Wanderhome Review

There are certain things one takes for granted in a role-playing game. I’m not talking about anything as concrete as attributes or skills or levels, I’m talking about exogenous conflict, which is so omnipresent in traditional RPGs (and most non-traditional RPGs as well) that it’s invisible. Well of course there are monsters to fight. Well of course you need to define a ‘need’ in Fiasco. Well of course there’s scarcity in your apocalypse. Like many people I took this for granted until I saw a game that completely stepped away from it. No, the war is over, no one fights. No, people are inherently good, there are no monsters. No, you will have hospitality in every place you visit. When I first read Wanderhome, this twisted my mind a little. How does one play a game with so little conflict? And then I created a character. And then I immediately got it.

Wanderhome is the brainchild of Jay Dragon, likely best known for their previous game Sleepaway. Wanderhome was Jay’s breakout, though, funding at twenty times the volume of Sleepaway on Kickstarter. This was driven not only by the great art previewed in the campaign (Kickstarter is visual, no way around it) but also the Wanderhome playkit that was released on itch.io prior to the full game, which gave interested players a peek into the playbooks and how they were written. While the campaign traded on its influences, from Miyazaki to Brian Jacques to Vincent and Meguey Baker, the game is much more informed by Jay’s earlier work, namely Games for Lost People. Wanderhome is a chance to use fiction to reflect on being lost, and ironically I think that’s been a little lost on a chunk of the audience.

Wanderhome is based on the mechanics of Belonging Outside Belonging, first developed by Avery Alder, but those core mechanics are used to strikingly different effect in this context. Games like Dream Askew are, like most role-playing games, built around exogenous conflict. The conflict in Dream Askew isn’t exactly a common one in RPGs (a community versus the outside, or looked at another way out-group/in-group) but it is still a conflict and the game is built around that conflict. As such, the mechanics around tokens have an economic feel to them; you choose what to sacrifice and what to push on to resolve things in the way you want or close to it. The Wanderhome moves spread simply doesn’t have this feel to it. The moves which cause you to earn a token are clearly things the game wants you to do, and they tend to encourage a specific kind of engagement. The moves which require spending a token are ones which either grant additional spotlight or allow for easier resolution, but it’s hard to say they’re needed. If you engage, you’ll be rewarded with some more opportunities to shape the story. If you don’t engage or engage less, you’ll have fewer opportunities to drive things but will be there just the same.

The other mechanics of the game, locations and the passage of time, also exist mostly in service to the story your group will tell. I really appreciate the mechanics around places; without having a solid generation engine for the places the characters go this game would fall apart. You start by rolling three natures for a place; there are three default lists but three more are given later on in the book for when you’ve already traveled a bit and would like things to be a bit more interesting. After that, the group drives the location generation mostly through discussion of what the natures mean as well as what sorts of creatures live in the place. Finally, when the session is ready to start, there are three questions which drive the entrance to play: 

  • What sort of place did we just travel from?
  • Do we feel our journey has been long?
  • Is there somewhere we hope to go?

There is one final question each player asks themselves silently, which represents the driving force of the game: Where is my home?

The mechanics around time give the travel weight. No journey will feel particularly long within an endless GM-default springtime, so the seasons serve to give another way for players to mark their characters’ travels. The alternate holidays and phenomena both deepen this in their own ways; the alternate holidays help emphasize diversity of place, while the phenomena emphasize diversity of occurrence. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another game try to make each winter seem different from one another, and it’s now something I wish to see more often.

The seasons and the locations provide a backdrop for travel, something many a game want to focus on and few succeed with. But the question, the question I’ve only hinted at answering so far, is why. I noted earlier that Wanderhome is a game with little to no exogenous conflict. What it has in spades, though, is endogenous conflict, conflict within. To demonstrate this I need to turn to the playbooks. As you might expect in a game with no dice, there are no “mechanical” choices, per se, in the playbooks. What there is, though, is a real chance to define why your character is lost. For the Wanderhome game one of my groups is going to be playing, I created Mollymawk the Torchbearer, an albatross who is a Firelight. Mollymawk has with them a firefly, and they were companions for most of each other’s lives, creating more stories than could be told around a single campfire. Travelling with them is Wisp, a small god. Wisp is in love with the firefly, and they live together in Mollymawk’s lantern, happily lighting the journey ahead. The other light Mollymawk carries never gets lit; a box of expensive beeswax candles, a gift from a lover long gone.

This is maybe half of the options in the playbook, but already you can feel that I’ve created a lost soul, one who feels they need to lead but know not everyone will follow, one who at this moment at the beginning of the game likely feels they can never love again. And how this felt, as I was creating this character, was like a gutpunch. This is endogenous conflict, for sure. And this explains the arc of the game perfectly. Each character is travelling until they understand what home they’re looking for. Then they go home. Taking that final advance of leaving and going home isn’t gated behind a number of advances or other conditions, it’s something you do when you feel the time is right. And accordingly, the longer your character travels, the more seasons they spend on the road, the more it should weigh on them.

The implied storyline of lost souls, of travellers looking for answers, is exactly why this game must have its pastoral, peaceful elements. The conceit of the game and what it’s trying to convey would only be hindered by distractions like outside conflict. This isn’t to say there will be absolutely none as the characters travel, but each destination must be more about what the players learn about the characters (and perhaps what the characters learn about themselves). There is no forced failure in this game because it isn’t the point. Whatever the outcome, you may end up closer to or further from home. But it won’t be because some dice told you.

The intent of Wanderhome is, at least on a fictional level, the same as the intent of any journey one might take to ‘find themselves’. The first thing I thought of when envisioning a rotating cast of characters on a long journey was thru-hiking a long route like the Appalachian Trail. Everyone’s reasons for doing it are their own, and while your journey might be shared the whole way with choice companions there will also be those you venture with for only a brief time. At the end, the hope is that you understand yourself better than you did when you started off.

Wanderhome is more different from other RPGs than even it lets on at the beginning. At the same time, the point is in the title. The long journey home is a very different thematic conceit than a hero’s journey, but has the same potential richness for its participants. My experience from starting to play this game is that some will take to it easily and immediately, while others will be a bit more confused (it was me, I was a bit more confused). To the perplexed: first understand that all the conflict and motivation is contained within the character playbook, you should not be waiting for a call to action. Then, dive in and dive in hard; the game makes the most sense and is the richest when you’re willing to make deeply lost and broken characters. While I know the game can in theory be either light or heavy, it rewards those willing to carry its heaviness. In the end, Wanderhome is not going to appeal to all gamers. But if you’ve ever claimed ‘character development’ is something you like about RPGs, then you should probably try Wanderhome. It is, arguably, distilled character development.

Wanderhome is available both on DriveThruRPG and at itch.io.

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