This is an odd book to write about, as this wasn’t on the Big List. For school, I wrote a paper on the reintroduction to wolves in Colorado, and I saw a reference to this book. Recently infatuated with my local library (See: Culture Quest) I placed an order without learning anything else about it. And I’m glad I did. This book was amazing as a way to learn about the issues involved with reintroducing wolves, and I don’t think I’ve EVER read a book as well written as this one.
That last sentence seems over-bold, so let me qualify. There’s a lot of different ways to write, and many different variations on that. Non-fiction is not a favorite genre of mine, so maybe more books are written like this, but I’ve never seen a book that balanced as carefully through such a politically charged topic. Each side sounded reasonable, and as viewpoints naturally arose throughout the narrative, I saw through the eyes and lives of the characters and understood and sympathized with the view point just present.
I went into the book firmly knowing my stance on the subject of wolf reintroduction, and I came out of the book no longer sure of where I stood on the issue. After reflection, I picked my stance, and unlike before, this was a hill I had chosen. I knew exactly why I had chosen to stand there.
Which, incidentally, is what CultureQuest is about. Seeing viewpoints you’ve never seen and being able to imagine the world in more complex ways.
But enough about this book (which I read back in March. I also wrote all but two paragraphs of this reflection back in March too.). I can’t really elaborate on it without ruining the experience. And the only non-spoiler way I have of explaining the experience involves comparing it to Jurassic Park. The book, not the movie. But it turns out, this isn’t a USEFUL comparison, because while everyone has seen the movie, no one has read the book. (To clarify: nobody is splicing wolves with frog DNA)
If you’re interested, go read it. And if you want to see what D&D thing I thought about after reflecting, then keep scrolling down.
How to apply this book to D&D
This is a campaign starter. It’s like a sourdough starter, but for an RPG. Bunch of stuff here that you can use as premise and detail for your adventure, but feel free to modify as needed. You’ll also be in charge of making a plot happen. I’m just giving you some yeast.
Obviously, a campaign based on American Wolf is based on reintroduction. It’s a campaign with murky politics and some obvious dangers, some complicated questions, and some complex answers. We could uses wolves, they do have stat blocks, but that’s a bit too on the nose for some satire. Better to use a ridiculous D&D monster. You can use whatever, but for the sake of this essay, let’s use the cute but deadly owlbear.
Here’s some notes.
- The Owlbear is the Ursibubo Kingdom’s Ancestral Mascot: it’s on all the heraldry, all the iconography, etc.
- 100 years ago, there was a grand extermination, using poison, traps, and magic, and the nearby Hootsnarl Forest was rendered devoid of Owlbears
- Only the sole Elven resident, Elduin Daydark (Scout), was alive back then. He claims he doesn’t have an opinion, but he’s also the only one around who has experience hunting dangerous creatures. He’s recently raised his rates.
- Halfling Otker Undertree (Druid) claims that the local ecosystem has been foundering because of the excess deer population. He spends a large amount of time in a wolf wild-shape, trying to thin out the herds. He sells leather for cheap.
- Human Telli Jatoi (Cultist) has been spending gold like it was water, campaigning to keep the owlbears away. If asked, he claims to be an agent for some out of kingdom businessmen who rely on deer hunting for their livelihood. In actuality, he works for Raylzret, a Red Dragon who likes the convenience of so much meat nearby.
- In his youth, King Johann was a fierce fighter and fought back the orc hordes thirty years ago. Now, he winces when he stands. He leaves the management of the kingdom to his advisors and his son.
- Prince Florian is an owlbear enthusiast. His salon is covered in various paintings that magnify the beauty of the creature, with little to none of the violence. (He’s always willing to add to his collection and will pay in good coin if there is someone artistic in the party.) He can’t understand why people are against the idea and rambles on about their majesty. He’s the core voice of the pro-owlbear movement.
That feels like a significant cast. The story is up to you, but if you want to follow this route, make sure you’re playing this for laughs. If you’re trying to do serious political commentary, then, well, you probably are better off doing that without me.
The Secret Lives of Wolves
One of the interesting things that this book taught me about wolves is how little we knew about them. Sure, there were scientists that studied wolves, but wolves being brought into a park like yellowstone gave researchers incredible opportunity to study constantly. A lot of American Wolf narrative is taken from fastidious notes of a park worker who had an unbroken chain of daily wolf sightings for 15 years. Before that, researchers in Alaska would spend 2 weeks trying to see a wolf. So the data we had exploded.
And from my Biology armchair, I decree that wolves are kinda like dogs. You may have suspected that. But I’m not talking just in shape and stuff, but also in attitude. Dogs have all sorts of different personalities, ways they interact with things, coloration differences, size differences. Descriptions. With this glimpse into wolf temperaments, descriptions, and pack dynamics, I’ll be able to do more than just say “There’s wolves now”. I’m probably not going to turn my starting area wargs (worgs?) into a wolf pack, but sometime in the future, I’m going to have to use them. I should also add some variance to wolves. A wolf pack is led by an Alpha. Being a leader does not make a wolf an alpha, being an alpha qualifies the wolf to lead. Without a strong and smart leader, the pack weakens and falls apart.
AC 14 HP 16
Bite: +5 8 Str DC 12 or prone
Keen Hearing and Smell, Pack Tactics
Speed 40 ft.
AC 13 HP 11
Bite: +4 7 Str DC 11 or prone
Keen Hearing and Smell, Pack Tactics
Speed 40 ft.
I effectively took a wolf and added a hit die and a small stat boost. (Btw, that’s how I build stat blocks these days. That’s all I ever take to the table with me)
I don’t know how much more about wolves I would care to learn. I do have a Newbery book, Julie of the Wolves somewhere and it’d be interesting to compare the two. But American Wolf opened up a different door: the world of non-fiction. I mean, it pointed to the door. I never go over there. The books tend to be dry and heavy. But there is fruit among the non-fiction tomes. I don’t know quite the secret of finding it, but I’m less hesitant to try.