Monday, January 14, 2019

Changeling: The Lost (1st Edition Core) - Reaction

Damn, the NWoD books are dense. Every one I've read so far has taken me around a week. At first, I attributed it to the busyness of the holiday season, then to the ol' depression flaring up, and while those have been factors, I think the main reason it takes me so long to read them is because they have a lot of words. I'm not about to break out the calipers, but I'm willing to bet that they use smaller font and less art than other books of similar length. Either that, or I'm just getting old and less able to endurance read than I was in my youth.

Which is to say, Changeling: The Lost (1st Edition) is a really good value for the money. One of my favorite books, and a difficult one for 2nd edition to live up to. It's hard to pin down exactly what makes it so great, but it has a consistently high level of craft and an intriguing premise.

So, of course, the first thing I'm going to talk about is its one major flaw. Changeling bills itself as "A Storytelling Game of Beautiful Madness" and that's . . . kind of . . . a bad thing to be? The bulk of the text, with the exception of certain excerpts from the Introduction and Storytelling sections, are fine, wonderful even, but I've read a few rpg sanity systems so far, and the one thing they have in common is that they are all terrible. The C:tL 1e Core benefits, as a book, from having its sanity system in the World of Darkness Core, but it still, you know, calls its mental illnesses "derangements."

In this case, though, it's not (only) about using a more sensitive modern term to describe the issue. Rather, the problem is that it centers itself on madness and then has a completely inadequate understanding of what that actually means. The text seems to use "madness" as a shorthand for "epistemological uncertainty about whether your immediate perceptions adequately map to a shared objective reality," but that's not what madness is. That's just the human condition. "Madness" is what society calls the more uncommon strategies for dealing with it.

That's not to minimize mental illness, of course, but it's a spectrum. Sometimes people grab the knife by the blade and wind up cutting themselves, but we're all trying to slice up the same thing. RPGs tend to treat madness as "you've got your normal character, but we're going to direct you to make them act like an asshole" and it's just not fair. To quote Mr Nietzsche: "Madness is rare in individuals - but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule." Putting it on a ten-point scale, with a high rating indicating correct thoughts and a low rating incorrect ones misses the point. What matters is functionality. The depressed person who thinks there is no point to life, that their future will be filled with nothing but pain and misery, and that they are bound to die alone may be seeing with absolute Clarity, but it is our delusions that get us through the day.

Besides, despite the book's claims to the contrary, I don't think madness is actually a major theme.  When I see the Fae described as frightfully whimsical creatures of incalculable power, who respond to alien urgings and whose apparent nature can totally change without warning, I don't think "whoa, crazy people." I think "this is a child's view of their parents."

Much is made of Changeling: The Lost's allegory for abuse, and that's a heavy throughline, for sure, but taking an adult and turning them into a child is abuse. There lies the horror of the game - to be rendered powerless, to be taken from your home, to not understand. It is the horror of becoming a child again, stripped of the romanticism that usually entails. Clarity is less "sanity" and more "adultness." As you sink in Clarity, you experience once more the terrors (and perhaps the wonders) of childhood, as your imagination seems real, but there is confusion, because that is also the state of Fae things in general. In the Hedge, all the horrible and beautiful things you imagine have a literal existence, and to become lost there is to dwell among them. It is only in the mortal world that the loss of Clarity is a disadvantage.

It's interesting to contrast this with Changeling: The Dreaming, which turns the dynamic inside out. The morality stat still measures the same basic thing - adultness, but in Dreaming it is called Banality and it is a thing to be avoided rather than a resource to be cultivated. In Lost, Arcadia is a place to escape from and in Dreaming it is a place to escape to, but it still represents the same thing - childhood. Even in Dreaming, it was dangerous, and even in Lost, it was beautiful, but the emphasis was different. In Dreaming, your characters are likely children or teenagers, eager to hold on to what they have before growing up takes it away. In Lost, your characters are most likely adults, trying desperately to hold onto that.

This connection is not too surprising. Despite the dark and gritty makeover/revival they've gotten in recent years, faerie stories (even, or, perhaps, especially the ugly ones) were always meant for children, and it's impossible to talk about them without making childhood your central subject, even if, as with Changeling: The Lost you seem to do it accidentally.

It does, however, make me wonder about what changed between editions. Perhaps the writers got older, had children of their own. Maybe the world itself changed, and seemed much less safe for children. Maybe it was just a new team, with new interests and obsessions. Regardless, as someone who had an unhappy childhood, who didn't discover himself until a decade after adolescence (assuming, of course, that I actually have), and who had no particular desire to go back, Lost resonates with me a lot more than its predecessor. I love the strange magic and the romance and the intrigue, but I do not want to disappear into that world. In fact, the very though fills me with a frisson of dread. And that, I think, is a good place for dark-fantasy to be.

PS - A late thought: the truest representation of madness in the game is probably the seasonal courts. Each represents a response to trauma - excess, anger, fear, and depression - taken to an unhealthy extreme. To keep the Fae away (I know I said the Fae are your parents, but they are also your trauma, and if we really want to maximize the symbolism, they are both - the trauma caused by the decisions your parents made that you still don't understand) you need a progression of all four seasons. You can't wallow in one at the expense of the others. To be healthy is to be in balance, but none of the courts act at random. They have reasons for what they do, compelling ones. It's easy to fall into the orbit of one court or the other, to embrace a strategy for coping that is not recommended, not safe. But the courts are still useful. They are not something to be pitied or shunned. They are, in their own way, beautiful.

I like that. It's nice. Much better than getting a "derangement" for "failing" a "degeneration" check.

UKSS Contribution - This one is a no-brainer. Goblin markets. Mysterious traveling bazaars, staffed by fantastic creatures, selling wonders and curses for a price not measured in coin. What's not to love?

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