Gaming Thursday: Wanderhome

I got a chance to play Wanderhome recently and wow, it was a complete delight.  It does take some getting used to, if coming in and approaching it like a typical game or RPG.  I’m going to say something that might start out sounding like a denigration or trying to be edgy, but know that’s not at all where I’m headed.  It’s just that Wanderhome might best not to be called a game.  It is much closer to a semi-guided shared collaborative storytelling experience.  It is very rules light, there is no need for dice, and there’s very little in the way of defining a proper path or success.  Going in with the view of trying to work it like a traditional RPG is going to inspire little but confusion and perhaps frustration.

But that is its beauty.  Because it totally works inside the much broader and even philosophical view of “a game”.  The game here is to create a most engaging and amazing narrative.  The story is the thing, and the richness, wonder, excitement, coolness, and involvement is the game.

To that end, having played Mouse Guard was a good primer for us, for in some ways Wanderhome is akin to an extended player turn from Mouse Guard.  There is no GM (though one of the players can take on that role, either for a part of or for the whole session) and almost all is created on the fly, including the world and any challenges along the way (though more on this latter bit in a bit).  There is a structure that guides and prompts you to help generate all that, but again the joy of the game comes from taking those simple keyword starting points and spinning them out in interesting ways.

For our own game, as we journeyed we wove together the prompts to imagine a town surrounded by tall cliffs on the edge of a lake.  A large waterfall dominated the town, as did the giant waterwheels that harnessed the falling water, the crankshafts disappearing it into a large workshop where it powered giant looms.  A legend in the town spoke of a ghost story involving never-ending tapestry, a fable that tied into the waterfall itself which, from a certain point of view, was like a never-ending tapestry, always being woven from the cliff face to the lake below.  It was autumn, and while the area had colourful leaves and warm drinks, our prompts asked us why didn’t it have long shadows?  Because of the mists, the hovering fine films that diffused and rendered light into ambient omnidirectionality, with the cliffs turning day into sudden night as the sun slipped behind them (which also prevented any sun angles that could generate long shadows).  From just that the town was already appearing to us as quite a magical place.  It was very pastoral and fable like, and I would definitively call this a pastoral game in the best possible way, something the wonderful art does wonders to evoke.

As delightful as this world building is, it also serves a purpose, which is to provide a driving backdrop to your story.  I use this slightly contradictory word choice deliberately, as Wanderhome is a game that is not centered around external challenges.  Rather, it is a game/story about internal challenges.  It is about who the characters are and what they are dealing with; it is about their metaphysical journeys; it is about what the players learn about the characters and, through that, what the characters learn about themselves.

Which is actually quite cleverly indicated in its name:  Wanderhome, or Wander Home.  In some way, and in their own particular way, all the characters are either away from their home or not yet home or feel a loss of home (or lost).   And through this journey, the question is (and it is an explicit question at the start of a session that you, as a player, ask quietly to yourself in-character) “where is home for me?”  And maybe the character will find it this session.  Or they won’t, and their journey will continue.  But finding home, and that peace and solace and completeness and comfort and clarity, is what the story is about.

And through that lens/intent is where the driving backdrop comes into play.  How will your character interact with the world?  What will the world ask of your character?  What obstacles or opportunities will arise, and how will you respond?  How do you interact with your fellow travelers (the other characters)?  Sometimes the challenges will arise from the world – a missing object, a house in need of repair, the weather bearing down on you.  But even in those situations, the prime bit is not so much the resolution, but again what it tells us about the characters, and how they react and change as a part of it.  Any physical challenges are a vehicle to delve into the internal challenges, which in turn can beget more internal challenges.  Not that the world need intervene; the internal challenges can engage with the environment or its denizens (called Kith in the game) as a backdrop catalyst to highlight and conceive and draw forth the internal challenges.  All in service of the rich story being woven.

Likewise in service of that story is the “resolution system” of Wanderhome.  Wonderfully tuned for effect, it has but one metric:  a token.  If you have a token, you can spend it to solve a material challenge, or even more powerfully to ease someone’s pain, to keep someone safe, to offer a chance to deeply connect, or to reveal something about the world or someone.  You’ll notice that the traditional RPG-type challenge is resolved handily by spending a token – once again it is but a vehicle for the inner story and journey of your character, and the rest of the tokens are similar, either creating an opening for you or to craft something about the place and hence enhance the story.  Even better is how you gain tokens, for they likewise all work to support the feel of the game and the story being generated.  Many are character-driven, such as giving away something you hold dear, or speaking your true feelings on a subject, but others are wonderfully tranquil, such as allowing you to marvel at beauty, and either create it or else ask the table to describe it.  You can even just pause for a moment to get some rest.  That it.  Just like that, to gain a token.  It fits the mood of the game perfectly.

There’s plenty more to love here, including a lovely calendar and defined seasons that are an important part of the narrative, along with regular festivals.  The game can be played light and serene, or it can delve into more serious issues of trauma and recovery (with solid tools and advice for ensuring everyone at the table is onboard and up for it).  And while the various prompts are meant to be picked from, they’re very much set up to be rolled if you choose, as we did, allowing the randomness to further engage our imaginations.

As you can tell we thoroughly enjoyed playing Wanderhome, and I heartily recommend it.  It’s a delicious chance to switch from the usual RPG modes and craft a deep, rich, and moving story while savouring the scenery along the journey.

You can buy the game in PDF here, or pre-order the hardcover here.

Philosophy Tuesday

“Vermeer celebrated real people.  Doing ordinary things.  He offered the radical idea that you didn’t have to be special, or important, or magical, or legendary to be worth being painted or thought about or remembered.

So it turns out there are two ways of explaining history.  We can be like the early Romans and invent these magical, wonderous, brilliant people who gave everything to us.

Or, we can be like Vermeer.  A bunch of ordinary, everyday people built Stonehenge just by working together and putting time and effort into it.  A bunch of ordinary people make video games by working together very hard for hours and days and years to make it.  A bunch of regular, ordinary people built Rome over the span of a very long time, contributing to what would later be remembered as the exploits of one man.

This way is no where near as magical as we like to imagine put our worlds together.

The truth is often very mundane.

But maybe that’s OK.”

hbomberguy

(from a totally fascinating documentary about the arcade game Dragon’s Lair!)

Gaming Sunday

Here’s a Kickstarter project that’s wrapping up in a few days that might pique your interest as it did mine! It’s an SF/near future/science-fantasy game that takes place in a non-colonial Americas! Led by first-nations designers, it promises to be a nifty new take and world to explore:

Check it out! I’m very excited for the project. They’re real close to closing in on 1M and it’d be rad to see them make it over that mark!

Gaming Thursday: SW Part 3

The playtesting of the Star Wars ruleset for my Aurora Engine continues well.  We’ve all been having a blast in our adventures across the galaxy, and I’ve been steadily tweaking the rules to make things run smoothly or to shift the game’s playstyle more towards what we want/like.

One of the prime ways of character distinction and ability definition (that has needed no tweaking) has been the inclusion of freeform “Stunts,”  of which each character starts with three (And can buy more later through advancement.)

While they’re (for now) simply called “Stunts,” they are intended to represent just about anything nifty or special about the character in just about any area:  species traits, unusual training, extra experience, exceptional knacks, or various powers, including the Force.  They “break the rules” in specific areas /ways to provide bonuses or additional/special abilities for the character.

This isn’t by any stretch a new idea; both FATE and Cortex Prime use something similar to this, and it is akin to Talent or Feats or Advantages or any number of similar mechanics in many an RPG (though these latter ones are generally prescribed and selected from a list).  But two things make them especially sing in the Aurora incarnation.  First, by allowing them to be so freeform, they invite creativity and customization and let the player state what’s important to them and the character.  Second, and even more importantly, they are all expressed/worded in a particular way to call attention to themselves, and as such further highlight the defining aspects of the character in the fuller narrative sense:

Because I/of X, when Y, Z

The first part of the statement describes how the character is unusual, amazing, has a special bit of gear, or whatever; the middle part is a limited situation where this “rule breaking” applies; and the last bit is the special benefit.

Here are some examples from our SW playtest games/characters…

Some of the stunts describe bits that are important to the character from their character’s species:

Because I am a Twi’lek, and have spent time learning how to control my head tentacles (lekku), I gain the “Extra Limb” trait.

Because I am a Squib, and can smell with my fur, I gain the “Discerning Smell” trait.

Because I am a Miralukan, I have Force-sight and I can see through walls and containers up to 1m distant.

Because I am made of many different parts, I gain the trait “Faceless Droid”

Because I am a Selonian when I drop to all fours my speed increases by 50%

Because I am based on Imperial technology, when I slice Imperial equipment, I gain +1d.

Here are some that represent special training, or abilities.  Note that as part of the description it helps evoke the why of it, ie, is this from your background, something you trained at, bought or had implanted, or something else?

Because I have subdermal plating, when I take damage I can roll 1d: on a 5 or 6 I gain an additional point of resistance to weapon or impact damage.

Because I have spent my life around machinery, I don’t always need the right parts to fix things, and half any penalties for lack of proper parts. 

Because I am a tinkerer, I am rarely caught unprepared, and have trait “Lots of Gizmos”.

Because I was raised in small tunnels, whenever in confined quarters I gain the trait “Tunnel Rat”

Because I am trained in Jedi precognition, when I wield a lightsaber I can use Melee to defend against ranged attacks.

And then there are those that provide amazing role play opportunities/nudges…

Because I am a crazy ass squirrel, when I do something incredibly stupid, I remove 1 die from any penalties.

(I just love that one so much!)

Some of these straight up allow something that isn’t usually allowed, such as the Lightsabre deflection of ranged attacks, seeing through walls, or the dermal plating for extra armour.  Most however provide skill boosts, a reduction in penalties, or create a trait/tag/aspect on the scene/character.  Here, wording the stunt with a trait/tag/aspect is the best/most flexible and provides the most opportunity in play as it allows for all the things a trait can allow, not only providing bonuses or negating penalties, but also creating ‘narrative truth’ that can allowing things that wouldn’t ordinarily be possible (and vice versa).  With that in mind, we might revisit these stunts to re-word them towards a broader tags/trait language/way.

These stunts have worked great in our games thus far, providing for a lot of cool moments and places for the characters to shine, whether in the traditional sense of doing something remarkable, or in the RP sense, reinforcing the character and the story they are creating.

 

(Just the other session, the “Extra Limb” trait came in handy as the character had been knocked off the edge of a tower, clinging for dear life – fortunately that “Extra Limb” trait allowed them to grab their rifle before it fell never to be seen again!)

Gaming Thursday

A very cool little bit of RPG history explored here, with the delving into the idea of Fate/Fortune/Fame/Luck/Inspiration mechanics: http://playingattheworld.blogspot.com/2021/01/a-history-of-hero-points-fame-fortune.html

Extra cool in that the first RPG I ever played – Top Secret – is the first RPG to include such a thing, with its Fame and Fortune points.  Which is interesting, as I hadn’t really thought of it before, that this concept of a narrative meta-currency has always been a part of my RPG experience and even my conception of RPGs and how they operate.

And the twist that Top Secret had in it was cool too:  While Fame and Fortune points did the same thing, you gained a Fame point at the end of every mission and thus knew how many you had.  But Fortune was rolled in secret by the Administrator (GM) when you created the character, so you never really knew exactly when your luck might run out…

 

Gaming Thursday

“The way we played it — the way my teenage friends and I read ourselves into the world — was as small-time operators, always. The corporations were behemoths, the system so massively corrupt and powerful that no one could win against it. You fought to survive around the edges of it, living off the scraps. “High stakes, low impact” — that was our house rule. Because punks don’t save the world. Ever. They just try to live another day.”   — Jason Sheehan @ NPR

That little bit from a review of the new CP 2077 computer game drew my attention because it both mirrors how we also played the Cyberpunk RPG back in the day and because it captures so well what I’ve noticed in the current crop of cyberpunk releases.  So many of them seem to hew strongly towards the cyber and the glitz and the machine gun prophecy, while steadfastly avoiding the punk and any deeper implications or explorations.  More than one of the games I’ve read even begins with their premise as “you are elite mercenaries, plying your trade for the endless corporate wars.”  CP 2077, at least as as Jason’s review describes it, also seems to push towards that side of things.

But the essential bit to our old Cyberpunk campaigns was always being on the edge of being quashed.  And of the perils and impact of living within a complete corporatocracy.  As we got older, ideas of the dehuminising aspect of it all got incorporated into our games, a subtext to the more foreground and obvious reduction of one’s humanity through cybernetics or braindance.  Along with the questions that comes from being under that constant state of duress:  what is considered winning to us, what does family or friendship mean, to what levels are you willing to go, is there an escape of sorts, and so on.  That was the vital bit that made our cyberpunk games cyberpunk and therefore different from our other games.

Here we weren’t the mighty adventuring party, or the team of elite spies, or the superhero group, or the gritty commando unit, or mecha pilots, or slinging around in a space opera.  (And to note, we played those games too and loved them!)  In Cyberpunk, we were local, caught in the cogs, and eking out what we could, step by small step.  And rather than just grabbing the neon and the cyber for the aesthetics, that to me remains the essence of what a good cyberpunk game should embrace.