Bite Marks Review

Since first seeing the Kickstarter for Bite Marks by Black Armada, I’ve been intrigued in figuring out exactly what this game is about. It’s werewolves, certainly, but geared more towards pack dynamics than the usual tropes. Bite Marks is now available for preorder at the link above, and if you’re considering it then you might be having the same questions. Read on to find out a little more about what you can expect!

The Tone of Bite Marks

“Pack is family. Pack is home. Pack is where you are accepted, no questions.” This is how Bite Marks starts and it really gets to the heart of the game’s tone. You are a werewolf with a pack and that pack is your whole community. You can have friends outside the pack but there’s always The Secret™ hanging over it. The only folks you can be yourself with in these stories is your pack, people who know you’re a werewolf and what that means.

Of course, family and home are also negative sometimes. Being part of a self-contained community bound by a secret can also be a caustic situation. Your pack is where you’re accepted and so going outside of that circle means actively choosing rejection, even if that means staying with your overbearing father or living near your obsessive ex or ignoring the fights with your cousins to keep the peace. Imagine your clique from high school, the good and the bad, and then realizing you can’t ever find new friend circles. Sounds tough and it sounds horribly complicated.

Image © Black Armada

It’s not just social awkwardness, sex is a big part about Bite Marks. There’s an X-Card and the author has clearly thought a lot about consent in gaming but there are also sex moves (in a mechanical sense) for every character. It’s clear throughout the book that your characters are expected to be going to bed with characters during the game and that a lot of that sex will be with other Player Characters. This is a bold design choice and one that’s going to create some divisions immediately. It’s something that I think deserves to be front and center, but let’s get into the nuts and bolts how how this and the other intimate moments are supported mechanically.

Game Systems

In all intimate manners, Bite Marks is a game with a strong Player v. Player element. Player characters are all part of the same pack with the same nominal goals, but that doesn’t mean they all have the same idea of how to achieve them. The MC is encouraged to drive wedges between player characters on matters like this, actively creating rivalries and factions within the pack. There’s also the matter that the pack is a closed system with limited advancement. If your player character wants to improve their station in the pack, the only way to do that is to usurp another player character.

This is complicated by the mechanic of Ties which are numerical ratings of the emotional baggage between characters. Specifically, ties are between player characters and never involve NPCs (even NPC members of the pack). You can have up to 3 Ties on the same PC and after you roll a move against that PC you can choose to spend one or more of your Ties to boost the roll. I think this works best when you can include the earlier baggage into the scene (“I saved you from that hunter and this is the thanks I get?!?”) but it doesn’t have to. Ties are regained through moves, either when you do well (and gain leverage over someone) or when you fail (and they gain a Tie on you).

Image © Black Armada

Similarly to this, the Pack Pool is a pool of points that you can spend to boost your roll when you’re working with Packmates to do something your Alpha wants done. These work somewhat like the Team Pool in Masks (though you can’t spend them selfishly and they replenish in emotional scenes not dramatic ones) but they also enable Pack Moves. These are group moves that take a lot of points but are hugely powerful combos. They work somewhat like the team moves in the Superteam Handbook for Mutants & Masterminds, allowing you to fight harder to defend your territory or band together for an assault.

Advancement in Bite Marks is handled through the Wolf and Human Paths. These are the two sides of your nature, represented by three-dot tracks. You fill a dot when you play your character well, play your pack culture well, gain a fourth Tie against the same PC, or with a few moves. When both tracks are filled you erase all the dots and Advance the characters stats a little.

Basic Moves and Skins

Like pretty much any Powered by the Apocalypse game, Bite Marks has a small number of stats that factor into moves that everyone can make. The stats here are Teeth (for fighting), Feral (for acting like a wolf), Heart (for acting like a person), and Guts (for going against your Pack or against your nature).

Image © Black Armada

With these you can attempt the basic moves of Bite Marks

  • Dominate is the tool of wolf hierarchy and it lets characters (especially the Alpha) boss people around.
  • While NPCs will immediately cave to a good Dominate, PCs can use Disobey to resist orders or pack traditions if it’s a hit (7-9 result).
  • The Alpha doesn’t get Dominated, but they can be knocked out of position with Make a Challenge that allows you to become the new captain now.
  • Mauling is when you attack someone.
  • Turning to Wolf Form requires Give In to the Wolf, which might go too far and leave you out of control in a rage.
  • You can use your wolf senses with Harness the Wolf, which you can do in human form or wolf form. In wolf form, though, you probably have a better chance of success.
  • Reacting quickly to danger requires Act on Instinct.
  • Opening up to Packmates (PC or NPC) involves the Spill move which gives them a Tie on you (for PCs) but adds to the Pack Pool.
  • Not everyone wants to do that, though, which is why you can Provoke Spill from someone.

While most PbtA games involve playbooks to give you your special skills and moves, Bite Marks has Skins which are mostly the same. Each has a name, details to pick for your look, a list of heartbeats to choose from (your three adjectives that are roleplaying cues), your stat improvements, and special moves. Skins also have tracks for Wolf Path, Human Path, and Harm but these are all the same.

Image © Black Armada

The Skins to choose from are the Alpha (leader of the pack), the Cub (newest member of the pack), the Enforcer (the pack’s toughest muscle), the Fixer (who deals with the mortal world), the Greypelt (oldest member), the Howl (spiritual leader of the pack), and the Prodigal (who left the pack but has come back). When you become Alpha, by the way, you switch Skins and if you fall from Alpha you have to give up your old Skin and moves. This book draws inspiration from a lot of sources but I will say that if you’ve watched even a few episodes of Bitten (or read the books maybe?) then you’ve seen all of these in action already.

One thing that’s different from other PbtA situations is that each Skin has a Sex Move (told you I’d get to it) which starts with “If you and another Player Character have sex…” It’s not something you typically see in an RPG but I think the intent here is not to make a bunch of sex-crazed werewolves. Most of them are phrased with the idea that sleeping with a Packmate is something that’s likely to come up but when it does it’s a Big Event and that’s why you have the move. Still, it ultimately depends on your group.

Image © Black Armada

Conclusion

The book has plenty more to work with, including advice on negotiating tricky situations, guidelines to create pack cultures, three cool scenarios (including a beachside one with two specialty Skins), and plenty of examples of play. It’s a solid game that really precisely nails the genre and looks like a lot of fun to play.

On the other hand, I can’t totally recommend this to everyone. I imagine you could run this as a one-shot or at a convention (you can do that with anything, right?) but the idea of doing this intimate game with strangers makes me uncomfortable. The idea of playing it with some of my gaming regulars would also be uncomfortable… It’s a game where there’s a lot of emotional bleed and that emotion is of the raw, painful, heatbreak-y type. If you like exploring things like that in roleplaying, hurting each other and reveling in that shared experience, then you’ll love this game. If you like your RPG to be about heroic escapism and feeling powerful then maybe try another werewolf game.

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