Even when the popularity of the game line was gaining momentum in the early nineties, I didn’t jump on the World of Darkness trend. When I looked at the lines produced by White Wolf, the game that appealed to me the most was Werewolf The Apocalypse. I didn’t really want to play a vampire preying on others and trying to survive political maneuvering, but I could definitely wrap my brain around someone trying to do what was right, while fighting their own inner nature that might help or hinder depending on how much control you had, and when you tapped into the wild.
Eventually I did play in a Werewolf the Forsaken game years later, playing a werewolf that nobody wanted in their pack, broken by his wife’s death due to an illness not covered by their insurance, able to talk to the dead, but afraid to do so, for fear of confronting his lost loved one. For all of that pathos, I balanced it out by modeling his mannerisms on Mitch Hedberg.
As a fan of urban fantasy, and with an eye towards my own werewolf experience, I backed Bite Marks, a Powered by the Apocalypse game of werewolf pack dynamics, and we’re going to take a look at that game today.
Dog Eared Books
This review is based on the PDF of Bite Marks, which comes in at 224 pages. The book itself has clean formatting, with black and white borders depicting roots, trees, and moons. The text is black on white pages, with bold red headers that stand out. Individual chapter breaks have full page artwork, some in black and white, and some in color. There is a four page index at the back of the book.
The introduction touches on what tropes within werewolf fiction the game seeks to emulate, does a quick “what is roleplaying” section, and then summarizes what distinguishes Bite Marks from other PbtA games.
The introduction starts by emphasizing that the game is designed not to just examine the individual experience of being a werewolf, but also to examine what it means to be part of a pack. The design intent is to facilitate interactions between pack members and how those interactions affect the group as a whole.
I appreciated the quick nod to the “everybody has to do one” section of “what is roleplaying?” While these sections can be perfunctory, I do like reading them to see how the explanation of “what roleplaying is” uses different cultural benchmarks over time. In this case, the prevailing metaphor is that the group acts as directors of an interactive show with no script.
The section on distinctions from other PbtA games mentions the importance of modeling situations where a character may be out of control, and it also cites that the game intentionally sticks to agendas, without presenting principles for the MC running the game (Bite Marks uses the traditional PbtA term of Master of Ceremonies for the game facilitator). This is an intentional choice to lean away from framing and to reinforce a more feral feeling for the development of stories. This discussion of being out of control is both interesting and potentially scary (for players, not just characters in the story), so let’s see how this plays out in the text.
Safety First: Making It Fun For Everyone
Given that the last chapter ended with the idea that this game may play with themes of being out of control or forced into bad situations, I am very glad that the game moves directly into a safety discussion. Having that discussion up front means that no one should mistake safety as something you “can do.” It’s the first thing you do before you actually engage the rules.
This section starts with the Banned List, a list of plot elements that the group collectively agrees will not be included in the game. Items on the banned list will not be included in the game, no matter what. Although it isn’t mentioned here, later on there is a note that using any moves to force sexual interaction or suicide are automatically on the banned list for the game.
The next section summarizes safety tools that can be used in the game, highlighting the X-Card, and my favorite safety tool, Brie Beau Sheldon’s Script Change. Because dominance and loss of control are part of the game, this section emphasizes the importance of not only have having items on the banned list, but the ability to revoke permission for narrative elements in real time.
The section then reviews the MC responsibilities in knowing what is on the banned list, and making sure that the table remains safe. This section also emphasizes the need to allow players to decompress and debrief, to reflect on what has been added to the story and what it might mean going forward.
There is a quick note on terminology, and that the Cub skin in the game denotes that the Cub is new to the pack, but not an underage character by default, and if there are underage characters in the story, the sex moves (more on those later) should be removed from the playbooks. There is also a note that the Dominate move will take some care to adjudicate, and there are guidelines in the moves section on this.
The final note is a reminder not to remove disabled characters as a possibility. Given that werewolves have supernatural healing abilities by default, the game mentions that you shouldn’t use that reasoning to limit characters that may have disabilities, erasing them from the narrative.
This section gets into the mechanics of how Bite Marks works as a game. It retains the usually PbtA resolution of 2d6 + attribute to achieve the 6- (miss with complication), 7-9 (succeed at a cost), and 10+ (succeed) dynamic of other games. Players pick a Skin, which is the equivalent of your “character class” or playbook from other games, in this case, denoting a particular role in the werewolf pack.
The players have principles to follow to reinforce the aspects of werewolf fiction that the game is modeling. This means acting passionately, treating the group as family, being vulnerable to others, and respecting the alpha’s authority. The alpha gains the additional admonishment of doing the job of alpha, as the leader and parental figure of the group. It’s also worth noting that the principles for following specifically state “as long as they deserve it.”
The character stats in the game include the following:
- Teeth (fighting and domination)
- Feral (internal harmony with the wolf inside)
- Heart (emotional ability)
- Guts (pushing past reflexive reactions to the pack or personal interests)
The game also tracks a “pack pool,” an allocation of points that can be spent to trigger special moves or modifications to moves, which can only be spent when characters are together in groups (lone wolf = no pack).
The game assumes that the alpha may issue orders, characters may force other pack members into alignment with what they want, and the alpha may be challenged for control of the pack, so player versus player conflicts will come up in the game. There is more discussion on this in the individual moves, but a section here discusses what this means, and how one player “winning” a move doesn’t mean that there aren’t repercussions to the relationship or the group, and to keep the long term effects in mind when playing.
As an additional safety warning, the game mentions that if this style of play, with potential player versus player conflict, isn’t comfortable for you as a player, that the game may not be a good fit. I appreciate that the rules address that not every game is for every player, without either admonishment to push into uncomfortable spaces, nor any judgement for what a player is or isn’t comfortable playing.
Some moves direct players to give another player a number of ties. A character can only hold a number of ties equal to three on any one player at any one time, but if they gain another tie after they max this number out, they put a mark on one of their advancement tracks. This is mentioned as a potential vulnerability, but initially ties are denoted as what you spend to help another player on their roll. The playbooks clarify that you can spend these on rolls you make against the player character against whom you have the ties, but that didn’t come across in my initial read of this section.
Advancements that can be taken trigger when both the wolf and human tracks fill up. Whenever a move tells you to fill a spot on a track, the track that is filled up is whatever form the character is currently utilizing. If your wolf track is full, and you are in wolf form, if you trigger a move that tells you to fill in another part of the track, nothing happens. I like that this reinforces that player characters should be having scenes in human and wolf form in order to fill both tracks and allow for advancements.
MCing Bite Marks/Setting Up the Game/Running the Game/Werewolf Lore
These four chapters work together to inform the MC in their job of facilitating the game. This section includes the MC principles for running the game, which include principles that involve driving wedges between characters, presenting group enemies, giving the players room to express themselves, making the world smell real, allowing the PCs to be badasses, reinforcing culture and traditions of the pack, avoiding an overall plot, and making resolutions hurt.
Each of the principles has a long section of example hard and soft moves that might spring from the individual principles detailed. I have seen more of this in recent PbtA games, where soft and hard moves have more detailed examples, and the flow between soft and hard moves is better explained.
There is also a section on harm, how much harm different effects should have, and how much harm NPCs should take. Additionally, this section has some guidelines on how long healing takes, depending on how far along the harm track the player characters have progressed.
The section on setting up the game breaks the steps into the following sections:
- Making Characters
- Making a Pack
- Making Relationships
- Making a World
The choices, once a skin has been selected, involve assigning a +1 to one stat (the rest are assigned), and picking the character’s starting move. Relationships are filled in once the whole pack is created.
When creating a pack, the group will determine things like slang terms, culture (things the group tends to do), and traditions (things they always or never do). Part of this section is also answering questions about characters that have broken a tradition, and characters that know about that transgression.
Making relationships involves answering questions about the ties between characters, while making a world involves determining territory, nearby communities, and potential threats to the pack.
Running the Game gives advice on how to start a new ongoing game of Bite Marks, giving the MC a list of various “starter questions” that can drive characters by their desire to answer those questions. These include missing alphas, murder mysteries, blackmail plots, and other issues that require the pack to find out more about what is going on.
The prep section reminds the MC not to create plots, but rather to look at situations that arose in play to bring forward, and to create new threats that become imminent.
Some PbtA games use very specific language that was originally coined by Apocalypse World itself, and sometimes I find that using that same terminology, which was flavored for that game, doesn’t align well with other genres being presented. In the case of Bite Marks, I really enjoy the use of the terminology “Untenable Situations” and “Detonate Untenable Situations.” I like that the explosive connotations imply how those situations devolve, and the terminology “untenable” sets up the conflict between the absolutes of pack hierarchy and traditions against evolving realities.
There is a section on group bonding that I think may be useful, but I can’t help but be a little bit resistant to following. Essentially, it’s a list of things that the players can do in order to feel more connected to one another, to prepare for playing a pack. I’m probably a bad wolf, but while I can understand the importance of ritualized meal preparation, or a special recitation before the game starts, there is a level of vulnerability in the real world that is hard for me to overcome.
The section on conventions and one-shots gives advice on what questions to leave out during character and group creation, and what kind of resolution questions to ask, to allow the players to move towards a complete experience within an allotted period of time without follow up sessions.
Werewolf lore is a short section on different werewolf tropes that you may or may not want to include in your game, like organized werewolf hunters, the effect of special materials and the full moon on werewolves, born versus created werewolves, and the lifespan and development of werewolves over time. These are all great individual items to consider for a game, but I wish each of them had an example custom move. The section mentions that these are good areas for introducing custom moves, but then refers back to the only example custom move in the book, one for a specific campaign where forest monsters might influence the werewolves that are protecting against those monsters.
The basic moves chapter walks through the moves available to all player characters in the game. The basic moves emphasize that most of the gameplay will surround interactions based on hierarchy, violence, and sharing emotional states. These basic moves are:
- Make a Challenge
- Give In To The Wolf
- Harness the Wolf
- Act on Instinct
- Provoke Spill
Unlike many Powered by the Apocalypse games, which incentivize player characters that are being manipulated with XP or some other currency, and give them the option of refusing a social manipulation, the highest result of dominate does not allow this, and the move directs you to carefully keep the banned list in mind when adjudicating this move.
Disobey is a move that is triggered when an NPC attempts to dominate a character, or when a character wants to go against one of the established traditions of the pack. While it definitely isn’t impossible to disobey, it’s an important enough moment to be mechanized with a move.
Giving into the wolf boosts the powers of the PC, at the risk of rolling a 6- and losing control for the rest of the scene. Harness the wolf is a less dramatic move that is triggered when a character uses the natural abilities their wolf form would grant them (like using their sense of smell to track someone). It is also noted that a character can state that they are in wolf form or human form without triggering these moves. The human/wolf decision is about narrative positioning as much as mechanical reinforcement.
The Spill move is triggered when a character shares a secret with a packmate, and can add to the pack pool, and the Provoke Spill move can be used when a PC wants to wheedle information out of another individual.
The game has already telegraphed the alternate take this game has versus other PbtA games when it comes to having (or not having) total agency of a character. Multiple moves can cause a character to take an action, or even go an entire scene, without having the ability to determine what their character can do. The tools in the other sections of the book are going to be really important for adjudicating these situations.
The playbooks, or character types, in this game are called skins. The following skins are considered the default for the game:
- The Alpha (pack leader/parental figure)
- The Cub (newest member of the pack, less likely to suffer consequences)
- The Enforcer (the “muscle” of the pack, doing the dirty work for the Alpha)
- The Fixer (the “diplomat” that deals with the human world)
- The Greypelt (the bookend of The Cub, that gets some of the respect afforded the Alpha)
- The Howl (the pack member prone to the supernatural or prophesy)
- The Prodigal (a member of the pack that tried to leave, and has come back)
The Alpha has a special move that triggers at the start of every session, setting the current state of the pack when the game begins. Each skin has its own sex move, which triggers when that character has intimate relations with another character. These moves modify how actions are taken with the other character going forward. For example, the Enforcer unburdens themselves of something for which they feel guilt, which might give them a +1 or +2 to defend their partner depending on how that partner reacts to their confession.
Each skin also has Heartbeats, story beats that if the character hits, it provides advancement for that character in a scene. For example, if the Enforcer picks these keywords, they get to mark an advancement when they act Obsessed or Loyal in a scene.
There is also a Pack Playbook, where the group will determine aspects of the Pack itself. There are three Pack Culture items that are determined, which also act as triggers for advancement progress when characters engage with those cultural items. The group also picks three traditions, which should be more “absolute” aspects of the pack’s philosophy, stronger than the pack’s cultural traits.
The pack can trigger the following moves when members of the pack are together, and they have enough points in the pack pool to do so:
- Overwhelm Them (narrate a glorious victory where everyone did something awesome)
- Defend Territory (when defending territory, upgrade results by one during the scene, i.e. 6- results are treated as 7-9, 7-9 results become 10+)
- In Your Nature (when an enemy makes a move, you can flash back to something the group did to create a contingency for that action)
The cost of these actions vary from 8-12 points, so these are definitely moments you will build towards, not actions that will be triggered on a regular basis.
The next section of the book has three pre-constructed scenarios for use in one-shots or campaign games. These include pack members that are already defined, a world that already has some details, including NPCs to interact with, and an inciting question that needs to be resolved by the end of the scenarios. The scenarios are:
- The Beasts of Bodmin
- Wolves of the Klondike
- Brownie Bites
Two of these scenarios take place in modern times, with another taking place during the California Gold Rush. The pack members are already detailed, including names. In general, players still get to define relationships between characters, but there are a few pre-established relationships built in to the scenarios. Threats and untenable situations are summarized for each scenario.
The final scenario has two additional playbooks, The Moon and The Tide. The Moon is a playbook that is more of a philosophical werewolf, seeking balance, and delaying full access to their powers until opportune moments. The Tide is a werewolf specifically tied to the sea. While I don’t often go into supplementary materials in these reviews, I was a little disappointed that these skins don’t have their own pages in the PC resources download for the game.
In general, I like the level of detail for the packs, including their culture and traditions, and I like having the established NPCs to utilize in the scenarios, but some of the scenarios felt a little too proscribed when it came to exactly who the PCs would be playing. I guess I was expecting there to be a little bit more room to customize within the more detailed scenario setting.
Essay: A Taste of Control The split advancement tracks between human and wolf encourage the PCs to value scenes in both forms. I continue to be a fan of narrative currency in games, and I like that the pack pool reinforces the strength of the pack and when it can act in concert for maximum effect. [social_warfare]
There are a lot of essays that are added to RPG products that are useful and supplementary to the overall theme of the book, but sometimes feel superfluous to the overall design. Between the initial section on safety, and the discussions on player agency in the moves section of the book, this doesn’t feel superfluous, but complementary to the structure of the book.
This section doesn’t just discuss the dynamics of dominance and submission within the book, or the dangers of losing agency of a character, but also looks at the dynamics of what it means to have an alpha, pop culture examples, and how starting from a flawed relationship dynamic can be explored as a positive or a negative.
This essay is one of the best essays I’ve seen included with a game for explaining the actual intent of play at the table.
The best way to reinforce that safety is an important aspect of your game is to have the safety section take up a significant amount of space right at the beginning of the book. The terminology used is clear and supports the concept of the game. The examples of hard and soft moves are expansive and descriptive. The split advancement tracks between human and wolf encourage the PCs to value scenes in both forms. I continue to be a fan of narrative currency in games, and I like that the pack pool reinforces the strength of the pack and when it can act in concert for maximum effect.
I wish we had gotten a few more custom moves for optional setting elements like how the moon affects the pack members, or how special materials could react with werewolves. The full effect of the ties wasn’t easy to see on my first read through. I wish the scenarios had been just a little less defined when dealing with pre-generated player characters.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
Beyond being a solid purchase if you are a fan of urban fantasy that revolves around werewolves, this is a good example of a PbtA book that tailors its language in a manner that reinforces its own assumptions, as well as providing numerous clear examples of soft moves, hard moves, and the relationships between them.
The safety discussion and it’s placement in the book is also a major positive for this book. Not only should safety in games be ubiquitous, it should be clearly and easily seen as an important component of the overall rules.
What draws you to games that allow you to play character types traditionally seen as monsters? What kind of emotional conflicts do you favor in your games? What are some best practices for mechanizing these emotional conflicts? We want to hear from you in the comments below.