Breaking Down Tropes: The Lone Wolf

It's the quickest way to make a group of gamers hate you, the gm want to ignore you, and to earn enemies faster than you can roll a 1 on a d20: be the lone wolf. For years I campaigned passionately against the lone wolf. Why were you playing a group-focused game if you just wanted to sit in the corner and not be part of the game? Why were you even here? What was the point of this character? Yet time and time again I come across the lone wolf, grinning and mad, running free and unencumbered by petty connections to other PCs.

Why is this such a problem? Why is this so common, even still? What does playing the lone wolf add to the game or story? I wasn't convinced, even when the long wolf was suggested for me to write about, that the lone wolf trope could be anything but annoying. Yet the more I talked to people, the more I began to see a complex and interesting picture of the lone wolf as more than a new gamer's attempt to be edgy and something that may be worth taking a look at.

At its core, the lone wolf is about being a badass who doesn't need anyone. Much like the alpha male, the lone wolf is aloof, and doesn't technically need the other characters to tell their story. In a normal cinematic experience, the lone wolf would be the main character, and everyone else would be secondary to their story. Their story is one of heroic deeds for themselves, often as an anti-hero, with sexy scenes interspersed with characters who want to connect with them, but the lone wolf will always pull away, leaving behind a trail of shattered hearts.

First of all, let's talk about the key part of the lone wolf: the lone. For the lone wolf trope to function, there needs to be an aloneness about them. They have trouble connecting to people, either because they're too badass for actual emotions or because they've been damaged in some way they can't possibly imagine getting over. Sometimes, this is the result of a cold and uncaring world reflected via the lens of the lone wolf, such as in cyberpunk fiction or post apocalyptic fiction. In these worlds, a certain level of lone-wolf is seen as necessary to survive.

Being broken, emotionally, by the loss of loved ones, is another strong theme in the lone wolf archetype. They're often the person whose family is dead, and it's left them cold and distant from the rest of humanity. They can't trust falling in love again because it will only lead to pain. They can't trust companions anymore because last time someone backstabbed them and it sucked. They can't trust people because people are sometimes shitty and therefore all people are always shitty.

The lone wolf lacks logic, complex thoughts, and long-term planning. They also probably lack a therapist and a sense of self beyond their pain, but no one's here to judge how people get over things. One thing is for certain though, a functional lone wolf is trying to get over something. Most often, it's their lack of trust, sympathy, or empathy for other people. Sometimes it's just seeing people as a utility, a currency, and that suddenly they need to see people as actual people, and maybe companionship, camaraderie, or love will make them see it.

The secondary part of the lone wolf is competency. They are very capable. They are bounty hunters, assassins, cold blooded killers, and edgelords. They have no need for other people and thus, are accustomed to doing things for themselves. Part of their defining feature is their explicit kick-assness and while we may dislike the trope because of their annoying habit of being self-sufficient and cutting themselves off from others, we can't deny we love watching them beat the ever living fuck out of things. And people.

But is there a space for this person at the game table? Many people said there wasn't. They didn't have the time of day to play with someone who didn't want to be part of the group. I would counter to these people that isn't the story of someone learning to trust, be vulnerable, and love again a normal part of human stories we should be talking about? The lone wolf can absolutely be used to explore all the themes we just talked about: Trauma, recovery, trust, love, and companionship. It just has to want to do so.

Coming into the lone wolf character for the sake of just being a lone wolf won't suffice. Someone who wants to tap that card needs to understand that the lone wolf is able to explore healing as a theme, and learning to trust and love others and how that can make you, as a lone wolf, less lone and more pack wolf. Some of my favourite stories are about lone wolves learning that being a lone wolf sucks.

If we look at Guardians of the Galaxy, a story made up entirely of lone wolves, we can see how they function in terms of finding solace in each other and finding belonging. Friendship seems to be the key to unlocking the lone wolf. Friendship and love. This often slow-burning lesson is the integral one to the lone wolf. In order for them to have any kind of personal story arc, they must learn to rely on others and see the value in the people around them.

When someone sits down to play a lone wolf, I tend to ask them the intention of the character. As in, I spell out to them that they're playing the lone wolf, and because they're insisting on few relationships with the other PCs, they're going to inevitably get less screen time because I won't follow one person that long in a scene. Then I start asking if this is the arc of the character. Are they starting to learn to trust others and belong to a group or is the intention to remain lone wolf.

The lone wolf cannot function purely as a lone wolf in a cooperative game. They must be working towards something that requires trusting and relying on other people, and inevitably, coming to have emotional scenes with those people in a way that's both meaningful and compelling. The trick is to communicate with the player, and the other players, and set out goals of connection so that scenes are framed to help support this narrative.

Many players naturally reach out to the lone wolf in an attempt to pull them into the game. Sometimes this is received well, and sometimes, the edgelord is gonna keep running away, because they want the chase. The chase is what gives them emotional fulfillment. It's important for these people to realize that repeating the same fiction over and over again isn't interesting, and neither is their game of cat and mouse. If people have to keep chasing you to get you into the game, they're only going to do it once or twice and then you'll find yourself on the outside, staring in, wondering how to insert yourself into the fiction when everyone's given up on you.

To prevent this, engage with the other players when they reach out for you. Have an episode or two with you as one of the team, and then have something happen. Or, still have your tendencies but don't fall back into the same continuous character patterns. Each thing that happens should change your character and add growth. This means learning to lone wolf in new ways, and only in the most extended of circumstances going back to that default. Jessica Jones learns that she needs help. Buffy has friends she eventually learns to call on.

It's important to remember the lesson of Groot. Not that he is groot. But that we are groot. Guardians of the Galaxy still remains my favourite example of the lone wolf cycle. Five assholes come together to find friendship and companionship. They're still assholes. They still struggle for their independence, but have learned that they work well together and can save the world and shit. It's awesome. It's a beautiful story line of sweet moments between badass ones. If you're going to play a lone wolf character, watch this movie, and find the moments when each lone wolf begins to realize they can't do it alone.

That will always be the key: that they can't do it alone. They have to see, acknowledge, and show that vulnerability in order to progress as characters. We need to see what they do when those sudden new friendships are threatened, when their friends are put at risk, and how much they're suddenly willing to realize that they need those connections around them. Without this growth, the lone wolf becomes a one-person story that fails to be dynamic, interesting, or full of life.

If you've found yourself to be the lone wolf, and don't know how to get out of that rut, ask your fellow players what they'd like to see be different about your character. Ask if there's any way you can start building connections to their characters, and see what they offer. Resist the urge to go solo. Find reasons to bring people with you. And seek out moments of surprising connection. It's good drama, good story, and good playing.

When you GM for a lone wolf, make sure you force them to be around people and require them to need those people for whatever they're doing. Don't take away any of their badassery, but do try to make sure they have needs for other people. If they need a gun, make someone else in the party be able to get it for them. If they get hurt, make another member of the group be the healer, and ask what the conversation is like during that scene. Don't pass over moments when intimate chat would be happening, let those scenes breathe and ask questions around them. Ask how they're each feeling, and ask very pointed questions like "How are you vulnerable in this moment?"

Overall, I think the story the lone wolf can tell, one of human connectedness and the need for people to love us, is an important one. I don't think we should immediately dismiss the lone wolf as a trope, instead, I think we need to knock on their door and invite them to tea and see what we can do with them that's interesting and compelling. Let's play with the lone wolf. Let's see what great stories can come out of a broken trope many of us have come to hate.

And remember: We Are Groot.