Published by The Onyx Path. Released April 2015. Copy purchased by reviewer.
The Wolf Must Hunt. This is the fundamental concept The Onyx Path’s Second Edition of Werewolf: The Forsaken rests its claws upon, and represents the biggest, predatory lunge forward the new corebook has to make. Adding layers of extra complication of the New World of Darkness rules (which could already be a bit unwieldy in the previous edition), and a couple clumsy thematic decisions, raised my hackles as a Storyteller and die-hard Forsaken fan. However, shifting onto the Uratha as hunters, as apex predators before anything else, represents a much-needed clarity of direction for the line.
One of the biggest problems I ran into with the first edition of Forsaken was that werewolves didn’t do “wolfy” things often enough. There was plenty of negotiating with or battling spirits, scrapping for territory, and causing mass property damage. But some of the coolest scenes I participated in or ran were just the group chasing a spirit through the Shadow world to eat it and devour its spiritual essence. Not to fight, or investigate, or entreat. Just to Hunt. These scenes were disappointingly far between, repetitive, and often resolved without much description or fanfare. They were neat little asides, only loosely woven into the “real” story.
Second Edition has made hunts like this, whether the prey be spirit, human, or something worse, a sacred rite and the core of what werewolves do. My group’s pack of wolves feels more like… a pack of wolves, with each challenge framed as some form of a hunt. They’re not just going after the possessed cult leader who is creating tidal waves of discord in the spirit world. They’re hunting him down. They’re following his trail of social influence and organizational connections to determine where he’ll be and when. They’re running him to ground by cutting the fuel line in his car and jamming his cell phone. They’re pursuing him through underground sewer tunnels until he’s backed into a corner. Claiming the prey is the culmination of a chase that is equal parts primal and spiritual.
New elements have been baked into the core mechanics to enforce this, such as altering the Uratha’s iconic five forms to each have a clear role in the hunt and bonuses to match: human (Hishu) form for blending in among the urban herd, near-human (Dalu) for frightening away those who might protect your quarry, wolf (Urhan) for chasing and tracking, near-wolf (Urshul) for nipping at the heels and weakening, and wolf-man (Gauru) for closing in to kill. This gives each form a much more practical and desirable niche than first ed, and I’ve seen fewer sessions where the whole pack just stays in Hishu most of the time, swapping to Gauru or Urshul for all combat situations. The hunt progresses in stages, with the pack favoring a different form for each one.
Character creation is almost a perfect mirror of the NWoD games that came before it: Players assign dots to their werewolf in attributes (Strength, Presence), skills (Drive, Brawl, Streetwise), and Merits (fighting styles, social connections-everything that would fall under a Feat in classic D&D). Dots correspond to d10s, with most dice pools being a combination of your skill dots and attribute dots added together (Dexterity + Firearms to shoot a gun, Manipulation + Subterfuge to lie through your teeth). The number of dice that come up an 8 or higher count as a “success”, adding to the total needed for a given task. It’s pretty stock stuff that still flows as well as ever once the dice pools are determined, and the book does a good job of walking you through it. The biggest deviation here is that werewolves no longer have a Virtue and Vice as in 1st Ed. Instead, the points of reference that tug on their lupine souls are called Blood (the primal, instinct-driven beast side) and Bone (the person they are underneath the walking engine of carnage and terror).
Harmony, the werewolf’s “morality” stat, has also received a welcome rework. It’s no longer a scale from 1-10 where 10 is Werewolf Gandhi and 1 is a slavering gore-beast. Instead, right in the center at five–the balanced predator–is the ideal place to be. 1-4 represent Uratha more in tune with their bestial, spirit side, and 6-10 cover those more in touch with their fleshy, human side. Being at either extreme, including all the way at the top, makes a character’s life much more of a pain in the ass, so players who don’t want to explore the (often fun) trope of a World of Darkness character who completely goes off the deep end will strive for the middle ground.
If you run around terrorizing people and devouring human flesh, you risk giving the beast too long a leash and devolving into wanton murder and destruction. If you deny the call of the hunt and try to live as a normal human, however, you will keep the beast so tightly-bound that it might bubble to the surface without your consent at any moment. A player determined to remain as human as possible quickly discovered that he would be almost entirely unable to control his werewolf transformations due to his conservative behavior.
Actions as simple as eating food your werewolf didn’t kill him or herself can pull you towards flesh, and leading a sacred hunt can pull you towards spirit. These breaking points are commonplace and almost impossible to avoid, causing the almost schizophrenic pull of man and wolf to be a front-and-center concern in just about every session. This serves to mechanically enforce a werewolf’s inner duality, adding a compelling story beat to even some of the most seemingly mundane moments of a character’s life. It also reinforces the idea that werewolves are very much not human, nor do they aspire to be, unlike most of the other playable monsters in White Wolf’s universe.
All that said, I can’t call Second Edition an across-the-board improvement. The write-ups for the five tribes of the Forsaken, for instance, left me with a bit of a hollow and disappointed feeling. I remember reading about the savagery and ferocity of the Blood Talons in the original edition of Werewolf: The Forsaken, the hunter-among-hunters exceptionalism of the Hunters in Darkness, and the awe-inspiring aura of authority of the Storm Lords. I had a really hard time picking which one I wanted my first character to join. They’ve lost something of that in the way Second Edition presents them. Some amount of bite, of edge, has worn away. They’re not as iconic or in-your-face awesome.
I fear these less than enthralling presentations come from a desire by the developers to not pigeon-hole players so much based on tribe selection. The Storm Lord doesn’t have to be the alpha. The Bone Shadow doesn’t have to be the pack’s Yoda. Except that they’ve replaced the old archetypes with a new layer of role-fixing by giving each tribe a favored Prey (humans for Iron Masters, spirits for Bone Shadows, other werewolves for Blood Talons). This ties into the overall edition’s theme of The Wolf Must Hunt, but comes across as a game design decision with shaky footing at best in the lore. The first edition tribal roles, which are now dulled or lost, seemed to lend the organizations more verisimilitude, and they just felt cooler. I prefer first ed’s slightly messier group dynamics that make better sense within the logic of the setting.
Werewolf: The Forsaken 2E also falls prey to a general problem plaguing all of the refreshed NWoD games, in that it piles further note-taking and bookkeeping on top of what is already a pretty micromanagement-heavy backbone. When the New World of Darkness premiered in the early 2000s, it was well before the revolution of story-heavy, paperwork-light games like Fate swept the industry. Having tasted that style of experience, the flaws in the old way of doing things stand out like corpse stench in a swanky apartment building. Even having a pretty good grounding and nine years experience with World of Darkness games, I constantly find myself looking up uncommon but essential mechanics and edge cases during play, just as players constantly lose track of what their powers do and what minute provisos apply to their uses.
The added weight for Second Edition, paradoxically, seems to be Onyx Path making a good faith attempt to catch up with the times. But they’ve taken a strong idea like mechanics-light narrative tags, codified them into a list of Conditions, and added multiple paragraphs of mechanics to each one. This is particularly frustrating as a storyteller when a player injures the prey’s leg, and I have to try to remember what all 20 lines of text on the Leg Wrack condition says (or flip to the back of the book to refresh myself). I’d much rather just use a post-it that says “Hurt Leg: -2 to dice pools for running and stuff.” As it stands, Werewolf requires more mental juggling and book-flipping to play than any game I still keep in my rotation. Even the newest edition of D&D, notoriously crunchy as its legacy would suggest, is free-flowing and relaxing in comparison.
The extras you get in the book are meaty and satisfying, not the least of which being the full-color art. Bryan Syme’s contributions, in particular, are some of the best any edition of Werewolf has seen in terms of their ability to capture the mood and spirit of a Forsaken hunt. A selection of three to four-page Hunting Grounds–mini setting write-ups from Iraq to Detroit–give a great jumping-off point or inspiration for first-time and returning chronicle-builders. I especially enjoyed the section on Bristol, UK, which evokes an exciting flashpoint involving several of the Forsaken’s ancient nemeses, presenting dynamic threats on different fronts.
Second Edition also gives top billing to the Forsakens’ most potent and mysterious nemeses: the idigam. Twisted spirits of great power who change form and pollute the world with their spawn, idigam are presented as the ultimate challenge for an Uratha pack, with each requiring a very different approach to tackle. Five idigam are presented in the corebook, and while I wasn’t as wowed or terrified by them as some of the previous write-ups of the ancient behemoths (such as those in Werewolf: The Forsaken 1E’s Night Horrors: Wolfsbane), they are diverse and powerful examples of how to create “boss” monsters that are worthy prey for the most grizzled, veteran pack.
These additions come at the expense of some crunch. Forsaken Second Edition lacks a lot of rules like poison, disease, unusual terrain, which come up a lot and are detailed in the World of Darkness corebook. Also missing are many the details needed to create vanilla mortal characters, which are an important part of any Werewolf chronicle as supporting cast. First Edition just assumed everyone owned the World of Darkness corebook, and only presented monster-specific add-on rules. Second Edition NWoD’s attempt to present each monster book as its own, playable product has fallen a bit short. Considering I’ll have to own two books for the “full” rules anyway, I’d rather have just been told to buy both books. As it stands, a lot of wordcount is devoted to a version of the core rules that’s full of gaps.
Werewolf: The Forsaken was the first game to get me into tabletop roleplaying, and any new edition was bound to fill me with equal parts excitement and criticism. When the claws hit the pavement, I dig more of the changes than I turn up my snout at. I wish I could say it’s a leaner, sharper game in all respects. In a thematic sense, it’s a superior predator to 1st Ed. But in terms of being more fun to play, the extra bookkeeping is a definite roadblock. It’s still an easy system to hack, of course. White Wolf has usually been terrific in that regard, and I’m sure I’ll have my own houseruled version of Forsaken 2E whipped up in short order. After all, I can’t let a silly thing like “The Rules As Written” get in the way when The Wolf Must Hunt.
Bottom Line: Werewolf: The Forsaken Second Edition is a thematically rich feast of an action horror RPG, but a bit too heavy on the bookkeeping.
Recommendation: If you’re looking to run a modern horror game about a pack of werewolves, this is the most detailed, purpose-built game you’ll find for that… but also one of the most rules-heavy. For Werewolf: The Forsaken veterans, the renewed emphasis on the hunt will go a long way toward revitalizing how you tell and play stories about the Uratha.[rating=4]