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Basic Information

Technically lycanthropy is the condition of being a werewolf1, although the term is commonly used to describe any habitual and inherent2 human to animal shape-shifting3. If the person in question only thinks that they can turn into an animal, then see clinical lycanthropy. "Entry level" lycanthropes may not transform at all, but may still gain supernatural powers from their condition (which puts them beyond the "clinical" definition).

Most shifters will only be able to adopt the form of one type of animal and typically have an animal form that is unique as their human one.

The shifter may assume the form of the natural animal completely, or may assume a hybrid form of some kind … or in some traditions may be capable of both. Most forms revert to human shape on death or unconsciousness (and/or the first rays of sunlight) and may transform with darkness (or the full moon) - whether injuries sustained and other distinguishing features are retained between forms can vary.

There is quite a startling range of potential animal forms for prospective shifters, including:

How one becomes a "were" varies by tradition - sometimes it is an infectious disease and spread by the bite of an existing sufferer, but for others it is caused by a curse, possession by totem spirits, or a witch boon or deal with The Devil - either as the fulfilment of a (possibly badly phrased) request or a side effect of some other bargain. In other cases the shifting is hereditary - possibly caused by descent from a transformed animal. In this case, non-transforming members of the bloodline may be termed were-kin. Some, like the loup-garou and the selkie are said to shed their animal skins when in human form and have to put them back on to change back.

The behaviour of lycanthropes also varies - often based on the supposed nature of their alternate form (which may vary from the actual behaviour of the natural animal). In some cases the lycanthrope is aware of the transformation and can control it (or at least control their behaviour once transformed), in others they transform unawares and become a mindless predator. One common theme is that they are dimly aware of their human connections, but can only determine the strength of an emotion, not the kind (so the beloved and the hated seem more or less alike as high order targets). Some kinds are portrayed as fairly sociable (like the selkies) or more of a nuisance than a threat (kitsune were habitual tricksters in Japanese mythology). How they relate to natural animals of their apparent kind is also disputed - some seem to be natural rulers of the animal type, others are hated and feared by them.

Often, lycanthropes are at least partially invulnerable to natural weapons and need some kind of depleted phlebotinum shells to bring them down. Werewolves are traditionally vulnerable to silver (which ties them in further to the moon), other kinds require other measures.

The Amerindian peoples also recognise the concept of a skinwalker which has aspects of both lycanthrope and witch.

Some traditions indicate the berserkers and ulfhednar of Norse legend may have been some form of lycanthrope - probably the non-transforming variety (in most cases) - powered by an animal spirit bound to a fetish in the form of a cloak made from the fur of an appropriate species (bear or wolf respectively). The Aztec Jaguar Warriors may have been something similar.

If the person in question turns into lots of animals at once, rather than one at a time, then they're probably a swarm shifter instead.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Traditionally dangerous villains, but increasingly used as heroic (or at least sympathetic) figures in modern media. Which is the subversion these days is open for debate.
  • Including a lycanthrope in your setting is potentially a bit of a can of (very fuzzy) worms, given all the various shape-shifting and man-animal myths across the globe. You may have to decide and establish whether or not were-seals, were-foxes and the like exist, just because you put a were-wolf in your game. This is a non-issue in a one-shot at a con, or in situations where a lone named lycanthrope shows up as a result of a plot-driven curse, but in a campaign with globe-trotting PC monster hunters (or a lycanthropic PC) facing off against the monster of the week it becomes a bit more important to know just how diverse the lycanthropic world is.4
    • Lycanthropy commonly (but not exclusively) implies some sort of involuntary or malevolent transformation, at least in popular media in the west. In some settings less violent or intrusive forms of zoanthropy might not technically be the same sort of critter. It's entirely possible for a setting to have both a disease- or curse-based Lycanthropy, as well as "natural shape-shifters" who are more akin to talking animals or even fairies.
      • Characters in the later categories may be deeply offended if you call them a "were", "lycanthrope" or "furry".
      • The confusion between these categories could be a handy plot device. Is the killer a sick-headed were-beast, or merely a noble kitsune that was defending its cubs? Is it a lone monster or a respected part of a larger supernatural community that will avenge transgressions? Is the foe vulnerable to silver and wolvesbane like a lycanthrope, or cold-iron like a fey? Blurring the line and injecting mystery can help elevate your game above just another hack fest… or just make the hack fest more interesting and tactically challenging if that's your thing.
  • A particularly virulent and infectious version of lycanthropy could explode into a setting having impacts much like a zombie apocalypse. Basically rage zombies with fur.
  • As noted in the ulfhednar page, spirit-fetish powered lycanthropy may be a progressive thing - as you gain in experience and familiarity with your spirit ally so it gains more ability to assist you and you move from merely an enhanced human to a deadly man-beast hybrid. How much self control you get to keep on the other hand…
  • The choice of "bane" can easily be varied depending on what suits the source culture - silver might well work for werewolves, but not for less "lunar" creatures - for example a Mayincatec werejaguar might require an obsidian blade and something oriental might be best attacked with jade. Even some forms of werewolf impose conditions under which silver must be used or worked to be effective - for example the silver must be inherited or worked into a weapon by a priest or by moonlight.
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