Updated: Mar 23, 2020
Werecreatures can be the spice that gives a standard role-play encounter some flavour so I'm going to list ten tips for how to use them and three tips on when not to.
To do that we need to quickly define what we mean by a werecreature AKA lycanthrope*. Are all werecreatures shapechangers (yes) but are all shapechangers werecreatures (no). Erm... so what's the difference?
(* 'werecreatures' vs. 'lycanthropes' mean the same but I find 'werecreature' is easier to read so that's the word I will use in most cases.)
There is a much bigger discussion piece here but because I want to focus on how to use werecreatures AKA lycanthropes* in your adventures let me give you a short answer that will do for now:
Werecreatures are those humans who transform into animals, can only be hurt by silvered or magical weapons and are influenced by the phases of the moon.
Not all game systems treat them in exactly those ways but that's the criteria I will use here to differentiate them from other shapeshifters. Those are also the most well known tropes that most people will associate with werecreatures and will thus make them recognisable as such to your players.
So, on with the tips!
Ten Tips for Using Werecreatures in Roleplay Encounters
The hidden side to an NPC - that friendly neighbourhood merchant/barkeeper/stablehand is actually a werecreature responsible for the unsolved violent deaths of innocent people over quite some time. The dramatic conflict comes from when you assign this a longstanding friendly NPC who the players like interacting with. They are then in the quandary of do they slay them, capture them or try to 'cure' them (assuming that is possible). Also what about the victim's families? What does justice look like in this instance?
Upscaling a fight - a low-level party might think little about clearing out a nest of giant rats that have been plaguing a village but if you throw in a were-rat suddenly you have a much tougher encounter. The rats can be tactically manoeuvred and directed in ways that would be hard to justify if they were just a pack of animals on their own. And, if you chose to go with the notion that werecreatures can only be harmed by silver or magical weapons you increase the difficulty another notch again!
Racial tensions - the Underworld films, for all their questionable quality did present a universe where vampire and werewolves were happy to be that. Indeed, they were a breed apart and thus there was no 'curing' a person of their lycanthropy nature. A party that charges into a situation to eradicate or 'cure' werecreatures that they encounter could easily run afoul of being charged as bigots. What if the local ruling class or families were all werecreatures and proud of it?
Magic makes it so - when you look at the traditional fairy stories and myths regarding werecreatures you will find quite a lot of examples where the person could transform due to a magic item - often a piece of clothing such as a cloak or belt. This makes a fabulous opportunity to create some cursed magic items. A magic belt that increases strength, damage or speed but at certain times of the months it can trigger a violent transformation in the wearer. Something that isn't uncovered until the time of course! Naturally, being a cursed item it can't be removed easily...and would have to be identified as the cause of the transformation in the first place.
Infection - in many legends being bitten by a werecreature can cause the victim to become a were-creature. Different game systems handly disease and infections differently but what if it was possible to weaponise this? A cursed werecreature artefact that was transmitting the effect outwards... slowly corrupting and turning the local population. How about a weregod shrine that has been activated? It's a little unusual and the source of the infection might take some figuring out. Also... how do the characters protect themselves from it? Perhaps, silver amulets will do it but is there enough silver to go around?
Mining - riffing off the above suggestion considering lycanthropy as an infection means there should be a cure. The more infection the more cure is needed. There are several ways to run this: - say the characters need to go out and find a new source of silver. Here are some options - protect an existing silver mine, find a lost silver mine, protect a shipment of silver, enforce the new law making people hand over their silver (to be converted to the cure), support the trade negotiations for new silver supplies etc.
Making encounters logical - I just got hold of an Expert Dungeons and Dragons adventure from 1983 called Master of the Desert Nomads. It's brilliant, it really is. However, it's not flawless and as with all adventures, there is a need for some DM creativity to make it work for everyone. In one scene a villain, when he is encountered in his sanctum, has "a pet grizzly bear". Erm...okay, that's a bit random. given the rest of the adventure. I think what would work well here though is a werebear companion. Suddenly, the whole scene makes a little more sense. Werecreatures, being human part of the time, can be found anywhere. They aren't limited to a geographical niche.
More roleplay opportunities - taking the above encounter. It's a straight fight as it's written in the module. Make the grizzly a werebear however and you could have the villain and the bear in a discussion when encountered. Doing that adds a level of depth and reality to an adventure. During the encounter itself one or other might surrender or betray the other in some fashion. Making a creature a werecreature provides it with a human side which opens up possibilities that just don't exist otherwise.
Players like to uncover secrets - perhaps, instead of the werecreatures nature being a big scary shock and problem it's simply something they aren't very proud of and keeps hidden. This then gives you a small, non-game changing secret that the more observant players might spot as you drop little hints and clues. It rewards the observant player. Sometimes, finding things for the players to uncover without distorting the main story line can be a challenge. This is one helpful option.
Interesting character option - playing a traditionally villainous type of creature can create interesting drama and story moments. Perhaps the parties paladin would like to be on a quest to redeem themselves for prior crimes committed back when they couldn't control themselves? Or a player might like playing a character with enhanced physical properties but effectively extreme anger management issues! As a thought, when allowing a player to play a werecreature I would suggest a more frequent side effect. So, rather than a once a month full-on murderous rage have them run the risk of going berserk during combat or when injured to a certain degree of health. (Possibly as well as the once a full moon issue!) That helps balance their special abilities.
Three Tips for When Not to Use Werecreatures
When you want to keep things simple – adding the werecreature dimension to an NPC or monster adds a layer of complexity. They will, as you’ve seen above, react and act differently to the normal version of the creature that they are. Sometimes you don’t want that and the vanilla creature will fit a situation or encounter better.
When you don’t plan to use it – don’t give the characteristic to a character or creature unless you are going to use it in some fashion. Even with tip number 9 above, where it isn’t meant to be a big thing, you should still have some consequences for it. Perhaps the werecreature is a little more reserved than normal, shies away from precious metals or has to depart for a period of time each month whilst the were-frenzy is upon them. Bear in mind that if the characters were-nature isn’t going to be remarked upon or come up in roleplay then the players are very likely going to forget about it.
Only use them infrequently – at the beginning of the article, I referred to werecreatures as the spice that can add flavour to a roleplaying adventure and like all good spices it should be used in moderation. Unless you are in the Kingdom of the Wolf, or some such, I’d keep the werecreatures as a little twist that comes in from time to time. For me, they are very much outliers, we all know they are out there but it’s a bit surprising when we meet one.
I hope that’s given you some ideas for using the wonderful, variable werecreatures in your adventures. The article was inspired by this great werebear that came through in this month's Reaper Bones Subscription box from Mighty Lancer Games.
Until next time, happy gaming!