The Fear-Maker’s Promise by Chuck Wendig is the first installment of White Wolf’s Storytelling Adventure System. It has been floating around for quite some time at this point. I bought Changeling: The Lost when it first came out, but haven’t fiddled with it much. Recently, however, I came upon the print version in a store and picked it up. The book version contains not only the eponymous story, but also The Rose Bride’s Plight. For the moment I’m only discussing the cover story.
Changeling: The Lost is not a game you pick up for a casual evening of gaming with friends. I suppose you could try, but it would be willfully missing the point. At its heart, Changeling is a story about abuse, abuse victims, and their efforts to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of their trauma. As such it isn’t going to sit comfortably with everyone the way D&D probably would. There are, believe it or not, people who are genuinely bothered by the game and do not wish to play.
I’m not one of them. If you are, I advise you to not read past the jump. You aren’t losing anyone’s respect here.
The premise behind The Fear-Maker’s Promise is troubling indeed: several children have been disappearing from the area around the freehold, and signs point to them being abducted by the Others. Red Wren, an infamous one of the Lost, has arrived at the freehold offering a solution: by performing an obscure Autumn ritual, she can prevent the Others from abducting children for a year and a day. She also offers to teach this to the Lost so that they may continue to benefit in the future.
There’s one small catch: the ritual requires the physical and mental abuse of a child.
If the characters dig into Red Wren’s claim, they find it’s legitimate. She has performed the Child’s Contract—as it is called—at other freeholds in the past and, true to her word, the Others do not come a-thievin’. The choice between conducting the ritual or not is therefore solidified; Red Wren isn’t just some errant kook making crazy promises. The characters are faced with a real dilemma…
…which the adventure solves by already having the child abducted and the ritual about to start.
I’m not particularly fond of this situation. There’s an entire section about how the story is beginning in medias res, but that’s one hell of a res to assume is already in medias. I managed to justify it in my mind by realizing the players’ characters were not necessarily decision-makers at the freehold, but damn. Thankfully, the text addresses the characters having the option of stopping the ritual before/during its completion. I’m not saying that stopping it is the only sensible option, but it is a likely reaction to the circumstances.
(Lack of) Characters
Joey Duncan, the boy whom the freehold has kidnapped as the scapegoat for the Children’s Contract, is autistic. He has no real agency within the story, serving as the MacGuffin the characters need to track down. Basically he gets into trouble, fair enough. Unfortunately the notes about him suggest that he occasionally “looks right at the character and says something profound or strange before turning his gaze away.” He’s the freak show.
Also, his autism serves a story purpose: he isn’t easily scared! He just “shuts down.” So even if the characters decide among themselves to go through with ritual, “rescue” him from the forces that interrupt the ritual, and bring him back, it just isn’t enough! They must devise a way to truly strike fear into his autistic little heart.
At some point, horror becomes farce in its attempt to unsettle us. For me, Joey Duncan’s character (or lack thereof) is that tipping point. The Fear-Maker’s Promise starts with a strong, discomfiting premise: the needs of the many vs. the needs of the one, plus they’re children. I’m not sure if the author thought that set-up wasn’t disturbing enough, or if it was an earnest effort to put some less-represented groups in the adventure, but for me at least it falls very flat.
The other character who made me cringe a bit was King Queen Jackie Snow. Jackie is a transsexual woman, the monarch of the Spring Court, and supports Red Wren’s plan because her nephew has gone missing at the hands of the Others. All of those things are respectable character points. Her write-up, not so much.
First of all, the “King Queen” title. One would think “Queen” would suffice, since Jackie identifies as female. As her character entry notes: “Jackie is a study in contrasts.” (Just had to go right for it, didn’t they?) There are quotations around several instances of “she” and “her,” which is straight-up offensive. Again, I don’t know if it was a well-intentioned yet failed effort on behalf of the author, but both Joey Duncan and Jackie Snow are essentially Stereotyping 101.
If you ever run The Fear-Maker’s Promise, please give them a bit more dignity than they have in the text.
Why Should I Buy This?
Clearly The Fear-Maker’s Promise is a cesspool of creative sewage, so why should you spend your hard-earned dollars on it?
Well, not quite. I’m not going to say you have to run out and drop $20 on this book, by any means, but there are definitely some gems here. If there weren’t—if I didn’t feel there were some worthwhile redeeming qualities present—I wouldn’t have written this gigantic review of it.
Mechanically, I think the specific tasks are great. As some of the Storytelling Adventure System copy says, “So while the World of Darkness Rulebook gives you mechanics for a foot chase, an SAS product gives you game mechanics for this one foot chase.” A game rides on its system as well as its stories, so that extra attention to detail is much appreciated.
The story, while certainly not for everyone, caught my attention from the first page. If anything, many of my frustrations with the story are from it not living up to its potential. Changeling is a rough game, dealing with much harder subject material than probably any of the other World of Darkness games. The premise of The Fear-Maker’s Promise does not shy away from that.
Finally, there’s Doll. Doll is a character encountered after the Children’s Contract ritual goes awry. He is also one of the Lost, though he lives in the Hedge and his humanity is clearly just about to slip away forever. Joey ends up in his clutches. The characters can try to redeem Doll, they can confront him with violence, they can make deals with him that are less-than-humane. There are several approaches to this scene that are all pretty neat, and equally interesting.
In closing, I can’t stress enough that you don’t play Changeling: The Lost with your D&D buddies, you play it with people who are willing to play, and you respect those who want nothing to do with it. As an adventure, The Fear-Maker’s Promise needs some work, but if you’re willing to do some of that work, it provides a good frame that highlights many of the things that make Changeling such an interesting game.