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.

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Freak, C’est Sick

As well as existing within the setting of Werewolf: the Apocalypse as a gleeful self-parody of White Wolf, the Black Dog Game Factory actually existed as an imprint of White Wolf, through which they published material which they wanted to flag as being No Seriously This Is For Mature Audiences Only. Ironically, though, Black Dog didn’t produce that much for Werewolf itself. The sole book they put out for it was Freak Legion, a players’ guide to creating and playing fomori.

Fomori in Werewolf are seriously messed up. They’re people who have been infected, corrupted, and eventually entirely possessed by Banes – Wyrm-spirits born out of human suffering – and have become physically mutated as a result. Many of them end up working for Pentex, the evil corporation that acts like a Captain Planet villain that’s the main face of the Wyrm in the mortal world; sometimes that’s because they got corrupted through involvement with some Pentex plot, sometimes that’s because Pentex tracked them down, sometimes that’s because their Bane nudged them into joining Pentex. Either way, most of them end up working on Pentex First Teams – the special forces squads Pentex uses for fighting werewoofles.

There are three components that nudge Freak Legion into Black Dog territory. The first is the body horror intrinsic in the fomori concept. The second is the human misery involved in their creation. The third, and by far the greatest, is the gleefully flippant attitude with which the book handles the other two factors. This might be billed as being for Mature Readers Only, but you only have to read the description of the Savage Genitalia mutation (it’s exactly like it sounds, only even worse if you combine it with other mutations as they suggest) to realise you are dealing with Immature Writers Only.

Now, of course it could be that the authors were playing up to the gruesome, purilely sexist, and gleefully violent tendencies they’d ascribed to Black Dog in the setting material – but then again, wasn’t Black Dog a parody of White Wolf themselves? There’s an extent to which it feels like this is a slippage of the mask of cultured sophistication that White Wolf like to adopt. In the cartoon nonsense of Freak Legion we see a dissolution of 1990s White Wolf’s pretences to high art and clever handling of serious issues to reveal the violence-happy edgelord dorks underneath. At its worst it yields insufferable nonsense like Savage Genitalia; at its best there’s a fresh, exciting edge to it which might not be especially intellectual, but certainly seems to offer more of a clue to White Wolf’s original popularity than any stab at high art.

Wuffle-Woofs Then and Now

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.

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