Exploration has long been one of the central pillars of RPGs, but what happens when we set out not to vanquish dragons or clear out a dungeon but instead to heal the land? We might not come back home the same but, just maybe, we can come back better. Aimee Hart goes in search of answers and speaks to Jay Dragon about their new game of pastoral exploration, Wanderhome.
It was the first week of April 2020 when Jay Dragon sat by the water outside of their house and imagined the world from the perspective of standing on a boat.
‘I don’t know if you’ve ever been on a boat,’ Dragon said. ‘When you’re on land you feel like you have this ability to assert a great deal of control around your surroundings but when you’re on a boat, looking at the shore, the entire world has a different perspective.’
That feeling, of being unmoored and adrift, will have been a familiar sensation for many of us in 2020, powerless to do little more than wait and try to keep each other safe as COVID ran rampant throughout the world.
On that early April day however, the combination of Dragon’s mental contortions during lockdown and their wanderlust for a different, almost weightless, world led them to conclude that what they were feeling could be made into a game.
And that game was called Wanderhome.
Wanderhome is a pastoral, tabletop role-playing game about traveling animal-folk who inhabit the world of Hæth. In Wanderhome, your character’s playbook -the game’s equivalent to classes- can be anything you can think of: a sly little salamander with a troubled past, an adventurous bat who tends to moths or a cute ox shepherd. Anything and everything - all you need is your imagination and a desire for a new, charming adventure.
That pastoral premise may be far cry from the worlds of muscled barbarians laying waste to dungeons but nevertheless the game breezed past its crowdfunding goal last August with well over 6000 backers kicking in more than $300,000. As importantly the campaign created a loyal, excited community that couldn’t wait to get their hands on the game and set out to explore Hæth with their fellow animal friends.
Inspired by the works of Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki, as well as authors Tove Jansson and Brian Jacques, Wanderhome combines mythological legends, the omnipresence of Hæth’s war-torn past, as well as the powerful harmony between the land and the people who walk upon it. Harmony and equal-footing is an important component of Wanderhome and it comes from one of Dragon’s big drives when creating the game.
‘One big impulse was the desire to create a game in which there are no protagonists in a proper sense - that the land and the players are existing on equal footing, and that the game is about the relationship between the people who are moving through the land and the land itself, instead of being about the people adventuring through the land and laying claim to it,’ Dragon said.
‘The other was to create a game about a world in which healing is possible, where if we look at the world around us and we acknowledge that we are all being collectively traumatised all the time, then Wanderhome is an impulse to imagine a world in which not everything is perfect, but in which we can start growing and healing from that.’
Growing and healing is perhaps not the first thing one thinks about when you hear the words ‘tabletop roleplaying game.’ At least not for newcomers looking to get started in this vast, interactive world of playing with friends huddled around a table having heard all about the world of Dungeons & Dragons. While the well-loved tabletop game has evolved over time due to shows like Critical Role and Rivals of Waterdeep, at its heart it's still a game centred around combat. Nature, trauma, mental health… These are concepts mechanically foreign to D&D.
By contrast in Wanderhome there is no combat. That doesn’t, of itself, make the game morally superior to D&D, but it does show something which many new players aren’t aware of: there doesn’t need to be violence for a game to be worth playing. Typically when a town is being harassed by a dragon, an adventuring party go out with one objective: stick the dragon’s head on a pike, then go back to town and reap the rewards. For the average party, violence is the goal. But in Dragon’s Wanderhome, violence is never an option.
IN DRAGON’S WANDERHOME, VIOLENCE IS NEVER AN OPTION
‘I think we live in a world that is so preoccupied by violence, to an almost obsessive degree. We are so captivated by it as a relationship with the world, and that it is so omnipresent,’ Dragon said. ‘But I don't think that I can in good faith, you know, condemn violence, I'm not a nonviolent person. I think that violence has its place. That said, violence is not how you move through Wanderhome.’
Instead of destroying the dragon in the name of heroism, the player's first thought in Wanderhome is to wonder “why?” Why is this dragon terrorizing the town in the first place? What does the dragon want? Can we help it, while also helping the town, and ultimately - is it even up to you and your party to solve this, or can this be solved between town and dragon themselves?
That doesn’t necessarily mean that violence doesn’t have its place in the narrative threads of Wanderhome’s lore however, but it’s not at the heart of it in the same way as it is in games like D&D and Pathfinder. The joy of wiping out a particularly nasty enemy is entirely different from how combat is portrayed in the world of Hæth. As Dragon puts it, ‘violence in Wanderhome is horrific, and brutal and real, and it has no place here. This is a world where, for the purposes of the game, there is no violence here anymore. And that's really important.’
Of course, just because there isn’t any violence that doesn’t mean that Wanderhome, as cute and whimsical as it may seem from first appearances, is devoid of conflict within its world and between the animals that inhabit it. Just like every good story, there are conflicts present that go beyond the realm of violence and the fires of war and for Dragon it was important to have that conflict.
The joy and wonder to be found exploring new, exciting lands is thrilling but there needs to be something that makes the player pause and consider their decisions and the importance of them - especially if that decision can no longer be solved by a gamified version of combat.
What can help the players do just that is the “take a token, spend a token” system. With each token you spend, you earn something back - whether it be another token, dependent on the answer you receive from your fellow player or NPC or some new, perhaps even personal, information that you didn’t know before. It feels very transactional, and in some ways it is, but it also gives players a rhythm that, as Dragon described it, ‘gives the game a sense of movement’ that helps keep the narrative flow engaging and prevents it from turning stale.
But, even with all the cards in your hand, there are some things that the player cannot resolve for the people that they encounter. They can help ease it, but trauma is not something that can just be waved away by the giving of a token, and the game stresses that this is okay. When we fail to hit an all decisive hit against a big bad, we may feel let down, hurt even. But in Wanderhome, failure does not mean you’re lesser, it means that the ‘problem’ is not for you to ease. Not all problems lie with you.
FAILURE DOES NOT MEAN YOU’RE LESSER, IT MEANS THAT THE ‘PROBLEM’ IS NOT FOR YOU TO EASE
Yet even outside of personal and emotional conflict, as Dragon stated, there is an equal relationship between joy and melancholy in Wanderhome and one of the major motifs that encompasses both of those things is The Rebellion.
‘It is this consistent motif that shows up in a lot of the picklists. You can kind of opt into being part of the rebellion, there's always the conversation of the rebellion. And like, you know, what were they rebelling against?’ Dragon said.‘Wanderhome acknowledges that the world is peaceful, the world is good. But that was hard won. That there is pain in the past. And it's kind of recent, there are people who were former members of The Rebellion, who know that about themselves who are, you know, commonplace. There is that tinge in the knowledge that just because things are good now it is not some kind of eternal pastoral freedom state that lasts in both directions for all time. It's like, “things were hard and now they're better and we are lucky to hold on to it. And we should try to hold on to that and appreciate it while we can.”’
While this semblance of unity may not be forever in Wanderhome’s world, it remains so during playtime. Because of this, the role of children is allowed to shine. For example, you’re able to play as a young child in the playbook The Ragamuffin, a boisterous kid that is treated with the same amount of respect as the other playbook characters because their feelings are just as valid as the adults they surround themselves with. And unlike D&D where children can often feel more like bargaining chips for cheap, emotional torture, their place in Wanderhome is a faint nod to the inter-generality that is woven throughout the text.
That goes for children players, too. As much as we can try to ‘kiddify’ D&D, everything from the weapons down to the player stats is shaped around combat. For each child you come across in the world of D&D, there is almost a comical fear or insight that “this child won’t be alive for long” and that was something that Dragon was well aware of, too.
‘One great comment I got pretty early on was someone who said “they don't like kids in D&D because they don't like telling stories about kids getting hurt. And in D&D there's so much violence everywhere that it's kind of nerve-wracking to let a kid in the party.’” Dragon said. ‘In Wanderhome, there's no threat of that. So having kids all over the place doesn't carry this kind of fear weight of like, “are they going to get hurt?” In Wanderhome, they'll be okay, they'll all be okay.’
Due to children often being relegated to the terrible role of “torture devices” we miss out on not only the potential of intriguing kid characters, but the inter-generational lessons that they can teach players - adult or otherwise.
‘[In Wanderhome] kids are important to a community.’ Dragon said. ‘Kids are able to articulate things that adults can't always and they're able to spot things the adults won't let themselves spot.’
Lore-wise, kids are able to not only see the sins and mistakes of the adults from the past, but learn from them in order not to repeat those same mistakes. They’ve seen their heroes - people whom Dragon defines as ‘people who think they know what’s good and what’s evil’ - and aren’t impressed with what they’ve left behind. In a way, this feels similar to the state of our world. So many of us are relying on the kids of today to fix the past and that role feels impossible, and heavy. A sort of sadness that rests heavily on the shoulders of the young, reflected in the melancholic lessons a player can choose their child character to have learned.
WE ALL WANT TO BELIEVE IN A POSITIVE FUTURE WANDERHOME FRAMES THAT THIS IS INDEED POSSIBLE
Ultimately Wanderhome’s framing of a world that’s slowly healing is something that’s painfully hopeful in this day and age. As fires rage across the world, as diseases take our vulnerable and as capitalistic forces ignore all of these things to instead focus on further dehumanizing us through acts of racism and queerphobia, we all want to believe in a positive future.
Wanderhome frames that this is indeed possible, while still acknowledging that there is pain tinctured within that love and hope - it is yet another reminder just how it, alongside other creations from inclusive and diverse tabletop creators, are changing the face of what a tabletop role-playing game can be outside of the realm of Dungeons & Dragons.
Wanderhome is out now published by Possum Creek Games
This interview originally appeared in Wyrd Science Vol.1 / Issue 2
Aimee Hart is the Editor-in-Chief of Gayming Magazine and can be found on Twitter here.