Shapeshifters (aka Shifters, Lycans, Were-things, etc..) are humans that have been infected with lycanthropy. Lycanthropy (alternately, Therianthropy or Dimorphism) is a para-mystical virus which is introduced into the blood stream from the infected host to the victim. For a person to be infected with the virus, the infecting host must be shifted into animal form (or a portion thereof) and break the skin of the target, or there must be a sizable transfusion of blood between host and target1. There have even been cases of vaccines against Lycanthropy causing the infection they were designed to prevent. Even then, not all victims of lycan attack are infected. Some sub-species of shapeshifters are more likely to infect a victim than others and as of yet there is no scientific explanation for this phenomenon. If the infection is picked up, the victim is struck by a nasty debilitating fever that continues until the next full moon. If the virus took hold, they then undergo First Change. If the virus didn't take hold, the fever breaks. Between infection and the next full moon, there is no way to know for sure if the person will fully contract lycanthropy and shift, although some mundane tests and some preternatural senses might determine that the person is a contender (although without knowing how it'll turn out). Upon First Change, most all damage done by the fever is repaired by the shift, as well as most all injuries from earlier (be they infection-related injuries or even childhood injuries). About the only issues that might not be corrected are those that were a product of genetic birth defects.
There have been some attempts to see if a person post-infection pre-shift can have the infection "blocked" by introducing another strain of lycanthropy (with similar experiments trying to produce folks who can turn into more than one type of animal), but these attempts are currently unsuccessful and are dismissed as the stuff of rumors (SEE: Anti-Canon)
The Center for Disease Control estimates approximately 1:300 persons are carriers of the lycanthropy virus, although only about half of that number have had their condition reported.
Genetic Were (IE: Pre-Natal Infection)
Another means of contracting lycanthropy is a rarer 'Genetic Were'. Namely, the individual's mother was of a were-animal that can lay eggs. Mammalian female weres cannot produce offspring due to the healing ability healing the odd growth of the fetus, as well as the shift being too traumatic to allow the fetus to really develop.
If the mother can lay an egg (due to being a were-bird, were-reptile, or were-insect), the fetus stands a chance of being able to develop outside of the mother's body, thus not having to endure a shifting womb every full moon. Understandably, this is a very chancy process and is often thought of as just theory. Nearly every species of non-human animal can be found in a were-form somewhere, although those who could not survive the unexpected first shifts (most were-fish, for example) tend to die in the first month of lycanthropy, and therefore are not considered to be viable breeds. Predators tend to be the most common species of all, since it is easier to transmit the virus with sharp teeth and a more aggressive personality. A zebra-were, for instance, is considered an extreme rarity, if not unknown. A rabbit-were, even more so.
Some individuals of mammalian were-types (EG: tigers) like to claim they can produce children, but these claims have no foundation.
Of course, one can also be directly cursed (or blessed, depending on how one looks at it) to turn into a critter every now and again, by way of extremely powerful sources (NOTE: So powerful of sources that we most likely shan't allow PCs with such power to produce such effects in-game). Either the individual had an ancestor cursed with lycanthropy (which is assumed to be the source of the original cases of lycanthropy in pre-history) and the curse was magically passed on to later generations, or the individual was directly "zapped", themselves. Those rare individuals who are cursed have a few variations from the norm:
- They can not infect others with shapeshifting.
- They generally only shift due to their "triggering event". This might not include the phase of the moon nor stress. They generally can not be forced to shift.
- They do not have the lycanthropic instinct to form packs.
- They can not gain the Channel Munin ability.
- They can not be Alphas, and tend to have a Power between 10 and 20.
- Their Power is added to their Masking, if they have Masking.
- Vampires can not Control their animal-type unless they are in animal form.
- Many show a penchant for Sorcery and suchlike Magical Abilities.
- Their animal form tends to be a normal-sized animal.
Note that the Magical Abilities bit is usually in conjunction with the shapeshifting curse. For example, one might turn into a monkey every time one eats a banana (or something containing banana or banana byproducts) until the Golden Amulet of Hanuman is returned to its temple. Alas, the amulet has been broken up, melted down, and is now spread over (and in) a few other golden things, so one could also have the magical ability to detect how much of Hanuman's gold is in any particular object that contains a sample of it. Or one might have some curse that turns one into a badger for an hour for each ounce of liquor consumed, and one also has the magical ability to talk to badgers (although note that badgers are generally pretty dumb, relative to human standards). Or one might be cursed to turn into a quail all night, every night, for 100 years, and one magically doesn't age for those 100 years.
Sometimes you'll get a "half cursed, half genetic" affair, too, where a person was zapped to turn into a stoat or hedgehog or something, and it's been passed on over the generations so the second eldest son (or whoever) continues the trend, or an arrangement like the Disney film, "The Shaggy D.A." These individuals follow the above traits for Cursed shifters instead of the odd and rare "your were-mom could lay eggs" arrangement.
Canonically, the Were-Swan in the books was a Cursed Were-Swan, as were a few other were-types. This does not mean one can not have an Infectious, Non-Cursed, Were-Swan or Were-Whatever (as long as they meet the criteria).
All shapeshifters have the ability to change shape during the full moon. Indeed, this is a requirement for the moon calls to them all and all but the most powerful shifters must eventually shift. Resisting the shift will leave the person extremely exhausted and it is generally considered advantageous to shift and hide rather than resist the moon. The younger, less experienced, or less powerful shapeshifters feel the stir of the beast in their blood in stressful situations, such as joy, lust, anger, fear… situations that would cause a person's "blood to boil" and to lose control. Under duress or extreme emotion, these poor souls will change forms and there is little they can do to stop it. In game terms, if you are not an Alpha, this applies to you so Please RP accordingly. As the moon waxes towards full, the likelihood of shifting against one's wishes increases (resisted by both Willpower and the Shapeshifting ability). When the moon starts to wane towards new, things grow quite a bit easier, so the 'safest' phase is just before the moon is completely dark. Many of the more organized Shifters have an individual whose duties include training their kin in 'stress management', so as to reduce the chance of an unfortunate shift following a romantic dinner or during an important business deal (or when missing the last subway train).
Once the change begins, the lycan is vulnerable and completely unable to defend themselves until the change is finished. It is for this reason that shifters spend the height of the full moon in the company of their brothers and sisters of the community if at all possible. A new shifter is highly encouraged to find members of their group, or a like-minded species to help them through the first few changes (NOTE: For the first half dozen months or so, a new shifter will black out and have no memory of what went on when shifted. Want a system for it? Try +roll/per <Memory + Willpower + Shapeshifting + Call Beast + ((months as a shifter)x10) - Power> for how much you remember. That way, it's your memory plus your excess willpower plus shifting-restraint plus shifting-control with a time-factor thrown in). The hospital that diagnosed the initial infection should be able to contact a Shifter Support Group for you. After a shift, all non-alpha shifters must remain in their animal form for a minimum of eight hours or they risk falling into a coma-like state of sleep for up to twelve hours after changing back. After the minimum of eight hours they may change back and only be fatigued.
Because the change takes so much energy, most shifters have a ravenous appetite upon assuming their other shape. Usually, they feed shortly thereafter though it is not necessary. However, they must feed at some point in time before they shift back unless they want to run the risk of passing out for a third to half of a day. Many Genetic Weres and a few breeds of standard therians (EG: Were-rats) are more adroit at changing 'on demand' or partially to a degree, but this is a rare and respected ability. Most can only shift from full-person to full-animal, and only by self-inducing extreme levels of stress.
If a shifter in animal-form goes to sleep willingly, they retain the animal form for a while, gradually shifting back into human-form while unconscious unless they have enough of a degree of control of their shapeshifting as to retain the form while not awake (Off the top of my head, let's say half of your Shapeshifting is how far ahead in hours you can 'set your alarm clock' to not shift back?). If a shifter in animal-form loses consciousness unwillingly (like say, being knocked out) or is killed, they shift back to human-form immediately.
The shifted form is quite large no matter what sub-species of lycan a person is. They may retain some ability to understand human speech or understanding, but it is usually feral at best, depending on the length of time the person has been a shifter. Naturally, more experienced shifters will be able to comprehend more, but not be able to speak in animal form. (Imagine raising a tiger cub as a pet. It may know its name and learn some commands but may not always respond to it. ) There are reports that there are even some shifters who have the ability to speak while in animal form, but these reports are rare and generally unproven. One of the abilities that particularly powerful shifters can do is shift into a half-form (known in White Wolf's WoD RPG as 'Crinos' form, often thought of as 'Werewolf' or 'Wolfman' form). This half-man, half-animal form retains more human understanding than the full animal form and also has many of the offensive capabilities of that form. Being able to just shift a particular body-part (thus a person with wolf claws, a wolf with human vocal cords, etc..) is also an ability generally only possessed by a few Alphas. However, staying in beast form too long will result in some animal traits remaining as a permanent fixture in human form, such as slitted eyes, long fingernails/claws, etc.
A good metaphorical benchmark to work off of for a were-thing in critter form is to imagine the person is still the person, but they've suffered some trauma (IE: shifting) that has probably made them black out if they're unused to it, and they've also gone insane and think they're an animal. Due to the blacking out, their memory of the critter-form events will probably be hazy when they shift back, and their normal human morals aren't entirely about them. Obviously, they still retain their actual intelligence, since otherwise they wouldn't shift back into human form until rendered comatose or dead; it's more that they might have such an animalistic mindset that they don't care about their intelligence.
Lycanthrope vs Human Changes
All shapeshifters have higher physical statistics, Willpower, and better senses than a normal human, and these traits are possessed in all forms. But they also have a vulnerability to silver2 and fire. Any wound caused by an object made of silver will not be healed by the lycan's supernatural healing ability. These wounds will heal at a normal human rate. There are only a few ways other than using silver that can cause a shapeshifter to die. Decapitation, removal of the heart, and wounds that are so traumatic that the body dies of blood loss before it has enough time to repair itself are a few of these ways. However, apart from decapitation, if a shifter can shift into beast form soon enough, the damage will most often be repaired because of the rearrangement of body forms.
Far more durable than before they were infected, a shifter can still be affected by extremes in temperature. Much like any other living person, if their core body temperature wanes down to the high 80s F (low 30s C) or waxes up to the mid 100s F (low 40s C), hypothermia and hyperthermia can still lead to death. Although their cells are stronger and more durable than a standard person's, their cardiovascular system is equally boosted; both hyperthermia and hypothermia are fatal due to the body shunting the blood to or from the vital organs, so both can kill a shifter at the same rate as a normal person. Fortunately, a shifter can withstand the earlier stages longer than a normal person, and can recover from most trauma caused by hypothermia or hyperthermia, providing they survive.
Generally, their body temperature tends to run higher than a standard person's, but not fever-high. As per how well they can deal with the cold, they generally find the external temperatures to be about 10 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it actually is (EG: freezing temperatures feel brisk, brisk temperatures feel like room temperatures, room temperatures feel like summer). This is due to the high-gear metabolism and has nothing to do with if the critter-type is warm blooded or cold blooded.
Upon death, a lycanthrope reverts back to human form. If knocked unconscious, they gradually revert back to human form, although choosing to fall asleep make the reversion take place at a far slower rate. If a body part is removed while the shifter is alive and shifted form (be it a paw or just hair), the part remains in the shifted state.
Shifters have a significant sense of smell that should not be overlooked in an RP setting. Many senses will be heightened, including smell. Shifters in general grow to crave touch by those of their own kind, though this varies between species. Some shifters are known to live in colony situations, where many individuals share the same house and even bed. Depending on the species, senses will be more developed, or less, after a shift. For example, a canine or feline lycan will have a heightened sense of smell, where a crocodile may have a lessened sense of vision from their human counterpart. It should generally be considered that the 'beast' lives within the lycanthrope at all times except at the full moon, where the human lives inside the beast.
Detection & Prevention
The traditional way to prove an individual to be a shifter was to cut off a limb or digit and examine for a sub-cutaneous layer of fur (or scales in the case of a were-reptile, feathers for a were-bird, a carapace for a were-bug, etc..). With the advance of modern science, an ultrasound, X-Ray, or CAT scan can produce the same findings without maiming the potential shifter, as well as a simple blood test to detect the virus's presence. Due to the innate constantly healing magics that shifters possess, those Sensitive to Preternatural Power may also run a chance of detecting a were-person who has yet to learn enough Masking to hide their unusual nature.
Although one can attempt to immunize someone against the lycanthropy virus in the form of standard vaccination, the paramystical nature of the virus occasionally results in the patient coming down with the disease that the vaccination was supposed to prevent (NOTE: The idea of trying to run interference with a second lycanthropy strain is in the books after our cut-off date, and as such might be attempted in-game, but will never work). Once the victim has begun to demonstrate the symptoms of pre-shift lycanthropy (typically just a fever), the only way to assure that they might not contract full-blown lycanthropy seems to be the wielding of eldritch fairy magics or by killing the victim, giving the virus time to die off in the corpse over the next few days, then bringing the victim back to life; Obviously, neither of these are commonly practiced. Instead, the standard is to keep the patient under observation until the next full moon hits, waiting to see if the infection "sets" or if the fever breaks and the lucky patient's immune system was able to stave off lycanthropy.
There is a chance of some counter-viral therapy negating the infection before it sets, but the only productive results have come about when the treatment took place in the first half of the incubation period, before actual symptoms began to manifest (which is typically 24-36 hours, thus requiring treatment in the first 12-18 hours).
September 4th, 1907 is when lycanthropy was first realized as being a disorder that could afflict anyone and not just the morally corrupt (before then, it was thought to be a curse of God upon the immoral: As a beast ye act, so a beast ye shall be). Medical advances over the next few decades led to isolation and identification of the lycanthropy virus in the 1960s.
Although lycanthropes have been recognized by American as humans either cursed, punished, or infected with a disorder, a few states in the US have loopholes for dealing with shapeshifters who are in animal form at the time.
- Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico all tend to waive murder charges if a shapeshifter was killed while not in human form.
- Utah allows the same, as long as a "lack of animosity" can be established by the defendant being a shapeshifter themselves, or married to a shapeshifter, or with at least three signed affidavits from shapeshifters.
- Virginia allows the same, as long as the defendant performed the killing while on their own property, or if they were part of a group of five or more adult individuals (thus establishing the shifter as a threat to the community, and not part of a personal grudge).
- Although the other states of the union consider killing a lycanthrope in any form to be equal to killing any other human citizen, many individuals subscribe to the practice of "shoot quickly, bury deep, don't talk".
The Big Three
…And the +help files for +abilities, +eep, +howl, +mark, +scent, +flash, +sense, +masking, +heal, +leaders, +census and +moon/stress, once in-game.