As happens yearly I’m thinking about how to run Changeling the Lost, my favorite published setting. I love the way it deals with ‘survival’ in a supernatural world. While GMs can tweak it more WoD-y, at base it’s about people trying to get along despite their strangeness. There’s more than a little Monsterhearts in there.
I’ve run Changeling with three different systems: World of Darkness, Fate, and Action Cards. The original system burned me. I don’t dig that level of mechanics today. The system has highly specific rules for each power you have to go back to the book for. There’s also a discontinuity between the game’s stated ideas and the rules carrying them out. WoD proved too much, even with the God-Machine revision. On the other hand, Fate’s a decent choice. If I had to do a pick-up game of CtL, I’d use FAE. However many of my players dislike pure Fate, so it isn’t a great choice. On the other hand, Action Cards borrows from Fate, but works with my style and group. When I ran before, I did a far too literal translation. Now I’d toss all that out. But AC’s also something of a non-starter. Until I figure out how to handle AC’s card mechanics online (unique player decks, discard face up, text display, redraws, no hand management) I’ll have to wait.
Deep End or Shallows?
My last two Changeling campaigns began with the PCs emerging from the Hedge. As new arrivals, they had to figure out the rules of the world, find safety, discover fellow changelings, and resolve their past. These games revolved around secrets and self-discovery. I thought my approach was the default, but talking to other CtL GMs in our GM Jam surprised me. Everyone else ran with the PCs embedded and part of the freehold’s fabric. I want to broaden my horizons, so I’d like to make any new campaign start with more experienced, less neophyte characters.
So I’m considering if Urban Shadows could work for Changeling. Sherri and I had a chance to play US at Origins, me once and her twice. We’d talked about a CtL/US conversion on the way up because a Gauntlet vidcast’s mention of it. Sherri came away her session much more enthusiastic about the conversion idea. I suspect we’ll need to play several sessions of a standard Urban Shadows campaign before we can do anything more serious than my twiddling here.
Urban Shadows uses PbtA, so if that isn’t your bag this might be annoying. But for this post I want to lay out some assumptions I have about CtL and talk about how I’d begin such a conversion. I’m trying to plan out hacking & reskinning projects. I’ve usually just jumped in and started kludging things together. That’s resulted in some messes as I got too close to see the big picture (i.e. my earlier CtL hack, Action Cards L5R, Scions of Fate).
Some of my assumptions about the setting fit with the book, some contradict, and others add definition. They’re important considerations to me when I run CtL
- The seasonal Courts have a vital role. They help protect and preserve local Changelings from the predations of their Keepers, old foes huntiing them. The Courts and their bargains make it harder for the Keepers to enter freeholds and locate lost charges. A good deal of that power’s tied up in the concept of cycles. Power passes from Court to Court. Breaking that rhythm causes problems. Courts may be reduced in power, but destroying them’s never a sane option. That’s mutually assured destruction.
- Fetches can be bad, can be good. They may or may not know they’re mimics left in the stead of stolen persons. Killing your fetch can have long term psychological consequences. Doing that’s a risky and personal choice. Courts within a city monitor fetches they know about, but don’t do anything for two reasons: it might attract Keepers’ attention and it falls to the copied Changeling to make that decision. There are no magical rituals for killing your fetch to give you new powers. Those are awful stories told by awful people.
- Changelings are broken, brittle people. You may not immediately recognize their problems. But their durance, their time in the Hedge, changed and shattered them. They’ve reassembled themselves mentally and physically. Durances are bad. Changelings weave positive visions and memories of that experience from self-delusion, rationalization, and unwillingness to accept responsibility for awful things they did or had done to them. I know the new version of CtL allows for upbeat durances, but that doesn’t fit with how we’ve seen them.
- Changelings have a hard time getting along. They usually don’t talk about secrets or durances with other fae. But ironically only a fellow changeling can understand the depth of their experience. That’s a double-edged sword. Interactions with mundanes can be great, but there’s often an element of feeding off their emotional energy. Changelings may become acutely aware of “playing a role” in those relationships. Interactions with a Changeling offer risks for these humans. Their fate and destiny can get tangled together.
- Changeling Kiths have themes and roles. We’ve always gravitated to some key ideas about them. Beasts represent a kind of base seduction. They had to give in, become something else. They thought joining would protect them. Darklings come from isolation and loneliness. Some mechanism in their durance kept them separated mentally or physically. Elementals had a different kind of giving in from Beasts, they surrendered more absolutely. They offered submission with the hope of annihilation. Fairest believed promises. They were co-opted in one form or another. Ogres are about rage, directed about others, themselves, the world. They know they’ve been used, but could do nothing to stop that. They deny that helplessness. Wizened are created from roles and rules perfection. They have a profession and that’s their obsessional identity. Wizened have to follow procedures and that’s how they destroyed one another in their durance. .
- Clarity loss does several things to changelings. It makes it harder to take in and understand the real world. They begin to misread simple things, perhaps coming across as paranoid, schizophrenic, or autistic. Reduced clarity can make them retreat into elements of their kith. Finally it can make them forget and long to return to the Hedge and their durance.
- Changelings have swiss-cheese memories, both of their past lives and time in Arcadia. Their trip in and out of the Hedge caught those experiences on the thorns and tore them away. Memories and truth are vital: bargaining with them is a risky and dangerous thing.
- Changelings rarely travel between cities. When they leave a freehold, they leave the protection of the Courts. Some rare, rare few manage to travel through special devices and forms (like a Changeling Carnival). Communication outside a Freehold is also suspect: Keepers can intercept these things. Letters, emails, online interactions, G+ hangouts: these are all vulnerable. The Old Ones can and will catfish for their lost charges. Freeholds are isolated, constantly isolated.
- That means the Entitlements from Changeling the Lost don’t exist. There are no orders spanning across freeholds. If you wanted anything like that, you could have it represent assuming an archetype, perhaps bargaining with the world to support an image and role.
- Hobs can exist in the real world. They hide in the margins. They don’t have a proper “Mask” instead they’re hard to see head on. Hobs have a hard time directly interacting with people, so they’re mostly about theft and scavenging. They serve Keepers when they come calling as they can’t really resist. Hobs resent changelings for being something else, having a spiritual essence, and being favored above them.
Let me pivot and consider Urban Shadows’ structure.
- First, as you may already know, it isn’t “PbtA does World of Darkness.” Instead it’s much more about power & influence conflicts within a Dresden Files-like setting. There are four factions (Mortality, Night, Power, and Wild). Each faction has several archetypes, each with a playbook. For example Power includes Oracles & Wizards; Night includes Vampires, Spectres, and Wolves. Your relation with each faction has a rating, used in several moves. You advance by interacting with all four factions.The game also includes a significant debt system and PvP elements.
- The factions represent an umbrella, but the archetypes within those have individual agendas and sub-groups. Each faction also has a set of distinct moves.
- Modelling CtL directly doesn’t work. We have to make splits and create some potentially artificial distinctions. Each PC begins with a Kith and gets a playbook based on that. Kiths aren’t exclusive, so you may have more than one Ogre or Fairest in a player group. A character’s Seeming, narrowing their role within a Kith, acts more as color and narrative fluff. I have an impulse to create Moves representing each Seeming but I need to toss that away. That’s more work and goes against Urban Shadows’ approach. Instead each Kith needs to have a fun variety of moves.
- Obviously the Seasonal Courts map to the four factions. And that’s cool: each Court should have a few unique moves. But I think we need to define it further. In Changeling the Lost, each Court has several aspects under its auspices. These can contradict, creating tensions. For my version, each Court has two cabals vying for influence. These might represent light & dark sides, two different foci, or waxing & waning influence. I’m not sure. I’ll have to go back and tease that out.
- In any case, players pick a Kith, Court, and Cabal. The first and last give most of their initial move picks. The final two offer general moves members can use. So someone might be a Wizened of Autumn Ascending. Particular Cabals would be exclusive, with only one PC per.
- Corruption would be Clarity Loss. Kiths (and maybe Courts or Cabals) would have Corruption Moves.
- Other supernatural groups (Vampires, Prometheans, etc) only serve as NPCs if the players and MC want them in the story. That should be negotiated. I’m not sure if you need non-Court Changelings as a playbook choice. I don’t think so. They simply exist as an NPC pool.
- Can players change Courts or Cabals? What would be involved with that? I need to consider if that works. I should re-examine the Courts and figure out what I want from the Cabals. Related: are the Group Advancements from Urban Shadows necessary?
- To get started on this I’ll probably begin by making a master move list. I’d like to figure out how to map those to the different CtL groups. I’ll also want to look at other PbtA games (Monsterhearts, MotW, Masks) to see if there’s anything to borrow from there. I’d prefer to not re-invent the wheel. I’d like to put an old wheel on and service it later. The pool of moves should be relatively close to base Urban Shadows, i.e. PCs have access to the same # of moves from various sources.
- Debts are important within Urban Shadows. In many cases, they should be like pacts in Changeling. Should there be a distinction between empowered and non-empowered deals? I don’t want to complicate things. Do I need another mechanic or can I make a simple but evocative one for this?
OK- that’s all I’ve got off the top of my head. I wanted to get that down so I can see if that’s too big a task or workable. I’m leaning towards the latter, but we’ll see.