Monday, July 11, 2022

Werewolf: The Apocalypse, Revised Core

 I honestly thought nostalgia was going to push me through this faster. The busyness of the last couple of weeks didn't help (the hotel where I work got sold, I had my 40th birthday, the 4th of July weekend was surprisingly busy), but I think the bigger issue was my failure to emotionally connect with the material. I averaged about 20 pages per day, and it was something like - blaze through the setting chapter in the first day, reluctantly drag my ass through the system material over the next ten days, perk up again at the umbra chapter, power through the storyteller chapter (made easier by the inexplicably huge art that dominated 17 consecutive pages - a baffling editorial choice that felt like page-padding), and finally finishing strong with antagonists, spirit mentors, and magic items.

I think even the dry middle parts would have gone faster if I cared more about werewolves, though. I mean, this seems like something I should care about - fantasy creatures waging a hopeless and one-sided war against the coming apocalypse in the form of corporate polluters and weird creatures from beyond the borders of mundane reality - but there's something about garou culture, with its masculinism, militarism, appeal to tradition, and veneration of death that doesn't quite sit right with me. It's like, it's somehow both ecological and fascist, um . . . ecofascist?

No, no, I'm not going to pretend I just coined the term ecofascism or that I'm the first person to notice its applicability to Werewolf: the Apocalypse, but it's definitely an element. The weird thing, though, is that it's kind of an anachronism. I doubt very much that an ideological marriage between environmentalism and far right politics was even on the radar circa 2000, let alone in the early 90s when the first edition of Werewolf was originally conceived. I suspect the culprit is actually just White Wolf's formula - you're playing the monsters, so werewolves are these violent, dangerous beasts, but they also have a human side, and it is the navigation of these conflicting worlds that's supposed to be the source of the game's drama. They have a relatable, even sympathetic motive of trying to save the environment, therefor they need an extravagant monstrousness to balance it out. They go insensate with rage and brutally kill their enemies . . . and anyone else who happens to be in the way. Fair enough. But when they then also have a culture that normalizes that sort of behavior, that's when you start to get into "eco-terrorists talking about blood purity" territory. One of the thirteen tribes is a bunch of wolf supremacists who want to exterminate the entire human species. I guess the fact that it's fantastic is supposed to help us overlook the fact that it's genocide.

It's all probably serendipitous. We discover the recipe for and appeal of eco-fascism by breaking down the tropes. White Wolf liked to have unreasonable authority figures for the cool kids to rebel against, so werewolf society was undemocratic, but then wolf packs suggest a certain dominance structure (especially with the old, debunked theory of "alpha wolves"), so there's this rule by strength. Add in a spirit world, and there's a pretty clear chain from spirituality to religion and religion to tradition. And if lycanthropy is hereditary, then that signals an interest in family and lineage. So you've got a heritage, and part of the heritage is a culture, and part of the culture is a warrior ideal, but you don't have a choice because this isn't a democracy and the strong rule over the weak . . . therefor fascism. Add in a concern about ecology and you have ecofascism.

But it kind of bums me the fuck out, you know. Also, I could have done without the wolf fucking. That made looking at the author credits kind of awkward. I'd stare at the page and think, okay, which of you nine people is responsible for the Expression Ability's microfiction: "Waterdancer knew he'd never seen female Kin, wolf or two-leg, as beautiful as the one who prowled near him now in the snow . . ."  

I'm choosing to lay the blame at the feet of line developer, Ethan Skemp, because he had to have been the last person to sign off on printing what was, basically, wolf erotica, but I've also decided that this is going to be the playful kind of blame. Maybe we can all just pretend that Werewolf: the Apocalypse wolves are a different type of creature than real world wolves. Waterdancer was a lupus-breed Garou, who was born a wolf, underwent wolf puberty, and then gained the ability to change into human form, so maybe it's perfectly natural that he's sexually attracted to the wolfish form and we can ride the ambiguity of when and how he gained human-level intelligence to overlook how weird this all feels.

Except that it is also canonical that every Garou has both wolf and human ancestors (and in fact needs both types in relative balance to maintain the spiritual qualities that allow for the werewolf transformation) and it is also canonically impossible for werewolves to mate with each other (the product of such pairings are called "metis" and they are both sterile and affected by mutations that the book calls "deformities," which feels problematic), so we can infer with near certainty that human-born garou were historically fucking entirely normal wolves (and also that wolf-born garou were fucking humans) and I just have to assume, for the sake of my sanity, that this means that in the World of Darkness ordinary wolves are intelligent enough to consent to sex.

Besides, it's probably not Mr. Skemp's fault directly. It's probably a bit of legacy setting that showed up in 1st edition and just stuck around and nobody thought too much about it and then someone decided that it would be fun to depict a lupus-on-wolf seduction and the year was 2000 and everyone was like, "this is extremely normal."

Anyway, given that I've spent all this time complaining, you might get the impression that I dislike the book, and that wouldn't quite be correct. It's more that I didn't particularly like it. On balance, it's pretty middle of the road White Wolf. It's got the weird sex stuff, but less than Vampire: the Masquerade. It's got the weird race stuff, but less than Mage: the Ascension. It's got the weird politics stuff, and those are pretty close to peak weird, but even then they're merely weird in a different way than the other lines. But in a way, it's that very quality of being the platonically average White Wolf game that weakens it. 

Vampire has the rigid hierarchical politics, but since the PCs are inhuman parasites wickedly clinging to their miserable existence by consuming the blood of the innocent, the game has the ability to say "this shit is toxic, and if you play by their rules, you'll become toxic too." It's kind of the whole theme. How do you keep your humanity in a situation where survival requires inhumanity?  

Mage has the romantic"reject modernity" stuff, but it then goes on to ask, "so, do you have anything better" and then gets into heady political questions like the nature of freedom and how to properly allow for accountability in a society where power is intrinsically unequal. And the whole question of whether it is desirable, or even possible to reject modernity is what drives the setting's major conflicts.

And don't get me wrong, both games have pretty wide failure states. It's easy in Vampire to just be absolutely fucking gross. And Mage, at any given moment, is one poorly chosen argument away from being an active hate crime. But the potential is there. These are games rooted in critique. Werewolf . . . ?

Maybe I'm just not seeing it. I started off by needling the game about its ecofascist subtext, but to be fair, the book isn't exactly endorsing Garou society. I can't point out a particular passage, but you don't make a whole tribe of feminist werewolves (even if they are noticeably course-correcting away from being man-hating straw feminists) if you are unaware of the patriarchal slant of werewolf society. You don't make pacifist werewolves if you are unaware of werewolf militarism. So I don't think I was ruffling too many feathers when I pointed out the regressive elements of the Garou. However, aside from occasionally dipping its toe in that direction with the Children of Gaia (peaceful werewolves) and the Fera (non-wolf shapeshifters brought to the brink of destruction by the Garou in "the War of Rage"), the book doesn't really dare to ask "what if they're wrong."

Brace yourself for an incredibly superficial take - but look at the games' subtitles. It's possible to be wrong about the Masquerade, and fail to retain even the appearance of humanity. It's possible to be wrong about the Ascension, and fail to achieve enlightenment. But what does it mean to be wrong about the Apocalypse? You can fail to prevent it, but that failure proves you were right. The Garou have a bleak, fatalistic worldview, but they are, essentially, correct.

Let me throw you kind of a radical pitch - what if the Garou were wrong? What if they took a step back from their role as the self-appointed guardians of cosmological balance and everything just turned out fine? Not necessarily because fears of the upcoming apocalypse were overblown, but because without these rampaging were-beasts wrecking their shit, humanity is able to rise to the moment and solve the crisis themselves. It turns out that the masses do have agency, and the hard men standing on the walls were totally unnecessary (or even did more harm than good).  What if the enemy wasn't the enemy, but rather someone you could work alongside for the betterment of all?

It would be a little tricky to do, because I wouldn't want to let real Exxon off the hook, but at the same time, as someone the Garou would likely consider "the enemy," I kind of want to let myself off the hook, at least a little. Sometime between 1st edition and revised, human beings started reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone and that's part of humanity too. It's not a binary. It doesn't have to be a war.

Mostly, though, I'm thinking about the metaphysic trinity - The Wyld, The Weaver, and The Wyrm - the cosmic principles of creation, order, and decay. The titular Apocalypse is going to be caused by the Wyrm going out of control, magnifying pollution, corruption, and human evil to untenable levels that will ultimately wipe out all life. This is exacerbated by the insanity of the Weaver, who empowers science and technology and is seeking to spread the sterile web of modern society as far as possible in an effort to contain the Wyrm, never mind that she is smothering the very possibility of new life. Maybe the out of control Wyrm drove the Weaver insane with fear. Maybe the Weaver's desire for control led her to try and trap the Wyrm, sending it into an outraged frenzy. All we know for sure is that the Wyld is thus far uncorrupted and therefor blameless.

Not coincidentally, the Garou believe they are protecting the Wyld. It's interesting to me hat you could have an interdependent cosmic cycle of three coequal forces and only two of them could be broken. Obviously, if they are failing in sequence, one of them has to be the last, but maybe we shouldn't buy the official story. Some contemporary Garou want to exterminate the human species. Historically, they attempted (and made strong progress towards) exterminating the non-wolf shapechangers. Before that, they culled humanity with such violence that even now, thousands of years after the fact, human ancestral memory causes them to freeze with terror when they see a werewolf in its hybrid form. Maybe this is a pattern. Maybe there is something wrong with the cosmological force they serve.

At least, I think Werewolf: the Apocalypse would have been a stronger game if it felt like this was an acceptable question. It bills itself as "a game of savage horror" and there are rules for the savagery going too far and slipping out of control, but it never explores the horror of deliberate savagery, working as intended. There's very little critique, and thus you pretty much have to play it at the dumbest level possible - furry superheroes vs Captain Planet villains - and hope that the ecofascist subtext stays subtext.

Ukss Contribution: That said, I don't hate this game. I am, in fact, playing a character in a Werewolf 20th Anniversary Edition game at this very moment. So I will pick an Ukss contribution and do so in relatively good conscience (it's probably not okay that there's a werewolf tribe named after a certain taboo Algonquian spirit, but it seems more ignorant than malicious to me).

I liked the Stasis Vector, a dangerous Weaver spirit that takes the form of a complex geometric structure and which seeks to lock a physical region in place, ensuring that nothing inside it ever changes. It's a threat and a puzzle, but too alien to even really count as an enemy.

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