Onyx Path started the Kickstarter for the Changeling: The Dreaming 20th Anniversary edition yesterday. I pledged $1 because I wanted to make at least a symbolic gesture of support for the project. I’m not sure if I’m going to pledge more. I’d like to get my hands on the 20th anniversary edition, but I’m not sure I want to pay $110 for it.
Changeling: The Dreaming occupies a weird place in my gaming history. It is at once the most important game I’ve ever played and also one I’ve never really played. I admire it in concept and loathe it in practice. It’s complicated.
Thinking back on my roleplaying career both before and after my marriage to Robin, I’m pretty sure I’ve never actually played a game of Changeling. I think – maybe – that I bought the original softcover release for myself, read it, and decided I didn’t like it.
For those who don’t know, Changeling is one of the five core lines in White Wolf’s original World of Darkness setting. The last one released, C:TD countered the Gothic Punk aesthetic of the previous lines (Vampire: The Masquerade, Werewolf: The Apocalypse, Mage: The Ascension, and Wraith: The Oblivion) with a much more whimsical, much more colorful trade dress and art style. The actual content of the game, on the other hand…
Well, I guess it depends on who you ask.
Player characters in Changeling are half-human, half-fairy changelings. They can see and interact with a world of beauty and magic that the rest of the World of Darkness can’t even perceive. Unfortunately, the wearying banality of the regular world slowly but surely robs changelings of their connection to the fae.
When I was 22, I couldn’t help but see this inevitable loss as the most tragic, horrifying concept in any World of Darkness game. The existential dread of the workaday world grinding all of the light and joy out of life terrified me far more than a vampire’s endless life of murder or a werewolf’s doomed battle against tentacle monsters.
Changeling’s romanticizing of mental illness didn’t help; like a lot of art, it positioned mental illness as a sort of gift, a mark of genius and inner beauty. Changelings in the game, after all, saw things that weren’t “really” there and were punished by compassionless normal people with incarceration in mental asylums and invasive psychological therapy. It’s the same tired, dumbass attitude that let Byron and Lovecraft off the hook for being assholes, and made Hemingway and Howard kill themselves. Even then – in the midst of my own overweening pride in my own weirdness – I wasn’t at all interested in running players through psychotic breaks and trauma. It just didn’t seem fun.
I put the book away, wishing I knew a way to make the game work for me.
Robin played C:TD with her pre-me gaming group and apparently had some fun times as a hard-drinking satyress. A few years after we married, we were living in a new city with no friends and no way to make them. Robin pleaded with me to run an RPG with just the two of us, and I finally agreed. We chose to play Changeling.
Except we didn’t.
We didn’t play Changeling: The Dreaming. We played the game’s Asian-themed spinoff, Land of Eight Million Dreams.
Land of Eight Million Dreams is almost a completely different game. Not only are the rules dramatically different, the basic ethos of the game is practically the opposite of its parent. The player characters are the hsien, immortal nature spirits or minor gods that gently take over the bodies of the recently deceased. They subsist off of prayers and dreams, but they’re not trapped in the inevitable cycle of despair that characterizes changelings. Instead, the hsien simply worry about the malaise of constant reincarnation (#spiritworldproblems) and the fact that other monsters find them delicious.
Robin played a cat-girl and an integral part of our continued happiness was born.
Twenty years after Changeling: The Dreaming debuted – and over a decade since the duet games began – I feel like I can laugh in Changeling’s ageist, anti-psychology face. I’m 42 and I’m the most creative I’ve ever been. I’m published, damn it! And I’m in demand! I’ve learned that mental illness isn’t the price to pay for being a genius, but that it is instead a sickness just like the flu or cancer that must be treated with medication and therapy. It’s a hindrance to creativity not its price – and certainly not an aid. Twenty years later, it turns out that Changeling: The Dreaming had it all wrong.
And yet, I still feel like there’s a game I might really love hiding in there somewhere. Tony DiTerlizzi’s art remains as evocative and inviting as ever, promising a game of romance and imagination that the text betrays. I’m still grateful to Changeling: The Dreaming for producing Land of Eight Million Dreams , and the fact that the twentieth anniversary edition includes the hsien makes that book so very, very tempting. Maybe – if I actually give enough money to get a copy of the book – I can make this revised version work for me.
Or maybe I should just give a buck and wait for Blue Rose AGE and Fae Nightmares to arrive. Or put Altellus into playtesting shape. Or just use my old copy of Land of Eight Million Dreams if I really want to run it again…