Tabletop Review: Tribebook: White Howlers (Werewolf: The Apocalypse 20th Anniversary Edition)

Tribebook: White Howlers (Werewolf: The Apocalypse 20th Anniversary Edition)
Publisher: Onyx Path Publishing
Cost: Free to Kickstarter Backers/TBD for Everyone Else
Page Count: 95
Release Date: 09/24/2014 (Kickstarter Backers)/TBD (Everyone Else)
Get it Here: DriveThruRPG.com (Eventually)

Before they were the Black Spiral Dancers, before they were devoted servants of the Wyrm, before they were the arch enemy of the Garou Nation – they were the White Howlers. Although long extinct or transformed by the Labyrinth, the White Howlers were once one of Gaia’s fiercest defenders. Thanks to Kickstarter backers of the Werewolf: The Apocalypse 20th Anniversary Edition, the story of the White Howlers before their fall from grace can finally be told, thanks to this stretch goal. At some point it will be available to all fans of W:TA/W20, but for now this supplement is only available to Kickstarter backers as a freebie thank you for their collective crowdfunding efforts.

If you’ve never read a Tribebook for Werewolf: The Apocalypse, think of it as a supplement that is 100% focused on a specific sect of Garou. In this case, the White Howlers. Much like the Croaton and the Bunyip, because the Howlers had all died out around 200 BC, they never got their Tribebook, with White Wolf focusing on the surviving Garou tribes. The White Wolf version of Werewolf: The Apocalypse dangled historical remnants of these tribes in our face, but never really fleshed them out. With Tribebook: White Howlers however, you get to see how the White Howlers lived and “died” – and more importantly – WHY. The book basically teaches that even the bravest and most determined Garou can fall to the power and horror of the Wyrm, and that not every story has a happy ending. Moreover, it shows that the Garou Nation is often its own worst enemy – even moreso than the Wyrm and Weaver, which it constantly opposes. By the end of the book you get a really good sense of who the White Howlers were, why they became the Black Spiral Dancers and you even feel a little sorry for them in the end.

The book starts off with an eight page comic strip about the White Howlers. I always love the W:TA comics and this was no exception. It’s a very striking intro to the book and really sets the tone for the entire piece. After that you get an Intro section talking about what the book will contain and a thank you to Kickstarter backers. It’s pretty standard introduction stuff and you can skip it. It’s basically filler.

Chapter One is “History,” and it’s a very unique read. It’s told from the perspective of a White Howler Metis bard named Morag as she puts the lineage and history of the tribe to verse on the very eve of entering the Black Labyrinth. Asked by Lion, the tribe’s totem (who perhaps knew what was coming) to put the tribe’s history to pen (although the Picts didn’t have a recorded written language, which the book makes mention of in Chapter Three, but hey, it’s a game – not a history book). It’s an interesting, albeit a bit dull and dry read as you learn about the Howlers, the Picts, ancient Caledonia and the Ice Age that caused the Howlers to venture forth from their homeland in search of warmth and sustenance. You learn about their encounters with the first Garou tribe they encounter other than their own (Fianna), their war with the Romans, their ongoing conflict with the Wyrm and eventually, their discovery of the Black Pit which would lead to their transformation into the Black Spiral Dancers. It’s an informative read, but the author (or perhaps the character) isn’t a very convincing storyteller (no pun intended). I went into this excited for a really interesting read about a tribe that had such potential storywise and came away a bit bored and disappointed. W:TA fans have been waiting for this book for roughly two decades, and “History” might have been the least interesting read I’ve had from a Classic World of Darkness book in a while. I’m glad they finally made this Tribebook, but I don’t think this was the writer, author or voice for the piece. It just came off a bit flat and “Ben Stein-y” in tone.

Chapter Two is “Culture,” and it continues the trend of Morag talking about the Howlers’ history and way of life. Here you get a look at specific Kinfolk groups, breeds, moon aspects and camps within the Howlers. Again, a great idea and something I’ve been looking forward to for decades, but the end result fell more than a little flat. Again, it wasn’t compelling reading. The writing felt forced and the narrative was really lacking in style. Great direction and ideas, but again, I found myself really bored with this Tribebook, which was a huge disappointment to me as the Tribebooks are my favorite releases for Werewolf: The Apocalypse. It wasn’t for a lack of substance, but rather the way in which it was presented. Maybe it was the voice of the character, or maybe the author needed better direction in how to provide a narrative – I’m not sure. All I do know is I’m glad I got this for free, because the quality in these two chapters just wasn’t there.

Thankfully things really pick up with Chapter Three, “The White Howler’s World.” Here we lose Morag as a narrator and go into a more traditional style RPG book where the author talks to the reader instead of a character to someone else not fully defined. That’s not to say there is something wrong with the usual White Wolf/Onyx Path way of having a character narrate some of the book, but it just didn’t work at all with this Tribebook. Anyway, Chapter Three is the longest chapter in the Tribebook and it’s awesome. Here the book flat out talks about the trouble that comes with writing a book for a tribe and its Kin when both died out about two thousand years ago. This is especially true for the Picts, who left little to no pieces of their culture behind. No written history, a shambles of an oral history and most information that we have about the Picts comes from heavily biased or uninformed Roman commentary. This makes a book about the White Howlers and/or their Kinfolk especially hard to write, so one has to be forgiving of the previous chapters, as any author assigned this topic was in for a pretty big handicap.

This chapter talks about how any use of the White Howlers will most likely take place during the Iron Age, or more specifically between 200 B.C.E. and 200 C.E. (bad author form here using B.C. and A.D.). Most gamers don’t know much about this time period, or Caledonia, so any attempt to do a historical campaign might come off cheesy or fall flat because of this. That’s why this chapter tries to give you all sorts of quasi-historical information about the region and people, so that your Storyteller can make an adventure or campaign around this time period and era feel more realistic and believable. Well, as believable as a game featuring werewolf protagonists can be. The chapter breaks down all sorts of aspects to be used by the Storyteller and players. Agriculture, Animal Husbandry, cooking, metalworking, architecture, clothes, weapons, burial customs and more are all covered in this chapter. By reading Chapter Three thoroughly, a good Storyteller should be able to really flesh out an Iron Age White Howlers adventure.

Of special interest is the section on modern era White Howlers. Sure, it’s technically impossible with how W:TA is written, but it’s your game and you can bend or even outright break the rules if it is to you and your players’ liking, so OPP has given you some ways here. A White Howler could be born to two Kinfolk who have slipped through the cracks somehow. You could also bring them back metaphorically by restoring Lion to full Tribal Totem status. The final example given is by having an alternate history where the Howlers never fell. It was some other Garou tribe that became the Black Spiral Dancers. Perhaps the Dancers are merely a dark reflection of the Garou and have always existed. Some very interesting and fun options are provided here.

The chapter ends with a look at the White Howlers relationship with other tribes, as well as some further historical based reading to help make a game set in the Iron Age and/or Caledonia come alive. This is a really great chapter that more than makes up for the previous two. This is well worth reading, even if you don’t care about the White Howlers, as the Iron Age era information is really helpful. It’s also useful for Roman era oriented games like Weird Wars Rome or Cthulhu Invictus.

The final chapter in Tribebook: White Howlers is “Powers,” and this is where all the mechanics, stats and abilities are kept. There are new Rites, Gifts and Rituals for the White Howlers to be found here. Some are completely brand new, while some are slight variants on versions possessed by other tribes. There are a lot of new Merits and Flaws along with White Howler Fetishes and Talens. There’s a ton of great content here, which any W:TA fan can make use of. The Totems are a lot of fun as well. Of course, Lion is here, but there are some other options like Elk, Kelpie and even Green Dragon!

The book then closes with two Appendices. The first is “Sample Characters,” which gives you five pregenerated White Howlers to use as PCs or NPCs. The second Appendix, “White Howler Legends,” gives you examples of three famous White Howlers from lore, including Morag, who narrated the first two chapters. Morag is also the only White Howler with any stats provided. “Sample Characters” is a lot of fun to read, even if you don’t use it, while “White Howler Legends” is a bit of a disappointment, as there is only one character stated out and the bios are too sparse to be of any real interest.

Overall, Tribebook: White Howlers doesn’t live up to the hype Werewolf: The Apcoalypse fans have made for it over the past two decades of clamoring for it to exist. Of course, after all this waiting, what book really could live up to all the expectations gamers have put on this thing? In the end, you had two chapters that weren’t very good and two that were excellent, so the book is a thumbs in the middle for me. Half of it really needed to be done with a better narrative and/or voice, while the other two chapters were just what the White Howlers needed. I’m glad I got this Tribebook for free as a W20 Kickstarter backer, but I’m not sure how I would react had I actually paid money for this. It would probably come down to the price point OPP eventually saddles this book with. For five bucks or less, definitely get this as a digital copy. Over five bucks, think long and hard about it, as the book is really only worth getting at that price if you’re a completionist or huge Black Spiral Dancer fan.

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