Bite Me! Playing Lycanthropes
This supplement clocks in at 48 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 2 pages of SRD, 2 pages of advertisement, leaving us with 41 pages of content, so let’s take a look, shall we?
FULL DISCLOSURE: I was a stretchgoal for the Bite Me! kickstarter and was compensated for what I wrote for it. I was in no way involved in the production of this book or its contents and thus do not consider my verdict compromised in any way.
So we kick off this book with a massive rumination on the fascination of what contitutes a lycanthrope as well as on the terminology itself – namely the opposition of therianthropy and lycanthropy. While in no way a bad introduction to to the matter at hand, I was somewhat disappointed by the lack of acknowledgement regarding the discrepancies between lycanthropes and therianthropes in iterations of D&D/PFRPG. What do I mean by this? Well, back in the day, there were two types of shape changers that could turn into animal/human-hybrids. Lycanthropes are just what you may suspect they are – haunted by a curse (or cursed from birth), they cater to the trope of the animal inside, a loss of control and danger lurking beneath the surface – they thus represent what is currently understood as a were-X, whereas x can be replaced by just about any carnivorous (or omnivorous) animal. Therianthropes, on the other hand, are always born this way and do NOT suffer from a curse. Traditionally, they have not been susceptible to silver, instead featuring a weakness against cold iron. They are essentially intelligent animals that can turn into humans; often with a taste for flesh and strange supernatural abilities – jackalweres, for example, had a sleep-inducing gaze and greater wolfweres took only the enhancement bonus of a weapon in damage and instantly regenerated ALL LIFE every round unless slain. Yeah, you feared these guys not for a curse, but for their sheer power. Nomenclature-wise, therianthropes use, as you may have noticed, -were as a suffix, not as a prefix. things get more complicated once you realize they exist as PFRPG conversions and that they are traditionally considered mortal enemies of werewolves and lycanthropes.
So much for a bit of roleplaying games history with uncle endzeitgeist – you may realize why I expected more than a simple “Lycanthropy is now the term we all use” – it’s simply wrong. That out of the way, the pdf then proceeds to do a good job regarding the matter at hand, namely describing the differences between natural lycanthropes, i.e. those born with the condition, and afflicted ones – those that were infected. Beyond the psychological ramifications, this also includes minor modifications of the respective base stats. From here on out, we embark on a massive discussion of what playing a lycanthrope means in the context of the game – not only in-game, but also as a player in the context of the party. Thankfully, unlike some other books I’ve read on the topic, this pdf does not mince words and explicitly states that the loss of control, the inner struggle with the beast etc. all constitute components of what makes lycanthropy cool in the first place – otherwise, you can just play any old anthropomorphic race and be done with it. My favorite parts herein were those that dealt with raising awareness for not screwing your allies over if possible – you know, not shifting in the middle of the market-square… The general passage does an excellent job of showing the myriad ways in which becoming a lycanthrope may result in strife and how to avoid that – maturely, focused and well-written.
Now having dealt with lycanthrope PCs over and over in my Ravenloft campaigns, I was particularly looking forward to the advice for the DM: And here, the book is no less clear – lycanthropes are neither anthro-superheroes (there are races for that!), nor are they noble defenders of the earth – they’re capital M, underlined MONSTERS. The mindset out of the way, emphasis is put on using clear words when telling the player – while this may seem an obvious thing to do, it is pretty important. Now handling the choice of victims is no less necessary and tackling the guilt and “penalty” without penalizing the whole group too severely would be another thing you have to take into account. Now unlike previous edition, in PFRPG only natural lycanthropes can spread the curse – which I never liked. It just feels wrong to me. Now yes, I get why this decision was made and so does the book, but thankfully, a discussion on that aspect of lycanthropy is part of the deal as well.
Now where things become interesting is when dealing with non-evil lycanthropes – e.g. wereboars and -bears. Thankfully, the pdf also covers these and makes running a game for them no harder, instead providing interesting suggestions that build on the archetypical nature of the respective lycanthropes. I also enjoyed some finer points here – e.g. the fact that in order to remove the curse, one has to affect the creature while transformed…
Now where I somewhat get my nerd-rage is when the book goes on to describe natural lycanthropes as NOT monsters – instead, they are…well. Playable lycanthropes that only slowly receive the power that one associates with lycanthropes. And I get the design-rationale behind this decision. It is well-reasoned, it explains the issues that plagued lycanthropes before. It explains why PFRPG’s one-size-fits-all lycanthropy table sucks hardcore in my book, etc. And then proceeds to present a highly modular take on the natural lycanthrope as a base race. Or rather, a significant plethora of base races. 19 suites of attribute-arrays dependent on the base animal, plus concise guidelines to make your own are provided. And while thematically fitting, they do follow the design paradigm of two physical attribute bonuses, one mental attribute penalty. Now while fitting for lycanthropes, for reasons of class diversions, I tend to prefer an equilibrium between physical and mental bonuses. Lycanthropes are humanoids with the shapechanger subtype and also receive the benefits of belonging to the base humanoid subtype of their parent race. They may use diplomacy at a +4 racial bonus to influence the attitude of animals of their breed and receive low-light vision, +2 to Perception and Survival as well as beast form. D’uh! Interesting would be the DR 2/silver they gain – it increases by +2 every odd level to a maximum of 10/silver and they also suffer from vulnerabilities when targeted with wolfbane or attacked with silver for an overall pretty solidly balanced race in the upper echelon of the regular power continuum, approximately on par with the planetouched races.
An extremely detailed take on family-ties, racial relationships etc. further helps portraying natural lycanthropes, while8 alternate racial traits allow for customization. Becoming small, skill-bonus exchanges, another array of attributes and better nocturnal attacks are part of the deal here. A total of 6 traits are provided, though not all manage to get the trait-bonus properly classified, they can be considered solid. As an additional nitpick -they ought to specify their trait-subtype (magic, combat, social etc.).
We also receive favored class options for all CORE, APG and UM/UC-classes, but not all of them are glorious – magi can get rid of spell combat penalties over 8 levels – after that, the FCO no longer has any effects. The alchemist can increase mutagen-duration by 2 minutes per class level – but is that cumulative per FCO taken? Do the benefits of past FCOs increase retroactively? No idea. Clarification is required here. Sorcerors may now opt to choose the new lycanthrope bloodline, which nets you claws, animal empathy – what you’d expect. One ability lets you choose to be treated as either your type or an animal, which allows you to essentially have 3 types and benefit from the respective spells – a subtle, yet powerful tool. Not bad! Other than that, the bloodline is pretty conservative.
From silver shackles to grooming kits and tattoo kits, a couple of thematically appropriate items can be found within these pages and for the truly savage butchery, why not go for the new battle cleaver? Did I hear someone say “Ah, fresh meat?” Sling gloves with different, partially alchemical ammunition make for an interesting ranged weapon.
The astute reader may have noticed that I have not commented on hybrid forms, and this is not due to a glaring oversight on my end, but rather the result of that being taxed by a feat, which also doubles a prerequisite for growing claws – and yes, both manage to get the complex natural weapon shenanigans right. It is pretty odd, though, that the pdf introduces (lycanthrope)-feats without properly defining the feat-type. One feat, a variant of Natural Spell, receives the modification-descriptor, which, while accurate, could also cause some very minor confusion. Yes, I am nitpicking at a high level here. Less nitpicky and more an issue is the paltry DC 15 save to avoid contracting lycanthropy via a bite – the feat ought to have a scaling DC based on character level to remain relevant. On the formal nitpick criteria, some feats have their regular text improperly bolded, an issue which also partially extends to the magic items. Finally, I have a minor issue with the Pack Tactics teamwork feat – what? Well, there already is a feat with that name, though admittedly one from Advanced Class Origins – which was preceded by Bite Me!, so no rating-penalty here.
The 4 new magic items are iconic and solid and range cover traditional tropes from movement slowing arrows to wolfpelts, a grab-enhancing gauntlet…and a neat, lycanthropy-inducing, cursed ring. A total of 9 spells (even crediting the inspiration from the forums, if applicable!) can be found herein and generally do interesting things – faster shapechange, forcing the change, calming the beast – you know the drill. Now personally, I don’t think that spells like detect lycanthrope should exist (they make it too easy to root them out) and Hide from Lycanthrope, spell-wise inducing lycanthropy and moon beams that can trigger a change all can be considered solid, but also not mind-boggling.
The pdf closes with two fully-depicted sample NPCs – complete with extensive background stories, cool artworks and statblcoks for both base and hybrid forms – both of these NPCs were compelling and cool – at CR 11 and 10, they both are archetyped and multiclassed and pretty effective. Nice!
Editing is pretty much top-notch – apart from nitpicks, I noticed no significant issues. Formatting does sport slightly more, but over all can still be considered top-tier. The pdf sports a beautiful 2-column full-color standard and multiple, beautiful full-color artworks, while still remaining printer-friendly. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.
I am not the target demographic of this book. Why? Because I’ve reveled in lycanthrope lore, I’ve researched it extensively and across cultures and I’ve utilized it to full extent in numerous campaigns. I’m a veteran of the subject matter and thus wasn’t looking forward to yet another book on the topic. Surprisingly, this book did manage to win me over – first of all, it doesn’t treat lycanthropy as a power-up – it treats the subject with the respect and maturity it deserves. Secondly, I really wished I had this book back in the day, when I first had a lycanthrope PC and botched just about everything there is to botch regarding handling that guy. More than that even, I wish I had this book back then due to one thing I’d have immediately done:
I would have handed over the book, told the guy to read it and then have an actual common basis from which one can develop the concept and make it work. What I had to learn the hard way, this book compiles and collects – so in that regard, it is a GLORIOUS tome. The crunch provided also falls into the upper echelon of quality, with a more-than-average level of professionalism regarding the wording, bonus-types etc. On the downside, most of the supplemental content is *very* conservative and chances are that veterans won’t find that much new regarding concepts and the like in here.
Almost all complaints I can field against this book have a basis in either being a tad bit too conservative for my taste or having design-aesthetic decisions like static DCs. Don’t get me wrong, this book has nothing per se bad in it and the few ambiguities that do exist are scarce and not bad at all. But the crunch also didn’t blow my socks off….mainly because I’m not the target demographic. My home campaign sports no less than 43 types of lycanthropes, all with different templates, vulnerabilities, etc. Only vampires, my modular golem-system, mummies and similar ancient dead and comparable classic creatures have received this much attention in my games. The consequence is that I have a hard time separating what *I* think lycanthropes should be like to what the consensus or feasible take is. Taking away my own convictions, I can see the natural lycanthrope race as presented herein work as a PC. Easily. As mentioned above, this book sports very little in the amount of complaints you can field against it and the few that I managed to find tend to boil down to personal preference or being just minor problems. Beyond the therianthropy-guffaw in the beginning, my main gripe is the relative dearth of advice regarding the handling of PCs vs. the lycanthrope PC and the component of the mental addictiveness of the transformation. One of the best scenes in that regard I ever saw, was a shackled PC, not yet transformed, feverishly trying to get his comrades to cut him loose – “Really, I have it under control!” This immensely rewarding component of the curse, its allure, is something that would have deserved more space herein.
Robert H. Hudson Jr., Jeff Erwin, Rich Howard and J.M. Perkins have delivered a more than solid guidebook here: This pdf is a godsend for beginner and journeymen DMs seeking to include lycanthropes in their game. It should also be considered a must-read tome for any player badgering the DM about lycanthropy – know what you’re getting into. That being said, for horror-DMs with a ton of experience under their belt, for expert ROLE-players who’ve been through the lycanthropic dance more than once, this book does have significantly less to offer, with the crunch being over all good, but not earth-shattering. The former should consider this a must-have, 5 star-file. The latter still a worthy book, but one with slightly less utility – 4 stars for you guys.
My final verdict will hence clock in at a final verdict of 4.5 stars, rounded up to 5 since this book is too good to not recommend it and can save plenty of campaigns from some of the nastier effects of including lycanthrope PCs. For that: Two thumbs up!