Inside You There Are Six Wolves

Movie critic Roger Ebert once famously said, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” The same thing applies to games. It’s why systems, among other things, matter.

I got my copy of Bite Marks this week. It’s a Powered by the Apocalypse style game about belonging to a pack of werewolves. The game was Kickstarted (Kickstartered? Funded on Kickstarter…) in 2019. As I thumbed through it the first time I had a huge rush of déjà vu: hadn’t I seen PbtA werewolves before? Indeed I had – five other times!

How can there be six games (at least – I’m probably unaware of others), all PbtA, about this one narrow topic? Let’s compare and contrast.

Bite Marks, by Becky Annison, is the newest game in the lycanthrope category but also the most straightforward. Reading through it, it reminded me of The Sprawl, another PbtA game. The Sprawl is the gold standard for on-the-nose cyberpunk heists. You want to do a cyberpunk heist? Like, specifically the heist bit? You play The Sprawl. Bite Marks is like that but for werewolf fiction.

The main emphasis in Bite Marks is pack dynamics. The playbooks are all about various levels of power and servility, with the Alpha playbook (optionally an NPC) at the top and everyone else scrabbling below the Alpha. I’ve got a good friend who’s mad at Bite Marks for this focus on dominance and power drama, since animal behaviorists have long since discarded the notion of an Alpha among real world wolves. Bite Marks takes this head-on with an essay at the end of the book, explaining that the dynamics of Bite Marks is about werewolf fiction, not actual wolves.

Mechanically, Bite Marks is solid but unsurprising. The stats are all wolfy – teeth, guts, feral, heart – and the common moves largely orbit around power dynamics, PvP action, and the actual mechanisms of shapeshifting and “being wolf-like.” It hits all its marks. You want to play a werewolf pack? You play this game.

The metaphor at the center of the game is about deeply fucked up families. Literally anyone at any time can seize control of the whole pack, at any moment you might get dominated into doing something. It’s power stuff from top to bottom. There’s a ton of good consent and safety talk in the book as well, given the fraught potential of power, sex, and submission.

Bottom line: play Bite Marks if you want a conventional game about werewolf packs as dysfunctional families.

Brie Beau Sheldon’s Turn, out late 2019,is a game about feeling like an outsider, and the fear of being outed, of having one’s secrets revealed. It’s focused on small towns and low-level drama, rather than existential threats, violence, or sprawling melodrama. The small town focus is nice because it guarantees you’re in an environment where folks will know you, and it’s hard to keep secrets.

The game isn’t about werewolves, rather a whole bunch of metaphors for different kinds of secret and public lives. You take two roles in the game: a human role, and a beast. The human roles are how you interact in the small town – maybe you were literally raised in the wild and didn’t become a human until later, or you belong to a long line of shapeshifters who have plans and expectations of you, and so on. The beast side is not exclusive – everyone could be an otter, or a raven, or a wolf – but there are eight of them and I’d probably lean toward spreading that out. As a beast, your goals and abilities are all more primal. The more pronounced your various nature stats (there are four each human and beast natures), the harder it is to deal with conflict but the easier it is to invoke your character’s beast abilities. There’s lots of mechanical emphasis on the constant tension between your identities.

The game is built on one specific metaphor –your secret self might be dangerous to yourself and others –explored in many different ways. Interestingly, the reaction to being outed is left to the dice. Like, it might work out totally fine when your church discovers you can turn into a raccoon. That roll is modified by factors that led up to the outing, which are tracked on a relationship map representing various aspects of the town.

The Wolf archetype explicitly belongs to a pack, and all but one of the playbook’s beast abilities addresses that pack identity. As you play within your pack, there’s no discussion of dominance or submission; power isn’t a theme at all. Instead, the pack is all about raising young, taking partners, protecting your territory, and celebrating belonging. That all fits with Turn’s overall focus on low-stakes drama.

Bottom line: play Turn if you want an experience about protecting a secret, and navigating small-town life where you fear your secret is an existential threat.

Lycanthropy in Urban Shadows is just one corner of Magpie Games’ sprawling modern urban fantasy game. The game isn’t about werewolves, but they serve a metaphorical role in the big picture.

The Wolf playbook is the gang element of the game’s Night faction, that is, the crime world. Think cholos in low-riders, Crips/Bloods, good old Italian Mafiosi if you’d like. The playbook’s mechanical hooks are about shapeshifting, commanding a pack, and controlling a territory.

What makes Urban Shadows (and Monsterhearts, next) different from Bite Marks and Turn is the fact that only one player at the table is playing this metaphor. If you’re the Wolf, you represent all the werewolves. There may be tensions within your pack or gang or whatever, but that’s an extrinsic threat – NPCs nipping at your heels, not another player. There’s no conflict between player characters about your gang or tribe or pack, none of that juicy, fraught drama that only facing other players generates.

Urban Shadows itself is about intersectionalism. Every playbook belongs to one of four broad cultures. Your Wolf and their pack might be facing off against vampires in a gang war, or they might be joining forces with those vamps to deal with a Wizard who’s got the powers-that-be behind her.

Bottom Line: play Urban Shadows if you want a lycanthropy story heavy on intersectional social metaphor.

The Werewolf playbook in Avery Alder’s Monsterhearts, like all its playbooks, is strongly metaphorical for a type of coming-of-age teen melodrama story. Unlike the larger intersectional concerns of Urban Shadows, Monsterhearts is about self-discovery and the pains and thrills of entering adulthood. In the case of The Werewolf, the emphasis is on lashing out, falling in love too deeply, fuck politeness. It’s every overemotional teenager story wrapped up in one terrifying package.

Monsterhearts’ killer app is the Darkest Self rules. Your character’s Darkest Self is an alibi to be fully monstrous and do monstrous things. The Werewolf’s particular Darkest Self is about dominating and lashing out more dangerously than when you’re just acting out. The rest of the playbook’s mechanical execution is what you’d expect playing a werewolf: wolf-like enhanced senses, bloodlust, interpersonal domination.

There is no larger pack context in which your teenage werewolf lives, not until you take the Wolf Pack advancement. Until that happens, it’s an open question whether there even are other werewolves in your game. Monsterhearts isn’t about the mythology of the monsters; it’s about the metaphors for teenage experiences.

Bottom Line: play Monsterhearts if you want to explore the inner life of a lone teenage werewolf, constantly on the verge of losing control.

This hack of Urban Shadows feels similar to Bite Marks in terms of being on-the-nose about wolf pack dynamics, but is viewed through a Mexican cultural lens. It sits kind of halfway between Urban Shadows and Cartel, another of Magpie Games’ productions.

Los Cazados is also a much smaller game than everything else on this list, just five pages long. There is only one playbook, with the stats themselves providing the only differentiation. Rank, which in this game (mostly) maps to age, is the power-dynamic stat of the game, and is a direct tradeoff with Trauma, your out-of-the-game clock. The more Rank, the more Trauma you start with.

The age-focused dominance element is just half of the game, though. The pack has a territory as well, which is the shared-setting-creation element you find in lots of PbtAs. The territory game provides a holding environment for the werewolves: it tells you how and when you’ll face Los Maltidos, vampires of European descent who arrived with the conquistadores. The start-of-session Territory move might also result in challenges from other packs, or infighting within your own pack. It’s good tech that Magpie has done well in the past.

Interesting bit of thematic difference in Los Cazados is that there is no Alpha. The pack is a family, and that’s still the metaphor at work, with an emphasis on younger wolves deferring to older wolves. That family dynamic feels more culturally Mexican than, say, the family metaphor in Bite Marks where anyone can wrestle for control at any time. As the father of a strong-willed eight year old, well…sometimes I wish she’d be a little more deferential!

Another aspect of the game that pushes Mexican culture is Rituals. It works out to be a magical equivalent to Workshop in Apocalypse World: talk about what the magic does and how it does it. There’s some neat suggestions that rituals might be discovered in “the Wild,” a reference to the Umbra, I think, from White Wolf’s Werewolf: the Apocalypse.

Bottom line: play Los Cazados for a strongly Mexican-cultural-themed werewolf story narrowly focused on mysticism, family and history.

The last in the list is also the weirdest. Nahual, by Mexican designer Miguel Ángel Espinoza, is about shamanic shape-shifters who hunt angels – yeah, with the wings – and butcher them for meat, drugs, and other consumables. It is completely bananas and deeply, deeply Mexican.

The playbooks reflect your totem animal – eagle, armadillo, and so on, but no wolves per se – and tracks your spirit’s evolution. Maxing out your spirit takes you out of the game. Other than that nod to the whole “will your animal spirit overwhelm you?” thing, and the actual shapeshifting, there’s really nothing else in Nahual that looks or feels like the traditional werewolf narrative. No packs, no power dynamics. You’re Mexican, you’re poor, and you hunt angels to make ends meet. It reads, without having played it yet, like a street-level superhero story. Protect your neighborhood, make hard choices to pay your bills, fight an existential war in darkness.

Bottom line: play Nahual if you want a radically decolonized take on shapeshifters in a specific, modern-mythic setting.

The Bottomest Line

Pretty cool that a topic as narrow as shape-shifting can have so many divergent takes, isn’t it? Makes one wonder why a topic that’s as wide as, say, fantasy, has so few. Yes yes, shapeshifting is more of a premise and fantasy is more of a setting. But still: there’s not a reason in the world to think any given genre or premise or, really, anything else can’t be done again and again in different ways. Maybe that different way will resonate with different people and find different audiences.

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