The Traitors: Werewolf on TV

I've written previously about my love of the game of Werewolf (Mafia). It consistently provides some of the best laughs and social interactions around the kind of conference I go to. I'm looking forward to the requisite amount of lycanthropic murder at W3C's next TPAC in September.

Claudia Winkleman is turning to look at the camera while standing in front of the contestants
The main publicity image for the UK version of The Traitors hosted by Claudia Winkleman

And now there's a TV version too. Originally developed in the Netherlands as De Verrarders, the format has been picked up in (at least) the UK, US and Australia. At the time of writing, all three English language series are still available on the BBC iPlayer and I've binge-watched them all.

Alan Cumming dressed in fabulous tartan
Alan Cumming, the Scottish actor who hosts The Traitors US

As someone who often takes the role of game master, I'm intrigued by the way the game is adapted for TV and how each of the three series' presenters do their jobs. Hats off to Claudia Winkleman (UK), Alan Cumming (US) and Rodger Corser (AU). They all took a slightly different approach. Claudia Winkleman was probably the most straightforward, Alan Cumming dressed up in a series of outrageous faux Scottish outfits and camped up the whole thing marvellously. Rodger Corser took the role as a suave, mysterious type, in one scene overtly being James Bond. I'm going to try and use some of what I've seen in future games.

For the TV show the game is played out across many days. I believe it takes about 3 weeks to film all told. Werewolves are known as traitors, villagers as faithfuls. Unlike Werewolf where the allocation of roles is done by the random dealing of cards, the traitors are hand-picked in the opening episode. It's clear from having seen all three TV series that the choice is far from random. This makes sense — it's a TV show, not an actual game. They want to pick out a range of people who can play their roles differently. You don't see much of the characters before the traitors are picked but you get a sense of many of them.

The really big character in the room? It's not going to be them. They will get themselves banished soon enough (they're all gone by episode 3). As with the party game, watch out for the quiet ones, especially the unassuming mum who looks after everyone. All three TV series had this character and she was a traitor every time.

16 people sitting at a large round table that looks a little like a static roulette wheel
The highlight of every episode is the banishment

The TV show includes various challenges that see all the contestants doing things like being buried alive while their team-mates rescue them, stopping a runaway train, going over rickety bridges across deep gorges and, in the final episode, jumping out of helicopters. But the focus is on the murders committed by the traitors and the banishments by everyone.

Most episodes begin with the contestants coming in to breakfast one by one — surely in an order controlled by the production team to build tension — and it's then that they and we discover who has been murdered the previous night. Each evening ends with everyone sitting around a grand round table where the day's theories and accusations fly. The staging in the Scottish castle used in the UK and US versions is terrific. The interplay between the characters is pretty similar to what happens in a game of Werewolf except that there are no laughs. There is angst and there is vitriol, there are tears and tantrums aplenty. I guess that's because in the TV series they're a bunch of wannabe celebrities playing for money. The most we play for is the honour of getting the next round in for our friends. In the Australian version, one player was banished not because anyone thought he was a traitor but just because he was so relentlessly irritating they just wanted him out of the game.

A suave man in front of four hooded and masked characters
Rodger Corser in one of the main publicity images from The Traitors Australia

The weirdest thing in any of the three series was in the Australian one. In that series there was a contestant who was almost completely edited out. Online speculation is that he didn't play the game; that he couldn't/wouldn't play his part in creating the pretence for the cameras that this was a game and that there was no production crew directing everything. That must be a risk for the producers. The contestants are people who have applied and been vetted but there's a risk that they won't play along.

I assume that the traitors' choice of who to murder and the choice of who to banish really is under the control of the contestants, not the production crew. That's a risk. If they managed to banish all the traitors in the first few episodes there would be no series. The way they get around this danger is to get the traitors to recruit new traitors when necessary. To make the game work there must be enough traitors in the room so that even if one is banished, there's another one to continue the game.

The end game is excellent. The final 3 or 4 players must be unanimous that there are no more traitors among them. When that happens, the game ends. If one or more traitors are present, they take all the money. If not, the prize is shared among the remaining faithfuls. Note to future contestants: there will always be at least one traitor at that stage.

In both Werewolf and the Traitors, of course, the 'baddies' lie to protect themselves. Some of the players forget the underlying premise and actually start believing what they're being told. Big mistake.

No spoilers, but the traitors have the upper hand right to the very end. And you're a fool if you believe the pretty girl's puppy eyes or the middle-aged man's first tears in decades.

Can't wait until the next series.