In my Monday evening group we’ve started up our occasional Werewolf: the Apocalypse game again, so I thought the time had come for me to properly digest the tattered second-hand 1st Edition rulebook I picked up at the start of the game, as well as looking into the 20th Anniversary Edition of the game.
Following on from Vampire: the Masquerade, this was actually the last major World of Darkness game which Mark Rein*Hagen was the sole lead designer on. (He wasn’t a main designer on Mage at all, whilst on Wraith and Changeling he shared top credit with a team.) As such, on the one hand you have his various idiosyncracies as a writer coming here at full blast, but on the other hand it’s kind of impressive just how different a tone Werewolf hits compared to Vampire.
Part of it is that, to be blunt, Werewolf does a much better job of hitting an apocalyptic tone than Vampire does. Though in principle the metaplot of Vampire: the Masquerade says that vampiric society is spiralling down into Gehenna, frankly neither the bulk of the fluff nor the action of your average Vampire game – whether homebrewed or running off a published adventure – will reflect that much. Indeed, building in an end of the world to Vampire sabotages one of the more potent aspects of the vampire legend – namely, immortality at the cost of predating on humans. What’s the point of being immortal if we’ve only got fiiiiiiiiiive yeeeeeeears (what a surprise!)? Moreover, vampiric society seems locked in a steady state, with the pendulum swinging eternally back and forth between the Camarilla and Sabbat and the Anarchs occasionally carving something out for themselves in the middle. One of the reasons V20 was able to effortlessly shrug off the heavy hand of the metaplot was that Vampire without Gehenna makes a lot of sense. Heck, the title of the game references a device used to maintain the status quo.
This is not the case with Werewolf. The title promises you an Apocalypse and the book gives you one. The Garou are very much a people at war, and the writing here never misses an opportunity to remind you of the colossal stakes. Gaia, the world-spirit herself, is crying out in pain as the Wyrm, the cosmic principle of corruption and destruction, madly schemes to destroy the Earth through spiritual assault, the cultivation of monstrous Fomori, and through the machinations of the expansive Pentex corporation (who are literally Captain Planet bad guys who want to pollute the environment on purpose).
One of things which Werewolf is really good at and which is rather passed over in Vampire is ideology, and particularly spiritual ideology. Ultimately, the Camarilla exists for no higher purpose other than perpetuating the long-term survival of the Kindred and distributing power and prestige in the traditional manner. The Sabbat’s main disagreement arises from what actions are necessary to survival, whilst the Anarchs’ beef is with how power is distributed, and some members of the factions dress things up in fancy Noddist myth, but at the end of the day vampire politics is bleakly materialistic in its concerns. Conversely, werewolves find themselves caught between two worlds, with the spirit world of the Umbra requiring just as much attention as the material world, and despite their differences the tribes all understand that they play a part in the greater balance of Gaia – a balance that has been thrown off-kilter in part because of the Garou’s mistakes in the past. (In particular, the transformation of the White Howlers tribe into the Wyrm’s own Black Spiral Dancers is a matter of enduring shame.)
The last piece of the puzzle that sets Werewolf apart from its predecessor is that as written it’s substantially more open to high-octane mayhem than Vampire is. Whilst, of course, in practice you can run a hyper-violent action-based Vampire campaign of blood-powered superheroics – many people did just that back in the day, many still do, many find this the most enjoyable approach to the game – the tone of its writing never really encouraged this. On the other hand, Werewolf both gives you full permission to go wild and provides you with the tools to do it; for instance, there’s not really a werewolf equivalent to the Masquerade, because of the Delirium which takes over uninitiated humans who witness a werewolf transformation as their rational mind absolutely rejects what they are seeing, so whilst it’s still strongly discouraged to go full wolfman in front of a bunch of TV cameras at the same time if you need to hulk out in public to deal with a situation, you’re not going to get hammered for it.
The combination of ferocious wolf-powered violence, Captain Planet eco-warfare, and tripped-out spirit quests is pretty much unique to Werewolf: the Apocalypse – although you had (and still have) heaps of New Agey sorts claiming wolves as their spirit animals and so forth, to my awareness the idea of werewolves as spirit-warriors out to defend Gaia from evil megacorporations doesn’t seem to have any precedent before this. At the same time, Werewolf seems to have this knack of making you accept this absurd premise. The way I see it, this is a triumph of Rein*Hagen really getting to grips with what people might want to get up to in a game based around being a woofle. Even if you don’t know the lore of the World of Darkness franchise, if you were told “We’re going to play a game about vampires living in the modern age” you aren’t necessarily going to automatically expect a high-combat game, because traditionally vampire-based media hasn’t really depicted the undead as being all about direct violence and more being about lurking about striking from the shadows or from behind a veil of secrecy – hence you have Vampire: the Masquerade‘s emphasis on vampire society lurking about in the shadows, with the characters constantly maintaining their own covers whilst at the same time trying to penetrate the secrets of their elders.
Likewise, if you were told “We’re going to play a game about werewolves living in the modern age”, that creates an expectation that your characters are going to woof out and get ultraviolent from time to time, and I think Rein*Hagen’s choices of enemies for the werewoofs to go hunting for is actually pretty shrewd. It makes sense that werewolves would feel some concern for the fate of real wolves in the wild, and consequently it makes sense that ecological concerns would be important to them; likewise, enough New Age-influenced sorts out there spiritually identify with wolves on some level that adding a spiritual dimension to matters also makes sense. The Black Spiral Dancers are nice stand-ins for the mass murdering evil werewoof of horror stories past, whilst the player characters get a chance to be big ass heroes in a way which Vampire player characters, due to their inherently predatory nature, don’t really get to be. On top of that, the spiritual cosmology of the game is actually a lot of fun to play with, and lends itself to some delicious speculation.
On the subject of which, a little conspiracy theory I’ve become fond of reading the books: we are told in 1st edition, and this has remained true right up to the 20th Anniversary Edition, that when the Cosmic Triat were working in balance the chaotic force of the Wyld would bring new things into the world, the Weaver would give them structure and context and find a place for them, and the Wyrm would trim them back. We are also told that Gaia’s original use for the Garou was to keep humanity in equilibrium, making sure they didn’t expand too far and culling them when necessary in order to prevent them running entirely out of control. When you put these facts together, this creates the delicious implication that the Garou, who aside from the Black Spiral Dancers and other defectors would describe themselves as implacable foes of the Wyrm, actually originated as creatures of the Wyrm – after all, destructive action to keep a delicate equilibrium in check is precisely what the Wyrm was all about. Of course, if this is true, the question then is whether the Wyrm has lost its way and the Garou need to prevail over it to bring it back into harmony with the rest of the universe, or whether the Garou themselves have somehow broken away from their original purpose, perhaps taking on a bit more humanity than the job necessarily calls for.
The very fact that I can burble away about my personal theories like this shows that, like Kult or Gargentihr or Tribe 8, Werewolf has managed to accomplish one of the key requirements of an RPG setting – presenting a world where there’s not only room to speculate about stuff, but it’s fun to speculate about this stuff, and the answers you come up with are likely to have interesting consequences for games you run in that setting. It’s particularly interesting looking at this after going over 1st Edition Mage, because it seems to me that to a large extent Stewart Wieck riffs a lot on Werewolf in the presentation of the Ascension War there. As well as sharing a spiritual metaphysic (understandable given that Wieck and Rein*Hagen collaborated on the early design of the World of Darkness), both Werewolf and Mage present as the PCs’ major adversaries a massive conspiratorial organisation intrinsically aligned with all the high-tech, spiritually vapid, materialistic toys with which the average goon is numbed into submission, and who are out to snuff out spirituality altogether.
Pentex and the Technocracy overlap so much in flavour and in their areas of interest that it’s difficult to reconcile the two of them in the same campaign world. To wit:
- If both Pentex and the Technocracy are as wide-reaching and as powerful as they are depicted in the books as being, they should be at war.
- If Pentex is as wide-reaching and powerful as they are depicted in the books as being but the Technocracy isn’t, then the Traditions should be doing much better than they are and consensus reality ought to be a lot weirder than it currently is.
- If the Technocracy is as wide-reaching and powerful as they are depicted as being in the books but Pentex isn’t, but Pentex is big enough to be on the Technocracy’s radar, the Technocracy should have shut Pentex down as of yesterday.
- If the Technocracy is as wide-reaching and powerful as they are depicting as being in the books, but Pentex is so small that they aren’t even on the Technocracy’s radar, then the Garou really don’t have much of a problem on their hands.
- If both the Technocracy and Pentex are substantially smaller and less powerful than they are in the books, the woofles and wizards both need better enemies.
Of course, you do have the option of just having the Technocracy not exist in your Werewolf game or Pentex not existing in your Mage game, and that’s obviously the most sensible way to do it, but it still represents an early hiccup in White Wolf’s rather inconsistent efforts to portray the classic World of Darkness as being a single cohesive world. (Supposedly White Wolf never said that it was or intended it to be, and supposedly all the games being set in a single consistent world is meant to be one of the innovations of the New World of Darkness, but the classic era included just a little too much crossover stuff to really make that impression fly.) On the other hand, if you do want a bit of Werewolf/Mage crossover going on, I like to think option 2 is the best way to reconcile it – not only does the Technocracy’s weakness explain why there’s fucking werewoofs and wizards running around in the first place (shouldn’t they pop out of existence if enough of consensus reality decides they can’t exist in the real world?), but also you have the Technocracy kidding themselves that they are sorting out the dangerous reality deviants by persecuting sad Tradition stragglers whilst utterly failing to tackle the Lovecraftian corporate behemoth that’s actually working to feed our reality to the cosmic principle of entropy.
As far as the 20th Anniversary Edition of Werewolf goes, the art direction certainly understands the game’s appeal; rather than opening with a prose story, the rulebook kicks off with a short comic, in precisely the sort of high-violence, edgy Image Comics mode that Werewolf catered to back in the day. This brilliantly encapsulates the tone of the game – that, and the gleeful embrace of some of the more darkly comedic or satirical aspects of the game. (Yes, Black Dog Game Factory is still a subsidiary of Pentex, and they are still churning out RPGs as part of the ongoing Pentex program of dumbed-down bread-and-circuses for the masses. Mind you, I’m slightly surprised they didn’t slip in a sly reference to Black Dog’s games causing their players brain damage…) As with Vampire‘s 20th Anniversary Edition, it’s absolutely stuffed to the gills with useful, gameable stuff – heaps of Gifts, details on all the different Changing Breeds as well as the lost tribes of werewolves (so that guy in your home campaign who wants to play the last of the uncorrupted White Howlers has the tools to do so), plus substantially more extensive details on the spirit world, Pentex, and other adversaries of the Garou. Once again, it’s the most complete-in-one-book version of the game I’ve seen.
Unlike the 20th Anniversary Edition of Vampire, though, it doesn’t quite play down the metaplot as much – the Apocalypse is still a thing, and obviously it has to be because if you took it out the game’s air of desperation would be completely sabotaged. But thanks to the Eighth Sign of the Phoenix revealed in the comic book story at the start, the Apocalypse doesn’t have to mean the end of the world. It’s possible the Garou could still pull it all together and save the world yet – or it’s possible that too much blood has been shed already for that to come to pass. It’s just that this time you can buy the 20th Anniversary products and be confident that metaplot developments won’t trip you up – consistent with Onyx Path’s new philosophy, it’s your table and your Apocalypse.