Saturday, September 28, 2019

Rites of Spring

Rites of Spring is a book about magic in the Changeling: the Lost universe. In theory. Since Changeling: the Lost is a fantasy game, it turns out that Rites of Spring is about a little bit of everything.

This lack of focus makes it harder than usual for me to come up with a hook for a blog post, but as an rpg supplement, it's pretty useful. Want more information on how the Clarity (think: sanity) mechanics work? About what exactly counts as iron for purposes of faerie weaknesses? About what happens when you try to manipulate a vampire's dreams? This book has you covered.

Ultimately, its role as a book of miscellany, barely held together by a theme, means that Rites of Spring winds up embodying both the best and the worst aspects of its parent game.

On the upside, there's a lot of that great Changeling: the Lost flavor - dark fairy tale meets urban fantasy, with a timeless quality that's a little bit baroque, a little bit horror, and a little bit whimsy. There's an antique camera where, if you use it to take someone's picture, within a week they'll be dragged away by faeries to labor in servitude for a year and a day. There's a type of super-sweet fruit that if you eat the grubs that nest in its center, you'll get the ability to magically escape from handcuffs.

Changeling: The Lost has an awesomely unique voice, and this book helps you dial into it just a little more precisely.

Which brings us to this book's biggest downside - the World of Darkness. As time goes on, I'm becoming more and more convinced that the World of Darkness just does not work as a concept. Each and every individual World of Darkness game builds itself a fascinating, unique world and precisely none of them actually match up with the broader setting implied when the books try to pitch a crossover.

That wouldn't necessarily be a problem. You could just say that crossover games take place in the generic-verse and normal, single-group games are the only ones with weird fantastic settings. Alternately, you could just simulate the different supernatural factions within the rules of the particular games. There's no reason Changeling's version of "vampires" couldn't be leechfinger darklings or their "werewolves" couldn't be any number of beast kiths. Rites of Spring goes with probably the weakest option - allowing players to build other supernaturals by the rules of their native games and then half-heartedly grafting them on to Changeling's metaphysics, but even that more or less works.

Where the World of Darkness becomes a burden is when its central assumptions start intruding on a game's premises, forcing it incorporate setting and rules elements that just don't work.

The big offender here is "the Mask." In short, every one of Changeling: The Lost's magical elements has two forms. The Mien is its true appearance. A rabbit changeling's long ears. Or the diamond encrusted teeth of an enchanted skull. The Mask is how it looks to casual witnesses. A person with a really tall hair-do or a plastic skull with cheesy LED teeth.

To a certain degree, this is thematic. The idea is that Changelings, as refugees from the world of magic, survivors of horrors best unspoken, are alienated from human society. They can never go back. They can never share their experiences. Most people are blind to their world, often to the point where it starts to feel intentional. They don't want to know.

Thus there is a world of magic, hiding in plain sight. If they could somehow open their eyes to it, the average person would see that they live right in the middle of it. That's part of the tragedy and horror of Changeling: The Lost in general - people go through their ordinary, "rational" lives and never realize that the danger is closer than they think.

Where it becomes tricky is in the specific implementation of the Mask as a game mechanic. It's ridiculously comprehensive. I'll let this quote from the "Lies of the Hand" section explain it for me:
When he runs his hand over the horned brow of his Runnerswift lover, he does not see his hand encounter an invisible (to him) barrier where her horn sprouts. As far as he (and other mortals watching), his hand slides across smooth, unbroken skin. Changelings, ensorcelled humans, and others who can pierce the Mask see the truth: his hand caresses her horns and the skin around or between them.
That is absolutely bonkers. It goes beyond merely allowing Changelings to remain discreet in an otherwise mundane world and crosses the line into an all-out assault on the characters' epistemology. It calls into question their very ability to know the world through the information provided by the senses. If the Changeling sees themselves as a horned goat-person and has full sensory impressions of things like their horns, hooves, and fur, but 99% of the rest of humanity sees them as just a regular person, and their senses report smooth skin and normal feet, can we really say that the Mien is the truth and the Mask is the lie?

One might argue that this is all part and parcel with the game's Clarity mechanics, where as time goes on characters lose track of the boundaries between the fae world and the mortal world, and, if they're not careful, descend into a sort of waking dream-state, where images from the deepest recesses of their subconscious mind seem as real as ordinary physical matter.

If you can't trust the information of your senses, then Clarity seems like it would be a major concern. Except the rules for Clarity and the Mask manage to get the setting exactly wrong. The wondrous stuff from Arcadia and the Hedge, that stuff is real. To see a world of wonder, where, say, a vagabond's moth-eaten coat turn out to be made from stitched-together moths, is to perceive the world accurately. Yet the methods of an honest pursuit of truth are likely to lead one deeper into a lie.

"I'm actually half-human/half-goat."

"But you look just like a regular person."

"I've got horns."

"I'm feeling your head right now, and it's perfectly smooth."

"Did you analyze that fur sample I gave you."

"I did. Regular human hair."

"You're the hundredth person to tell me that. Maybe those weirdos who tell me they can see my goat persona are gaslighting me after all."

The trap is just too damned tight. And I blame the World of Darkness. It's axiomatic to that setting that ordinary people don't know about the supernatural. So when you've got a supernatural group like Changelings, who would be highly motivated to reveal the existence of faeries and Arcadia, both to cope with what they've been through and warn others about the danger, then you've got to be a little heavy-handed to preserve the status quo.

But maybe Changeling would be a better game if it didn't have to worry about the status quo. If the world were just allowed to be its own quirky dark-fantasy setting. Maybe the Mask is something that can be penetrated if someone makes the effort, but the price is that the clearer you see the things of faerie, the clearer they see you.

Hell, there's a part of me that's curious about what Changeling would be like if it took a page from new Scion and allowed the supernatural to be common knowledge. Maybe the faerie people are seen as a shady subculture, like hardcore drug users. Maybe Changelings keep their status to themselves because the first instinct of anyone who believes them is to blame them for their own kidnapping. Maybe people could see the things of faerie, they just don't want to.

Just speculating here. While I would advise against making the Mask as durable as this book suggests, it's nonetheless a fairly workable concept. Most everything in this book works fairly well, and if it never goes so far as to suggest the wholesale ditching of WoD themes, it at least offers plenty of advice to tweak those themes into more comfortable subgenres.

UKSS Contribution: There's plenty of weird magic here to choose from, even if I don't fully respect its dual nature. The best candidate, though, is The Book of Tales. It's a magic book that helps its reader navigate their immediate future, but the neat thing about it is that it isn't a magical biography. It doesn't describe the literal details of the reader's life. Instead, it tells fictional stories that are applicable to the reader's life. Bob is worried about an upcoming meeting with his boss, so he relaxes with the Book of Tales and reads about Roberto, who goes head to head with a dragon with some oddly familiar mannerisms.

I like magic like that. The kind that's useful, but also a bit mystical and revelatory. Ukss' Book of Tales will probably be a bigger deal than Changeling's. Maybe it's a unique artifact instead of just a thing that often happens when you leave a book unattended in the Hedge. Maybe it's infamous for showing up in people's lives, completely upending them, and then mysteriously disappearing. But it's definitely going to be the case that people have a habit of doing great things right after they're inspired by reading a good book.

For some reason, that theme appeals to me.

1 comment:

  1. The Book of Tales reminds me pleasantly of the Young Lady's Primer from The Diamond Age.