Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Magic of Changeling

A while ago, I wrote an essay about magic systems for story-focused games. That was the theoretical description of good magic systems. This will be a more practical approach, and will hopefully provide concrete examples to some of the earlier, abstract ideas.

I am currently reading White Wolf's Changeling, The Lost, and I feel this game presents a rather unique take on magic--one well worth examining in detail.

Note, this isn't an endorsement or review of Changeling as a game. I may write an actual review in the future, since I do think the game gets a lot of things right, but it also gets some things profoundly wrong. Here, we'll just look at the magic and ignore the rest for now.

I'm sad to admit it, but magic systems usually let me down. Even otherwise stellar games, like Luke Crane's Burning Wheel, often have disappointing magic systems. The magic offers power with little or no cost--or the costs involved don't really enhance the story.

In my mind, magic should be defined by its weaknesses and its limitations. The more personality a magical system has, the more interesting I find it. Pay attention here: I'm not talking about mere resource management or other artificial attempts at balancing characters. I'm talking about how the magic shapes the story. Summoning spirits should feel different than looking things up on Wikipedia--even if you get the same information back.

So, I was quite pleasantly surprised with White Wolf's Changeling, The Lost.

Two themes run through the magic system: dreams and contracts.

The mercurial lands of Faerie are often portrayed as having a dreamlike nature. Time and space no longer proceed linearly. Faerie creatures are often driven by the logic of dreams.

Contracts also play a prominent roll in many fairy tales. Once upon a time, everyone knew to leave out a bowl of milk for the good neighbors. Follow that contract and they'll bring you good luck or clean your kitchen. Forget, even just once, and they will turn against you, sometimes fatally.

Magic in Changeling builds upon these two themes. Here, I'm defining "magic" rather broadly to include all supernatural powers that changelings can access. These powers can be divided into five distinct groups: contracts, pledges, tokens, entering dreams and entering the Hedge.

Contracts



The Fey (and by extension the changelings) get their power through contracts. If a character is immune to fire, it's because his fey master negotiated a deal with fire itself. Each power within the game represents a clause in this contract. As such, each clause has a cost that the character must pay to invoke it's particular power (usually paid in willpower or glamour). More interestingly, each clause has a catch. This is a loophole. If the character can fulfill the condition of the catch, then they can use the power without any cost.

Most of the catches reinforce the fairytale feel of the game, or enhance the flavor of the power. For example, Might of the Terrible Brute's catch allows you to boost your strength for free when fighting multiple opponents bare handed.

I think the best catches not only reinforce the flavor of the power, but also involve situations that the characters can engineer--but only with great difficulty. For example, Phantasmal Bastion's catch requires the changeling to carry a token of favor (ring, garter belt, etc.) given to him by a living enemy or one of the enemy's loved ones or family members. Achieving that would require a story in itself.

Even more interesting are the goblin contracts. These represent rogue or black market contracts. They can prove quite powerful, but they always have a flaw. Fair Entrance allows you to open any lock or door--but the next time someone with hostile or malevolent intent tries to enter the changeling's vehicle or home, they will find it similarly unlocked. I wish all the contracts were goblin contracts--oh, what an interesting game that would be. Unfortunately they play a relatively minor roll in the game. But, they're there, should your character wish to explore them.

Pledges



While contracts represent formalized agreements with the powers of nature, pledges let Changelings gain power from deals and negotiations they make with others. Each pledge has four parts: the task you must perform, the boon you will gain while completing the pledge, the sanction you will suffer if you break the pledge and the duration. The tasks and sanctions must balance out the boon and duration. Performing a difficult task or accepting a severe sanction can let you gain a great boon or have the pledge last for a long time.

The free-form nature allows you to create many different effects. The main benefit of the task could be the boon. A changeling agrees to work on cars left in the garage overnight, while the human agrees to leave out a bowl of milk. In return, the human gains a point of Resources, while the Changeling gains a point of glamour each night.

Or, the main benefit could simply be the supernatural enforcement of the promise itself--especially when you trick someone into performing an unpleasant task or sacrificing their own life.

Finally, when you make pacts with other Changelings, you must fully describe all aspects of the pact, and both parties must enter into it willingly. However, you can make agreements with mortals without necessarily letting them know what they're getting into. In the right hands, a casual promise over drinks could turn into a binding contract that the mortal will regret for the rest of his (now short) life.

Tokens



Tokens are faery magical items. In many ways, they act like goblin contracts. When a changeling wishes to use it, he must make an activation roll (or pay a point of glamour for automatic activation). Tokens also have a catch, which allow automatic activation (and, also, allow non-changelings to activate the item).

Like goblin contracts, all tokens have a drawback. Play with fire, and you will get burned. I highly approve.

I think you could have a lot of fun with a token in mortal hands. Their need to constantly fulfill the catch could provide a trail of clues that the Changeling could follow.

Entering Dreams



Changelings have the innate power to enter and manipulate dreams. Changelings must usually gain access to another's dreams as part of a pledge (see above). Once inside, the changeling can perform a number of actions: they can analyze the dream, they can implant suggestions into the dream, they can lessen the intensity of nightmares or invoke nightmares, they can induce a healing sleep, teach in the dream or attempt psychotherapy. Changelings can also search for dream poison--the true Fey's malicious influence in dreams, and remove any poison they find. There are even special rules for dream combat.

Additionally, the changelings can perform dream weavings. Here they weave a dream into a vessel. The next time someone sleeps while touching the vessel, they will experience the dream. This allows a changeling to create a stuffed animal that induces a healing dream, or a wiled-eyed doll that generates nightmares. You can even bind your contracts into these dream vessels, triggering the contract during the dream.

Entering the Hedge



The Hedge represents the borderland between Earth and Faerie. It's a treacherous, labyrinthine terrain, and no changeling would enter it without good reason. Just stepping inside and you risk becoming lost, falling victim to those who live in the Hedge, or being found again by the True Fey.

Like dreams, changelings often have the ability to reshape the Hedge around them. Unlike dreams, this is usually not under their conscious controll--and it's usually driven by their darker emotions and instincts.

Fortunately, there are several reasons to tempt the Hedge.

Changelings may search for Goblin Fruits. Eating these fruits often provide some magical benefit (or curse). Healing fruits are the most common, but stranger effects are also known.

More dramatically, changelings can use the Hedge as a shortcut. You could, if you dared, walk from New York to Paris. Similarly, you could try to use the Hedge to sneak inside a locked building. Ironically, short-distance, tactical use is often harder than long-distance journeys. So, while you can use the Hedge to escape pursuit--you should think twice before giving it a try.

Changelings may also have Hollows, or safe havens, within the Hedge. These are cleared areas, that the changelings can use as homes or hideouts. A changeling's hollow often produces reliable crops of goblin fruit, and may have some supernatural defenses.

Finally, Changelings often enter the Hedge to engage in Hedge Duels. These formalized combats are often used among Changelings to settle disputes, and combine mundane attacks with the ability to shape their surroundings.

The Dark Side



Don't get me wrong, the magic system is not without it's flaws. Regular contracts are somewhat boring compared to goblin contracts. Many of the powers have few dramatically significant uses--and if it doesn't have a dramatic use, why bother building mechanics for the ability. Often the catches seem disappointingly bland. And the game gives us a relatively limited range of powers.

Worse yet, the powers are often grouped oddly. Boon of the Scuttling Spider, which lets you walk on walls a la Spiderman, is the four-dot Darkness clause. If you want to learn this, you must first learn three other, unrelated Darkness powers.

And, while I like the idea of Pledges, the pledge mechanics are very complicated. There are a number of ways to create pledges--each with their own benefits and limitations. The types of Tasks, Boons, Sanctions and Durations are specifically enumerated: requiring flipping through several pages of rules to build even the simplest pledge. Fortunately, the authors provide a number of good examples.

But, all in all, I think the magic system does a fine job supporting the game's underlying themes, while giving magic a distinct personality. None of the powers are particularly strong. And changelings have to do a lot more planning and legwork than other NWOD supernaturals. Simply using an ability can generate entirely new conflicts or subplots. But, with a little wit and elbow grease, a changeling can pull off remarkable feats--tricks worthy of the best fairy tales.