Everyone knows that, when it comes to lycanthropes, werebears are the good ones. Right? Ever since Gandalf knocked on Beorn’s door in The Hobbit, werebears have been portrayed as the benevolent exception in a typically evil lot. The one exception is if your GM is a Norse fan, in which case you’ve probably run into a shapechanging berserkr or two…and even they probably bought you a drink after the battle if anyone was still standing.
So if you’re looking to refresh werebears in your game, maybe the best thing to do is make them flat-out evil like the rest of their kin. Or refresh who becomes werebears. Maybe it's not rangers, northmen, and tribal braves. Maybe it's witch skinshifters who physically climb into bearskin suits. Maybe it’s bugbears or hill dwarves. Maybe werebears are dark creatures that serve hags and changelings exclusively. And, of course, you can change the species of bear: polar bears, sun bears, moon bears, and even spectacled bears or pandas are all up for grabs. The Beorn model is an option…but not the only option.
Cursed after an affair with a river spirit, a samurai turns into a giant moon bear on the full moon. So far he has hidden the affliction from even his wife and family—he claims to be fulfilling a religious obligation—though it has meant killing a witness in at least one case. His heart grieves for the man he slew, but the honor of his family and his daimyo come first.
Adventurers travel to Hochheim, the High Home of the Gods, seeking a rogue ice troll witch. They spend a night in one of the Halls of the Valorous, one of the great longhouses where warriors who died in battle on the mortal plane are reborn to fight again. While there the adventurers must best one of the reincarnated warriors in a feat of strength or bravery. During the competition, they soon find out that the warriors have all been reborn as werebears—and since anyone they slay will join them as a werebear brother, they are not gentle combatants.
Spriggans aren't the only foul shapechanging fey. Exiled sidhe (treat as elves with the fey creature template) are stripped of their rank, their names, and even their fey natures. This last is accomplished by sewing them into enchanted bearskins. They spend years inside the cursed and rotting hides in bear form, and their only option for escape is to become humanoid—surrendering every last bit of their fey power not tied to the shapeshift in the process. Travelers in the pine forests are advised to beware any hirsute half-elves, for they are bloodthirsty killers who hate the limited mortal beings they have become.
—Pathfinder Bestiary 2 181
Blood of the Moon features werebear-kin known as coldborn.
Comments! Our Ravenloft expert ohgodhesloose weighs in on a werebat from that setting, and filbypott is already excited about weretigers. Readers masahiro-the-zero and speculativeartisan, just go for it!
Also, in regards to werebats yesterday I probably should have given a nod to Golarion’s (and the Mayans’) evil bat-god Camazotz. And while I only have a little familiarity with Wofgang Baur’s Midgard setting, I seem to remember a Kobold Quarterly article that focused on an evil bat-god/demon for that world, too…
Speaking of which, knightdiscipline took me to task for my offhand joke about werebats being blind as a bat (I promise I know they're not blind; I subscribed Zoobooks as a kid!) and offers an epic post on neutral or good fruit bat-inspired varieties.
Now, don't get me wrong. I love bats. I love the Bronx Zoo bat house. And one of the coolest things about my trip to Sydney was looking up and seeing wild m----f---ing flying foxes hanging like gourds right above me and using their own wings as sleeping bags! Pardon me while I squee.
BUT. I also think there’s some virtue (bad word choice…maybe some iniquity?) in having some evil things just stay evil. We fans tend to want to glorify/redeem the things we love, whether or not they deserve it. *coughHarleyQuinnisstillamassmurderercough* *dittoDeadpoolcough* The Forgotten Realms setting in particular was really bad about turning every evil thing good (and we can’t blame Drizzt for it all—there are more than enough baelnorns and lythari and worshippers of Eilistraee and tieflings to go around). But a little of that can go a long way. That’s part of why I like Pathfinder’s goblins and drow—they are evil, full stop. So even if we are doing an injustice to real-world bats (who I think need to be protected and given as much habitat and space and pesticide-free food as possible), I’m okay with my fantasy werebats being creatures of the night/darkness/vampires/wickedness/sin/etc.
That said, knightdiscipline has thrown down the gauntlet, so if you want more subtle, nuanced, or even straight-up benevolent werebats in your game, go check out his comments.
Speaking of Beorn, I just discovered the column Advanced Readings in Dungeons & Dragons by Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode. I will definitely be reading these articles in the days to come. Also this. And hopefully the books in the future…?