Sunday, September 28, 2008

Changeling

My favourite roleplaying game has been Changeling: the Dreaming, ever since it was released back in 1995. I am among the legion of fans who was upset by the way that White Wolf neglected it after the second edition was released, before finally cancelling it right in the middle of an incomplete meta-plot story arc. But what's so great about this game?

Well, for me, the first appeal was that it was about faeries. I have been a fan of faeries (NB: the original celtic vision of faeries, as elves, goblins, trolls, merfolk, &c., not the sanitised victorian image of Tinkerbell) for some time now. So it was only natural that I should be drawn to a game that allows you to actually play one.

Secondly, I became enraptured with the game's focus on dreams and creativity. For those not familiar with the game, Changelings require a special magical energy called "Glamour," which is the force engendered by human dreams and creativity, as well as things like love, and hope. Artists and dreamers generate Glamour, which Changelings can then collect to sustain themselves, as well as to fuel their Cantrips.

The first edition rulebook was saturated with the theme of "never grow up." It constantly spoke of the magical innocence of childhood, which over time is eroded by the banality of adulthood. This theme was much less present in the second edition, as the game accepted (rightly so, in my opinion) more of the mature dreams and creativity that is possible in grown-ups. But it still emphasised the more positive aspects of being human.

However, what has come to be, in my opinion, the most compelling factor in Changeling is this: nothing is impossible. I'm not just referring to magical feats that the characters can perform; I refer to chimerical reality.

In Changeling, the dreams of humans and fae can take form and come to life. These dreams given substance are known as chimarae. A chimera can be anything at all, from the small (a sentient bee) to the enormous (a talking mountain); from the mundane (a watch or a sword) to the fantastical (a creature with a body of blue flame, just as one example). Chimerae exist in a seperate "plane" of existence, superimposed over the "real" or mundane world. The way I like to think of it is that chimerical reality is a parallel plane, and changelings exist both in that plane and the standard "real world" at the same time; thus they can (for example) see, simultaneously and in the same place, a Wal-Mart and a great red dragon.

However, there is more depth to Chimerical reality. It extends beyond this world and into a place where the mundane world does not exist. Changelings can travel to this area, known as "the Dreaming," and leave their human existence behind for a time. Things are more possible here, where they don't have to balance two different co-existing worlds.

What does this mean in terms of what I was saying about "nothing is impossible?" Simply this: if a human dreams it, it exists, at least for a while, somewhere in the Dreaming. So it's quite possible to find a device that resembles a rutubaga with a digital readout that can answer any question you ask it. Or anything else you can possibly imagine. And if you consider how many humans likely dream about Star Trek, I'm sure you can guess that the Starship Enterprise exists somewhere in the dreaming.

This enables Changeling to come as close as possible to being a universal-genre game without actually being a universal-genre game. Consider this: changeling society is modelled quite heavily on medieval romanticism, complete with kings and queens, knights carrying swords, and peasants doing all the hard work. Yet this society exists in the modern world. So just as the basic foundations of the game, you have a group of knights in armour brandishing swords to defeat the dragon in the middle of Times Square in New York City. And that's just to start.

Many changelings reject the psuedo-medieval fantasy idiom in favour of other themes. Pirate changelings are quite common. Still others prefer to embrace the glamour of the 1960s. There are even those who embrace the modern world and live fully within it. So if you want, you can run a semi-"historical" game set in 2008. Pirates on the high seas! Just avoid the modern cruise liners running from Miami to Freeport. Elven warrior bards questing to rescue the fair maiden from the evil ogre king! Never mind that that "dungeon" is really the steam tunnels under the local university campus...

I myself once ran a character named Sarah Storm, who was a cyberpunk piskie. In her mortal guise, she was merely a vagabond and thief, but in her fae mien, she was an elite decker, with a sentient cyberdeck named TIM (Tactical Initiatives Metaphysics). She had a chimerical cybernetic implant that allowed her to connect her brain directly to TIM and run the net through a 3D virtual reality graphic interface just like in the novels of William Gibson. She also possessed a laser gun. These things were chimerical; they did not exist to human eyes, but other changelings saw them, and to a changeling, they were quite real. So they were powered by magic rather than electricity, but still, she was a cyberpunk decker running around in modern Manhattan.

And when you leave the world behind to enter the Dreaming, the possibilities become even more endless. Are those chimerae you're encountering? Or aliens? The true nature of the NPCs is less important than their form; you can fly an X-wing fighter through the far reaches of space, fighting wookies and droids with laser pistols and lightsabers. So what if they're really just chimerae?

And the best part is when you start mixing genres. Why not have a Roman legionnaire using a disruptor pistol to fight off the cylon warriors and rescue the princess who's being held in a sensory deprivation chamber in the underwater fortress of the evil vampire king?

This is just a glimpse into what is possible in Changeling. If you haven't given it a try, I suggest you do so.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Gender Gaming

Something else I've often thought was fun was to play a character of the opposite gender. I've done this several times, and I always enjoy it. In fact, many of my favourite characters have been female. Of all the Werewolf: The Apocalypse characters I've played, I liked Michelle the best. One of my favourite Changeling characters was Sarah Storm, the piskey hacker with a sentient chimerical computer.

This probably appeals most to Method Actors, who enjoy stretching their dramatic and psychological muscles with the challenge of getting into a different mindset (and playing the opposite gender IS a different mindset; if you don't believe me, just read Sperm are from Men, Eggs are from Women by Joe Quirk and Self Made Man by Norah Vincent). Storytellers are also quite fond of the challenge, as it affords them new opportunities to develop and explore the storylines of their games. The other types may or may not be interested in trying this out, but are generally indifferent. Butt Kickers and Power Gamers, in particular, aren't likely to care, as the gender of the character killing monsters has no real bearing on whether the characters are effectively killing monsters.

But I personally think it's a great way to expand the game. There are a lot of things to keep in mind, of course. It may be hard to do this with your particular gaming group. There are a lot of stereotypes out there about gamers being reclusive geeks with no real experience interacting with women whatsoever, and so the only way they have of perceiving females is as objects of desire. Such persons can't meaningfully interact with women, and if there is a female character in the party, they're likely to say things such as, "I do her!" Never mind foreplay, developing a relationship, taking her to dinner first, et c.

This stereotype is somewhat unfounded, and as gaming becomes more accepted and more popular, the stereotype becomes less and less valid. But there ARE some out there who work that way. Obviously, if your gaming group is such a one, then perhaps playing a female is not really a good idea.

Keep in mind that there ARE major differences in the way that men and women work. Just one (and it's kind of a pity, really, that this has to be the first mentioned, but given the above stereotypes, perhaps its best and safest that it is) would be attitudes towards sex. As one psychologist said to me, "Men feel close because they have sex. Women have sex because they feel close." Obviously, there are always exceptions (on both sides of the equation), but if you're a man playing a woman, chances are your character isn't going to go looking for a lot of casual sex. So don't do it. Or at least, try not to fall into the trap of having a sex-crazed character who bangs anyone she meets. Such women do exist, of course, but they tend to be the minority.

Another difference is the way men and women handle conflict. Men prefer the brute force method, whereas women are more cerebral (though by no means less vicious; a female's social manoeuvering and psycho-emotional attacks can be every bit as cutting as a male's phsyical fights). Also, men tend to be more bound by rules than women (especially in a fight). Men, for some reason that I don't fully understand, develop all these rules about what is and what is not acceptable when you're trying to kill your enemy. If you watch a street fight between two men, there are many advantages they they simply refuse to take over their opponent. Striking the genitals, aiming for other vulnerable targets such as the eyes, biting, et c. These are just some of the things that men choose not to do, because it violates the "code of conduct" that they've developed. Women don't have such a code; there have been fights between two females in which combs are used as weapons; they'll tangle the comb into their adversary's hair, twist it around a few times to get it firmly caught, then yank as hard as they can. Females take a lot more to get to the point of physical violence, but once they do, there WILL be blood.

There are many other differences between the two; just a couple minor examples are that men are better at three dimensional spatial reasoning, while women are better are multi-tasking. But if you are able to at least start to comprehend the differences, and to apply them to your character, then playing the opposite gender can be a challenging but rewarding experience.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Multiple Characters

Something I enjoy doing on occasion is playing two characters at the same time. I haven't done it very often, but it's usually quite fun when I do get a chance.

The appeal of running multiple characters differs depending on player type. Butt kickers might like the chance to kill twice as many monsters as normal. Power gamers have two paths to glory that they can walk at the same time. Tacticians have all sorts of added strategic advantages from having more than one person working on a plan. Method actors, or course, are likely to relish the increased difficulty from handling two personas at the same time. And so on.

"But, Mister Game Dork Sir," I hear you say, "Doesn't that mean you're getting twice as much action as the other players?"

Well, maybe. Obviously, it does have to be handled with care. One way of dealing with this problem is running a group in which all the players have two characters. This can be pretty advanced, and not an exercise for inexperienced gamers. Another option is to play in a group that doesn't mind one player running two characters. You may have to find just the right mix of gamers for this one to work. You can always work with the player running two characters to ensure that he (or she) is sensitive to the needs and feelings of the other players, and doesn't overshadow them with his two characters.

But the rewards of playing two characters can be worth the extra work. And it does take extra work. You've got more than one position on the map to consider, you've got two personalities to act out, you've got separate experience point totals to keep track of... but the thrill of playing two characters can often be incentive enough on its own to make it worth while.

Of course, one important thing to keep in mind is that if your character interacts with another PC, then another player is involved in the action of the game. However, if you have two characters, and they're interacting with each other but not with the other PCs, then you're monopolising the game and shutting out the other players. This is especially easy to do when your two characters already have some sort of bond; for example, you might be playing spouses. This is a common trend for characters being run by a single player.

But since we're talking about a challenge anyway, why not take it up a step? Play two character that have no bond to each other, but have a bond with one of the other PCs? Or, for even more difficulty, try playing characters that instead (or perhaps in addition) don't get along? Maybe they're mortal enemies who are forced by circumstance to work together for a common goal, perhaps temporarily but possibly on a long term basis?

Anyway, these are some things to think about, and maybe you'll try them one day. Even if it doesn't work out, you'll be able to say you've done something that most gamers haven't.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Gaming Environment

I forgot to post on Sunday. Damn. I'm really sorry. I even had a topic ready to go and everything. Stupid hectic life being busy and everything...

Anyway. I recently heard about the Sultan. For those who don't want to follow the link, it's being billed as the Ultimate Gaming Table. The surface is a backlit dry-erase surface, which can be covered with a custom-fit felt top. The sides are loaded with cubby holes for books, drinks, dice, pencils, et c. There are dice rolling pockets along the edges, desks that pull out from the side, and all sorts of goodness. It's currently selling for almost $10,000.

This got me to thinking about an idea that I once toyed with along with some friends of mine. We wanted to line the floor of a room with mattresses, install a bowl in the centre of the floor along with a few convenient pockets in which to roll dice, and litter the room with beanbag furniture. The walls would be covered with bookshelves that were loaded with gaming books. There would be hooks from which hung clipboards that held the character sheets, so the players could just come in, grab the clipboard with their character on it, and go.

Granted, this is sort of more akin to the style of gaming that we generally preferred. Others need the table for their miniatures and maps and stuff. We didn't usually mess with that very much. We were into the more narrative descriptive games.

But this got me to wondering. If you could design your ultimate gaming room, what would it look like? What would you put in it? Leave me a comment and let me know. I'm interested to find out.