Sunday, October 17, 2010

Winter Masques: A Changeling the Lost Review

What Is It?
Player directed sourcebook for Seemings and Kiths...mostly...

Strategic Publications
Winter Masques is a player-centered book for the first 100 pages or so. Then it takes a strange swerve in the final third, presenting information of more use to a GM. There's a strange split here-- while a line can be drawn through the material, it feels more like a matter of convenience than coherence put these sections together. That may be one of the few drawbacks to Changeling's original concept as a limited and closed game series. Unlike Werewolf, Mage and Vampire, White Wolf planned only for a core rulebook and then five supplements for the game. In the end they added three more, plus a substantial electronic supplement. I think that sense of focus and the need to get everything down meant that there's not a lot of wasted space in the original materials. It does mean that some things seem to have been assembled to make sure each volume had an appropriate page count.

The general theme at the start is to provide players with a better sense of the two key player-facing aspects of the game: Seemings and Kiths. The Seemings are the six basic classes or races of the setting: Beasts, Elementals, Darklings, Fairest, Ogres and Wizened. Kiths, on the other hand, make up the sub-types and specialties of those Seemings. So among the Fairest you get Dancers, Flowerings, Muses and so on. The core book spends some time defining these types but this book digs deeper into those and presents some new options. The material, with a few exceptions, relies more on providing ideas and commentary over new rules and mechanics.

The first third of Winter Masques looks at Seemings-- beginning with a slight discussion of their nature. Each Seeming then gets a 6-7 page analysis. After a general commentary on the Seeming, the book describes several sample places in the Hedge (Arcadia) which such Seemings might have arisen. What the character went through in their time in the service of the Keepers shapes and crafts who they become as a Changeling. The book suggests some ideas about that process-- such as how membership in a pack or dulling of their human instincts transformed a Changeling into a Beast. Each section then considers what this kind of Changeling will be like in the mortal world-- what kinds of places they might haunt, how they might manage their lives, how they might interact with non-Changelings and what kinds of roles they might take on. Finally each section provides a new contract set which is of affinity to that Seeming. That last part provides the only real system material in the section.

If there's a problem with the material, it lies in that split between the narrative and the mechanics. The descriptive texts suggest many interesting possibilities-- but often the mechanics presented provide only a narrow application of those. For example, the Wizened become who they are by their being forced into a “role,” usually one echoing an archetype or profession. So we have Wizened Soldiers, Physikers, Gameplayers, Seneschals and so on. The flavor text supports this. However the key contracts linked to the Wizened by affinity all have to do with items, objects, making, repair, and creation-- as if the only role for a Wizened would be a Smith. Ogres have some of the same problems in that there's redundancy in the contracts they have an easier time buying-- even the set revolving around Oaths and Pledges focuses on physical boosts over anything else. Plus much is made of Ogres links to curses and maledictions, but no systems or mechanics are given for that. That's why I think an adapted and less mechanical approach works better with this setting.

Legibility is a Virtue

I need to stop for a moment and comment on the book design. I've generally been very pleased with the layout and production of the Changeling books. They've chosen great artists who maintain the theme. The covers are excellent and the fluff fiction in the books is pretty minimal. However Winter Masques has a couple of design problems. In the first section we get watermark symbols for each of the Seemings in the center of the page. These get distracting depending on their size and the page's print darkness. The situation becomes worse in the second section which uses the classic WW grey-scale page background. At times that makes the page hard to read. Finally the font size can vary wildly from section to section in this part-- which feels like a tricky a student does to hide the fact that they don't have much material.

The second section of Winter Masques deals with the idea of Kiths within each Seeming. There's some discussion of how a Kith represents a kind of Changeling experience-- including some ideas for beginning Kith-less (and questing for it), cross Kith or dual kith status and so on. The book also provides some general guidelines for making new kiths. There's an interesting focus and discussion there. The irony of this is that in terms of mechanics in the system, a kith simply represents a single, small ability-- some of which are great and some of which really aren't.

Most of this second section breaks down again by Seeming. Each kith original presented in the core book gets a more extended discussion of its philosophy and potential origins (i.e. what circumstances caused it). It's a decent presentation of the ecology of these concepts. The book also presents some new kiths for each of these Seemings, though of course they don't get the extended discussion that the existing ones do. That seems a strange oversight. What's here is good and useful for players (and GMs).

Sound of Screeching Tyres

As I mentioned earlier, the third section of Winter Masques, taking up the last 50 pages, moves away from player-centered to GM-appropriate material. There's no real indication in the text that this happens. While some players might find some useful inspiration in this last section, its more appropriate as background material. Basically this section considers Changelings, Freeholds and Courts as they might appear internationally. I can see this being player stuff for some inspiration- perhaps someone who wants to run a foreigner, but for the most part it wold be the kind of thing a GM might keep in their back-pocket to pull out late as a change up in a campaign.

The material does a good job of supporting the idea of the Keepers as miners of myth, legends, ideas and concepts. They create nothing themselves but instead take those ideas and make their realms of them. A Changeling's time in those realms makes them what they are (Seeming, Kith, personality). Which means we can have a classic realm lying under a Troll-bridge in the same game as one which models itself on a twisted vision of an Alien Probe Laboratory. This section provides some insight on how classical creatures of legend fit into the various Seemings and about the different landscapes of the Hedge, with an emphasis on foreign views. Lastly we get two other versions of the Courts showing how these might appear in different cultures, along with some foreign entitlements. Again-- all great material and ideas, but all stuff which ought to be GM facing. It is a problem I talked about earlier regarding player-knowledge.

In an earlier time, this material would have been broken up into “splatbooks”. These would have been then bloated with bad fiction, new abilities and GM material like NPC descriptions and stats. In that respect I'm pleased by the move in the nWoD line. Changeling's limited run also keeps a focus on importance material and ideas. Splatbooks do still occur in other NwoD line books, but now in hardcover.

What is player-oriented here is very good and useful-- during the character creation process for the most part. I don't think it is vital every player own a copy of Winter Masques-- but any game table ought to have at least one. That may be the Achilles heel of games which focus on narrative over mechanics-- with mechanics oriented books you can reasonably expect every player to have to buy a copy. Here we have good books, but certainly not things which will have to be pulled out every session.