Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Lords of Summer

I think I may be subconsciously grading these books on a curve. I gushed over The Complete Book of Necromancers, because it was essentially "AD&D with a genre," but I've got reservations about Lords of Summer because some of its exploration of Changeling's rich themes aren't entirely on point.

My biggest issue lies with its presentation of the Winter Court. Each of Changeling's seasonal courts has a ruling emotion. Spring has desire. Summer has wrath. Autumn has fear. And winter has sorrow. It's a beautiful set-up. Poignant and bittersweet, the four seasons work together to form a theory of trauma.

Lords of Summer is a book in which Spring courtiers are hedonists, diplomats, and celebrants. Where the Summer changelings are soldiers, knights and generals. Where the court of Autumn is full of witches and Halloween monsters. And what do they do for Winter?

They are spies and assassins. They excel at stealth, know everybody's secrets, and their enemies vanish without a trace. Large portions of their section involve things like cover identities, covert communications, and safe houses. At one point, it mentions that the Winter Court stole espionage techniques from cold war spies. Sorrow barely makes an appearance at all.

I'll admit, I was a little bit blindsided by how . . . muscular this book makes Winter's purview seem. I barely recognized its version of the court. So much so that I had to go back to the core book and double-check that it wasn't invented out of whole cloth.

I was disappointed to learn, in retrospect, that the Winter Court's pitch was much weaker than the other three seasons. All of the weird James Bond stuff was in the core book, even if it didn't quite reach the same heights of overcompensating. I'm not entirely sure where the game went wrong.

One possibility is that the courts started as rpg archetypes - Spring = Face, Summer = Fighter, Autumn = Mage, and Winter = Rogue. Then maybe the emotions were grafted onto that structure with varying degrees of elegance. Or it could have been the other way around, and it just so happened that they didn't have a good, distinctive idea for sorrow. Personally, though, I'm leaning towards the theory that the writers never quite reconciled their ambivalence with the idea of making sorrow (and to a lesser extent, fear) the defining emotion of a protagonist faction.

Ultimately, sorrow isn't very heroic. You sometimes get heroes that experience an overwrought grief at some tragic event, but in most cases that is channeled into a more narrative-friendly rage. And while I wouldn't be the first person to point out how creepy it is that anger (and especially violent anger) is seen as the only socially acceptable form of emotional expression, I don't think that's precisely what's going on here. I think looking at the book's treatment of the autumn court might be illustrative.

"At their worst, changelings of the Leaden Mirror can degenerate into serial murdering lunatics . . . "

That was a real record-scratch moment for me. It sent me running back to the core book once more. Blessedly, this is a new interpretation of the Autumn Court's mandate, but it does center in on something - fear is to be inflicted upon others, and only incidentally to experience oneself. It is the strong that make the weak afraid. So to be fearful is to be weak.

This is moderately acceptable, because the changelings do genuinely have powerful enemies, but for some reason, it seemed important to Lords of Summer to establish that they were not at the bottom of the hierarchy. There were people who were afraid of them.

That may be why the book sometimes felt like it lost the plot when it came to fear. Being a serial killer isn't inspiring fear. Foreclosing on a struggling family (real example from the book) isn't inspiring fear. Those are just examples of being the danger that fear is meant to warn about.

The point of the court passions is that they're all meant, in their own way, to be life-affirming. They are all a response to trauma, but beyond that they are a strategy for escaping trauma. Yes, your desire is a gift. Yes, your wrath is a gift. But also, your fear is a gift. Even your sorrow is a gift.

There's an interesting divide at work here. The spring and summer court write-ups didn't have any trouble explaining how their courtiers embraced the seasons' ruling passions. Fall and winter felt the need to distinguish between embracing their emotions and spreading their emotions. Desire and wrath are things you enjoy and fear and sorrow are things you suffer.

But why? I think we all know what it means to suffer from excess desire. There's a major world religion built on the idea. And the connection between wrath and suffering should be obvious. Yet the Spring and Summer sections do not get little asides about their courtiers suppressing or overcoming their emotions and weaponizing them against others.

I think it's because culturally, these emotions convey an idea of strength. We admire someone who goes after their desires. We associate expressive (male) anger with leadership.

Sex addiction is treated as the punchline of a joke. When we talk about the ultra-wealthy, it's always in terms of justice and rarely of compassion. People who have no problem seeing a person who hordes 40 cats as mentally ill will praise someone who hordes 40 lifetimes worth of wealth as ambitious. There is something intrinsically laudable about pursuing things the consensus counts desirable, even if the sex brings you no joy, even if the money will never be spent.

Wrath, in its way, is even worse. It is sometimes acknowledged as a failing, but somehow the wrathful keep succeeding. To subject another person to your anger is to exert dominance over them, especially if they shy away rather than respond in kind. The ability to direct anger towards your enemies is seen as a necessary precondition to personal dignity. Although, ironically, anger is only permitted to those whose dignity society already acknowledges. Women, minorities, and economic subordinates are discouraged from getting angry at people higher in the hierarchy.

Because desire and wrath are so often seen to emerge from a position of strength, they are only intermittently regarded as sickness. And that distorts the Changeling court structure.

I mentioned when I read the core that the Clarity system was a poor model for mental illness, and that the seasonal courts were a more truthful representation. The fact that they're seasons is an important bit of symbolism. Because there is a season for sorrow, just as there is a season for wrath and a season for desire, but the important thing about seasons is that seasons pass. To be associated with a seasonal court, then, is to be stuck.

A lot (though by no means all) mental illness is like that. The realization (either sudden or gradual) that you are stuck. There is something other people can get past that you cannot, so you keep swirling through this loop. And maybe there's something you get out of it. Or maybe you worry that there's something you're getting out of it. But it doesn't actually matter, because the loop hurts you. It keeps you from doing things you might want to do or forces you to keep doing things you don't want to do.

It might be fruitful to think of the seasonal courts like that. Autumn courtiers are people who resist the passing of fear. Winter courtiers are people who resist the passing of sorrow. It puts your reflexive perceptions of strength into new perspective. Maybe it's not so noble after all to resist the passing of wrath. Maybe there is a sickness where you don't want your desires to be fulfilled, because then they might go away.

And while it's stretching a metaphor to be so ordered, you could also view the progression of the seasons as part of the psychology of the courts. Summer courtiers embrace wrath because when wrath ends, then comes fear. The winter court loses themselves in sorrow so that they don't have to face their desires. Or maybe the seasons' obsessions stem from a desire to escape what comes before. Autumn teaches itself to be afraid, so it doesn't hurt others with its wrath. Winter embraces sorrow because in that nihilism, there is nothing left to lose.

The seasons, in Changeling: The Lost, are probably overburdened. There's a rich symbolic language there to be explored, but also they're rpg classes. Lords of Summer is a pretty good book for the rpg-class nature of the courts, so maybe I'm just being a little too demanding in expecting a detailed explanation of the symbolism as well.

UKSS Contribution: Oh, the other thing about this book. In fact, arguably the main draw, is its generous helping of new entitlements. Those are like social clubs/prestige classes/cool powers for advanced changeling characters. A lot of them are very lore heavy, but I didn't take particular issue with any of them. They're all worthy additions to the Changeling: the Lost setting.

The most versatile was probably the Knights of the Knowledge of the Tongue. They're chefs who delve deep into the borders between realities to find exotic, near-impossible ingredients, cook them, and eat them. I have a soft spot for characters like that, who operate at odd angles away from the main thrust of a game and distort the genre by their very existence. Fuck beautiful horror, Changeling is now a game where the wonders of the universe must get in my mouth.

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