My Up-and-Down Journey through the Wanderhome Book

I play and read a lot of tabletop RPG (TTRPG) books in my spare time. Whether delving into misty old-school fantasy games like Beyond the Wall or surveying a lavishly illustrated combat game like Lancer, reading RPG books can sometimes be nearly as fun as playing them.


Lately, though, I’ve been on the hunt for games that shake things up a bit. Luckily, a helpful friend (digitally) handed me a copy of Jay Dragon’s new pastoral-furry RPG Wanderhome. On first read, it gave me a lot of what I’ve been looking for in a new game. It jettisons dice and game masters in favour of a consent-based system of moves and go-round-the-table world building. To act, instead of testing fate with dice rolls or other wagering systems, players declare actions that make their character vulnerable or uncomfortable and receive a token. They can then spend that token to change something about the world. There is no accounting for failure here, and knowingly so.


Rather than drawing out a player’s cleverness or grit, these tokens create a sense of giving and taking. There are no real failures or even violence in Wanderhome’s world of the Hæth, but there are also no power trips or strokes of blessed fortune. As I read and leafed through the lovely illustrations and colours of the PDF, I felt a sense of gentleness and lightness.


For much of the book, however, that gentleness is tinged not with joy or celebration but with a seeping sense of loss. Many of the game’s setup steps talk about trauma, at least indirectly. For example, for each playbook or character class you choose traits, skills, or things that you love and then also something you have left behind. The Dancer, for example, gets to choose three dances they perform gladly and one that “they have left behind.” (p. 53) Pushing this theme further, the Exile playbook is almost all about trauma and loss. As an Exile, the player is asked: “You once had a place you called home. It’s gone now. Choose 1 true reason why you cannot return, 1 reason you tell everyone else, and 1 reason you worry is the truth.” (p. 57) It’s bleak stuff. There is obviously potential for compelling play and storytelling, but I admit I was put out by the whole thing. A case of mismatched expectations.


The game’s game-master-less system descends from a game concept called Belonging Outside Belonging. Belonging Outside Belonging (BOB) comes from the mind of designer Avery Alder. I don’t like any of Alder’s games at all because they feel more designed to create group therapy-style talk than gameplay per se. That’s a matter of taste, of course, and the BOB system finds itself put to much less dour and joyless use in Wanderhome. But the way that the player puts themselves in uncomfortable or vulnerable situations to earn the right to change the world in stronger ways still darkens the emotional palette of Wanderhome’s book.


I honestly had moments of anger reading this. I felt like the game I wanted, which was a light pastoral game of travel and talk, had been taken away from me. There are also annoying bits of writing in the book that set me off a little bit, and there is a much angrier version of this post in my drafts. I’m thankful that I didn’t publish it, though. Given more time to think about it, I don’t think I mind nearly as much as I did on my second and third reads of the book.


The reason for that is that the game has a number of guides and rules that help players cut out sad or traumatic matters from play. So there was no point to me getting angry or crestfallen about the game because the sad stuff just wouldn’t come up in my games. Even though it’s still in the book and has forever coloured my impression of the design and its goals, that’s not all bad. I might prefer a light, short campaign covering fluffy slice-of-life journeys through green fields, but the game has more ambition than that. Which I don’t like, but thankfully, the game is open to my preferences as well.

So the only major problems I have left with the book are related to some of the writing. Your mileage may vary, but I think that Wanderhome goes a little too far in keying players in to a narrow way of feeling while playing. Sections of the worldbuilding chapter on the Wanderhome world’s calendar, for example, are kind of maudlin and overwrought, leading up to the writer actually apologizing to the reader for how sad the previous bits had been. (p. 43) Like all of my complaints, this is an aesthetic problem for me, but it sets me on edge, nonetheless. I would have loved a more direct and confident presentation for the world, and I’m curious why the writer felt they had to say sorry to me. So though I’m over my first bouts of annoyance with the book, I’ll admit I don’t share the designer’s goals and still feel a little cheated by the split between the presentation of the book and its story content.


And so it goes. I’m still very happy my friend gave me my copy of the Wanderhome PDF and I look forward to playing with them as soon as I can. If nothing else, the worldbuilding settings and character materials in the back half of the book give you an open book to write in. And above all else, I love that the book has some compelling thoughts about why adventures involve travel and why people choose to move from place to place. Even if I don’t like a lot of the dour material, there’s probably enough sunshine for me after all. Take a look at Wanderhome if this all catches your eye. Just go in knowing what it is and what it’s trying to say before reading.

Discerning Cuteness Part 2: The Turn

Previously on “Memoirs of a Culture Stalker”


Alexius confessed his derision for cuteness, the result of intensive study of too much postmodern art. Unable to appreciate the most precious cat video without the claws of guilt raking at his heart, he vented his well-mannered contempt for all thing round-eyed and sparkly on this very weblog, aided by his trusty editor. Is there hope for our persnickety panthera tigris? Will he ever escape the clutches of the land of hungry ghosts? Will he find a piece of art that gives the lie to his hatred of cuteness? Find out on this episode of “Memoirs of a Culture Stalker: Discerning Cuteness Part 2: The Turn!”

blue-tiger-source
Title Song: “The Lady and the Tiger” by They Might Be Giants accompanied by epic shots of tigers stalking off-screen objects.

Production values got a serious notch-upping for this special Saturday edition. Most of what I said in the first post in this series will survive the acid test I’m giving in this post. Or so I believe. I don’t think I’ll ever get over my aversion to the infantilization of humans when being represented in art. That said, I have discovered an artifact in this nether region, this hell of hunger. This artifact is quite possibly the cutest show I have ever endured beyond its first episode. Its cuteness is neither stealthy nor perverse. It comes not armed with the daggers of self-referential subversion or under the auspices of high art. Behold.

anime-mp3A morsel of zoological slice-of-life courtesy of manga artist Aloha Higa and animation studio Pierrot Studios, しろくまカフェ、hereafter referred to as Polar Bear Café, contains only brief glimpses of tigers as far as I can tell. Despite this lack of representation by nature’s noblest animal, the show managed to tickle several of my fancies. I’ll never claim that this show rearranged my conception of human-animal relations or upset my preconceived notions about Japanese animation. That said, it has prodded a deep vein of appreciation just enough to irritate me. Why is something so pleasurable so irritating, I ask myself? The reason is that it’s so cute. 

And I like that it’s cute. Why? Why why why?

After recollecting myself, I have come to the following conclusion: I need to amend previous statements re: cuteness to include more nuance, especially when dealing with Japanese animated television programs featuring startling naturalistic animals interacting with humans and having quaint little adventures centred around a café run by a polar bear who loves puns and what am I even now saying? Have I lost all sense? Is there no balm in Gilead? Why do the wicked and the purveyors of cuteness prosper while the austere suffer, O Lord?

Let’s break this all down.

Polar Bear Café, as previously mentioned, is a quiet, modest show mainly revolving around the interactions between the three animals you see above. The tall white one is named Polar Bear, the short beaked one is named Penguin, and the rather rotund fellow on Polar Bear’s right hand side is Panda. There are a few main reasons why I have a high level of affection for this show, starting with–

1. The Vibe

Once-a-time, there were good comic strips. Comic strips that were printed on pulp paper harvested from trees, created as an enticement for people to buy newspapers and to keep reading them after being bored with reading editorials about sidewalk repair petitions and axe murderer epidemics (depending on the neighbourhood) but before indulging in the sweetly morbid pleasures of the obituaries. Oftentimes, the obituaries were funnier than the comics. Sometimes, once in a few decades, however, a comic strip could be consistently funny.

Now, newspaper comic strips tend to work best with simple concepts that can generate a variety of broadly relatable situations and humour. We thank God for the exceptions, of course, but even some of the best strips work with positively skeletal conceptual overhead. Calvin and Hobbes is about a six-year-old and his [imaginary?] tiger friend. Peanuts is about neighbourhood kids with big heads and diagnosable neuroses. When Foxtrot was good, though I am beginning to suspect it never actually was, it was about a family consisting of broad stereotypes who happened to be funny and occasionally well-written. Polar Bear Café has the same whimsical, domesticated vibe that you find in Calvin and Hobbes, though without quite the same spark of imagination or observational acuity. Nothing overly extraordinary happens except as it relates to the bizarre juxtaposition of these quite naturalistic animals and their mild-mannered and (mostly) civilized ways.

For instance, though Panda loves, like a real giant panda, to chomp down on mounds of fresh bamboo and romps around naked as the day he was born, he also orders iced coffees without any apparent digestive consequences. He accidentally scratches people with his real, sharp claws, but can use a smartphone and rather vainly likes to collect kitschy panda knickknacks like his ubiquitous satchel. This is a world where animals in the zoo are more like paid entertainers than prisoners or reproductive organs of last reserve for their species. Panda gets a part-time job working for the zoo, and considers it labour despite the fact that he sleeps through many of his shifts. A shoebill can be the editor and chief of a culinary magazine, a human woman named Sasako can be an employee in a nine-foot-tall bear’s organic, all-natural café.

The tone of the show is gentle without being inert. There is no “social commentary” or anything that could be considered an explicitly political point of view, but it has a sharp wit and strong characters out of whom some great humour emerges. Polar Bear’s compulsive embellishment of stories, incomparable pun-based repartee, and boundless generosity can only be endearing. Even the straight-man of this story, Penguin, is plagued by Little Red-Haired Girl syndrome, dreaming of romancing a female penguin who works in a local bakery but lacking the courage (so far) to do so. The show keeps its stories short, is utterly without aspirations to greatness, and never gets close to insulting the intelligence. The vibe is quaint and small, but it’s charming at the same time.

2. Naturalistic Cuteness

Ah, but what of the crux of the matter? What about the show’s brush with cuteness? Admittedly, if it were only a brush I would not have been so irritated. Instead, I find myself inundated by cuteness. In addition to the vibe of the show being winning rather than cloying, the design of the show contributes to my enjoyment of even its cuteness. Each animal has been inserted into the show with its physical attributes pretty well intact. Bears have claws and teeth. Llamas are llamas. Penguins have flippers (leading to some frustration in using the latest smartphone). None of the animals are turned into amorphous fluff-balls, and none is treated as cute unless, well, look at him:

spring201207370

 

That is a panda demonstrating to his mother how penguins can use smartphones with their beaks. Even I, the most curmudgeonly tiger to walk the realms of the blessed and the damned, cannot deny that this is cute. This is (I hiss) precious. While panda fans might object and say that the show is draining the dignity from China’s favourite layabout, allow me to present the following assessment: pandas have no dignity. They are sex-averse, clumsy excuses for bears who munch on grass and often roll over their own offspring, who are comically tiny and helpless. Sorry, but while I understand why they are cute they are only cute insofar as they are ridiculous. And this is the key: the cuteness is, despite the surface implausibility of the above image and the premise of the show, natural. The cuteness is not turning what should be at least marginally impressive beasts or people into cooing, dunderheaded eye-candy for squealing boys, girls, and sad adults the world over.

Cuteness, too, has a place in this world. It can be empathetic or insightful, reflective of truth and not merely empty distortion. It’s not just a weak spot that humans’ pet cats abuse to turns themselves into pampered royalty. It is that, but it can be more. When contextualized correctly and accompanied by a measured, intelligent approach to situational humour or (maybe) even drama, cuteness can invite us to nobler emotions than squee. Sometimes, we need that affirmation of cuteness in our critical vocabulary, because that is the only honest response. What is more horrifying is: that’s a good thing. Now let me sleep on that.

Not all eyes that glitter are creepy

Not all cuteness is unsettling

Recite this like a mantra, fellow ghosts. It’s going to be a long winter ahead.

Discerning Cuteness Part 1: The Premise

A virtue that all felines and primates alike should cultivate is intellectual flexibility. When confronted by an apparent deficiency in your ideas, you should absorb the blow and analyze the damage rather than ignore the pain. The hit will have landed either way, and these challenges are wonderful ways to reexamine assumptions to see if they are adequately providing the answers you are asking of them.

It’s been well-known in my immediate social circle that I have a particular attitude toward cuteness. That view was informed by an intensive study of artist Takashi Murakami (村上隆)and other artists in his Kaikai Kiki collective as well as a number of other postmodern Japanese and American artists including Henmaru Machino, Jeff Koons, and Yoshitomo Nara. Examples of their work are included below:

DOB
Takashi Murakami’s “mascot” DOB.

Nara Cat
Yoshitomo Nara’s “Kitty”

Miss Sunset
Chiho Aoshima’s “Yuyake-chan” or “Miss Sunset”

Koons' balloon dog
Jeff Koons’ balloon dog

(This is where I note that I could not find anything by Henmaru Machino that was appropriate to show here. Google at your peril and in private or in the company of trusted friends.)

One article became especially central to my understanding of cuteness and the accompanying discomfort I feel with it, especially as applied to human beings and artistic representations thereof. That article was called “Cuteness and the Avant-Garde” and it supplied this definition of some of cuteness’ attributes:

“Smallness, compactness, softness, simplicity [and] pliancy.”¹

The article then extrapolates from that that these physical attributes evoke certain affects: “helplessness, pitifulness, and even despondency.”

A cute object or person, therefore, will possess these qualities. When one wants to make a cute object, one has to make it more iconic, softening harsh edges, simplifying its outlines, and enlarging round parts of it–eyes, mouth, breasts, etc. Mere stylization, of course, is not sufficient for cuteness. Cuteness is distinguished from beauty or glamour in that it diminishes rather than glorifies that which possesses it. Cute things are also highly tactile in a way that austerely beautiful, majestic or glamorous objects are not. We may look at a photograph of a beautiful mountain, but it does not induce in us a desire to hug or squeeze the mountain. Look, however, at a picture of something soft, round, and infantile, and we wish to do all these things to it. Cute things are touchable, or are meant to be. Children’s toys, representations of “cute” animals (more on this later) in animation and art, and even people can be made into diminished objects of tactile desire through being represented as smaller, rounder, and, most importantly, more passive and pathetic. Something with claws cannot be cute because it has the capacity to harm. Something intelligent and knowledgeable is also fairly disqualified from being cute, or at least have something other than cuteness as a defining aspect. When cuteness is applied to representations of people and animals, we imagine them to be bashful, naïve, clingy, and highly emotive, maybe with a speech impediment or undeveloped vocabulary. In other words, we imagine this:

ImageWhat does one do with a baby? Why, one cuddles, nurtures, protects, and speaks idiotically. Babies are helpless, round-headed, toothless (that’s key), needy creatures. Now, if you were to call a baby cute–or perhaps a puppy or kitten–I think you would be within your rights. There is nothing inherently strange about calling a baby cute. Babies are the archetypal embodiments of cuteness. It is when we start representing other things as cute that we run into trouble, for it requires making simplifications that cut against the obvious symbolic and aesthetic values of the things we are representing. Murakami and the others I have mentioned often highlight this by emphasizing the creepiness that emerges when cuteness is mingled with sexuality and violence.

Robot Girl Transformer
Takashi Murakami’s sculpture “Robotic Girl Transformer” showing the disturbing side of cuteness, highlighted by associations with sex, weapons of war, and bodily corruption.

Something that is cute is by its nature tactile, passive, and pathetic. It is, therefore, a perfect target for the projection of violent and sexual fantasies. Because they have little experience or will or knowledge of their own, they are easily seduced. Because of their lack of defenses and softness, they are easily thrashed or punished. For the latter, their highly stylized and rounded affect also contributes to their suitability for violent abuse. Their features are pliable and squishy, which means they can be harmed without any thought of being destroyed.

There, in a nutshell, is my view on why cuteness can be such a destructive and negative attribute, especially when applied to adult human beings and other objects that ought not be represented as lovable fluff-balls. Cuteness diminishes, defines objects as being passive, inarticulate, simple, and harmless, and carries an implicit connection to violence and sexual exploitation.

In the next post, I will be complicating and in some ways modifying this theory with the help of an anime I mentioned in the last post, Polar Bear Café. For now contemplate this bit of kitsch I found:

Image

Note:

1. Ngai, Sianne. “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde.” Critical Inquiry 31.4 (2005): 816. Jstor.