- Lizard in a Zoot Suit by Marco Finnegan
- Samurai Cat in the Real World by Mark E. Rogers
- Jack Vance’s The Face (Demon Princes, Book 4)
- Jack Vance’s The Book of Dreams (Demon Princes, Book 5)
- Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard, Vol. 1, by Various Artists
- Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard, Vol. 2, by Various Artists
- Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping by Matthew Salesses and The Anti-Racist Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom by Felicia Rose Chavez
- Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard, Vol. 3, by Various Artists
- Wanderhome, by Jay Dragon
- Elements of Fiction, by Walter Mosley
- Hidden Folk, by Eleanor Arnason
- The Wages of Whiteness (Revised Edition) by David R. Roediger
- The Katurran Odyssey by David Michael Wieger, illustrated by Terryl Whitlatch
- Dragons (Time Life Enchanted World)
- May We Borrow Your Husband? and Other Comedies of the Sexual Life by Graham Greene
- Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada by Anna Brownell Jameson
- The Cursed Chateau by James Maliszewski, illustrated by Jez Gordon
- Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—And How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari
- Dinotopia: A Land Apart From Time by James Gurney
As with other posts in this series, I’m posting about books sometimes weeks after reading them. In this case, I’m actually waiting to post this until after I’ve played the game, since I happen to be playing in a one-shot trying it out this weekend.
Wanderhome is a relatively rules-light, fantasy RPG featuring anthropic-animal player characters who wander around, expressing and enacting care towards others, expressing their personality while keeping their secrets and staying attentive and open to the world and to those who cross your path. It’s cozy, pastoral, rules-light, and… has no mechanics for violence.
If you’ve played many RPGs before, you know how unusual that all is—and probably won’t be surprised to hear that I found it a challenging learning experience.
One of the most thought-provoking RPG books I read in 2021 was Jay Dragon’s Sleepaway. It’s a Belonging Outside Belonging game where you play camp counselors in at a camp tinged by the weird, the supernatural, and the horrible.
(Which is also a No Dice No Masters game? I’m not sure which of the two terms is the game system and which is the family of games, but these are diceless, token economy-powered offshoots of the PBtA (Powered by the Apocalypse) system.)
There was more to Sleepaway that grabbed me, of course: the way the moves and the token economy intertwined with them essentially helped build characters in terms of action and relationships; the way antagonists are handled in this GMless game, and how there’s a single recurring antagonist expected to haunt the characters over the game. It’s a game I’d really like to play, and it called to me a little more strongly than the other Belonging Outside Belonging games I’ve read. (No insult to them, the camp setting and the playbooks just grabbed me.) For me, Jay Dragon is one of the most interesting independent game designers out there.
So when Wanderhome launched on Kickstarter, I backed it. I actually backed it having only skimmed the PDF copy of Wanderhome—I had been waiting to receive the print edition of Sleepaway, but I’d been impressed with it already, and the idea of a pastoral fantasy game made me immediately want to play it with my son, who’s enjoyed many Studio Ghibli films. How could he resist playing an anthropomorphic animal wandering happily around a cozy, pastoral fantasy world, never having to fight but instead just sort of meeting interesting people and little forgotten gods cheerfully haunting the landscape, sometimes helping them out, other times being helped by them, while just exploring and learning about the world? I wondered how it could work as a game, but being raised on animal folktales from East Africa1 and having devoured a few Western equivalents as a kid, I couldn’t help but insta-back it.
Having read it… I think it’ll be some time before he’s ready to play, because the ideas are actually quite a bit more complex than he’s ready for… but I still look forward to playing it with him someday.
As a friend commented, Wanderhome is a gorgeous book, full of beautiful art. It’s so pretty in fact that it inspired me to pick up some prints by one of the artists, which hangs on our living room wall now:
The book has a relatively short opening section, which explains the game, but which is also over before you know it. When I got to the end of this section, I thought, “Oh, opkay, that’s an overview, but there will be an example of play later on. Keep reading.” So I did. Next are the playbooks for player characters. Then the shorthand tools for building Kith—what we’d call NPCs in trad games, except there is no GM so they’re sort of temporary characters played by anyone.
The difference between building a PC and a Kith is massive: PCs are two pages of character-creation—building the the character’s personality, appearance, past,some core aspects of them (like beliefs, work, aspirations, belongings), relationships with other PCs, things they can always do (without spending a token) and abilities they can gain over extended play. Meanwhile, Kith are a simple summary and a pick 2-out-of-3 traits. If you’re a creative writer and you’ve learned about “rounded” and “Flat” characters, this is pretty much that in a nutshell.
Okay, I figured, we’ll get to how to play next, right?
Nope. What’s next is basically a taxonomy of place types where characters could end up. One could sort of think of these as mini-playbooks for locales: each comes with some consistent elements, a some aesthetic element prompts to choose from a list or make up, and a short list of folklore prompt from which you must choose one. They’re a quick and easy way to create and define places.
Cool. Next is… how to play?
Nope. Next is seasons. The world of this game has 5 seasons, each split into two months. There’s the equivalent of playbooks each month, and for some special holidays and events during those months.
And then the book is essentially done, except for acknowledging backers.2
I went to the stretch goals and looked—but no, that’s just more playbooks and a cool recipe book.
So… wait, was that brief explanation of play everything? So it seems. I read it again, and felt… a bit adrift, really. The thing about a game like Wanderhome is that it’s pitching a really, really different kind of narrative. It might be a big shift to play a rabbit in The Warren, but you’re still dealing with a familiar sort of narrative structure: there are predators, there are prey, and they’re struggling against one another. Watership Down or The Secret of N.I.M.H. doesn’t feel so alien to the adult reader as Frog and Toad Are Friends or The Wind in the Willows. The adventures in Wanderhome are not antagonist-driven, are not plot-driven. They’re cozy and pastoral and wait a second, how do we do that in an RPG?
I’m writing this as I await our attempt to play this, but I think the answer is in the playbooks, and in letting go of my familiar approach to RPGs. I don’t think Wanderhome is actually asking something terribly difficult or strange, it’s just that I’ve never been asked by a game to tell a story that doesn’t involve… well, active antagonism against a “bad guy” of some kind: sometimes the bad guy is a person, sometimes a monster or an evil supernatural conspiracy; sometimes the bad guy is the other players’ characters… but it’s always some kind of antagonistic thing that drives the action.
Wanderhome instead focuses is on cooperation, care, generosity, help, and (optionally) struggling in with trauma or pain, and/or engaging with mystery and wonder. The explanation of play in the book explicitly makes clear problems do crop up in the world: if I remember right, the PCs wander by a house where the roof has collapsed in, and players might choose to pitch in and help the old inhabitant repair it (or do other things). They playbooks include all kinds of small cues for melancholy, too. I think it’s easy to read the playbooks and miss how much of the wants and needs of the characters are packaged into them. The rules for giving and taking tokens, too, include a lot of the character interactions that the game is built to explore: things like easing others’ pain (even if only for a moment), helping them grow, or keeping them safe from the world, for example. Which, when you’re trained to play games where “murderhobo” is a common and popular mode of play, it kind of drives home something. Like, not necessarily something judgmental, but something that asks you, “Aren’t there other ways to be?”
The other thing about this game is that, as I mentioned, there isn’t necessarily a GM. Now, you can play it with a GM, and I have a feeling it might be easier for a first session, but it’s also built to run without a GM, and with everyone doing that job—taking turns, or improvising it together. Even if you choose to play with a GM (which the game calls a “guide”), the fact the game is built to work without one says a lot. Even when there is, whatever happens in the game isn’t necessarily planned or prepped, at least not conventionally. The PbtA maxim “play to find out what happens” comes to mind.
I think this is one of those things where you need to embrace the cozy, emotional, gentle mode and accept it—and accept that you might be roleplaying a kind of character you’ve never played before, who engages with their world and other characters in ways you’re not used to roleplaying. I think the other thing is that it seems like it might be something that makes more sense when you just do it… if you kinda-sorta know what you’re doing, anyway. I cannot imagine playing Wanderhome as one’s first RPG. I’m also not sure I’m particularly convinced RPG rulebooks should always assume they might be someone’s first RPG. But also: even if they do, we live in a world with Youtube and podcasts. It took me literally one minute to find this (quite good) short actual play video:
That game has a guide running it. I’m not sure how much he planned. He’s a bit much (for me) at the beginning, when he’s getting the players through character building, though… maybe I’ll try that sometime, since everyone seemed to respond to it well, and to kind of fall into the aesthetic of the game (positive, supportive, excited, wonder-filled) pretty well.
I still think it might be helpful if the book contained a single 2-page spread, or if Possum Creek Games made available or a short PDF demonstrating how a scene would be played out might help. Then again, so much about play is determined by the choices players made with their playbooks, but I think that’s still manageable.
Anyway, I am really interested to try it, so I decided to hold off on posting until after getting a chance to play. Luckily, a friend was hosting a one-shot of the game around the same time I read it. (I was planning to read it through anyway, but having the one-shot coming up moved it to the top of the pile.)
So, I got to play Wanderhome today, and I found the experience pretty enjoyable.
Our group consisted of:
- Glam, a red-hooded tananger Dancer
- Liam, a box turtle Firelight with a firefly companion
- Antonio a koala Orchardist (one of the guest playbooks: think Johnny Appleseed) with Chub-Chub the beetle (a pack animal)
- Owen, a welsh corgi Shepherd in a kilt and wheelchair, with a herd of bumbles (think sheep-sized, honey-producing bumblebees)
My own character was Crispo (he/him), a young squirrel Ragamuffin.
Here are the details I jotted down during the character-building stage. (You might be wondering why I’m sharing this much detail, but bear with me, there is a point to it.)
- I am Friendly and Smart.
- I refuse to be Respectful and Attentive.
- Wearing Grass-Stained Jeans, Suspenders, and carry a pokin’ stick.
Two lessons Crispo has learned:
- The world is bigger than you can wrap your head around.
- All stories are lies.
Two lessons Crispo has refused to learn:
- Everything will die.
- It’s better to give a gift than to receive.
Crispo carries around:
- (openly) An encoded scroll pressed into my hands by one of the last heroes of the rebellion
- (secretly) Nak, a small and luminescent god that once lived in the Center of the holiest shrine of the Hæth.
I include these details because, I’m sure, anyone reading this already has a picture in their head about my rascally little squirrel-boy. There were also some questions that helped us bind our characters together: Crispo had picked Liam as a surrogate parent, something Liam had mixed feelings about. Glam considered Crispo a friend, because Crispo was particularly willing to watch and join in with them in dances. On some past misadventure, Crispo had annoyed Antonio by ruining all the seeds he’d planted, running straight through them to escape trouble. Finally, at the last place they’d been, a large market, Crispo had gotten into terrible trouble and ended up feeling like nobody wanted him in their group, alone and sitting on a grassy hill; it was Owen the Shepherd who came, sat silently beside Crispo until he felt better, and then said, “Come on, let’s go,” which made Crispo understand he was welcome.
If Crispo didn’t pop for you as a character while reading all that, I don’t know what to say. The character creation process was one thing we all pretty much agreed about: our little animal wanderers sprang to vivid life before us as we made our way through the process, and it was a joy to watch it happen.
People varied more in their reactions to play. On the stronger side, we created a really cool locale for the first session. In Wanderhome, you build places by mashing together Natures, which are little little playbooks for aspects of place. Our group chose Hallow (a holy nature), Cave (a lonely/desolate nature), and Tavern (a Liminal nature). We ended up with a cave monastery ruin by an order of bat-monks who ran a tavern/shrine within the fungus-crammed cave. The shrine was home to all (?) of the truly forgotten gods in the world, who slumbered in little alcoves throughout the cave. In the course of our visit, we:
- discovered why the bats required all visitors to wear blindfolds, and why the forgotten gods in the cave system sleep (the art that covered the walls caused the gods—and anyone else who looked at it—to slumber, hence the blindfolds)
- rescued a muskrat couple who’d gotten lost on the way to the tavern, but ended up in a side cave
- made an offering to the forgotten god of an old, lost river and eased its fretful, drippy sleep
- visited the tavern and sampled their wares while chatting with a star-nosed mole waitress
- eased the tragic pain of the Bar Rat, an old traumatized veteran of The War
- feasted and danced extravagantly with the other patrons in the tavern to celebrate the rescue of the muskrats, while a group of bat monks jammed on a drum, sitar, hurdy-gurdy, and tambourine
- Crispo specifically tasted a few different kinds of beer, and learned that beer is yucky… wait, it’s not that bad… hey, it’s alright! (Oh, kid.)
It was pretty clear that for all of us, the session was fun, and that we were excited by all the creative juices that got flowing. That said, I think it’s fair to say that for all of us, it was a big adjustment, and different people had different levels of satisfaction with the game. (Though we all agreed that the Guide, my friend Jeremy, did a good job of it.)
Personally, I found myself constantly fighting instincts ingrained into me by RPGs in which stakes and action are predicated on a very different set of genre expectations: serious danger, peril hidden inside every secret, and “foes” who need to be “bested.” Wanderhome isn’t about that: it’s much more about exploring a relatively safe world, discovering wonderful things around every corner, and about helping people (and being helped by them). Kindness, generosity, curiosity, and coziness were the focus, and… well, ahem, I coziness isn’t even really something I experience much in real life, let alone in a game. Little wonder that telling a story in this world felt a bit like working a group of muscles I didn’t even really know I had. The game does offer some options for exploring trauma and pain, but we agreed at the outset that doing those kinds of themes much justice would probably require more time than a single session… though, with the Bar Rat, it did come up and we did touch on it.
People had more mixed feelings about the mechanics—I mean, the token system. Some felt a lack in the inability to fail, or rather, in the fact that if a character doesn’t succeed at something, it’s because the player chose not to succeed at it. Some players wanted an element of randomness. There was even a little discussion about whether we ought to consider Wanderhome a “game” or some other form of “play.” I was uncomfortable with the idea of not considering it a game, personally: I figure, games are things we play, so if we’re playing, it’s a game. (Playing with my son the last few years has really driven home for me how freeform make-believe is a game, with its own rules… and some of those are actually a lot like what the rules in even more traditionally-structured RPGs endeavour to systematize.)
Of course, it’s easy for me to say that, because I personally didn’t feel so much of a lack in the mechanics, but also because (as I commented at the time) I think if one wanted to, adding a few little rules or new points to the lists would easily allow one to engineer in stuff like “success with a cost” or “complications ensuring from success.” For others, there was a sense that the absence of randomness felt like a lack, but to me it just felt like a different kind of entertainment—something more like structured “play” of the kind kids engage in quite naturally. That said, I think eventually a group playing this game might just do away with the tokens entirely: it wouldn’t be hard to do, once everyone internalized the sorts of exchange structures that the tokens generate, and once the group got a sense of the kinds of stories they wanted to tell. Of course, that would take some time, but great game groups often need time to do this with any system.
Likewise, some people felt the stakes were somewhat low. I think they felt this because failure was optional, and because this is a game where combat, violence, evil, and serious peril just aren’t really a part of stories. I know what they mean, since I was trained on games with more overt conflict, but I found this freeing: when you looked at NPCs knowing they wouldn’t become violent antagonists, it opened up a whole new way of thinking about engaging with them: how does this character feel? Can my character connect with theirs? Is it possible to help them? What might kindness do in this situation, or what might a stern talking-to achieve? The funny thing about Wanderhome is that there is tension to be explored, but it’s nestled away in the playbooks, in those answers you choose while first making your characters—in Crispo’s case, the lessons one has learned, and the lessons one has refused to learn. (How might Crispo learn that everything does indeed die? How might be come to understand that it really is better to give a gift than to receive it? And what if he continues to refuse to learn it?) And that’s to say nothing of the stuff between the other characters, like the way Antonio kept offering sunmelons to Glam, only to be refused, or how Antonio teasingly offered Crispo pungent, boozy fungus ale after noticing the kid had snuck a sip of someone’s beer and found it revolting. Looking back at some remove from the session, I think my main disappointment was at my failure to really play Crispo as I designed him: his sheet was full of little widgets to use—that pokin’ stick, for example—that never came into play, though I figure they would if I ot more used to the game and character.
I think, though, coziness and a relationship-focused game is a big shift for a lot of people (me included), and it’s quite natural to struggle a bit with it. Actually, for me the coziness of the narrative is the primary way in which I perceived the game as being “queer.” What I mean by that isn’t straightforward: it’s not like coziness is an LGBTQ thing in any of itself. I should note here that the ruleset for Wanderhome uses the Belonging Outside Belonging system, from the book of the same title by Avery Alder and Benjamin Rosenbaum. The first game using these rules was Alder’s Dream Askew, which is a much more explicitly queer game about queer survivors in a postapocalytic setting. Dream Askew is explicitly, overtly “queer” in ways that I didn’t really see immediately in Wanderhome, at least not until I looked deeper. Sure, there are some clues strewn about in the art (as evidenced in this Twitter thread by the designer) that queer animal-folk actually abound across the Hæth—the setting of Wanderhome—but the game is rarely particularly explicit about this. (In our session, it just never really came up beyond one character’s nonbinary pronouns.)
But what I did find front and center was the way that the game’s assumptions sure as hell ground against a lot of the culturally-ingrained assumptions in my brain. It did this constantly, and in ways that felt like challenged my (I think) partly-gendered biases about what are or are not appropriate forms of plot, tension, and conflict in stories. Now I could be really far off: I’m a straight, cis guy who’s approaching fifty years old (argh), who grew up in a world where queerness wasn’t something widely discussed. (And I’ve spent most of the last 20 years in a place where it’s much less discussed than back in Canada, too.) So maybe I’m completely off base with this.
What I’m talking about is that, for my own experience of the game, there’s a meta-level on which it challenged me to relax into a “cozy” narrative mode that wasn’t just unfamiliar game fodder, but I think was also slightly uncomfortable for me. I’m fairly certain that this was in part because of the gender codes implicit in my upbringing as male. Cozy, gentle stories about caregiving aren’t necessarily feminine, but neither are they normalized as a form of drama we’d incorporate into an RPG, and they’re absolutely not typical of the kinds of stories boys are encouraged to embrace, or the kinds of social interactions men are socially encouraged to engage in, especially not in a public, vulnerable way.
Stories told to kids of both sexes, but especially boys, during my childhood centered on direct and somewhat concrete conflict, and most often intellectual or violent conflict with a villain; they were almost always about people fighting over the proper resolution to that conflict, even when the fighting wasn’t literal. For example, Encyclopedia Brown never punched anyone out, but he did show up and discover who was lying or who was failing to perceive reality, an assertive and masterful seizing of control over the narrative. Stories for boys weren’t—and, dare I say, we were implicitly taught that they mustn’t be?—about recognizing that other people have different perspectives and they can be right, too: that maybe Encyclopedia Brown’s figured how who took the wristwatch, but not why, and that maybe it wasn’t even a theft. Encyclopedia Brown never sat down with the kid whose watch was smashed by a bully and consoled them, or offered to give them his own watch, or just sat in patient, supportive silence while the kid unloaded about how hard it is to be bullied every day. Such actions wouldn’t be “productive,” and the stories I was exposed to as a boy also often—I mean really often—held up productivity as a positive thing. (Surely this has reached its most extreme expression in Thomas the Tank Engine, where Thomas is often praised for being “useful,” but it’s been a part of kid lit, and especially kid-lit aimed at boys, at least as far back as the later 19th century, if not earlier. Little wonder that the most popular game in the world—long dominated by boys and men, long subtly exclusionary of women—is centered on the “productivity” of killing monsters and productively looting their corpses.
There’s something very interesting to be said about the pastoral economics of Wanderhome. Most of the (adult) characters have jobs—many of the playbooks are titled with job titles of one kind of another—but the jobs they feature are relatively leisurely and undemanding, jobs of the sort that no longer really exist in an industrialized world like shepherding and lamplighting and freelance inter-community mail carrier: signally, the characters are free to wander and have the leisure time to appreciate their surroundings as much as they want. Much of their labour turns out, in fact, to be emotional labour. Yes, they do sometimes have to tend bees, to try to sell things, or light lamps or what have you, but these jobs ironically are often a limited part of their identity: their personality, relationships, possessions, appearance, and so on tell us a lot more about them than their jobs.
There’s no explicit “economy” in the game: it’s just sort of assumed that the social fabric of the Hæth is one in which people aren’t in the position of trading labour for food security, shelter, or safety. Rather, the social fabric is assumed to be one in which almost nobody starves, or gets stuck in a job that they despise, or becomes wealthy—I can’t help but imagine that “wealth” is a bit of a dirty word in the Hæth when used in the selfish manner it’s conventionally used in our world, and that the positive form of the world means something more like abundance for all.) Which is to say, this is also a game that situates characters outside of the world of Late Capitalism altogether. It’s utopian in a post-capitalist or anticapitalist sense, and that contrast makes it all the more apparent how the entrepreneurial and Libertarian thinking of Gary Gygax is so obviously a part of the DNA of D&D, and many of the countless other games descended from it.
I’m loathe to make comparisons to D&D most of the time, but here it feels pretty apt: Wanderhome’s differences from D&D are why the latter game leads us to create murderhobos while Wanderhome leads us literally to create caringhobos. That’s not to suggest the game is designed in response to the economics of D&D, necessarily: I suspect this aspect of the design has more to do with Jay Dragon’s thoughts and observations regarding how capitalism affects us all, but probably especially how it affects marginalized people. It’s all fine and dandy to wander around murdering monsters for their cash when you’re an elf or a dwarf or a human, but try for a while being one of the creatures that Fox News (or even mainstream society) constantly claims only ever should appear in the Monster Manual, and see how much you like it.
To return to the gendering of stories: tales “for boys” were not collaborative in their construction: there was always a “master” (in the narrative, as with Encyclopedia Brown, or outside of it, as in the Dungeon Master), and subjectivity didn’t play a major role in narratives except as a warning against falling too much prey to it; if one noticed something “off” about a stranger, it was more often about the concealment of threat or villainy than about that stranger’s pain or sorrow or trauma or need; heroes put bad guys out of their misery, instead of empathizing, looking to the causes and trying to, however briefly, alleviate it. “You can rely on your friends to help you beat the bad guy,” was a constant message, “But don’t expect them to care so much about your feelings, or comfort you when you’re in pain, or to join you in celebrating the wonders that lie round every corner. If your buddy breaks out into a dance—let alone attempting to dance with you—get the hell out of there!” Stories about helping people also almost always focused on externalities: catching the person burning their crops and punishing them, not helping people grow and change as individuals so that they understand why others are burning their crops.
It’s not that I didn’t watch Winnie the Pooh cartoons as a kid, or read Frog and Toad are Friends, because I definitely did. I guess there was, though, that it was made clear I had crossed a sharp line at a certain age, after which stories about animals who are friendly friends and just spend cozy time together caring for one another just simply was “kid stuff” and I shouldn’t be interested in anymore, and the stuff I ought to be reading had “proper conflict” and “real stakes” and whatever. Swords and guns and villains, or at least scientific problems to be solved with intelligence, or horrors to be survived through willpower alone. My age isn’t the only a reason that I never watched a Ghibli movie until I had a small child of my own who wanted to see Totoro in the theater, after all. (I remember during my first year in Korea someone tried to introduce me to Toroto and wondering why he was showing me a children’s movie. Needless to say, I get it now.)
I’m pretty sure that sharp dividing line in narrative appropriateness was intended as “training” for “real life” and… lo and behold, the real life we have built for ourselves on that foundation is a horrific mess. Look at the “meaningful conflict” unfolding in Ukraine.
A trans friend of mine commented, a few years ago, about how shocking it was (during the process of transitioning to male) being suddenly be treated like a man by other men. My friend was shocked at how brutally unsympathetic and unfriendly—if not outright aggressive—men just sort of casually are toward one another at the baseline “neutral” interaction, especially between strangers. This wasn’t in reference to particularly bad experiences, just the standard, plain vanilla interactions with strangers.
Generally, our (troubled, incomplete) cultural acceptance of feminism has involved a lot more change in women’s roles than men’s: yes, we do have more stay-at-home dads, but we don’t culturally celebrate their adoption of the traditionally-feminine roles of nurturer, caregiver, and so on… certainly not in the way we (at least in media, if not always in real life) celebrate women taking on the supposedly-masculine roles of leader, hardass, competitor, or champion. Women who take on traditionally masculine roles and modes of interaction do still face a lot of nonsense, but they’re also seen as tough and even heroic; yet men who take on traditionally “feminine” roles or modes of interaction, such as choosing to be stay-at-home dads, for example, are—even in really recent media—more often depicted as boring, annoying, vaguely emasculated, and ridiculous. 3
I think things have changed somewhat… but it’s still true that traditionally masculine roles are pretty closed off from these ostensibly-feminine modes of relating, and this has long been reinforced by how stories aimed at boys traditionally were also pretty closed off from the kinds of story modes that Wanderhome is built to facilitate. And I should note that I’m not against boys consuming stories of internal conflict: my son’s a huge fan of the Power Rangers, for example. But I do try put on Puffin Rock for him sometimes, because I think it’s good to balance things out.
I’m not sure it would be obvious to others how this all relates to “queerness.” I obviously can’t speak for the author, but Jay Dragon’s non-use of pronouns altogether suggests to me that all my talk above of “men” and “women” and “masculine” and “feminine” roles is… well, of limited use in referencing what Dragon’s really getting at. However, I have a suspicion based on Dragon’s games—where you might be asked to describe your gender and choose from possible answers including a “calm lake” or “a rusty sword”—that queerness inherently involves questioning and reassessing (and playfully deconstructing) all the biases and assumptions that go along with our culture’s binary gendering of all human beings, exploding that rigorous and (for many, not just queer people) oppressive system. How could queerness not question labour and capital and violence and “meaningful conflict” in narratives, since labor and capital and violence and conflict are so profoundly gendered in how we think, talk, handle, and tell stories about them, and meanwhile are also so fundamental a part of what’s assumed to be an RPG?
I think that the experience of queerness also points straight to some of the things at the heart of Wanderhome. Not to reduce queer people to simple victims, but the frank reality is that trauma is one product of systematic and general marginalization by society, institutions, family, queer people (and communities). This trauma often has heartbreaking results. Is it any wonder that trauma—not wickedness—is where darkness enters into a game that is intended to be “queer”? Marginalization is a deadly enemy to life, but the truth is you can’t grab a sword and go kill it: people defeat trauma through therapy, through community, through care. We defeat trauma by rewriting the ur-narrative in our hearts that shapes expectations of life and the future, and colours how we view the past and present. The experience of attentive, sympathetic care is a pretty profound thing after living without it (or with some toxic substitute) for a period of time: it doesn’t fix everything, but it does help shed light on things that trauma-stories often throw into shadow.
That’s not to say that this game is (or is intended as) therapy, even though it does remind me a bit of what psychotherapists call free-form approach known as “sand play.” What I am saying, though, is that when I say “queer” here it reaches for the bigger picture implications of what queerness implies for all our social systems and institutions. This is a game the queerness of which throws more than just gender roles and identities into question, in other words. Obviously I don’t know if Jay Dragon actually would consider all of that “queer” elements in the game: I haven’t looked around for postings by the author addressing the notion. That said, it was pretty central to what playing Wanderhome was like for me, and central to what aspects of the game I found challenging. I suspect a lot of people—especially, but not only, straight cish/het men—experience the same resulting sense of dislocation and disjunction when they start trying to play.
I won’t presume that others experienced this in the group I played with: I can’t read minds, and for all I know maybe I was the only person experiencing this kind of interesting dislocation of expectations beyond my narrative comfort zone. All I can say is that I get the sense, from reviews and discussions online, that there is a kind of awkward unease that a lot of people seem to experience playing it. I suspect it’s that awkward unease, really, that is where some of the, “But is this really a game?” comes from: this game just defies and confounds so much of what we have been trained to expect games, especially RPGs, are about, and what we’ve been trained to believe they expect from us. In Wanderhome, playing is often about making sure people are okay, helping them out, and growing emotionally as a person… er, as an animal person. But also as a person, because I really do think the game is designed to players us in that initially uncomfortable position of being caregivers—a position that really shouldn’t be so uncomfortable for us. 4
I can say that it was clear most of the people I played Wanderhome with, despite enjoying the session, didn’t really feel like they would want to play a longer-running game. Several commented that they found it a little too freeform mechanically, and perhaps a little too gentle for their tastes in that failure isn’t really an option. (Personally, I loved what the game has to say about the idea of “failure”:
Some said they prefer a degree of randomness. I mentioned how I thought it would be quite possible to add some more points to the action/token rules to introduce the potential for complications or for partial successes without introducing dice. I suspect it wouldn’t be hard to hack the game to be more like PbtA, with some risk of “failure”… though I think that would also run counter to the entire aesthetic of the game. That’s fine. Not every game is going to make everyone want to engage in a longer story, and not everyone wants to play a game on the same terms that the creator originally built it to run. I’d probably tend more toward spiraling complications than outright failure, in part because I think that fits the aesthetic of the game a little better. (And, honestly, I think spiraling complications is intended, given that certain kinds of actions require tokens, and people can still attempt them without tokens.) I’ve not had a chance to play any of the other games built with this system, including the original ones (though I do have the book on my shelf), so I’m not sure how different it is in practice here.
We did agree that probably you’d need “the right group of players” to really get a longer Wanderhome game working, and I honestly suspect that such a “right group” probably wouldn’t use the token system long, but would instead just sort of internalize the kinds of narrative rhythms the game is designed to generate, and would sort of improvise them by gut instinct after a while. I think this is one of the joys of a rules-light game: it’s easy to internalize the rules and at that point, they matter less, unlike in games where the rules are a sort of control panel with escalating complexity as you go along, and you’re consciously engaged with directly manipulating it because that’s a fundamental and inextricable part of the gameplay dynamic. That appeals to some people, but it doesn’t really appeal to me so much anymore.
Unlike most of the group I tried it with, I actually feel like I’d enjoy a longer game of Wanderhome: at the end of the session, I was eager to see how Liam’s and Crispo’s surrogate parent-child relationship developed, and how Liam worked through the pain of his long-lost love; I wanted to know whether his relationship with Glam would change as Crispo learned more of the tanager’s dances or disrupted them with mischief, and whether Glam would ever accept a sun-melon from Antonio. I wondered how long it would take before Antonio got upset with Crispo again, and whether he and Owen might not grow closer as time went on. I don’t know if I’ll ever get a chance to play a longer series with Wanderhome, but I know that I’d be happy to try it. Maybe someday with my son, if I can interest him in it. I hope so.
As I’ve mentioned before, my dad was a huge fan of Geraldine Elliot’s retellings of animal tales from the regions now called Malawi and Zimbabwe, and read them to me throughout my early childhood; I don’t read a lot of animal folktales now, but I find them fascinating and somehow comforting.↩
I backed for PDF only and upgraded on Pledgemanager, so you won’t find me not on the list.↩
It’s interesting to note the rather counter-cultural rehabilitation of traditionally feminine modes of relating within progressive pedagogy, which is pushing against all of this: a few authors I’ve read recently have talked about the need to embrace such traditionally feminine roles as educators. For example, Felicia Rose Chavez speaks of “mothering” her students, while Jeffrey Berman discusses his sense of his teaching role as that of “midwife,” an assistive role he plays in helping students “give birth” to a new version of themselves. It’s likely not accidental that he uses traditionally feminine language to describe his role and his students’ imagined role, given the emphasis he puts on empathy and vulnerability in his pedagogy.↩
As a book I recently mentioned here by Felicia Rose Chavez discusses, it’s something we a lot of educators actually need to relearn.↩