by Volker Bach
Kurt raised his crossbow to chest height before he quietly stepped across the clearing. Tonight the reckoning was due. For months the wolves had plagued the villages of his lord, taking sheep, pigs and chickens, breaking into stalls and hurdles, until two weeks ago -- the hunter crossed himself hastily as the memories surfaced -- one of them had killed the daughter of Anselm the miller. Bad winter, Kurt thought. Nothing to eat in the forest. Wolves always came into the valleys when the snows stayed too long. Nothing for it but setting traps.
The moonlight cast the shadows of branches and tree trunks over the snow of the clearing, almost obscuring the tracks. Kurt drew his cloak closer about him and involuntarily cast about anxious glances. He knew that wolves fled from armed men, but one heard stories . . . There was the trap, right on the pass the pack used for their forays. The rustling and growling noises told him that one of the greycoats had been careless. Smiling, the hunter stepped into the path -- and froze in his tracks. The old man stood right in front of him, though Kurt could have sworn he had not been anywhere near a heartbeat before. Ragged and dirty, he could almost be a beggar -- almost. Were it not for the eyes, the yellow eyes that made Kurt's flesh creep and rooted his feet to the spot. The stranger bowed his head knowingly and spoke, very quietly: "My poor Grimma." he said accusingly. "Her foot is broken. Now we must feed her, too." Fervently murmuring a prayer, Kurt tried to tear his eyes from the hypnotic glare as grey shadows materialised from the underbrush. The hunter raised no hand in his own defense.
The dark forests of Central Europe are the home of the wolfsbanner, the man who runs with the wolves. For centuries the farmers and herdsmen of France, Germany, Poland, Bohemia, Hungary, and the Balkans spoke with fear of the savage, cunning leaders of the wolfpacks that slew their sheep, their cattle, and their children. Outcasts from the society of Christian men they were, devilspawn, given strange powers by the Dark One to torment the good folk. Some legends claim that no wolf will kill a human child unless driven to it by a wolfsbanner, who craves the blood of innocents and owes his infernal masters the life of a human each month. Others say that wolfsbanner teach their charges to open doorlatches, undo knots, even walk on their hind legs and imitate human voices the better to prey on the farmers. Leading them on their raids they can see through their eyes, guide their steps and speak through their mouths. Often they were thought capable of changing into a wolf or other wild animal at will. Fearful peasants spoke of other magic, too, luring animals and children into the forest, throwing pursuers off the track and proofing the coats of the wolves against arrow and shot. Sometimes a wolfsbanner would come into a village demanding food and money, and woe betide the farmer who denied him.
The wolfsbanner makes a wonderful addition to any classic fantasy campaign, not least because so little about him is certain. Nobody but the GM need know what is truth and what legend. Wolfsbanner are invariably described as old men, painfully gaunt and wiry and dressed in uncured hides, rags and the tattered remnants of human clothing. Their eyes are those of wolves, yellow and piercing, and are thought to have hypnotic powers. Anyone looking directly at them becomes rooted to the spot, unable to move until he breaks free of the gaze, or is given permission. This power can be treated as a Contest of Will in game terms, with the target taking penalties depending on circumstances, failed fright checks and the real danger of the situation. Disdaining the comforts of settled life, wolfsbanner live in the forest summer and winter, travelling with their wolf packs and living on raw flesh, berries and grubs. They are as fast, strong and agile as their wolf companions, have preternaturally sharp senses and can see at night as well as during the day. Eschewing the company of humans they live alone with their pack. They use no tools or weapons (except, in rare cases, staves and knives) and though they can speak human languages they will talk to the wolves in their tongue. What little human-made items they need they will steal or demand with menaces from villagers and travellers or take from the bodies of their victims.
ST 10 DX 14 IQ 10 HT 13
Advantages: Extra Fatigue +2, Cast-Iron Stomach, Alertness +4, Night Vision, Speak With Animals (Wolves), Ally Group (wolfpack, always)
Disadvantages: Primitive (TL0), Intolerance (settled people), Social Stigma (Outlaw)
What else the wolfsbanner can do, or not do, is up to the GM. If it is true that abandoned children raised by wolves become wolfsbanner they will be little more than savage humans with a number of wolves to aid them. An adventure could be based on the capture or rescue (depending how you look at it) of one such child. Trying to communicate with an angry, alienated teenager who commands twenty wolves and speaks no human language can make a memorable episode, and the morality of taking a child from its loving wolf family to return it to an uncaring human community is an issue for the players to expound.
Other possibilities are better suited to a fantasy campaign, though. Wolfsbanner were often thought to be evil sorcerers, capable of great feats. If they are indeed in league with the devil and use the wolves to sate their craving for the blood of children they are a menace to be rooted out in the good old heroic manner. This may not be easy as the dark wizard can turn himself into a wolf, watch the party's every move through the eyes of his pack or any other creature of the dark, including crows, owls, spiders and rats. Hidden in his lair deep in the forest, protected by fiercely loyal wolves and warded by magic, finding him may be the biggest challenge. If he also has combat magic at his disposal he and his wolves could prove a lethal threat to a hasty party whose swords and arrows prove useless against the savagely attacking beasts. Of course such monsters have weaknesses -- silver, hazelwood, fire, salt or holy relics drive them away in some legends, prayer or the sound of church bells in others.
To make the wolfsbanner a tortured soul rather than a monster of evil could be equally interesting. Some legend holds that he is a huntsman who was banished to live in the forest with the wolves for preferring the chase to church on a high holiday. This or any other transgression may see a miscreant sentenced to an eternal existence among wild animals by an angry deity. Maybe the banished sinner, embittered by long years of privation and loneliness, has forsworn his humanity and seeks to wreak his revenge on all who still live in the company of friends and family that has been taken from him. Maybe he earnestly tries to expiate his sin, to be readmitted to the flock of the faithful or relieved of the burden of his existence, and needs the help of the PCs. Or possibly he has not been justly punished by a deity but maliciously cursed by a sorcerer or demon. Freeing such a wolfsbanner could be as heroic a feat as killing the malicious kind, and he might even make an interesting PC himself.
Folkorists have long realised that the hatred of the church and the fear of the people may well mean the wolfsbanner hails from an earlier, pagan age of Europe. An old god of the wild, reduced to this tattered form, or an angry forest spirit roused into action by the inroads civilisation has made into what once was virgin forest, are as plausible explanations for the wolfsbanner as any. Perhaps he is a malign, primal entity driven by inveterate hatred for men who imprison wild animals and cut down ancient forest for grainfields, or a local deity from the distant past, once placated by sacrifice and now arisen to claim his due from the herds by fair means or foul. The ancient druidic priest of such a deity, living a life dedicated to the wild in a manner not understood by his contemporaries, is even more interesting as a scenario seed. He may not even be hostile. Instead, he may be genuinely trying to strike a balance, to convince the farmers that they must give the spirits of the wild and their children, the wolves, something in compensation for the forest ranges they have taken from them, and to make the wolves confine themselves to sheep and cattle where children would be such easy prey. His efforts would be met with hostility by tight-fisted farmers who blamed him for the inroads on their flocks, or complied with by an uncomprehending, cowed and sullen populace waiting their opportunity for revenge. In a more primeval setting the wolfsbanner could even be a recognised priest, regarded with fear and awe and placated with gifts and sacrifice by the people. Or maybe all the talk of placating the forest gods is just the spiel of a canny animal mage running a local protection racket. Whatever the lean, dark man in the forest is, he is not to be trifled with.
Article publication date: November 16, 2001
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