episode 19 – the shadow court

Changeling the Podcast
episode 19 - the shadow court

Sooner or later, the most sinister of the Unseelie were bound to rear their greasy and/or misshapen heads, no? While Banality is an ever-present threat that changelings must struggle against, and nobles-versus-commoners is an important piece of the metaplot, it’s important to remember that the balance of light and darkness is another critical conflict for the Kithain. The Shadow Court is the first supplement in the canon to really go in-depth into the Unseelie ethos, the structure and motivations of their court, and what it means to be a baddie (or a beastie, or a bogie). This week, we’re taking a deep look at that tome, which is one of the densest with material in the entire line. Bear with us for the wild ride…

the nature of evil

This is a Big Topic that will probably get its own episode at some point, but a few things need to be said about the relationship of the Unseelie, and the Shadow Court, to eeeeviiilll. The WoD games overall trade in shades of grey, making it difficult to say that the Seelie are overtly “good” and the Unseelie overtly “bad”. One could claim that the traits, actions, and outlooks that do fall into the “good” camp tend to crop up more regularly, in sum, among the Seelie, and vice versa among the Unseelie. But there are Seelie who are bloodthirsty, haughty, tyrannical, inflexible, and manipulative, following codes for their own sake and believing that they are Right about everything. And there are Unseelie who are empathetic, joyful, egalitarian, and honest. To draw a parallel with Dungeons and Dragons (yeah, yeah), the better analogy for the Courts might be “Lawful” (with a tendency towards good) for Seelie vs. “Chaotic” (with more wiggle room for evil) for the Unseelie, and where an individual falls within them is on the Good–Evil spectrum is their own thing.

The Shadow Court, as a book, just kind of stirs the already-murky waters. There are Unseelie in the book who, despite their contempt for the Seelie, seem to simply be passionate freedom-lovers with the occasional bad temper. But then there are amoral jerks who engage in human sacrifice and make a career out of emotionally abusing Dreamers to get their Glamour fix. Introducing the Thallain as kiths who can never become Seelie and operate as the right hand of nightmare doesn’t exactly help the reputation of the “dark side.” Importantly, the Shadow Court is not the Unseelie Court; just as importantly, the former is often pulling the latter’s strings. Even among the Shadow Court, though, true evil is not a given, especially because the book seems to highlight the fluidity of Court identity: changelings come and go from its ranks, rising and falling in prestige. (That being said, many Shadow Courtiers certainly seem willing to hang out with some truly twisted types…)

Ultimately, the game is more interesting when the nature of good and evil isn’t predetermined, and the movement between the two becomes the focus of a story, with the Court conflict as a metaphor. Why shouldn’t a Thallain have a redemption arc? Why shouldn’t the most prim and proper Seelie countess have a long slide into decadence? Changelings rebel against stagnation and stasis, so shifting attitudes, identities, and allegiances are perhaps more in line with this game than the others. As we mention in this episode, Changeling has a reputation for being “not dark enough” (for whom? what does that even mean?), but as this book demonstrates, there is a whole buffet of options that range from the purest of the pure to the dankest of the dank. A word of caution, though—the book’s wishy-washiness extends to its use of gaming tools to protect the sensibilities of gamers when needed. It doesn’t really offer a stance on how to use or not use violence, sexuality, depravity, etc., so remember: talk. to. your. players. and find out everyone’s mileage for different dishes at that buffet.

responding to hot takes

We solicit comments for recordings on our Discord (and here’s the link! woooo), but for this episode, we totally forgot to respond to two hot takes from one of our listeners. So, here’s some brief responses:

Hot Take 1:The Thallain were never meant to interact with the Kithain. They aren’t another splat, they’re the main characters from a fundamentally darker game.
From an in-game point of view, this certainly seems true. The Thallain came into the Autumn World at the behest of the Fomorians (or so the story goes), their goals and wishes are quite different from Kithain’s, and in some cases (see: beasties), Kithain actively try to attack them. But what they were meant to be like doesn’t negate the possibility of figuring out stories that accommodate both Thallain and Kithain as protagonists. You need a particularly agreeable one or more of the former, and a particularly tolerant one or more of the latter, but somewhere between the feverish kaleidoscope of Changeling: the Dreaming and the blood-soaked pandemonium of… erm, Thallain: the Horrifying?, there is potential for some interesting plotlines. Thallain who incarnate in human flesh have the same tension between their human origins and their fae natures as other kinds of changeling, and putting the two groups together towards a common goal (e.g., a common enemy that neither can stop alone) is the Extreme level of “seeing past our differences” for the sake of teamwork.

Hot Take 2:House Ailil is the only good house in the entire gameline. Ennobled Boggans of House Ailil will utterly wreck your political machinations.”
Debatable, and dependent on the kind of game you want to run. For direct political intrigue, Ailil are indeed hard to beat (though depending on the type of intrigue, Leanhaun can give them a run for their money). Having a boggan, or pooka, or other kith with a social benefit in the House can certainly increase the benefit, and it can be great fun to watch an Ailil go toe-to-toe with a Ventrue. But as soon as you get out of the throne room, Elysium, or wherever, how useful are they for slaying a dragon, working great magic, or simply keeping the community happy? All else being equal, Ailil nobles are good at ruling by fear and blackmail, running criminal enterprises (or running their realms as though they were criminal enterprises), and getting themselves ahead. Your mileage may vary on whether you consider that the best, the most well-rounded, the most interesting, etc.

shout-out to harbingers of winter

We mentioned this book a couple times this episode, and here we are mentioning it again…! Charlie Cantrell and Radio Free Arcadia put out Harbingers of Winter back in the spring, updating much of the content of this book (and then some) for C20. You can purchase it from the Storyteller’s Vault, and you can listen to our episode #12, wherein we discuss the book with Charlie. It’s definitely recommended reading for anyone looking to run a Shadow Court (or otherwise deeply Unseelie-flavored) game, so check out and help support other folks in the community.

your hosts

Josh Hillerup (any pronoun) thinks that Unseelie tastes like chocolate raspberry ice cream laced with codeine and bits of stained glass.
Pooka G (any pronoun/they) thinks that Seelie tastes like a raw egg yolk suspended inside a solid shell of candied violet petals.

The Neighbor: “A little boy went out to play. When he opened his door, he saw the world. As he passed through the doorway, he caused a reflection. Evil was born. Evil was born, and followed the boy.”
Nikki: “…I’m sorry, what is that?”
The Neighbor: “An old tale… And, the variation: a little girl went out to play. Lost in the marketplace, as if half-born. Then, not through the marketplace—you see that, don’t you?—but through the alley behind the marketplace. This is the way to the palace.”
—Grace Zabriskie & Laura Dern in David Lynch’s Inland Empire

(psst! email us at podcast@changelingthepodcast.com if you want)
(and join our Discord at https://discord.gg/SAryjXGm5j !)
(support us on Patreon for additional treats at https://www.patreon.com/changelingthepodcast!)