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.