Ginger Nuts of Horror
Note: For this column, I have resisted all urges to do contemporary research prior to writing – I want to capture as authentically as I can my own memory and impressions of the subject. So the whole 'this is not journalism' thing is particularly and spectacularly apt this time. If you're interested in accuracy with regard to the subject, I'm sure there's half a dozen wikis out there – knock yourself out.
In a previous column, I discussed a particularly dark period of my life, and how music was one of the few threads that kept me tethered to some notion of happiness, of life as something to be lived rather than just survived. That's all true, of course, but as I cast my mind back to that time, I discovered, with some small measure of surprise, that it actually wasn't the whole story. There was one other significant activity that I regularly partook of, with the small group of friends I lived with, which helped keep me, if not exactly sane, at least on the right side of chronic depression.
That activity was a product of the White Wolf publishing company. A tabletop role-playing game called Werewolf: The Apocalypse.
This game, man. The source of my first edition rulebook is obscure. I know it was first edition, because there were parts where it would say ‘for more information, see page xx’, because either the extra information hadn't been added in after all, or the copy editor hadn't picked up on the entry.
Unless there was a page xx that I missed.
Shit, now that'll bug me all night.
Either way, there it was. First edition. A primer on the nature of what tabletop role-playing is would be outside of the scope of this project, I think, so I'll just describe it as improvised storytelling with stats and dice for now, and trust that if you really care and don't yet know, the internet is your friend.
What does feel 'in scope', however, is an overview of what Werewolf was like. Aside from fucking fantastic and entirely brilliant, that is.
So here's the setting for the game Werewolf.
Gaia is dying. Poisoned by the cancer of the spread of man and industrialisation, the planet is choking on toxins. The wilderness is dying out, strip-mined and defoliated and concreted over. The apocalypse is coming. Soon.
Into this bleak world come the player characters (PC's) – the Garou. Werewolves. Mother nature's immune system. Creature of the Wild, who howl against the dying of the light. When Will You Rage?
I suspect I don't really need to explain to you the appeal of such a game to a bunch of unemployed teenagers, living in a high unemployment area of the country in the mid to late 90's. To say that we could relate to the plight of characters who see the future as a black hole, crushing everything they hold sacred in an orgy of greed that will end only in total destruction, would be a chronic understatement. I'm sure in our minds, the only thing that separated us from the characters we played was their super-powered ability to strike back at those dark forces (albeit with in the context of the knowledge that no matter what they do, things will get worse and eventually collapse – whoever created this game understood with uncanny accuracy the deep rooted cynicism of youth).
So, okay, that's the elevator pitch, but there's huge layers underneath. For starters, the Garou are divided into 12 tribes, each with it's own philosophies, origin myths, and allegiances. For example, there's the Silver Fangs, who are the aristocracy (but also possibly a little inbred), The Shadow Lords (who believe the Fangs have usurped their natural position of leadership and long for the opportunity to become the dominant tribe), The Black Furies, an all female tribe who consider men and male violence to be the root of all the corruption (and who follow the earth mother worship and maiden/mother/crone archetypes), Bone Gnawers – transients who survive on city streets, Silent Striders – loners in a society that usually highly values the social unit of the pack – even Glass Walkers, who believe the city represents the evolution of the Wild rather than the death of it, and seek through various ways to make cities 'greener' spaces.
Underneath all this is the spiritual component – the mythology of the Garou. The notion that the three forces of the universe once lived in harmony – The Wild, pure energy and creation, The Weaver, who would knit that raw matter into order, and The Wyrm, who would contain the excesses of both via destruction. But something went wrong, The Weaver went mad and trapped the Wyrm in his woven patterns. Now the Wyrm is also mad, twisting and thrashing in The Weavers net, bent on destroying everything, whilst the Wild grows ever weaker and smaller.
Thing is, in the game world, this stuff isn't philosophy – it's real, tangible. The Garou have the ability to 'step sideways' – to travel into the spirit realm, the Umbra. There, the spirit servants of these forces are manifest – weaver spiders run across electricity lines and concrete buildings, toxic waste dumps writhe with twisted Wyrm spirits (called Banes) and in the deeper forests, Wydling spirits sometimes dance.
This serves at least two purposes in storytelling terms. First, obviously it opens up a whole other realm for the players to explore – like decking in Shadowrun, only all the players have this ability. Secondly though, and for my mind more interestingly in storytelling terms, it removes any doubt about whether or not any of this is real – the mythology isn't relegated to past events, but is a living, breathing spirituality that players can touch, taste, be killed by. The Apocalypse of the title is therefore also not an abstract thing, or some far away future event –
it's oppressive, ever-present,
breathing down the necks of the players,
adding extra pain to every defeat,
and quietly undermining every victory.
Yeah – no surprise it was so popular with us.
And of course, in particular, popular with me. I was the Storyteller of the group (that's GM or DM in old money), so my job was creating the stories, the settings, the supporting cast for the players to meet.
I wasn’t very good, truth be told. I struggled to come up with scenarios, and in fact almost exclusively used the pre-written scenarios that White Wolf produced - I ran the Rites Of Passage story more than once, and also had the Valkenberg Foundation book, which was a lot of fun. I made a few modifications - moving the Central Park cairn to London’s Hyde Park, for example - but other than that, I basically ran the game by the book.
What I really enjoyed though, and what I flatter myself that I was good at, was the character work. Character generation for my games took hours. Werewolf asks you to make a lot of decisions up front about your characters, and there’s a huge list of abilities to pick from, and decisions about how many points to assign to them. And I’d make players justify every single pick, talking me through how their character had gained that skill or talent.
This wasn’t, to be clear, to be a ballache. It was to really get them to think about the characters they were playing, really get to know them, inhabit them. Once we’d gone through that, each character would get their own 1-2-1 roleplay session before the main game started, where I’d take them through key events in their lives, right up to their first change. These sessions were pure invention and improvisation, two minds working together to weave a narrative, create a shared reality. Its was huge fun, and it meant by the time we got to sit down and play together, everybody knew their own story well, and was ready to play.
I’d also always put an NPC in the pack - a werewolf character played by me. It was meant to work as a crutch, really. A way for me to manipulate the players if they got too off track, keep them at least somewhere near the narrative path I wanted them to take. In the event, I think those NPC’s ended up derailing things at least as often as they helped.
But man, we had some fun.
We raged against the dying of the light. We took on a Black Spiral Dancer pack in the snowy wildlands of Canada and avenged the murder of Wendigo pups. We made it to New York, and managed to prevent a kidnapping as the streets erupted in drug fueled violence. The Silent Strider Philadox fell in love with the deaf Ragabash Glasswalker girl, and had to leave the pack (love between Werewolves being forbidden by law, the Philadox meant to be the keepers of said law) - his replacement was a Get Of Fenris ragabash who aged in wolf years, and whose kink was killing by assassination - deeply dishonourable by Were and Get standards.
The metis Shadow Lord was slowly but surely ostracized from his tribe, even as he maintained his faith in them and their purpose. When we finished playing, he was in a coma, having sustained incredible injuries, including a collapsed lung, at the hands of a rage bane.
We gamed long into the early hours, and between us we told stories of heroic despair, bravery, violence, redemption and loss. By mutual consent, in full co-operation, we carved ourselves out a little alternate reality, right on the top floor living room of that crumbling shared house at the corner of a dead end street in a one horse town - not the middle of nowhere, but by God you could see it from there - and in that shithole (which I later found out escaped being condemned only because it was listed) we lived the lives of legends - creatures of wildness, rage, spirit.
We fought hard. We fought bloody. Even as the world grew darker around us, we tore at the evil that we were surrounded by with tooth and claw.
And in the process, by some actual, real world magic, we kept our own black dogs from the door.
At least sometimes. At least for a while.
I don’t think you can ask for much more than that. Thanks, guys. For the games, for the stories, for the characters.
For the friendship.
You fucking rocked.