“You wield the blade that must never be drawn.”
This is the first line in playbook for The Veteran, one of 15 classes in the highly-anticipated new tabletop RPG, Wanderhome. Created by independent designer Jay Dragon, on the surface it’s a pastoral fantasy perfect for adventurers who want to dangle their furry toes in the waters of a springtime stream. But it packs a serious emotional punch, leveraging powerful narrative tools to explore the generational scars violence can leave on communities. It positions the drama of the Redwall series alongside Animal Crossing’s endless Sunday afternoons, and displays the competence to juggle both of those vibes in a single game.
In Wanderhome, players take on the role of sentient animal folk traveling between the villages of Hæth, a world now free from its history of war and oppression. Sessions emphasize true collaborative storytelling, an orientation of play more focused on characters defining their places within a world than the influence they exert over it. In other games you level up, gather loot, and become capable of more efficient forms of dice-related violence. In Wanderhome, players avoid dice altogether and instead spend time describing their shared emotional journey.
In a given session, players might arrive at a new location, as itinerant animal folk are prone to migration. There they meet its hospitable inhabitants: a possum innkeeper and his baker’s dozen of child helpers; an elderly chameleon boat captain torn between rival fishing clans; the garter snake struggling to start a career as a cobbler.
Nobody takes turns, nor does a game master tell the group what they see. Instead, any player can elect to interact with the environment or an NPC, and then other members of the group take on role-playing those parts. Creation, improvisation, satire, and mimicry aren’t reserved solely for the one person sitting at the head of the table, but shared by everyone equally.
Wanderhome helps everyone get a hand on the ball with descriptive tags that are assigned to every place and person the collaborative tale introduces. They help to provide a framework of behavior, instead of creature stat blocks or decks of AI cards. Once conflict arises, it is most often settled with dialogue and not daggers.
Say the players arrive in Stilton, a town built on a bridge crossing a wide, lazy river. A procession, all wearing masks, have been following them at a distance for days. One player seeks out the mayor, prompting another to quickly jot down their honest and venerable traits on a card. Tapping the town’s folklore, the mayor explains those are pilgrims on a vigil, and Stilton is the second-to-last stop. The group can now investigate this custom further — or decide to go buy dinner instead.
Players travel throughout Hæth’s five-season year and mark the passing of each with a major holiday, experiencing the customs and practices wherever they end up residing at that time. Each event provides unique opportunities to reflect on personal growth and connect with their fellow travelers. It would be easy to say that it feels like leveling up, but instead Wanderhome uses these waypoints to curve the arc of the campaign. Sometimes natural phenomenon or severe weather patterns will alter the course of events, such as turning a harvest feast into a grim reminder that hunger never lingers far.
Designer Jay Dragon hasn’t built this system from the ground up, however. These mechanics are an adaptation of Avery Alder and Benjamin Rosenbaum’s Belonging Outside Belonging engine into a system that weaves every bucolic tableau with a sense of bone-deep, enduring melancholy complicating its furry, soft silhouette. Much of that feeling can be credited to Wanderhome’s action economy.
Rather than rolling dice to perform actions, as you might do in a game like Dungeons & Dragons, Wanderhome relies on what it calls moves. Weak moves award tokens, strong moves spend those tokens, and general moves act as narrative nudges when players lose focus. There’s a list of them, all helpfully categorized in the sourcebook, for reference. All three are deliberate choices made by the player, and cement the path forward for the group. Like everything else in Wanderhome, moves don’t rely on dice rolls — they’re like called shots that get made on the fly, and players must live with the consequences.
Many moves are designed to put tokens in players’ hands, and playbooks describe unique abilities for each class that generate tokens with a little extra flavor. For example, The Veteran player earns a token when they realize they are powerless in their given situation. Whether the character voices that small epiphany aloud or not, it marks a potent moment in each session.
Moves almost always focus inward, rewarding players who sacrifice something they cherish or indulge in a moment’s respite. These are selfish acts, but not in a pejorative sense. To travel the roads between villages is to leave some place of comfort behind. Every character is seeking something in the land of Hæth, and these small, token moments are steps forward on a larger journey of understanding.
Characters can spend tokens through moves that “ease someone’s pain, if only for a moment” or to “offer someone the chance to connect [...] on a personal level.” These are ways to reach out to others — players and non-player characters — in an effort to empathize and understand. Perhaps Aguefeather, the peddler, spent the morning brewing a rare tea and storing it in his thermos as a special treat, thereby earning a token. Later, the group happened upon a pair of iguana sisters hesitant to speak and full of suspicion. Aguefeather’s player announced he would spend a token to offer his tea, warming everyone’s bellies and hearts. He then asked the pair to share their hurt, if they wanted, and learned of the village of former revolutionaries that cast them out in the cold.
The result is more than just a simple transaction. Self-care and tending to other communities is what Wanderhome considers heroic. It’s a fantasy world beyond the need for armor class and weapon proficiencies. An entire session may hang on whether or not the players can find enough chairs for the feast. It feels trivial, but it makes room for asides that lead to very personal kinds of resolutions.
Other Belonging Outside Belonging games approach non-violent conflict, while Vincent Baker’s Under Hollow Hills also tackles complex relationships under changing circumstances. But Wanderhome does both in the service of providing a group the means to interrogate the assumption of violence while still tackling dark and heavy material.
A community can need more farmers, or it could be withering under the burden of a lost generation. The player can be a frolicking Fool, loved by all. Or they can be a Veteran whose tired, calloused hand never strays far from a blade they must never draw.
Wanderhome is available now directly from the publisher, Possum Creek Games. The paperback runs $45, while a hardcover version is also available for $60. Both come with a free PDF version of the book.
Wanderhome was reviewed with a final PDF version provided by Possum Creek Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.