I’m hard at work on many projects, but I’ve had a few questions tied to lycanthropes… and with Halloween around the corner, it seems like an appropriate topic to address! Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters for supporting the blog.
I’ve been listening to the stories of the Werewolf Trials of the Middle Ages. Was the Eberron purge based on these, or is this just a coincidence?
For those of you unfamiliar with the setting, the Lycanthropic Purge is an event that occurred around two centuries before the default Eberron campaign. The Church of the Silver Flame sent an army of templars into western Aundair and what is now the Eldeen Reaches to combat a rising tide of lycanthropy. Following a brutal conflict, the church supported an ongoing campaign to root out and cure or exterminate all lycanthropes that could be found. This conflict is also the root of the Pure Flame, a zealous sect of the Church of the Silver Flame that engages in ruthless and often violent behavior.
People often think of the Purge as a sort of inquisition, similar to the Salem Witch Trials or the Werewolf Trials mentioned above. It certainly ENDED that way, with the newly minted zealots of the Pure Flame trying to hunt down every last lycanthrope… and in the process, targeting many shifters and other innocents. So you can certainly use werewolf trials as inspiration for this period. But that wasn’t how the Purge BEGAN; it’s how it ENDED, a cruel inquisition carried out by people who had suffered through a decade of terror and loss and who were hungry for bloody vengeance. So how did it start?
Under the rules of third edition D&D—the edition that existed when Eberron was created—lycanthropy was a virulent curse. Under the rules of the time, any lycanthrope could spread lycanthropy. If one wererat creates two victims, and each of them infect two others, within five cycles of infection you have 243 wererats… and that assumes each one only has two victims! Essentially, in lycanthropy as presented you have the clear potential for a zombie apocalypse: a massive wave that could result in untold death and ultimately destroy civilization as we know it. The Purge ENDED in a cruel inquisition. But it BEGAN as a noble, selfless struggle to save the world from collapsing into primal savagery. Thousands of templars gave their lives in the Towering Woods, fighting to protect the people of Aundair from supernatural horror.
Under the rules of 3.5 and 4th Edition, afflicted lycanthropes can’t spread the curse. This eliminated the threat of exponential expansion that made the Purge so necessary. Personally, I make this a part of history. At the time of the Purge, lycanthropy was more virulent. By the end of the Purge, the power of the curse had been broken. The question is: Was this tied to some specific victory, to ann Overlord being rebound or an artifact that was destroyed? Or was it simply tied to the number of lycanthropes—when the population grows, so does the power of the curse? And this is important, because in FIFTH edition, all lycanthropes can spread the curse again! Personally, I’m embracing this as the continued evolution: whatever cause the power to wane, it’s rising again. A werewolf apocalypse is a very real threat. Could another purge be called for?
What Makes Lycanthropy A Curse?
Lots of people like lycanthropes. They see lycanthropes as champions of nature, and as the persecuted victims of the purge. So why am I insistent about it being a curse?
First, there’s a simple logic to the decision. Lycanthropes possess amazing abilities. They can transfer these gifts to others, quite easily. So if there’s no downside to being a lycanthrope, why aren’t we all lycanthropes? Why isn’t this gift embraced and shared? If one member of a party contracts lycanthropy, why shouldn’t every member of the party get in on it?
With this in mind, D&D has generally inherited its view of lycanthropy from the Universal monster, not from the World of Darkness and its champions of Gaea. Even a man who’s pure of heart and says his prayers by night can become a wolf when the moon is full. It’s the vision of werewolves that chain themselves up as the moon grows close for fear of killing innocents. The third edition rules were very clear about this. Initially, when a victim falls prey to the curse, THEY BECOME AN NPC for the duration of the event and act according to their lycanthropic alignment. You lose all control and don’t know what you’ll do.
The rules specify that if this goes on long enough, the alignment change becomes permanent and it’s possible for the player to take over. But this isn’t a casual thing. In Eberron, an evil person can have a valid role in society. But 3E called out that an evil lycanthrope isn’t just “evil;” they’re murderers who enjoy preying on their former family and friends. Likewise, a good lycanthrope isn’t just a nice person; they are compelled to abandon civilization to live in the wilds. Fifth Edition echoes this. Consider the following quotes from the fifth edition Monster Manual:
Evil lycanthropes hide among normal folk, emerging in animal form at night to spread terror and bloodshed, especially under a full moon. Good lycanthropes are reclusive and uncomfortable around other civilized creatures, often living alone in wilderness areas far from villages and towns.
Most lycanthropes that embrace their bestial natures succumb to bloodlust, becoming evil, opportunistic creatures that prey on the weak.
The point here is simple: no player character should WANT to become a lycanthrope. It’s a terrifying burden; even good-aligned lycanthropy will destroy your original personality and turn you into someone else.
Eberron generally takes a broad approach to alignment. But lycanthropy is a special case: it is a supernatural force that IMPOSES an alignment, and this overrides the victim’s ability to choose their own path. What we do say is that there are different strains of lycanthropy, and that alignment is tied to strain. So it is possible to have a good-aligned werewolf… but if they infect someone that person will become a good-aligned werewolf. Here again, I can’t emphasize enough that being a good-aligned lycanthrope isn’t just about being a virtuous person. If it was, the Silver Flame would support it. But just look back at that quote from the Monster Manual: Good lycanthropes are “reclusive and uncomfortable” around civilization. Good or evil, the curse fundamentally changes who you are and enforces a powerful set of instincts and drives.
I feel that natural lycanthropes have a greater ability to adapt and evolve personalities around the behavior dictated by the curse. But it’s important to recognize that there is a fundamental difference between a natural lycanthrope and, say, a gnoll or a shifter. The lycanthrope isn’t just bestial in appearance; they are a vessel for a powerful supernatural force that shapes and drives their behavior. A natural werewolf can fight those urges, but the urges will always be there.
The Origin of Lycanthropy
The origins of lycanthropy are shrouded in mystery. As with the Mourning, I don’t think this is something that needs to be established in canon. I’d rather present a few different ideas, and let each DM decide which one they prefer. So consider the following.
The Gift of Olarune. Common belief is that shifters are thin-blooded lycanthropes. But there are shifters who say that their kind came first. Shifters are touched by Eberron and Olarune, tied to the natural world. Olarune empowered her champions with a stronger bond to nature, blessing them with enhanced vitality, animal form, and other gifts. According to this legend, this gift was corrupted by a dark power—one of the other forces presented below. This explains why lycanthrope traits don’t reflect the natural animal. The wolf isn’t a cruel murderer; but the werewolf embodies our fears of the savage predator that lurks in the darkness. The rat doesn’t scheme to spread disease and undermine cities… but the wererat does.
This means that there was a proto-lycanthropy that was entirely benevolent… and it allows players to have a quest to restore this, cleansing the curse as opposed to wiping it out. In my opinion, this “pure” lycanthropy wasn’t infectious—it would only produce natural lycanthropes, assuming it was hereditary at all. Alternately, it might not even resemble lycanthropy; these blessed champions could be a form of druid.
I have no objection to the idea of there being a small population of these blessed lycanthropes in the world—but again, I’d probably make them non-infectious. The blessing is something you earn, not something you get from a bite. This removes the issue of “Why don’t we all become blessed lycanthropes?”
Overlords: The Wild Heart. The novel The Queen of Stone suggests that lycanthropy is tied to one of the fiendish Overlords of the First Age, a mighty spirit known as the Wild Heart. If this is true, lycanthropy has been around since the dawn of time… and the waning and waxing of the power of the curse likely reflects the strength of the Overlord’s bonds. If you want positive lycanthropes in the world, the Wild Heart could have corrupted Olarune’s Gift… or you could reverse it and say that Olarune’s Gift is a variant that released some of those cursed by the Wild Heart.
Daelkyr: Dyrrn the Corruptor. The Daelkyr are known for transforming victims and creating monsters. Not all of their creations are aberrations; the daelkyr Orlassk is credited with creating medusas and basilisks. Dyrrn the Corruptor is especially know for, well, corruption; this certainly fits with a curse that transforms people both physically and mentally and turns victims into predators that prey on their own friends and family. This could have been something created from scratch… or they could have corrupted the existing primal gift.
So personally, I see even good lycanthropes as victims, and as people who don’t want to spread their curse because it WILL destroy the original personality of the victim. I have run a campaign in which a druid was working to restore the curse to its original blessed form.
But looking to all of this: this is how I run lycanthropes. It’s in line with the depiction in the Monster Manual, which emphasizes lycanthropy as a curse that drives unnatural behavior (whether good or evil). I personally like the idea of the lycanthrope as an alien entity, a being whose behavior is shaped by an unknown supernatural power. Essentially, D&D has a LOT of half-animal humanoids. Tabaxi, gnolls, giff… I like to make lycanthropes feel very different than all of these. Whether in human, hybrid, or animal form, a werewolf is a magical weapon, shaped and empowered to prey on the innocent (or to defend them, if it’s a good strain). Natural lycanthropes can take control of this; Zaeurl of the the Dark Pact is a brilliant warlord. Zaeurl isn’t wild or uncontrolled, she isn’t a slave to her instincts. But she is still a vessel for a power that makes her a supernatural predator, and those murderous instincts are always there. The same is true of the good lycanthrope: they aren’t cruel or murderous, but there is a deep primal core to their personality calling them to retreat to the wilds, to defend their territory.
But again: I embrace this because I LIKE it… because I LIKE lycanthropes, regardless of alignment, to feel dangerous and alien. I want my players to be terrified of contracting lycanthropy, not looking forward to it. If you want to do something different in your campaign, follow the path that’s going to make the best story for you and your players.
The Timeline of the Purge
Here’s a quick overview of the Lycanthropic Purge, pulled from one of my earlier posts.
- Lycanthropes have been present throughout the history of Galifar. However, they rarely acted in any sort of coordinated fashion; afflicted lycanthropes couldn’t spread the curse; and natural lycanthropes would generally avoid spreading the curse. They were dangerous monsters and something that templars or paladins of Dol Arrah would deal with, but not perceived as any sort of massive threat… more of a bogeyman and reason to stay out of wild areas.
- Around the Ninth Century, there was a shift in Lycanthropic behavior. Packs of werewolves began coordinating attacks. Eldeen wolves began raiding Aundair, and wererats established warrens beneath the cities of western Aundair. More victims were left alive and afflicted. While terror spread among the common folk of western Aundair, the nobles largely dismissed the claims.
- Sages in the Church of the Silver Flame confirmed that afflicted lycanthropes could now spread the curse. They realized that the raids and urban actions might not be as random as they appeared – that this could be the groundwork and preparations for a serious large-scale assault. Combined with the risk of exponential expansion, this was a potential threat to human civilization.
- Templars were dispatched to Aundair, and fears were confirmed; there were more lycanthropes than anyone guessed, and they were better organized than had been seen in the past. What followed was a brutal guerrilla war; the templars had numbers and discipline, but they were fighting an unpredictable and extremely powerful foe that could hide in plain sight and turn an ally into an enemy with a single bite. Thousands of Aundairians and templars died in these struggles. Cunning lycanthropes intentionally sowed suspicions and fomented conflict between templars and shifters, resulting in thousands of additional innocent deaths.
- The precise details of the war aren’t chronicled in canon and likely aren’t known to the general public. I expect it happened in waves, with periods where the templars thought the threat had finally been contained… only to have a new resurgence in a few years. Again, canon doesn’t state what drove the power of the lycanthropes. Whatever it was – demon, daelkyr, shaman – the templars finally broke it. Afflicted lycanthropes could no longer spread the curse, and all lycanthropes were freed from whatever overarching influence had been driving their aggression.
- While the threat was largely neutralized at this point, people didn’t know that. There’d been ups and downs before. Beyond this, the Aundairian people had suffered through decades of terror and they wanted revenge. This is the point at which the Purge shifted from being a truly heroic struggle and became something more like a witch hunt, with mobs seeking to root out any possible lingering lycanthropes. Tensions with shifters continued to escalate as bloodthirsty mobs sought outlets for their fear and anger. A critical point here is that at this point, most of the aggressors were no longer Thrane templars. The primary instigators were Aundairians who had adopted the ways of the Silver Flame over the course of the Purge. For these new believers, the Silver Flame wasn’t just about defense; it was a weapon and a tool for revenge. This is the origin of the sect known as the Pure Flame, and its extremist ways can be seen in priests like Archbishop Dariznu of Thaliost, noted for burning enemies alive.
The take-away here is that the Purge began as a truly heroic struggle against a deadly foe, and the actions of the templars may have saved Galifar from collapsing into a feral savagery. But it ended in vicious persecution that left deep scars between the shifters, the church, and the people of Aundair. And now, it may be happening again.
How prevalent were lycanthropes during the Dhakaani Empire?
That depends on the origin you chose for them. If you follow the idea of an Overlord, than the curse would exist during the Empire. However, I think it would be extremely rare. Consider a) the Dhakaani are highly civilized and city based, and b) the Dhakaani were a highly regimented and ruthless culture. Essentially, I would see the Dhakaani as being VERY quick to completely cauterize any nest of lycanthropes, just as they would quickly wipe out any form of biological disease. Now, lycanthropes could have still flourished in the wilds— the Towering Woods, the Shadow Marches—but they wouldn’t be seen in the Empire.
On the other hand, if lycanthropes were created by Dyrrn the Corruptor, they would have been a weapon unleashed in the Xoriat Incursion. There could well be historical evidence of a stretch of the western empire that was almost completely wiped out in a lycanthropic exponential expansion. Given this, if you wanted to present a Kech of the Heirs of Dhakaan that have somehow adapted and controlled their lycanthropy, it could be an interesting story—though the other Kech might see these things as abominations.
I know that werewolves transform when any moon is full, but do the twelve moons effect them differently in any noticeable way?
We’ve never discussed this in canon. There’s certainly precedent for it with the Moonspeaker druid. We’ve suggested the idea that Olarune has the greatest influence over lycanthropes, but I think it would be very interesting to say that different moons drive different impulses or moods. Another option would be to tie each strain to a particular moon.
I’m very curious about how lycanthrope genetics work. I know it’s a supernatural thing and probably don’t follow any scientific logic at all, but bloodlines and heritage are still strong symbolic themes to play with.
It’s a good question. If a natural evil werewolf has a child with an afflicted good werebear, what’s the child? You’re correct to keep in mind that this is fundamentally magic and that science isn’t the factor here. I’m inclined to follow the precedent of the kalashtar, and to say that while the child may inherent genetic traits from both parents, they only inherent the supernatural lineage of one of them. In the example above, they don’t produce some sort of neutral wolfbear; the child is either a good werebear or an evil werewolf. In the kalashtar, this is predictable and tied to gender; the child inherits the curse from the parent of the same gender. But you could just as easily make it random, or assert that one of the strains (I’d tend to say the evil one) is dominant.
I will say that I don’t consider natural or afflicted to be a factor in this. Once you have the curse you have the curse. It’s more deeply rooted in the natural—it can’t be removed, and it’s shaped them psychologically since birth—but in terms of passing it to a child, I think there’s no difference.
Is it correct to assume that the children of a natural or afflicted lycanthrope with a humanoid is a shifter (albeit one with far more obvious bestial traits than average)?
No, that’s not what I’d say at all. In my opinion, the connection between lycanthropes and shifters is more nebulous than that—and as I suggest above, it could be that shifters actually predate lycanthropes. We’ve called out that with shifters it’s not necessarily clear what animal they are tied to, and that shifter traits aren’t hereditary. If shifters are related to lycanthropes, I think it’s the process of many generations.
So personally, I would say that the child of a humanoid and lycanthrope is a going to be a natural lycanthrope. The curse isn’t natural and isn’t limited by genetics; it’s a curse. WITH THAT SAID… I can see some strong story potential to making it not an absolutely sure thing, which would allow you to have a character who appears to be normal only to develop lycanthropy spontaneously late in life (Shadow over Innsmouth style).
With that said, if you want to use shifter mechanics to represent a hybrid child of a human and lycanthrope, there’s nothing wrong with that. I’d just personally say that the character isn’t a traditional shifter—that the MECHANICS are the same, but that there will be obvious physical differences (this character would be more obviously linked to the particular animal, would be driven to a specific subrace, etc).
One sourcebook (was it Secrets of Sarlona?) mentioned that shifters and lycanthropes originated from Sarlona, more specifically from the Tashana Tundra. If so, shouldn’t the daelkyr hypothesis be ruled out?
The sourcebook in question is Secrets of Sarlona. There’s a few factors to consider here.
- Secrets of Sarlona suggests that shifters began on Sarlona, but gives no explanation of how they came to Khorvaire.
- It specifically presents this Tashan origin as a surprise to both the humans and shifters of Khorvaire.
- Neither shifter culture seems to have the motives or resources to organize a vast migration by sea, and the Eldeen shifter culture isn’t strongly intertwined with humanity.
Putting these three factors together suggests that shifters arrival in Khorvaire predates humanity, and was unusual in its origin. So I’ll present one hypothesis: Perhaps a large group of shifters entered one of the Wild Zones of Sarlona and were thrown into Thelanis. There, an Archfey—who called herself Olarune, after the moon—guided them through the Faerie Court, leading them out through another manifest zone into Khorvaire. This provides the basis for folktales of shifters as the chosen people of Olarune and gives them a migration that’s entirely unconnected to humanity. This could have occurred long before humanity crossed the ocean. And if we posit the Towering Wood as their landing point, it’s a wild region that was never tamed by Dhakaan; so it’s entirely possible they could have been present during the Daelkyr conflict.
WITH THAT SAID: A daelkyr wouldn’t have to cross thousands of miles to threaten Sarlona. We’ve discussed the Umbragen of Xen’drik fighting daelkyr. Remember that Khyber contains a myriad of demiplanes, which don’t follow natural law. So you could easily descend into Khyber in the Eldeen Reaches and emerge in Xen’drik, if you found the right passage.
Also: Secrets of Sarlona DOESN’T provide any explanation for the origin of lycanthropy. It seems to have had no significant impact on the history of Sarlona and is barely mentioned. It presents the possibility that it’s the result of an exposure to wild zones, but this is clearly called out as simply one possibility, not concrete fact… and I find it to be a weak story compared to the other options.
This is very well-timed, not just for Halloween, but because the shifter and the Silver Flame warlock in my group are sort of eyeing each other warily…
It’s worth exploring this a bit. The shifter tribes of the Towering Woods have far more experience with lycanthropes than humans do. They know that the good strains don’t pose a threat, and many clans would work in harmony with good-aligned lycanthropes. However, they despise EVIL lycanthropes. Again, per core rules, an evil lycanthrope is compelled to prey on the weak and innocent, even taking joy in targeting former friends and family members. The shifters understood this threat better than anyone, and had no desire to shield evil lycans. But they also understood that there were good strains as well.
So in principle, shifters and templars could have worked together against the common foe. But cunning lycans (especially wererats) worked to destroy this possibility before it could be realized. These agents intentionally sowed the idea that shifters were weretouched and supported all lycanthropes, actively working to set the templars and shifters against one another. The damage done by this lingers to this day. Many shifters hate the church, and followers of the Pure Flame hold to the idea that all shifters are weretouched or lycan sympathizers.
With that said, this isn’t universal. Many people on both sides understand that this was a trick, misinformation to turn allies against one another. There were shifters and templars who fought side by side during the Purge, and shifters who have become champions of the church in the decades that have followed.
All of which is to say: It’s up to your players to decide where they stand on this. Either one could be blinded by superstition and prejudice. Or they could understand that this hatred was engineered by a mutual foe, and be trying to work past it.
During development, was the purge specifically created to offset the “They’re heroes!” mentality that might come from such a “Holy Glorious Shenanigan” mindset otherwise?
Yes and no. The Purge was inspired by historical events, certainly: crusades, the Inquisition, wiping out smallpox. But in these situations, it’s vital to remember that Eberron isn’t our world. When we think of witch trials, we inherently assume that this involves the paranoid persecution of innocents, because (we believe) witches aren’t real. By contrast, the Purge was driven by an absolute concrete apocalypse level threat. Whatever you think about lycanthropes generally—even if you believe that lycanthropy is a blessing creating champions of the natural world—the lycanthropy presented in the rules of third edition was a curse, a supernatural force that could turn the noblest soul into a cruel murderer with the power to create more murderers. The curse that set the Purge in motion was a real, concrete supernatural threat that would have collapsed human civilization into primal murderous savagery. This is why it’s logical to think that this curse was created by the daelkyr or an Overlord: because it’s a weapon perfectly designed to tear apart a civilization from within and without.
So at its core, the Purge WAS a Holy Glorious Shenanigan. People ask why the Church didn’t put more effort into curing the victims, why it was so ruthless. To me, this fails to grasp the brutality of the situation. In my mind, we are talking about a horrific, terrifying struggle. Lycanthropes are powerful and deadly, and one-to-one the Templars were badly outmatched. Take the movie Aliens and set it in a redwood forest: that’s how I see the early days of the Purge. Add to this the idea that any village you find could be riddled with wererats scheming to poison you or turn you against innocents… or the entire village could BE innocent, and YOU DON’T KNOW. There could have been periods of peace, but when a surge occurred it would be sheer apocalyptic horror. In this phase, the templars weren’t cruel inquisitors. They weren’t in the position of power. They were heroes laying down their lives to protect the innocent people of Aundair.
After years of conflict, the tide finally turned. The power of the curse was broken. Suddenly the numbers of lycanthropes began to dwindle as they were defeated. But as noted in my timeline, this had happened before; no one knew that this time the threat was truly over. Now that the outright war had been won, the focus shifted to rooting out the survivors… those lycanthropes still hidden among the population. THIS is where we shift to the cruel inquisition and the paranoid witch hunt, taking the story we’ve seen play out many times in our history. But it’s important to remember that you’re dealing with a population that had suffered through a generation of blood-soaked terror, people who’d had lost countless loved ones to murderous lycanthropes. And remember that WE have the benefit of a rulebook that tells us with absolute authority how lycanthropy works, how it can be cured, that a good lycanthrope only creates other good lycanthropes. They had none of these things: what they had were countless conspiracy theories and superstitions born of terror and rage. And this was the foundation of the Pure Flame: a sect who saw the Silver Flame as a weapon, a tool not simply to protect the innocent but to punish the enemy, a force that had saved them from annihilation and could now make the forces that caused such terror pay for it.
So if anything, the Purge is a reflection of the moral complexity of the setting. It’s an event that can’t be painted as entirely good or purely evil. It was a conflict fought for the noblest of reasons that may have saved human civilization; and it was a ruthless persecution that resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocents and set an ember of hatred and suspicion between shifters and the church that still burns today. It is a stain upon the Church of the Silver Flame because of the innocents who died; but it’s also a symbol of selfless courage, of templars placing themselves in harms way to protect hundreds of thousands of innocent lives.
That’s all for now… happy Halloween!