take up half the chapter, with the other half given over to various kinds of dream-world creatures and things. These get statted up and described. While some of the beings presented spark ideas, others seem more high mythic than I imagine for a Changeling chronicle. Still I like the idea that some Changelings in a community might be messing around with these kinds of powers. Some GMs may find this a richer resource than I do, especially those who focus on the dreamscape as an important locale.

Tangled Fates
The second chapter brings in a number of loosely related ideas, beginning with Fate as a force in the campaign. This would be Fate in the sense of tragic destiny and fighting against prophecy rather than predestination. The material is mostly narrative, with a few ideas about how mechanics might be used to support this approach. However even the book suggests that trying to put numbers and stats to these kinds of nebulous concepts might not be as useful. That doesn't keep them from then offering a series of creatures and monsters based on those ideas. Again the entities seem more suited to a high mythic game than the one Changeling began as-- not entirely a bad set of options, but a little far off the beaten path.

Perhaps the most useful material here borrows a little bit from Scion. I like the concept that people can be fatebound together and that perhaps by interacting with people, Changelings run the risk of building those connections. It echoes a kind of Celtic sense of Fate and Wyrd as tied together. (That points to the problem you get when you assign cool words to game ideas and then realize they have actual meanings- so Wyrd as Magic from the core book now has to be bundled with Fate). In Scion the fate-binding mechanic serves as an excellent device-- and I'm surprised we don't get a wholesale lift of that. On the other hand, changelings don't really need another excuse to keep themselves apart from humanity.

We also get rules for curses and curse pledges The chapter also presents two new contract sets, one a set of Goblin contracts revolving around Fate which are pretty awful and risky, though in some cases very narrowly useful. Very narrowly. The other set, more likely in the hands of an NPC or perhaps a Wizened Psychologist, deals with lucidity and restoring sanity (mostly). Those contracts automatically test the Clarity of the changeling when used, making them dangerous. The chapter also touches a little on the question of how changelings can detect the use of Contracts, an issue which comes up pretty often in the game.

Shadows Cast by Thorns
In this chapter, we return again to the Hedge, but this time with a sense of geography. The first half offers various locations, sites and stories within the Hedge. I really love this stuff, from The Fire Station to the Boggart Holes to Owlsback. We also get ideas for various tribes and peoples of the Hedge setting off a line of new thinking that helped inform my campaign. I would love to see another pdf supplement which simply presented more of these kinds of ideas. The only drawback to this material is that travel into the Hedge is a dangerous and rare thing, so a GM will have to pick and choose the most interesting of these bits.

The second half of the chapter's not nearly so interesting, devolving into another bestiary of hedge creatures with their behavior and stats. A few of these did spark ideas, but for the most part they felt fairly 'meh'. In some cases the monsters have tricks or traps which no PC would ever fall for. It would be good to perhaps have some suggestion of how you might actually apply those things in play. IMHO any time you present a monster, you ought to give at least one or two story or plot seeds for its use.

The Deepening Dusk
The final chapter explicitly deals with the theme suggested by the title. It provides the GM with discussion of options for darkening their chronicle. It nicely considers how you can do that narratively and through certain changes to the mechanics. The concept that quests and actions undertaken by the players could have ramifications on the system mechanics themselves is a great one. The book does a good job of talking about possible changes and what those ramifications might be. It doesn't just offer darkness for darkness's sake, but talks about story and meta-reasons for such changes in the campaign. Finally to balance this the chapter offers a new court, The Dusk Court, which rails embraces fate and yet battles against the rising dark. I like the idea of a court which arises in times of uncertainty and despair. We get a new contract set for that court, a number of tokens and three new entitlements.

Dancers in the Dusk offers some material which GMs might want to borrow for other campaigns. The structure for the dream world and the concept of fate ties could be used in another modern occult game. Some of the thematic discussion might also be useful. However the book as a whole is pretty deep in the Changeling setting. GMs porting Changeling to another system will have to convert the new contract sets from this one over-- which may be odd depending on how Wyrd and Clarity have been managed in the new system.

This is a book for GMs and it does have some really interesting ideas in it. However what you will get out of it depends on what your campaign vision is. I have to admit that while I liked it as I read it, I've found myself using very little of the material here in my campaign. The Hedge locations and Hob Clan concepts would probably be it. I'd suggest Dancers in the Dusk for the completest, but for GMs I'd make this one of the last purchases, the other books other more generally useful material.