Sunday, July 17, 2022

(Werewolf: The Apocalypse) Kinfolk: Unsung Heroes


Canonical wolf fucking! Arggh!

There. It's out of my system. Let's move on and never speak of it again.

But I guess we do have to talk about eugenics. It's always a tricky subject when you're dealing with hereditary superpowers. Werewolves inherit their lycanthropy and that immediately raises the subject of how to go about making more werewolves. And maybe it starts out innocently enough, with tracing family trees and consensual matchmaking, but then maybe the werewolf genes land in somebody who doesn't want to be part of a multigenerational werewolf breeding project or in an otherwise ordinary wolf whose story I'm not going to talk about because it's gross, and what you get is something weird and challenging, but not necessarily in a good way.

Kinfolk: Unsung Heroes, by Deena McKinney with Forrest B Marchinton, is about the people who are part of these werewolf families, but not actually werewolves themselves. And it gets weird and uncomfortable and eugenics-y and I'm not sure that the writing is deft enough to pull it off. Kinfolk can earn renown for their great deeds, just like Garou, but their chart is unfairly punitive. Why, you can get a -4 hit to your Honor for "refusing to mate."

I'm choosing to interpret this as "openly proclaiming your intent to live a child-free lifestyle" rather than "rebuffing a specific werewolf's advances" because I still have some hope left in this world. However, the message is clear - if you have a working uterus and the werewolf gene, you're obligated to churn out the next generation of baby werewolves.

But the thing that gets me is that this is not a theme. These everyday horrors keep showing up, but they just pass by. One of the narrators is a nurse and she says, "I've seen more than one Kinfolk girl in my practice who begs me to keep her condition secret, so she won't be locked up for nine months." 

And it's not as if the book condones this sort of behavior. It's clear from context that "cloister[ing] pregnant females like nuns" is a practice the narrator disapproves of, but "I've dealt with some pissed-off Garou spouses and parents, but when I tell them my concern is for both mother and child, they usually back off" is not treated as the giant red flag it ought to be. Oh, okay, you're dealing with a patriarchal obsession with controlling women's reproductive choices, but it only sometimes turns violent? Carry on.

The thing is, it could be a theme. We are at a particular historical moment (and yes, the book was written in 1997, but even then, these were pertinent issues) where "escape from the werewolf sex cult" could be a game that people might want to play (with, I'm assuming, a robust session 0 and well-worked-out safety tools). Like, "your reproductive capability belongs to the race" is creepy horror territory, but then you add ". . . and the race is werewolves" and that becomes a fucking allegory.  There is definitely a tradition of transgressive resistance horror . . .

But I am certain that Kinfolk: Unsung Heroes is not it. I can say this because this theoretical campaign model was pertinent in 1997 and was exactly the sort of thing that old White Wolf would have recklessly charged ahead with in a way that was somehow more sexist than the thing it was satirizing, but if we look at the Tribe of explicitly feminist (and therefor pro-choice) werewolves, it's clear they were not operating on that wavelength.

[D]on't think for a minute that all Fury Kin are either slathering bull dykes or nurturing mother figures. There are some, well, bimbos. You know, the ones that like to control CEOs and topple careers. That tart Senator Porkbarrel was found in bed with may well have been Kin. We have the same variety as any other women, whether that means we live up to certain archetypes or not - we just have a generous helping of self-esteem.

I have to be careful, because I was 15 in 1997 and I definitely wouldn't have noticed anything wrong about this paragraph ("it's saying that they have 'variety' - it's only misogyny if you say the stereotype applies to all women.") However, it seems odd to me that the original design of the game carves out space for an all-female Tribe of feminist werewolves, presumably to counter the toxic masculinity encoded in the game's very premise, and then somehow, in a book where feminists are needed more than ever, this is the way you go with it.

I'm thinking that 1992 was even longer ago than 1997, and maybe it felt like a push just to have lady werewolves as protagonists. You look at books from the late 80s like GURPS Basic Set or The Complete Fighters Handbook, where they take a quick beat to remind you that women exist and female characters are allowed, and you think, maybe the 90s were the decade where people started noticing when you leave out half the population. The Black Furies were raging feminists dredged from the nightmares of rural talk radio, but at least they were there.

Ish. They're actually MIA in the parts of this book that talk about unequal power relationships and their expected sexual components. Probably because those sorts of abuses are just casually accepted. Undesirable, perhaps, but just a part of life, not something to make a political issue out of. There's very much a #NotAllGarou vibe to it. It probably doesn't even crack the top ten examples of White Wolf offensiveness, and hell, there's nothing in here as directly insensitive as even the third or fourth worst thing about The Orphans Survival Guide, but there is this constant needling. Female kinfolk are abused in these horrible ways, but that's not what the game's going to be about.

Aside from that, Mrs Lincoln, how was the play? I'd say that it has some interesting and useful material, but it never quite articulates a distinctive niche for Kinfolk games. It has some decent adventure pitches - rescuing a werewolf from a sinister laboratory, guarding a particular neighborhood from the forces of evil - but they never stop feeling like watered-down Werewolf: the Apocalypse games. Serve Gaia and fight the Wyrm, but do it without superpowers. I suspect it's because of old White Wolf's supplement treadmill. The whole reason this book was commissioned and published was to be part of "The Year of the Ally" and thus it sort of represents a snapshot of how Kinfolk were perceived at the time, rather than any sort of true inspiration for Kinfolk games. It's competently written and developed, but it likely would have been a better book if it had waited until someone really wanted to write a book about Kinfolk.

Ukss Contribution: I'd say that this book more disappointed than offended me. Its main failing was not being better than you could expect for the time (and, again, White Wolf has published stuff that was way grosser than this, even in later years).

My favorite thing here was probably the Spirit Chasing numina. It was a path of mortal sorcery that allows you to take on the characteristics of particular items or creatures, so long as you study the spirit of those things. Follow the poison ivy spirit and people will get a rash by touching you!

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