Maybe the best tabletop roleplaying game ever written?

A review of Onyx Path’s Changeling: The Dreaming 20th Anniversary Edition

For those of you who slept through the late ’80s and early ’90s (or weren’t around yet), a tiny little company called White Wolf wrote a series of very punk-themed horror-rip-off tabletop roleplaying games (like Dungeons & Dragons, only more so) in a shared setting called “The World of Darkness:” Vampire: The Masquerade, Werewolf: The Apocalypse, Mage: The Ascension, Wraith: The Oblivion, Changeling: The Dreaming, and Hunters Hunted. It was a series of stories with a heavily-foreshadowed, designed-in end date: on July 4th, 1999, at the end of the Week of Nightmares, all of the player characters in all of their games lost the game, and the human soul was permanently destroyed, giving birth to a world without hope, art, happiness, or any more than a semblance of free will.

A few years ago, an even smaller company called Onyx Path, including some of the original White Wolf team, bought the rights to issue a limited set of sequels and updates to the first five games, to be called World of Darkness 20th Anniversary Edition. These rewrites basically offer a choice of two basic campaign settings: the disaster at the end of the ’90s never happened, or it did happen, but only wiped out that generation of supernaturals; a new generation since then has revived the story. And the fifth and final core rulebook, Changeling: The Dreaming 20th Anniversary Edition, is about to come out. (As a Kickstarter backer, I have an early review copy; this review is based on that edition. I don’t expect any substantial changes.)

Interestingly, this may be the most relentlessly playable game that White Wolf’s “World of Darkness” setting has ever seen. If you were around for the hot mess that was Changeling: The Dreaming 1st Edition, this probably sounds completely unbelievable, but stick with me.

Where Changeling Originally Fit into the World of Darkness

One of the most fascinating things about the game, to me, was that there were two almost completely non-overlapping plots going on, with so little overlap between them that even though there was an attempt to make cross-over play possible, it was almost impossible to make the two stories fit together.

Over on the one side was Vampire, Wraith, and Hunters: three games that started out as a straight-up Anne Rice ripoff, and never wandered far from gothic novel horror tropes: the vampires are immortals, cursed by the Judeo-Christian god and hoping to ultimately escape his wrath or achieve redemption; the wraiths are dead souls in Purgatory trying to reach across to the living world to avenge their deaths or protect their loved ones; the hunters are a mixture of religious exorcists and hereditary psychics trying to hunt (mostly) ghosts and vampires.

But on the other side was a genuinely weird meta-plot that I fell helplessly, hopelessly in love with, and so did many others. In this alternate history, there was a time when priests of any religion could reliably call on their gods for miracles, when sorcerers and their spells openly supported or opposed human kingdoms, and when monsters and fairy tale creatures roamed the woods. And the reason that none of us remember that is that all of the evidence has been hidden, edited from history, by a rogue group of sorcerers who successfully altered the fabric of reality, rendering faith and magic almost completely useless, a world where only science and engineering still work.

That conspiracy now calls itself The Technocracy, and what they didn’t know, what they still didn’t know, is that this would have two horrible effects on the world. One is that if they ever succeed in convincing enough of the human population that magic and religion aren’t real, the human soul will die; without at least some belief in magic and/or religion, neither love, nor art, nor kindness, nor happiness are possible. Without at least some magic or faith in the world, even free will dies, for the rulers as much as the ruled, both carrying out their roles for so long as our species survives without deriving even an ounce of pleasure from any reward. And two, science and engineering alone, deprived of magic and faith, aren’t enough to hold back the personified forces of entropy and decay, both physical and moral.

Now, I don’t believe any of these things, but I think they make a great “what if,” a great fictional universe to explore, and a great way to confront real-world parallels and ask “no, really, what would I do?” A world where everything that “everybody knows” is wrong, a world where the people who go along to get along are, unknowingly, the very people who are going to get us all killed, is a great setting for telling tales of moral heroism versus moral cowardice.

Mage: The Ascension: Back in the day, my all-time favorite of the games was Mage: The Ascension. If Mage had had a more marketable, more traditional name, it would have been “Sorcerers and Cyberpunks.” On the bad guy side: the forces of global capitalist imperialism, their cyborg agents, and various genetically engineered freaks; on the other side, a rag-tag band of losers who still believe in faith, magic, or discredited scientific theories, and can still make those things “work” by breaking the consensus laws of physics, albeit at high personal risk.

Gameplay sessions typically involved spying on the forces of global capitalist imperialism, trying to strike at weak spots to undermine the public’s faith in science as their savior, alternating with desperate defensive retreats when the government agencies and corporations unleash super-science horrors on the players in retaliation.

It was fun! But not just anybody could run it, and not that many more players could play it well, because it was so weird. It required a broad depth of reading and incredible imagination just to picture the setting, your characters, and what was going on.

Werewolf: The Apocalypse: Its predecessor game was probably my least favorite. The setting was much simpler. Lycanthropy isn’t an infectious disease, it’s a hereditary condition (that sometimes skips generations) in both certain sub-species of wolves and certain families of humans. Although they don’t really understand The Technocracy, the werewolves are all too aware that the rise of science tipped the balance of reality against them, leading to their species’ almost complete extinction, surviving (barely, if at all, and in small numbers) on native reservations and in protected wilderness areas.

Gameplay sessions could best be described, I think, as a heavy-metal album-cover version of Captain Planet. Packs of werewolves would attack any industrial capitalist incursion into wild places or on native lands, but especially the ones infected by entropy demons that hardly anybody else in the World of Darkness were noticing, the forces of The Wyrm, for whom pollution wasn’t just a byproduct of scientific advance but a way to deliberately spread sickness, both physical and psychological; a conspiracy within a conspiracy to infect all living things with cancer and to destroy every bit of vestigial conscience so that the warped, twisted survivors would rob and kill each other without hesitation.

I feel like it’s due for a come-back, but back in the late ’80s, early ’90s, it was almost completely unplayable, and hardly ever played. In my experience, the main obstacle was that so much of the story was set in deep wilderness or on native reservations: two settings that your average tabletop gamer knows little or nothing about. It may literally be easier to ask your average gamer to imagine an ultra-tech space station full of cyborgs and genetically engineered monsters than to get them to visualize a babbling brook, far from any road or trail, halfway up the side of a mountain in the Ozark National Forest. Also, I think it’s safe to say that how ever much retro-licious fun it sounds like now, the audience for “heavy metal Captain Planet” is still pretty tiny, and was even tinier back then. And that leaves only …

Changeling: The Dreaming: Although they don’t know it by name, fairy tale creatures certainly felt it when the Technocracy conquered the world. Over the course of the 13th and 14th centuries, they were hunted to extinction on Earth. Many escaped back into fairyland, into a distant city in the land of dreams called Arcadia. A few tried to survive on Earth by inventing a new kind of changeling: a fairy tale creature would possess an infant human’s body, instead of replacing them wholly, in hopes of peeking out from time to time. But over the centuries, nearly all of them were exterminated. But the back to back exuberance and “anything is possible” energy of Woodstock and the moon landing blew open the gates to fairyland just enough for a new wave of explorers and outcasts from fairyland to sneak into our world again, to become a new generation of changelings. Only to be crushed out of existence, not even so much by Technocracy killing machines as by the sheer crushing boredom and loss of hope of the late ’70s, the ’80s, and the ‘90s.

Your character starts as a child, probably somewhere around 6–10 years old, who still believes in fairies, and that’s why your fairy-tale soul can suddenly break free long enough to give you the look of a fairy-tale creature — that only other fairies can see, everybody else just sees a weird human kid. And it unleashes your fairy-tale magic: one or two simple mostly-useless tricks. Plus a free-form magic system — but the skill costs to learn it are so high that your character will literally die of boredom before you get enough XP to do anything interesting with it. And if you stave that off, the magical energy (“glamour”) costs are so high, and glamour recharge is so time consuming, that you’ve got a spell-casting budget of maybe 2–3 spells a month. Without your magic, all you have to fall back on are the resources and strengths of … a slightly above-average 8 year old.

Oh, and also, anybody trying to design a campaign for Changeling ran into another hard-to-bridge problem. There are monsters that hunt Changelings. You don’t stand a chance against them. So there really isn’t anything for your characters to do (when you’re not running and hiding) except play childish pranks on each other like the weird dysfunctional human kids you mostly are. I don’t know very many people who thought that was much fun.

There are people who think that Changeling didn’t belong in the World of Darkness because it was too childish and cheerful. Those people obviously didn’t read any of the rules. Changeling was punishing. So much so that I know lots of people who read it, who loved having read it, who use it as metaphors for so much of their real lives, but I don’t know of a single campaign that lasted longer than 4 sessions.

But Changeling: The Dreaming 20th Anniversary Edition is in final editing right now. Those of us who participated in the Kickstarter already have the final-draft copy PDFs in our hands; it should be available to the general public in at most a couple of months. And it fixes so much of what’s wrong with the old Changeling that it may have turned it into the best actual game, the most playable and entertaining game, in World of Darkness history.

What Did Changeling 20th Anniversary Fix?

Well, let’s start with the simplest change first. The “protect childhood innocence from adult boredom” theme was adorable but, in practice, whiffed of everything wrong with using child soldiers. They got rid of that. Your human host discovers his or her new powers around the same time as other World of Darkness supernaturals, typically in their late teens or 20’s, sometimes even later. So even when you don’t have magic to fall back on, your characters aren’t helpless.

They also made some substantial changes to the magic system. They made sure that every character class has at least one actually useful spell that they can cast as many times as they want with no glamour cost. Better yet, they made the rest of the magic system a lot more useful at low levels by introducing a new system called “unleashing.” If you have even one level in a category of spells, you can cast any spell in that category. All you have to do is surrender control: tell the game master roughly what you want to achieve, spend the glamour, and roll the dice, at an even lower difficulty and with at least one more dice than you would normally have. But if you succeed too well, you lose control of the spell, and while it succeeds, it does so in a way that will complicate your life later. So as you level up, you can split your points between learning new categories of spells and learning better control.

When I first read the rules, it looked to me like they’d kept the brutally punishing energy-recharge rules. Your glamour pool typically trickle-charges at one point a night (if nothing goes wrong), enough that you might be able to average as many as two spells a week (if nothing goes wrong). You can recharge your whole glamour pool at once … but for a starting character, it takes at least 2 weeks and might take up to 4 months of doing nothing but that, so it’s nothing you can count on. Which disappointed me … until I finally understood the newly clarified rules about your alternate magically energy pool, called dross.

You see, they simplified and clarified the rules for your party to leave the mundane world and enter the dreaming world. There, your spells cost a lot less glamour. And of course, you can use your non-spell skills, your ordinary combat skills, to hunt monsters, too. And if you take the time to search the corpse of every monster you kill in the dream lands, each character can harvest enough little bits of magical fur, or feathers, or claws, or teeth, or coins, or gems, or candies, or other little bits of dream-stuff to power 2–3 more spells instead of drawing on your own glamour pool.

They also finally made it clear what the dream lands are like, and that does more than all of the above to make the game more playable. The Near Dreaming, the easiest part to reach, is the parts of the dream lands that are parallel to the mundane Earth, and can be divided into cities versus rural areas. The cities are … well, frankly, they’re the movie Cool World. They don’t say so, but read the description, then pop your Cool World DVD in and watch it (and show it to your players). The rural areas are … wait for it … a generic D&D medieval fantasy setting! So what your characters basically do is play any other tabletop roleplaying game setting (except that some of it is in Cool World instead of medieval world), going on quests and hunting monsters, and harvesting materials from them that you can take back to the real world to make magic even easier there.

Why would you go back to the real world? Ah, they also clarified a system called Nightmare, also called Bedlam. You see, about every 10 or so spells you cast, you gain a point of Nightmare, and one of your temporary willpower pool points becomes “poisoned” as it were; if you use that temp willpower point, you go insane. But how many times do you spend your last temp willpower point? I don’t remember anybody ever doing so in any campaign, people hoarded them for emergencies. So 10 or so spells later you poison another one. Still no big deal, but you’re having to watch your willpower spending a little carefully. Keep piling up nightmare until you have as many Nightmare points as the size of your Glamour pool? And you enter Bedlam, go permanently insane, flee permanently into the dreaming, and become a non-player character monster.

So how do you draw down Nightmare and prevent Bedlam? By returning to the real world and doing one very specific thing. Remember that system I mentioned for recharging your glamour pool all at once, even if it takes weeks or months? It works by using your mundane skills, and whatever magic you can afford, to make life better for any Dreamer, any human being who’s still trying to use their imagination to make the world a better, happier place. (They’ve broadened the range of dreamers, and ways you and they can improve the world, a lot since the earliest edition, too — now you’re not restricted to inspiring artists.) But you can choose, instead of using that moment of relief and inspiration for your subject to refill your glamour pool all at once, to use it to draw down one full Nightmare level.

And that combination makes it the easiest campaign to design and run. Powerful versions of fairy-tale creatures run amok in the Near Dreaming, “murder-hobo’ing” their way through the monsters that prey on dream-creatures and human dreams and rifling their corpses for stray magic; when that starts to take its toll on them, they escape into our world and look for human “dreamers” to spend all that saved-up magic on, to make our world a better place. When that saved-up magic gets low and mundane boredom starts to take its toll? Back to the fantasy realm!