What “Changeling: the Dreaming” means to me

Part 1: Introduction

Vampire: the Masquerade (2nd Edition) came out in 1992, and I think I got it for my 14th birthday (February 1993). Between the ages of 14 (1993) and 18 (1997) I played a lot of World of Darkness games. For example, I distinctly remember one Sunday, when my friend Adam, who had come over for a session of Werewolf: the Apocalypse, telling me the news that Kurt Cobain had killed himself.

The World of Darkness games are therefore associated with that period of time, to me.

The one that got away… in fact there were two games that got away. Wraith: the Oblivion and Changeling: the Dreaming.

Part 2: Theme

The five World of Darkness games have themes. I will summarise those themes as follows:

  • Vampire: the Masquerade, “Your family will fuck you up”
  • Werewolf: the Apocalypse, “The natural world is dying, and there is little you can do about it, except get angry”
  • Mage: the Ascension “Reality is what you make of it/all viewpoints are valid”
  • Wraith: the Oblivion “You can never escape your regrets, even after death”
  • Changeling: the Dreaming “Your dreams will slowly die.”

The first three were the most popular in my gaming circle, and of those three, we ran Werewolf the most. I think it’s also the game I have the most books for. But Changeling came out slightly too late, just as my gaming group was starting to fade, and become interested in other things (sex/drugs/rock’n roll). I don’t think I ever successfully ran a game of Changeling.

(I never managed to run a game of Wraith because it was really difficult. Maybe I didn’t have the imagination, or maybe it was too depressing. One day, I will return to Wraith.)

Part 3: Problems

I am looking at Changeling now, with a more critical eye, and there are three major problems with it. One I noticed at the time, one I kind of noticed, and one I only notice now.

1. Noticed at the time: It was reductive.

The World of Darkness games impressed me because they were not like D&D. They were not heroic fantasies. You were an anti-hero (Vampire) on a futile quest, doomed to failure (Werewolf, Mage). You would not “win”, you would not get treasure. If you were lucky, you may be able to survive, perhaps even thrive. But the end of the story looked pretty bleak.

Changeling: the Dreaming (1st Edition), did not live up to the standard of these previous games. The “How to run a game” section was a direct lift of Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero with a Thousand Faces”. Even at 17, I knew that this was lazy. The game should not just be about the hero’s journey. It should be more than that.

Changeling just felt like a modern fantasy, not like a gothic-punk story of personal horror. It was too traditional.

2. Kind of noticed at the time: it was twee/lacking in danger

These creatures were not scary, not in the way the others had been. The element of danger about what you might be capable of (in an extreme situation) did not exist in this game, in the way it had in previous games.

(Yes, I may have missed the point on this one. Just because they weren’t ripping out throats, didn’t mean the Changeling’s weren’t dangerous to mortals. They were just dangerous in a different way.)

The fact that the player characters can be literal children (see later) is probably one reason why there is less danger involved in Changeling. It isn’t that you can’t tell adult stories with children as characters, but there are greater risks to the people around the table. Stories about child abuse are never particularly fun.

3. Didn’t realise at the time: It was very European

All but one of the starting player “splats” are European fairies. And the game is infused with many, many gaelic derived terms. Ireland is the centre of the universe, at least it seems. Although it makes a point about how the European faeries followed the mortal colonists to the new world, and displaced the native dreaming spirits, it gives no rules to play as these Nûñnë’hï (a term from only the Cherokee language, BTW), and gives no names or descriptions of any of them.

Part 4: What do I now?

“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I set aside childish ways.”

1 Corinthians 3.11

In someways, Changeling is a game about refusing to get old, and refusing to be an adult. In the original game, you had seemings “Childlings”, “Wilder” and “Grump”. As your character progressed from one to the other (by getting old), you lost some glamour, as your became more static in your thoughts and ideas. Eventually, you might become undone, losing all glamour and forgetting your changeling life. So it’s a game about refusing to let the party end, even though you know that one day it will have to.

(Later games ret-conned this slightly, allowing Changelings to maintain or alter their seeming, in a manner distinct from their physical age)

Changeling is a game about a magical world co-existing with the real world, accessible by certain special people, but with different dangers associated with it. Spend too long in the Dreaming, you risk Bedlam, and too long in the mortal world, you risk falling into Banality. This is evocative, because it is a balancing act we walk every day in our real world lives, especially those of us with mental health issues. The act of continuously looking after ourselves, and being ‘normal’ (paying bills, eating healthily, interacting with people) can be very tiring. But giving into our worst impulses or fears can also be very self-destructive. There is something cool about making a metaphorical story of this struggle.

So, how would I change ‘Changeling’?

  1. More interesting stories: how can we make these stories more interesting?
    Answer: don’t do a fucking heroes journey (in the traditional sense). Have the characters fail to kill the dragon, or find the magic tome they’re after has long since crumbled to dust. D&D has come a long way in 50 years. Changeling can go even further.

For example: the Sidhe are the harbingers of doom. The Resurgence is not a good thing, and their return is just making life harder for everyone. Even if the Seelie court has good intentions, stuff is just going to get fucked up.

  1. Make it more dangerous. How can we increase the level of tension?
    Answer: ramp up the level of threat. Both banality and chimera should be seen as a constant problem. And have adversaries attack both their place in Changeling society and their mortal connections. Ultimately, like any of the other World of Darkness games, Changelings should be their own worst enemies. The chaos that they generate will always come back to cause problems.
  2. Make it more inclusive: how can we make it less European?
    Answer: more kith. Domovoi and Sluagh are very similar. Morganed and Rusalka are very similar. Find new names for the splats, from stories beyond western Europe.

The theme for Changeling: the Dreaming is really “Your dreams will slowly die, but you can still party and have fun right now.” Changelings are dynamic, creatures, generating magic, but also problems, wherever they go. For a good role-playering experience, both player and story-teller need to lean into this.