The new, new World of Darkness, which began with Vampire: The Masquerade Fifth Edition, seems to be taking cues from an unexpected source: Disney. More specifically the Marvel Cinematic Universe and their decision to move the Star Wars Expanded Universe to Legends continuity. It makes sense from their perspective of the company; they don’t want new fans to feel like they have to read a bunch of books from thirty years ago to understand the products they are selling now. It also gives a chance for the new owners to clean house. They keep the stuff that works, ignore the stuff that doesn’t and change things they feel needs to be changed. Vampire: The Masquerade Fifth Edition massively changed the status quo but still offered some threads to continuity. Werewolf: The Apocalypse Fifth Edition, from designers Justin Achilli, Basheer Ghouse, Christopher Gunning, Dylan Jennings, Sasanehsaeh Jennings, Khaldoun Khelil, Karim Muammar, Juhana Pettersson, Pam Punzalan, and Bianca Savazz calls out the fact that this game is a reboot and older fans shouldn’t expect to see their old favorites. Renegade Game Studios sent along a review copy in advance of its Gen Con release. Can an old werewolf learn new tricks? Let’s play to find out.
Werewolf: The Apocalypse is a game of apocalyptic horror. Werewolves are beings split between multiple worlds; of wolf and man, of spirit and flesh. Their legends say they are in service to the earth itself, maintaining a balance between the spirits of the Triat: the order of the Weaver, the chaos of the Wyld and the decay of the Wyrm. Unfortunately, the Wyrm has become corrupted and rather than driving death to drive rebirth, it wants to destroy the whole universe. This corruption manifests as what they believe makes the World of Darkness dark; humans doing awful things, the planet dying, spirits violating the real world and so on. Maybe they could save things but political and ideological divides make long-term cooperation impossible, not to mention the fact that their most potent weapon is their rage which often has unintended consequences.
The original game shows the highs and lows of early White Wolf world-building. It reaches out to try and incorporate other cultures to give the struggle against the Wyrm a worldwide feel. But many of these efforts are heavy-handed at best and stereotypical at worst. The original game came of age during a time in the 90s when Native Americans were embraced as mystical beings that understood the planet in inscrutable ways rather than regular people with mortgages. Much of this has been removed in this edition, including changing some of the names of the tribes away from ones used by real world cultures and getting rid of bloodlines and breeding, but there’s only so much that can be done when these elements are built into the core of the game.
Characters are built via tribes (the werewolves you choose to join) and the auspice (the phase of the moon they were born under). This two part process gives characters a more modular aspect that allows packs to have characters who share one of these aspects. Rage fuels powers but also can get out of control. Garou must also be careful of losing all hope or not caring about who their rage hurts, lest they become NPC bad guys. These Garou are balanced on a precarious high wire that makes for good drama in between the heavy metal combat sequences.
Rage offers an interesting mechanic to reflect this balance. It’s similar to Hunger Dice but it’s something the werewolf wants to always have at least a little off. Not enough rage and the character loses the wolf, and is without the basic powers all Garou have like shapeshifting or healing for a while. Too much rage and the character risks frenzy where they become an unstoppable killing machine that can be useful when in the bowels of a secret PenteX facility, less so when you are on a date. Rage also mirrors the messy criticals of Vampire by offering brutal failures which bring to mind the botch mechanics of old.
While much of the grand feel of the old storyline has been reshrouded in mystery, a lot of the changes make more interesting choices. Gone is the easy Wyrm Sense that short circuited investigations. Vampires are no longer automatic enemies of werewolves allowing for more intrigue and politics to enter into the game. The game focuses on the pack and the actions they can take locally to try and stop the world from ending. These wolves have Touchstones that represent why they are fighting against the Wyrm even as those characters present themselves as tasty targets for corruption. They also get a caern and a territory to protect right out of the gate created during session zero to build the community they are protecting.
As a fan of White Wolf from very early on, Werewolf was always my least favorite of their settings.It seemed like the game the kids who still wanted to constantly fight things picked over my beloved Vampire and Mage. Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s the world, maybe it’s both, but I understood this version of Werewolf far better. I get why you might want to spend some time raging against the machine now. The elements of action horror, body horror of spirit possession, the intrigues of revolutionary politics and examining the loss of a normal life in exchange for pursuing your calling combine for an intriguing mix. Leaping at a tentacled Wyrm beast the size of a 747 didn’t appeal to me. Racing another pack to kill the thing in the mine that’s on the borders between your territories does appeal.
Werewolf: The Apocalypse Fifth Edition offers an intriguing new take on werewolves that opens up the World of Darkness even if it can’t completely outrun its past.