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Bag o' Nifties: Tricks for GMs

Triggers - An Adversarial Approach to Running Shapeshifters

by Dan Pond
Sep 04,2002


Triggers - An Adversarial Approach to Running Shapeshifters

The Problem

Most werewolves in folklore and literature have a less than rosy relationship with their bestial alter egos. Even if the lupine form isn't cartoonishly bloodthirsty, it is quite often hard to control. A wide variety of events, objects, and environmental conditions can trigger the change, but the human never lets it take over without a fight!

So, how do you mimic this conflict in a roleplaying game? I do it with Triggers...

The Solution: Triggers

This system was created for my pulp fantasy setting, Erebus. Skinwalkers, as they are called, are humans who share their bodies with the displaced soul of an animal. Triggers are things that resonate with one soul or the other, strengthening its pull on the tissues of the body. When the balance of power shifts, the newly empowered soul rips the body apart and reassembles it in its own image. I've stripped the system-specific elements out of the original article so you can adapt it to your game of choice.

When you create a shapeshifting character, come up with a few triggers for each form. These are conditions or events that can cause one form or the other to gain control of the body. Each one represents a cumulative portion of a skill-like character stat appropriate to your game system. (i.e. It could be a percentage, a skill bonus, a target number, whatever works for you.) You can make a single trigger more powerful by taking it more than once; just note the number of "slots" it fills.

When the character encounter a trigger for the form they're not currently in, the player totals up the triggers currently in effect for the form they want to be in, and the GM totals the triggers in force for the other form. Then, they make opposed checks. If the player wins, they get the form they want. If the GM wins, the other form takes/retains control.

Example Human Triggers:
  • Being addressed by name.
  • It's daytime.
  • In the city.
  • Injured by silver.
  • Confronted by religious authority.
  • Confronted by loved one.
  • In the presence of humans.
  • Confronted with personal object
Example Animal Triggers:
  • Character feels threatened.
  • It's night time.
  • In the wilderness.
  • Character is angry.
  • The full moon is out.
  • Smells/tastes blood.
  • In the presence of wolves/snakes/etc.
  • Character is injured

Each form should be treated as its own character, complete with its own stats and skills. Depending on how tortured you want your 'shifters to be, each form could even have its own personality, goals, and memories. In this case, you could have the GM take over when the non-human form is in control, but I think there's plenty of roleplaying potential in playing two characters with mutually exclusive goals. If you can trust your players to gleefully go about destroying things their human character loves, have at!

Now, I'll to attempt to compensate for the lack of clear explanation above, via the illuminating example below. I'll be assuming a percentile system where the highest successful roll wins. (This would work great in Call of Cthulhu, by the way.)

Kyle is a Mafioso lycanthrope whose human form is triggered by Daylight (+20%), the Presence of Humans (+20%), and Exposure to Silver (+40%). His bloodthirsty lupine form is triggered by the Full Moon (+20%), Anger (+10%), and Being Injured (+50%). Kyle's out jogging with a friend when the Jersey Boys, a rival gang, drive by and open fire with their SMGs. Kyle gets hit, which is one of his lupine triggers, so it's time to make a check. Not wanting to hurt his friend, Kyle tries to maintain his composure.

Kyle's player notes that's it's day time and he's with another human, for a total of 40%. The GM (who has been keeping track of the lunar cycle) says the full moon is still high in the sky, and Kyle is obviously injured, for a total of 70%. The player rolls and gets a successful 15, but the GM beats him with a successful 57. Looks like Kyle's friend had better start running.

A Note on the Double Check

This kind of system is conceptually similar to the adversarial magic I outlined in an earlier article. You can add an extra dimension to your shapeshifting by applying the Double Check mechanics thusly...

The player only gets control of their desired form if they succeed on their check, and the GM fails theirs.

If the player and GM both succeed in their checks, the player still gets their desired form, but only has partial control over it. For example, a werewolf might remain human, but find himself overwhelmed by the wolf's beatial instincts.

If both the player and GM fail their checks, the character shifts into the unwanted form and retains their self-control. Things could be worse.

Finally, if the player fails his check and the GM succeeds, not only does the character shift into the unwanted form, but they have to deal with the lack of control issue. Suck-diddly-uck.

Next Time: A New Monster Myth for a New Millennium! - Blur, Nameless, Erebus, and other weird-ass games & settings.

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Bag o' Nifties by Dan Pond