Sunday, January 9, 2011

Equinox Road: Reviewing Changeling the Lost

What is it?
The endgame high-level (could we perhaps say "epic") book for the Changeling the Lost setting.

Beginning the End
This volume had originally been intended to finish out the Changeling line. I find that interesting in that they'd clearly planned out the line from the original development-- which books they needed to do to have a nice closed line. They'd taken the same tactic with the earlier Orpheus experiment (though in a slightly different way) in the Old World of Darkness and with the Promethean line for New World of Darkness. I'd be curious about how much in advance this book had been put together. It does feel like a book which comes out of the tone set by the earlier books, rather than how Changeling seemed to have evolved as a concept once fans really got ahold of it. The additional books they created to satisfy demand, Swords at Dawn, Dancers in the Dusk, and Goblin Markets feel more like ideas which came out of campaigns and people really playing and goofing with play-- rather than non-play brainstorming and creative development. I may be off on that assessment, but that's how I read it.

The intention of the book is to provide guidelines for high-level play in Changeling. It offers powers and abilities for changelings who have advanced-- but also some considerations of the dangers and drawbacks of becoming that strong. That's primarily measured by Wyrd, and to a lesser extent Clarity. Given that Changeling lacks a real "level" system, they have to find signposts which can show players (and GMs) where they are along that road. Beyond that it also provides an expanded sense of what a campaign involving "storming the Hedge" and battling the Keepers might look like. Some of that had been addressed before (in the Autumn Nightmares book) and would be again (in the Dancers in the Dusk book).

The book follows the standard excellent level of design for most books in the series. There aren't any pages obscured by watermark or typography decisions. It's a 160 page book, less front and back matter plus only eight pages of game fiction which actually does a good job of setting tone. The illustrations are generally strong, although the do get weaker as the book rolls along. While the opening chapter has some character advancement and options material, this is really a gamemaster-only book. I should also point out that, at least for my copy, although this Changeling book had been printed in China, it did not share the same horrible chemical factory and toner smell of the other Chinese-printed Changeling book (Dancers).

The Third Act
The first chapter runs 43 pages. There's an interesting contrast here in that it is at once the most mechanically-oriented of the sections of the book, but also the one offering the most story options and ideas. It covers character development options for changelings at the end of a long campaign. While this section could be player-facing, it works better as GM material which could be discovered and revealed through play. The Changeling setting lends itself to uncertainty and ambiguity-- fewer in the way of reliable guides to what comes later. A campaign ought to echo that.

As I mentioned before, a character's Wyrd can mark their entry into the world of high-powered strangeness. The problem is that such magical connections have a dual edge to them: great power along with disconnection or becoming more of your changeling self. The book looks at the benefits and consequences for having a Wyrd of 7 or higher (since 10 is the apparent max). It discusses how that affects the Mask and Mien, including a few new Merits with high Wyrd prerequisites. The book walks through each Seeming and shows how they might be affected by greater power-- with mechanical specifics as well as narrative ideas. I enjoyed this material; as a GM it provides a host of ideas for how to handle NPCs- hinting at some of those consequences for the players. As an example, the Wizened Chirurgeon (or Physiker as we call it) at high levels still claims to want to heal, but in fact they start to see people as things which need to be fixed. If there's a drawback to the material here it is that they only go through the Kiths from the core book and not the additional ones from Winter Masques. While they give some mechanical notes on how to grant benefits for those Kiths, I would have liked to see some story ideas for them. The material also suggests what can happen when a changeling gets to that Wyrd 10 rating-- not a pretty picture.

The next thirteen pages of this chapter deal with how players might go about making their own Contracts. It gives both a set of story ideas of how that might play out as well as some pretty tight mechanics for the actual building of those. It doesn't feel as restrictive or complicated as the core book Pledge system, but does have some odd bits. By its nature it has to deal with questions of balance and gameplay. I think they do a decent enough job of letting the reader peek behind the curtain of the design decisions, but generally I like the story and campaign ideas provided by such quests. It gives insight into how Contracts actually appear to changelings. Ironically example built Contract set given feels incredibly over-powered and game-breaking. It provides abilities at the upper levels that make other sets look pale. That's a bad design decision. The ideas about forging contracts also get a little discussion about how those concepts might be applied to creating a new Court.

The chapter finishes up with four "Eldritch Orders" which are simply high-level entitlements. They don't feel all that different from the existing entitlements. How useful they are will depend on a GMs approach to the entitlement concept in a campaign-- for me, not so useful.

Twisted Tales
This chapter deals with storytelling Changeling at the highest levels. Strangely, I think most of the material here in the first twelve pages of the chapter could apply to any Changeling campaign. It hits on the usual notes about drama, rising action, providing opportunities and the like. It shifts between being about half generic advice and half more specific ideas and examples for this kind of game. I want to like what's here more than I do. The other half of this chapter, another ten pages, deals with the question of cross-overs between The Lost and the other World of Darkness lines. Generally I'm less interested in that in the new World of Darkness (I was the other way in oWoD). But this chapter takes concerns about theme dilution seriously and addresses that. I looks at each particular line and considers how those might interact with Changeling. In particular it points out potential problems for those kinds of intersections. For GMs considering doing hybrid games, this is a must-read.

This chapter, like the first, also comes in at 43 pages. It considers the nature of Arcadia, the realm of the True Fae and of the Keepers themselves. Autumn Nightmares dealt with some of this-- mostly from a mechanical standpoint. And in that case, it considered the Keepers as adversaries in the mortal world. This section presents some new ideas and secrets about them, how they interact with one another, and the hierarchy within the Hedge World. The material is good and thought-provoking. I don't want to spoil to much by commenting on the specifics. If you're considering taking a campaign into the other world more, then this will provide some ideas. This applies even if you're not running an "Epic" game. Certainly I can imagine a Changeling chronicle which spends more time in these fantastic realms-- one where they're not necessarily hostile. That kind of game would skew more modern fantastic and could be quite viable.

The chapter has many ideas on how changelings can get to these realms, how they can interact with them, and how they might take the battle to the Keepers themselves. The material here could easily be foreshadowed in the early game-- and players could taste these riches through short quests and the like. I like some of the specific areas suggested and some of the campaign seeds given here. The material in Dancers in the Dusk compliments this well and should probably be read in conjunction with it.

The Hardest Road
This last chapter, twenty-five page long, build from the idea of the previous one. It provides an extensive but loose campaign outline for providing an Endgame to a campaign. Such and endgame might be a capstone story or might bring about drastic changes (ala the Time of Judgment chronicles that closed out the earlier old World of Darkness). It builds it as a fairly linear Heroes Journey-- with example Guides and Obstacles provided. While I doubt I'd use the material given as is, it does provide a nice template for GMs. The specificity of the story provided doesn't limit its adaptability.

The book ends with a strange little five page Appendix called "The Game of Immortals." It quickly presents a rules-lite/ruleless non-GM entertainment with each participant playing a True Fae engaged in a contest over something. I can't help but thinking of Fiasco as I read it-- with plots and plans going awry. It is structured as a Freeform game evening. In some ways it echoes the structure of the Throne War one-shot scenarios from the Amber RPG. There everyone battles to seize the Throne which has suddenly been vacated. It also echoes another White Wolf product, the first edition of The Fair Folk from Exalted, written by Rebecca Sean Borgstrom (or even her Nobilis game). I don't know how playable the game would be-- but it provides some ideas and serves as an odd contrast after many Changeling books of dense specific rules and mechanics.

I'd say some of the ideas here could be taken for other games, especially some of the Arcadian domains presented. "The Game of Immortals" as well could be lifted over to something else. But generally this book builds from the earlier Changeling material and supports that specific setting. On the other hand, for GMs adapting Changeling to another system, there's some mechanics here that will require some serious consideration before converting.

It's a good book-- and not just for GMs getting to the latter part of the campaign. I think some of the concerts and plots here would be worth setting up earlier. It also gives some ideas for how to make older and more powerful changelings seem strange, powerful and yet vulnerable. I'd recommend this to GMs who have decided to definitely run a Changeling campaign.