Sunday, April 12, 2015

Werewolves, Butoh, D&D

Somewhere between 1941's The Wolf Man and when seven, eight or nine year-old me got his hands on D&D, werewolves had ceased to be something that were, in essence, frightening.

I'm picking on werewolves here but this is true of a ton of our monsters, right? Like I think some monsters enter our common consciousness long after 1941, sometimes enter it precisely because of D&D, and still they're already old hat. The problems are many.

Like, ontological: I think the werewolf enters the modern psyche as an archetype for ersatz cannibals and violent madmen, maybe with a little fear of nature in all senses of that word thrown into the mix. It's not a very potent or moving or upsetting archetype as it describes fears I doubt many of us have in a present way. Maybe worse, it wraps those fears in an animal form that I think might read more furry than anything else these days. Do any other D&D monsters fare much better? I'm not sure they do, personal squeamishness about things with lots of legs aside.

And then in the context of a game where people have magic, things get worse. Changing into a wolf is scary only if wolves and/or people changing shape are scary, right? In a game where wolves and people changing shape are standard tropes, where the response to a metamorphoses into a wolf leads the wizard to go, "Oh, I have that spell too," the were-creature is already old hat prima facie. I mean, it's fun in a creature-feature reference way, but it isn't essentially frightening and as  Referee I feel like I'm wasting everyone's time talking about it transforming, but have to anyway because there's that whole ritual necessity to stories where, "it turns into a werewolf" falls flat because everyone wants the same boring thing about changing faces and tearing clothes and oh, how terrible is the widening mouth. 

Like, fantasy games create these spongy boundaries, so you can't just go: whoop, it's arms are too too long and everyone is like, oh god what is it? They're like, oh, do we know about people with long arms?

And then there are rules. We've got both cultural and mechanical rules getting in the way. Werewolves have culturally established rules involving ways to kill them and those rules work in favor of the player every time. Like, if its a werewolf and silver doesn't work because it's a special werewolf, there are players I've had, there are always and always have been and always will be players who will just see that as Referee bullshit. And everyone else that plays along will only play along so many times.

And every monsters in D&D has rules to kill them and while it's perfectly OK, in my mind, to include a nigh-unkillable monster in a game, it's shitty to provide an entirely unkillable monster, and no one wants to play in a game of D&D where all the monsters are unkillable or even nigh-unkillable, so if they just run into a furry half-man, half-wolf in some cave, it's totally reasonable of my players to expect to be able to kill it somehow.

Which is to say werewolves still work, but they work only or mostly when they are nigh-unkillable and mechanically frightening.

And so much of the baggage (resistances, powers, ecology, etc.) that our monsters bring with them is boring or mostly boring or is mostly only interesting when it's in the context of something else interesting, like, "what kind of monster is this?" or "this whole town is werewolves and a full moon is rising" or "turns out that silver we bought was just spray-painted on." Which is fine, but kind of dull for me, as a Referee.

Then there is Grendel's mother, the aglæcwif (monster-wife), who, though, idese onlicnæs (appearing as a woman) is also mother of monsters, and a brimwylf (briny shewolf, lit. sea she-wolf). Never called a werwulf (man-wolf), she yet remains a wolf creeping up from a hell of black water and serpents, arrayed in the form of a woman. She holds court in those depths, her vassals are serpents and monsters, her reign twinning that of noble Hrothgar on the surface, her treasure halls similarly stocked. It appears she can breathe under water.

Grendel's mother scares the shit out of me. She is human and not, monster and not, maybe almost a bit of a god. There are no clear rules.

What seems frightening to me is not the mythologized, animalized, damaged, violent person, which werwulf probably signified in the Nordic context (some poor dude with PTSD and/or diminished intelligence and shit luck), but the actual damaged, violent person who is, at times, possibly an actual monster, because we don't really know the rules with them.

True Detective worked so well because we never were quite sure if the villain's gnostic pretensions were true or not, right?

So what does a werewolf look like? Something like Hisako Horikawa here:

Imagine that transition between human and some stranger, tighter, more urgent form, as it buries its face and hands in the soft belly of your friend, working its way through the organs and up into the ribcage to find the lungs and heart. And then the transition ceases. Maybe you see it ripple along the body of some kid you encounter outside of town on the edge of woods, maybe you see your linkboy undergo a similar change out of the corner of your eye.

*I wanted to talk about manitou and Louise Erdrich's Antelope Wife too but I can't find my old notes; I mention both only to indicate they're influential here too.

attribution: Wolf Man

1 comment:

  1. What in the world....they're plenty scary to players, but it's for one reason and one reason only--contagion.

    If that's not enough, then yes, you have a problem. But I think the difficulty with making them scary lies mainly in the mechanics of the creature. And I don't mean game mechanics, strictly. A mid-to-late 20th century movie werewolf (which is what people will expect if the word werewolf comes up) is basically a human-sized creature with teeth and claws. Yes, resistant to damage, but otherwise, there it is.

    Just based on the gross physical parameters you can only have it do so many points of damage before people say "Um, that's ridiculous". A 40' bronze dragon does 4d6 when it bites. Now it's D&D, not GURPS, so you have some fudge factor in assigning bite damage, but still.

    I played in a Heroes Unlimited (the horrible Palladium Supers RPG) campaign one time. Apparently Siembieda is a HUGE werewolf fan because the one time we fought a werewolf it nearly TPK'ed the entire party, just based purely on its massive damage and speed. Well it was scary but it just didn't make a lot of sense.

    Where am I going with Some kind of massively dangerous creature called a 'werewolf' could be introduced, but you need to put the background and rationale for it out there first or people will just be confused and mildly annoyed, not scared.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.