Saturday, August 29, 2015

A brief overview of Changeling history (part 2)

Last week, we looked at the earliest part of the history of the fae, from their genesis to the time that Banality sealed them off from the Dreaming. The sidhe had just abandoned the commoners to their fate, clogging the portals back to the Dreaming as the helpless commoner kith watched those portals collapsing.

Today, we will continue the history.

So the commoner kith found themselves trapped in an increasingly inhospitable world, without even the leadership of their traditional rulers to guide them. To be fair, a handful of sidhe did remain (most notably those of House Scathach -- pronounced SKOO-hah), but there was now a massive power vacuum. Some of the commoners tried to form new royalty, others looked to more progressive styles of government, and still others simply fell to chaos and petty infighting.

But the foremost problem was dealing with the threat of Banality. How to protect themselves from an energy which, merely by being exposed to it, could erase your very soul?

The solution: the Changeling Way. The remaining fae clothed their faerie souls in human bodies. This began a cycle of life, death, and rebirth. A faerie spirit would be born into a human body, and lie dormant for several years. The changeling would live as a human, perhaps not fitting in with his community, but still thinking he was just an odd human. Then, something would happen to awaken the fae spirit. Usually, this happened around puberty, but sometimes as early as age 6 or as late as age 25. The changeling would then live in two worlds simultaneously; they had to balance their human lives (working as a normal human worker to provide the necessities of human life; food, shelter, clothing, etc.) and their fae lives (indulging in the Glamour-fueled pursuits that were essential to their faerie souls, such as going on mythic adventures and living lives as courtiers at grandiose royal courts).

Eventually, one of several things would happen: the human body would die, in which case the faerie soul would wait to be reborn into a new one, or the fae spirit would be made dormant once more. This dormancy could be the result of excessive Banality, or through battle with faerie weapons. Sometimes, the fae spirit would reawaken, but other times, the changeling would live out the rest of his life as a normal human. In any case, even if the faerie soul was dormant, once the human body died, the fae would be reborn into a new human body some time later.

Of course, it's also possible for a faerie spirit to be destroyed entirely, usually by death with Cold Iron, but sometimes as a result of a massive amount of Banality. The human body, if it survives the experience, continues as a normal human until it dies, and then the changeling is simply gone forever.

Not all European changelings underwent the Changeling Way. Some, who felt themselves more tied to nature than to humans, became the Inanimae. These housed their faerie spirit in some natural object, such as trees, clouds, rivers, boulders, volcano calderas, or other items. There are also several varieties of Undersea Fae, such as the Merfolk, who have a ritual similar to the Changeling Way.

As European explorers travelled the globe, the kithain (as the European changelings called themselves) went with them. They encountered the Menehune of Polynesia, and the Nunnehi in the Americas, and the Hsien in eastern Asia, and other beings besides. These new creatures learned the Changeling Way from the kithain, and began a similar cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

As the Europeans became, in many ways, the dominant force in the Western World, so too did the kithain become the dominant fae in both Europe and the Americas. Africa is still largely forbidden to them; the strange and mysterious fae beings in that continent have resisted western fae incursions. Most of Asia is similarly inhospitable, though for different reasons... in many places, the Banality is simply too great. Eastern Asia, on the other hand, is simply too strange for the kithain to feel comfortable there. The Hsien, despite superficial similarities to the changelings, are so radically different that most kithain just prefer not to venture there.

So it went, for some six centuries, until the year 1969. It was on 21 July of that year when the convergence of two events caused an event known as The Resurgence. Following so closely on the Summer of Love, 21 July saw the first steps of a human being on the moon. As humanity looked toward the moon, which some believe to be the location of Arcadia, and began to dream and wonder again, a global concentration of Glamour blew open the previously collapsed portals into the Dreaming, and the sidhe emerged from Arcadia once more.

The Resurgence had massive worldwide effects. So massive, that they will have to be discussed in the final installment of this series, next week. Until then,

Game on!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

A brief overview of Changeling history (part 1)

I consider myself very fortunate at this time, because I have managed to get a group of players sufficiently interested in Changeling: The Dreaming to get a new game started. I will be meeting with them next week to walk them through the process of character creation, and I have developed the backstory for the major NPCs in preparation for creating the story we'll be exploring.

So I want to spend the next few entries describing the general history of the fae.

It all began in the Mythic Age, at the dawn of humanity, when the first humans dreamed, and those dreams became the first fae. Dreams of honour and virtue became the trolls; dreams of nobility, beauty, and finesse became the sidhe, dreams of cozy homes and humble craftsmen became the boggans. Dreams of travel and adventure became the eshu, whilst dreams of hedonism became satyrs and dreams of playful animals became the pooka. There were darker dreams as well; dreams of antisocial workaholics became the nockers, dreams of ravenous horror became the redcaps, and dreams of things that go scritch in the night became the sluagh.

The fae kept themselves mostly separate from humanity for centuries; sometimes, they'd cavort with the humans for sport, or toy with them as playthings, or seek their devotion as gods. But generally, they remained aloof, both fascinated and repulsed by these pitiful creatures with little to no magic, despite the fact that the fae relied on humans as the source of Glamour, the energy of dreams.

But there was another aspect of humans that the fae did not understand.

It did not take long for humanity to discover that they were able to use their intellect to shape their environment to their wills. It started slowly, with the crafting of stone tools to make their lives easier, making weapons to hunt food and tools to shape the remains of their prey into clothing, shelter, and other useful items. Eventually, after learning to work with soft metals such as copper, they discovered how to work with their first hard metal: iron.

The discovery of iron was a watershed moment for humanity. More than any other innovation, the taming of iron allowed man mastery over his world, and showed him that with careful application of reason and knowledge, he could conquer any obstacle before him.

This created the force known as Banality.

Iron, being the substance that sparked this realisation in the collective human psyche, is thus perpetually infused with Banality. Banality itself is the turning away from dreams, of looking at the world with a lack of wonder, of thinking only of the ways in which you might tame the world instead of revelling in the beauty of it.

At first, the fae were unconcerned with this new energy. It was insignificant, and not yet the omnipresent force that we know today. They continued to ignore the humans, thinking of them as their subjects or their prey, if they considered them at all.

In those early days, there were many other creatures of dream as well; just as the fae subsisted on dreams, there was another type of creature that fed off the darker energies. There was what is known as Dark Glamour. Whereas Glamour represented hope, creativity, love, trust, and marvel, and Banality represented despair, sterility, indifference, impassivity, and commonness, Dark Glamour was the energy of depression, destruction, hatred, suspicion, and monstrosity. The beings that subsisted on Dark Glamour were known as the Fomorians, and these monstrous beings were the sworn enemies of the Fae.

There was war with the Fomorians for years, and at last, the sidhe led a campaign to defeat the Fomorians. The enemy was sealed away in the deepest recesses of the Dark Dreaming, where powerful magics prevented them from visiting the mortal world again. Due to the sidhe's brilliant leadership, the fae made the elven leaders into their kings and queens. The noble sidhe ruled over the other fae for many years afterwards, often mimicking the style of human rulers as a form of amusement to themselves.

What you have read thus far predominantly describes the fae of Europe. There were other types of fae in other parts of the world; in the Americas, the Nunnehi represented the dreams of harmony with nature. Polynesians dreamed of the perfection of their social heirarchy, and these dreams became the Menehune. African and Asian fae were even more different still. But all subsisted on Glamour of some sort.

As the centuries progressed, and humanity came to rely on logic more and more, their collective turning away from dreams and wonder served to increase the amount of Banality. The fae soon realised that humans were a force with which to be reckoned. All attempts to curb the tide of Banality failed, and finally, the rulers decided to abandon the mortal world forever. The exodus to Arcadia had begun.

Arcadia, the mystical homeland of the fae, existed deep in the heart of the Dreaming. Some scholars have hypothesised that Arcadia actually lies on the far side of the moon, but it is reached by travelling through the chaotic world of the Dreaming until you have arrived as far from the mundane world as is possible.

So the sidhe began their arduous trek towards Arcadia. Being the royalty, they insisted that they be allowed to return before any of the commoner fae would be permitted to begin their journey. The commoners watched with growing dismay as the sidhe clogged every portal leading into the Dreaming, whilst those portals collapsed one by one. Finally, as the last of the sidhe passed through the last portal, that portal sealed shut behind them, and the commoner kith were trapped on a Banal earth forever.

When we continue the history of the Changelings next time, we will see how the fae adapted to a hostile world, and how the changing world affects the different fae beings. Until next time,

Game on!

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Board Game Review: The Red Dragon Inn

I often talk about the heavy, thinky-thinky type games that I really enjoy playing. But, as I hope may be evident from some of the games I review on here, those aren't the ONLY types of games I like to play. Sometimes, it's a lot of fun to play a simple, light, fluffy type of game that's enjoyable because it's silly or funny. The Red Dragon Inn is one such game. Here are the numbers:

Strategy: 2
Randomness: 4
Complexity: 2
Humour: Implicit and Inherent
Attractiveness: I'm torn between Average and Pretty...
Expected length of Game Play: Varies with number of players; usually about 15 minutes for two players, and add an extra 7 or 8 minutes for each additional player.

The core game contains the equipment needed for four players. There are four 'sequel' games (Red Dragon Inn 2 through 5), which can be played as standalone games for up to four players, or combined with one another. You can have a number of players equal to the number of base sets times four. You can also buy expansions, which are individual characters allowing you to add one player per expansion.

The premise of the game is this: each player takes on the role of an adventurer from a D&D style adventuring party. The group has just completed its latest dungeon crawl, and has returned to town to celebrate their victory and spend their loot at the Red Dragon Inn.

Each player chooses one of the available characters. The base set(s) plus any expansions you have determine which characters are available. The first base set contains Deirdre the Priestess, Fiona the Warrior, Gerki the Thief, and Zot the Wizard (with his familiar, Pooky the rabbit; who, by the way, can be played as his own character if you buy his Allies expansion). Zot the wizard is so far my favourite character.

Anyway, each character has his or her own unique character deck. This deck provides the actions and reactions that a player can take. About a third of the deck is cards that all characters have in common, but the rest are specific to that character, and represents that character's strengths and weaknesses. Fiona, for example, is good at dealing out damage and intimidating the other characters into not targeting her. Gerki is good at stealing gold from other players and defending his own. And so forth.

In addition to the character decks, there is also a drink deck. Each card in this deck represents a drink purchased from the bar, ranging from the lightweight (such as 'Light Ale,' worth 1 alcohol point) to the intense (like 'Red Dragon Ale,' worth 4 alcohol points) to the dangerous (like 'Orcish Rotgut,' which has no alcohol points, but does 2 damage) to the restorative (like 'Coffee,' which heals 2 drunkenness points, or 'Holy Water,' which heals 2 damage).

In front of each player is a play mat, which has a space for their character deck, a space for their discard pile, a space for their drink cards, and a fortitude/drunkenness track. At the beginning of the game, you place your drunkenness token at 0 and your Fortitude token at 20. Each character has one drink card on their play mat, and a hand of seven cards drawn from their own character deck. Each player also has 10 gold pieces.

The play mat also lists the steps to be taken on each player's turn.

  1. Discard and Draw: You may discard any cards you do not want. Then draw up to seven cards.
  2. Action: You may play a single action card from your hand. Depending on which character you're playing, these cards may range from attacking other players (doing them fortitude damage), stealing their gold, forcing someone to take an extra drink, skipping your own drink phase (step 4, below), and so forth. Certain actions are available to every character, such as starting a round of gambling or tipping the serving wench.
  3. Buy Drinks: Take the top card from the drink deck and place it on top of the stack of drink cards on any other player's play mat.
  4. Drink: Reveal the top card from your own stack of drink cards and suffer the listed effects.

As you progress, drinks will cause you to gain drunkenness points (you move your drunkenness token up 1 for each alcohol point you consume). Other players' actions (and, occasionally, some drinks) will also cause you to take fortitude damage, moving your fortitude token one space down for each point of damage you take. If ever your fortitude and drunkenness tokens meet, your character passes out, and you're out of the game. If ever you run out of gold, you're out of the game. The last player remaining is the winner.

That's pretty much it. There are a couple of minor complications, though:

  1. Event cards: Some cards in the drink deck don't represent drinks, but are events. One example is the 'Drinking Contest' card, which causes all players to draw a new drink card, suffer its effects, and the player who had the largest alcohol content on his card wins 1 gold from all other players. There are also drink cards that say 'with a chaser' (for example, 'Dark Ale with a Chaser'). This causes you to draw an additional drink card and suffer its effects along with the current card.
  2. 'Sometimes' and 'Anytime' cards: Some of the character cards are listed as 'Sometimes' cards, which can be played under certain circumstances, often on other player's turns, to affect, alter, or negate a game effect. For example, Zot the Wizard has a 'sometimes' card called 'No, Pooky, that's my friend!' It may be played when another character causes you fortitude damage. It causes the player who did you that damage to suffer 2 damage as well (the image on this card is great; it shows Zot trying to restrain Pooky the Rabbit, who has gone rabid with rage at his master being injured). 'Anytime' cards are played at any time, and do not count as an action. One example is Deirdre the Priestess's card 'My Goddess Heals Me,' which heals 2 fortitude damage.
  3. Gambling: Some action cards begin a round of gambling. When this happens, the game is suspended temporarily as a 'mini-game' takes place. Each player antes one gold into the pot, and whoever began the round of gambling is considered to be 'in the lead.' Then you go around the table and each player has an opportunity to play a gambling card to put themselves in the lead. Once you've made a complete circuit of the table with no players playing cards, whoever is in the lead wins the pot. There are 'sometimes' cards that can affect this, such as ones that allow a player to sit out of a round of gambling, or to leave midway through a round, or to end the round with the pot going to the house (these cards are usually called 'I guess the wench thought that was her tip'). But the most enjoyable ones are the 'cheating' cards which put their player in the lead  (my favourite of these is Zot's card 'Pooky, stop looking at other players' cards!' The illustration on this card is adorable). There's even an expansion that allows player to actually gamble instead of the simple 'take the lead' cards that are the total of gambling in the core set.

And that's it.

This game is a lot of fun. It's hysterical, as the wacky hijinks of the characters interact to produce unending hilarity. It's not the sort of game that should be taken seriously; the vast majority of the fun is in being silly as you play D&D characters partying hardy after their last adventure. Far more so than with most games, this one is not about who wins, but the funny things that happen in the course of the game.

The last thing I want to say: the attractiveness level of this game was really hard to determine. The artwork is beautiful, with cute but well-done illustrations on every card. The play mats are lovely, made to look as if they are on wooden tavern tables. Even the gold coins are pretty, with lavish illustrations on cardboard tokens. But that's the problem; it's all on cardboard. As lovely as those cardboard tokens are, I can't help but think that they would have looked better as plastic coins. Now, I understand that The Red Dragon Inn 5: The Character Trove was just a few months ago successfully funded on kickstarter, and one of the add-ons available for that was metal coins. That sounds amazing! But I don't know if those are available elsewhere. So I feel as if the artwork alone should merit the 'Attractiveness' category being rated at 'Pretty,' but the fact that it is just printed on cardboard should limit the game to 'Average.' So I leave that one undecided.

I really want to pick up a copy for myself some day. Until then, I'll have to rely on my local board game cafe to get my fix...

And with that, I bid you farewell for another week. Until next time,

Game on!

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Importance of Stories

Over the last couple days, at my summer job, I was working on a project that involved this article on The Irresistible Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Business Tool in the Harvard Business Review. The general gist of the article:

Humans need stories. We live our lives through the stories we tell each other. It's been a part of our racial archetype since our ancestors were living in caves and drawing stories on the walls. People respond most strongly to stories that use Freytag's pyramid. Advertisers that use Freytag's pyramid as a structure for their advertisements have a greater return on investment than those who don't. So all companies should turn their advertisements into stories.

Setting aside my disgust at so shamelessly corrupting what may be the quintessential aspect of human existence for base monetary gain, I wish to talk (yet again) about the importance of telling stories. It's not just an enjoyable pastime; the article linked above mentions research that shows how the climax of a story triggers the release of cortisol in human neurological systems. This causes us to focus on the story, wanting to know what's going to happen next. Even if the story is completely predictable, and we have no reason to think that the hero won't save the day at the last minute, we still hang on every word.

The cortisol is augmented by oxytocin, our 'feel good' hormone, especially if the climax involves things like cute animals. And a happy ending triggers the release of dopamine, which engenders contentment and compassion.

All this from a simple pyramid:

I love telling stories. One of my favourite things to do when I'm hanging out with friends is to retell events that have happened to me, or to people I know. I love telling the Alaska story, or the story of the wreck in which I almost died. And, as regular readers of this blog will know, I love to play RPGs because it's another form of storytelling. I get a significant emotional thrill from being involved in the climax, the falling action and denouement.

It's why I don't care for video games. Sure, there are sometimes stories involved in the games, depending on which game you get. But it's almost always preprogrammed. The player has little to no effect on the direction of the story. With rare exceptions (Chrono Trigger being the most notable exception of which I'm aware), the actions of the players don't affect how the story progresses, but merely whether the story progresses.

Sure, there's nothing wrong with stories that are not affected by the audience. Movies and TV shows are the same way. So are books, really. But having once tasted the thrill of influencing the outcome of a story, I've found I have a taste for it. Why go back to static, passive stories, when I can take part in a dynamic, interactive story?

The last game I ran was a one-shot Changeling session, designed to introduce the game to players who'd never played it. I took the 'World of Stone' campaign that I ran last summer, and condensed it down to a three-part one-evening story. That campaign followed the Freytag's Pyramid scheme very closely. It was designed on a set-piece scene design, with four major encounters, each one leading into the next in some way.

It started out with a group of changelings that happened to work together in the forensics department of the Hilo police force. They were contacted by a menehune (a native Hawai'ian faerie) named Lanahi, whose village had been turned to stone. They followed him to his village, learned as much as they could, and set out to track down the person who had done it. This was the exposition: introducing the characters, the conflict, and the narrative hook.

There were several encounters afterwards. They learned more about their antagonists, which led to an aerial chase scene on bizarre flying machines, pursuing a hog pooka.  They rescued the young girl that one of the PCs had sworn to protect from the rival of that same PC. They had an encounter with a shark that led them to realise that the mentor of another of the PCs wasn't really a selkie as he'd led everyone to believe, but was in fact a mer who had been banished from the undersea kingdoms. And they got trapped in a living house in the Dreaming who kept giving them various tests, and released them only once each one had passed his or her test. This was the rising action: all steps taken towards solving the conflict of the story.

Eventually, they had the big showdown with the main antagonist: an insane nocker who had cursed Lanahi's village for the purpose of stealing their sacred conch shell, which she used to power a bizarre single-occupancy tank that could cause the volcano at the centre of Hawai'i's big island to erupt. This was the climax: the conflict comes to a head.

The battle, of course, ended in success for the PCs. They disabled the nocker's machine, captured her, and remanded her to the appropriate changeling authorities. This was the falling action: we see how the conflict is resolved.

Finally, the remaining loose ends are tied up. Lanahi's village is restored, the conch shell returned to them, and the PCs return to their normal life, having grown, learned, and changed from their experiences. This is the denouement, the resolution: we finish out the story and see what has changed as a result of the story's events.

This story was so powerful that not only did the original players enjoy it, but the super-condensed version that I ran as a one-shot had the participants talking about the game for weeks afterwards.

This is the power of a story.

If you haven't been involved in a story/game of this nature, I highly recommend it. It's a lot more fun than just killing monsters and collecting treasure. I'm not saying you can't do that as well; the PCs in 'World of Stone' defeated many adversaries and earned some pretty nifty toys in the process! But they did it as part of the story progression.

And that's what matters.

Anyway, I think that's all for this week. I'll see you back here next time! Until then,

Game on!

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Exciting news!

I'm on holiday at the moment, so this one's going to be a short one. But there is some exciting news, and I felt I just had to share.
Remember a couple months ago, when I was talking about board game cafes? I believe I said, 'I don't know how feasible this idea would be, but it's fun to dream!'

Well, it turns out I was not alone in wishing for this. A kickstarter just went live for a group wanting to open a board game cafe right here in my own current home town!

They've had a couple of board game events at the local public library, so I've been able to play with them. They seem like really nice people, and I'm very much looking forward to helping them get off the ground. I know I'll be pledging, and I'd really appreciate it if you'd head over to their Kickstarter page and pledge something too!

Sadly, most of their reward packages will only be of use to people who live in or near this city, but there are a couple that may appeal to anyone, regardless of location. I'm certain the fine folks behind Loot & XP will appreciate your support. And I know I will!

That's all for this week. I'll see you back here next time, and until then,

Game on!