Changeling and Gen Con
Onyx Path will be at Gen Con in booth #501. If you stop by, I’d be happy to talk Changeling, as well as show you the pre-layout manuscript for the book!
We’ll also be running a “What’s Up With White Wolf RPGs?” panel at 11 AM Friday in Pennsylvania Station C, at the Crowne Plaza hotel. We’ll be talking about Changeling there, as well as Changeling-related projects like Dark Eras and a certain crossover book.
(Note: Due to the con, I’ll likely be less available on forums and our social media. Questions about today’s preview may need to wait for next week.)
Changeling‘s Storytelling chapter focuses on the chronicle as a collaboration between the Storyteller and all of the players. Today, I’d like to present two sections from that chapter, written by Jacqueline Bryk.
The first section is on chronicle building, featuring a system for tying together the human and supernatural elements of your game, and a series of questions to help you build an engaging group of characters.
The second is something we haven’t done much of in previous Chronicles of Darkness books: safety techniques. I don’t think it’ll surprise anybody when I say Changeling can get pretty dark. It’s a horror game that can evoke abuse and trauma, which are very real for all too many of us.
Some groups may want to avoid those elements, and some groups may want to dive as deep into them as possible. In my experience, most groups are somewhere in between: they want to explore the dark parts of the game, but don’t want to hurt the players behind the characters.
To that end, we present some discussion of the issues involved in running a Changeling game, as well as an overview of safety techniques that you can use at your table to make play an involving, but not harmful, experience.
In addition to these previews, the Storytelling chapter also covers how to build kiths, courts, Contracts, and Mantles.
Building Your Chronicle
A chronicle is the tale told by the Storyteller and the players, spun out in threads of gossamer and tears. It’s the story of the player characters, their triumphs and failures, their escape from the Fae and their attempts to start a new life in a world that no longer recognizes them. While the Storyteller controls the world around the characters, it is their story. Players need to have input into designing the plots and problems their characters face throughout the chronicle. If the players all built social butterflies and the Storyteller’s chronicle is a combat-heavy slugfest, no one is going to have fun.
To build a chronicle, you first need to consider your props and themes. Once you’re finished with this part, you can move onto the Hedge Paths.
Themes are the human dramas that make your chronicle compelling. The overarching themes of Changeling: The Lost are beauty/agony, clarity/madness, and lost/found. In the tension between the opposites, one finds the game. Naturally, these aren’t going to be the only things you’ll explore — the Lost have to deal with very mundane issues in addition to being in the liminal space between humanity and Fae. Themes like “lost love,” “poverty,” and “hunger” could all work in a Changeling chronicle. Each might mean a very different thing to each character. “Loyalty,” for example, could mean protecting one’s freehold, sheltering one’s family even when they no longer claim them as kin, or hiding one’s undying fealty to one’s undying master in Arcadia.
Props are the more fae parts of your chronicle, the magical weirdness that surrounds and permeates the lives of the Lost. Set pieces, scenes, and objects all fall under the heading of props. Anything from the Goblin <arkets to a specific token to a blue rose that only grows in the wall of a specific frozen Arcadian garden can be a prop.
Props can also be more mundane objects that show up throughout the chronicle. A player might choose to have her Bright One character associated with torches, for example, so any scene that revolves around her includes candles or flashlights or other small sources of bright light. Grand Princess Caesura, a lady of the Gentry who appears as a feminine form made of the absence of matter, is associated with open doors and missing keys.
Props don’t just have to be objects, either. Anything that will strongly influence the story can be a prop. A family curse, a bargain ill-made, a portal torn open, or a monarch corrupted by their own power can all be used as props. Really let your imagination run wild here — that’s what Changeling is all about, after all.
Using Props and Themes
When brainstorming your props and themes, note each one on a sticky note or a notecard. By the time you’re finished, you should have roughly one theme and one prop per player character. If there are more, that’s fine, those can be set aside as part of the secondary themes and props for the chronicle.
Lay the themes in a row on a table, then lay the props in a column perpendicular to the themes. For the intersection of each theme and prop, the players should choose a character. Ideally, this is a player character — an Ogre Gristlegrinder bouncer at the intersection of “hunger” and “the goblin market,” for example, or the Bright One above at the intersection of “torches” and “descent.” As a storyteller, this lets you know what sort of character-specific experience your players are looking for.
Free spaces are reserved for Storyteller characters. The intersection of “hunger” and “torches” might be a Huntsman coming after the player characters. Players and the Storyteller should work together to create compelling Storyteller characters that can come into the characters’ lives with some degree of commonality already established so that they better suit the overall aesthetic and feel of the chronicle.
A changeling doesn’t come into being in a vacuum. She has family, friends, a life she was pulled from, and a life she’s building. It’s important that both the Storyteller and the players know what’s going on with the troupe’s characters before the chronicle begins — otherwise they’re as lost as an escapee in the Hedge. Following the stages below will help you build well-rounded characters and connect them to the game.
The Life Before
All changelings were human before they were taken by their Keepers. Fae politics pale in comparison to the networks of family, friends, acquaintances, coworkers, petty rivalries, romances, and other connections mortal humans have on Earth. Rare is the Lost who was taken without any sort of link to other people — otherwise, why would the Fae need to make fetches?
Decide who the changeling was before they were spirited away by UFOs or invisible horses. Ideally, this should include their occupation, their home life, and any important people they may be in a relationship of any kind with. It can also include the age they were taken, any identifying marks (tattoos, moles, scars, etc.) and anything else especially relevant to their mortal life.
Example: Ben decides that his changeling character was an ESL teacher in her mortal life. He names her Jocelyn and gives her a husband but no children, a house that they rent together, a book club that meets on Sundays, and a best friend who recently moved two cities away. She has just graduated with her Master’s degree and she is a friendly, if private, person. Ben decides to put Jocelyn’s husband, David, at the intersection of a prop and a theme, “ancient books” and “unconditional love.”
Sarah decides that her character was a college student by the name of Nate. He grew up in a loving, middle-class nuclear family that hunted and cooked together and encouraged his dreams pretty regularly. Nate does not have a significant other and does not particularly want one right now. He lives in the university dorms, has a close group of friends, and enjoys target shooting and knitting equally. Sarah writes down “favorite rifle” as a prop and “growing up too fast” as a theme. She places his soon-to-be court monarch, Mens Machinae, at the intersection of these elements.
Meg decides that her character, Holly Blue, was raised in a hippie commune out in the Pacific Northwest. Her upbringing very much followed the old adage “it takes a village to raise a child” and she remembers her childhood as a time of love and warmth. Holly Blue was homeschooled until she went to college. She took a year off after her junior year to try and find out what she really wanted out of life, and went on a road trip across the U.S. with some friends. Meg writes a prop, “the old car that should have stopped working” and decides to place Holly Blue’s best friend, Nevaeh, at the intersection of that prop and the theme “unconditional love.”
Emily’s character is named Hel, and is the youngest member of a large family. She lived with her divorced mother and only really saw her father on holidays. Emotional honesty was not really prized in her household, so her upbringing was comfortable, if a bit chilly. Hel got her Master’s in Computer Science and worked as a programmer at NASA. She had several partners, but was going through a divorce of her own due to finding the same coldness in her husband as she did in her mother.
Questions to Ask: What is your name? How old are you?
Did you grow up in a nuclear family? Are your parents still together? Divorced? Never married? Single-parent household?
Were you wealthy? Middle class? Poor?
What’s your gender? Does it match your presentation? Are you okay with that? What’s your sexual orientation? Who knows? Did you have a partner — or several?
Did you graduate university? Do you have more than one degree?
What was your occupation? Where were you living? Were you owning, renting, couch surfing, or squatting? Did you have a pet? More than one?
Did you have any identifying marks, like tattoos or scarification? What were your hobbies and pastimes? Who would notice if you were gone or acting strangely?
Promises: What was the biggest promise you made before you were taken?
Sidebar: A Note on Backstory
It is expected that the Storyteller will use her players’ backstories to enrich the play experience. While they should feel free to do so, players should also communicate with the Storyteller on things they would like left untouched — and, by the same token, things they would like messed with. Storyteller torture of characters via backstory should always be consensual. This is a game, after all.
Something had to get that changeling into the Hedge into the first place. Something had to take her to Arcadia. Something had to lock her into shackles of bronze and roses, forcing her to do its bidding. Use this section to figure out how the changeling was stolen or seduced away. You may also use it to get a preliminary outline of her Keeper.
Example: Jocelyn is levelheaded and skeptical of offers that seem too good to be true (she might not have gotten through her Master’s program otherwise), so Ben decides she didn’t make a Faustian bargain. It’s unlikely that she was seduced, so he decides that she was kidnapped and dragged through a mirror while in the bathroom at a Halloween party. He places her Keeper at the intersection of a prop and a theme, “unexpected portals” and “not who they seem.”
Sarah decides that Nate was on a hunt with his family when he got separated in pursuit of a buck. At least, he thought it was a buck. He saw a flawless rack of horns flash through the dusk in the trees and followed it. The woods got thicker and gloomier, but that’s ok, he’s used to having to wait in thickets to get at his game. Nate lost sight of the buck and turned around to go home — only to find the buck and the buck’s master waiting for him. Sarah decides to place the buck that lured him in at the intersection of the prop “the hunters hunted” and “not who they seem”.
Meg likes the idea of Holly Blue being abducted on her road trip. As she and Nevaeh drive along I-80, they see an old woman at her fruit and honey store — really, little more than a shack. They decide to stop to purchase some food. Holly Blue strikes up a conversation with the proprietor, who offers to show her some of her fresher offerings. Holly Blue follows her around the back, only to find herself in the thorns. The woman is a privateer, and she’s taking her newest acquisition to Grandmother, Grandmother (see p. XX) to adopt.
Emily comes into the chronicle a bit later than everyone else, and so her character’s abduction has to be a little different than everyone else’s. She decides that, befitting a programmer at NASA, Hel is abducted by the Three Androgynes (see pg. XX). It’s somewhat unceremonious — one moment she’s walking home from work, and the next, she’s suspended in midair in a sterile room, her limbs and mouth bound by thorns.
Questions to Ask: Were you physically dragged off? Were you deceived?
Did you offend a True Fae somehow?
Did you misstep into the Hedge?
Where were you when you were taken? What do you remember of the journey?
Promises: What promise was made to you while you were en route?
In Durance Vile
The durance is the period of a changeling’s life that shapes their biggest challenges. In a twist of cruel irony, some changelings barely remember it except in nightmares, while others are always on the verge of a flashback or panic attack, seeing their Keeper and her knives around every corner. Most are somewhere in between. Trauma is a funny thing, and for many Lost, it remains safely locked in the back of their minds, slipping out at moments of tension or vulnerability. The durance determines the kith and seeming of the changeling, and may affect what court they choose to join later.
Don’t hold back in this section (at least within limits set by the group, see “Safe Hearth, Safe Table” on p. XX). True Fae are not known for mercy or obeying the laws of physics. How might a True Fae have caused you to turn into a Mirrorskin or a Helldiver? What fell pacts were made with the realm you were imprisoned in that you could survive it? Were you the only one in your motley there?
Storytellers should feel free to do some light narration of this section before game, if their players are so inclined. See the sidebar “Narrating a Durance” for some guidelines on how to do so effectively.
Example: Jocelyn is taken to a realm of mind-numbing bureaucracy and byzantine laws. She is held in a small cell, a room that looks like an unfurnished apartment with the drywall torn out and the wires exposed, until her Keeper sends someone for her. She is taken before the True Fae, a being made entirely of paperwork and red tape. Its face is a white porcelain mask made to look like a baby’s head. Ben has already decided that Jocelyn will be a Fairest Notary, so he states that after being forced to swear fealty (in triplicate!), she is taken downstairs and has the pledge tattooed on her back by another changeling. Her Keeper, the Munificent Bureaucrat, and another True Fae watch. She is leashed and kept at her Keeper’s side to reference at will.
Sarah decides that her Ogre Artist character, Nate, was the one to tattoo Jocelyn’s back at their Keeper’s behest. Nate was taken a year before Jocelyn, and has been forced into his role as artisan of all trades. Not an artist before his durance, Nate was quick to pick up skills in order to avoid harsh punishments with chisels and pigment. He has been forced to reshape other changelings into different forms and configurations, and already he’s growing slowly deaf to their cries, for his own sanity.
Holly Blue, meanwhile, is chosen as Grandmother, Grandmother’s hardworking middle child who doesn’t get enough attention. This is not her normal state of being. She is used to love and affection from all of those around her, and is now constantly ignored and occasionally violently punished for the mischief of other changelings. She finds herself occasionally changing her voice or facial expression and sometimes outright lying to avoid Grandmother, Grandmother’s teeth and claws. Soon, she’s doing it all the time. She uses the voice and face that will keep her most safe, and in this way, Holly Blue becomes a Fairest Mirrorskin.
Hel doesn’t get much of a choice in her durance. She is kept in a zoo of changelings, occasionally taken out and vivisected and put back together again. Sometimes, she’s shown off, paraded in front of the Three Androgynes’ guests like a prized pet. She is not, however, petted and coddled like some of the others, and is subjected to an increasing parade of indignities. Her cell is immersed in the light of strange stars, and in her anger and humiliation, she begins to absorb the light as a source of comfort, becoming an Elemental Bright One.
Questions to Ask: Who is your Keeper? What is their title, or titles? How did they treat you?
What was the lightest part of your durance? The worst? The very worst? Were other members of your motley there, or was it just you?
What was the environment like? Were you mostly inside or outside? Was it hot, cold, or temperate?
What was the last straw?
Promises: What did you have to promise your Keeper to avoid punishment?
Sidebar: Narrating a Durance
If the players choose to play out their durance instead of merely having it as part of their backstory, the Storyteller should carefully consider how to carry it out. The durance is characterized by loss of autonomy, both bodily and spiritual. While the character loses their autonomy, the player should never lose hers. A durance is not an excuse for a Storyteller to torture her players outside of the boundaries of the game in the name of story. The player must always have a say in what happens in her durance. If possible, durances should be narrated in private (this can be done in text form, if that’s easier). Nothing makes a player feel more vulnerable and disrespected than playing out an intense scene, only for another player to interrupt with a joke or an off-color comment about what’s going on.
Decide between the Storyteller and the player what the character’s durance should focus on. A Bright One’s durance is probably not going to involve toiling in the mines, but she might light the way for Helldivers and Gristlegrinders instead. An Ogre is less likely than a Fairest or Darkling to be the lover of the Princess of the Red Crowns, but he might hold her lovers still while she whispers to them and lines up the hats to nail onto their heads.
The Storyteller should take careful note of what the player wants. The durance can be extremely disturbing and upsetting, and it’s important that the player is only disturbed or upset in the ways she wants to be. At any point, the Storyteller or player should be allowed to tap out or fade to black if the scene become too much for them. There’s no rush to tell the story of the durance. Suffering has no deadline.
Some part of the enslaved changeling felt the call back to Earth. Perhaps it was the memory of their spouse’s laughter or the warmth in their chest when they held their child for the first time. It might even be a petty vendetta against a coworker left unsettled. Not all human memories are noble or loving, and that’s not the point. Memories of the mortal world are the changeling’s key out of Faerie, so if they have no memories of the world as it is now, they may not be able to make it back.
What was strong enough to bring the character back? This is the paramount question for this section. Even if none of the other questions are answered, the player should know the answer to this one. It’s a good indication of the changeling’s priorities later in the chronicle.
Example: Jocelyn’s memories of her husband and her studies see her through her durance. While reading some of the Munificent Bureaucrat’s paperwork, she finds a loophole inside of a subclause that would allow her to escape. Armed with this knowledge, she unlocks the collar around her neck and sets herself free.
Meanwhile, Nate the Artist is drawn back by thoughts of his friends and his hunts with his family. He creates a perfect likeness of himself, a statue that smiles, and flees. Nate and Jocelyn meet up in the massive air ducts of the domain, quite by accident, and agree to leave together. They both tear through the thorns of the Hedge, seeking a door to lead them home.
Holly Blue has been forced to sacrifice her emotional honesty and her happiness to survive. She is whatever Grandmother, Grandmother wants her to be, and she has not been cut in months. However, she has not forgotten Nevaeh, her best friend and latent crush. When her Keeper leaves to seal a pledge with another Kindly One, she flees through the forest she was told never to enter. The thorns open for her, and she finds herself back in the Hedge, seeking a way back to the fruit stand where she lost herself.
Finally, Hel has been subjected to one indignity too many. As the Three Androgynes bring her back to the operating theater for another procedure, she breaks free, blinding all three of them with the light of her rage. She flees down the infinite halls of their ship, and finds an escape shuttle docked in one of the many cargo bays. Her programming skills are barely a match for the byzantine controls of the shuttle, but she manages to hotwire it and flies out of the Androgynes’ massive ship. Just as she begins to despair of finding her way back to Earth, she crash-lands in the thorns, the nose of the shuttle poking out into the Air and Space Museum in D.C.
Questions to Ask: What was strong enough to bring you back?
Did you sneak out? Fight your way out? Make a bet with your Keeper? Did you not want to leave? Were you thrown out instead?
Did anyone else come with you? Did you have to leave anyone else behind?
What do you remember of your journey back? What were you searching for on your way through the thorns?
Promises: Who knew you got out? Who came with you, and who stayed behind and promised to cover your escape?
Home, But Briefly
The great tragedy of a changeling’s life is that she is forever displaced from what it used to be. Fetches take their place and families move on. Any encounter with former friends and loved ones will result in confusion — and that’s just the best-case scenario. Lost may show up thousands of miles away from their home, drawn by a memory of a favorite vacation or a proposal on a beach, or they may emerge gasping from the thorns 20 years after they were abducted — though only an hour passed in Faerie. For a newly freed slave of the Fae, this is a punch in the gut. Where will they belong? Will they ever belong?
Example: Jocelyn and Nate arrive on Earth, pulled by their shared memories of the university they attended. Jocelyn has been in Faerie for what seems like a decade — but only a week has passed on Earth. Nate has been in the clutches of the Munificent Bureaucrat for much longer, and doesn’t recognize the new buildings on campus.
They go to find Jocelyn’s husband, only to find out that he has never missed her — she’s taking a shower right now. Jocelyn desperately tries to appeal to her husband, who threatens to call the police. Nate’s family found him dead, accidentally shot by another hunter’s bullet. They’ve already mourned and buried him, and when he shows up, they accuse him of being an imposter and making fun of them. Neither family will take them in. Defeated, Jocelyn and Nate retreat to a nearby diner to grieve and figure out what’s next.
Holly Blue arrives on Earth, only to find that her friend left the stall and its nighttime in the dead of winter. Using the skills she’s learned in Faerie, she steals the visage of the privateer who stole her away, and with it, her car and wallet. Meg decides to put the privateer under “the old car that should have stopped working” and “this is mine now.” Holly Blue decides to drive out east, in the direction her friend went, hoping to discover a police report about her disappearance. However, she soon discovers that Nevaeh is not only back home, she is dating a creature with Holly Blue’s face, who had the courage to say to Nevaeh what Holly Blue herself did not. They’re getting handfasted this spring. Holly Blue finds herself alone in a university town out east, sobbing alone at a computer in a public library, unsure of what to do next.
Hel attempts to get back into the NASA headquarters at Two Independence Square, but she’s already working there. Or at least, someone wearing her face has just been fired from her job there. Hel’s clearance is deactivated and she finds herself stranded. Her partners all believe she’s gotten back with her husband and refuse to accept this new impostor, doing everything from slamming the door in her face to threatening restraining orders. She buys the ticket for the first bus she sees, determined not to panic.
Questions to Ask: Who do you seek first?
Are they still alive? Do they remember you?
Do you have a fetch? Where are they? How have they replaced you, or changed your life in a way you didn’t want?
How has your fetch lived your life in your absence? Do they know you’re there?
Promises: What promise did your fetch break to someone you love?
Freeholds and Courts
Unless the game starts with the capture and durance of the player characters, much of any given Changeling: The Lost chronicle will take place in and around the local freehold or freeholds. If any of the props and themes from earlier have gone unused, use them here. The courts of the local freehold are a key part of the story, and need to be fleshed out. The easiest way to do this is to set up the four Seasonal Courts, but see later in this chapter for guidance on building your own.
Unless a player character is beginning the game at the head of a court, creating the four seasonal kings, queens, or monarchs is a good first step. It’s easy enough to put an Ogre Bright One in charge of Summer, and definitely a good choice. However, what would it mean for a small, vulpine Darkling Hunterheart or a Wizened Artist to hold the same position? The monarchs say a lot about the local courts — and, by extension, the tone and symbolism of the chronicle itself. A Spring Court led by a Fairest Playmate is going to have a very different outlook and aesthetic than another freehold with an Elemental Snowskin Spring King.
Once the Monarchs are decided, the players can pick which courts they might have reasonably been convinced to join.
Example: Ben and Sarah decide to divide the courts between them. Ben takes Winter and Summer, and Sarah takes Autumn and Spring.
Ben decides that the Monarch of Winter is a gender-neutral Darkling Artist who goes by Mens Machinae and makes robots and animatronics — and clever constructs to fool the Fae. The Queen of Summer is a Wizened Chatelaine named Small Queen Jane. He decides that she got her position for her ability to command groups and plan tactical engagements, and not necessarily for her own personal puissance.
Sarah, meanwhile, decides that the head of Spring is an Ogre Helldiver who goes by ghost (the G is never capitalized). ghost prefers no titles or accolades; they merely serve and stay silent until needed. The King of Autumn is a jovial Elemental Hunterheart who has an extremely even temper until his people are threatened — and then he turns into a terrifying force of nature, using illusions and threats and dreams to keep the freehold safe.
After looking at their monarchs, Ben decides that Jocelyn became a member of the Winter Court. Sarah instead decides that Nate is courtless, but sympathizes with Autumn.
Meg joined the chronicle a little later, so she doesn’t assist in creating the courts. However, she decides that Holly Blue has joined the Spring Court, in search of a balm for her broken heart. She was personally recruited by a ghost after they found her sleeping in a tent at a local cemetery. That’s where she meets Jocelyn and Nate.
Emily also joined the chronicle late, so she has no hand in creating the courts. Hel decides to join the Summer Court after they put her in protective custody for blinding a local bartender after he hit on her. The Season of Wrath best suits her slow-burning anger after being constantly disregarded, humiliated, and torn apart at other’s whims.
Questions to Ask: Who is the head of your Spring/Summer/Autumn/Winter Court? Why do they have that position?
Are there any other prominent figures in that court?
Why did you choose to join that court?
Where is the freehold located? What is it called?
Promises: What oath of fealty did you swear to your court, and how is it similar to the one you were forced to swear to your Keeper?
A Motley Crew
The motley is the core unit of changeling society, a chosen family that reaches beyond boundaries of seeming, kith, and court. Player characters are usually in a motley together and their connection should be one of the major focuses of the chronicle. Ideally, members of a motley are willing to face death for each other — but it could just as easily be a group of drinking buddies who fear being alone.
Example: Jocelyn and Nate have been through a lot together. From killing Jocelyn’s fetch with a car to showcasing Nate’s latest project at a meeting of two freeholds, they’ve supported each other through thick and thin. After they picked up Holly Blue and Hel, who are more recent escapees from the same realm, they form a motley of four. The freehold calls on them when they need delicate legal matters handled, or an important guest impressed. Unsaid, but also just as true: They are the first line of defense when they True Fae come a-knocking.
Questions to Ask: What drew you to each other?
Who is the leader, if anyone? Are any of you likely to betray the others?
Does your motley have a name? What is your common goal?
How do others in the freehold view your group? How do you view your group?
Promises: What pledge did you all make each other? How was it different from the one you were forced to swear to your Keeper? What was the pledge sworn on?
Sample Chronicle: The Blue Hen Motley
Jocelyn, Nate, Holly Blue, and Hel are all from very different backgrounds, but they all wound up in the same place. They decide to retrace Holly Blue’s road trip back to the Pacific Northwest in order to stop her fetch’s wedding to her unrequited love, Nevaeh. Along the way, they decide to stop to take out Hel’s fetch — except Hel decides to make a pledge with her fetch to not interfere in each other’s lives. Jocelyn oversees the pledge. This frees up Hel to continue on the journey. Nate and Jocelyn take out the privateer on I-80 while Holly Blue watches and smiles her inscrutable smile. Hel’s pledge gives the motley enough points of Glamour to speed up the trip, but their Keepers are all looking for their escaped slaves. The Blue Hen Motley now has to deal with Huntsmen while trying to make it in time for Holly Blue to confess her love…
Many promises and connections could fit into any of the stages listed above, but aren’t tied to a specific one. Since they’re useful for fleshing out a player character, some examples of other, more general ties are listed below.
- What is your single biggest regret?
- When did you find true love and why was the form it took unexpected?
- Who did you leave behind?
- Who do you hate even more than your Keeper?
- Why does one person in particular fascinate you?
- Who do you dream about, then wake up shaking and sweating?
Safe Hearth, Safe Table
While it’s fun to play make believe with friends, Changeling: The Lost is, at its heart, a horror game. True, it is also funny and beautiful and wondrous — but that typically comes after being held against your will in a world of dreams and nightmares for months, years, or decades. Changelings may have their bodies altered and their minds played with. Personal autonomy is repeatedly violated by godlike entities to whom one cannot simply say “no.” The only way to make it stop is to escape and even then, that’s not a guarantee. The Gentry might find you eventually, or they might send someone to do it for them.
This can be extremely unsettling for players. While consensual fear is part of the game, the goal is not to traumatize the players outside of the play space. Rather, everyone should strive for a game that provides an engaging, terrifying, and beautiful story that gives everyone involved the sort of pleasant chills a really good horror movie leaves the audience with after the credits roll. Even if a character feels trapped and hopeless, the player should never feel the same way at the table. This is a game, after all.
What follows are some safety techniques to help both Storytellers and players maximize enjoyment without taking away any of the horror at the heart of Changeling: The Lost. Feel free to use none, some, or all of them.
Many of the safety techniques talk about something being too uncomfortable or too intense “in a bad way.” This is for clarity of communication. Some players like being made uncomfortable or put into extremely emotionally intense situations. Such players may play horror games to cry or feel trapped as a sort of catharsis, a way to experience traumatic emotions in a low-consequence environment.
This is called emotional bleed, or just bleed for short. When a character experiences emotions the player is experiencing, that’s called bleed-in. Contrastingly, when a player experiences the emotions her character is feeling, that’s called bleed-out. Bleed itself is not bad, but it can sometimes be unpleasant for a player who wasn’t expecting it or didn’t want it. If a player is getting unreasonably frustrated or upset at a challenging circumstance, this could be a sign of bleed. Stop play and give everyone a breather before continuing if bleed begins to cause problems at your table. Bleed can absolutely enhance the play experience and add another dimension of emotional resonance, but only if everyone is on board. Check ins, occasional snack breaks, and use of the safety techniques in this chapter are extremely helpful if the table is experiencing high amounts of bleed.
Lines and Veils
A classic safety technique originally described by Ron Edwards, Lines and Veils allows players to pick and choose what they want to address in the chronicle. Before game, the Storyteller should prepare two sheets of paper. Label one “Lines” and the other “Veils.” Lines are things that will absolutely not be touched on in the chronicle, not even mentioned in passing. Veils are things that can happen, but will not be played out, and instead addressed with a “fade to black.” The Storyteller asks players what they’d like added to the lists, and notes that the lists can be edited at any time. Veils can be moved to Lines, Lines can be moved to Veils, new Veils or Lines can be added, or Veils or Lines can be taken away (with the consensus of the other players). Veils and Lines cannot be used to cut out antagonists (i.e. “I don’t want the True Fae to be a part of this chronicle at all, not even mentioned in passing”) but can be used to restrict antagonists’ actions that might be uncomfortable for some players (i.e. “I do not want the True Fae in this chronicle to use sexual violence”).
Common Lines: Sexual violence, explicit depiction of torture, force feeding, starvation, mutilation, racial slurs, gender-specific slurs, spiders, trypophobia-inducing imagery, needles, bestiality, explicit depiction of bodily functions
Common Veils: Explicit depiction of consensual sexual activity, torture, emotional abuse, physical abuse, body horror, human experimentation, dream or nightmare sequences, childhood memories, prophetic visions
Fade to Black
In a movie, when the hero is just about to get into bed with her love interest or be “forcibly interrogated,” sometimes the camera cuts away right before the action — occasionally with a moan or a scream included as appropriate. This technique is called “fade to black,” and can be used in your chronicle as appropriate. If you don’t want to narrate every caress of a love scene or the weirdness of a changeling’s personal nightmare or the agony of Faerie torments, simply fade to black and focus on another scene. A player can also request a fade to black if they are uncomfortable with what is happening at the table.
The Stoplight System
This is a relatively recent technique and was pioneered by the group Games to Gather. The Storyteller lays out three different colored circles on the table: red, yellow, and green. Each color indicates a response to different levels of intensity. Green means “yes, I am okay with and encourage the scene getting more intense.” Yellow means “the scene is fine at the intensity level it is now, and I would like it to stay here if possible.” Red means “the scene is too intense for me in a bad way and I need it to decrease or I need to tap out.” Players can tap the colored circles as appropriate to indicate to the Storyteller what they want or need at that moment.
The Storyteller can also use the stoplight system to ask the players if they’d like intensity increased or decreased as necessary without breaking the narrative flow. To do so, the Storyteller can repeatedly tap a color — green for “more intense,” yellow for “keep it here,” and red for “do you need me to stop?” The players can then touch a color in response. Players can also respond by saying the color in question out loud.
The X Card
An up-and-coming technique, especially in storytelling-game circles, the X card was designed by John Stavropolous. The X card is fairly self-explanatory. A card or sheet of paper with an “X” drawn on it is placed in the middle of the table. At any point, a player or the Storyteller may touch the X card to call a halt to any action currently making them uncomfortable in a bad way. If they would like to explain themselves, they may, but it is absolutely not necessary and the Storyteller should continue play once everyone is settled back in.
The Door Is Always Open
This is another technique that needs very little explanation. If a player needs to stop play for any reason, they are free to do so after giving the Storyteller a heads up. The chapter (game session) is then on pause until that player either returns or leaves the premises. Storytellers should use this technique either in conjunction with other techniques, or during sessions where players may have to leave abruptly for personal reasons.
Debriefing is a post-game safety technique, and can be used along with any and all of the suggestions above. After the chapter is finished, the Storyteller asks the players to put away their character sheets and take some deep breaths. Soft music or snacks can also be used to assist in debriefing. Slipping into character is easy — slipping out can be a little less so. Debriefing is all about bringing the players back to the real world, back through the thorny maze of the chronicle they created with the Storyteller.
Use this time to talk about the game in a context other than first person. Players tend to refer to their characters as “I.” The Storyteller should encourage them to use the character’s names instead, and use first person only for things that they felt as players, not as characters. What did they think was the highlight of this session? What was their favorite interaction they had with another player’s character? An NPC? Is there anything the players think the Storyteller could be doing better? Are the safety techniques and chronicle-building techniques working out for everyone at the table? Should anything be changed to make the game more fun and engaging for everyone involved? These are all questions that can be asked during debriefing, though they’re not necessary. If there are other, more important topics that need to be covered, feel free to use debriefing time to cover those as well.
Debriefing does not need to last for a set amount of time. However, after a particularly intense session, it’s probably a good idea to have a longer debriefing period than normal. Changelings are forever changed by their experience with the True Fae. The players should not incur the same amount of trauma just from sitting at a gaming table. Tabletop gaming is a low-consequence environment to explore many different emotions and coping strategies in new and strange environments. To keep this space low consequence, it’s important to make sure that all players (including the Storyteller) are emotionally supported and cared for after particularly upsetting or bleed-heavy chapters.