A summary of shapeshifting.
An Uratha is a natural shapeshifter, with the power to shift from form to form to handle different circumstances. Urshul, the "wolf form," is best for distance running and escape. Gauru, the war form, is designed for battle. Hishu, the form we best associate with "human," is good for communication, research, and working with people. No roll is required to change forms.
An Uratha's Harmony rating determines his or her relationship with the act of changing shape. A Harmony rating of 5, at the center, indicates a werewolf in balance with shapeshifting. Higher than that, and the werewolf is more "inflexible" and prone to stay in one shape; changing form for those werewolves takes longer and is more costly. As Harmony drops below 5, the Uratha is more protean and less fixed in shape. For them, changing is easy; they find it hard not to change. Those with the lowest Harmony will change from scene to scene unless they take effort to stop themselves.
- At Very High Harmony, changing from one form to another costs 1 essence and takes an instant action.
- At High Harmony, changing your form costs nothing, and takes an instant action. If you want to change reflexively, that adds a cost of 1 essence.
- At Balanced Harmony, changing shape is done reflexively and costs nothing.
- At Low Harmony, you change your form at least once in every scene unless you take an instant action to settle yourself. If you spend 1 essence, you can preempt the shape change entirely as a reflexive action — you don't even start to change.
- At Very Low Harmony, you change shape every scene unless you take an instant action and spend an essence to prevent it.
In most circumstances, you can change or not change as your character's nature and personality dictates. (Note that a character's Harmony will inform their nature and personality.) In situations of great stress — combat or other action, as examples — your character's change is not under their control, or yours. The Uratha's form begins to shift, becoming something more appropriate for the situation. This unnatural transformation is intentionally disturbing, and promotes the horror of the setting. If you don't wish to engage with this aspect, it's best to keep your Harmony in the middle, so you can change back as you want.
Most of what you're seeing is the interaction of two things.
- Uratha with high Harmony find it most comfortable to stay in one form. They like it, and find shapeshifting hard, painful, or challenging. Uratha with low Harmony like to change shape a lot, and find it uncomfortable, hard or challenging to stay in one form for too long. Uratha with Harmony in the middle are okay with either.
- When you are calm or relaxed, you can do what you like to do. When you are stressed, you are forced into the form that's best suited to deal with that stress, and must pay the appropriate costs to get there.
Now, let's address your questions:
An Uratha with high Harmony struggles with the change.
To say it’s painful is an understatement on the level of saying
that the universe is large.
Is this in any way reflected in the system, or is it just flavor text? Is there any roll or mechanism for changing shape or does it just happen as you want when relaxed?
The difficulty high Harmony Uratha face in shapeshifting is reflected in the costs they pay to change shape, in either Essence or time. It also emphasizes that a High Harmony Uratha doesn't want to change shape — it's not pleasant for them — so they'll basically only do so when stressed. (Kind of a white room problem.)
When the character is stressed — during combat, a chase, or
when she feels threatened — she shifts one form towards an appropriate
form each turn. The stress means she cannot resist.
Should this be interpreted as there is absolutely nothing the player can do to prevent the shift?
Yes, that's what it means. Under stress, a Uratha changes shape to best suit the problem at hand.
Does this mean that if you're in human form…
Hishu. You don't have a human form, because you're not a human. You're a thing that can take on a human shape.
…and get threatened, and if you decide the best course of action is to run away then you are forced through dalu-> gauru with death rage roll -> urshul -> urhan over 4 rounds?
I'd say you have to be credibly threatened, but yes. (Although you don't do the death rage roll just for passing through Gauru on your way to something else. That's only if you want to stay there for longer than a few turns. [p97])
At Harmony 9-10, spend 1 Essence as an instant action
to change form.
This makes sense to interpret as a relaxed Uratha has to pay 1 essence and spend a round to change form. But it leaves me wondering what happens in a stressed situation.
A Very-High-Harmony Uratha spends an instant action and an Essence to change to another form under stress. A Very-High-Harmony Uratha doesn't change forms when relaxed — they hate to do it.
At Harmony 0-1, spend 1 Essence as an instant action to avoid changing form.
This, to me, only make sense in a stressed situation. You need to both spend essence and your action to avoid changing form. In relaxed situation this does not make sense
From page 96:
The spirit-attuned Uratha feels
discomfort any time she spends more than a few hours in
one form, and every chance she has to shed a long-held form
is like a foot rub after a marathon, or a hot bath after a prize
fight. She must change shape at least once every scene. She can
spend Essence to avoid this shift, as long as she isn’t stressed.
So, a Very-Low-Harmony Uratha must spend Essence to not shift forms. Staying in one form is uncomfortable, and they don't want to do it. However, in a situation where you need to stay in one form — say, being arrested by the cops or undergoing a job interview, where being in something other than Hishu is unthinkable, they can spend Essence to maintain shape.