I’ve got a treat for everyone today that I’m excited about. Kickstarter backers just got a full copy of the Wanderhome RPG and I bumped up my posting schedule to review it right away. Why? Because Wanderhome is one of those projects that seemed awesome when I read the pitch and has only got better.
Wanderhome is a cozy, endearing game of charming animals traveling through pastoral scenes doing kindnesses and seeing wonderful landscapes. It might seem like one long travel montage and that’s not an unfounded description, but it also ignores the player choices and agency that make the story. Dungeons and Dragons is a game of going underground and coming back out while Star Trek Adventures is a game of warping from one system to another. If that’s all your group is doing (and doesn’t like it) maybe change your approach?
The setting of the world is a cute little land called Hæth which is filled with anthropomorphic (to taste) animals of all description, quaint little towns of cottages and greenmarkets, and wide-open rustic land between. There are tiny local gods (or spirits or fairies or whatever) tucked in small corners of the world for those who want to listen and the livestock is made of giant bugs that click and trundle along the way. It’s a calming world and that’s something we call can use sometimes, but especially right now.
Wanderhome runs on a ruleset called “No Dice, No Masters” which featured in the acclaimed games Dream Askew and Dream Apart as well as in another game by Wanderhome‘s Jay Dragon called Sleepaway. It’s a diceless system and normally that’s a turnoff for me; I start to think of them like Choose Your Own Adventure stories with mazes of different plots to explore but ultimately a finite game. The design of Wanderhome, though, is like a perfect joint on a handcrafted table and it joins the ranks of Good Society as a diceless game with a structure that channels your imagination but let’s you infinitely create.
Like Good Society, the “No Dice, No Masters” system works with exchanges of tokens to place limits on how much control a player has over the narrative. By doing things that give up holds that your character has on the story (like inconveniencing them or losing an item) or when you do something that builds the world for others to act in (like describing a moment of tiny beauty, painting a beautiful scene, or making an offering to a tiny god). You then spend these tokens to fix something quickly (like ease someone’s pain or keep someone safe from danger) or establish part of the plot to your preference (like revealing a secret about an NPC or establishing something important about the place you’re in) or pulling the spotlight firmly onto your character (like getting some information from the tiny gods of the land or offering a chance to emotionally connect with your character).
This means that you never have to fail at anything if you don’t want to most of the time. You can say “We need to carry this message through the storm so… I put my head down and walk the five miles.” There’s no roll, you just do it. Of course, you might think it’s more interesting if you do that but end up with a cold afterwards or you take the time describe how you are shoved back at different points before cresting the hill and seeing the windlashed bay before you… Both of those get you tokens to use and they deepen the game for everyone. The other consequence of this system is that it is entirely GM-less since everything is just decided by what sounds good and what is going to make a better story. New players (or those not used to worldbuilding) might be intimidated but there are lots of supports written in to the game to help them and the option of putting everyone at the table in a player’s seat can really help. It also means that Wanderhome is possibly a solo game if that’s what you want, although with community as a central theme it’s better with friends.
Like a Powered by the Apocalypse game, Wanderhome uses playbooks to anchor your character’s role in the narrative. You can play Wanderhome as a one- or two-shot game or you can have an extended tale of fuzzy characters where your character gains advancements and changes as the seasons turn. Every two months there’s a holiday festival heralding a shift in season (there are five seasons; the rainy end of spring and the verdant start of summer are separated) which means you have to advance time by many weeks during your story. The holiday festivals all have their own character (more below) and there are alternative festivals as well for local traditions or just to make the setting your own.
Playbooks come with descriptive prompts, objects and world connections, questions for your fellow players, “some things you can always do” without earning or spending a token (usually), and ways to grow during the seasonal holiday. It’s simple enough but there are four pages of evocative options for each playbook and a simple approach also means you can make up your own additions at any point. The advancements also include ways that you can gain tokens for and spend tokens on so you can build out what your character does to your interest level.
The Caretaker is the first playbook, a tender of the small spirits and tiny gods of Hæth, gathering different godling friends and developing small magics to help their journey. Oddly connected is the Dancer who can dance to entertain and delight but also to have enchanted effects on the surrounding environment. The Exile is a more sorrowful playbook, someone fleeing their past and scarred by it but determined to be stronger. In contrast, the Firelight is a guide to those lost in the wilderness with a glowing firefly companion who lights the way.
The Fool is a silly and entertaining jokester who adds twists to the story in a charming way. The Guardian is watching out for someone else and making sure they stay safe, though this doesn’t have to be another player character or even someone traveling with the party. For another duty-based option there’s the Moth Tender who cares for the traveling carrier moths of Hæth who bring letters and packages here and there. The Peddler also deals in things people might need but they are in business and often have a salesperson’s banter. The Pilgrim is on a journey at the direction of Hæth’s tiny gods and is headed somewhere far away, and possibly unknown. The Poet is also on a journey but there’s is a journey of witnessing and discovering so that they can write the Great Hæth Novel… or poem or song or something.
The Ragamuffin is a skinned-knee, out-of-breath, rambunctious child and the image of this curly-haired otter with a praying mantis on their shoulder just makes me want to hug him. The Shepherd tends to some of the bug livestock of Hæth, specifically a herd of fuzzy bumblebees. I feel it important to point out that this means you can name all of your bumblebees and give them personalities which is glorious. The Teacher is… well they’re a teacher so they’re both knowledgeable and helpful, possibly also good with children though maybe also dry and boring. The Vagabond is a Robin Hood type (insultingly, “fox” is not one of the animal suggestions) who has been branded a criminal and is on the run helping others and/or having a tough guy attitude. The Veteran is also a tough animal, though they want to leave their violent past behind.
It’s also worth mentioning that while some of these playbooks have conflict intrinsically tied to their story (the Exile, the Vagabond, and the Veteran chiefly) violence is not typically a part of this game. It’s explicitly not a violent game and encourages stories of community and helping others. There is no playbook that’s “the warrior” and the two that come closest are either written entirely about taking care of someone else (the Guardian) or explicitly say they “wield a blade that must never by drawn again” (the Veteran). If you want to have fights and scrapes and danger in your game of Wanderhome then that’s your prerogative, but in a strong bit of game-design-informing-gameplay there are not rules for combat in this RPG so if it comes up it will probably be swiftly accomplished and the focus will come to rest on the aftermath instead.
The seasons of Wanderhome provide a low-key backdrop to the rest of what’s going on, sort of the soundtrack underlying the plot and giving it color. As I said earlier, there are five seasons and they each have two months in them and end with a holiday festival…
- Leap is the start of the year and the start of the growing season with Tillsoil (when the ground is first warm enough for planting) and Monsoon (when constant showers bring future flowers). It ends with a boisterous Sun Parade, though you might choose the self-care celebration of Restlie or the festival of cleansing and new beginnings called Ablution instead.
- Bright is the sunny, verdant part of the year and features Bloommeadow (when flowers burst out everywhere) and Devildays (the hottest part of the year). It ends with an easy-going Day of Song, though you might choose the summer carnival of Callaleah or the the bumblebee festival of Old Api’s Fair instead.
- Breathe is when nature is grown and at its height with Swarming (the most active time for bugs) and Gateling (the shortest month when hot weather starts to shift to cool weather). It ends with an evening Moon Dance, though you might choose the introspective Reflections Day or a bonfire festival called Pyre instead.
- Silt is when vegetation gives way to bare earth again and features Firetop (when the leaves change to brilliant colors) and Grapsing (when the branches are bare but the snows haven’t come). It ends with the communal meal of Candlefeast, though you might choose the chilly fair of Rime Gala or the foreboding and haunted Nameless Day instead.
- Chill is the time of snows and inside coziness with Snowblanket (the fluffy first snowfalls) and Frostbite (the deep chill and still nights). It ends with the week-long New Years celebration, though you might choose the mourning Bloody Night tradition or the dawn celebration of Sunrise instead.
These alternate festivals could be your group’s preferred story or they could be a localized tradition, but even when there’s not a specific event the seasons impact the story. That’s the situation with using seasons throughout too, it’s meant to be a part of your story much more than the relentless march of time. Whatever’s going on in your tale, events happening in the month of Tillsoil (for example) then there will be animals at work to get the planting done and bucolic scenes of muddy ground and renewed spirit. If you visit the same little town in Tillsoil and then again in Firetop the tone will be very different. Likewise, two different Tillsoil stories will be different because the locations add new twists and the month is experienced differently in different locations, and from year to year.
On top of this are the seasonal variations which I just love as well. When a month rolls around there’s a prompting question to ask players around the table and when you get a certain number of “yes” answers then that year the month has one of those once-in-a-while happenings. For instance, in Swarming everyone answers whether they’ve made a new friend recently. Every yes gets a “bug shell” marked and when seventeen get marked then it’s cicada season that year and there’s a new Nature option as well as a handful of token options. Other variations include a dry Silt when there aren’t many rains during Firetop and you skip Snowblanket as a result, a particularly blustery Grasping where you get the biggest storm in a while and winds really mess with everything, and a meteor shower during Devildays that’s treated like a bonus holiday with advancement and everything.
Already we have ten different months to move through and the pace is up to the group (one month per “adventure” or maybe a few stories in a month) but with the variations there are twenty different options even before you get into the lists to choose from to describe the particular expression of that month. Then there are the festivals and with three options for each season there are literally hundreds of different ways your year can take. When a year wraps up you start a new year and name it and the season turn on.
One thing that’s truly inspiring is the safety tools that feature prominently at the beginning of the book over the course of four pages. It’s always a good idea to use safety tools but it’s nice to see some custom-written ones for Wanderhome. You can suggest “let’s do this instead” or check in by saying “what do you think?” These are all fairly intuitive options that good friends would say anyways but that’s actually a real bonus. They don’t feel stilted and new players might need encouragement (and the example quotes) but also you’re not always playing with life-long friends who you can be wide open with. These create the safe space that a safe game like Wanderhome needs (but also every game should be a safe game).
The method for creating NPCs for your Hæath is also really cool. Being a GM-less game, Wanderhome needs a strong way of creating non-player characters for all the players to interact with and it does so by focusing on the personality of those NPCs so that they fulfill their role as side characters to contribute to the story. NPC Traits come in seven different categories: Artistic, Grounded, Intellectual, Personal, Physical, Social, and Traumatized. From there you pick from a list of six (or twelve in the case of Traumatized) Traits which gives you a hook already and then provides three actions they can always do and you narrow that to 1-2 that this particular NPC has.
That’s a quick description, so let’s take an example. The group of PCs is staying in a small town and are trying to help them figure out a drought that has people on edge. They head to a farm outside of town to talk to the farmer and ask them to ration water a little more… so you start to pick out a Trait for the farmer. They’re a physical NPC which might mean sturdy (hefting their equipment) or resolute (family’s been here for generations and so on) but you say you want this farmer to be Passionate and full of emotion. This means that when you’re portraying this farmer you can always (picking from the list) “say exactly what’s on their mind right now” and (why not?) “lose your temper and damage something important.” This farmer will listen to the player characters but they also will tell them exactly why they need this water and won’t stand for someone dictating terms to them, no sir! If they do and someone tries to cut them off they power through because they can always do those things.
The companion game element to Traits is Natures which are basically Traits for environments. A particular scene might take place in an area with one of six Natures: Comfortable, Verdant, Liminal, Sprawling, Lonely, or Desolate. You don’t have to pick a Nature for every place that enters your story but doing so for the big ones will give you ways for the environment to affect the story, aesthetic elements to help with worldbuilding, and bits of folklore about the place. That passionate farmer’s farm, for example, might give an opportunity to gain a token by helping with the work, have Crops As Far As the Eye Can See as well as Rusty Overgrown Weapons of War, and it might be known for a story about the Apple-Girl And Her Loving Parents. Now we’ve got a story!
This book is beautiful. I hope I communicated the beauty of its design well enough but it’s also beautifully laid out and illustrated. I would play any of these characters in any of the scenes and seasons and just reading the book feels like a cozy mug of tea and a quiet room (two things that can be hard to come by between Little Grue and the Mephling at home). For calm games about animals, but also soothing games and rich storytelling in general, it’s a new gold standard as far as I’m concerned. You might crave more adventure and action (in which case I further suggest you check out Jay Dragon’s Sleepaway) but if anything in this review appeals to you then I highly suggest you pick up a copy of Wanderhome today and start your journey.