While there are many types of lycanthropes in Dungeons and Dragons 5e, we’re going to stick to the classic werewolf – particularly because it isn’t just the shapechanging that we’re interested in when it comes to fright factor.
Plus the word “lycanthrope” comes from the Greek λυκάνθρωπος or lykánthropos; literally “wolf man.” Have fun with the other were- varieties, but we’re sticking to the OG!
The History of the Werewolf
Some experts credit the earliest appearance of something resembling a werewolf to The Epic of Gilgamesh written around 1800 B.C wherein Ishtar transforms a former lover into a wolf (and other lovers into other wild animals).
Others cite Greek mythology’s account of King Lycaon. He tested the omniscience of Zeus by feeding him human entrails. Zeus then either strikes him down with lightning or turns him into a wolf as he flees – depending on the account. Other stories of people changing into and even out of a wolf form are present in the literature.
Accusations and even confessions of folks being werewolves are found throughout history, with the highest degree falling between the 15th and 16th centuries. Most claimed to achieve the transformation with a magical item of some sort; a salve or a belt, for example.
One of the most infamous examples is that of Peter Stumpp who confessed to killing over a dozen people (along with an unknown number of livestock) and feeding on them. The devil had given him a belt that allowed him to change into
“the likeness of a greedy, devouring wolf, strong and mighty, with eyes great and large, which in the night sparkled like fire, a mouth great and wide, with most sharp and cruel teeth, a huge body, and mighty paws.”Return of the Wolf: Conflict and Coexistence by Paula Wild
Did you catch his descriptiveness? We’re going to circle back around to that shortly!
There is even such a thing even today as clinical lycanthropy; a diagnosable psychiatric condition in which a person believes that he or she can or has transformed into an animal. Some even believe that this describes King Nebuchadnezzar’s brief stint in Daniel 4 where he “ate grass like the ox,” “his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird” (Daniel 4:33, NIV).
D&D Werewolf Tactics
“Apes. Together. Strong.” I know it isn’t lifted out of a movie featuring a werewolf, but the idea holds true for our discussion!
Think of werewolves like banded together outcasts and/or like a pack of actual wolves. Very communal, pack hunters, protective of their young, that sort of thing. The bottom line is that more werewolves means more Bite attempts which means more chances for the PCs to deal with lycanthropy. The communicability of the werewolf is one of its scariest attributes, for sure.
Who is the alpha? Give him max HP to toughen him up a bit. Is he a frontline fighter, or someone who commands from the rear? What happens when he (or she) is killed? Does someone in the pack step into the leadership void, or do the others feel liberated and grateful? If the latter, can the party let the clan members live in peace, or will they consider them too great a threat to let live?
Use the Shapechanger ability as a prelude to battle or as the prescribed reverting to the true form only. That ability makes almost no sense mid-battle as it costs an Action to execute, but as a frightening reveal it can pack a lot of punch:
Suddenly the fight with a band of bandits takes a horror movie turn, or the slaying of what appeared to be a wolf reveals a child’s body.
And for Torm’s sake describe that transformation well! That can be the very important difference between this:
One is decidedly scarier than the other.
When are Werewolves at Their Scariest?
The fact of the matter is that werewolf stats are not exactly the stuff of legend, but their reputation will precede them and bring with it a boding all of its own. With such a low AC and only +4 to hit, the reasons they’re CR3 creatures are their Multiattack and Damage Immunities, so you’ve got to lean hard into those whenever you can. Same goes for the chance to pass lycanthropy on to the PCs.
So throw them at a party with a low number of silvered or magical weapons. Tossing even one at a party with none of those things is a tad cruel, but see what kinds of tactics your party resorts to when their options for doing real harm are very limited.
The werewolf doesn’t even have to win this fight. Maybe he gets a little cocky and decides to play with his food; planning to harass them when he feels like he’s got them way outmatched. Only the next time they cross paths, the party is much better equipped! Going from abject defeat to clear victors is a fun swing in tone! Or perhaps he leaves wounded and angry and comes back with some of his pack to settle things.
Another way to scare your party: Stage the encounter as a fight with a regular old wolf but use the stats of the werewolf in wolf form. When that Bite lands and you ask for a Constitution saving throw (and don’t say why!), their eyebrows will hit the ceiling! Imagine their horror when, at the end of the fight, the wolf reverts to a human form. Right then they’ll know everything they need to about that Con save!
The lycanthropy can be undone with a Remove Curse spell, so it isn’t necessarily permanent. That relatively easy encounter with a lone wolf suddenly turns into a major player choice (to embrace or not to embrace), a side quest (for the cure if desired), and all sorts of fun to be had for DMs who care to track the cycle of the moon in the meantime…
D&D Werewolf Encounter Ideas
- A pack of werewolves are displaced from their territory by a rival and stronger clan. In their new area, they’re busy “recruiting” others to the pack and have plans to take their old stomping grounds back.
- A hybrid-form werewolf reverts to its true form after the party dispatches it. The face matches that on a missing person’s poster in a nearby town. There is a large reward for information regarding their whereabouts.
- As the party beds down for the night, they hear (or perhaps just the one on watch at that time hears) a series of chilling howls in the distance. Then they draw nearer. And nearer. Then everything in the woods falls eerily silent.
- A group of known werewolves defends a large territory from all hunting and poaching. They say it’s to keep their wild food supply high and therefore keep them from harming livestock or humans, but the closest town is bordering on famine after a drought wreaked havoc on livestock and crops alike. Can a compromise be reached?
- The party learns of an underground werewolf fighting ring. All of the combatants were afflicted with lycanthropy (not born as a werewolf), are held against their will, and starved in anticipation of the contests that take place each full moon. Will the party place bets or free those imprisoned and forced to fight?
Other Creepy Creature Features: