Awoo of Darkness: the Supplements of 20th Anniversary Werewolf

Onyx Path originated as a “by the creatives, for the creatives” sort of outfit. They cannot give their writers total creative freedom on all projects, because some of the IP they work with isn’t actually owned by them and has been subject to approvals processes from CCP in Onyx Path’s early years, the new Paradox-owned White Wolf more recently, but within the bounds of those constraints they do prefer to let the project leads on game lines have their own heads.

This has had the upshot that the level of consistent quality one can expect from their game lines varies a lot. I get the impression, for instance, that there’s a fairly solid team behind their Vampire: the Masquerade 20th Anniversary line, because the supplements for that have really been quite good – to the point of setting an intimidatingly high bar for the upcoming 5th edition of the game to clear. On the other hand, controversies surrounding game lines like Beast: the Primordial or the long gestation process of Exalted 3rd Edition have seemed in part to arise from poor judgement on the part of the managers of those lines.

Then, somewhere in between the major controversies and the major successes, you have something like the Werewolf: the Apocalypse 20th anniversary line. Though I thought the core 20th anniversary book was a pretty decent release, I find its supporting supplements to be a decidedly mixed bag – and so far as I can tell, I’m not alone in this.

Rage Across the World

This feels like a supplement that got its justification after the fact – like there’s a few scraps of rules here and there that didn’t make it into the core Werewolf 20th anniversary book but wasn’t quite substantial enough to make a full supplement out of, so they fudged together a justification for sprinkling in these rules.

The supplement largely presents itself, as you might guess from the title, as offering a swathe of information on the worldwide activities of the Garou and of the spiritual forces they must contend with. However, it also throws in a bunch of stuff that doesn’t really fit that concept, such as an expanded discussion and associated subsystems for dealing with the internal politics of a werewolf sept.

Apparently, Onyx Path are under the impression that there’s an appreciable number of people out there who want to run Werewolf campaigns where the focus isn’t on Captain Planet terrorist actions against the Wyrm and its puppets and the action of the game revolves around the management of a woofle community. Maybe there are people that want that, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea to deliver that; the in-depth look at the matter, and in particular the generally serious “hey, this is our culture, stop sniggering” tone it takes, only serve to convince me that the cartoonish baseline assumptions of Werewolf aren’t really compatible with a serious consideration of life in the sept. It’s rather po-faced and joyless and lacks the vivid psychedelic power metal action which I come to Werewolf for. Essentially, if like me you can only stand Werewolf if it’s turned up to 11 and embraces its ridiculousness, this isn’t going to appeal to you, whereas if you wanted a more serious, sober take on woofle life then you’re probably better off playing Werewolf: the Forsaken, because more or less everything that makes Apocalypse distinctly Apocalypse-y is going to clash with your aims.

As far as the travelogue sections go, they are largely written up as traveller’s tales from characters who have visited various regions and had various adventures there. There’s some token gestures made at the start of the book towards the idea of playing through these stories, though aside from some game mechanical scraps the Storyteller is left to do almost all the heavy lifting involved in making something meaningfully interactive about what is essentially a bunch of short stories passed off as gaming material.

Contast this with the V20 line. There, it feels like every supplement I have looked at has been built from the ground up with “how do we make this useful at the gaming table?” at the forefront of everyone’s mind. The books end up offering excellent bang for your buck, being packed to the gills for cool shit to deploy in your game. Here, the supplement is largely given over to “Listen to how cool our narrator NPCs’ stories are!”, and the ratio of self-indulgent waffle to stuff that’s immediately deployable at your table is awful. Not worth it, I’d say.

Umbra: the Velvet Shadow

I guess you could call this Three Moon Wolf…

This is another mostly fluff-focused book (though there’s some crunch here, especially when it comes to a cornucopia of spirits and rules for Kami – those infused with the spirit of Gaia to promote harmony in the world), but it’s one which seems vastly more useful than Rage Across the World. In particular, rather than being a collection of random anecdotes about random corners of the Umbra, it offers an impressively wide-ranging description of the entire thing (including throwing in the nice idea of the Astral Umbra and the Dark Umbra being the spirit worlds of Mage and Wraith respectively, neatly resolving the fact that they don’t really fit into the Werewolf depiction of the Umbra enormously well).

This is your spiritual battleground where werewoofles face off against bizarre entities, travel through a distorted funhouse mirror version of the real world, and visit weird little pocket dimensions that get increasingly surreal the deeper in you get. It’s tremendously silly, and the authors let the weirdness of Werewolf‘s Three Wolf Moon-esque spirit world run wild. The motto of the project seems to be that “I never saw a metaphor which was too heavy-handed”; spirits that can be encountered include Wyrm-corrupted fedora spirits that turn their wearers into Reddity shitlords, manifestations of creepypasta stories, and Weaver spiders who control “wage slaves” who work in spiritually deadened jobs (generally anything more structured and formal than, say, making 0.3 cents per word writing nonsense for a small press RPG publisher trying to keep the White Wolf flame alight).

That’s all utterly risible nonsense, of course, but I suspect I’m not a fan of Werewolf in good faith, because I love it when it’s offering my ridiculous nonsense, absurd edginess and Saturday morning cartoon attitude with all the ethical sophistication and understanding of social complexities of a Captain Planet episode, and that’s what Umbra delivers in all its tie-dyed wackiness.

Kinfolk: A Breed Apart

Kinfolk are the muggles of Werewolf – relatives of Garou who do not themselves undergo the transformation into woofleness, but can potentially sire people who can. Living in familial units associated with their woofle tribe of origin, they act as support staff, backup, and safe house managers for their Garou family members.

The core 20th anniversary book gives rules for generating Kinfolk, but this supplement provides an extended fluff discussion of them, as well as a brace of extra kit, Gifts and Rites for a Kinfolk-focused campaign. To be honest, I’m not sure I fancy the idea.

Kinfolk naturally fit a very similar slot in Werewolf‘s ecosystem to that of ghouls in Vampire. (It’s almost like White Wolf/Onyx Path have been constantly reskinning the same game for a quarter of a century.) Nonetheless, I find myself far more interested in ghouls than Kinfolk. The addiction angle is a really strong idea to hang them off, and of course there is vivid literary precedent in the form of Renfield from Dracula. In contrast, Werewolf‘s portrayal of lycanthropy as a familial trait rather than a contagious curse means that there’s no particular precedent for Kinfolk, and they feel a little grafted-on.

Family is the big theme here, but the Kinfolk families as depicted are clearly extremely stifling and at points flat-out abusive, and in some respects don’t make a whole lot of sense; the fluff section is one of those situations where the more a setting element is fleshed out, the less appealing and less coherent it seems, whereas if you leave it as it’s presented in the core and don’t examine it too closely the fractures are less evident. For one thing, the book makes no bones about the fact that to most of the Garou, Kinfolk are second-class citizens whose most important duty is to breed, breed, breed so that more Garou can be produced. To its credit, the book is completely aware of how skeevy this whole thing is and has a sidebar suggesting you could tone it down if you like, but it feels like kind of a grim plot feature to toss into my four colour Captain Planet comic book take on what I want out of Werewolf. Moreover, the book at points lapses into talking utter nonsense; for instance, it presents the idea of the “droit du seigneur” as though it were documented historical fact, when for years and years it has been well-established that it’s an utter myth cooked up by later historians.

One thing which kept nagging at me in reading the book is that it seemed to have some honking great blind spots when it comes to human behaviour. It is implicitly assumed that Kinfolk are either already aware of the world of the Garou and are active participants therein, or are unaware of it and should be sought out and brought into the fold; there’s a big gap missing for those Kinfolk who drop out of Garou society altogether, and yet by rights there must be some, particularly given the situation depicted in which the Kinfolk are dragged into the Garou’s eternal war and are endangered as a result. (Yes, there’s cabals of Kinfolk who have gone rogue, like those who steal the skins of Garou in order to become one themselves, but they remain engaged with Garou and Kinfolk society – they don’t drop out of it altogether.)

Now, of course, dropouts who refuse to engage would be terrible PC concepts because their motivations would nudge them away from getting involved with the heart of the game – but “This particular Kinfolk has run away from home, we need to find them” would be a great plot seed. Moreover, given the facts we are provided with about Kinfolk society, running away or refusing to sign on should be more common than it actually is, even when you factor in the close ties of family. The world of the Garou is a violent one, and the Garou themselves are terrifying rage-beasts; the text itself suggest that whenever a Garou relative stops by everyone had better toe the line lest they get battered or worse as a result. Being connected to the tribes attracts unwanted attention, and more or less overtly means you have to extensively structure your life around the needs of the Garou, will be expected to breed for them, and can’t ever relax from your struggles.

And even just with the limited knowledge available to the werewolf tribes, limited though it is, it’s pretty damn clear that most of the problems the woofles face are screwups of their own making – not all of them, mind, but the woofles’ various major historical interventions and accomplishments largely revolve around making the situation they face massively worse, and the tribes’ individual ideologies and stances are all so entrenched and extreme that anyone with more connection to regular society and less driven by a supernatural rage deep in their belly would likely want nothing to do with their doomed cause – especially given the nightmarish power of the opposition and the general feeling that the Apocalypse is Real Damn Soon.

Yes, going it alone has its own risks – but with a bit of knowledge picked up from the tribes it shouldn’t be impossible, especially if you’ve learned Gifts to cover your tracks or if you have convinced sympathetic Garou (especially younger sorts with modern sensibilities) that you should be allowed to go your own way if you wish. Yes, family ties are strong, but you know what’s a really strong family tie? That between parent and child, and I can easily see Kinfolk parents coming to the conclusion that they cannot possibly allow their child to be exposed to the risks that running with the Garou involves (not unless they themselves turn out to be Garou), especially if the Apocalypse is so close that their kid won’t be old enough to meaningfully contribute anyway.

Put it this way: imagine a scene in a Werewolf game where the PCs, wrecked after a battle against nightmarish formori that went against them, scramble to get a badly wounded party member to a safe house that they’re vaguely aware of – a place run by a Kinfolk family that they encountered a few sessions ago. They barge in, expecting to find (as they found previously) a secure place to hide and medical aid for their comrade; instead, the house is absolutely deserted, with a note left behind on the kitchen counter, written in a tribal code.

To whom it may concern,

We can’t do it any more. Last time, with the Banes battering at the back door and the Garou only barely saving us, was too close for comfort. We aren’t going to let our baby be another casualty of a war that the Tribes have been losing for centuries.

We’ve been working on a bug-out plan for years; we’ve now put it into operation. Don’t try to find us; we will not come back willingly unless Mary has the Change, in which case we’ll send her to the caen. We will be praying that she does not.

If you have any mercy, you will let us live out our days in peace. We never asked to be part of your war; we were press-ganged from birth. Now we’re taking our freedom back, because if we can’t be free what are we even fighting for?

That’s an awesome, dramatic moment – which the book doesn’t have the imagination to posit, because it has this weird blind spot on the subject and doesn’t think through the implications of what it’s saying.

I think the last reason that I’d be more interested in playing a ghoul in a Vampire game than a Kinfolk in a Werewolf game, however, is the simple fact that a ghoul can eventually become a vampire, whereas a Kinfolk is never going to be a werewolf (unless they want to do something so monstrous as to cast them out of the community forever – effectively banishing them to NPCland). And if I’ve signed up for a Werewolf game, I want to play a dang ol’ wuff-wuff, not a wuff-wuff-wannabe.

Changing Breeds

One nice thing about Werewolf: the Apocalypse is how it was able to express the basic conceit of the game line in a simple, iconic rhetorical question: “When will you Rage?” The Garou are terrible anger beasts who have allowed their foul tempers to lead them into atrocity after atrocity, but at the same time are faced with absolutely appalling odds against a completely vile foe. Under such circumstances the question of when your character will break and Rage – game mechanically, emotionally, or in terms of shifting their overall strategy to flat-out ecoterrorism is crucial. Your woofley fury is, simultaneously, the most powerful weapon in your arsenal and greatest liability. We can argue as to what extent the system supported that, but the fluff very much supports it.

I therefore have great scepticism about the idea of playing a Werewolf game where the Changing Breeds are in play as player character options. Allowing someone to opt out of being a shapeshifter whose very concept is based around inhuman rage feels like allowing someone to buy Golconda with character points at the start of a Vampire campaign – it’s effectively giving them permission to not actually engage with the core premise of the game, and if someone wants to do that that badly it’s probably time to consider either playing a game which everyone wants to buy into or asking the player in question to sit out of this campaign. To be honest, the brief treatments of each of the Changing Breeds in the Werewolf: the Apocalypse 20th Anniversary guidebook did little to change my mind – they may be useful as NPCs, especially if you want to play on the Garou’s past mistakes, but it doesn’t feel like you are given enough to make them work as PCs.

This is where Changing Breeds is supposed to come in, giving big chunky writeups of each of the Breeds that, in principle, ought to make it much more viable to run them as player characters. The book even leads off with some discussion of various ways to integrate Changing Breed PCs – whether you’re dropping one into a party of Garou, running a game where each PC is a different Breed, or running a game where all the PCs are the same Breed.

That last bit trikes me as the acid test of the success of the exercise. If a Changing Breed’s core concept is interesting enough that a campaign focusing solely on it feels viable, then all well and good, but if it seems a little weaksauce and uninspiring next to the Captain Planet power metal of the Garou then why bother? Sadly, at least in terms of the brief elevator pitches offered there, “why bother?” wins out most of the time.

That left me poorly disposed to the book, but it wasn’t the straw that broke the camel’s back. That was a side bar in the first chapter providing a detailed breakdown of a Changing Breed – specifically, the werehyaenas.

It was about whether werehyaena women have extremely large penis-like clitori, like regular female hyaenas do.

Now, to be fair, they don’t give a direct answer – they say that human Kinfolk of the werehyaenas have standard human anatomy and hyaena Kinfolk have standard hyaena anatomy, but cracks a joke about how the last researchers to try and discover the same about the werehyaenas themselves didn’t survive as a means of dodging the question. However, even addressing the subject is utterly risible.

I suppose it is remotely possible that, as a result of lecherous-minded forum conversations, Onyx Path decided that they had to address the subject for the snake of ending the sniggering. But not only is this fundamentally misguided – simply by raising the topic in the book they more or less guarantee that it will be a subject of conversation – but they chose more or less the worst way to clarify it by making it a coy mystery, thereby ensuring that juvenile-minded people will debate the topic over and over. I see no benefit to a more conventional werewolf-based game to having a discussion about whether werewolves have multiple pairs of nipples in their human or hybrid forms, and I equally see no real benefit to a werehyaena-themed campaign to giving serious consideration to the state of a character’s clitoris.

At best, it’s a ridiculous joke which certainly doesn’t merit being given its own dedicated sidebar. At worst, it’s lurking at the dodgy boundary between furry fetishism and outright bestiality, and given that the art in much of the rest of the book veers towards the weirdly fetishised to begin with that’s not great. If it were a passing reference in the bulk of the text it would be bad enough, but by actually making an entire sidebox out of it Onyx Pat more or less guarantee that it jumps out from the rest of the text. This isn’t the good sort of Saturday morning cartoon Captain Planet ridiculousness, this is inviting people to debate other people’s genitalia at the gaming table ridiculousness.

At this point, I am done. There is no reason to include Changing Breeds PCs in your Werewolf game – all you accomplish is taking a game line which has a really vivid and distinct flavour and then dilute it and make it less powerful. There is especially no reason to include Changing Breeds PCs based on a book that thought that sort of locker room sniggering is even remotely appropriate in a supposedly professional RPG product.

Changing Ways

This is an in-depth look as to what it means to be a werewoofle, which is an interesting idea for a supplement given that the whole game is meant to be about that. I haven’t read it because it doesn’t especially interest me – based on Rage Across the World I am reasonably sure I don’t want more detail on how pack life works because it probably won’t make much sense anyway. Apparently it includes a declaration that trans werewolves can’t ever have gender reassignment surgery because their woofle healing just puts their birth genitals back or something, which given that werewolves can do all sorts of ritual scarification and cyborgisation that sticks seems like utter bullshit.

Worse, it’s utter bullshit which seems to serve no purpose beyond making life shittier for trans characters for no good reason, because I cannot see what possible harm it would do to the setting and themes of Werewolf to just let people transition, and I cannot see what possible benefit it brings to the table to throw in that arbitrary barrier. At best it’s pointless, at worst it’s a mean-spirited kick at trans people that has absolutely no place in the game. The intent seems to be to make trans characters go on a big ol’ vision quest if their intentions for their transition involve major physical changes; a) are there not more major and pressing issues to spend game time on, and b) do you really want to go through all of that hassle every single time someone makes a trans character?

Apparently the same healing factor stuff means that woofles can’t have abortions, for extra needless grasping of livewire issues – and also it’s contradictory nonsense because the book elsewhere talks about terminating metis pregnancies as a matter of clan policy. (Also it doubles down on the “metis” terminology.) Given that people on the Onyx Path forums are able to cite this stuff by page number, I am inclined to take them at their word. Whoever in the Paradox/White Wolf/Onyx Path power structure was responsible for greenlighting this needs to be fired: even if their agenda was to be as unpleasantly reactionary on the subject as possible, the outright contradictions means that they aren’t even being competent at that.

Book of the Wyrm

This is your big fat book of Wyrm-flavoured baddies, divided into quarters by subject. The first chapter provides the most fantasy-oriented takr on the Wyrm, discussing its metaphysical nature, its Umbral realm of Malfeas, and the Maeljin Incarnae – the Dark Lords and Ladies who rule the duchies of Malfeas, former mortals overcome entirely by Urges to become avatars thereof. That’s all rather cool, especially since you actually get guidance on how the Incarnae may be killed and how the march of the Apocalpyse may be delayed as a result.

The second chunk is the Pentex chapter. Pentex is easily the most Captain Planet-y feature of the Werewolf setting, and the best thing about the chapter is that they embrace this and double down on them being supervillainesque corporate Illuminati rather than trying to tone them down and make them more grounded and realistic. At its best, this adds an edge of humour to things which is more than suited to the nastiness of the subject matter. (Yes, Black Dog Game Factory are still a thing, and still corrupting the minds of youth with their violent RPGs – and since this supplement was written during the CCP era there’s also a jab at Eve Online in the form of Space Accountant.)

The downside of this is that when things get a bit less silly, it feels incongruous as a result. For instance, we get a whole discussion about how Pentex runs a whole infrastructure of orphanages and soup kitchens and food banks and other welfare institutions, and how this is bad because it allows people to just give up and live in Bane-spawning misery but the Garou aren’t really in a position to knock it over because if they did then the resultant nastiness would inspire even more Banes.

The weird anti-welfare stance of the text seems to be predicated on the idea of welfare and other systems existing effectively as safety valves which allow modernity to keep ticking on without collapsing catastrophically, which ties in with one of the more grating aspects of this chapter – the absolutely relentless anti-modernity of it all. Basically, literally any aspect of modern life at all turns out to be an implacably corruptive, destructive, and altogether poisonous plaything of the Wyrm.

That’s all in keeping with the hardline agriculture-was-a-mistake primitivism of the Garou, of course, but it also means that the chapter here dedicated to exploring a supervillain organisation somehow manages to make the theoretical heroes look just as bad if not worse – after all, dismantling all this stuff in a violent rage would lead to mass death on a colossal scale. This is all in keeping with the general idea in Werewolf that the Garou’s cause is irreversibly doomed, that their own attitudes are part of the problem and the history of the Apocalypse is as much a chronicle of the self-defeating mistakes of the Garou as it is the plots of their enemies. On the other hand, that’s a reversion to a much more hopeless take on the setting than the core Werewolf 20th Anniversary book went for.

The chapter also includes a brace of other Wyrm cults, including the delicious irony of an eco-terrorist group whose tactics are so extreme they end up creating massive amounts of Bane-spawning misery in their own right and create enormous political support for the opposition – thus sabotaging the Garou’s own eco-terrorism in turn.

Next up we have the Black Spiral Dancers and an in-depth exploration of them. Back in the day in the original Book of the Wyrm we apparently had charming setting details thrown in like them keeping their Kinfolk in rape prisons for faster breeding purposes; thankfully, they seem to have backed way the fuck off on that this time, and the Black Spiral Dancer perspective here ends up being a set of very compelling excuses for being a total jerk.

Fourth, we have the chapter on fomori – former humans warped into monstrous forms through possession by Banes, spirits created from human misery. Between this and the core Werewolf 20th Anniversary book you get a pretty comprehensive updating on the information from Freak Legion, the old fomori guidebook, though with certain gleefully immature excesses thankfully toned down. The big problem with the example fomori here is largely inherited from that – which is to say that they tend to be too on the nose, very specific parodic creatures crafted from very specific causes. (For instance, there’s an entire type which is exclusively created from the victims of “pray the gay away”-type anti-homosexuality therapies.)

Not only does that occasionally get quite risible and problematic at points (for instance, the assumption that anti-gay therapies actually work seems to be rather Citation Needed), but also it would seem to be more useful to have fomori tied to particular categories of trauma, and then a bunch of examples of how Pentex or the Black Spiral Dancers or other Wyrm cults try to induce such things deliberately.

Lastly, you have an appendix of cool Wyrm-based gear.

It’s all rather extreme – and at points X-TREEM in a very “grumpy teen in the 1990s having a strop” sort of way – and tends to lend itself to my general feeling that Werewolf works best as a violent, cartoonish comedy that’s parodying itself. But for that purpose, Book of the Wyrm is just great.

Pentex Employee Indoctrination Manual

A delicious accessory presented as an in-character copy of a Pentex internal manual. Tends towards the silly Captain Planet side of the setting, which is exactly how I like it. If you already have the Book of the Wyrm it won’t tell you much that is new, but at least it is amusing satire.

Wyld West Expansion Pack

Whereas Vampire: the Dark Ages got its own full-blown 20th Anniversary Edition, Werewolf: the Wild West didn’t get nearly the same love. That in some respects make a lot of sense, since the original game line sank like a stone – emerging originally in 1997, it got canned a mere two years later. Still, for those who miss it, this slim booklet provides a rules update and a brief setting guide (as well as an overview of the intended metaplot, if you care about that) for the setting.

On the one hand, it’s kind of a shame that this variant setting died a quick death, since the Garou are way less united here than they are in the mainline setting. On the other hand, the actual split is of course deeply uncomfortable – since it has the Uktena and Wendigo as the designated Native American tribes on one side against everyone else who’s colonising the West with the Europeans and bringing all that Wyrmy technological nastiness with them. It’s also a bit hard to see what you do with the setting if you don’t use the main metaplot revolving around Storm Eater, a major Bane spirit inadvertently unleashed by the genocidal expansion into the American West, though there’s certainly possibilities surrounding the Enlightened Society of the Weeping Moon – a quasi-Masonic order to provide a more 19th Century-seeming big bad in the place of the decidedly 20th Century Pentex.

On the whole, the setting feels shallow enough that it’d be more fun for a brief visit rather than a particularly extended campaign; as a result, it’s perhaps best that they kept this revival to this one little booklet rather than trying to milk a cow which just doesn’t seem to have ever had that much milk to offer; if this is an overview of what the original Werewolf: the Wild West line had to offer, it goes some way to explaining why the game line didn’t survive that long.

One thought on “Awoo of Darkness: the Supplements of 20th Anniversary Werewolf

  1. Pingback: 5 on Friday: 06/07/18 – No Rerolls

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