Wanderhome & Rulebooks
Edit: I removed the photos from this post because they are too large and slowing down the blog for everyone. Apologies on all accounts!
I had the pleasure of playing Wanderhome under the guidance of Jay Dragon, the author of the book. Wanderhome was influenced by Dragon's experiences as a camp counselor, especially in running LARPs for campers and helping them feel comfortable playing with others. Play itself is an essentially human thing. Huizinga argues in Homo Ludens that play is in fact constitutive of being human, in that play is the rehearsal of cultural or symbolic expectations. Play then is the basis of socialization, since when we adorn ourselves with titles like “mother” or “father” or “cop” or “robber”, we are indeed playing a role that has been taught to us. Yet Dragon has found that as we get older, we become shameful towards play. We refuse to put on new masks. Maybe, and this is just my hunch, the passage into adulthood consists of internalizing particular roles that we are content to play forever. Trying something different just for fun is not on our agenda.
Wanderhome succeeds at easing potential players into the game it prescribes by supposing a world that is, by and large, pretty chill. All the characters are anthropomorphic animals. This, on one hand, lends the game a gentle mood akin to Aesop’s fables or to any number of children’s books about speaking animals. The book’s graphic designer, Ruby Lavin, further develops this association via her excellent layout and her selection of artists for the book’s illustrations. It's a very pretty and comforting book! That goes a long way in feeling comfortable when reading it and then getting into the game, in the same way that a show's theme song helps acclimate you to the show's tone and
Animal characters also serve as a symbolic shorthand for personality traits, which is helpful to firmly establish characters according to how they meet or break the cultural ideas we associate with them. I have read before that a contributor to the success of the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons was that the different kinds of characters (tieflings, warlocks, etc.) come preequipped with cultural associations thanks to podcasts and other related media. Animal symbolism, as a metaphor for human personalities and relations, came first. When creating a moth-tender character, a sort of mail carrier, I could pick from being a bat, a horse, a pigeon, a rabbit, any persistent animal, or any dogged animal. Each one of these invokes particular aspects of a mail carrier. For instance, one could think of a horse as per the pony express, or how pigeons used to be sent off with letters (in the same way that moths are used in Wanderhome). I thought a bat would be fitting for someone who travels at night to deliver packages, with a sweet but avoidant personality.
Character attributes, besides what type of animal they are, also serve to soothe the players’ imagination and facilitate the kind of play Dragon finds interesting. The book offers what many don’t: motivations, a drive for characters to act. While making our characters, my friend and I were delighted that we both accidentally picked character fluff related to some "King of the Floating Mountain". My character was tasked to deliver a summons to an exiled wizard from the king, whereas my friend's character happened to carry a magical demon-summoning ring that is (or was) the king's greatest treasure. That combined hook was enough for us to begin to flesh out our characters in terms of their relationships and backgrounds, mostly in terms of what would be cool to see play out.
This is the most interesting part of Wanderhome to me, and this article till now has mostly been a segue. Wanderhome is, technically, an application of the "No Dice, No Masters" (a.k.a. "Belonging Outside Belonging") role-playing game engine. The NDNM engine is one of token exchange, where you gain tokens when your character is disadvantaged and spend tokens when your character is advantaged. This is not necessarily in terms of character strengths or weaknesses, as expressed via attribute scores in some other role-playing games, but in terms of how the running sequence of events treats your character. In other words, it's not really about failure or success per se, but about what your character does under the spotlight. This non-random economy of player input into the sequence of events, in terms of what makes an interesting narrative in hindsight as opposed to what makes sense to happen, is what characterizes NDNM as what some might call a story game.
But here's the kicker: we barely used the tokens. I might have earned and eventually spent a single one. What's worse, Dragon occasionally rolled dice to decide some outcomes. I'm saying all this in jest because this, to me, resulted in a much more flexible and fun experience than I would have had trying to figure out how to play by myself. The section about earning and spending tokens is almost obscured in the rulebook, taking up just a single two-page spread in a larger section entitled "Your First Few Steps". It's as though the token-earning and token-spending weren't really the point of playing and were, instead, almost like training wheels to learn to speak your turn in a shared story.
Compare to Dream Askew / Dream Apart, the double rulebook that originated the NDNM system. There, the token economy is given basically straight-up and character playbooks are distinguished according to what moves each type of character can do to earn or spend tokens (besides some aesthetic pick-lists to better conceptualize the character). In Wanderhome, the token economy is obscured and characters are defined largely in terms of hooks that relate them to other characters or to the surrounding game world. I see Dragon's LARP influence in choosing to leave the game system (qua set of mechanics) almost up to the players and instead offering suggestions for narrative pushes and pulls. This is a prescription for play minus rules to a fuller extent than I have seen in a book for games, such that I wouldn't even call Wanderhome a rulebook as much as perhaps an adventure module, to borrow some admittedly limited old-school phrasing.
I reviewed Wanderhome so I could actually criticize other game materials by extension and without targeting one in particular. Many indie publications I've read recently, despite offering a very particular vision of a shared story, front-load the book with boilerplate about when you roll dice, how you roll dice, how your characters interface with dice, et cetera. What's left afterward is not much to actually build a shared world with desiring characters. You might have vague vibes of aesthetic and, occasionally, conflict, but nothing concrete to actually hook onto. For those first couple of pages, I find myself wondering "Okay, but what am I supposed to do with this?" Then, at the end, I think to myself, "I guess I'd have to wing it." This is not to say that novel mechanics can't be useful or interesting, but they're a dime a dozen and they aren't the most important thing you need when it comes to inhabiting a shared fiction . As it were, these are rulebooks without a game, which is much less valuable to me than a game book (?) without rules.
Would Wanderhome have been improved with the inclusion of a particular resolution system and a set of numeric character attributes to interface with it? The more I play and read, the more I think any book that calls itself a game (book) would be improved by in fact not including these things at all. Is it really important to know which dice to roll when my character hypothetically does something dangerous or difficult? I'd rather know instead what my character is going to be doing and why and where. Wanderhome, whatever it is, has all that down to a T.
At a later point, I'd like to poke some holes in the indie festishization of books as games in themselves, while also critiquing the most common alternative in the distinction between rulebooks and adventures. That's not really here or there, though, so I'll leave this at that.
 Not to mention that play culture does a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to knowing how to play a game, and the generic conventions of rulebooks do a poor job of conveying what is more often learned in practice or in conversation (e.g. on a blog).