Getting Lost: Planning a Changeling Game

Books (Changeling: The Lost and World of Darkness) with a scattering of 10-sided dice. Text: Something for Sunday; July 14, 2019; Getting LostI’m a gamer: tabletop roll-playing games, to be precise. I’ve written before about my love of Dungeons and Dragons (see here and here and here). D&D is the game I mostly play at home with my family, and it’s wonderful. But I’m a promiscuous gamer, and with my Friday night group we generally play a different game.

Changeling: The Lost is one of the games in the World of Darkness system (New World of Darkness, in case you were wondering). It’s the same basic idea as D&D, with each player taking on the role of a character interacting with other characters as they overcome challenges in a world of magic. There are some overt differences, in that Changeling takes place in our current, contemporary world (plus the magic), and uses only 10-sided dice, as shown in the image. However, the biggest difference is less obvious. Changeling games tend to emphasize role-playing and character interactions over fighting. This is the reason why, as much as I love D&D, I think I love Changeling just a little bit more.

Now that I’m retired, I’ve decided to run a Changeling game at home with the family. Planning this game has completely obsessed me for weeks now. I’ve got to understand the system more deeply than I do as a player, and I’ve got to figure out all those challenges. The players will need certain information in order to overcome the challenges, and I have to find ways for them to get it in the context of the game, as they play their characters, so they know what they must know in time to prevent disaster. The solution must be something they can figure out and implement, but it can’t be too simple or obvious. This is complex and frustrating and enormously fun. Here are just a few of the wild and crazy ideas I get to play with:

  • Exploring the Chinese system of five seasons/elements to understand the major plot challenge
  • Designing stalls in the bazaar of the bizarre known as a Goblin Market, like the one where the old crone sells buttons that give you specific moods, charging you one song you will then forget
  • Creating a companion for the characters I call a sootling: a little snarl of black string with eyes that talks and has information they need

In many ways, planning a game is much like writing a story. This is no new insight on my part. In fact, the person who plans and runs a game in Changeling is referred to as the Storyteller. The story is the key to what makes playing these games so compelling, and so much fun.

I’m a writer, with a novel currently in revision. So writing the story for a game should be the same, right? Well, no. When I write a novel, my reader goes through my words in sequence as I’ve written them down. Suppose the reader needs to know Fact A before Event B happens. It might take some skill to work Fact A into the story where it needs to be, but once I’ve done that then I can rest assured that the reader will find it there. With a game, though, my best-laid plans are completely at the mercy of decisions made by the players. They may not go where I expect them to, do the things I’ve planned for, taking the story somewhere I never thought of. In fact, this is probably going to happen at some point. Here’s an image that expresses this idea beautifully.

A bottle of Coke labeled "My planning," and a hand holding Mentos labeled "My players"If you don’t get it, then you don’t know what happens when you add Mentos to Coke (especially Diet Coke): You get an explosion of foam all over the place. Gif showing a bottle of Coke erupting in foam after Mentos are addedSo what I need to do is not just storytelling, it’s nonlinear storytelling. I can’t, and shouldn’t, force my players to do certain things in a certain sequence. They need to be able to make choices and have those choices influence what happens. But it’s still my job to make sure they have a good time, which means they face challenges that are intriguing and worthwhile, and find the tools they need to overcome them. It’s like writing a book, only more so.

One interesting result of the overlap between planning a game and writing a book is that the game has been absorbing all my creative energies for weeks. I haven’t made any progress on my book! In part this saddens me. However, there’s a voice in my head saying, “You’re having fun, being creative, making something that others will enjoy. What’s wrong with that?” I have to agree with this voice.

So, for now, my WIP is this game. I know this obsession will pass, as we get to actually playing it and then we finish it. Until then, though, the book will just have to wait its turn.

Do you play games?
What absorbs your creative energies?

1 thought on “Getting Lost: Planning a Changeling Game

  1. Pingback: Back on the Horse: Returning to Writing | Word Wacker

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