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 separate "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 K-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 what if they were powered by magic rather than electricity; 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. And with that, I will leave you for now with a fond