Written by: Umberto Giano & Vanatosis Arentire
Images by: Filipa Thespian & Vanatosis Arentire
The beast lunges through the underbrush, its awareness heightens as it dodges low branches and bounds over small gulleys cut into the earth. The recent rain leaves the forest smelling clean and fresh. The sharp scent of pine, the musky odor of small animals burrowed into the ground hiding from the fall showers. But this hunter is seeking larger prey. Something to chase, to cut down. There! To the east, the scent of blood on the wind. Live blood, pumping and throbbing hot through the veins of something worth chasing. A human female! The tickle of an idea forming in a mind overtaken with blood and lust. Will this one be more than a mindless kill? Could this one be a mate?
The werewolf, or lycanthrope, is one of the most acclaimed creatures of the night. Popularized in fiction and cinema, the werewolf is most of the time simply a normal human, that is until the moon waxes full and the werewolf’s curse is triggered. Under the full moon’s beams of reflected light, the cursed individual undergoes a metamorphosis and becomes a wolf doomed to hunger for the kill. While the tragic werewolf is the most common example of a transformative monster of legend one usually recalls, it is by no means the only one. In fact, it is but one of many shape-shifters of traditional folklore.
In the myriad of world-wide mythologies and folk tales there are innumerable creatures that are able to change their appearance either by will or circumstance: skinwalkers, gods and goddesses, kitsune, demons, vampires, faeries, elves, dragons, even unicorns and many others. Some beings have the power to transform others into animals or monsters through magic like the sorceress Circe in the Odyssey. Rather than single out just one type of shape shifter, this article will focus more on how to play any one of these delightful characters. Exploring the do’s and dont’s of how to role-play them, from strengths and weaknesses to reasons why they shift.
Why do they shift?
There are many reasons why a shifter shifts, the differences usually depend on the type of shifter you are playing. For example, werewolves shift primarily during periods of high emotional states or with the full moon. Demons, dragons and many others have developed their shifting abilities in order to blend in with the “lesser creatures” (humans), some to intermingle in order to help, others to get closer to their prey. Reasons are as varied as the shifting characters themselves.
Some shift due to magic or a curse placed on them by another. A wonderful example of characters who shift due to a curse, are the tragic lovers in the 1985 movie LadyHawke. In this film, lead characters Navarre and Lady Isabeau are punished for their forbidden love. Navarre is doomed to become a wolf by night as Isabeau assumes the form of a hawk by day. They travel together unable to consummate their desire for each other, cursed with an unrequited love.
Whatever the reason your character shifts, shifting should not be treated as a convenient ability to be used when the need arises and then forgotten afterward. The ability to transform one’s shape should be treated as an important aspect of your character that influences personality and story development on every level. As with everything, there should be consequences and drawbacks to this ability.
How do they shift?
Shifters typically change their form through one of two means: natural ability and magic. While the end result is always the same, the actual processes may vary.
Natural shape change is sometimes painful for the shifter as the body contorts and twists itself into a new form. Observers may hear bones extending, cracking or splitting under stretching skin and claws may even erupt through the skin. Some shifters of this sort maybe leave behind skin remnants from their previous form and a trail of blood, shed teeth and organic tissue. A very good example of a natural shifter is the character David from the movie An American Werewolf in London. How specific your character changes are is entirely up to you, but there usually is some down side to this type of change, most notably the issue of clothing. Clothes may not fit a shifter after a transformation or will be lost entirely when he or she regains human appearance after spending a night as an animal. Waking up naked and vulnerable in a strange place is not just an inconvenience – it can be a potentially lethal situation in some scenarios.
There are also drawbacks associated with the change itself, usually extreme fatigue or pain, depending on the type of shape change (natural or magical).
Magic shifting on the other hand does not have to be painful at all and sometimes will eliminate the issue of clothing as the shifter’s garments will shift in tandem with his or her physical body. Magically induced shape changes are more often than not, an advantage (when it is not the result of a curse) to the shifter: think faeries appearing human so they may walk amongst the mortals.
What are the benefits and drawbacks to a shape shifter?
The ability to shape shift is all too often a two edge sword for the shifter. When a character shifts into a form or likeness of another person or creature, that character inherits the abilities naturally associated with that shape. This can be either beneficial or a detriment depending on the situation at hand. Dragons, for example, would lose their strength, flight, breath weapon and heightened senses when in a human form. A fae shifting into a panther would lose much of their magical ability and speech but gain the strength, power and agility of the cat. There is always a trade-off when shifting, in order to maintain balance, especially with role-play. These trades can be physical or mental (i.e. fear of death when in a smaller form, claustrophobia). Some shape shifters will lose human speech and their higher thought processes when they shift into an animal. However you decide to go, as a role-player, this is your chance to give it a fun spin and see how it plays out in the larger story-line.
The Process of shifting
Shape-shifting is a highly rewarding element in your storyline if role-played correctly. Remember, unless your character is undergoing a purposely immediate magical shape change, do NOT rush the process. Even with a spell, there should be a bit of build-up.
Think of the shift process in the terms given for magic spell casting in our earlier issues. A shape shifting spell is a major casting and should be at least four posts in build-up. This gives the other players a good feeling of what is going on with the shape-shifting character, and if it’s a curse being invoked upon a character forcing them into a new shape, then other players have a chance to interrupt the spell. You can get as detailed as you want with the changes, but make sure to make it interesting for those role-playing with you. Just listing a checklist of changes doesn’t cut it.
Let’s give you an example, using a shifter named Krystal:
Post 1. The dark energies begin to coalescence around Krystal. She chuckles softly as her teeth lengthen into sharp points. She stares at her arms as the skin upon them darkens into a deep crimson.
Post 2. Krystal continues laughing, now reaching a maniacal pitch, as the transformation progresses. Her ears lengthen and bend into long points and dark talons erupt from under her fingernails. Her eyes cast a blank stare as her irises fade into dark glowing blood-red orbs.
Post 3. As her body continues its metamorphosis, she gazes at her terrified captive and cracks a malevolent grin, flicking her tongue out at him just as its tip splits into a fork. Her legs crack and pop as her knees bend inwards on themselves, her feet hardening and reshaping themselves into cloven hooves. A long, serpent-like tail slithers out from the base of her spine, slowly gaining in length and girth.
Post 4. The sound of shredding muscle tissue increases as two bulges appear on her back between her shoulder blades stretching the skin on her back until it splits open and two bat-like wings sprout out from the open, seeping wounds. They grow, lengthen and shudder for a second, shaking off the bloody remnants of skin and gore stuck to them, before fanning out to their full splendor. A set of curved horns slowly inch their way out from her scalp at the ridge of her brow. Krystal stands before her prisoner, transformation complete. The once tender looking, sweet blond dairy maid is now a dark demoness “How do you like me now, love?” she hisses,
Role-playing a shape-shifter can be a full, exciting way to enhance your gaming experience. It can be a new realm in which to spread your creative wings (pun intended). Research and a good grasp on the basics of role-play will have you up and running in no time. Remember: determine the type of shape-shifter you’ll play, the reason why you shift, how you’ll shift and keep in mind your character’s weaknesses and the drawbacks to shifting. Those weaknesses are important. They bring balance to a character, and balance is the key to interactive, fun role-play. As you go forth and perhaps explore the possibilities of shape-shifting RP, additional information, from the big screen to literature, is provided below.
You may find it useful:
- An American Werewolf in London – Movie
David’s wolf change is one of the most famous transformation scenes out there
- Bram Stoker’s Dracula – Movie, Novel
The movie portrays his changes much more visually of course but the book also details the different forms the Vampire could take.
- The White Wolf Series
of Role-playing Games
White Wolf has always had quite a knack for letting the player fully immerse themselves into the role they are playing. The detailed stories that are in the game books are excellent examples of how to play a shape shifter, from Lycan to Fae.
While specifically dedicated to the dragon class, it also gives excellent examples of dragons shifting between forms, especially a half-shift/hybrid form.